What Are We Waiting For?
Charles Dickens, in A Tale of Two Cities, wrote: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness,it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period.”
These words were written in 1859, referring to 1775. They could have been written anytime, since things appear to stay the same and yet are changing rapidly, as the seasons of light and winters of despair interweave. That’s why practice has to be inclusive, and address the frailties and fragilities that we share, as individuals, organizations and society at large.
Ezra raised two important why questions recently: Why do we avoid things that we know are worthwhile? And conversely, why do we keep doing, and believing, things we know aren’t enlivening?
A third question is: What are we waiting for, to prioritize aligning our life and practice with our professed values? In Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, wait endlessly for someone named Godot, who is a mystery, and never shows up. They stay faithful to their mission:
Estragon: … Let’s go.
Vladimir: We can’t.
Estragon: Why not?
Vladimir: We’re waiting for Godot.
A character off to the side holds a suitcase full of sand, and won’t put it down.
What suitcase do we hold onto? What is our Godot—the false hopes and expectations we’re waiting for? Our mixed motives and subtle agendas are so compelling that as a counterbalance, we’re asking people to formulate a short Practice Statement, to say at the beginning of interviews and before sitting periods. Akin to a mission statement, it expresses our current aspiration and understanding of the point of practice. One of our readings, “What is our Life About,” includes Ezra’s reflections on this over many years.
• My Practice Statement, as of now:
Let’s go deeper into these issues, not to indict ourselves, which increases psychic tension, but to look compassionately and objectively—the way we naturally relate to a puppy with some strange habits. Feel free to write your responses on a separate page.
See if it includes the point of practice, as stated in the vows and readings; a perspective beyond your personal self and issues, acknowledging the greater picture. You can ask yourself what you truly want, on the most genuine level, and your words can reflect this deeper aspiration. It is best if the words are practical, not just philosophy, and perhaps acknowledge that what appears to get in the way is also part of the path.
• What do you know is valuable, yet regularly avoid?
• What do you continue to do, or believe, that you know is not helpful or enlivening?
• What are you waiting for, to begin your “real life”? (An enlightening experience in meditation, finding your true vocation, a soul mate, other):
One practice to help illuminate how these issues play out is WIPITS, or What is practice in this situation? Part of answering the WIPITS question is to first consider these three related questions:
1: What’s actually going on? The objective, observable external situation (i.e., reading this mailer);
2: What am I adding? Emotions, thoughts, habits, physical responses (your reactions to this material);
3: What am I leaving out? Whether we’re simply unaware, or blinded by what we add, we can miss a great deal of the actual moment: breath, bodily sensations, the environment, the mystery of life.
If we’re waiting for ideal circumstances, we can be inspired by some lines from Yalom’s historically-based novel When Nietzsche Wept. Nietzsche had numerous disabling physical ailments, and only functioned reasonably well about two months a year. In the novel Nietzsche pats his middle and says “Sorry protoplasm …Yet if you know the ‘why,’ you can live with any ‘how.’”
Having a sense of the why—the point of our priorities in life and practice—makes it less likely that we’ll be blown away by life’s inevitable how’s, the challenges of sickness, financial or work concerns, or difficulties with others and ourselves.
Our Practice Statement is both a why and a how, since it encourages us to remember the point, as well as to consider what practice requires. Often our frailties are what pushes us to go deeper in practice; a mysterious grace seems to motivate us, as we recognize how much more difficult things can be without the grounding of practice. This realization encourages us to embrace life fully, and at times we may discover that we are already fully embraced by life, and that what we’ve been waiting for is already at hand.