We have this challenge right now: As we practice in these dangerous times, how can we be at peace? How can we become a source of compassion, and let our lives be a clear expression of wisdom? I find that so many of the traditional teachings are suddenly hitting home in fresh ways, as if they were designed for this particular moment in history. When we chant the evening gatha—the traditional verse that closes the day of training—it seems as if the ancient teachers had gathered that very day to write these words:
Let me respectfully remind you:
Life and death are of supreme importance.
Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.
Each of us should strive to awaken. Awaken!
Take heed—do not squander your life.
When I’m working with students who feel trapped in their anger, fear, or hopelessness, instead of trying to talk them out of what they’re experiencing, I often simply point out that they’ve arrived at the stark reality of the Buddha’s First Noble Truth: Life is suffering. There are three more Noble Truths, and that’s where we can lean in, aware that our experience is the necessary first step toward coming to peace.
We’re all prisoners of life and death. The question is: What kind of prisoners do we want to be? We have beautiful examples of people who have literally been prisoners, yet who found reasons to be loving, compassionate, strong, and at ease with the reality of their lives. Not that they didn’t feel grief and anguish, but they were able to access something else as well—the human spirit. Nelson Mandela, Elie Wiesel, Gerda Lerner—these are just a few examples. You can look at many others who have faced “inescapable” trauma of all kinds. Over and over in human history, people have accessed this well of strength and peace.
To me, one of the great lies is that fear is the only natural response. Without denying our fear, we can keep going deeper. We can stay in basic attention and explore: Who am I? What’s the possibility here? This takes diligence, so that we don’t slip into letting others define our reality and falsely limit the possibilities that are always present. That diligence is the practice of responsibility that the evening gatha implies. Too often we get hung up on the exhortation “Do not squander your life” and interpret it as a scolding, as if we were naughty children caught wasting time. I see the teaching “Be responsible” more as an expression of absolute trust in the possibility of awakening. The message is “Hey, you! You can do it. You can respond. You’re capable of the perfect living and dying of this moment.”
I’ve been asked if I think the world is getting worse. That, to me, isn’t the point. However the world is—whether there are swirling forces of confusion or immense waves of clarity around us—we’re still responsible. When we turn diligence into an intellectual process, we end up feeling exhausted by the intensity of the obligation. But if we just respond the way the eyelid responds to a dry eye, then the work of peace naturally arises out of our innate wisdom and compassion.
When we’re afraid, the mind tends to dart away instead of diligently and deeply entering the fear. It gets confused and thinks, “Let me take care of myself first,” as if it weren’t responsible for the whole world. Part of what zazen—sitting meditation—does is to help us settle down into gentle, unswerving attention and peel away that false sense of separation.
Rage—whether in reaction to social injustice, or to our leaders’ insanity, or to those who threaten or harm us—is a powerful energy that, with diligent practice, can be transformed into fierce compassion. However much we disagree with those we have decided to call our enemies, our task is to identify with them. They, too, feel justified in their point of view. Everybody protects what they value and see as important. If we fail to recognize the universality of that basic impulse to protect and defend, we just perpetuate the urge to create a false enemy and eliminate it. We’re now at a point where human survival depends on letting go of that urge and realizing our common bond. Attention opens the mind to intimacy. And from intimacy, a very different sort of action can arise.
But why is it so hard to practice this sort of attention right now? Maybe because we want answers—and there are none. It is impossible to know what to do. The old standards don’t apply: going out and protesting, for example, doesn’t have the impact it once did. We need a kind of attentiveness that is more than just being present. It means being available in an unconditioned way, not knowing what action will be required or how much patience will be called for.
Intense times call for intense practice. But in the world, as in the zendo, intensity does not mean straining or pushing; rather, it is a willingness to begin fresh. To feed that willingness, we use the tools of practice: Work with a teacher. Have spiritual friends. Create situations where you have permission and support to go deep, so that feelings of fear and anger don’t just build up until you find you’ve gone numb. Much of my work right now is just getting people to show up for each other and for their practice. Once they do that, a reservoir of peace and wisdom is right there. But they don’t know that till they show up.
I think the palliative for fear and anger is to stand firmly and wakefully in the moment. It’s like the old Zen master saying, “Come with me. Let’s fill the well with snow.” It’s a hopeless task: The snow melts; the process is endless. We don’t take action because we expect a certain result; we do it because it needs to be done. We pick up the shovel not because we’re going to fill the well with snow but because shoveling is the dharma activity of that moment. We show up for the impossible. Is that so different from saying, “Come with me. Let’s be peacemakers”?