“A meditative practice is not some “airy-fairy” process, but a way of getting in touch with our own life… it will have its effect on every phase of our life, on our relationships, our work, everything.” – Charlotte Joko Beck, from Everyday Zen.
What do we want from life? Universally, people want happiness. The problem is that all too often what people think will make them happy fails to do so; it may even end up making them miserable. We are looking for happiness in things and circumstances and relationships when this is a short-sighted understanding of the true nature of happiness. When the thing, circumstance, relationship that we want comes along, we are then, for a while, happy, and of course if what we want doesn’t come along, or what we do not want comes along, well then, the result is unhappiness. It is the most elemental teaching of Buddhism that all things, circumstances and relationships are inherently unstable, and when they change or wear out or go away, so does our happiness. Because of this, our lives are dominated by continuous movement of action and mind pursuing circumstances that will bring happiness, and this is an invariably failing strategy.
Now, if asked, most of us would generally describe our lives as more or less happy; we’re doing OK. But it is important to ask: what does this really mean? Is there not a great deal of tension, anxiety, anger, frustration, self-doubt, boredom and restlessness in most people’s lives, even if it is not of the crippling variety we would call upon a therapist or medication to help us with? What does real happiness look like? Are we not, in truth, in constant motion looking for happiness. And, in truth, aren’t persons with unshakeable happiness and well-being, that is, happiness and well-being that cannot be taken away by a change of circumstance, very rare? Perhaps we don’t even believe such a state of unshakeable well-being is possible.
Because of this, Buddhism describes the human condition as marked by “suffering.” But to describe our lives as “suffering” may seem a bit harsh – not really descriptive of the way we would evaluate our experience. Is Buddhism, then, a philosophy of gloom and doom, a philosophy that teaches detachment in the face of inescapable suffering, as many people mistakenly believe it to be, and therefore find it not speaking to their needs and experience? Quite the contrary.
What is the truth of the human condition? Isn’t it generally OK but changeable – like the weather – “partly sunny with periods of overcast with a possibility of rain and a slight chance of severe and possibly dangerous storms?” Certainly, we can all agree that a fair amount of suffering happens in any lifetime, some, more than others, but it is not the lives or the times that are marked by indisputable suffering that I wish to address. Rather, I’d like to address the average life and times that are like a typical weather forecast – generally pleasant to OK, not anything big to complain about. I want to address what it means to be OK and to examine whether it represents real happiness, or just a facade of the available happiness and well-being that an ordinary human being, living an ordinary life, is capable of and that Buddhism points us toward.
“If I were to scratch the surface of anyone I would find fear, pain and anxiety running amok. We all have ways to cover them up. We overeat, over-drink, overwork; we watch too much television. We are always doing something to cover up our basic existential anxiety.” – Beck
It seems we end up settling for the bouts of anxiety, anger, apathy, boredom, depression, and dissatisfaction, along with our addictions, great or small, as normal. It is what happens because we don’t know any other way, and so, we deal with this dissatisfaction by distracting ourselves with compulsive activity, but this is no cure, no path to a more satisfying, even joyful life.
There is an alternate translation for the word that is usually translated as “suffering” attributed to Buddhism, and it is, “unsatisfactory.” This is much closer to what Buddhism is getting at than the overtly terrible experiences we usually attribute to the word suffering. It’s the itch we cannot scratch, the general feeling that our lives are not as balanced, peaceful, wise, happy as they might be. It’s just OK – with some sense of an unsatisfactoriness that we are always running from while we run toward what we think will bring us more happiness, or at least, hold unhappiness at bay. Our lives are marked by endless movement and distraction, beginning with endless movement and distraction in our minds, reviewing and planning our strategies in the pursuit of happiness and the avoidance of unhappiness.
“What we really want is a natural life… life can be more open and joyful than we ever thought possible… We enter a discipline like Zen practice so that we can learn to live in a sane way… As we sit, we find that the primary thing we have to work with is our busy, chaotic mind… when the mind becomes clear and balanced… there can be an opening – and for a second we can realize who we really are.” – Beck
So what is this “sitting?” In a way, it can be looked at as a way to work with, understand, and master the restless movement and distraction in our lives, to really get in touch with this “unsatisfactoriness.” We will come face-to-face with this unsatisfactoriness when we sit in meditation as boredom, restlessness, and aversion to just letting things be naturally what they are as we encounter what it feels like to be still, to stop our habitual movement and searching for stimulation. We will experience the sitting as uncomfortable, challenging, in a way, unsatisfactory, and this is why Joko Beck, and all teachers emphasize the need for discipline. It is a very challenging practice.
We experience that while, for a short time, anyway, it isn’t a problem to make the body still, what we soon realize, in a manner we only dimly understood previously, is how resistant our minds are to being still. And so, we sit there, attempting to follow the instructions for meditation – focusing awareness on breathing, noticing the activity of the mind and how it distracts us from focusing on our breathing, and returning awareness to the breathing. Simple instruction, but – it is unbelievably challenging. Along the way, since we are focusing awareness, and experiencing the breathing and the activity of the mind, we begin to notice the content and themes of the mind. We notice how judgmental our minds are. We notice how it has difficulty staying in the present moment, how it careens between past and future. We notice how when judgmentalism and past and future come together we experience distressing and uncomfortable emotions. We want to stop this. We want to be distracted from this. We want to stop sitting and go “do something.”
And then…. As we stay with the sitting, as we stay with the breathing, as we stay with awareness, for a moment, the mind becomes quiet. There is an experience of balance. There is a feeling of what it is to just be. It is spacious and comfortable. It has the feel of absolute sanity. Then, the compulsion of the mind to go back into movement, into judgment, out of time, returns, and we’re back to our anxieties, our tensions, our unsatisfied mind. A great discovery is made. We have touched Heaven while doing nothing – not even thinking, – and we have gotten a glimpse of the source of Hell. When the thinking starts up again, so does the restlessness, the unsatisfactoriness.
“What we really want is a natural life… life can be more open and joyful than we ever thought possible.” In our sitting, we have glimpsed that natural life. We have glimpsed the experience of openness and joy – more than we ever thought possible. So we sit some more. We discover that sitting isn’t “airy, fairy.” We discover that it is work, and it takes discipline, and we discover that we are capable of happiness and well-being, not as the result of something we do, but by stopping all the doing to discover who we really are when not caught up in trying to make our lives happy. We discover that in just sitting, doing nothing – not even thinking – Life happens all by itself, and it is good – a good beyond circumstances.
So we continue to sit and learn more and more about how we make ourselves crazy and we learn how to quiet the spinning mind that is the source of the craziness while we learn to open into this miracle of discovering our natural self in a quiet mind. And with enough practice, we can stand our bodies up from the sitting, and walk into our lives and still be “sitting” in the quality of our presence with the moment. We discover the remarkable teaching that Zen (which actually is just the Japanese word for “sitting”) is everyday life. Happiness is everyday life, experienced with a mind that knows how to be still, that knows how to sit quietly when the activity of thinking is not needed for its appropriate and helpful function of working through something for a specific purpose. We discover the true intelligence of a quiet mind, and the true beauty of senses that are open, subtle and receptive. We begin to live our lives, just “sitting” and “it will have its effect on every phase of our life, on our relationships, our work, everything.” So, just sit. If you have the courage and discipline to really settle your unruly mind, you will find a life that is never unsatisfactory, and that is what real happiness is about.