Lately, I have been thinking about the emphasis that my root teacher, Suzuki Roshi, placed on embracing “things as it is.” To do this we need to relinquish our hold on an image of how things need to be, or should be, or might have been. By practicing not resisting what is over and over again, we begin to say “yes” to life as it is unfolding.
The well-known psychiatrist Milton Erickson referred to this as the “yes set.” In his work with clients who had an overall negative attitude, he found that if he could get them to say “yes” once, that single utterance could be an entrée into a series of yeses and that series could result in the individual beginning to say “yes” to life.
Suzuki Roshi used to talk about the expectation in some Zen monasteries that a student immediately say “yes” to whatever his teacher asked him to do as a way to move out of yourself and fully embrace whatever activity is at hand. Saying “yes” can be a powerful spiritual practice.
Embracing “things as it is” doesn’t mean bypassing our disappointment, sadness, or anger about something that has happened. It means accepting both the situation and the negative feeling we might have about it, without suffering about our suffering by talking to ourselves about it, which drains our energy and is a total waste of time.
Suzuki’s combination of the singular and the plural in “things as it is,” while grammatically incorrect, underscores his teaching that everything is separate and yet undivided from everything else. Take the poem by the Japanese Zen master, Ryokan:
the thief / left it behind, / the moon at the window
Ryokan had lost all of his belongings in one fell swoop. And yet, rather than needlessly complaining about his loss, he used it as an opportunity to poetically express his embracing of “things as it is.” The moon is often used in Zen as a symbol of the enlightened mind. This mind is like the moonlight that enlivens everything it shines on. Everything is separate, and yet everything is undivided since each object bathes in the same warm glow.
The neighborhood around Zen Center has become somewhat gentrified in the last couple of decades, so that it has become almost impossible to find an affordable place to rent. Someone said to me recently, “I can’t stand that our neighborhood has become so chi-chi. It shouldn’t be this way,” and then went on and on about how unfair it was. But his ranting and raving was not getting him anywhere and I began to feel exhausted listening to him.
So both of us began to suffer needlessly, rather than saying, “Yes, this is the way things are,” what some Vipassana teachers have referred to as radical acceptance. Radical acceptance does not mean being a doormat, however. Once we have fully accepted something, we can move on to decide if we want to try to modify it in the future. “Yes, the neighborhood has become chi-chi and I feel sad about it, but instead of complaining I am going to do something to try to make it more livable.” Even the term “radical acceptance” is insufficient to express the warm, calming glow we can all feel when we fully embrace “things as it is.”
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher