“One way to evaluate our practice is to see whether life is more and more OK with us… More and more we know that whatever happens, however much we hate it, however much we have to struggle with it – in some way, it’s OK… We grow in understanding and appreciation of the perfection of each moment… we grow in being able to say, ‘Yes, it’s OK.”
– Charlotte Joko Beck (from Everyday Zen)
The central purpose of Buddhist teaching and practice is to understand and overcome the causes of human emotional suffering, yet, “suffering” is a rather vague and abstract term. Mostly we associate the word with extreme physical and emotional pain, and while Buddhism’s use of the word certainly contains these extreme and obvious examples, it really is also meant to address mental states of far greater subtlety. We know it must mean being unhappy, even miserable, but it doesn’t give us a good practical handle on understanding where this unhappiness, this misery, is coming from and what we can do. We too easily associate suffering with its infliction by sources and conditions outside ourselves, rather than as a state of mind within us, when in fact, that’s precisely what it is. That’s why I so greatly appreciated Charlotte Joko Beck’s bringing the issue of suffering and enlightenment down to a most practical level. She asks: Are you OK? And tells us, that if there’s something in your life with which you are not OK, that’s the growth edge of your practice. It’s you who is not OK with something, not that the something is not OK in itself. Our suffering, unhappiness, and misery is not out there, it is in here, in our own minds.
This is very similar to Eckhart Tolle addressing the suffering issue by expressing it in terms of being in resistance to what is. Are you in emotional resistance to something? – then, it must be causing you unhappiness and some degree of suffering. Again, very useful, yet, still a bit abstract. Just what does “resistance” mean?
There’s nothing abstract about whether you are OK with something or not. When you are not OK with something, you know it. What Zen is teaching us is that if you can know it, you can work with it, and in working with it, you can transform your attitude toward it. You can grow from a state of not-OK to OK. In other words, you can grow from suffering to not suffering, from resistance to acceptance.
Eckhart Tolle teaches us that “pain is not suffering; pain plus story is suffering.” Do you see? Pay attention to the next time your dog or cat is sick or injured. They don’t suffer. They are just slowed down, incapacitated by the sickness or injury in some way. Remember the last time you were significantly sick or injured. If you are like most of us, you suffered not only with whatever actual incapacitation you experienced, you suffered mentally. You were not OK with being sick or injured. You had a story in your mind about how not OK it was , even scary, to be sick or injured. Your dog or cat is OK with being sick or injured; they have not created a story of affliction by the sickness or injury. We human beings tend to do just that. We tell ourselves a story of how it is not OK to be sick or injured, or financially broke, or in relationship crisis, or to have a difficult boss or co-workers, or that world and national or local politics are not going the way we want, and so we suffer.
Taking this further, Joko Beck asks us, would it be OK with you if you were told you have one more day to live? Or if your arms and legs had to be amputated? Or if you were never again to receive a kind or friendly or encouraging word from anyone? Or if you had to be in pain and bedridden for the rest of your life? And her list goes on through some gruesome, awful scenarios.
She then says, “to answer ‘OK’ is the enlightened state,” while acknowledging that she herself (this acknowledged Zen Master) cannot say OK to these things. She goes on to say: “for something to be OK, it doesn’t mean that I didn’t scream, or cry, or protest, or hate it. Singing and dancing are the voice of the dharma, and screaming and moaning are the voice of the dharma. For these things to be OK for me doesn’t mean that I’m happy about them. If they’re OK, what does that mean? What is the enlightened state? When there is no longer any separation between myself and the circumstances of my life, whatever they may be.”
This is what Tolle means by no resistance. It’s not about being passive or numb. It’s about being wise. For the truth is that in all these scenarios, we become OK with these circumstances through the passage of time, as the separation between our self-image and the reality of our situation disappears, as we get use to being an amputee, a political prisoner or a chronic pain patient – or blind, or deaf, or battle with cancer, or adjust to going broke. Being OK means we no longer are victims of our circumstance, we no longer experience being victims. We just live with what we’ve got to live with and don’t fill our minds with stories of how horrible it is.
When we become OK with whatever Life hands us, we become whole again where there had been a hole, a separation between ourselves and our circumstance. This is not new to us. We’ve all done it with various difficulties in our life. We are not OK when the unwanted, even dreaded circumstance becomes a possibility, even more not OK when it becomes a reality and then, with time, we become OK. We’re not victims. It’s just who we are. The wisdom here, the skill here is developing the ability to see when we go into not-OK-ness and realize the outside affliction has now become an affliction of the mind, and rather than being passive and depending on time to restore us to OK, we make the mental adjustment ourselves as we also take what appropriate actions we can to address the circumstance. As the intriguing vernacular of Zen says: “This is this” or, “what-is-just-is.” There is no wisdom in being separated, in resistance, in suffering over what is.
The practice of Zen is in increasing insight and skill at becoming conscious of what causes us suffering and instead of being dragged kicking and screaming to eventually becoming OK, we just make the mental adjustment to our circumstance, let go of our resistance, and become OK with it. We get in front of and initiate, rather than being dragged to, the process of being OK. This also has the effect of increasing our skill in the actions we take about the circumstance, as the action is not now arising out of a desperate mind clouded by fear or anger.
How do we do this? By having a larger frame to view and experience Life than the very small frame of ego that simply wants what it wants, and in effect, throws tantrums when it doesn’t get what it wants. The irony is that all the ego really wants is to be happy, but like a greedy child, it has no idea of how to accomplish happiness. Happiness is the result of a life lived resenting nothing, experiencing great gratitude and conducting oneself in a fundamentally ethical and responsible way so that situations and relationships are not constantly blowing up in our face. Happiness is the result of wisdom, and wisdom is the result of perspective, and perspective is to see Life in as big a frame as we are capable of.
Happiness is in OK-ness. OK with the little things in Life, OK with the big, even catastrophic things in Life, and everything between. Since we have identified ego as the source of our being not OK, the most important lesson of Buddhism is “you are not your ego, “so don’t let it own you. If you want to be happy, you must take ownership of your own OK-ness. You must take ownership and responsibility for your ego. You have an ego for the very important job of managing the stuff of your life as a separate person. When we mistake ego for who we are, we are caught in the grip of its greed and self-centeredness. The roller-coaster of highs and lows, of inevitable suffering, is sure to happen.
Let ego be the workman of the circumstances of your life. With the tools of ego, you do what needs to be done. You can go for whatever you want, while you cultivate wisdom as what guides your life – and helps you embrace what comes. Appreciate how much is good and beautiful in the world and train your awareness to see the subtleties of beauty and goodness – the flowers, the birds, kindnesses, children’s smiles and laughter, your own smiles and laughter, meaningful presence with fellow beings. As for the really bad stuff – the cancers, the divorces, the family tragedies, the job firings, the sicknesses and deaths, the injustice and stupidity and cruelty in the world, it’s OK to scream and cry. Then dry your tears and find the gold in the manure. It’s there. I promise you.
Life is everything. As Joko Beck told us: “Singing and dancing are the voice of the dharma, and screaming and moaning are the voice of the dharma.” – It’s all OK when seen in the big picture. “What is the enlightened state? When there is no longer any separation between myself and the circumstances of my life, whatever they may be.” Open into the fullest perspective possible and let there be no separation, no holes, between you and what is – become whole with what is – let ego and awareness work together to manage what-is to the best of your ability; do what you can and let the rest go. And that’s what it means to be unassailably OK.