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Shambhala Sun | September 2009
You'll find this article on page 42 of the magazine.

Love, Loss and Anxious Times

Fear and uncertainty mark our lives as we face our personal difficulties and an increasingly troubled world. Yet in difficult times we can also discover the love and vulnerability of the human heart, and so much more. Poet and Zen teacher Norman Fischer is our guide.

One day in January, feeling expansive and cheerfully open to being interrupted, I answered the phone in my study. Sherril was on the line. “Alan just died in Baltimore,” she said. “Can you come over right now?”

Alan is Sherril’s husband and my closest friend. We’d known each other forty years, since our days as students at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, through years of Zen practice, through Alan becoming a rabbi and my ordination as a Zen priest, through establishing a Jewish meditation center together, through retreats, teaching sessions, workshops, marriages, divorces, children, grandchildren. We had shared so much for so long that we took each other’s presence in the world as a given.

I got in the car and drove to San Francisco in a daze—one I may never recover from.

Our first response to loss, difficulty, or pain is not surrendering to what has happened. It seems so negative, so wrong, and we don’t want to give in to it. Yet we can’t help thinking and feeling differently, and it is the thinking and the feeling—so unpleasant and painful—that is the real cause of our suffering. These days many of us experience troubled thinking and feeling because times are tough. So many are losing jobs, savings, homes, expectations. And if we are not losing these things ourselves, we are receiving at close range the suffering of others who are losing them, and we are reading and hearing about all this in the media and on the web, which daily depict the effects of economic anxiety all over the world. We are all breathing in the atmosphere of fear and loss.

In one of our last conversations, Alan shared a teaching about death. He had a sense of humor, and his spiritual teachings were often odd and funny, sometimes even ridiculous, which made their profundity all the more poignant. This teaching involved his fountain pen collection, which was extensive and worth a lot of money. He had sold several thousand dollars’ worth of pens to a man he’d contacted online. Before payment was mailed, the man, some years younger than Alan, suddenly died. Since there was no good record of the transaction, the attorney who was handling the estate for the widow said he would not pay. Alan could have hired his own attorney to recover the money, but it wasn’t worth the trouble and expense, so he ate the loss. “But I didn’t mind,” he said, “because I learned something that I should have known and thought I knew, but actually I didn’t know: when you’re dead you can’t do anything.” He told me this with great earnestness. As if it had never occurred to him before that when you’re dead you can’t do anything anymore.

In a memorial retreat we held a few days after Alan’s death, a retreat full of love and sorrow, I repeated this story. I said that since Alan was now dead and couldn’t do anything, we would now have to do something because we were still alive. What that something was, I didn’t know. I only knew that somehow, in the face of a great loss, one does something different than one would otherwise have done. So this is what I learned (with Alan’s help) about the meaning of loss: love rushes into the absence that is loss, and that love brings inspired action. If we are able to give ourselves to the loss, to move toward it—rather than recoil in an effort to escape, deny, distract, or obscure—our wounded hearts become full, and out of that fullness we will do things differently, and we will do different things.

The Tibetan Buddhist master Chögyam Trungpa talks about a soft spot, a raw spot, a wounded spot on the body or in the heart. A spot that is painful and sore. A spot that may emerge in the face of a loss. We hate such spots so we try to prevent them. And if we can’t prevent them we try to cover them up, so we won’t absentmindedly rub them or pour hot or cold water on them. A sore spot is no fun. Yet it is valuable. Trungpa Rinpoche calls the sore spot embryonic compassion, potential compassion. Our loss, our wound, is precious to us because it can wake us up to love, and to loving action.

When sudden loss or trouble occurs, we feel shock and bewilderment, as I did when Alan died. We wonder, what just happened? For so long we expected things to be as they have been, had taken this as much for granted as the air we breathe. And suddenly it is not so. Maybe tomorrow, we think, we will wake up to discover that this devastating change was all just a temporary mistake, and that things are back to normal. (After Alan’s death I had some dreams that he hadn’t actually died, that it had all been some sort of correctable slipup). After the shock passes, fear and despair arrive. We are anxious about our uncertain future, over which we have so little control. It’s easy to fall into the paralysis of despair, caroming back to our childish default position of feeling completely vulnerable and unprepared in a harsh and hostile world. This fearful feeling of self-diminishment may darken our view to such an extent that we find ourselves wondering whether we are worthwhile people, whether we’re capable of surviving in this tough world, whether we deserve to survive, whether our lives matter, whether there is any point in trying to do anything at all.

This is what it feels like when the raw spot is rubbed. The sense of loss, the despair, and the fear are terrible and we hate it, but it is exactly what we need. It is the embryo of compassion stirring to be born. Birth is painful.

Too many people in times like these just don’t have the heart to do spiritual practice. But these are the best times for practice, because motivation is so clear. Practice is not simply a lifestyle choice or a refinement. There is no choice. It’s a matter of survival. The tremendous benefit of simple meditation practice is most salient in these moments. Having exhausted all avenues of activity that might change your outward circumstances, and given up on other means of finding inner relief for your raging or sinking mind, there is nothing better to do than to sit down on a chair or cushion and just be present with your situation. There you sit, feeling your body. You try to sit up straight, with some basic human dignity. You notice you are breathing. You also notice that troubling thoughts and feelings are present in the mind. You are not here to make them go away or to cover them up with pleasant and encouraging spiritual slogans. There they are, all your demons, your repetitive negative themes. Your mind is (to borrow a phrase from the poet Michael Palmer) a museum of negativity. And you are sitting there quietly breathing inside that museum. There is nothing else to do. You can’t fix anything—the situation is beyond that. Gradually it dawns on you that these dark thoughts and anxious feelings are just that—thinking, feeling. They are exhibits in the museum of negativity, but not necessarily realities of the outside world. This simple insight—that thoughts and feelings are thoughts and feelings—is slight, but it makes all the difference. You continue to sit, continue to pay attention to body and breath, and you label everything else “thinking, thinking; feeling, feeling.” Eventually you are able to pick up your coat from the coat check and walk out of the museum into the sunlight.

Confronting, accepting, being with negative thinking and feeling, knowing that they are not the whole of reality and not you, is the most fruitful and beneficial of all spiritual practices—better even than experiencing bliss or oneness. You can practice it on the meditation cushion in the simple way I have described, but you can also practice it in other ways.

Journaling practice can be a big help. Keep a small notebook handy during the day and jot down an arresting word or phrase when you read or hear one. From time to time look at these words or phrases (they need not be uplifting or even sensible; they can be quite odd or random) and select the ones that attract you. These become your list of journaling prompts. When you have time, sit down with your notebook (doing this in a disciplined way, at a certain time each day, is best), choose a prompt, and write rapidly and spontaneously for ten to fifteen minutes, pen never leaving the paper, whatever comes to mind, no matter how nonsensical or irrelevant it may seem. In this way you empty out your swirling mind. You curate your own exhibition of negativity. It can be quite entertaining and even instructive.

Another way to reorient yourself with your thoughts and feelings is to share them with others. If you are feeling fear or despair these days, you can be sure that you are not alone. No doubt many of your friends and family members are feeling this as well. Rather than ignoring your anxieties—which tend to proliferate like mushrooms in the dark room of your closeted mind—or complaining obsessively about them to everyone you meet, which also increases the misery, you can undertake the spiritual discipline of speaking to others.

Taking a topic or a prompt from your notebook, or cueing off something you’ve read or written, or simply distilling what you have been thinking or feeling into a coherent thought, you can speak to one or more people in a structured way. Bring a few friends together. Divide yourselves into groups of three or four. After five minutes of silence to collect your thoughts, have each person speak as spontaneously as possible for five to seven minutes on the chosen topic. The others just listen—no questions, no comments. If it seems useful, one person can give feedback to the speaker. Not advice (it is a much better practice if advice and commentary are outlawed), but simply reviewing for the speaker, in your own words, what you have heard him or her say. Listening to what you have said repeated back to you in another’s voice can be extremely illuminating. And forgetting about your own trouble long enough to actually listen to another is a great relief. It is likely to cause you to feel sympathy, even love. There is no better medicine than thinking of others, even if for only five minutes.

Working with these practices, you’ll get a grip on the kinds of thinking and feeling that arise when conditions are difficult. The goal is not to make the thoughts and feelings go away: when there is loss or trouble, it is normal to feel sorrow, fear, despair, confusion, discouragement, and so on. These feelings connect us to others, who feel them as we do, so we don’t want to eliminate them. But it would be good to have some perspective—and occasional relief—so these thoughts don’t get the best of us and become full-blown demons pushing us around.

Having considered some extensions of meditation practice, let’s return to the basic practice. When you sit, noticing the breath and the body on the chair or cushion, noticing the thoughts and feelings in the mind and heart and perhaps also the sounds in the room and the stillness, something else also begins to come into view. You notice the most fundamental of all facts: you are alive. You are a living, breathing, embodied human being. You can actually feel this—feel the feeling of being alive. You can rest in this basic feeling, the nature of life, of consciousness, the underlying basis of everything you will ever experience—even the negativity. Sitting there with this basic feeling of being alive, you will feel gratitude. After all, you didn’t ask for this; you didn’t earn it. It is just there, a gift to you. It won’t last forever, but for now, in this moment, here it is, perfect, complete. And you are sharing it with everything else that exists in this stark, basic, and beautiful way. Whatever your problems and challenges, you are, you exist in this bright world with others, with trees, sky, water, stars, sun, and moon. If you sit there long enough and regularly enough you will feel this, even in your darkest moments.

And based on this experience, you will reflect differently on your life. What is really important? How much do your expectations and social constructs really matter? What really counts? What is the bottom line for a human life?

To be alive. Well, you are alive.

To love others and be loved by others. Well, you do love, and it is within your power to love more deeply. And if you do, it is guaranteed that others will respond to you with more love.

To be kind to others and to receive kindness is also within your power, regardless of expectations, losses, and circumstances.

You need to eat every day, it is true. You need a good place to sleep at night. You need some sort of work to do, but probably you have these things, and if you do you can offer them to others. Once you overcome the sting and virulence of your naturally arising negativity, and return to the feeling of being alive, you will think more clearly about what matters more and what matters less in your life.

You will see that regardless of your conditions you can participate in what matters most. You will see that in the big picture of things, you have what you need and there is plenty to be grateful for—and plenty to do based on this gratitude. You may not have as many impressive appointments to keep as you did when you were busy with your high-powered job. But you have more time to keep up with friends and family—to call and say hello, how did your day go, happy birthday, happy anniversary, happy holiday, and, oh yes, I love you and am glad you are in my life.

You may not be able to afford a fancy gourmet meal or the person who comes to clean the house, but you can prepare with great care some steamed greens with olive oil and lemon and share it with someone you love, and clean up the house yourself, noticing, maybe for the first time, how good the workmanship is on this dining room chair as you dust and polish its legs. Living more slowly and simply—although this may not be what you wanted or expected—may not turn out to be so bad after all.

My personal reference point for material happiness is a memory I have of my days at the Tassajara Zen monastery, where I lived for five years when I was young. Tassajara is in a narrow mountain canyon that can get pretty cold in the winter months, when very little sun gets in. Our rooms in those days were unheated, so the cold really mattered.

I remember winter mornings standing at a certain spot in the center of the compound, where the first rays of the day’s warm sunlight would come. So far, no material luxury I have encountered surpasses this, and I feel it again every time I feel the sun’s warmth.

Hard times are painful and no rational person would ever think to bring them on intentionally. Quite the contrary, ordinary human day-to-day life is mostly about trying to avoid the financial, health, romantic, and psychological disasters that seem to be lurking around every corner. So we do not valorize or seek out what is hard or unpleasant. Yet disasters are inevitable in a human lifetime, and it is highly impractical not to welcome them when they come.

Hard times remind us of what’s important—what’s basic, beautiful, and worthwhile about being alive. The worst of times bring out the best in us. Abundance and an excess of success and good fortune inevitably bring complications and elaborations that fill our lives with more discrimination and choice. We like this, and seek it, but the truth is that it reduces joy. We are less appreciative of what we have. Our critical capacities grow very acute, and we are always somewhat skeptical of whatever excellence we are currently enjoying, ready to reject it in a moment, as soon as something we recognize as superior comes along, whether it’s a new phone or a new spouse. When there’s less, there’s more appreciation, more openness to wonder and joy, more capacity to soften critical judgment and simply celebrate what happens to be there, even if it is not the best, even if it is not so good. It is and there’s a virtue merely in that. The sun in the morning and the moon at night.

I remember my friend Gil, like Alan also gone now, who went to India to relieve the misery of poverty-stricken villagers by offering them expert eye care. He was shocked to gradually realize that these destitute, ill-schooled villagers were happier and wiser than he and his prosperous, well-educated friends in San Francisco. This is when Gil began his spiritual practice.

In retrospect we can see that the last fifty years or so of ever-increasing prosperity and opportunity have been based on an enthusiastic, exuberant, and naive lust for material goods—as if the goods themselves, and not our satisfaction in them, were the source of our happiness. That lust so raised the bar on what we expect to possess—the houses, cars, vacations, gadgets, information—that we have lost all sense of proportion and have forgotten almost entirely how our ancestors lived and how most of the world still lives. The various economic bubbles produced by that exuberance have proved to be much shakier than they seemed when we were in the midst of them.

Most experts on the economy predict a slow period of a year or more, to be followed, inevitably, by a return to the upward-reaching growth economy we have come to feel is as reliable as a law of nature. But suppose they are not correct. Suppose we are reaching limits on a limited planet, and that we are in for a long period of reduced circumstances. What if in the future we won’t have top-notch medical care, high-performance cars, houses, and abundant energy? Such an eventuality might cause a crisis of despair due to dashed expectations, and usher in the sort of dystopian nightmares we’ve seen in movies or novels, with chaos and violence everywhere. Or it could bring the opposite—more happiness, more sharing, more wisdom, bigger hearts. More people growing gardens, cooking food, working on farms, taking care of others. A slower, more heartfelt and realistic style of living, and a move toward dying at home surrounded by friends and spiritual supporters rather than in high-tech hospitals hooked into alienating machines run by busy professionals.

This probably won’t be the case; the economists are probably right that things will return to what we have come to call normal after a while, maybe after only a year or two. But even so, it would be a healthy exercise to visualize and celebrate this simpler, sparer life—and maybe even to live it.

To browse all the contents of our September 2009 issue, plus related web-only exclusives, click here.

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