Meditation practice allows our natural flow of being to come forth and provides a space for our natural joy to come out. This sounds good, but lets face it: sometimes life sucks.

At such a time you might want to shout at me, “OK, SO WHERE’S THE JOY?!”

One Zen master was asked about his experience of life and he said, “It’s not without joy, it’s like sweeping shit into a pile and plucking out a precious jewel.”

What does he mean by that? Even in our most difficult times, when we are literally shoveling shit, we are also, often, wholeheartedly alive. We are not numbed out. The key here is really being present to what is happening, even in the most difficult circumstances. We must not allow ourselves to numb out or to deny or hide from the pain we are experiencing. We must allow our vulnerability to teach us.

Right now it is snowing outside and the roads are icy. Here in New York City, where we have a lot of snow and ice, we know this expression, “turning into the skid.” When you’re driving you automatically want to move away from it, you want to turn the steering wheel in the opposite direction, but this will only increase the skid. What you have to do is KNOW that you must move into it, and then the wheels straighten out and are not all going in different directions and you are able to control the car again.

So what is this, ‘turning into the skid’? When we’re with our loved ones and they are suffering, sometimes the worst thing we can do in that moment is try and fix it: “OK here, have this aspirin and you’ll be fine.” Instead, turn into the skid, acknowledge: “Oh, that must really hurt.” They lost their job? Don’t immediately start telling them where they should go look for another job. Stay with that moment: “It must feel terrible that you lost your job.” We don’t want to do this. We want to fix it: “Oh, it’s not so bad, didn’t you say you wanted another job?” 

We also do this with ourselves. If you are feeling very sad, don’t deny it. Turn into the skid. Then, sometimes in the midst of the worst pain of all we’ll notice something like a nice breeze or the cool side of a pillow—a reprieve from the fear. Being present to suffering is also being present to not suffering. When we numb out from our suffering, we numb out from our experience of joy. That’s why we train our mind in meditation: to help ourselves and others see that we are alive in each moment. We are complete and perfect, just as we are, in the midst of our suffering. 

This is an excerpt from Week 2 of Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara’s Tricycle Retreat, “Ease and Joy in Your Practice and Life.”

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