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Posts Tagged ‘bowing’

Bowing to what is

Richard Russo

In Richard Russo’s novel Chances Are . . . (Knopf, 2019), three onetime college friends, now in their mid-sixties, meet for a weekend reunion on Martha’s Vineyard. One of those friends is Mickey Girardi, Jr., who grew up in a “rough, working-class neighborhood in West Haven, Connecticut, famous for bodybuilders, Harleys and ethnic block parties.” A burly motorcyclist and aging rock musician, Mickey is haunted by the memory of his father.

Mickey Girardi, Sr., was a construction worker, an unshakeable patriot, and an unrelenting realist. A veteran of the Second World War, he believed that when “your country calls, you answer.” During the Vietnam War, when Mickey, Jr., received a low lottery number and was about to be drafted, his father conceded that it was “a foolish war” but reminded his son that “you don’t get to hold out for a just one.”  Should Mickey avoid the draft by fleeing to Canada, somebody else would have to “go in [his] place.” He would go himself, he declared, if he weren’t “a middle-aged pipefitter with a bum ticker.” When Mickey, Sr., died suddenly of a heart attack, his death hit his son “like a sledgehammer to the base of the skull.”

Four decades later, as he reflects on this early trauma, Mickey, Jr., comes to a profound realization: “His father’s greatness, what made the man worth emulating, was his ability to love what he’d been given, what had been thrust upon him, what he had little choice but to accept.” Mickey, Sr., had disliked the Army and was not a war hero. What distinguished him and earned his son’s eventual admiration was valor of another kind: his capacity to accept the realities in which he found himself and respond accordingly.

 

Shundo Aoyama Roshi

The attitude embodied in Mickey Girardi, Sr., has much in common with a perspective prominent in Zen teachings. In her book Zen Seeds (Shambhala, 2019), the Japanese Zen teacher Shundo Aoyama Roshi (b. 1933) puts the matter this way:

Happiness that depends on what you acquire or become is only conditional happiness, not true happiness. No matter what happens, it is all right. If you become ill, then just be ill; if you are poor, then just be poor. Unless you accept your present circumstances, happiness cannot be attained. To face any situation and accept it with open arms if it cannot be avoided molds the attitude enabling you to see that such a wonderful way of living is possible. This is indeed something of consequence.

The skeptical reader might take issue with Aoyama’s advice, which runs against the grain of our present-day culture. “If you become ill, then just be ill”? Why not fight the illness, employing every means available? On the face of it, Aoyama’s stance might be mistaken for complacency or a culpable passivity. If the reality being faced is, say, climate change, an attitude of radical acceptance is certainly open to question.

What Aoyama is advocating, however, is not surrender to all the circumstances of one’s life but wholehearted acceptance of those that cannot be avoided. Rather than deny or resist them, we can meet them “with open arms.” Such acknowledgement, difficult enough when circumstances are truly dire, establishes a basis for the even more difficult challenge of accepting what cannot be avoided and is unlikely to change for the better.

Seen in this light, the act of acceptance is anything but passive. On the contrary, it is a positive action, as assertive in its way as the more common responses of denial, rumination, and resistance. And to the extent that acceptance of things as they are is not already reflexive or habitual, as was the case for the pipefitter Mickey Girardi, it may require training and practice.

To that end, there is a Buddhist practice known as “bowing to what is.” Like other forms of bowing in Zen ritual, “bowing to what is” expresses recognition and respect, but in this instance the object of respect is not another person but the reality of the present moment, and the bow is mainly an action of the mind.  It may be accompanied by a nod, such as one might give to a stranger on the street. It may be only an “inner bow.” But whichever form it take, “bowing to what is” can provide a secure foundation for wise and compassionate action. A gesture of humility in the presence of unalterable fact, it is also a way of meeting, with openness and grace, whatever may arise.


His father’s greatness: Richard Russo, Chances Are . . . (Knopf, 2019), Kindle edition, location 3636.

Happiness that depends: Shundo Aoyama Roshi, Zen Seeds (Shambhala, 2019), 13.

Photo of Richard Russo by Camile Gévaudan

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