Ezra Bayda; Edited from: The Authentic Life: Zen Wisdom for Living Free From Complacency and Fear, Shambhala, April, 2014
There’s an old Zen saying: Realizing The Way is hard. Once you have realized it, preserving it is hard. When you can preserve it, putting it into practice is hard.
When we realize how hard spiritual practice is, the initial honeymoon phase usually ends, especially if we believed that practice was going to save us from ourselves—from our fears and our distress. When we realize that our practice is not, in fact, going to ensure that we’ll permanently feel a particular way—such as calm or clear or compassionate—it is very easy to get discouraged.
This is primarily because we’re so identified with our small self —with our deeply-held stories, such as the story, “This is too hard —I can’t do it.” Or the story, “I have too much to do.” Or the story, “People don’t appreciate me for who I am.”
Yet, even though we may, at times, get caught in our stories, and perhaps in discouragement or confusion, the real question is: “What then?” We can either indulge our stories, and succumb to discouragement and confusion, or we can ask ourselves, “How do I choose to live?”
When we get caught in the small mind, where we’re doubting ourselves and questioning what we should do, there’s an excellent practice question we can ask ourselves. I learned this from the 19th century existential philosopher Frederick Nietzsche, who in a way I consider my first teacher. He posed the Doctrine of the Eternal Recurrence, where we hypothesize a reality in which everything in our life recurs again and again and again, in exactly the way we live it now, throughout eternity.
Please note: this is a hypothetical position—we don’t need to consider it as a true statement about reality. The point is, when faced with a decision about how to live our life, can we make use of this doctrine by simply raising the question: “What would I do in this situation if I had to live my life in the exact same way, over and over and over again, throughout eternity?”
This question can be disconcerting, because it will no doubt bring up many of our fears—such as our fear of failure, or our fear of the unfamiliar. It can also bring up our fear of living dishonestly, disconnected from our true self.
Answering this question is not just about making changes in our behavior; it’s more about becoming who we truly are. When we take this question seriously we are forced to look at ourselves with a penetrating honesty. We may also be forced to face the fears that hold us back from living from our true heart, because reflecting on the question of eternal recurrence will include actions not taken, the choices we avoid.
When we ask the question, the remorse of an unlived life may gnaw at us. Through the struggle between the yes and the no—the yes, I wish to live more honestly and awake; and the no, I want to resist and stay in the familiar—we’re making the conscious effort to go against our fears and our deeply-conditioned patterns. It is through this conscious effort that something transforms in our being.
In challenging our small mind—the mind based in inertia, entitlements and fear—we are making a commitment to living in the most authentic way.
We are also opening the doorway to reality, where our true self is no longer just a vague concept. For example, when I started to think about writing my latest book, which is my sixth, many doubts and questions began to arise. Does the world really need another book? Do I really have something worthwhile to say? Will it be well received? The small mind had a field day feeding the voices of self-doubt. These were familiar voices, and I didn’t really believe them, but they nonetheless made a toehold and caused me to hesitate.
Asking the question of the eternal recurrence— “If I had to live my life over again an eternal number of times in the exact same way, would I write this book?” —allowed me to bypass the little mind of self-judgment. It reminded me that the point of writing wasn’t to try to sound good or to receive praise, but instead to simply focus on the fact that there were things that I truly wanted to say—things that have been essential in my own practice. The question of the eternal recurrence reminded me to not to play it safe or be defended, but instead to try to live as authentically as possible.
For the question of the eternal recurrence to become real, and to help you truly commit to your life, you have to actually raise the question, preferably in a specific situation. Think of a current area where you’re trying to decide what to do, where you feel stuck or at your edge, and want to know how to move forward in your life. Now ask: “What would I do in this situation if I had to live my life in the exact same way, over and over again, throughout eternity?”
This is often not an easy question to answer. Moreover, you may not like the answer, because it may mean that you have to face something you don’t want to face. For example, if your
primary reason for staying in a relationship was because you feared being alone, once you asked whether you would truly want to live this life repeatedly in the exact same way,
the obvious answer of “No!” might be very frightening. But remember, to leave a situation like this would not just be about changing your behavior—it would push you to summon the courage to do the exact thing that you most need to do to grow and to live most authentically, namely, to face your loneliness.
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Keep in mind that it’s a given that practice is hard, and that efforts are required for a long time. But if you’re sincere and persevere, you’ll gradually experience your life in a new way—with more presence, more openness, less reactivity.
This will no doubt entail working with periods of confusion and discouragement, and occasionally with being confronted with making a choice of how you want to live your life. Then we can ask the question of the eternal recurrence, which is another way of asking: Do I want to stay stuck in complacency and fear, or follow the path of living from a more open heart?
When we ask the question of the eternal recurrence, we can listen to the Big Mind as it guides us past our small-minded patterns and fears. Our suffering does not have to define us; instead we can learn from it, and let it inform us on how to live.