The week before Christmas I awoke around 1:30 AM and could not go back to sleep. I had just finished co-leading the first Mindful Photography workshop the previous week at Hui Ho’olana with John Barclay, an amazing photographer and teacher. Erin and I had also enjoyed being together for the first time in our new house on Molokai. These were good, new, challenging experiences which I had dreamed about for a long time and worked hard to achieve. What woke me in the darkness of that morning was a message that emerged clearly and powerfully in these words: “I like the idea of things but not the reality of things.”
I lay there as the message repeated itself. “You like the idea of things but not the reality of things.” This was not a new revelation or a fresh insight. This is what I teach. However, there was something deeper and more insistent in the message that was calling to me. After a few minutes I realized I was not going back to sleep anytime soon so it might be well to get up and journal in response to this late night signal. Here is what I wrote:
Ordinary coping is an attempt to shape our experience to always match our idea of things. If our experience maps onto our precious idea of things, this is called “happiness” or “satisfaction”—getting what we want. This, we are taught, is the purpose of our lives and where we will find real meaning—it is the foundation for enjoying success.
We are addicted to the idea that shaping our lives to match our idea of things will bring us happiness. This is why New Year’s resolutions are both popular and universally futile. A new year brings a fresh start and with it new ideas about how things could be. Creativity and imagination bring wonderful things to life, but they can have a shadow side which is the entrancing nature of self-created (and self-centered) realities.
In Zen training we engage the practice of turning toward and engaging with the bare reality of things. Through steady engagement with our practices we come to realize that life is actually inconceivable. We can never settle on a single meaning, an enduring concept, a personal like or dislike that will capture and define this immense mystery. We continually plunge into life—the inconceivable nature of things just as they are—with the hope that we will make them better. This capacity to live in awe of the mystery and, at the same time, to engage the mundane world with intelligent care, is the purpose of spiritual practice and distinguishes it from self-help or psychological work. We are not continually trying to shape ourselves or the world to fit our idea of things. We are meeting things just as they are and yet working with them as skillfully as we can. Practice encourages and supports this skillfulness (upaya).
Unlike what most people hope, this practice shift does not result in learning to let go of our likes and dislikes—to live without preference. We do not practice in order to release all concepts and avoid thinking. We do not vow to forsake wholesome goals and aspirations. We will always have likes and dislikes. We will always have preferences. Hopefully we will always have a clear mind and a robust capacity to solve problems. But being attached to our preferences and demanding that they be met is inevitably painful. Freedom from this pain is found in the inconceivable nature of things—like and dislike drop away as mere concepts. They become irrelevant in a strange way, we come to realize they are just more thoughts about things. Intimacy with what is, is quite different from evaluating what is—trying again to see if it matches our idea of things.
For many of us, the shocking reality of the last few months has not matched our precious idea about how things should go. How many of us have heard words such as: “Surely this is not right! If this can happen, I don’t know what to believe, how to even think about life going forward.”
I was surprised to find that I was almost completely unaware of how closely I held the idea that my idea of things was reality. I held this view of the world because it allowed me to feel a sense of security, stability. I could delude myself that I was in charge, able to predict or control my circumstances. I felt hopeful. But life seems to be following some other route and evolving against a much larger plan than my personal preferences and expectations. The fantasied outcomes are fading and the unpredictable and inconceivable nature of reality is unfolding as life—and as my life.
We often feel fear when we lose what we cherish most. At some level we know full well that will happen. We grieve when the inevitable loses do occur and then we push ourselves to get over it, or move around it, to go through it, or get beyond it. When we can’t, we can rage at the affront as if it were a personal insult or we collapse in the face of challenges, unable to move forward. As hope for the fantasied outcome fades we often slide toward two polarities—hate and despair.
There is another way, but it requires a surrender to the mystery, to the inconceivable reality of things, and that grace-filled shift is called love.
All through the trip I had carried Paula D’Arcy’s new book Stars at Night with me. A few days after this night of disturbed sleep and insight I sent a message to Paula about getting together when I returned from Molokai. We had not seen each other in a long time and I hoped we could catch up. I sent her a small snippet of my evening reflections as if I had discovered something profound. Then finally, began to read her book. She writes poetically and was reflecting on how “darkness unfolds at light.” I was stunned to see the lessons so fully expressed in her writing that I had so clumsily written about in my email. I have to admit that I felt a little embarrassed by my message and apologized for what seemed like a sophomoric message to a woman who had come to her understanding of these same things through unimaginable loss. Here are some examples that stunned me.
In response to her immense loss and wrenching grief she reflects (p. 11):
I wonder if I have the courage to accept this rare and beautiful gift called life, which is also able to wound in this way. This gift, it is now apparent, is something I have never understood at all. I wonder what wants to live. That question seems important. (p. 11)
In time, perhaps, the bewilderment and fright will lessen. Right now I am being washed clean and wrung out. The fact that I once thought I knew what life was about would make me laugh, if I could laugh. All my former certainties lie exposed. I remember fighting stubbornly to prove myself right about things, and believing that I was right. I recall everything I took for granted. What was that, that life I was leading? Behind the facade, behind the image of the person I thought myself to be, is there a truth worth knowing? How many things were never seen never guessed? What have I missed? A small clarity arises. I was not the center, even though I felt that way. I was not the center. The small story of my life was not the point. It left so much unborn. (pp. 13-14)
Through her narrative she also introduced a lovely new poet to me, Dorothy Walters. Here is her poem that shines light on this cycle of remembering and forgetting.
~ Dorothy Walters
First, you must let your heart
be broken open
in a way you have never
not know if what you are
is anguish or joy,
or merely old wounds
flowing once more,
reminders of all that is
unfinished in your life.
Something will flood into
like air sweetened by
love that is too
You will stand there,
not seeing what this is.
Later, you will not remember
any of this
until the next time
when you will say,
yes, yes, I have known this before,
it has come again,
just as your eyes fold under
As I lived with the poem and began to digest its meaning I read further. I came upon these simple words and an image that reflected both my morning insights and the poet’s message. I could hardly believe the words I was reading.
We all hide our eyes when we enter the light after being in a dark space for a long time. The change is powerful. We struggle because it is more familiar to relater to the idea of things than to relate to the things themselves. (p. 100)