Life is Tough. Here is the First of Six Ways to Deal With It
For Norman's full essay, see lionsroar.com.
BY NORMAN FISCHER| Lion’s Roar, APRIL 3, 2018
There’s an old Zen saying: the whole world’s upside down. In other words, the way the world looks from the ordinary or conventional point of view is pretty much the opposite of the way the world actually is. There’s a story that illustrates this.
Once there was a Zen master who was called Bird’s Nest Roshi because he meditated in an eagle’s nest at the top of a tree. He became quite famous for this precarious practice. The Song Dynasty poet Su Shih (who was also a government official) once came to visit him and, standing on the ground far below the meditating master, asked what possessed him to live in such a dangerous manner. Theroshi answered, “You call this dangerous? What you are doing is far more dangerous!” Living normally in the world, ignoring death, impermanence, and loss and suffering, as we all routinely do, as if this were a normal and a safe way to live, is actually much more dangerous than going out on a limb to meditate.
While trying to avoid difficulty may be natural and understandable, it actually doesn’t work. We think it makes sense to protect ourselves from pain, but our self-protection ends up causing us deeper pain. We think we have to hold on to what we have, but our very holding on causes us to lose what we have. We’re attached to what we like and try to avoid what we don’t like, but we can’t keep the attractive object and we can’t avoid the unwanted object. So, counterintuitive though it may be, avoiding life’s difficulties is actually not the path of least resistance; it is a dangerous way to live. If you want to have a full and happy life, in good times and bad, you have to get used to the idea that facing misfortune squarely is better than trying to escape from it.
This is not a matter of grimly focusing on life’s difficulties. It is simply the smoothest possible approach to happiness. Of course, when we can prevent difficulty, we do it. The world may be upside down, but we still have to live in this upside-down world, and we have to be practical on its terms. The teaching on transforming bad circumstances into the path doesn’t deny that. What it addresses is the underlying attitude of anxiety, fear, and narrow-mindedness that makes our lives unhappy, fearful, and small.
Transforming bad circumstances into the path is associated with the practice of patience.
Turn All Mishaps Into the Path
The first slogan, Turn all mishaps into the path, sounds at first blush completely impossible. How would you do that? When things go alright we are cheerful—we feel good and have positive spiritual feelings—but as soon as bad things start happening, we get depressed, we fall apart, or, at the very best, we hang on and cope. We certainly do not transform our mishaps into the path. And why would we want to? We don’t want the mishaps to be there; we want them gone as soon as possible.
Yet, the slogan tells us, we can turn all of this into the path. We do that by practicing patience, my all-time favorite spiritual quality. Patience is the capacity to welcome difficulty when it comes, with a spirit of strength, endurance, forbearance, and dignity rather than fear, anxiety, and avoidance. None of us likes to be oppressed or defeated, yet if we can endure oppression and defeat with strength, without whining, we are ennobled by it. Patience makes this possible. In our culture, we think of patience as passive and unglamorous; other qualities like love or compassion or insight are much more popular. But when tough times cause our love to fray into annoyance, our compassion to be overwhelmed by our fear, and our insight to evaporate, then patience begins to make sense. To me it is the most substantial, most serviceable, and most reliable of all spiritual qualities. Without it, all other qualities are shaky.
The practice of patience is simple enough. When difficulty arises, notice the obvious and not so obvious ways we try to avoid it—the things we say and do, the subtle ways in which our very bodies recoil and clench when some- one says or does something to us that we don’t like.
To practice patience is to notice these things and be fiercely present with them (taking a breath helps; returning to mindfulness of the body helps) rather than reacting to them. We catch ourselves running away and we reverse course, turning toward our afflictive emotions, understanding that they are natural in these circumstances—and that avoiding them won’t work. We forestall our flailing around with these emotions and instead allow them to be present with dignity. We forgive ourselves for having them, we forgive (at least provisionally) whoever we might be blaming for our difficulties, and with that spontaneous forgive- ness comes a feeling of relief and even gratitude.
This may strike you as a bit far-fetched, but it is not. Yet it does take training. We are not, after all, talking about miracles; we are not talking about affirmations or wishful thinking. We are talking about training the mind. If you were to meditate daily, bringing up this slogan, Turn all mishaps into the path, in your sitting, writing it down, repeating it many times a day, then you could see that a change of heart and mind can take place in just the way I am describing. The way you spontaneously react in times of trouble is not fixed.
Your mind, your heart, can be trained. Once you have a single experience of reacting differently, you will be encouraged, and next time it is more likely that you will take yourself in hand. When something difficult happens, you will train yourself to stop saying, “Damn! Why did this have to happen?” and begin saying, “Yes, of course, this is how it is. Let me turn toward it, let me practice with it, let me go beyond entanglement to gratitude.”
Because you will have realized that because you are alive and not dead, because you have a human body and not some other kind of a body, because the world is a physical world and not an ethereal world, and because all of us together as people are the way we are, bad things are going to happen. It’s the most natural, the most normal, the most inevitable thing in the world. It is not a mistake, and it isn’t anyone’s fault. And we can make use of it to drive our gratitude and our compassion deeper.