This is a lightly edited transcript of a talk given recently to the community of Stone Creek Zen Center. You can watch a video of this talk on YouTube here. Other Stone Creek talks are available here.
Hello everyone; it’s been too long. Graduate school swallowed up all my energy this past academic year. While in school, I feel driven to learn as much as possible so I can hopefully be helpful to people later on as a therapist. Since the complexities of the human mind and spirit seem infinite, that’s a lot of studying!
I was really looking forward to this summer as a time to sit more zazen, reconnect with sangha, and resume writing this blog. Then various unexpected events occurred, as they do, and I wound up doing a lot of other things instead, mostly dealing with health issues and other practicalities. Now school is starting again, and I have no idea how this semester will go, so I’m glad to be able to offer you this talk at least, and I very much hope it’s useful.
I’d like to talk about the times we’re in, but first I need to acknowledge that today is a weighted day. It’s the 75th anniversary of America’s atomic bombing of Nagasaki, Japan, three days after we dropped the world’s first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The Nagasaki bomb casing was signed by members of the crew that assembled it. One wrote, “Here’s a second kiss for Hirohito,” who was Japan’s emperor at the time.
That bomb 75 years ago today was dropped on a mostly civilian area. In 1946, the American military’s “official damage map” showed the institutional buildings near ground zero, many of which were schools in session on that Thursday at 11 am. I’m going to read the list of these places as a kind of memorial: Nagasaki Prison, Mitsubishi Hospital, Nagasaki Medical College, Chinzei High School, Shiroyama Elementary School, Urakami Cathedral, Blind and Mute School, Yamazato School, Nagasaki University Hospital, Mitsubishi Boys’ School, Nagasaki Tuberculosis Clinic, and Keiho Boys’ High School. At Shiroyama Elementary School alone, 1400 children were killed instantly.
Growing up in this country in the 1970s and 80s, I remember Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor Day, being impressed into our memories at school, year after year, but I would guess that most Americans probably don’t know these days in August, the 6th and the 9th.
I know them only because I lived in Japan for five years, where the anniversaries are marked every year with events in support of world peace, and with bells followed by a moment of silence throughout the country at the times the bombs landed. Perhaps I remember also because I pulled something to read off my parents’ shelves when I was 12 or 13, which happened to be journalist John Hersey’s book Hiroshima. I’ve never been able to forget it, either the survivor accounts or the photographs.
As nations, we choose to remember and to teach our children what was done to us rather than what we perpetrated on others, with the assumption that the first justifies the second. Perhaps even more than other countries, ours has been vulnerable to a kind of national superiority complex, which makes our current situation all the more painful.
It becomes more difficult to love our country, and ourselves, when we are confronted with the ways we fail and oppress each other. This summer my prevailing weather has been exhaustion and dismay. Honestly, I’ve been appalled into silence. I’ve had no words for the casual brutality of our president, our institutions, our racism, our economic system devoted to concentrating the greatest amount of resources in the fewest possible hands, and our impact on our natural environment.
A line from a song keeps echoing in my head: Everything that happens is from now on. I read that this line was lifted from Alan Watts, but I couldn’t find the reference. At first hearing, it doesn’t seem to accord with the fact of impermanence, although it fits beautifully with Dogen’s nonlinear conception of time, in which the present includes both past and future. And for me it speaks to the bizarre mixture of urgency and stuckness I feel these days – politically and pandemically.
“Everything that happens is from now on.” So everything we do and don’t do matters, now and forever. That’s a sobering thought. And then there’s the feeling: will we never move beyond this place? As a woman working in a store confided the other day, “It’s monotonizing.” It makes us feel monotonous, literally, one-tonal.
The alien medical, social, and economic landscape that materialized in March is still here, and it looks to last quite a bit longer. No one knows how long, or how hard things will get. Already it feels like it’s lasted a long time, much longer than we expected, and we wonder when things will “get back to normal.”
I think “normal” is a bit of a chimera, a notion with no substance, because it’s purely relative. The same problem presents in psychology – what’s a normal amount of anxiety, grief, or anger? Under what conditions? A while back I saw a list titled, “Normal Human Responses to a Global Pandemic that Do Not Need to be Pathologized or Treated as Abnormal.” This is courtesy of Sarah Mariann Martland, a trauma specialist.
Her catalog of normal responses to a pandemic includes: anxiety about money, shelter, food, and other survival needs; generalized fear, anxiety, panic, and overwhelm; obsessive or intrusive thoughts, memories, or fears; resurgence of compulsive or addictive behaviors; depression, dissociation, shutdown, or hopelessness; feelings of abandonment, loneliness, or isolation; sense of loss of control or powerlessness; past traumas being triggered; thoughts and feelings about death and dying; feelings of anger, irritation, and frustration; feeling exhausted, unmotivated, and lethargic; hyper-focus, surges of energy, and relentless “doing” to distract; new illnesses or flares of chronic conditions. At the end of this inventory, the parenthetical phrase, “List not exhaustive.”
So these are the experiences that are normal now. I’m sure many of us can find ourselves on this list, probably multiple places at various times. And of course these feelings are normal even in normal times, although they are sometimes labeled with a diagnosis, partly because it’s much easier to tag an individual (“You’re out!”) than to inquire into the soul of a society. Or to acknowledge how that society’s inequities and abuses may lead people to feel and act in ways that are normal under those conditions, yet unacceptable to the society.
We resist normalizing pain, especially pain inflicted by human beings on other human beings, which psychological studies say is the most traumatizing kind of pain. Everything in us rebels against calling this kind of suffering normal, because normal also means okay, acceptable.
It’s disorienting to consider, in the face of a so-called novel virus, that everything happening now has happened before. Humans have suffered devastating plagues throughout our tenure on this earth. And also, throughout human history, groups of people linked by nationality, religion, race, class, gender, and sexual orientation, among other mostly random factors, have systematically and ruthlessly oppressed other groups of people merely for being other.
This summer I’ve read a few books about the theory and practice of psychotherapy, trying to integrate what I’m learning from Western psychology with Buddhism, since Buddhism is a psychology too – not only a spiritual practice, but also a theory of the mind and how to work with it. Recently I came across a discussion of the psychology of concern, which feels especially relevant to these days.
The writer, an existential-humanist psychologist named James Bugental, views concern as “a compass and an energy source” that guides and mobilizes our actions. First he acknowledges our usual understanding of the word, which includes some degree of anxiety, an orientation toward the future, and questions about one’s sense of power to affect a situation and how best to do so.
Then he focuses on what he calls therapeutic concern, or what I think of as transformative concern – concern that catalyzes change. He lays out four aspects of this kind of concern: suffering, hope, commitment, and inwardness.
Bugental asserts that while we may often be unaware of it, hope is almost always hidden somewhere within our anxiety – I had the image of a vein of crystal glimmering deep within a rock. He argues that even despair may have a hopeful aspect, because sometimes it’s the only thing that will move us toward change. Describing despair as “focused and intense concern,” he writes:
“What has happened, although we often do not recognize it at the time, is that we have searched to their (apparent) limits our present ways of defining who and what we are and what is the nature of the world in which we live…. We are confronted with the prospect of making fundamental changes in the way we see ourselves or conceive the world…. These are times when the familiar paths are no longer possible. Then we may experience the terrible but freeing effect of despair. It is a liberty dearly purchased – often with what we thought we valued most. But it is a freedom not otherwise to be found.”
In this understanding, the path to freedom winds through the slough of despair, and necessarily so, because we must relinquish our ideas of who we are and what our world is – beliefs in our own guiltlessness, in the possibility of safety and separateness, in the delusion that our comfort doesn’t rest on the suffering of other people and living beings. Renunciation may be a ticket out of despair. But what an expensive ticket it is. It costs us seemingly everything we know and rely on.
Bugental concludes, “When one is forced to confront the necessity of letting go of a cherished part of who one believes oneself to be or of what has always been the way of one’s world, a crisis of existence is encountered.” A crisis of how to be in the world.
So what’s the solution? Bugental’s last two aspects of concern are commitment and inwardness. They seem to hold promise. Commitment could also be called persevering intention, or vow. Bugental defines inwardness as “the readiness to look within oneself and to forego the temptation to blame others or circumstances.” This is an essential and neverending practice for both individuals and nations.
Depth psychology, a contemporary descendant of Carl Jung’s work, resembles Buddhism in that it treats suffering as a natural part of life and explores what our suffering asks of us – what shifts in perspective, what growth, what responses in the world.
Depth psychologist James Hollis writes about what he calls the swamplands of the soul: “When we arrive in swampland zones, we are always faced with a task. That task demands of us something larger than we customarily wish to provide. We are implicitly asked: ‘How am I to enlarge consciousness in this place; how embrace life here amid peril; how find the meaning…in this suffering?’”
We know that understanding painful experiences as a natural or normal part of life, which is the Buddha’s first Noble Truth, can soften them for us. It encourages us to take a wider perspective, an aerial view, opening greater spaciousness in our hearts and minds. This view, which extends beyond our small selves, is acceptance. We can accept things and still be pained by them, and also work to change them.
What about “embracing life here amid peril”? My shorthand for this is joy. Although Buddhism doesn’t hold up happiness as the goal of life, I think joy matters. Actively seeking and cultivating joy in difficult times is a worthy practice. Not to do so seems a waste, an attitude of thanklessness and blindness toward the world, an affront to the mundane marvels that help us weather sorrows and give us strength to work for change.
There’s a passage in the Talmud that says something like: when we die we will be called to account for every permissible thing we might have enjoyed but did not. Leaving aside the culturally variable definitions of “permissible” joy, I wonder what “account for” means?
Does it mean that we acknowledge them, these pleasures we might have savored but didn’t? This could be challenging, because often the reason for a missed joy is that we never even noticed its invitation; we simply walked by, taking it for granted, as we rarely do with our suffering.
Sometimes we perceive the possibility of joy, but we don’t allow ourselves to realize it because we’re working hard to survive, checking off an infinitely renewing to-do list, accumulating possessions in an effort to feel safe, or sacrificing to a morality in which joy is either devalued completely or allowed other people but not ourselves. Opportunities for joy may be easily neglected or dismissed, but the cost of doing so accumulates over a day, a week, and a life. I believe this is one of the challenges that this time asks us to rise to.
Many years ago Darlene Cohen spoke at San Francisco Zen Center about coping with the intense and pervasive suffering of rheumatoid arthritis by relishing each pain-free moment in which her foot left the ground between steps. Instead of letting these moments be obliterated by the seemingly larger and more significant experience of pain, she focused on them so intently that they became a celebration.
We don’t usually think of it, but in walking our feet leave the ground as often as they rest on it, so maybe Darlene was eventually able to make her ratio of joy and pain equal. Or maybe by feeding joy more of her attention, she enabled it to grow more powerful and meaningful to her than pain. We each of us have this ability to choose to nurture through our focus and attention what actually matters most to us. How do we use it?
These days, it’s certainly easy to feel overwhelmed, or swamped. I wonder how the gender-fluid bodhisattva of compassion Kannon, also called Guanyin and Avalokiteshvara, feels when they hear all the cries of our world. How could any heart hold everything their sensitive ears carry?
According to a legend recounted in the Complete Tale of Guanyin and the Southern Seas, a 16th-century Chinese novel, Guanyin vowed to free all sentient beings from the suffering of samsara and strove diligently to accomplish this vow. Despite her unstinting efforts and many successes, there were always more suffering beings needing help.
Redoubling her efforts to achieve her task caused Guanyin’s head to crack into eleven pieces. An early and graphic example of what we now call compassion fatigue. Amitabha Buddha responded to this crisis by bestowing on Guanyin eleven fully functioning heads, thus enabling her to hear even more of the world’s cries. However, in trying to reach all those whose sufferings she then heard, Guanyin shattered both her arms. This was when Amitabha graced her with the thousand arms for which she’s known.
I like this story because it conveys the familiar experiences of inadequacy and powerlessness that sometimes accompany our compassion. And it also promises that our capacity to help grows in response both to the world’s need and to our wholehearted efforts to meet it.
Our feelings of insufficiency need not hinder us. Instead, they can spark our potential. Our vulnerability can become our strength. When our heads or hearts or arms break into eleven or a thousand pieces, this can be the beginning of our story, not the end. Despair too can be a reason for hope. Because life’s brightest and darkest aspects are always and completely interdependent.