Awakening to Discouragement

This is an approximation of a Dharma talk I gave at the Henry David Thoreau Zen Sangha in Newton, MA, on June 8, 2015.

Our liturgy book changed recently. There are some new verses, two of which we chanted tonight.

I’d like to focus on one of these in this talk:

Awakening to Discouragement

(by Joan Tollifson, from the book Nothing to Grasp)

Part of waking up is becoming sensitive to how we become discouraged, how we close down, and where we go for false comfort. To wake up is to become aware of the tendency to judge ourselves, to take our failures personally, to fall into despair, self-pity, depression, frustration, anger, or wherever we tend to go when we believe the story that we are a person who can’t do it right. Seeing all of this is enough. Awareness is its own action. We don’t need to analyze it or impose changes based on our ideas of what should be happening.  Just being awake to the present moment, as it is, and seeing clearly what is happening: this is transformative. We are simply awake here and now.

I found this verse unsettling the first couple of times we chanted it at Greater Boston Zen Center, where I sit. I still do.

That unsettled feeling is usually valuable, I find — a call to pay attention.

This verse is unsettling to me, I think, because it doesn’t really feel encouraging in the way I’ve been socialized to think about encouragement.

Encouragement as I’m used to thinking about it would be telling me things will get better. Maybe telling me how to fix these problems.  (They’re clearly problems, right?) Or, at least boosting my confidence in my ability to find solutions.

But this verse says seeing is enough. There’s no need even to analyze this experience, let alone do anything.

Really?  That’s it?  This is just part 1, right?  Tell me Part 2 of the encouragement is coming.

But if we sit with encouragement like this long enough — and it is encouragement — and if we just sit, this sort of encouragement may begin to shift our perspective in time.

The part of me that has difficulty seeing this verse as encouragement is the part of me (the frame of mind) that is sure there’s something wrong with my life, even something wrong in the universe; that’s sure things just have to be made better; and that I must do something about it. Now.

This is the me which gets tempted to think that things are falling apart — at home, at work, in the world — and that I need to hold them together.

For me, the encouragement this verse provides is a challenge to that perspective.

The truth is, each world-moment is always hanging together.  Without me needing to take control, as if I could.

Nor can we withdraw and disappear, if that’s our default mode for trying to deal with our anxious feelings.

I speak German (poorly), and I’m still sometimes amused by how literal the language can be.  For instance, the word for mitten is handschue (hand shoe).

The word for participate is teilnehmen, which literally means “part taking.”  It’s like our word partake, or, better yet, the phrase “take part.”

Here we are. We’re just taking part, whether or not we want to, and whether or not we believe that’s all we’re doing.

My anxious feelings are just that.  They’re taking part, too.  Just a part of me.  We’re just a part of the universe.

Myriad Dharmas.  The first and wholly sufficient step is just to see them.  That’s enough, this teaching tells us.

And even that isn’t required.

Zen is often accused of being a quietistic religion, and it certainly can tend in that direction.

But how much suffering is created and compounded by so many of us walking around with the sense that there’s something fundamentally wrong with all of this? Something fundamentally amiss in the universe.

How much more skillful our plans and actions and interactions would be if, as some Hindus would say, we thought, at every turn, “The god in me bows to the god in you”?

And won’t we be better at helping solve this world’s problems, so many of which are responses to and avoidance strategies for these feelings of dis-ease, if we can just learn to sit with our own feelings? The god in me bows to the god in my anxious feelings. Perhaps we’ll become better at seeing those feelings as they arise in and propel others, and become capable of responding more compassionately.

This is hard, I know, and I suppose it’s one place in Zen where faith comes in. Faith in the teachings. Faith in our teachers. Faith in each other. Faith in this path. All helping us develop faith in our experience. Faith in this. Faith giving way to knowledge in our bones that “every day is a good day,” as old Yunmen says in that famous koan about life and death. About the Great Matter.

One of the main fruits of Zen practice is progressively waking up to the reality that the world is cohering all the time, and me with it, no matter how much I might be tempted to doubt that at any given moment.

My falling apart is the world cohering. And, as James Ford says, “If you’re lucky, your heart will break.”