Here’s what the Buddhist author and activist Joanna Macy says about empowerment in despairing times: “Unblock our feelings of despair about our threatened planet and the possible demise of our species. Until we do, our power of creative response will be crippled.”
We may have been despairing, but we are never helpless. Helplessness and hopelessness are learned. When they dominate our psyche, we have generally blocked opening to our despair. If we feel paralyzed, frozen, especially as we look toward our future, that’s despair. We may feel a tightness or squirming in the pit of our stomach. Can we open up to those sensations and any accompanying thoughts or feelings without saying, “I should just get over it”? Can we acknowledge, pay attention, and be present with the stress in our body we have noticed, even if we have an apparently functional life?
Helplessness and hopelessness are psychological defenses that help us avoid bad feelings and may even soothe us, but let’s not forget that they are learned, and they cover the natural joy that emanates from heart-mind.
If you are having trouble acting from heart-mind and instead feeling despairing, here are some things you might do:
1.) When you were a kid, did your parents fail to support your dreams because this reminded them that they lost? If this is the case, unblock the despair through your bare awareness, then notice what deeply interests you and take a small step toward activating that interest.
2.) Realize that your helplessness may just be due to inexperience. Maybe your hopelessness is only due to your fear to step beyond your comfort zone. How about taking one small step and then another as I did when I was petrified of dancing at my daughter’s wedding in Paris in front of a bunch of French people. These actions are completely necessary if we want to move beyond the limitation of any despair we feel.
3.) Scan your consciousness to make sure you are spending your time doing things that you have enjoyed in the past, cared about, or been committed to. The more we do these things, the more we will be able to tolerate ups and downs, no matter how severe they are.
I worked for several years with an aspiring Zen student who attended 20 plus days of retreat over a two-year time span in spite of the fact that his body began to shake each day after two or three sittings. I suggested limiting his participation in retreats in which we do our most intense sitting. But he declined, after saying that what he cared most about in his life was getting a taste of the deep calmness and spaciousness that he had learned comes from arduous sitting. He stuck with it. His shaking stopped and now he himself is a teacher.
4.) Put yourself first so you can put others first. Many spiritual practitioners have a horror of being thought selfish. Do you cringe if your kids come home from kindergarten with a note saying they have been not sharing with others? We were taught to avoid selfishness like the plague and yet to be authentic, we need to be in touch what we really care about. It’s possible to get in touch with our deepest desires and aspirations instead of straining so much of the time to do the right thing. When we allow this to happen, we are getting in touch the deepest part of our being, of all being. Heart-mind has been there since birth but has gotten covered by the superficial personality we show to others. If we open up to it, instead of feeling helpless and hopeless, we can experience a deep love pouring out from our still center.
This is my first of three pieces on despair and empowerment in challenging times.
It has seemed throughout the entire last year that we couldn’t count on anything. So many of us have been distressed and despairing about the interminability of the COVID epidemic, the craziness of our government, and the rage of both white rural people and minorities at being marginalized and disenfranchised. It’s not at all surprising that so many of us feel isolated, cut off, alone and that there has been an exponential increase in depression.
During a time like this, it’s natural for us to give up our dreams and aspiration to do things that bring deep joy. So easily, our heart-mind closes down. We lose our trust that it is here at the middle of our being, supporting us regardless of what happens, since it is also the heart-mind of the universe.
Heart-mind is more likely to be closed if your parents told you dreaming is nice, but real life not like that or If your parents stripped their own lives of dreams and downplayed imagination or did not get what they wanted. Do you really need to believe that parental voice that says you should or shouldn’t do something or be someone even in a time like this? Did your parents not give you what you wanted because of expense or did they modify what you wanted so it didn’t give you joy?
My childhood friend Fulton loved listening to the electric guitar from the time he was little. His parents knew that, but instead of supporting him directly, they gave him a piano because he loved music. (He quickly developed an aversion for the piano and piano lessons.)
Sometimes we take jobs we don’t like, because they are kind of similar to an activity that brings us joy or marry someone who is kind of similar to someone whose company we really enjoy. Can you learn to check in with Heart-Mind instead of believing that parental voice?
Coronavirus or no, social chaos or no, when you want something, go after it! Don’t say it’s selfish; do the things that bring you joy so you can bring joy to others. So many spiritual practitioners think that selfishness is a bad word. But if we don’t pursue the activities that bring us joy, how can we bring joy to others?
In my twenties, all I wanted was to open up to the great spaciousness beyond my small self. I gave priority to my sitting as the vehicle to accomplish this and it worked!
Take a risk and act on your deepest wishes. When you turn against your wishes and push them out, you wound heart-mind (although in a larger sense, heart-mind can never be wounded).
I had a Zen student I will call Barbara. She really wanted to be a mother, but as the youngest child and as a girl, she stayed home with her parents up and including her childbearing years running their house as they had health problems. And when they died her brother asked that she take care of his last child, since she was so good at it. She agreed but after a few months she felt the strain of her overly responsible nature. Horrible thoughts entered her mind, including drowning the boy in the bathtub. When she came to seem first, we talked about how trapped she was by loyalty to her family. I suggested she allow that feeling of being trapped to permeate her meditation without doing anything about it. She began to see how overwhelmed she had been for years by others’ needs. She tapped into her heart mind, told her brother she needed to move on and adopted her own set of twins.
Whenever, you have a horrible thought and many of us do, there is an innocent wish behind it which you are not even aware of.
Who you are is different than who you were told to be. Possibly, you have hidden behind someone else’s idea of who you are supposed to be. Possibly, you have overlooked your deepest admirations or those activities that bring you deep joy. If you open up to those, you may find yourself being more generous. It’s so natural to give to others when we feel full rather than empty. When we are happy, we want others to be happy. Our cup runneth over.
I closed my last piece by saying that it is not too difficult to embody Dogen’s “one bright pearl that shines with boundless light.” Surrender is a key component to this process. I am not talking about surrendering your personal power to a deity or even another person. I am simply talking about surrender to what is. This is entirely different from collapse, which is a breakdown of vital energy.
This type of surrender involves staying present for whatever pain you are feeling regardless of its emotional power, instead of allowing yourself to be swept away by it. This is bringing alive the Bodhisattva of Great Activity, Samantabhadra, who is generally pictured riding an elephant, steadily, deliberately, with a relaxed composure.
Suffering can feel like defeat. Maybe you’re not going to have the child you have been yearning for or the kind of relationship you want. Can you surrender to your sadness about this?
Maybe you have allowed yourself to face backward on the elephant, reviewing over and over again what you or someone else has done or should have done or might have done. Can you change your position from facing backward to facing forward, choosing to commit yourself to what you want to be rather than what has been? When you wake up in the morning can you take two or three breaths and choose to be present for the day’s unfolding, regardless of whether things go well?
It takes courage to give yourself to each activity without focusing on an outcome, but this is what Zen practice is all about.
It takes courage to give your all to something and at the same time surrender or let go of an outcome. Basho understood this well when he wrote:
A cicada shell;
it sang itself
When we “sing ourselves utterly away” we are opening to what the Zen master Hongzhi called “the empty field.” All we need to do is see clearly whatever single dimension we are caught on and open beyond it. Whatever thought or feeling we have; we can let it be absorbed into the field that lies beyond the conscious mind.
If we surrender to this field, out of it arises a new way to experience and express ourselves beyond the limitation of a particular pattern. Here’s my first teacher’s comment: “If you want to tame your sheep or your cow, give it a large pasture.”
This means moving beyond the “either/or” mind, opening to the empty field where there is ample room for “both/and.” If that’s not surrender, I don’t know what is.
When we are unlocked from a single pattern of feelings or thoughts, we realize that both sides of each situation are always true. When this happens, we discover a creative energy we didn’t know we had.
When I was very young, my mother had my I.Q. tested and proudly announced to me and whoever she could, that I was a “gifted child.” And for the first few years of school, I dazzled everyone with my academic prowess, as a gifted child might do. But at some point, I felt confined, even stifled by the label and under incredible pressure to perform in a “gifted” manner. After getting a bad report card in the 7th or 8th grade, I felt so guilty and confused that instead of going home I rode my bike to a hotel in my hometown and ran up the stairs to the top with the idea that I was going to jump off and kill myself. Even a positive label can be incredibly stifling.
Often the problems we are stuck on are based on fixed ideas that dominated our childhood experience. Both of my parents made it clear that smart people were important, and others were not of much value and, quite naturally, I believed them.
But then I had been meditating with my Zen teacher, Suzuki Roshi, for a while, when he suggested I radically change my approach and “just do stupid zazen.” When I told him I often didn’t understand what he was saying, he added, “It doesn’t matter. Just listen!”
At some point I was able to let the craving to understand what he was saying entirely fall away. With a sigh of relief, I realized that I didn’t have to be smart after all! As my meditation practice continued to deepen, I even learned how to frolic in Hongzhi’s empty field, including sometimes being smartly stupid and other times stupidly smart. Not long after that I returned to school with a sense of freedom that I had never imagined possible, a freedom which was no longer constrained by label like “smart” or “stupid.”
More than a decade ago, I worked with a student named Helen who was suffering from chronic fatigue. Whereas my family of origin’s core value was being smart, her family’s core value related to continually working hard. I helped Helen hold in her heart-mind both the value of working hard and the equally important value of deep rest. As she explored with her bare awareness both sides, her chronic fatigue gradually diminished and then vanished. In a meeting with me she glowed as she exclaimed, “I can both do great work and relax deeply.”
I wonder how you might make room for both what you are stuck on, whether it be a desire, emotion, or repetitive thought, and its opposite, in your own life? Maybe you can approach both with curiosity. Maybe you’d even like to shift from one side to the other and appreciate their interplay, such as, stupid and smart or hard work and easy play. I would not be surprised that as you open your locks, you will feel like Dogen’s words are your own: “The whole universe is one bright pearl. We cannot help but love this one bright pearl that shines with boundless light.”
This is my second of three pieces on Suffering as a portal into boundless light from a quote by Dogen: “The whole universe is one bright pearl. We cannot help but love this one bright pearl that shines with boundless light.”
As you continue and deepen your meditation practice, you may notice that you are handling your suffering better than in the past. You may develop an adeptness at recognizing stress and seeing its destructive nature. Especially in times like these, when our country’s cohesiveness seems to be coming apart at the seams, it’s important that you limit putting yourself in situations which are likely to create unneeded suffering.
The best way to realize the “boundless light” infusing and surrounding the pearl are through the practice of patience and persistence, the third and fourth paramitas. The practice of patience includes learning to tolerate failure, disappointment, defeat, unpleasantness, and confusion without giving up. This means when you make a mistake or do something you regret, instead of judging yourself or getting upset, you acknowledge it, take a deep breath, apologize if appropriate, and move on. The more patient you become with yourself the more you discover that you are becoming patient with others.
When we are impatient with ourselves or others, we are generally clinging to a single idea or point of view about something. But according to Buddhist teaching, each feeling or point of view we have is always only one of several alternatives. I have been helping folks whenever they are caught by one point of view by practicing with three alternatives to whatever reference point they are stuck on:
For example, someone does something that makes you angry at them. In a meditative context, might you, 1.) fully experience the anger; 2.) move through it to experience not being angry; 3.) bring the anger back and hold both the anger and its absence together at the same time?
And when you are ready, 4.) can you let go of both and move into neither being angry nor not being angry?
As a meditative tool, you might be surprised at how well this four-part exercise works.
To be patient doesn’t mean to sit on your hands. “Sitting on your hands” is inevitably avoiding, copping out, or being tuned-out, and in some circumstances all three. That’s why patience’s hand maiden is persistent effort. Can you muster energetic resolve to stick with something that you aspire to do without getting caught in an expectation?
Can you do that even though you do not know the outcome, or whether the effort is worthwhile, or even if you’re headed in right direction; can you simply stay with whatever you are trying to do? This doesn’t mean that every minute you are present, it just means you return, return, return. This was so well articulated by Malcolm Gladwell 15 years ago when he discussed his “10,000 Hour Rule.” If we want to be proficient at anything, all we need to do is repeat it over and over.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t change course if we intuit that we are doing something impossible. It just means differentiating between what we can and can’t change and, as a result, what we spend time and energy on. As the Serenity Prayer says, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
My second teacher’s dharma name was Dainin, which means “great patience,” When I was upset about something, he would remind me “this moment is like this.”
If we stop suffering about our suffering, we find that it is not too difficult to embody Dogen’s line, “this one bright pearl that shines with boundless light.”
Now I wish to discuss using suffering as a portal to what Dogen calls “boundless light.”
“The whole universe is one bright pearl. We cannot help but love this one bright pearl that shines with boundless light,” says Dogen.
As much as the oyster would like to cleanse itself of the piece of sand, patiently opening up to it in a non-judgmental way is the doorway to liberation. Zen practice is all about opening to whatever suffering we have instead of reacting with defeat, humiliation, shame, passivity, helplessness, or guilt.
American culture seems to have had a primary focus on reducing pain for some time. But what about ancient Greek culture? In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus’s struggle to return home entailed great suffering, noble suffering, even glorious suffering, which gave his life deep meaning. And the same can be said of the 20th century European existentialists.
“It is not humiliating to be unhappy. Physical suffering is sometime humiliating, but the suffering of being is life,” wrote Albert Camus.
Soren Keirkegaard’s biographer wrote of him, “By the age of 25 he had lost both his parents, and five of his six siblings. In addition to this, his sensitive temperament, his tendencies to melancholy and anxiety, and his difficult relationships to his father and his one-time fiancée Regine gave him an intimate understanding of various kinds of psychological pain. Rather than avoiding or denying suffering, Kierkegaard was unusually willing to confront it and investigate it. His sensitivity to suffering extended to others: one of his friends remembered that "he gave consolation not by covering up sorrow, but by first making one genuinely aware of it, by bringing it to complete clarity.”
In American culture we tend to view success as primary, which includes the ability to control outcomes. We tend to hide deep internal conflicts, stress, or anxiety so we will not be labeled as incompetent or as a loser. Why acknowledge suffering if it only stands for failure?
For two or three years, we could not understand why my grandson was so anxious and did so poorly in school. Then he was tested and received a diagnosis of dysgraphia, difficulty in writing. Once his suffering was acknowledged ad its cause understood, he and his teachers both relaxed considerably into simply dealing with “what is.” He no longer needed to conceal his suffering but became open about it. This made all the difference in the world to his experience at school. Avoiding suffering flattens life. One way we can normalize suffering is by naming it, as was done in my grandson’s case.
And it’s a basic principle of Buddhism that it’s our reaction to suffering, rather than suffering itself, that’s a problem. Our goal is to separate our resistance to suffering from the actual pain and loss. There is always going to be both in life.
The year 2020 was a year for Americans in which many experienced an inordinate amount of stress and chronically high stress levels often lead to physical and mental exhaustion. In years like the last, depression or anxiety was really on the increase. Often these are accompanied by exhaustion. We wake up in the morning feeling tired or “weighted down.” Often this means that our brain stem or amygdala has been incessantly on alert, preparing us to fight or flee. The more our brain stem is chronically on alert, the more we misperceive our current situation. We are succumbing to pressure from past suffering projected into the future.
“Fight, flight” isn’t intended to be turned on for long periods. The continual flood of neurochemicals which make up this process may cause damage to our heart, glands, and entire nervous system. On the one hand, we are built to cope with pressure and to recover when over. On the other hand, if our amygdala is lit up for a long period of time, we become out of balance or sick. Our brain is built to handle periodic or brief episodes of stress but not built to handle the continual level of stress many Americans were feeling for the duration of 2020.
So, what’s the antidote for constantly feeling stressed? I’d like to suggest that there are four things we can do.
First, we can ask ourselves: “Is this really dangerous or am I simply feeling a lot of pressure?” We can assess our situation and then clarify what action is called for, accepting that there are times when you will feel pressure and times when the outcome of a difficult situation is very ambiguous.
Second, as in my grandson’s case, we can name the problem and acknowledge the challenge that the pressure presents.
Third, if we’re still feeling inadequate, confused, or scared, we may need to think how we can bring balance into our lives. Maybe our eating or meditation has gotten out of whack. Are we getting outside even in winter? Are we keeping heart connections going during these COVID times when we are each in our own little pods?
Fourth, if we are developing a “story” or identity of being anxious or depressed, we might ask yourselves, “In what way does feeling stressed all the time serve me? If I weren’t so stressed, what would I be feeling? How would I live differently?”
There is a huge distinction between “I am a depressed, anxious person” and “I am feeling stressed or down.”
If we do all four of these with patience and persistence, we may be surprised to notice that the abrasive piece of sand inside is actually encompassed, as Dogen suggests, by boundless light, turning it into a pearl.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher