Bringing Meditation to Life
By Ezra Bayda
Copyright © 2002 Ezra Bayda.
All rights reserved.
Skating on Thin Ice
I have a picture on my wall of a girl ice-skating. She's gliding along, arms held high and head thrown back. Seemingly carefree, she's oblivious to a nearby sign: BEWARE OF THIN ICE. Does this sound familiar?
Most of us cruise through life on automatic pilot. Perhaps things are going well, or at least our life is currently disaster-free. We may have a decent job, supportive relationships, and good physical health, yet even as we glide along, we have an intangible sense of how thin the ice beneath us is. We can sense the anxious quiver that vibrates with vague dissatisfaction, fields of unhealed pain, and unaddressed fears. Yet most of the time we choose not to look beneath the surface.
When our life takes a turn for the worse, when we start encountering cracks in the ice, what do we do? We try to clean up the surface, making our usual efforts to push away or overcome the difficulties. Or we might try to skate around the cracks by ignoring or suppressing our reactions to unpleasant events.
In an attempt to keep from falling through the cracks in the ice, we choose our strategy, either working harder at maintaining control of our lives or making misguided attempts to escape from our difficulties with diversions, pleasures, or busyness. Rarely do we question our strategies, which are always rooted in fear. We believe in them as the unquestioned truth. Yet in doing so, we define our own boundaries, our own restrictions. Consequently our life narrows down to a sense of vague dissatisfaction.
What are these strategies that we use to erect a seemingly solid ground in order to avoid facing our fears? They are as varied as people's personalities. Some are strategies of controltrying to maintain order to ward off a sense of impending chaos. Some are strategies of success involving the drive to get ahead, to be on topgeared to override that nagging inner compulsion to prove our worth. There are strategies of conformity that seek the imagined comfort of fitting in, and strategies of nurturinghoping to find security in being needed and appreciated. There are also strategies of neediness, in which we assume the identity of weakness and desperately attempt to be saved by a person, a group, or an institution; and strategies of diversionseeking one pleasure after another to fill the deep holes of longing and loneliness. The list goes on and on.
Sometimes we have to fall right into the icy water, unable to move or breathe, overwhelmed and drowning, before we're forced to deal with the deep-seated conditioning that runs our lifeall the land mines of anger, fear, and confusion. It might take an illness, a financial upheaval, a relationship failure, or the death of someone close to us to wake us up and force us to just be in that icy water.
When we fall into these unwanted situations, we can no longer strategize to avoid facing our pain. It's right in front of us! The loss of financial security, our health, or a relationship, for example, will bring fear right to the surface, and we're likely to feel anger, self-pity, depression, and confusion. How we work with these will be a measure of how we understand what our life is truly about. The good fortune of having a strong and genuine spiritual practice may enable us to do something besides just seek comfort and escape when we're hit with one of life's inevitable blows.
In the early seventies I bought a house with a little land in northern California. For eleven years we cultivated an extensive organic garden. Our goal was to live from the land, which included raising goats for milk and chickens and sheep for meat. It was a nice life, and we felt satisfaction in being able to raise our children in the healthiest way we knew how. But when my wife and I both came down with severe immune system disorders, high levels of DDT residue were found in our blood. The DDT had been buried on our property prior to our owning it, and the poisons had made their way into our bodies indirectly through the vegetables and meat that we were so carefully raising. The prolonged exposure consequently broke down our immune systems. Ironically the effort to live a healthy organic lifestyle had contributed to the onset of chronic debilitating disease.
There was no one to blame. Burying the leftovers was just what people did to dispose of pesticides in those days. Our strategy to make our world safe and secure had failed. We had been skating on thin ice. No matter what we do, no matter how good our intentions are, there's no way to guarantee that we can avoid falling into the icy water. Try as we will, there's no way we can strategize and control our world so that difficulties won't befall us. The real issue is whether we will learn from the helplessness that arises when our strategies fail. When my life fell apart with the onset of the immune system disease, it took me many years to really understand the great teaching of the helplessness of the loss of control.
But even when we learn from these major upsets, as soon as we get back on our feet, we often go right back to gliding on the thin ice. Perhaps we know a little about the big hole we've just fallen into, but what about the rest of the cracks in the ice? Can we begin to learn from the smaller cracksour upsets, our mood swings, our efforts to protect, defend, push awayall our disappointments?
What is required is that we see clearly how we keep ourselves skating on thin icehow we use identities, strategies, and mental pictures to help keep ourselves going. We need to see our forceful determination to make our strategies work. Then when life situations that don't suit us arise, challenging our identities and our sense of comfort, we can open to the possibility of learning two basic lessons.
First, we can learn to recognize that the difficulty is our path instead of trying to escape from it. This is a radical yet necessary change in our perspective. When uncomfortable things happen to us, we rarely want to have anything to do with them. We might respond with the belief "Things shouldn't be this way" or "Life shouldn't be so messy." Who says? Who says life shouldn't be a mess? When life is not fitting our expectations of how it's supposed to be, we usually try to change it to fit our expectations. But the key to practice is not to try to change our life but to change our relationship to our expectationsto learn to see whatever is happening as our path.
Our difficulties are not obstacles to the path; they are the path itself. They are opportunities to awaken. Can we learn what it means to welcome an unwanted situation, with its sense of groundlessness, as a wake-up call? Can we look at it as a signal that there is something here to be learned? Can we allow it to penetrate our hearts? By learning to do this, we are taking the first basic step toward learning what it means to open to life as it is. We are learning what it means to be willing to be with whatever life presents us. Even when we don't like it, we understand that this difficulty is our practice, our path, our life.
Second, when hardship strikes, we can learn not to point the finger of blameat another person, at ourselves, at an institution, or even at life itselfand instead turn our attention inward. When we're in distress, this is often one of the hardest things to do, because we so want to defend ourselves. We so want to be right. But it is much more helpful to look at what we ourselves have brought to the situationbeliefs, expectations, requirements, and cravings. Then we might gradually come to understand that whenever we're having an emotional reaction, it's a signal that we have some belief system in place that we haven't yet looked at deeply enough. With practice this understanding gradually becomes our basic orientation.
Intellectually we may realize that we need to look deeply inside, yet we don't really know it. There are people we laugh at because they can't see the most obvious things about themselves. Well, those people are us! We have to acknowledge that we often simply don't want to see the aspects of ourselves that cause us distress. We basically want life to please usto feel comfortable and secure. Our last priority is to expose our own shaky supports, the tenuous beliefs that stand between us and unknown territory. Why? Because investigating ourselves at this level doesn't necessarily feel good. But until we become aware of all the ways in which we keep ourselves oblivious to what lies under the ice, we will continue to simply glide along with no direction.
What we need is a gradual yet fundamental change in our orientation to lifetoward a willingness to see, to learn, to just be with whatever we meet. Perhaps there is nothing more basic and essential than this willingness to just be. To simply be with our experienceeven with the heaviness and darkness that surround our sufferingengenders a sense of lightness and heart. The willingness to learn from our disappointments and disillusionments is key. Pain we thought we could never endure becomes approachable. As we cultivate our willingness to just be, we discover that everything is workable. Until we come to know what this means, we are cutting ourselves off from the openness, the connectedness, and the appreciation that are our human gifts.
Fast, Cheap, and
Out of Control
The movie Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control documents the lives of four unusual men. The first is a lion tamer in a circus. The second designs and builds robots, including little robots created to walk on the moon. The third is a scientist who becomes an expert on the private life of a hairless mammal called the mole rat. The fourth is a gardener who has spent fifty years pruning giant bushes into animal shapes.
Although I have called these men unusual, they are actually quite normal. What they share with one another and with all of us is that each in his own way is trying to maintain control in an essentially uncontrollable world. What is unusual about them is their occupations, which amplify what we all do in our own particular way: attempt to control the world in order to provide ourselves the illusion of security and happiness.
The lion tamer's control strategy is never to show fear. Every time he leaves the cage, he is dripping with sweat, but he never lets the lions know that he's afraid. He must maintain the illusion that he is in charge. Even when a lion bites his calf and blood is dripping into his boot, he won't leave the cage. He stays to finish the act, to maintain his stance of control of these animals, knowing they could tear him apart in the blink of an eye.
The robot designer wants to create machines that will do his bidding in order to make the world a more efficient place. Yet he discovers that he can't exactly make the robots walk. All he...
Excerpted from being zen by Ezra Bayda. Copyright © 2002 by Ezra Bayda. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.