How to do Everyday Buddhism
Below I have tried to explain my understanding of ”Everyday Buddhism” in a concise paper designed to assist the reader, step by step, to learn what is involved in its practice.
It incorporates the essentials learnt from over ten years of leading retreats. It is aimed at any reader -- student or teacher -- who would like to experience the practice at first hand, and hence includes framed DiY exercises. I have particularly written it for those who have never, and may never, actually attend any of my retreats, and I see it as something of a final endeavour to disseminate what I have been trying to do.
Exercises are offered for you to reflect and meditate on experiences in your life so as to bring a more personal and deeply felt awareness into whatever I am trying to define and describe. Examples may also be found in the paper “New Departures in Dharma Teaching and Practice” by clicking on the miscellaneous papers on this “Everyday Buddhism” page. A list of recommended readings in emotional awareness will be found at the end of this ”How to do” section. The topics included in this section are also variously covered in Talk One to Talk Eight on this “Everyday Buddhism” page, and usually in greater detail.
Everyday Buddhism is not a new kind of Buddhism, but is hospitable to most Buddhist traditions. The Zen slant in these papers is no more than a reflection of my own practice. Everyday Buddhism is simply a style of Buddhist practice arguably better adapted to the culture and conditions of the times in which we live, as compared with more traditional, monastically derived practices.
My version of Everyday Buddhism owes much to the pioneers whose books will be found at the end of this section, and whose work I gratefully acknowledge. What I have learnt from them and others I have endeavoured to put into practice leading retreats through which I have evolved the teaching offered below.
Whilst acknowledging the value of formal sitting meditation, Everyday Buddhism emphasises the importance of awareness, and particularly emotional awareness in the body, (following the ancient tradition of satipatthana) in the ups-and-downs of everyday life. The self as the focus of study and meditation is central to Everyday Buddhism, as in virtually all Buddhist traditions. To become familiar with one’s unique emotional furniture and to trace the trajectory of one’s lifelong but futile struggle to sustain a secure and solid sense of self is the major task outlined below.
“Everyday Buddhism” is here, on this page, concerned exclusively with the canonical Buddhism of the textbooks and the Dharma talks. I have reserved socially engaged Buddhism for separate treatment, for the following reason.
Any concern with “suffering and the way out of suffering” must surely address the suffering created by social relations. There is the suffering of both the exploited and dispossessed, and the suffering of the alienated and discontented in the face of social injustice, war and environmental desecration. The canonical Buddhism derived from ancient Asian cultures has, however, no concept of social justice or any significant tradition of social protest, and nothing comparable to contemporary social theory.
Countering this is the socially engaged Buddhism developed in the late twentieth century in both the West and in Asia. This includes movements of social protest and, rather less articulated, for radical social change. There has also been some interest in developing social theories derived from, and interpreting, canonical Buddhism.
In all this there has been a strong and taken-for-granted liberal or socialist orientation. There may be canonical warranty for this but by no means all Buddhists would accept it. It is for this reason I have moved socially engaged Buddhism to a separate page on this site. Canonical Buddhism should be hospitable to all, regardless of social and political orientation.
1 The Question of Meditation
Buddhist practice for our contemporary lifestyle
The predominant practice inherited by typical Western Buddhists appears to be a formal sitting meditation derived from full-time monastic specialists. This is commonly accompanied by a mindful awareness of everyday behaviours. However, helpful though this is, it lacks the transformative power of an awareness practice deeply rooted in the project of the self.
There is also a praiseworthy attempt to uphold the moral precepts. However, this is customarily a strongly willed endeavour in which an anxious neediness to be good and right may be concealed. I believe that what is more required is a contemplative awareness which can lead to the ripening of a natural and spontaneous goodness.
Please take time to consider what your present practice actually involves
There are three problems to do with traditional meditation in the context of a Western lifestyle.
In the first place, in our individualistic high achievement culture there is a tendency to view meditation as a technology designed to produce a radical life transformation. You invest time and money and expect results. This is a kind of spiritual consumerism, wherein the acquisitive self is actually strengthened instead of freed from its delusions.
Secondly, several Buddhist teachers have observed that there tends to be a poor carry-over from meditation to everyday behaviour. Resolving your koan on Sunday doesn’t necessarily better equip you to resolve a problem with an angry boss on Monday.
Thirdly, one or two week-long monastic style retreats a year, plus a half hour daily meditation, don’t provide a sufficient momentum to turn your life around. You return next year to get back to where you were the previous year.
What is required is a Buddhist practice which uses the everyday life styles which monastics see as a hindrance. By a sustained emotional awareness-in-the-body Everyday Buddhism can “turn straw into gold”.
Freed of the above corruptions and limitations meditation remains of major importance as an emotional awareness practice centred on our attachments to the self. This is not easy, since everything this self of ours does is aimed at aggrandising and enhancing its sense of identity and purpose. For a start this means revising the whole conceptual vocabulary of what we are up to in the meditation hall, and dissipating the miasma of expectation which too often clouds it. (For more on this, click on Unlearning Meditation).
It is particularly important not to see our meditation as an anxious struggle to will away thoughts as pernicious intruders disrupting “authentic” meditation. To do so actually strengthens our goal-oriented sense of purpose. So long as we are aware of our day dreaming it ceases to be day dreaming. Moreover some thoughts which arise may have something useful to say, such as the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.
Inquiry into the calmed mind
Another concern to bear in mind in meditation is the need to make some distinction, however minimal, between the two dimensions of samatha (mind calming, serenity) and vipassana (inquiry, illumination). Even in the practice of “just sitting” (“silent illumination”, shikan taza), where these two dimensions seem most closely combined there needs to be some explicit awareness of each. Thus the great twelfth century Chan master Hongzhi observed that “if illumination neglects serenity then aggressiveness appears … If serenity neglects illumination, murkiness leads to wasted Dharma.” Ajahn Chah, a celebrated teacher in the Thai forest monastery tradition, remarked that some of us are more skilled in one, others in the other, but he reassured his students not to be anxious about this, since a weakness in one dimension could be compensated by a strength in the other. Which way round are you ?
Meditation is a bodily yoga. The basic position is important, whether on chair or cushion The vertebrae should stack up straight upon a slightly forward tilted pelvis; chin in, eyes (lidded if possible) at forty-five degrees. Gently locked in place, this can be a very relaxed sitting position. In its long struggle to feel secure the self can embody a lot of tenseness. So, to settle down, turn your awareness to areas of tension, dropping the shoulders, letting out the belly, allowing the breathing to be natural, and so on.
It is usually best to begin with an all-body awareness check, and then give some time for the mind to settle down into bare awareness of just whatever is being experienced. Awareness of the body can provide an anchor for attention and stronger attention foci are available, of which awareness of, and counting, the breaths are the most common. As the mind quietens some gentle enquiry can be ventured. This should resemble the playful cast of an angler’s rod, and should avoid falling into any kind of analysis. The self, if not quietened enough, is all too ready to get back and take charge ! One helpful emotional awareness practice is gently to enquire “How does it feel?”
2 Understanding this self of yours
Please take some time to reflect on the kind of “stories” which you tend to tell yourself about yourself, about what sort of person you are.
When I have used the above exercise on retreats, virtually all the participants have referred to a strong sense of personal inadequacy or lack as shaping their dominant story. Each was surprised and moved to discover that they shared much the same feelings with everyone else there.
What is the origin of this sense of existential inadequacy which marks our human condition ? Let us go back to Buddhist basics. First there are the Three Signs of Being: Impermanence and Insubstantiality (of the self and of all phenomena), and personal Suffering. In the face of these the fearful self struggles somehow to find a solid and enduring identity, and a freedom from the pain caused by the lack of it. These struggles, cumulated down the centuries, have kept our world ablaze, as the Buddha exclaimed in his famous Fire Sermon: “All is burning …burning with the fire of greed, with the fire of hate, with the fire of delusion.”
That great twentieth century sage Krishnamurti once strode onto the stage before a large and expectant audience. He raised his arm and displayed the gap in his open hand between his thumb and his index finger. “Ladies and gentlemen, all the miseries of the world are to be found in that gap !” He displayed the misery created by desire and aversion -- Desire which can never be adequately satisfied to bring peace to the needy self, and aversion to what can never be adequately evaded. Or, as the Zen saying has it, we are all fleas on the hot griddle of life: the fleas that jump must fall and the fleas that fall must jump. Each of us has evolved our own unique pattern of feelings, thoughts, and behaviours to shape our lives in an attempt somehow to adapt to this predicament. Our griefs, afflictions and discomfitures can range from losing our dearest, losing the respect of friends and co-workers, to losing our bunch of keys or getting tooth ache.
If we feel able to understand and accept the above explanation of the predicament of the self and its typical response we have the opportunity to shift away from our identification with it. When misfortune strikes, even if it sends us reeling, we can recover ourselves and find some distance and recognition of the process to which we are subject. In short, we are ready to begin the potentially liberative practice of emotional awareness.
The Buddha diagnosed the cause of “suffering” (dukkha) as the inevitable failure to sustain a solid and enduring sense of self, and other great teachers have all focussed attention on the self as lying at the heart of Buddhist practice. It is unprofitable to get entangled in the ancient debate as in what sense there is, and is not, a self. It is more helpful to understand the self as a process, as explained in the skandha theory of Buddhist psychology.
At birth, each of us is dealt a different hand in the extent and character of our self-neediness. At one extreme it may be so acute as to translate into a psychotic condition. At the other are those who appear to have been born at ease with themselves and others. They are the easy people to work with, because they do not burn with the smoke of a self-centred agenda which obscures the task in hand and which has to be negotiated before the task can readily be addressed. The majority lie somewhere between these two extremes. Given favourable conditions they somehow get by for the most part and for some of the time. There are also the relatively few who undertake a spiritual search, because somehow just getting by is not good enough or even tolerable. I recall it was Jung who observed that to seriously to commit to a spiritual practice it was necessary to be something of a neurotic…
Our Authentic Nature
So far, however, this presentation of the self, as it stands, is surely deeply inadequate. For example, in our impulse to help another in distress we are surely not invariably and solely moved by self interest (or, as David Brandon put it, in his classic book “Zen and the Art of Helping”, “the only way I can let you know I need your help is to insist on helping you”). The helper may, no less, be moved spontaneously by a compassionate fellow-feeling rather than by a hungry need to inflate the self.
For the most part our motives may be mixed and problematic. The self may in part act out of delusion but at the same time as an authentic manifestation of self. The latter refers to what is variously called “Buddha Mind”, “Original Mind”, “Big Mind” though I prefer to use the term “Authentic Self”.
An emotion is not in itself necessarily good or bad. The anger we feel at the ill-treatment of another is surely a “righteous” response to a particular situation. This is different from the anger experienced when we feel affronted, diminished or otherwise denied in our self-identity. Secondly, it would be a mistake to assume there are two selves at war within us, a top dog and a bottom dog. There is only this one self. When it is moved to a delusive rage or any other negative feeling this is the same self that also has the potential to behave selflessly. Thus it is said that “the passions are our Buddha Nature”. Thich Nhat Hanh explains as follows
Treat your anger with the utmost respect and tenderness because it is no other than yourself. Do not suppress it; simply be aware of it. Awareness is like the sun. When it shines on things they are transformed. If you destroy anger you destroy the Buddha, for Buddha and Mara [the Evil One] are of the same essence. Mindfully dealing with anger is like taking the hand of a little brother.
Please try this exercise. Select some situation in your life which is important to you, such as a relationship, and meditate and reflect on how far your feelings, thoughts and behaviours in this situation come forth from the delusive and needy aspect of your self and how far from the selfless, other-centred aspect. This you will probably find difficult. What is valuable here, however, is the exploration itself, rather than coming up with some kind of apportionment. You may also like to explore further, in the spirit of the above quotation, and try to make yourself intimate and dispassionate with your negative feelings in your chosen situation.
The Two Arrows
Buddhism is not a spiritual anaesthetic for the pain of a broken leg or a broken heart. Buddha did not teach the way out of pain but the way out of dukkha, rather misleadingly translated as “suffering”. In the Sigalavada Sutta he explains that when misfortune strikes we commonly experience what we feel to be a single sensation – “pain”. In fact there are two feelings: first there is physical or emotional pain, but, secondly, there is also how we respond to that pain. For example it is well known that by changing our emotional response to a physical pain we can modify its acuteness. There are many common examples of the working of the two arrows, as in a hospital ward where all the patients broadly speaking experience the same pain, but the range of responses may vary widely, from abject depression to a cheerful concern for others.
Can you recall any experience of this kind from your own life ?
The two arrows are important to bear in mind in emotional awareness practice since it is our distanced and conscious awareness of our response to the painful experience that is crucial, as opposed to being heedlessly engulfed by the sensation itself.
Dukkha and Evasion
When affliction strikes we seek somehow to avoid it, each with our favourite evasions. For some it is escape into denial, anger, self pity or blame --“It’s all your fault!” The denial may be masked by attempts at somehow rationalising our misfortune, “being sensible about it”, concentrating our attention on the circumstances “out there” and all the other resorts of our contemporary “I can fix it” culture. Finally there is a wide choice of addictions available – sex, shopping, getting drunk on a wide range of mind changing substances, and busyness – ticking off the lists and complaining about not having enough time. Nowadays we can rectify a great many things that “go wrong”. A good mechanic can keep our car on the road. Likewise, a good behavioural therapist can enable us to get on better with running our life. However, it is we alone who can remedy what is ultimately “wrong” with our human condition itself.
As David Brandon remarked, “swallowing a long kebab of roles, actions and thoughts only temporarily fills my emptiness.” The self is insatiable and herein lies the origin of dukkha – suffering arising from frustrated evasion.
Recalling specific incidents, what would you say are your favourite mental and emotional evasions when what has gone wrong cannot be objectively and adequately remedied “out there"? How satisfactory have you found them?
Our lifelong unwinnable lawsuit against reality
This was how Hubert Benoit, an interesting French writer on Zen, characterised the unique trajectory of each of our lives. It is a poignant metaphor well worth pondering.
As a useful inner adventure why not reflect, on a sheet of paper, how your lawsuit has progressed so far ?
What have been the underlying emotional needs that have driven your life – and with how much anxious neediness? Please focus on the inner experience, whilst at the same time noting both the objective conditions which may have affected you. Avoid overmuch intellectual analysis, preferring a loose, playful and meditative kind of inquiry. Most difficult of all, how far do you feel your life has been shaped by self-neediness and how far by manifestation of your authentic self ?
Pay attention not only to the emotional impulsions driving and shaping your life, and the possible psychosomatic implications. Also our emotional needs can powerfully shape our cognitive landscape, ranging from what we think about ourselves to the many different “stories” we tell ourselves about the world (with plenty of gratuitous help from our culture and, above all, the mass media). The Buddha gave considerable prominence to the role of ”views” in the shaping of each self. You may like to recall and reflect on your own as prompted by the following questions:
1 What are the strongest views I hold in my life (fixed opinions, attitudes, positions)?
2 What feelings, emotions, maybe even bodily sensations lie beneath my expressions of these views?
3 Do I sometimes exaggerate the evidence I hold for my views?
4 Why is it so important for me to win the argument?
5 What might I learn from the other’s views?
Now consider all of the foregoing - emotional, cognitive and behavioural -- in the different spheres of your life -- family, intimate relationships, the place of friends and friendship; your career, work place and the like; and your choice of leisure activities and what might lie behind it. Finally, attempt to characterise your overall life style, and reflect on why it is as it is.
How have your inner life, and its outward manifestations, unfolded over the years? Have there been any particularly instructive and revealing episodes?
The above can be a slow and difficult exercise, but also a rewarding one. In particular it can help you, in your emotional awareness practice, to focus more clearly on crucial areas of your emotional life.
3 How to Spin Gold out of Straw
We can now pass from the Buddha’s diagnosis of the human condition to his remedy. Increasingly in recent years this has been seen as the practice of an “Everyday Buddhism” centring upon a round-the-clock emotional awareness. This originates in the ancient practice of satipattana or mindfulness. In the last decade “mindfulness” has become a mainstream cultural phenomenon in the West, applied in many different walks of life, including a ”feel good” practice alongside yoga, regular visits to the gym, and other fashionable lifestyle components, far removed from our concerns here.
“May all sorrows ripen in me”
So proclaimed the great bodhisattva Shantideva. An ongoing endeavour in the practice of all Buddhist traditions and, indeed, of most inner-path spiritualities, has been to ingrain in ourselves a positive attitude to all the misfortunes visited upon us. Thus, in the Tibetan tradition: ”Grant that I may be given appropriate difficulties and sufferings on this journey so that my heart may be truly awakened.”
Here is Hubert Benoit’s forceful explanation: “If an humiliating experience turns up, offering me a marvellous chance of initiation, at once my mind strives to conjure up what appears to me to be in danger. It does everything to restore me to that habitual state of satisfied arrogance in which I find a transitory respite, but also the certainty of further distress. In short, I constantly defend myself against that which offers to save me; foot by foot I fight to defend the very source of my unhappiness.”
This, by the Persian Sufi poet Rumi, is particularly eloquent:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all
even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture.
Still treat each guest honourably;
he may be clearing you out
for a new delight.
Such dynamic acceptance lies at the heart of all existential liberation. Yet it runs head-on against our deeply ingrained habit of evasion – “if only it were otherwise”. Sometimes we only become truly broken hearted, the open hearted warrior, when we hit rock bottom, and realise that further evasion is no longer possible.
How to Cultivate Emotional Awareness
This practice should be applied whenever an affliction strikes home. Ah, that second arrow ! Or whenever you’re moved to check in. “Knock-knock ! Who’s there ?” And if it’s something you can fix, a clear mind will fix it better.
As a steady round-the-clock practice, select some ongoing difficulty, affliction or pain in your life. It may range from some persistent irritation (like the domestic untidiness of your partner) to something much deeper (like a haunting sense of guilt). Susan Murphy, a remarkable Australian Zen Master, urges as follows:
What is the sharpest fact in your life right now ? Take a moment to consider your most haunting terror, your most persistent aggravation or relentless criticism of yourself, or a deep pain you have taken upon yourself. Feel it in your body. That terror, aggravation, shame or sadness is your dearest enemy… All your creative power for the Way is to be found right there… So turning that way is turning toward your true freedom… Such is the blessing to be found in a curse.
As a preliminary exploration, why not try the following?
Think of a difficulty, affliction or pain in your life. As you sense this affliction, how does it feel, and how affect your body ? Holding the feeling carefully, begin to ask yourself these questions, listening inwardly for their answers.
1 How have I emotionally responded to this affliction so far, and how have I suffered from my response and reaction to it?
2 What does this problem ask me to let go of?
3 What difficulties, if any, am I having with becoming deeply aware of my emotional response to this affliction?
The essence of emotional awareness practice is to become intimately aware of how the pain feels – and particularly how it feels in the body. This is a psychosomatic practice. Bring your attention to where the feeling is seated, as in the flushed face, the increased heart beat, the tightened belly, the clenched fists of anger. Breath your awareness into that space (itself a healing practice). What colour is it ? (I have always felt self-pity to be blue). And even, is there a distinctive smell about it ?
There are many different ways to go deep into how it feels. When the mind quietens on your cushion, there is the gentle enquiry to yourself (or to a partner, changing roles every five or ten minutes): “Tell me, how does it feel ?”
Different approaches seem to suit different practitioners, according to personality and inclination. Keeping a journal dedicated to the practice works well for some. And on retreats working together in pairs or small groups can be helpful.
Here is a forthright advocacy from Pema Chodron, one of the many distinguished teachers and writers on emotional awareness.
If you grab every opportunity to work with your mind – at home, at school, at work – you’ll end up with more chances to work with strong emotions than in one hour of sitting on your cushion with some vague idea of ‘meditation’. In fact, your practice of working directly with your mind moment to moment will be much more powerful, because it will really change your mainstream. When you recognise an emotion with mindfulness, and penetrate it with some recognition of the nature of mind, that process is self-transforming. There’s nothing more you need to do. When you can work with your mind in this way, you will clearly see its effect, not just in you, but in your environment – on your family and on your community.
4 Faith, Suchness and Liberation
Faith in Suchness
“Suchness” (or “thusness”) is a mode of experience free from the delusive compulsion to try to make less painful, or more desirable, something felt by an existentially needy self. Suchness arises from the dynamic acceptance of whatever we may experience, desirable or otherwise. Such acceptance lies at the heart of all inner path spiritualities. I have added “dynamic” to distinguish “acceptance” from any sense of abject compromise. For this is, in fact, the most profound liberative experience that is possible. Sustained emotional awareness practice cultivates an intense and focussed psychosomatic experience of our feelings which slowly dissolves our “if only it were otherwise” mentality.
Suchness lies at the heart of spiritual experience. It is the major theme of the great Chan scripture the “Xinxinming” (“Hsin Hsin Ming”). “When you are not attached to anything, all things are as they are”...“The infinitely small is as large as the infinitely great”…”One thing is all things.”
Buddhist schools customarily postulate a hierarchy of levels of insight. Common to them all is a shift from the level of “belief” (in the sense of something which the self has acquired) to an experience which occurs when the self opens to some greater reality (or “Big Mind” as it is called in Zen), whether suddenly or gradually. This shift I shall term “faith” (notwithstanding possible misleading connotations).
Doubtless over the years all regular meditators experience a change whereby the sharp acute angle of the enquiring self gradually opens to a widening inclusiveness as its neediness thins out. This process not infrequently opens up to “unity consciousness” insights, whereby the practitioner feels the oneness of self and all that is other. “Higher”, in Zen, is that pearl of rare price, kensho, or “enlightenment”, when “body and mind are dropped off.” This, however, occurs rarely and, it appears, without any obvious consequence of the meditation skill or length of practice. In fact, it can strike individuals of no spiritual practice or experience at all, much to their puzzlement.
Nonetheless, however it comes about, the ripening of suchness is evidently the watershed experience in spiritual awakening, and has been termed the point at which “the real practice” begins, when we are freed from Blake’s “mind forged manacles”. The solid sense of self begins to dissolve, and its boundaries begin to thin out. The great contemporary Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki was explicit about this: “If you have great faith and great acceptance there is no need to worry about enlightenment. This may come along sometime as an optional extra; it doesn’t matter.” I can still recall my shock several decades ago, when profoundly attached to gaining the prize of enlightenment, I discovered that the great Zen Master Dogen had proclaimed that Zen Buddhism is the Buddhism of faith.
Let us explore the implications of suchness for our everyday lives.
First, try out the “If only” experiment. Recall some problem in your life where you typically feel “if only it were different”. Like, “if only I’d married somebody else”; “If only I’d kept my big mouth shut!”; ”If only I didn’t feel so ill.” Try easing yourself into how it might feel to drop the gnawing desire that things should be different. How would it feel to accept wholeheartedly that, for “better” or “worse” this in fact is how it is ?
The following examples may help in sensing how suchness feels.
Seen over a Chan temple arch in Hong Kong: “There is no time, what is memory?” The self yearns for permanence and solidity. But our past has passed. Diaries and photographs exist only in the present. So do our future appointments. And the present disappears no sooner than it has arrived. Each of us is ageless – in the thusness of being just how we are, in the here and now.
As to another significant person in our life, David Brandon wrote: ”If only I could throw away my urge to trace my patterns in your heart.” What we feel is whom we see and what we feel about them. We see them in our light, not their’s. If we see them in their suchness, of a sudden out of the corner of our eye, it can be a startling experience. Thus did Zen Master Dogen explain “Every creature covers the ground it stands on; no more nor no less, it never falls short of its completeness”.
And what of ourself, with all its weaknesses and inadequacies ? Loving oneself can surely be the most difficult of all loves – and the precondition for truly loving others. And what a burden is lifted if we find we can do so, and to discover that we do not fall into a loathsome heap !
Note: “Suchness” (tathata) is synonymous with “emptiness” in Mahayana philosophy. It can offer a useful
experiential entry point to that elusive concept.
The literature of all the “mysticisms” bears witness to the joyful sense of release from the bondage of the futile struggle to make life accord with our desires and aversions. It is a liberation into an unconstrained playfulness, freed of taking ourselves too seriously.
With this cleansing of Blake’s “windows of perception” phenomena are revealed in a refreshing vividness. They are no longer blurred and clouded by a self which finds the beauty of a sunset “painful” because of its transience, which forlornly many hope to fix in a photo.
This is the joy of self truly at ease, the slow opening to wisdom ripened over many years of practice, whatever might have been the momentary insights, great and small, along the way which have assisted the embedding of that ease. Yet neither is it some kind of spiritual terminus: “The Buddha is still practising with us” as is said in Zen.
Phenomena viewed through the eyes of suchness, beyond this and that, good and bad, are experienced as being inherently okay. Whether for Juliana of Norwich or T.S. Eliot “all things are well, all manner of things are well.” This is indeed true. Yet also it is surely not so. Nonetheless in all religious traditions there have been sages who have remained trapped in this bliss, and never come down from the mountain to the market place. Buddhism in particular has been reproached for this mystical quietism. Even that great Chan scripture the Xinxinming (“Trust in the Heart”) is flawed in this respect – as in the half-truth “Profit and loss, good and bad, away with them once and for all!”
Welcome, then to the Two Truths. There is indeed the timeless time of suchness, but no less is there the pain of fleeting time. And of a person, it might well be said of them, as Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki said to one of his students “You’re doing fine as you are, but [equally] you could do with some improvement.” And we might say the same of ourselves. Moreover the television news hardly suggests that everything is okay with the world. On the contrary, it is now more fiercely ablaze than in the Buddha’s Fire Sermon.
The Two Truths (that are “the One” of ”form” and “emptiness”) constitute, of course, a paradox – at least to the logical mind). However it was Jung who reminded us that paradox is essential to spiritual truth. And so inner wisdom implies the outward compassion of the bodhisattva ideal If totally freed of self-concern, what else is there to occupy us except a selfless concern for the well-being of others ?. This is the familiar world of fixing this and that, and choosing between one thing or another. And yet it is not, for in it we are no longer driven by a self-need, but, on the contrary, are drawn by the neediness of our fellow creatures and our Earth. We work for their betterment not for the subtle self-gratification of success (or at least for some results), but because they need us. And so there is here a lightness of being, a playfulness, which is the mark of an authentic spirituality. Things may be hopeless, but not dispiriting; unjust, but not hateful; beautiful, but not desirable; loathsome, but not rejected (a saying adapted from R.H.Blyth).
So the bodhisattvas, it is said, go down into hell to relieve the inmates’ sufferings as if they were sauntering through a fairground. And of our own desperate times Oscar Wilde remarked that the world is in too big a mess to be taken seriously.
Here is a wonderful, ultimate koan which encapsulates all of the above:
Traveller, fare thee well !
A summary of how to respond to the great and small afflictions of everyday life
First, when either blinded by an emotion as deep as grief or as mild as some small discomfiture, try to step back and not to identify with it. Recall the distinction between the first arrow which has struck you (the fact of pain), and the second (which is how you actually feel your pain and think about it). Feel the pain rather than being it.
Secondly, do not believe all those stories you keep telling yourself about yourself.
Thirdly, can you sense the suchness, the just-how-it-isness of your misfortune ? Doing so makes it easier to accept misfortune more positively, as potentially the road to a hitherto inconceivable liberation of spirit.
Fourthly, sit quietly with your pain. Allow it to flow into your still mind. Become intimate with it – emotionally, in its bodily feeling, and in what you are thinking about it – the stories you are telling yourself about yourself.
Man was made for joy and woe;
And when this we rightly know
Through the world we safely go.
Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine.
Under every grief and pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.
(William Blake: “Auguries of Innocence”)
Down to the Roots; Straight to the Heart --
Some Recommended Readings on Emotional Awareness
Ezra BAYDA Being Zen: Bringing Meditation to Life Shambhala 2003 £11.99 (This and the following one are strongly recommended)
Ezra BAYDA At Home in the Muddy Water 2004 Shambhala 2004 £9.99
VAJRAGUPTA Buddhism: Tools for Living your Life. Windhorse, 2007 £10.99. (British, aimed at beginners, but with a wide scope and lots of DiY exercises
Darlene COHEN Turning Suffering Inside Out: A Zen Approach to Living with Emotional and Physical Pain Shambhala, 2002. £12.99 (Outstanding --quirky, outrageous, wise and unputdownable !)
Jack KORNFIELD Bringing Home the Dharma: Awakening Right Where You are. Shambhala, 2011 (still only in hardback).More advanced (but not to be missed) is his 400 page book The Wise Heart (Rider, 2008) – a veritable treasure house of. Buddhist practice.
Jon KABAT-ZINN Mindfulness Meditation for Everyday Life Piatkus 1994. £9.99
Susan MURPHY Upside-Down Zen – Finding the Marvellous in the Ordinary. Wisdom, 2006. Highly insightful and poetic approach which usefully complements Bayda and Kornfield.
Donald ROTHBERG The Engaged Spiritual Life: A Buddhist Approach to Transforming Ourselves and the World. Beacon Press, 2006. Powerful and closely written, with lots of useful exercises.
John WELWOOD, ed. Ordinary Magic: Everyday Life as Spiritual Path. Shambhala 1992. (35 extracts)
Please buy from your local independent bookshop or from the Buddhist mail order service Wisdom Books, www.wisdom-books.com ;25 Stanley Road, Ilford, Essex, IG1 1RW (tele. 0208 553 5020), It is also worth bearing in mind that any of these books can be obtained for you by your local public library, so long as you are willing to wait and to pay a small charge. Please be ecologically and socially aware and avoid Amazon and the big chain bookshops!