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I once had a neighbor who rarely stopped complaining, chiefly about his ailments. On one day it was his allergies, on another his asthma. On rare occasions, when his body was being relatively compliant, his monologues might briefly turn to other matters, but sooner rather than later they came back to his maladies. He seemed incapable of changing the subject.

However pronounced, my neighbor’s habit of mind was not all that unusual. The activity of complaining is as embedded in human nature as the verb describing it is in the English language. Complain derives from the Latin plangere, which means “to lament or bewail.” From the same root come plaintive, plangent, and of course complaint.  If you are of a certain age, you may recall that physical afflictions and disorders, which are now euphemistically called “issues,” were once known as complaints. There were back complaints, neck complaints, stomach complaints, and many more. Some were real, others imagined. All caused the sufferer to complain, which is say, lament, often to no avail.

In popular culture, the practice of Zen is sometimes perceived as a remedy for complaints, physical and emotional.  Some years ago, as I was arriving at my chiropractor’s office for my appointment, I ran into a longtime friend, who was just leaving. “What’s a Zen master like you doing in a place like this?” he jokingly asked. Underlying his good-natured question, I suspect, was the notion that meditative practice can magically cure the ills that flesh is heir to—or, failing that, enable the practitioner to rise above pain and suffering. Unfortunately, the converse is more often the case. Zen practice is about awakening to reality, not escaping from it.  By curbing the habit of mental wandering and by fostering the disciplines of “stopping and looking,” Zen practice enhances our awareness of our sensations, pleasant and unpleasant, even as they are arising. That awareness can warn us of serious problems in need of treatment, but in my experience it does little to relieve present pain. If you are looking to Zen for a mental or physical analgesic, you would be well-advised to look elsewhere.

What Zen practice does offer, however, is a way of responding, wisely and compassionately, to whatever pains we may incur. In at least four fundamental ways, the practice can enable us to see our lives more clearly and respond accordingly.

First and most important, even ten minutes of meditation a day can reveal the difference between raw physical pain, which is inevitable, and reactive emotional suffering, which is not.  Pain, whatever its origin, is what happens to us; emotional suffering is what we add to the pain, often as a result of our resistance. By paying close attention to our immediate experience, we can learn to recognize that resistance as separate and distinct. And we can endeavor to let it go.

Second, as we come to know our own minds through daily meditation, we can observe the mind’s unceasing urge to generalize, extrapolate, and speculate: to envision dire outcomes and often to fear the worst. Brought under mindful scrutiny, this catastrophizing tendency loses much of its force and power. It, too, can be noted, duly acknowledged, and allowed to dissipate of its own accord.

Third, Zen meditation heightens our awareness of impermanence, including the impermanence of our everyday discomforts. In Zen teachings this dimension of our experience is known as “emptiness”: all conditioned things, including our aches and pains, are empty of inherent existence. Chronic they may be, but they are also insubstantial. To recognize that fact will not take our pains away, but it can help us to endure them.

And last, the compulsion to complain can be met and counterbalanced by what Zen calls the “practice of gratitude,” which is to say, the active cultivation of that quality in our daily lives. “Grateful for my life, I breathe in. / Grateful for my life, I breathe out.”  Whatever our religious beliefs or absence thereof, stopping at least once during the day to offer gratitude for our lives in general and certain aspects of them in particular can be a powerful, countervailing force against reflexive complaining. Words, it’s true, are only words, but if repeated on a daily basis, words of gratitude can have a profound impact on the ways we think and feel.

That impact can be deepened, I might add, if the words are accompanied by the now-uncommon practice of bowing—even if, in the words of the American poet W.S. Merwin, one is “bowing not knowing to what.” Should you choose to explore this practice, you may find that it is nearly impossible to bow in gratitude and complain of one’s infirmities at the same time. The one action precludes the other. For that reason alone, the practice of gratitude is a potent antidote to the habit of complaint.

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Cartoon: Mike Baldwin / Cornered

W. S. Merwin, “For the Anniversary of My Death”

 

 

 

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