Losing Everything Can Mean Finally Beginning
On a recent morning one of my good friends, a very successful options trader I’ll call John, called me around 10 a.m. The stock market had dropped another 600 points and I expected him to be calling with an investment idea as he often does. Options traders can do well in scary times because the cost of options become more and more expensive with high volatility and John had been up 70 to 80 percent in the last two years. With my own tiny savings account, he has helped me (someone who knows next to nothing about finances) weather the storm a little better than I would have on my own.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t an investment idea at all. “I got cleaned out,” John said. “I’m done. I had over a million dollars yesterday. Now I’m in the negative.”
“What!” I shouted. John was the last person I expected to get taken out by the financial crisis. He’d gone to the best schools, worked at the best firms. These things don’t happen to people like him. But it had. His small brokerage firm had taken over his account without contacting him and began liquidating his positions at the lowest price, sucking out all his money into a virtual black hole – gone forever. I couldn’t believe it.
But it was what came next that shocked me more.
“You know,” he said, after telling me he was considering legal recourse. “This may sound weird. I may or may not get that money back, but I feel oddly free. I’m back to square one. I’m 22 again – nothing to lose.”
I have no interest in making light of people’s very real suffering in this financial downturn. (Thank God John has no children.) But since there seems to be little we can do but be patient with this economy, it struck me that there are incredible opportunities in this crisis for practice.
The weekend before this happened I’d been sitting at my longtime Zen teacher Steven Tainer’s house for his monthly weekend retreat. Steven was speaking about the concept of ownership – how through our false sense of a separate self, a self that takes every experience so incredibly personally, we delude ourselves into thinking that we really own things in a permanent way. He was speaking from a meditative perspective, explaining how we try to own our depression, our guilt, along with our happiness and successes, and how that burdens us with an incredibly heavy load. After all, feeling ownership can make us sad when the happiness we thought was ours goes away; or it can make us feel like horrible failures when we feel personally responsible for our depression, anger or guilt. It all poses such weight and seriousness. Fortunately, Steven said, there is a choice. From a perspective of ultimate truth, we are already free – now. The things we think we own are no more ours than clouds in an empty sky. “A Buddha owns nothing,” Steven said. “And since she doesn’t own anything, she can enjoy everything. She owns things in an empty way.”
Steven tends to speak in koans like this and I took the esoteric meaning into consideration. But having lost money in the stock market myself over the past few months I couldn’t help thinking of financial loss, my own and the entire world’s. The losses had made me feel ill, like a failure. But if I thought about it the way Steven was proposing, had that money ever really mine to begin with? I knew from having done this “self” investigation for years, this zazen, that if I really tried to nail down a separate me who owned that money, I wouldn’t be able to. Who was losing? Who had been winning?
My point is basically this: these ideas are common to Buddhist practitioners, but for most of us, myself included, they are just that: ideas. We read about them in Buddhist books or hear them from our teachers and think about them briefly before picking up all our assumptions and running our days on autopilot. But in times of real loss, times when we really have no choice but to let go of something we thought was ours forever – money, a house, a loved one – we have a great opportunity to see the impermanence in life honestly, directly, no frosting on top. For people who have no Buddhist practice, like John – who has never really meditated or studied Buddhist philosophy – starting at “square one”, what Suzuki Roshi called “beginner’s mind” (or as John called, “getting knocked on my butt”) can be a doorway to practice, or even to spiritual awakening. For longtime practitioners, it can renew the fire for practice, rather than just going through the motions.
After the call, I immediately drove over to John’s house to see him face-to-face. I figured he shouldn’t be alone and we went out to breakfast. I kept expecting him to break down, but he actually looked fresh and bright eyed, like a little boy. John never leaves his computer screen while the market is open. This was probably the first time he’d been out in the sunshine all year between the hours of 6 a.m. and 1 p.m. It was the first time he didn’t have to worry about losing everything. He said he felt like he was sneaking out of class.
I wasn’t sure what to say – how do you console someone who lost their life savings in a single day? – but John is a positive, resilient guy, and I decided to take a risk: I told him about the ownership concept my Zen teacher spoke of and said that, even though I felt terrible for him, who knows, this could be the best thing that ever happened to him, a rare gift. I worried that that might sound insensitive. But John’s eyes lit up. He couldn’t stop asking questions. We’d never talked much about Buddhism, but suddenly John was like a kid at a candy store. All the bins were open. “Tell me about meditation.” “I’ve got to meet your teacher.” “Maybe I should just become a monk – what do you think?”
I told him monkhood might be rushing things. (A Thich Nhat Hahn book and trying to sit for 15 minutes might be a better place to start.) We made plans to go to meditation classes in the area – and tried to think of ways John could get back on his feet financially. “I’m not sure how I’m going to pay rent,” he smiled. “But I haven’t felt this alive in a long time.”
Jaimal Yogis is the author of Saltwater Buddha, a memoir of surf travels published by Wisdom Publications. He lives in San Francisco. More at www.jaimalyogis.com.