What do you do when faced with great difficulties and challenges? Zen teacher John Tarrant, Roshi, PhD, offers these seven guidelines for taking advantage of difficulties and surprises in life, and making the most of them.
Zen Student: “When times of great difficulty visit us, how should we greet them?”
The new world looks surprisingly like the old one, except that it’s different. A few years ago, housing prices fell off a cliff and mortgages went underwater. Today, the hardware store is still quiet and the busy suburban hairdresser is empty on a Friday. Phobia about spending makes other people phobic too—a great university declares a hiring freeze, and a clinic is threatened with shutting down because it can’t afford to replace a receptionist who earns $9.00 an hour. The construction sites have filled with water and the bulldozers are silent.
We are now in the new world. In the new world, winter is still cold, summer is still warm, bread, cheese, pickled onion, and a glass of ale is still a ploughman’s lunch, the sky still has windows of translucent distance at sunset after rain, and a wet dog still smells like a wet dog. Perhaps it’s fine in the new world. Perhaps we don’t have to waste this crisis in wailing and gnashing our teeth.
“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” said White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. “And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”
Not wasting the crisis might mean finding happiness without having to change the outer circumstances. If we are at risk of being blown up, well, today is a good day to be happy. If we are poor, the same. If we now have to drive little cars like they do in Sydney or Paris, well, what’s wrong with that?
The beginning of being fine is noticing how things really are, and in my case this comes from having a practice, from meditating, from noticing life without blame or outrage, or fear, and if there is blame, outrage, or fear, noticing that without blame, outrage, or fear. With such noticing, compassion enters.
1. Life Is Uncertain, Surprises Are Likely
Consciousness works by making maps, and there is always a gap between our maps and the territory of our lives. A surprise is a landscape feature that was not on my map. I have an idea I am one kind of person, with, say, a bank account, but it turns out I am another kind of person, without a bank account. Surprises are common and an indication you are alive. I grew up with people who remembered the First World War; it started in August, 1914, and everyone thought it would be over by Christmas. Instead it led to a century of wars. Wars do that. At the time, that was a surprise. After the war, there was the influenza epidemic—another surprise that took millions of lives. There have been positive surprises too. Vaccines were invented, banishing polio, saving my life, and antibiotics, also saving my life.
Our representations are fragile and based on poor data. The mind assigns value to events, saying, “This is good” and “This is bad,” but the values we give things are usually just arm-waving and scrambling about. The world is truly unpredictable in its consequences and our reactions to events are also unpredictable, even if we have a deep meditation practice.
We can make an ally of surprise. Meditation methods are not intended to make the world predictable, but they provide a space in which we can have our reactions without fighting with ourselves. And in the end, meditation resets the maps and opinions to zero. It overcomes the problem of James Joyce’s Mr. Duffy, who "lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances."
Meditation is one thing we know that does work. When we meditate, there is nothing else in the world, and whatever we have is enough.
2. If You Are Alive, That’s Good; Lower the Bar
In any predicament, you can notice that you are alive. Considering the vastness of the universe, this is an unlikely event and you can rejoice and take delight in this occurrence. Happiness is not really related to having a bank account; if it were, most of the world would be doomed to being unhappy. I have a friend who, for reasons mostly unrelated to foresight, drew her money out before the financial crash. I also have a friend who saw it coming and made money from it. I have another friend whose investment advisor put all his money in Bernard Madoff’s ponzi scheme and presumably lost it. I asked this last friend what the symptoms of money loss were, and he left a voicemail: “Well, I have a previously unsuspected interest in cooking and in fixing up the kitchen. And sometimes I wake in the middle of the night and my left leg is twitching. That’s about it.” When you really look at what your situation is, it is not what you might have thought. My friend who lost his money is not visibly unhappier than the other friends.
The hard bits of life might not be the ones you are dreading. The good bits might be the ones that are always available—a slant of light through the garden and then the rain, running inside to get dry, cooking for friends, the sound of a bird in the early morning when you can’t get back to sleep, the act of impulsively giving something away when you have almost nothing. When you are present in your own life, it extends infinitely in every direction.
3. In a Dark Place, You Still Have What Really Counts
The beauty and nobility of your life may be more visible to you if a dark contrast is available. A woman who was meditating with the koan at the start of this piece—the little conversation about hard times and Welcome—was in an unusual situation. Her father was prosecuted for the murder of her mother, a death that happened decades ago and for which no resolution has been found. No one close to the situation believes her father did this. But someone with a grudge, and hearsay evidence, and a relative with dementia, and an eager prosecutor… If it’s a cliché that a prosecutor can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich, it becomes personal when you are related to the ham sandwich.
The woman with the meditation practice noticed something unexpected, though—she is happy, she’s not outraged, and although people expect and even want her to be angry with the prosecutor, that is not what she feels. She gave counsel to her father, and sympathy, and money for defense lawyers, but she didn’t have to give her own emotional well-being. The intensity of the difficulty actually drove her to deeper practice and the world suddenly became very beautiful, not at an unspecified future date, when the situation would be resolved, but now, when nothing is resolved, or fair, or sensible—now, when it’s now. Even the prosecutor’s face glowed with light. “No one told me it would be like this,” she said. Awakening might happen at any time, perhaps especially when we are convinced that something else is going on. That’s a positive surprise, a benign catastrophe.
4. If You Are in a Predicament, There Will Be a Gate
In the main, koans are predicaments that you can use in case you don’t have one lying around in your life. Usually, of course, you do have a predicament, since being human is a predicament. I might think that it’s a bad thing to have lost something, but if I start from the current situation there will always be a doorway. When I meditate, it’s like calling out a spell in a forgotten language. The spell slowly traces the outlines of a door, making the way out visible, even in twilight, even in the darkest, most forgotten prison. When we lose money or get a diagnosis, we might decide that this is a bad thing, but we might be wrong. Uncertainty and the unknown are not things to endure; they are things to rely on. If you don’t even consider winning or losing, there will always be a doorway.
When I had cancer, I thought it might be inconvenient or frightening, but it was interesting. It made me a lot less lazy about being present. There was a time when diagnosis, treatment, and outcome were all uncertain, and in that condition my mind reached for certainty over and over again. That quest, being hopeless, brought pain. But when my mind stopped reaching out and fell back into the warm dark of uncertainty, time stretched out infinitely on either side and there was a pool of joy that seemed bottomless—joy in breathing, joy in hearing the birds in the cold before dawn. Having cancer was much more exciting than sitting in an armchair watching the game on Sunday. And everything I looked at had the aspect of tenderness and delicacy. I looked into the checkout clerk’s eyes and saw the universe looking back.
5. What You Need Might Be Given to You
The dark can be warm and beautiful, even if you are complicit in your situation. You don’t have to be innocent. Lots of people used their houses as ATM machines in a fairly reckless manner—it seemed like a good idea at the time. There is nothing wrong with noticing this; transgression is a known path to wisdom. Taking drugs, clueless love affairs, gambling your money away on Wall Street—losing your grip can empty out your life enough for you to appreciate the kindness at the bottom of things. In the end, we have to forgive the universe for the way we live in it, forgive it for the mistakes of our own learning.
We also have to trust our own responses. When I first sat with dying people, I was aware of how ignorant I was and that I didn’t know the right thing to say or do. I didn’t know whether to say, “Go for the light,” or to read aloud The Tibetan Book of the Dead, or to play Beethoven, or meditate, or tell a joke. And this wondering was just the nature of the mind fetching around, trying to find the right map. Actually, a map wasn’t needed. I truly didn’t know what to say, and if I didn’t just make up some nonsense, words would float up out of the black lagoon of uncertainty, words that didn’t seem like the sort of thing I could have thought up. And if nothing floated up, I could sit there. The important thing wasn’t having the right answer; it was keeping company with a friend when neither of us knew where the journey was headed. That was a deeper meeting than I had planned for.
6. The True Life Is in Between Winning and Losing
Contradiction is the fully human place to be. The illegal immigrant can’t go home because she won’t get back into the country if she does. The Republican mayor of a small city who speaks out against illegal immigration gives her a job.
We don’t have to pretend not to have our opinions. Mostly we would rather be rich than poor, but also, it isn’t usually terrible to have lost our money. We can have a life in between those rather uninteresting discoveries. In between is where humans always are—that’s what we have to welcome, a story with an uncertain ending. And this condition is interesting if you inhabit it; it’s alive. If I’m facing something that I don’t know how to do, the not-knowing is what is true, and the resources I have, deeply ignorant as I am, will have to be enough.
I have an amusing memory of being in between. I was on a trawler steaming up the coast towards Townsville in North Queensland, Australia, with a storm starting to come in. It wasn’t bad yet; it was three-quarters of a gale, but increasing. Visibility was good. We were rolling a lot, but then we always did with a sea running. We were loaded with prawns and we thought we were rich, rich. So you can see the way the mind swings around: it’s good we have prawns, it’s bad the storm is coming, it’s good the storm isn’t here yet, it’s bad we are nowhere near port—the whole human story.
We came upon another boat in the fleet. He’d taken a wave over the stern and his cockpit had filled and wasn’t draining. The boat was down more at the stern than was really desirable with weather coming in. He was trying to bail, but his stern was low enough that water kept washing in. He could probably solve the problem by throwing his catch overboard, but, hell, he wasn’t going to do that. He had pawned his guitar and slipped out of port at night ahead of the bailiffs; he wasn’t going to surrender those prawns. He was alone, without a deckhand, and there was some discussion on the radio whether I would swim over to his boat to help out. I wasn’t that thrilled at the prospect. Although the water was warm, which was positive, there were sharks, which was probably a negative. But perhaps they weren’t tiger sharks, a positive if true. Also, from his point of view, if I came on board, would he have to pay me a share? And would his boat—he was clearly overloaded—sink anyway? The situation looked pretty sketchy.
He beached his trawler on a sandbar, where through some peculiarity the wave action wasn’t so bad. He was grounded and trying to pump out his cockpit, and it came to me—everybody was completely, deliriously happy. Will he lose his boat? Are there really sharks? Should I swim over? How much will we get for our catch? How far over will we go over on this roll? Everybody was as interested as it is possible to be, as interested as angels would be, watching over the pretty Earth. We were delighted to be there wallowing along with our very own predicament. It was funny and it was also a moment of insight—the Buddhist word is prajna, the wisdom that cuts through delusions and leads to a natural appreciation and compassion. Not only can we be happy in our difficulties; if we really truly notice, we are happy already.
7. If You Have Nothing—Give It Away
It rained in the night and I thought I was the rain. When I woke, I had many things to do, but I lay there and listened. It was an eternal moment. And when I got up I saw the drops on the deck in the dawn and watched them. The child of the house where I was staying woke up and ran downstairs and jumped into my arms. We kept watching the rain. Nothing else was happening and it was enough.
All of history is here now, whatever we are doing. Our minds think we are the rain, and then that we are the little boy, jumping; our minds think we are each other. It’s not so hard to give ourselves completely to the world in this way. And when difficulty visits us, perhaps we will see more clearly that we can look after each other, and that if we have little, we can be more generous than we were when we thought we had a lot. Helping each other might be more fun than guarding our loot.
In Buddhism that is called the bodhisattva path, in which we want everyone to share in the joy of understanding. This path comes from losing things more than from gaining things.
If you lose everything, you may also be lucky enough to lose who you thought you were, along with any fear and despair that goes with that identity. It might be that what we have to learn is to play in the world like someone who really did run away to join the circus when she thought about it as a child. We are part of something vast, and generosity is an effortless consequence of discovering that. We give away, in our turn, what we have discovered and what we have been given.
It’s important not to discount the idea that, even in a crisis, you might be having the time of your life.
This article by John Tarrant was originally published in Shambhala Sun magazine.