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Zen and Personal Crisis

Path leading into bamboo forest


Excerpt from Grassroots and Zen: Community and Practice in the Twenty-First Century by Perle Besserman and Manfred Steger. 

When we say, “There’s a problem in my life, so I don’t have time for practice,” we are separating ourselves from our practice, turning it into an object “out there.” In fact, we’re objectifying both our practice and our problem. “I am getting divorced,” for example, becomes a thing outside, opposed to the self. Zazen, too, is just another external, disconnected object at loggerheads with our sense of self. By separating or disconnecting ourselves from this thing called “divorce” and this thing called “Zen practice,” we’re actually increasing the pain that’s already been brought about by the divorce. We can’t really deal with our situation because we don’t enter it fully. By externalizing it, we don’t truly become one with what’s going on right now, so we’re always a step too late. We start thinking in endless circles, mulling over our crisis, trying to tackle it, as if it were an obstacle blocking our path. Because we’re spending so much energy wrestling with it, we have no time for other “external objects,” such as Zen practice.

This happens when we haven’t yet become truly intimate with Zen; we haven’t understood, down to our very bones, that it isn’t incidental to our lives. We don’t see that—like shopping for groceries, fixing the car, buying a new home or losing the old one—our personal crises are not external things. They are instead the very context of our Zen practice. They’re all the little threads comprising the tapestry we call our life, which is beautifully revealed in the act of sitting. 

Try the following when you are experiencing an intense moment of crisis. Simply focus on your breath as you inhale and exhale, and you’ll find that what you thought of as the external, solid form of your crisis isn’t solid at all. You’ll see that it’s not a rock in the middle of the road but a fluid, changing, transitory event. Let the breath show you that the pain you experience as a response to your crisis is not absolute but relative; it is part of a vast web of interdependence that consists of breathing, sitting, talking, walking, and, yes, feeling pain. Let the breath reveal the skein of interwoven moments that make up your life tapestry, the patterns of experience, the likes and dislikes. You’ll find out soon enough that Zen is not an extracurricular, fair-weather practice.

Grassroots Zen—ordinary life—has no external referent, nothing outside of itself. This is especially true during moments of personal crisis, when we most need zazen in order to enter the moment.

One foot in front of the other

Chinese painting is famous for its natural landscapes. Mountains, trees, valleys, and rivers often take up the most space on the paper scrolls depicting the wilderness. But sometimes there’s a tiny wandering sage in straw sandals wearing a backpack, trudging gaily through the woods, from the peaks to the valleys, from the riverbanks to the mountains. At times, he’s clearly having difficulty climbing. At other times, he’s taking it easy, sitting on a raft and floating down the river. In some paintings, it’s raining and in others, the sun is shining. Yet, regardless of the external circumstances (context) the wandering sage always continues his journey. Although they’re always changing, circumstances and journey are really one.

We have to be like that wandering sage, allowing ourselves to feel the pain and exertion that comes with climbing the mountain, and not stopping with the excuse that it’s too painful to continue. Putting one foot in front of the other and moving on is the same as paying attention to one breath after the next. That’s zazen. That’s our practice. Personal crisis is Zen. Zen is personal crisis. Always transforming, personal crisis is just one context in the ever-changing picture of life’s patterns. Only by fully entering into the picture, by knowing that the context is always a plurality of things, are we able to let go and see that change. Only then are we able to transform ourselves, and our crisis. Which are really one and the same. No “me” inside here, and no “crisis” happening out there. 

If we are to open fully to the event that has become the context of our practice, instead of using a crisis as an excuse to avoid doing zazen, we need to pay attention to the moment and to the breath. It’s essential to “march on bravely,” as Nakagawa Soen Roshi would urge his flagging students. Now more than ever. 

There is nothing we can do to the “external environment.” Transformation comes by itself. We just have to allow it to happen. This doesn’t mean being passive or fatalistic about things. Rather, it’s being watchful, careful not to slip into the abyss of despair. On the other hand, we may think we’re being “spiritual” or “detached” by refusing to identify ourselves with the hard times. But we’re really fooling ourselves. That’s just another way of closing off to the context of our practice.

What emerged from our conversations with our friend who’d lost her home to the tornado was no false detachment, but a basic centeredness, the refusal to be dragged around by the event. It was a mark of her commitment to her Zen practice. In the middle of her troubles, she knew that her true home could never be destroyed. Six months later, she called to tell us that she and her husband and sons were planting new trees on the property around the lake. “It’s amazing how the grass has grown back even thicker and greener than before,” she said. Then, after a slight pause, she added, “After all these years of painting, I feel I’ve finally come to understand what ‘green’ is.”

Excerpted here from Grassroots and Zen: Community and Practice in the Twenty-First Century by Perle Besserman and Manfred Steger by kind permission of Monkfish Book Publishing Company in Rhinebeck, NY 

Married university professors and authors Manfred Steger and Perle Besserman (aka Perle Epstein) studied first under the cultural weight of Japanese Zen, then with the light-footed lay master Robert Aitken. Founders of the Princeton Area Zen Group in NJ, they have been teaching their democratic, grassroots-style of Zen for over twenty-five years.

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