Life’s Actual Guarantees
Meditations at the Edge
Yom Kippur, Judaism’s Day of Atonement, was observed recently. It’s an example of a common theme in spiritual traditions, of setting aside time to reflect on our harmful tendencies—the shortcomings, attitudes and actions that have caused suffering for us and others. The focus is on what we have done, rather than what others have done. Part of Zen’s version is the Remorse and Reconciliation process, where we recall our frailties or harmful actions, while feeling the breathing in the chest center (the heart’s breath). We also say words of Remorse and Reconciliation: “I now acknowledge the harm I have caused others, whether intentionally or unintentionally; I now acknowledge the harm I have caused myself, whether intentionally or unintentionally; I now express remorse for all of those harmful thoughts, words and actions; I now aspire to reconnect with the heart of compassion
Altogether, this is a multisensory practice, one way of opening into the wellsprings of compassion and forgiveness.
The undeniable fact of our unskillful tendencies brings up the topic of life’s actual guarantees. Some of these things may sound daunting, so we’re fortunate to have meditative tools to help mirror back the terrain. This allows life’s inevitabilities to be portals for entering reality and genuine life. So, what can we count on in life? First, there’s change, the impermanence and uncertainty that are the nature of reality, ourselves included. Change is also the solid, insubstantial foundation of Zen. The Morning Verse calls it the “formless field of benefaction.” However, while the nature of reality is a formless field, the benefaction part is up to each of us. Our vows remind us that the seeds of compassion and living beneficially require nurturing, unlike instincts or self-centered emotions like anger and fear, which have been sprouting effortlessly since childhood.
Change and insubstantiality make interconnectedness possible; we’re all part of one another, whether we realize it or not. Practice helps make this a lived reality rather than a philosophy. What else can life guarantee? The Buddha mentioned Four Noble Truths: birth, sickness, old age and death. Actually, only two of these can be guaranteed: birth and death. While most of us do get sick, some never have a sick day; likewise, there’s no guarantee of old age, since some die young.
There’s a pertinent story concerning old age, about eighth-century Chinese Zen ancestor Pai Chang. When he was old, Pai Chang became weak, yet he tried to keep working, and the monks finally hid his tools. He then stopped eating, and when the monks begged him to resume eating, he said “A day without work is a day without food.” Because of this incident, Pai Chang is considered the founder of Zen’s formal work practice. Recognizing the connection between work and survival, he apparently felt responsible for continuing his duties. Our Meal Verse says “Seventy-two labors brought us this food,” as a reminder of our inter-being.
As long as we can, we take care of ourselves. We stand on our own feet, and we take care of life, giving
back to those in need as well as the groups that speak to us. Sometimes we can’t take care of ourselves; the very young, old, or sick often need assistance. Many of you offered care during Ezra’s medical challenges over the past half year. He’s slowly mending, as he meanders through the ups and downs of recovery, which rarely transits in a direct line toward the hoped-for cure.
A related life guarantee is that each of us has unique, predictable ego tendencies, which we sometimes mistake for our true self. Some less healthy variations include being constantly overextended; negligent in our responsibilities; seeking drama or catastrophe; or resisting, perhaps with a “you can’t make me” stance. Recently someone told me that when difficulties arise, there’s a familiar sense of comfortable misery: “At least now I know who I am.”
During Ezra’s odyssey, one of my old ego-tendencies came up: the assumption that “I can do it all.” I hadn’t been sick or injured for awhile, so I began to believe that I was bionic, and would stay well, able to drive, cook, and take care of things. Then on two different occasions I got brief, intense flu-like symptoms, and it was doubtful that I’d be able to be the “designated driver.” Then what? I’d been gliding along, on the thin ice of entitlement to good health, and was perilously close to “running on empty,” a common condition faced by helpaholics and caregivers.
Obviously meditative awareness needs to encompass our “me stuff” or it will cause difficulties for us and others. Do you know one of your particular versions of what Ezra calls “the illusion of a separate self to which our suffering clings”? A related area, mentioned in the Practice Period agreement, is our gap(s): areas in our practice, personality, or way of relating to daily activities. The light of awareness doesn’t shine readily in these gaps, and if one of them is also a blind spot, we may need assistance in recognizing it. Gaps need to be quite specific; saying “fear” is too general: how does fear manifest? What is our strategy for covering it over? Is there something we’re trying to avoid? For example, if we fear being seen as weak, we may try to cover over the fear by speaking or acting aggressively.
One way to discover a gap is to ask: are there things that I don’t even want to think about? Sometimes we have a secret stash of clinging, hiding in the murky corners to evade investigation. Practice period is a chance to clarify gaps, and explore bringing mindful attention to them.
Because of life’s many guarantees, we’ll inevitably have to go where we didn’t plan to or want to go. Since it’s impossible to evade the shadows, or suffering or sickness, applied awareness needs to accompany the trip, while we learn what’s required to attend to the myriad challenges of living. Practice Period invites us to insure that we’re aware of the necessary mirrors, to make it possible for everything, without exception, to become a portal into reality.