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Matthew Arnold
1822-1888

In his sonnet “To a Friend” (1849), the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold offers “special thanks” to the tragic dramatist Sophocles, whose “even-balanced soul . . . / Business could not make dull, nor Passion wild.” The “mellow glory of the Attic stage,” the author of Antigone and Oedipus Rex “saw life steadily, and saw it whole.”

To see life steadily, which is to say, to remain continuously present for the present moment, is a fundamental aim of Zen practice. Toward that end, a  variety of means are available to the serious practitioner, most prominently sitting meditation, conscious breathing, and mindful attention to everyday life. With proper instruction and sufficient diligence, all of these methods can eventually be mastered. Being fully present can become a dominant mental habit, replacing older habits of inattention and distraction.

Seeing life whole is another matter. What, exactly, Arnold meant by that phrase is open to question, but whatever else his words might imply, they suggest a balanced and comprehensive vision of the human condition. Such a vision would, as Zen teachers put it, “include everything”: illness as well as health, sorrow as well as joy, death as well as life. To attain to so equable and inclusive a view is a noble objective, but many practical obstacles stand in the way. Three in particular come to mind.

Fixed ideas

Some ideas come and go.  Accidental in origin, they cross our minds, only to promptly disappear. By contrast, other ideas set up house and resist eviction. They become our idées fixe: our fixed ideas. To the extent that we identify with those ideas, regarding them as our very own, they continue to influence our thought, speech, and actions.

Sometimes our fixed ideas reflect our ethical convictions and fortify our personal integrity. They provide a moral compass. But such ideas can also cause us to blindly “stay the course,” even when the course is destructive, and to see people and events from a static, limited perspective. That is why the Diamond Sutra urges us to cultivate “a mind that alights nowhere”: a mind that remains fluid and responsive under changing conditions.

Various methods have been developed for that purpose. Eihei Dogen, founder of the Soto Zen tradition, admonishes us to take “the backward step” and to examine our inner lives, including our habitual patterns of thought, from that perspective. Thich Nhat Hanh advises us to keep the question, “Are you sure?” uppermost in mind when addressing difficult questions. And Shunryu Suzuki bids us remember that even our cherished verities are “not always so.” Any or all of these methods can loosen the hold of our fixed ideas.

Preferences

“The Great Way is not difficult,” a revered Zen text assures us, “for those who have no preferences.” The author of this pronouncement, the Third Zen Ancestor, does not mention where such people might be found.

Preferences are intrinsic to human nature. Without our personal preferences, we would be dull creatures indeed. Here in Western New York, I have a friend who prefers winter to summer. He has come to the right place. For my own part, I prefer green tea to coffee, chamber music to orchestral music, and Mozart to Wagner any day of the week.

There is nothing harmful about such preferences. The risk lies in our attachment to them. Such attachment can restrict our imaginative freedom and our ability to develop a broader, wiser, and more compassionate outlook. As with our fixed ideas, our preferences can be tenacious, but insofar as their presence is merely arbitrary or reactive, they can be challenged, suspended, or abandoned altogether. What is needed, as before, is full and continuous awareness, joined with the will to manifest greater breadth of mind.

Dualistic thinking

The Zen teacher Joan Halifax recently remarked that we human beings have a “penchant for dualities.” From the cradle on, we are conditioned to see the world through the lens of dualistic language and thought. Dark and light, hot and cold, beautiful and ugly. Even more fundamental are the dualities of “self” and “other,” “us” and “them.”

From the vantage point of Zen, such dualities are both necessary for survival and ultimately delusive. What meditative practice reveals, moment by moment, is that both the self and the external world are impermanent and interdependent. The world of phenomena is not a mere assemblage of solid “things” but an intricate web of ever-changing relationships. And the so-called self is not a separate entity but an integral part of that dynamic whole. “Unity is diversity,” Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, “and diversity is unity.”

Such a view is neither common nor conventional. To embrace and practice it requires energy, persistence, and perhaps the help of a good teacher. But the effort is well worth it, if our intention is to disentangle ourselves from our fixed ideas, transcend our self-limiting preferences, and realize our innate capacity to see life whole.

 

 

Roshi Joan Halifax

Altruism. Empathy. Integrity. Respect. Those abstract words enjoy an exalted status in contemporary discourse, perhaps because the qualities they designate often seem in short supply.  Those who embody them earn our admiration, both for their courage and their moral example. In many spiritual traditions, Zen included, the manifestation of such qualities is both an aim and a fruit of dedicated practice.

Yet even the noblest human qualities have their shadow sides. Practiced unskillfully, they can harm both the practitioner and those whom he or she purports to serve. In her new book Standing at the Edge (Flatiron Books, 2018), Roshi Joan Halifax, founder and Abbot of the Upaya Zen Center, takes a hard look at five such qualities, examining their nature, their agency in the world, and their capacity to relieve human suffering. At the same time, she acknowledges the emotional damage that even such commendable qualities as empathy and compassion, practiced without sufficient knowledge or wisdom, can inflict on oneself or others. As a longtime caregiver for the dying, a volunteer in maximum-security prisons, and the director of clinics and service projects in Tibet and elsewhere, Halifax knows whereof she speaks. Grounded in her practical experience and her scholarly training in the social sciences, her book is at once a manual for caregivers and an illuminating collection of cautionary tales, detailing the hazards and the fulfillments attendant to a life of selfless service.

As her organizing metaphor, Halifax has invented the term “Edge States,” by which she means “five internal and interpersonal qualities that are keys to a compassionate life, and without which we cannot serve, nor can we survive.” The five Edge States are altruism, empathy, integrity, respect, and engagement. Standing at the “high edge” of any one of these qualities, Halifax writes, we can lose our footing and “slide into a mire of suffering.” With this extended metaphor as its core, Standing at the Edge consists of six sections, one for each of the Edge States and a sixth on the power of compassion. Within each of the first five sections, Halifax discusses the complexities of the Edge State, its pitfalls for the practitioner, and its relationship to the other Edge States. She then offers practices that can support the healthy development of that particular state, together with her insights into its nature. In the sixth section, she concludes her book with an incisive discussion of compassion, which she views as “the way out of the storm and mud of suffering, the way back to freedom on the high edge of strength and courage.”

The perils intrinsic to Edge States are many and varied. With respect to altruism, the chief danger is “pathological altruism,” or “help that harms.” With empathy, the risks include “empathic distress” and “vicarious trauma,” which occur when the empathic doctor, counselor, teacher, aid worker, or chaplain “[merges] with the sufferer through over-identification.” With regard to integrity, the destructive sides include “moral distress” and its cousin “moral remainder,” which Halifax defines as “the painful emotional residue that lingers following actions that violate one’s sense of integrity.” Regarding respect, the main hazard is disrespect, which arises when “we too easily objectify the other as persecutor or victim, objectify ourselves as a victim, or let others objectify us as a victim, persecutor, or rescuer.” And with “engagement,” or wholehearted commitment to the relief of suffering, the most common negative outcomes are over-exertion and exhaustion.  All too often, an excess of well-intentioned effort leads to burnout.

Artfully and effectively, Halifax balances her discussion of dangers with a systematic presentation of salutary practices, most of them drawn from the Zen tradition. Among them are the practice of “not-knowing,” wherein the practitioner endeavors to let go of fixed ideas; “deep listening,” in which the listener sets aside biases and attends to the other person’s experience; the practice of “living by vow,” including the fundamental vow of non-harming; the practice of mindful speech, as taught by Thich Nhat Hanh; and the practice of Right Livelihood, in which the practitioner finds a way to earn a living without causing personal or social harm. Beyond these specific Buddhist practices, Halifax offers an inspiriting discussion of “universal compassion” and its protective power.  The skillful practice of compassion, she maintains, can keep us grounded “on the high edge of our humanity.”  And should we fall, it can “harrow us from the hells of suffering and bring us home.”

To those familiar with Zen teachings, the markedly schematic structure of Halifax’s book and its heavy reliance on abstract concepts may seem at odds with the Zen tradition, which emphasizes the fluidity of experience and warns against the reification of abstract ideas. But Standing at the Edge is not aimed exclusively at Zen practitioners. Rather, it is addressed, in its author’s words, to “those who encounter others’ difficulties and suffering on a daily basis.” To that general audience, which includes almost everyone, Halifax speaks with eloquence, warmth, and hard-won wisdom.

 

Jane Hirshfield 2009

Shizen ichimi, an old Zen saying asserts: “Poetry and Zen are one.” And in the poems of Jane Hirshfield (b. 1953), a leading American poet and longtime Zen practitioner, that adage is borne out in concrete images and recurrent themes. Such is the case in this elegant poem, which hangs on a wall in our home:

                        A CEDARY FRAGRANCE

                       Even now,

                       decades after,

                       I wash my face with cold water –

 

                       Not for discipline,

                       nor memory,

                       nor the icy, awakening slap,

 

                       but to practice

                        choosing

                        to make the unwanted wanted.

 In these lines Hirshfield examines a daily ritual: splashing cold water on her face in the early-morning hours. In so doing, she also articulates several core principles of Zen practice. Continue Reading »

Michael Longley (b. 1939) is the foremost living poet of Northern Ireland. Born and reared in Belfast, he was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, where he studied classics. Although he has traveled widely, he has lived in his native city all his life, and some of his most admired poems address what he has called the “Years of Disgrace”—the thirty-year period of sectarian warfare in twentieth-century Ulster. But Longley’s poetic imagination is most at home in the townland of Carrigskeewaun in Co. Mayo, where he and his wife, the distinguished literary critic Edna Longley, have owned a cottage since 1970. Over the decades, they have regularly returned to their remote retreat, and many of Longley’s most compelling poems are exquisite miniatures, set in the Mayo landscape. Many feature birds and flowers.

Longley’s most recent collection, Angel Hill, includes a poem as remarkable for its diction as for its concentration: Continue Reading »

197. Nothing special

Consider, if you will, the peculiar status of the word special. Whether employed as adjective or noun, the word means distinctive, uncommon, out-of-the-ordinary. Yet the word itself could hardly be more common. On what seems like a weekly basis, retailers announce their Special Offers and Special Sales. For breakfast, some of us eat Special K, which presumably is superior to Regular K. When we go out to dinner to celebrate a special occasion, we are likely to hear at length about that evening’s specials. In some contexts, as in “special needs,” “special effects,” and Special Counsel, the word’s function is chiefly descriptive, but more often it serves to praise, sell, or persuade. If someone calls you a “very special person,” you can safely take it as a compliment. With rare exceptions, both the literal meaning and the connotations of special are reliably, if vaguely, laudatory. Continue Reading »

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Wallace Stevens 1879-1955

In his poem “Sunday Morning,” the modern American poet Wallace Stevens depicts a leisured woman enjoying her late-morning coffee in a sun-drenched room. “She dreams a little,” the narrator notes; and in her reverie she revisits moments of heightened emotional intensity:

            Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;

            Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued

            Elations when the forest blooms; gusty

            Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;

            All pleasures and all pains, remembering

            The bough of summer and the winter branch.

I first read those lines as an undergraduate, some fifty years ago. They have stayed with me over the decades, partly because of their formal beauty but also because they exemplify what the English poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) viewed as a principal aim of the poetic imagination: the “balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities.” In this instance, the qualities being reconciled are the disparate emotional states associated with spring and fall, summer and winter. Passion and its absence, grief and elation, loneliness and excitement, pleasure and pain—all are held in balance in one harmonious whole. Continue Reading »

All conditioned things, Zen teachings tell us, are impermanent. A conditioned thing is a phenomenon that arises from contingent causes and conditions. A pickup truck, a million-dollar home in California, a relationship, thought, or state of mind—all arise from particular causes and conditions;  all are subject to what Zen calls the “law of impermanence.” Continue Reading »