Feeds:
Posts
Comments

800px-Red_River_of_New_Mexico_Picture_2010For more than four decades Joseph Goldstein, an internationally known teacher of Buddhist meditation, has practiced mindfulness of the body and mind. First as a monk in the Thai forest tradition and later as a Western practitioner, he has trained himself to be aware of what is occurring, within and without, in any given moment.Yet one afternoon, while walking along a river in northern New Mexico, Goldstein slipped on a wet rock and hyper-extended his knee. At the time, he was conducting a retreat, and later on that day, after giving a talk in the cross-legged position, he found himself unable to stand or walk. For the next few hours he berated himself and worried that he would not be able to complete the retreat. But in the midst of his anguish, he reports, a “sort of mantra” arose in his mind: Anything can happen anytime. To his surprise, that “mantra” provided a great sense of relief. Since then, he has found it “amazingly helpful in accepting change with a deepening and easeful equanimity.”*

If you are of a skeptical nature, you may be wondering how a simple declarative sentence–and that sentence in particular–could have so powerful an impact. Anything can happen anytime? Taken as a general proposition, that statement is demonstrably untrue. Pigs can’t fly and never will; the elbow does not bend outward. But even if the sentence is understood as a functional slogan rather than a literal truth, it might as easily be heard as a warning or a sigh of resignation or even a cry of despair. Why should it bring a sense of relief, much less a deepening sense of balance and peace?

One answer is that the realization that “anything can happen anytime” shifts our orientation from the needs, expectations, and other aspects of the self to the impersonal causes and conditions underlying a particular event. When things go awry, it is all too easy to view one’s own actions–or someone else’s–as the sole or principal cause. In reality, however, most occurrences have multiple causes, and one’s own role, however large or small, conscious or unintentional, is only a part of the picture. External conditions–the weather, the time of day, the physical environment–may play as large or larger a part. To realize as much can lift a heavy and often misplaced burden of responsibility from our hearts and minds.

By the same token, the recognition that “anything can happen anytime” can free us from the illusion of personal control. As Goldstein puts it, his mantra is a reminder that “yes, this is how things are. Conditions are always changing and often outside our control. We don’t have to live defensively if we accept that anything can happen anytime.” Insofar as we struggle to control what cannot be controlled, we suffer. And insofar as we imagine ourselves to be fully in charge of what happens in our lives, we live in delusion and denial. By summoning Goldstein’s mantra, or allowing it to arise of its own accord, we can restore our realism and our sense of proportion.

At a deeper level, Goldstein’s mantra can also put us in touch with what Zen teachings call sunyata–a Sanskrit term variously translated as “emptiness,” “nothingness,” and “absolute reality.” Sunyata refers to the vast, interdependent network of changing causes and conditions, of which any one “thing” or event is a fluid part. The one includes the all. By reminding ourselves that anything can happen anytime, we also remind ourselves of sunyata, where energies are constantly being exchanged, where “this is, because that is,” and where, in an instant, what we thought was solid and enduring can disappear or become something else. Far from describing a void, the term sunyata evokes a field of radical impermanence and infinite possibility. And to contemplate sunyata is, in the fullness of time, to free ourselves from attachment to “things,” the past, and self-centered views.

To be sure, Goldstein’s mantra may not be enough to release us from the anxieties, doubts, and fears that many of us entertain in our dreams and carry with us into our waking hours. Those mental pollutants are not so readily expunged. But “anything can happen anytime” may well help us to accept what Zen teachings call the “vicissitudes”–the ups and downs of gain and loss, praise and blame, health and infirmity, joy and pain. Evoked in times of stress, this resonant reminder can help us live with grace and equanimity in a world where things are seldom stable or certain, our paths are sometimes slippery, and anything can happen anytime.

_________

*Joseph Goldstein, Mindfulness (Sounds True, 2013), Kindle edition, 280.

Photo: Red River, New Mexico. By Billy Hathorn.

 

 

148. Making whole

Roshi Pat Enkyo O'Hara

Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara

“Do not lose yourself in the future,” Buddhist teachings advise. “Look deeply at life as it is in this very moment.” Under most circumstances that is sound advice, but it can also be devilishly difficult to follow. It is human nature to dwell on the future, especially when the future is replete with uncertainties.

So it was not long ago, when I learned that I needed minor surgery, and I met with my surgeon for a pre-op consultation. A seasoned professional in his sixties, he explained the nature of the procedure, including its history and technical details, and outlined the stages of recovery. During the first week, I would be laid up and managing pain, but by the second I would probably be feeling “fifty percent better.” By the end of the third, I might well be free of pain, though patients sometimes report “nuisance discomfort.” Six to eight weeks out, I would probably be able to resume my customary activities.

That forecast was reassuring, but by their nature forecasts focus on the future, and they leave open the question of what the patient, his eyes on the horizon, should be doing in the meantime. In a recent article (Prevention, January, 2014), Sister Dang Nghiem, MD, a Western-trained physician and a Buddhist nun, offers this prescription: Continue Reading »

Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh

We can throw away a soiled tissue. We can throw away Q-tips, outdated appliances, and countless other items in our everyday lives. But can we also discard our ill-founded thoughts and one-sided perceptions? Our cherished notions?

According to classical Buddhist teachings, many if not most of our perceptions are erroneous, and erroneous perceptions cause suffering. “Looking deeply into the wrong perceptions, ideas, and notions that are at the base of our suffering,” writes Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, “is the most important practice in Buddhist meditation.” And correspondingly, “the practice of throwing away our notions and views is so important. Liberation is not possible without this throwing away.” Yet, as Thich Nhat Hanh goes on to say, “it takes insight and courage to throw away an idea.” Views we have held for decades–or perhaps for a lifetime–are not so easily disposed of, especially when they appear to have served us well. Continue Reading »

SelfieOver the past few years the digital self-portrait has come into its own. Decried by some as a symptom of narcissism, celebrated by others as a vehicle of self-empowerment, the so-called “selfie” has assumed center stage, not only in social media but in the media at large. Ellen DeGeneres’ “group selfie,” spontaneously snapped at the Oscars, may well be the world’s most widely viewed example, but it is literally one among millions.

In another decade or two, we may find out whether the selfie was a fad, a portent of a cultural shift, or something else entirely. But from the vantage point of Zen teachings, the ubiquitous selfie, shot in a mirror or from an outstretched hand, offers what is known as a “dharma gate”: a point of entry into a deeper truth. “To study the way,” wrote the thirteenth-century Zen master Eihei Dogen, “is to study the self.” And the phenomenon of the selfie, however superficial it may seem, provides an opportunity to do just that. Continue Reading »

The Crown Bar Belfast, Northern Ireland

The Crown Bar
Belfast, Northern Ireland

“For Ben Howard, well met in Belfast, July, 2004.”

So wrote a gentlemanly Irish poet, whose work I had long admired, in the flyleaf of his most recent book. At the time, he and I were having lunch in the upstairs dining room of the Crown Bar, a storied old pub in the heart of Belfast, Northern Ireland. I had come up on the train from Dublin to meet him.

Of the many inscriptions I have acquired over the years, few have proved as memorable as the one above, partly because the poet’s chosen phrase, faintly archaic but resonantly apt, sorted well with the Crown’s Victorian decor–its ornate tin ceilings, stained-glass windows, and dark-paneled “snugs.” Regrettably, “well-met” is no longer current in North America, either as a description or a greeting. Once the equivalent of “Nice to have met you,” that old-fashioned phrase evokes a singular event: two people meeting, in the fullness of human relationship, at a particular place and time. Continue Reading »

144. This

Original calligraphy by the Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh.

Original calligraphy by the Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh

“Support for NPR,” announced National Public Radio’s Sabrina Fahri during the holiday season, “comes from Pajamagram, makers of matching holiday pajamas for the whole family, including dogs and cats.” After listing several other sponsors, Ms. Fahri concluded with a single declarative sentence:          “This . . . (pause),” said she,  “is NPR.” She might have been delivering a dramatic monologue, so pronounced was her emphasis on this and so protracted the ensuing pause.

Ms. Fahri has since abandoned that mannerism, but its temporary recurrence on Morning Edition, morning after morning, brought to mind the prominence of the word this, similarly isolated, in the Zen tradition. Generally speaking, in Zen practice this refers to undifferentiated reality, prior to the imposition of conceptual thought. “Just this,” a phrase familiar to Zen students, is what we experience when we penetrate the filter created by dualistic concepts, particularly such ego-centered dualities as “self/other,” “I/they,” and “mine/not mine.” To remain in continuous contact with this, while also questioning its nature, is central to Zen practice. And to lose touch with or misconstrue the nature of this is likely to bring suffering upon oneself and others. Continue Reading »

RED TWIG Winter 2014Twelve years ago, my wife and I planted a row of Red Twig Dogwoods on the western border of our back yard. They are now more than twelve feet tall. As I look out on this cold winter morning, I notice again how the dogwoods’ deep-red branches contrast with the prevailing whites, grays, and browns. Against a dormant and seemingly lifeless landscape, they remind us of the life force.

The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called that force “the clearest freshness deep down things.” Dylan Thomas called it “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” More simply, the Zen teacher Shohaku Okumura, in his book Living by Vow,* calls it the “natural universal life force,” which appears most vividly in nature but is common to the natural and human worlds alike. “The force that drives the water through the rock,” Thomas went on to say, “drives my red blood.” “We are all connected,” writes Okumura, “one universal life force.” Continue Reading »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 937 other followers