No matter who you are, and no matter what situation you happened to have been born into, you can rest assured that you will not leave this earth without first enduring a certain amount of suffering. Even the wealthiest and most privileged people in the world must – at the very least – contend with their own mortality, and the mortality of those whom they love, during the course of their lives.
We all must deal with having a fundamental lack of control over the vast majority of things, and with change being perhaps the only dependable constant in our lives. No matter how or where we may choose to live, for example, we are all susceptible to illness and injury, to the effects of aging, to loss, and to life’s unpredictability. And, no matter how fortunate the external circumstances of our lives may be (or may appear to others), we are all susceptible to inner turmoil (case in point, to name just one: Robin Williams, whose suicide earlier this year came as a shock to many, myself included).
I am not trying to suggest that suffering is distributed equally among us. Certainly, some people are plagued, for whatever reason or lack thereof, with a seemingly inordinate or unfair share. But, whatever our difficulties happen to be, and whether they are of the “first world” or “third world” variety, suffering seems to be very much built into the human experience. Even if we’re not currently dealing with some sort of misfortune, the fear of one striking is always looming over us. And, no matter how much good fortune may be ours to enjoy at any given moment, all of it will eventually (over time, or in one fell swoop) be taken from us. In a very real sense, the more we have…the more we have to lose.
(Isn’t this a cheerful little blog post so far??)
The obvious question then, in consideration of the above, is: how best to handle this condition of being human? How can we minimize our suffering and, to the extent that some degree of suffering is inevitable, reap the most benefit or derive the most meaning from it?
The shortest, simplest, and most honest answer that I can offer is:
I don’t know. 🙂
But here’s my best guess, or at least what seems to be working for me right now. Try looking at life’s difficulties as “Zen master” training. The good news about ZMT: there’s no registration fee, no organization to join, no special clothes/costumes/uniforms to wear (unless, of course, you’re into that sort of thing), no letters of recommendation to submit – in fact, no prerequisites of any kind. If you’re alive, it turns out, you’re already enrolled! Here’s how it works:
Consider the possibility that the difficulties you face – varied as they may be in type, duration and intensity – are all opportunities to build particular strengths of character. To, in effect, work towards Zen masterhood.
How to begin your training? Start asking yourself: what personal qualities/traits do my present challenges seem to be recommending (or perhaps even insisting) I develop?
I’ll give you a personal example:
I recently underwent a nine-and-a-half-month spell of unemployment, during which time I watched my savings disappear as I searched endlessly for work, to no avail. I applied for over 150 jobs: some that looked at least somewhat appealing, others that did not particularly excite me but for which I was amply qualified and which would provide me with much-needed income. Of these many prospective jobs, I was called in to interview for nine of them over the course of as many months. In four of these cases, I was called back in for additional interviews. But, after all of these efforts, and despite being a finalist several times, I was offered a whopping total of none of them in the end.
Was this frustrating? Stressful? Disappointing? Maddening, even, at times? Absolutely. But this is where viewing the situation as “Zen master training” really helped me navigate it better than I believe I would have otherwise. Maybe even a lot better.
In addition to taking advantage of my unemployed status as best I could while searching for work, I kept asking myself questions about where the lessons were in all of this. Was “persistence” the overriding quality I was being called to develop in my search for income-producing work? Or was I, in fact, barking up the wrong tree altogether, and being encouraged by life to do something different (or, at least, differently)? My ultimate (two-part) question to the Universe was: Should I keep doing what I’m doing, or give up what I’m doing? And…how do I know when it’s time to do which???
For all of my wrestling with this, no answer or epiphany or clarity ever came. But there were some qualities it seemed I might well develop as a “Zen master” aspirant, regardless. (And it just so happens that these reflect oft-recurring problem areas for me.)
2) Detachment from results.
3) TRUST…in life, myself, the Universe, what have you.
Working on these things is – at least in part, I decided – the essence of my Zen master training.
Writer Anne Lamott has a book called Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. I haven’t read it (yet), but I love the title. Many times during the challenging waiting-to-hear-back-on-a-particular-job-I’d-interviewed-for periods, I’d offer up a prayer to the ocean as I overlooked it from beautiful Palisades Park in Santa Monica after a workout. Though I self-identify as an agnostic, I find it easy to be prayerful when beholding the ocean: its vastness, power, mystery, beauty, and life-supporting (and life-threatening!) nature always invoke in me instantaneous wonder, awe, respect, and humility. The “thanks” and (perhaps especially) “wow” prayers that Lamott has so succinctly and perfectly categorized come easily to me in its presence, and the “help” prayer I’d often phrase along the lines of: “Please, this (job) or something better…” before turning it over to my higher power dominating the horizon in its magnificent bluish hues. (The “or something better” part is really important, as my desires are sometimes [often?] based on a very limited impression or understanding of the reality of the thing I am desiring…“be careful what you wish for” and all of that.)
After all of the above-mentioned fruitless job searching, I signed up with a couple of agencies and (finally!) landed a temp-to-possibly-hire gig that came just in the nick of time to provide me with financial relief. We’ll see what comes of it.
It’s clear to me, though, that however things shake out with this or any other particular job, my Zen master training is never over so long as I am breathing. But, rather than being a burden, this means that my life will always have purpose, meaning, and direction – even if these are entirely self-constructed.
What other attributes do I wish to actively grow (as if the three I mentioned weren’t, in and of themselves, challenging enough for a lifetime?). Some other qualities befitting a Zen master, at least to my mind, are:
• the attainment of wisdom
• an active and abundant sense of humor
• frequent life-savoring
• humility (that is, being a humble, open-minded, open-hearted, perpetual student of life)
• feeling connected to others and to the world around you
• dedication to seeking out the positive in all people, things, and situations
• dedication to becoming less ignorant
• being loving and kind as much as possible
It’s a tall order, this Zen master stuff. But, just think…if we can allow our difficulties to help us cultivate qualities like these (whether or not this is the actual purpose behind our difficulties, if there even is a purpose behind them), then we’ll have built a better world.
Peace out. Namaste…