Two years ago I had a sudden bout with a virus that I still haven’t gotten over entirely. The acute phase slowly morphed into a long-term, sometimes debilitating slog through fatigue and general crappiness. I don’t have the energy to do many of the things I used to enjoy doing. I have frequent headaches, body aches, and insomnia. I don’t like it. It has also helped open me up to the wide universe.
The way I usually roll is with one of two projects. I want to feel good, or I want to be good. While both at the same time is even better, usually attachment to one or the other of these two goals dominates my activities and thoughts.
When I’m in the feel-good mode and I’m bored, I want to be entertained. At other times I feel a sense of lack and think that if I only had a certain something—a favorite food, a more satisfying relationship—I’d feel better. Or I feel bothered and think that if I could only get rid of something—stress, this headache, my body’s tiredness—then I’d be really be able to live my life to the full.
Although there is nothing wrong with experiencing joy in good things when they arise, this obsessive desire to always feel better than I feel at this moment distracts me from my experience of daily life. It’s like an annoying constant background hum that gets between me and the world. When I practice zazen however, I have the opportunity to experience this urge in something more like controlled laboratory conditions. I can (sometimes) recognize that last night’s movie plot echoing in my head arises from my desire to be entertained; the image of a glass of wine is the arising of desire for an object “out there”; and rejecting my current state is yet another version of “this can’t really be it!” And then I can return to my practice. Yet I also initially came to Zen, as many people do, with a feel-good motive—to relieve stress, to develop a less painful life—so it’s easy to fall back into trying to make Zen just another tool for my feel-good project.
When I’m in the be-good mode, I’m intent on making sure that my life, in the end, will tally up to something positive and worthwhile. I feel obligated because my living requires the dying of plants, and sometimes animals, for me to eat; because my warm room requires depleting fossil fuels; because I have been given so much—a good home, an education, a job, and much else. To counteract the debits I’ve racked up, I push to create some credits. I want my life to be helpful to others and the planet. I want to do things, solve things, fix things. I want to use my work life to turn things around that have been going badly, and to use my roles as friend, citizen, and community member to do something about the suffering of the world. I want to be productive and effective.
Responding to the suffering of the world is far from a bad thing. But practicing zazen, I can (sometimes) notice how the attachment to personal accomplishments is actually a subtle variant of the feel-good project. A lot of us come to Zen because deep down we feel that we ourselves need fixing. We hope that Zen will rid us of the bad parts of our character. We fear we have fundamental flaws that make us somehow—perhaps even uniquely among all humans—unable to be appropriately wise, peaceful, vital, or loving. We want Zen practice itself to serve our productive urges, moving us toward some ideal better self. We make it part of our project of wanting to feel good about ourselves.
Yet Zen, over and over, points us back to the realization that this—even this!—is really it. The basic instructions are “Sit down, shut up, and pay attention.” When we resolutely practice following or counting the breath, or the “just sitting” called shikantaza, there is absolutely no room for working on either the gotta-feel-good or gotta-do-good projects. We see those stories coming up, and are invited to release them and come back to this moment, here.
From the point of view of our projects, what possible use could Zen practice have? If it doesn’t make us feel better or turn us into better people, isn’t it a total waste of time?
These two years of feeling lousy have helped put my two usual projects under increased scrutiny. (It seems I have a case of mild-to-moderate Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, though continuing tests may yet turn up something more specific.) When I’m feeling buzzy-headed and tired and achy all over, feeling-good is not an option. Being-good is less possible as well. I’ve always identified closely with my career, and yet my illness has caused me to cut back to half-time. Along with the physical fatigue, an often foggy brain with a lessened capacity for concentration or sustained mental work makes it hard to get much of anything done.
And beyond the physical and mental fatigue is a sort of moral fatigue. I hear terrible news about bad decisions related to the university where I teach, the most recent Trump administration lunacy, or the state of the polar ice caps, and I often find I can’t summon more than the smallest, rather despairing blip of care. On my smartphone I can easily switch from reading the news to feeding myself dopamine hits by playing solitaire. The release of escaping into entertainment is accompanied by both a pang of defeat (relative to my do-good project) and, I admit, a tiny jolt of guilty pleasure. Having zero energy provides me with something of a Get Out of Jail Free card: a legitimate excuse for not even trying in the face of overwhelming obstacles.
Then, usually around 2 a.m., the great black cloud descends upon me. Awake with insomnia and pain, I’m captured by a particular thought: “I’m miserable, and my life has no meaning or purpose.” Both of my projects have failed. My existence, I feel, is worth nothing. From the point of view of that thought, the universe appears cold and harsh.
This utter failure of my projects is actually, in a weird way, the good news. Zen was never about those projects to begin with. Zen was never about making my little life more consistently pleasurable, or building me into some kind of hero or moral icon. Zazen practice continually reminds us to unhook from our projects, which always reflect in some way a desire to be elsewhere. We are continually invited to come back to “just this,” to come back to who we really are. When I bring my sickness and uselessness to Zen practice, they fit just right. Doing sick Zen, I meet my feelings of achiness with a gentle “Oh yes, just sick.” Doing useless Zen, I’m reminded that while sitting zazen—as well as in much of day-to-day life—paying attention is the first, and in some ways the only, point. We “do,” in most ways that word is understood, precisely nothing while in our formal practice.
Zen pulls me away from my “little me” and her isolated projects and sets them in a much vaster perspective. I recognize that the darkest-hour thought “My life has no meaning” is just another arising thought. The alchemy of Zen practice converts a black hole of despair into a gentle observation: “Oh, this little corner of the universe—this particular person, in this bed, at this hour—is suffering.”
When, in the daytime, I sit on my meditation bench (or, on worse days, lie on the rug) and allow all my “selfing” to thin out, I find I don’t have to dig up energy in order to manufacture a feeling of care. Once I simply drop the belief that I am a good judge of what is important (“Obviously, my thoughts are important, and the sound of traffic is not”), the intimacy of hearing—really hearing—the sounds of wheels on the road, seeing the sun on the wooden floor, and feeling my breath come and go call me out of my small self. Offering that pure and open attention feels a little bit like giving a gift. Perhaps attention is ultimately the only thing we can give.
I get very frustrated whenever I think of this mysterious malaise as something that saps my vitality and takes me away from the full life I should by rights be living, if the universe would just do things my way. My practice of sick and useless Zen, on the other hand, reminds me that this life, as it is, is my full and vital life. It just has some issues. It’s just human.
The 13th-century Zen priest and philosopher Eihei Dogen wrote:
Firewood becomes ash, and it does not become firewood again. Yet, do not suppose that the ash is after and the firewood before. You should understand that firewood abides in the phenomenal expression of firewood, which fully includes before and after and is independent of before and after. Ash abides in the phenomenal expression of ash, which fully includes before and after.
–Trans. Robert Aitken and Kazuaki Tanahashi
Julie-sick abides in the phenomenal expression of Julie-sick, and is not Julie-after-healthy. Dogen also uses the metaphor of seasons: “You do not call winter ‘the beginning of spring.’” It’s possible that I’ll recover my health. But Julie-sick is not Julie-waiting-to-get-healthy. Julie-sick is Julie-sick arising, and is my full life coming forth.
What a relief! How wonderful! If Zen practice depended on us being in good physical and mental states and piling up accomplishments, it would, without doubt, fail us just when we need it most.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
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