It’s getting colder here at the Tricycle offices in New York. There’s even snow in the weather forecast for this weekend. And as the weather changes and the nights grow longer, it’s hard to resist a little wallowing. 

There also seemed to be a definite air of gloom and doom this week in the teacher blogosphere. Good thing that as Buddhists we love gloom and doom (“Now this, monks, is the Noble Truth of dukkha: Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair are dukkha…”). Really, though, as teacher blogs Zen Mirror, Open Sky Zen, and Susan Piver’s blog remind us this week, suffering might not be much fun but is a wonderful opportunity to grow with our practice.

Paul Lynch, the Korean Zen Sensei behind Zen Mirror, published a letter on his blog from his friend, a Catholic monk and Zen practitioner, who is currently dealing with strong personal, economic, and physical suffering. In his letter, he mixes Christian and Buddhist teachings to come to striking insights about remaining peaceful in the midst of turbulence:

I have known both near poverty and a taste of being idle, with money to spare. It ebbs and flows. Somehow, the Universe provides and in it all, rich or poor, the Inner Man remains the same, like a rock in a raging river rapids, or shallow slow moving quiet brook. The waters change. The rock stays still. The essential man is untouched by externals. That’s the thing I’ve learned time and again. The litmus test, if you will, of just where we are at, in the spiritual life.

He continues:

Christ, a Zen Master if there ever was, says as much, in speaking of impermanence and tribulation: “And on that day, you will then come to know, whether you have built your house on rock or sand.” Our inner humanity is best revealed in trial and upheaval….

This is what Christ meant if I can paraphrase Him, “Watch out followers, especially you monks and teachers of the Path, because, some day, a wind will blow and you had better be prepared for a change. You had better be ready to walk the talk, or you will be exposed. You’ll either find yourself standing on the solid ground of all that you have learned in your practice and inner life experiences, or, you’ll come tumbling down in a landslide of sand, only to be blown away like dust because you failed to build your inner life properly.” Here, I suppose, Jesus is also saying, “Don’t be wasting time on stupid shit, because you got a foundation to build on, and it’s one never really quite finished. You can slack off and cruise, and that is O.K., a man needs some rest. However, do not get too comfortable. Do not kid yourself. Keep mixing that mortar and laying those bricks because you never know when that storm will hit.” My point being, I think we can only manage loss and suffering to the degree that we build our inner ground, because ultimately, that is where the storm will come to rip us up. It will challenge our emotional stability. It will challenge our composure in the face of crisis. It will challenge our thought process and reveal, a quiet, strong mind, or, one tossed in every direction.

I strongly urge you to visit Zen Mirror and read the whole letter. It is beautiful.

Reverend Lawrence Grecco, who runs Open Sky Zen, has also gone through some suffering recently—he blogged last Monday about almost losing someone dear to him. But as he writes,

We mustn’t waste any aspect of our lives, not even our suffering. To resist our suffering and see it as a distraction from our path is a mistake. To view all of the hurting that’s happening right under our noses as an opportunity to give meaning to suffering and to develop a deeper sense of compassion for others is the right way to go.

We don’t have wait around for urgent situations to come up before we begin to access the part of ourselves that’s always present and capable of doing what life truly calls for. By practicing consistently we train ourselves to override our thinking minds and allow a sense of wisdom to emerge so that we can help other people in the best way possible.

Sometimes we suffer not from urgent and surprising situations like an unexpected death, but from ones such as depression or anxiety that we may be used to dealing with but are still acutely painful. Susan Piver has some advice for us on this: just try cheering up! That may sound like oversimple, even annoying advice, but read on about what she has to say about it and you may change your mind:

For me, one of the most deceptively simple pieces of advice for working with strong emotion was given by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the Tibetan meditation master who transmitted the Shambhala teachings. It was this: “You could always just cheer up.”

When I first heard that, I was kind of offended. What do you mean, “cheer up?” It sounded like what people used to tell me when I was little, some variation of “why are you always so serious?” or “You’re too sensitive. Get over yourself.” Stuff that used to make me really mad. But CTR did not mean this. He meant you could always simply let go of what is plaguing you—no matter how heavy and sorrowful—and take a breath of fresh air.

You could try it. I’ve tried it countless times. When I catch myself falling into a pit of despair over loved ones who are suffering from illness, for example, or my finances, also suffering from illness I might add, or my ability to make my dreams manifest—I say to myself as I plummet, “you could always just cheer up” and, amazingly, even if it’s only for a moment, I do. It has nothing to do with talking myself out of what is bothering me by convincing myself that it will all be ok for this reason or that. It has nothing to do with fake-deleting negative thoughts and fake-inserting wishful thinking, aka positive thoughts. It has to do with letting it all, all, all go and reconnecting with—well, what would you call it? The present moment. Nowness. Space.

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