Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Down to Earth Wisdom From Charlotte Joko Beck

Found in my mailbox this morning a wonderful article from Charlotte Joko Beck, about Enlightenment, Joy, The Meaning of Life, and Dogs. I am publishing it in its entirety, along with some of the thoughts that came to me as I read it. 

My dog doesn't worry about the meaning of life. She may worry if she doesn't get her breakfast, but she doesn't sit around worrying about whether she will get fulfilled or liberated or enlightened. As long as she gets some food and a little affection, her life is fine. But we human beings are not like dogs. We have self-centred minds which get us into plenty of trouble. If we do not come to understand the error in the way we think, our self-awareness, which is our greatest blessing, is also our downfall.

There are many layers to our thoughts. I find the meta-assumptions that operate in the background of mind to be the most dangerous. One in particular for me is the belief that this moment is not perfect in itself. If only such and such condition was met . . . then I would be happy! Although I know this to be a delusion, the knowledge is only very superficial and does not reach to the core belief operating still. 

To some degree we all find life difficult, perplexing, and oppressive. Even when it goes well, as it may for a time, we worry that it probably won't keep on that way. Depending on our personal history, we arrive at adulthood with very mixed feelings about this life. If I were to tell you that your life is already perfect, whole, and complete just as it is, you would think I was crazy. Nobody believes his or her life is perfect. And yet there is something within each of us that basically knows we are boundless, limitless. We are caught in the contradiction of finding life a rather perplexing puzzle which causes us a lot of misery, and at the same time being dimly aware of the boundless, limitless nature of life. So we begin looking for an answer to the puzzle.

The closest I came to the realization of boundlessness was during a retreat last year with Ruth Denison. Many times I have returned to this memory of limitlessness experienced in body and mind. No knot any more . . . 

The first way of looking is to seek a solution outside ourselves. At first this may be on a very ordinary level. There are many people in the world who feel that if only they had a bigger car, a nicer house, better vacations, a more understanding boss, or a more interesting partner, then their life would work. We all go through that one. Slowly we wear out most of our 'if onlies.' "If only I had this, or that, then my life would work Not one of us isn't, to some degree, still wearing out our 'if onlies.' First of all we wear out those on the gross levels. Then we shift our search to more subtle levels. Finally, in looking for the thing outside of ourselves that we hope is going to complete us, we turn to a spiritual discipline. Unfortunately we tend to bring into this new search the same orientation as before. Most people who come to a spiritual centre don't think a Cadillac will do it, but they think that enlightenment will. 

I don't have the same attachment to enlightenment as some others. I am actually quite suspicious of it, and my conception of it is as of a gradual process. My main motivation for practice is the desire to lessen unnecessary personal suffering, and the knowledge that there is another way. 

Now they've got a new cookie, a new "if only." Our whole life consists of this little subject looking outside itself for an object. But if you take something that is limited, like body and mind, and look for something outside it, that something becomes an object and must be limited too. So you have something limited looking for something limited and you just end up with more of the same folly that has made you miserable.

I find it helpful to investigate experiences under the "if only" lens. There is so much suffering attached to this continual seeking. And a great sadness from dismissing this moment. I feel that very deeply, and more and more, I am deciding to dwell in the present, for life is precious, as the people I am privileged to work with keep on reminding me. Another great way to deal with the "if only" is to practice gratitude for what is already there. Walking, I am grateful for the gift of body still good enough to allow me to go out for a stroll. Realizing that one day, this body will be taken away. 

We have all spent many years building up a conditioned view of life. There is "me" and there is this "thing" out there that is either hurting me or pleasing me. We tend to run our whole life trying to avoid all that hurts or displeases us, noticing the objects, people, or situations that we think will give us pain or pleasure, avoiding one and pursuing the other. Without exception, we all do this. We remain separate from our life, looking at it, analyzing it, judging it, seeking to answer the questions, 'What am I going to get out of it? Is it going to give me pleasure or comfort or should I run away from it?" We do this from morning until night. As the years go by, it gets worse. What might not look so bad when you are twenty-five looks awful by the time you are fifty. We all know people who might as well be dead; they have so contracted into their limited viewpoints that it is as painful for those around them as it is for themselves. We have to see through the mirage that there is an "I" separate from "that." Close the gap. Only in that instant when we and the object become one can we see what our life is.

It is the whole tragedy of life isn't it? this seemingly irreconcilable difference between our pleasure-seeking nature, and the inherently unpleasant nature of life itself. I like Ajahn Chah's image of the beautiful flower, that carries wilted-ness within itself. Not accepting this fundamental nature of life is the primary delusion that we need to face. The Full Catastrophe of Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Enlightenment is not something you achieve. It is the absence of something. All your life you have been going forward after something, pursuing some goal. Enlightenment is dropping all that. But to talk about it is of little use. The practice has to be done by each individual. There is no substitute. We can read about it until we are a thousand years old and it won't do a thing for us. We all have to practice, and we have to practice with all of our might for the rest of our lives.

Yes. Finding out for oneself. 

What we really want is a natural life. Our lives are so unnatural that to do a practice like Zen is, in the beginning, extremely difficult.But once we begin to get a glimmer that the problem in life is not outside ourselves, we have begun to walk down this path. Once that awakening starts, once we begin to see that life can be more open and joyful than we had ever thought possible, we want to practice.We enter a discipline like Zen practice so that we can learn to live in a sane way. Zen is almost a thousand years old and the kinks have been worked out of it; while it is not easy, it is not insane. It is down to earth and very practical. It is about our daily life. It is about working better in the office, raising our kids better, and having better relationships. Having a more sane and satisfying life must come out of a sane, balanced practice. What we want to do is to find someway of working with the basic insanity that exists because of our blindness. It takes courage to sit well. Zen is not a discipline for everyone.We have to be willing to do something that is not easy. If we do it with patience and perseverance, with the guidance of a good teacher, then gradually our life settles down, becomes more balanced. Our emotions are not quite as domineering. As we sit, we find that the primary thing we must work with is our busy, chaotic mind. We are all caught up in frantic thinking and the problem in practice is to begin to bring that thinking into clarity and balance. When the mind becomes clear and balanced and is no longer caught by objects, there can be an opening-and for a second we can realize who we really are. But sitting is not something that we do for a year or two with the idea of mastering it. Sitting is something we do for a lifetime. There is no end to the opening up that is possible for a human being. Eventually we see that we are the limitless, boundless ground of the universe. Our job for the rest of our life is to open up into that immensity and to express it. Having more and more contact with this reality always brings compassion for others and changes our daily life. We live differently, work differently, relate to people differently. Zen is a lifelong study. It isn't just sitting on a cushion for thirty or forty minutes a day. Our whole life becomes practice, twenty-four hours a day.

Yes, experiencing the rewards of mindfulness practice is what keeps me on the path. I cannot think of any greater gift to oneself. Practicing has altered the way I think, the way I am with others and myself, the way I work, and what I choose to focus on. Practice is the ultimate refuge. And sitting practice is just a way of strengthening the mindfulness muscle, so that it can be used throughout the day. 

I'm often accused of emphasizing the difficulties in practice. The accusation is true. Believe me, the difficulties are there. If we don't recognize them and why they arise, we tend to fool ourselves. Still, the ultimate reality-not only in our sitting, but also in our lives-is joy. By joy I don't mean happiness; they're not the same. Happiness has an opposite; joy does not. As long as we seek happiness, we're going to have unhappiness, because we always swing from one pole to the other.

Verified faith in the power of practice is what keeps me practicing. A faith informed by the joy that comes with practice. As pointed by Charlotte, joy is very different from happiness. In fact, many times I find great unhappiness and joy co-existing in my heart. Joy comes from clearly seeing and including all what is. I have become very aware of this in my work with the dying, and also the people with dementia. Many times, sitting with much frustration, suffering, sadness, boredom, . . . and the end coming out filled with joy, and lightness. A very paradoxical process.

From time to time, we do experience joy. It can arise accidentally or in the course of our sitting or elsewhere in our lives. For a while after sesshin, we may experience joy. Over years of practice, our experience of joy deepens- if, that is, we understand practice and are willing to do it. Most people are not.

Yes, that's the trick. Having had enough of a taste of  joy, to keep up with practice. The realization of suffering is another motivator. 

Joy isn't something we have to find. Joy is who we are if we're not preoccupied with something else. When we try to find joy, we are simply adding a thought-and an unhelpful one, at that-onto the basic fact of what we are. We don't need to go looking for joy. But we do need to do something. The question is, what? Our lives don't feel joyful, and we keep trying to find a remedy.

That's it. Joy is a byproduct of practice, of including everything in our awareness, not resisting anything.

Our lives are basically about perception. By perception I mean whatever the senses bring in. We see, we hear, we touch, we smell, and so on. That's what life really is. Most of the time, however, we substitute another activity for perception; we cover it over with something else, which I'll call evaluation. By evaluation, I don't mean an objective, dispassionate analysis-as for example when we look over a messy room and consider or evaluate how to clean it up. The evaluation I have in mind is ego centered: "Is this next episode in my life going to bring me something I like, or not? Is it going to hurt, or isn't it? Is it pleasant or unpleasant? Does it make me important or unimportant? Does it give me something material?" It's our nature to evaluate in this way. To the extent that we give ourselves over to evaluation of this kind, joy will be missing from our lives.

This is why awareness of vedana (feeling tone) is so helpful. I find that it helps cut through this tendency of the mind to always assess experiences along the unpleasant-pleasant spectrum. 

It's amazing how quickly we can switch into evaluation. Perhaps we're functioning pretty well-and then suddenly somebody criticizes what we're doing. In a fraction of a second, we jump into our thoughts. We're quite willing to get into that interesting space of judging others or ourselves. There's a lot of drama in all of this, and we like it, more than we realize. Unless the drama becomes lengthy and punishing, we enter willingly into it, because as human beings we have a basic orientation toward drama. From an ordinary point of view, to be in a world of pure perception is pretty dull.

Oh, yes! How so fickle, the mind is . . . Lately, I have had to deal with a difficult person, and have had the opportunity to observe how vulnerable my own mind is to the woman's energy and words. Our mental states are so fragile. It does not take much to push us in one direction or the other. Mingyur Rinpoche's simile of the flag flapping in the wind - our untrained mind - and the flagpole - our center.

Suppose we've been away on vacation for a week, and we come back. Perhaps we've enjoyed ourselves, or we think we have. When we return to work, the "In" box is loaded with things to do, and scattered all over the desk are little messages, "While You Were Out." When people call us at work, it usually means that they want something. Perhaps the job we left for someone else to take care of has been neglected. Immediately, we're evaluating the situation. "Who fouled up?" "Who slacked off?" "Why is she calling? I bet it's the same old problem." "It's their responsibility anyway. Why are they calling me?" Likewise, at the end of sesshin we may experience the flow of a joyful life; then we wonder where it goes. Though it doesn't go anywhere, something has happened: a cloud covers the clarity.

Recognizing the mind's tendency to cloud over, quickly. And why it is so important to engage in formal practice, every day, and with the support of a sangha - community. 

Until we know that joy is exactly what's happening, minus our opinion of it, we're going to have only a small amount of joy. When we stay with perception rather than getting lost in evaluation, however, joy can be the person who didn't do the job while we were gone. It can be the interesting encounter on the phone with all of the people we have to call, no matter what they want. Joy can be having a sore throat; it can be getting laid off; it can be unexpectedly having to work overtime. It can be having to take a math exam or dealing with one's former spouse who wants more money. Usually we don't think that these things are joy.<

Joy is in the ability to rest in wise awareness, and not letting oneself be swept by the hindrances, or the unwholesome thoughts that inevitably arise. Knowing that one is dwelling just where one should be. 

Practice is about dealing with suffering. It's not that the suffering is important or valuable in itself, but that suffering is our teacher. It's the other side of life, and until we can see all of life, there's not going to be any joy. To be honest, sesshin is controlled suffering. We get a chance to face our suffering in a practice situation. As we sit, all the traditional attributes of a good Zen student come under fire: endurance, humility, patience, compassion. These things sound great in books, but they're not so attractive when we're hurting. That's why sesshin ought not to be easy: we need to learn to be with our suffering and still act appropriately. When we learn to be with our experience, whatever it is, we are more aware of the joy that is our life. Sesshin is a good chance to learn this lesson. When we're prepared to practice, suffering can be a fortunate thing. None of us wants to recognize this fact. I certainly try to avoid suffering; there are lots of things I don't want happening in my life. Still, if we can't learn to be our experience even when it hurts, we'll never know joy. Joy is being the circumstances of our life just as they are. If someone's been unfair to us, that's it. If someone's telling lies about us, that's it also. 

Not looking for suffering or lingering in it unnecessarily. And also coming to terms with its inevitability, and becoming familiar with it, not just intellectually but physically in the body. Stretching our tolerance for the aches and discomforts. And experiencing them for what they are, not more. Noticing our habitual ways of recoiling from what does not feel good.

Please chime in as well, and share. 


  1. I knew you would like it, thanks for the commentary. To realize we will all die one day...and besides a couple of days of sadness for those who love us ...the world goes on. All self-judgements we have...we learned they are not ours. So relax!

  2. Wow! :-) This will take some digestion time.

  3. Thank you, Albert! Yes, Charlotte is the real thing, just like Ruth Denison, and Ayya Khema . . . (as far as women teachers are concerned)