The strength of mind that comes from meditation, says NORMAN FISCHER, can help us end the denial that keeps a world of problems spinning.
an old Zen saying: “The world is topsy-turvy.” In other words, it’s an
upside-down, crazy world. This may seem like an extreme statement, but
only for a minute. If craziness means that we keep doing dysfunctional
and destructive things, even when ensuing disasters are apparent, then
it does seem that the world is crazy.
is not aware of this? Jon Stewart makes his living off it. But after we
finish laughing, we start crying: the state of the world is painful to
everyone. Yet the world careens onward in its topsy-turvy course,
causing a pervasive sense of inward dread we can’t afford to entertain.
This would explain the religious fanaticism, lunatic politics, myriad
addictions, and other social and psychological aberrations that are so
commonplace now. Deep down we all know the fix we’re in, but we can’t
afford to face it. It’s just too much.
present, several national economies, ours included, are dangerously
teetering. Jobs and basic social services are becoming scarce,
governments are bankrupt, and the economic arrangements that have served
us more or less (usually less) reasonably for so long begin to seem
untenable. Behind this economic crisis, and the pain and injustice it
has revealed, is a looming ecological crisis. The climate is certainly
changing, yet there are still people who deny the existence of
human-caused climate change, though the scientific consensus is clear.
So we remain divided and confused. Climate change isn’t on any serious
political candidate’s agenda these days. It’s entirely off the table.
Which is crazy.
What’s the alternative to all this denial? Is there a way we can digest, hold, and live with the scale of our current problems?
Buddha noticed that it is nearly impossible to take in all the
suffering of the world, and yet there is no avoiding it. So he began his
path with the insight that “all conditioned existence is marked with
suffering.” The path to peace doesn’t come from avoiding suffering, he
taught; it comes from facing and going through, rather than around, it.
You can’t find peace in a troubled world by denying its trouble.
practice makes denial impossible and truth sustainable. It is
impossible to sit on a meditation cushion for any length of time without
noticing suffering, within and without. But as consciousness opens up
little by little during the course of a practice life, it becomes big
enough and resilient enough to see and withstand great difficulty.
Though meditation practice may or may not help us produce rational
solutions to seemingly objective problems, it does give us wide vision
and deep stability in the face of difficult situations—and the courage
to sustain the effort to do something about them, even against great
odds. In trying times, these personal qualities may be just as important
as rational solutions. Maybe even more important.
Galewsky, an Everyday Zen priest from the Desert Mirror sangha in
Albuquerque, is a climate scientist. Recently his studies took him to
the polar ice caps of Peru, 18,600 feet above sea level, where he spent a
full day at the margin of a melting glacier. “The overall experience of
being in the presence of this glacier,” he writes in his blog, “is one
of immensity, stillness, and deep deep silence... The glacier is clearly
melting, for sure, but I really experienced it in terms of the most
basic Buddhist teaching of impermanence: All conditioned things arise,
abide for a time, and pass away. As far as we can tell, this particular
glacier has completely melted and regrown many times over the last
hundreds of thousands of years. This impermanence is also very
impersonal. It doesn’t matter what we think about it, or how we feel
about it, or how we vote, or what we drive. This impermanence is simply
the nature of things.”
may sound like Joe is suggesting that we relax about climate change.
But he’s not. he’s suggesting that if we’re going to be able to do
anything about climate change in the long run, we are going to need a
deeper, more mature, and grounded perspective.
goes on: “Don’t be too concerned for the earth, which is of the nature
of continuous ongoing change, or for the glacier, which has come and
gone many times in the past and will likely do so into the future, but
for sure, we should be concerned about our fellow humans. As people, we
are capable of a great deal of suffering, and climate change is likely
to create a lot of suffering for people. I think that’s where we should
place our emphasis in terms of where practice intersects climate
technical, and social action will bring the changes we need. There’s a
lot of work ahead. Cages to rattle, courage and imagination to manifest.
But we will need to sustain such effort over the long haul with
compassion and clarity of vision if we hope to get anywhere with it.
This is where meditation practice and other forms of serious spiritual
practice really help. With it, we grow in our capacity for patience,
fortitude, compassion, imagination, and love. Year by year, decade by
decade, our practice helps us become mature, kind, capable
individuals—the sort of people a troubled, crazy world will depend on to
maintain stability and good cheer.
the personal qualities spiritual practice fosters are the valuable
social skills it helps us develop. retreat practice teaches us to live
simply, enjoy quiet, be perfectly happy with only a little, and live in
supportive, harmonious community. These are skills the world at large
lacks and sorely needs.
lived for a number of years at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, the San
Francisco Zen Center’s monastic community in the Los Padres National
Forest. We kept a demanding schedule of daily meditation, work, formal
meals, and a round of daily ritual, living with no electricity, no heat,
and very little personal time or space. Of necessity, we had to be
self-sufficient, taking care of all cooking, cleaning, repair work,
and so on.
the life was rigorous and difficult to get used to, I felt happy and
content there. I stayed long enough so the template of monastic life
remains engraved on my spirit, a reference point for my life. Although
my life now is more complicated, inside I still live at Tassajara. I
know that if my material circumstances became reduced, I could be happy
with less—maybe happier. I don’t need to panic when the stock market
lurches or cower when it seems that our “way of life” might change in
a good practice: if you have an extra room in your house, practice
visualizing one or more of your friends or relatives living in that
room. You may think it would be hard to live with lots of people, as our
ancestors once did and people all over the world still do. Maybe so.
But if—as we did as Tassajara, and as my wife and I often did later with
our small children on rainy days indoors—you practice silent periods
during the day and maintain simple rules for ethical and courteous
conduct, then living together can be quite good. Maybe more satisfying
than private living in private homes that are empty most of the time.
few years ago I spent a day thinking about the future with a small
group of engineers, social scientists, and political theorists. One of
the engineers said that despite the enormity of the problem, climate
change can be greatly meliorated, because the technical solutions to do
it are available. But, he said, that makes no difference, since the
political possibility of applying the solutions is pretty much zero.
Ultimately, climate change—and probably all our social problems—are less
technical than moral problems, a collective failure of imagination and
courage, a narrowness of heart.
the end of the meeting I said, “If we are in for hard times, it will go
much better if our collective attitude is patience, kindness, love, and
compassion, rather than panic and selfishness. So maybe the cultivation
of these good qualities is really important now.” Everyone in the room
seemed to agree. That would not be a crazy thing to do.
teacher and poet Norman Fischer is founder of the Everyday Zen
Foundation. He served as co-abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center from
1995–2000. He has written many books of prose and poetry, including Sailing Home: Using Homer’s Odyssey to Navigate Life’s Perils and Pitfalls.