Following the lead of dharma teacher Phillip Moffitt, I’d like to look at three different components of negative change as well as effective ways of dealing with them. First, there is anticipation; then there is the moment when disappointments arise; finally, there are the after effects.
First, in regards to anticipation, Mark Twain got it right when he said, “Some of my biggest disappointments never happened.” When you start to worry about a possible event, you contract into fear, and this makes what you fear more likely to occur. Years ago, one of our female Sangha members, who suffered from asthma, was afraid to do retreats at our Zen center, because she envisioned herself gasping for air and passing out. But Katagiri Roshi encouraged her to attend, keep her inhaler by her side, and each time she felt constriction in her throat, to focus on the constriction, itself, with no judgment or commentary. By doing this, the woman found that the fear abated and so did the constriction. She freed herself from what William Blake referred to as her “mind-forged manacles.” When we stop fearing a negative outcome, we can let go of the distrust of life that imprisons us and simply embrace whatever happens.
Second, how do we work with major disappointments when the negative event actually occurs? The best way to practice this is by staying present and withstanding the emotional pull of small disappointments in your daily meditation practice. All we need to do is:
Third, after a disappointment occurs, its natural to have anger or sadness linger around for a while. However, its possible to accept this loss as an event rather than transforming it into a consuming story.
When we do the latter, we make two mistakes:
First, we create a false identity, a self that is solid and never changing that is continually reinforced by the story. But if you observe yourself closely, you may see that you are not a single, uniform self but a constantly changing group of personalities. I was trained as a therapist in transactional psychology, which lays out three different components of our “self”, the internal child, the internal parent, and the adult. Over the years I have worked a lot with Zen practitioners to acknowledge, nurture, and take care of the little, vulnerable child inside who often feels fearful and powerless. I also have helped folks become familiar with the internal parent, who we developed as a social necessity, but often turns into a critic, or in many cases a tyrant, with a dominating and even abusive voice.
And finally, there is the internal adult, who serves as a mediator between or in the best circumstances, an integrator, which includes the other two in a healthy complementary relationship. And in Zen we go a step further in referring to the Big Self or Heart/Mind, which embraces, not only these three, but also the multitude of energies and voices, which manifest themselves in our psyche.
The second mistake we make when we are caught by a memory of negative change is to maintain the illusion that our loss is a fresh event when it has passed. Maybe it was a disappointment in your childhood, the loss of a loved one, a failed relationship, a major disease. No matter how disappointing or traumatic it was, you could allow the lingering emotional stickiness to die by simply letting it arise in and burn itself away in your non-judgmental awareness. In this way it may turn into fertilizer that supports your life.
I have written before about the guilt and grief I felt, both when I was unable to help my sister with schizophrenia, and when my younger brother committed suicide in a locked ward. By continuing my daily meditation during this dark time and allowing my confusion, anger, and grief sit with me on my cushion, little by little I both burned off my guilt and burned through my grief and the ashes became fertilizer- fertilizer which gave me strength and energy to spend the next 25 years of my life creating the community-based support which my siblings never had.
It’s kind of surprising and quite wonderful that a simple practice like bare awareness can transform the hell of disappointment is into a celebration of life.
The historical Buddha pointed out that everything is continually in flux. What we call “things” are conglomerations of points in a process of the continual movement of all life. This is similar to science’s reference to all life as a vibrating energy field. Lao Tzu, a contemporary of Buddha’s in China, advises us to, “Flow with whatever is happening and let your mind be free. Stay centered by accepting whatever you are doing. This is the ultimate.”
Following his instructions for flowing with each activity works when things are going well. It may be quite easy to experience flow if we engage in activities we are familiar with and love doing. But what about dealing negative change, when things don’t work out the way we would like them to?
At the end of April I broke a tendon in my foot playing soccer with my grandsons. The rhythm of my daily life was up-ended. Not only couldn’t I drive or sit on a meditation cushion, I couldn’t even enter into or move around our Zen center without considerable difficulty for some time.
Maybe you finally get what you want in your career, or in a relationship or life, but things seem harder than ever. Or maybe an aging parent or you own child has become more difficult to manage. You may say to yourself, “If only this hadn’t happened, I could be in flow.” Disappointments may loom so large that the possibility of experiencing flow seems virtually impossible.
Maybe you’ve been practicing meditation for two years, or five years or ten years and you are wondering why it still takes so much of your energy to cope. Why do you still fall in troughs of sadness, depression, worry, irritation, moodiness, anxiety, and lethargy? “Flow,” you may say to yourself, “You’ve got to be kidding.”
Someone who read my new book Zen in the Age of Anxiety: Wisdom for Navigating Our Modern Lives complained, “All your book does is tell me over and over to sit in meditation and accept, accept. How does that help?”
What he didn’t understand is that the desire to be in a different state of mind or situation than our current one inhibits our natural flow. When dharma teacher Phillip Moffitt discusses this he refers to Dante. In Dante’s Inferno there’s a sign at the entrance to Hell, which says, “Abandon hope, you who enter here.” Of course, we all need hope, but too often hope is a disguised refusal to be with things just as they are. When you reject this moment because it is unpleasant, you are rejecting the only moment you have to be alive. And if you get lost in disappointment about the future or the past, you will never experience the flow that Lao Tzu talked about.
Buddha suggests that we don’t embrace change because of the Eight Worldly Concerns: gain and loss, praise and blame, pleasure and pain, happiness and unhappiness. He refers to these as “terrible twins” because each always arrives with its opposite. He also suggests that these concerns are all emanations of the Three Poisons, which are the cause of all of our suffering: not getting what we want; getting what we don’t want; ignoring everything else.
In our meditation practice we observe these concerns as they appear, as well as the underlying push/pulls of the Poisons. We observe a particular desire, then see how you identify with that desire and how easily we become frustrated and disappointed. At that moment, we have the opportunity to follow Dante.
When Dante first sees the sign he is alarmed. He asks Virgil, his guide through Hell, about it. Virgil answers that it means to abandon cowardliness and mistrust.
When we encounter moments of pain and feelings of loss and confusion, we can a.) live in denial, b.) obsess about our pains and disappointments, or c.) embrace what is. This only happens when we enter into a given activity fully without hoping to get something out of it.
We can come to see pain and loss as great teachers. “I’m lost in sadness, and so identified with it that it is causing me to suffer.” Luckily, since everything passes as part of the great energy flow of life, so do pain and loss.
In a recent piece I discussed how being in nature can suture us, heal our sense of separation and alienation from each other and the world around us if we fully immerse ourselves in it. This piece will continue Dogen’s discussion of mountains in “Mountains and Waters Sutra.” I will follow this by a final piece on his discussion of Waters.
In order to benefit from this healing we have to completely “enter the mountain.” As a boy I went into the Sierra Nevada Mountains every summer with my parents starting when I was six or seven years old. Looking back on this, I remember vividly an experience in my fifth or sixth trip in which I finally fully entered the mountains. One July day we began our hike up to the top of 14, 000 foot Mt. Langley just at dawn and traveled for several hours up its pine-forested side. Although the trail was steep, reading the trail signs which occurred at least every quarter of a mile helped me stay focused and gave me a sense of security. I can remember saying to myself when I saw a sign, “8.8 miles left,” “8.6 miles left,” etc. But when we got to timberline, the trees vanished, the trail turned into nothing more than an animal track, and there were no more trail signs. Suddenly, I felt disoriented, exhausted, and I wanted to quit. But my mother was up ahead of me, urging me on. As I followed her slow, steady footsteps I began to let go of thinking about how far we had come or how long we had been on the trail or how far it was to the top, and I settled spontaneously into a “one step, one breath” focus. All my concerns about how difficult it was or whether I could ever get to the top vanished, and I was fully able to be present. When we finally got to the top (and I say “finally” even though I was no longer measuring my progress, but just immersed in walking) my mother excitedly encouraged me to look at the summit register which went back several years to see if there were any other children who had made it to the top. But once I had completely “entered the mountain,” I had absolutely no interest in comparing myself to others. Instead, I was immersed in enjoying the endless sky and the deep quiet as I peered down on the many valleys.
Dogen suggests that the mountain’s true expression is flow. This reminds me of sitting in meditation every morning in San Francisco many years ago with my first teacher. He seemed to sit like a mountain, imperturbable as the traffic rushed by on the busy street outside (a very small mountain, since he was only 4’11”!). And yet when he was not sitting, it seemed that tenderness, generosity, and compassion flowed right out of him.
Continuing with Dogen:
There are mountains hidden in treasures. There are treasures hidden in mountains. There are mountains hidden in swamps. There are mountains hidden in the sky. There are mountains hidden in mountains. There are mountains hidden in hiddenness. Investigate mountains fully.
Let’s talk about this line by line:
There are mountains hidden in treasures, there are treasures hidden in mountains.
Once after a morning sitting my teacher said to me, “You have a great treasure within you. Do not let anyone take it from you.” One of my own students recently exclaimed, “When I entered the room and saw you I felt your great calmness.” And I replied, “If you felt a great calmness, that calmness is within you at least as much as it is within me.”
There are mountains hidden in swamps.
This is a good reminder that if we can maintain our meditation even when our minds are going over and over and over everything that has happened to us and might happen to us, at some point all of the pollution settles and we experience a deep and joyful clarity.
There are mountains hidden in the sky.
What my teacher used to call Big Mind, accepts and embraces everything that happens, clouds, storms, sleet, hail. Sometimes we may be so overcome by a storm that we forget that it is merely an expression of the sky as the sun is. When we realize this, we can really enjoy our life. Can you find this great stillness right in the middle of a storm?
There are mountains hidden in mountains.
There are mountains hidden in hiddenness.
Your still nature (i.e., Buddha Nature) is hidden from so called “you.” Your conscious mind may never be aware of this deep reservoir of peace. But that’s perfectly okay, because your Big Mind (which is everyone’s big mind) is itself this reservoir. This reminds me of Basho’s poem: “Mt. Fuji veiled in misty rain… How wonderful!”
Investigate mountains fully.
At the end of this stanza Dogen is saying, “Don’t take my word for it when I refer to your mountain stillness. Look into it! Ask yourself what it is. If it’s beyond consciousness, how can you know it? How can you not know it if its your deepest nature? Is it possible to continually live from it? If you ask these questions wholeheartedly, how long will it be before you tap into this reservoir? Another two years of meditation practice, another year, or another moment?”
In my new book Zen in the Age of Anxiety, I talk a little about both post-traumatic stress disorder and post-traumatic growth. I refer to research that suggests that some people not only bounce back from tragedy but actually bounce back to a higher level of functioning than before. I explain that this is not a technique or avoidance strategy but a natural phenomenon, which grows out of a consistent meditation practice. We have the ability to cross the threshold of our painful emotions again and again, and allow a natural healing to take place. But this can only happen through patience, persistence, and self-compassion. And self-compassion is difficult for many practitioners.
As we grow up, we develop an internal parent who reminds us not give into our impulses and lead responsible, self-regulated lives. That’s healthy. What’s not so healthy is that this internal parent often morphs into an internal critic and this internal critic may morph into a judgmental tyrant, who continually puts us down, orders us around, and undercuts any feelings of self-compassion we may have through messages like, “I don’t deserve it” or “I’m not good enough” or some other statement about our fundamental unworthiness.
The reason it is hard for so many people to grow from and through their traumatic memories is this self-compassion block. If we experience difficulty sending positive vibes to ourselves we can try an experiment in our meditation: sending them to a person or animal who we have deep affection, imagining that person/animal in our lap and when the time feels right bringing that loved one all the way into the center of our being. Then our compassion for them is no longer separate from our feeling toward ourselves. The self-compassion we develop by doing this patiently and persistently, can, in and of itself, change PTSD into Post Traumatic Growth. It’s that simple.
Ernest Hemingway seems to have understood this when he wrote, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.” Post traumatic growth points to those places that may become strong through both practicing bare awareness in our meditation combined with the support from a spiritual mentor and/or close friend. It may not be a painless process, but if we stick with it, we create a deeper sense of love and connection with the world around us… and all life.
This is my fourth and last piece on nature. My reference for this piece is the last section of Mountains and Waters Sutra by Dogen. Here’s my first excerpt.
Some beings see water as a jeweled ornament, some beings see water as wondrous blossoms, Hungry ghosts see water as raging fire or pus and blood. Dragons see water as a palace or a pavilion. Some beings see water as the seven treasures or a wish-granting jewel. Some beings see water as a forest or a wall.
In my new book Zen in the Age of Anxiety, I touch on surfing with my high school buddy, Jerry, but I only tell a fraction of the story.
From the time I first went to the ocean with Jerry, I noticed how comfortable he was in it regardless of the wave configuration or the weather. For him as for the dragons in Dogen’s quote, the ocean was a palace, (whereas for me it was a wall or a forest). When he was looking out on the ocean or surfing on his long balsam board he could see when certain patterns were emerging and where the undercurrent was whereas all I saw was a mass of chaotic water.
It was thrilling to watch him ride waves, how he seemed to anticipate their speed and arcs, and released his body to go with them over and over. I couldn’t tell if he was riding the waves or they were carrying him. Sometimes he would disappear into a trough, but he always emerged (with or without his board) and waited pursued the next wave with great abandon. When I think of Jerry’s surfing I am reminded of what the Zen teacher John Daido Loori said about Michelangelo’s approach to sculpting:
“Michelangelo said that he didn’t actually create images; he just released them from the stone. He would patiently chip away until the perfect figure that had always been within the stone was revealed.”
I think that’s what Zen practice is all about, seeing below the waves of our chattering mind, so we can return to and live from our uncarved or oceanic nature.
Dogen tells us that the only way we can do this is to fully enter the mountains and fully enter the water. When we do this we realize that the mountains and waters are not something out there, but are our own body and mind and that our own body and mind are the mountains and waters themselves.
As Dogen says in another piece:
“To hear sounds with the whole body and mind, to see forms with the whole body and mind, one understands them intimately.”
When we do this we fall into our original uncarved nature. And when we act out of this uncarved nature, our camaraderie with both people and the world around us knows no bounds. We realize that the only limits that exist are the ones we have set for ourselves.
Quoting Dogen again:
“Learn the backward step that turns your light inwardly to illuminate your self.”
When you’ve taken that step backward then you can take a step forward, let it go, and take another step. Zen practice is that simple. This is what I call turtle practice. I am trying to bring my teacher’s way alive, just as he brought his teacher’s way and his teacher brought his teacher’s way alive, just as in the expression “turtles all the way down.” One turtle resting on the back of another turtle, resting on the back of another turtle all the way down to the bottom of the bottomless ocean. It’s what one famous teacher called “the ocean of great repose.”
One more story about the ocean from my childhood:
My grandmother lived on a cliff above the ocean in San Francisco. When I was a boy, my parents left me with her when they went on vacation. Her house was very, very quiet except for the waves, which twisted and thrashed, loud, uncaring, unbounded—wild. I could hear them from any room in her house, but especially her bedroom. I was intrigued by them, but also a little scared. My grandmother knew I was scared and let me sleep with her in her big double bed. I had not yet learned that they seemed wild an out of control because there only laws are those of wind and gravity, the pull of other planets. She had a large picture window in her dining room facing the ocean. In the daytime, when the ocean seemed less scary, I would stand and look out at it until I got dizzy—It wanted to take the path down to the ocean, go through her yard, but she wouldn’t let me. When I first went to ocean a few years later to accompany my surfing friend, Jerry, I got over my dizziness little by little as I immersed myself in it.
In a way meditation practice is like this. There is something huge just beyond our sight, which makes us dizzy. We can’t measure it and thinking can’t reach it, but if we gently go into it, it can become quite wonderful and we come to experience as our true home.
And we realize that there is no distinction between the turbulent surface of the ocean and its quiet depth. I learned this little by little, first in a very small private pool then in a much larger public one and then in the ocean, itself. When people ask me to discuss stages in meditation, I sometimes use this metaphor.
We have the ability to “just be with” regardless of what’s flowing around and within us, regardless of whether it’s a pool or the ocean. It’s a gradual process. We begin in a relatively safe space and only gradually learn to bask in the entire ocean.
Finally, Dogen tells us that water is the true dragon’s palace. The Dragon had been an important symbol in China for centuries before Buddhism entered the country in the first and second centuries of the contemporary era. With its horns of a stag, forehead of a camel, eyes of a demon, neck of a snake, belly of a sea-monster, scales of a carp, claws of an eagle, pads of a tiger, and ears of an ox, it became a wonderful symbol for the shape shifting which happens when we let go of our fixed identities and rigid thinking. This appropriation of an indigenous symbol helped Buddhism catch on in China just as the appropriation of the Hindu naga, half human and half cobra, helped Buddhism become legitimized in India. Dogen is suggesting that with the steadiness of your mountain sitting you can be a shape shifting dragon/serpent in water, on land, in the sky. When we do this, we are acting from our uncarved nature just as the Taoist Chuang Tzu suggested 2,500 years ago:
The sages of old were fluid as melting ice.
Whole as an uncarved block of wood.
Receptive as a valley. Turbid as muddied water.
Who can be still until their mud settles
and the water is cleared by itself?
Can you remain tranquil until right action occurs by itself?
The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment.
Only those who are not full are able to be used.
This brings the feeling of completeness.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher