Waking Up to What You Do: A Zen Practice for Meeting Every Situation with Intelligence and Compassionby Diane Eshin Rizzetto
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Life is rising up to meet us at every moment. The question is: Are we there to meet it or not? Diane Rizzetto presents a simple but supremely effective practice for meeting every moment of our lives with mindfulness, using the Zen precepts as tools to develop a keen awareness of the motivations behind every aspect of our behavior—to "wake up to
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Life is rising up to meet us at every moment. The question is: Are we there to meet it or not? Diane Rizzetto presents a simple but supremely effective practice for meeting every moment of our lives with mindfulness, using the Zen precepts as tools to develop a keen awareness of the motivations behind every aspect of our behavior—to "wake up to what we do"—from moment to moment. As we train in mindfulness of our actions, every situation of our lives becomes our teacher, offering priceless insight into what it really means to be happy. It's a simple practice with transformative potential, enabling us to break through our habitual reactions and to see clearly how our own happiness and well-being are intimately, inevitably connected to the happiness and well-being of everyone around us.
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Introduction: A Sink Full of Teaching
For the years my husband and I worked in our home offices, our meeting place was our kitchen sink. Well, not that we made appointments to meet each other in front of the sink and faucet, but it's where the dishes we individually used throughout the day met. My office was on the second floor and his office was in the basement of our house. The kitchen was in the middle. A good part of a day would pass when the only indication that the other was present in the house was what was left in the kitchen sink after we would each at different times go there to make a cup of tea or coffee or to get a quick bite to eat.
One day, I began to notice that every time I went downstairs to the kitchen, another dirty dish or two appeared in the kitchen sink. At first this didn't trouble me. It was just another dish in the sink. But as the day went on, I found that I was counting the number of dishes and separating them into his dishes and my dishes. On one or two visits to the kitchen, I even washed my dishes and let his remain. And with each trip to the kitchen, I added to the dishes in the sink another thought about these dishes. Many thoughts collected about his dishes that he just leaves there expecting me to clean up. What makes him think my time is expendable and his not? Greater and greater the story grew, and without my really knowing it, the sink became filled with far more than the dirty dishes.
Then on one occasion, as I was making a cup of coffee, my husband appeared in the kitchen. "Hi," he said.
"Could you make a cup of coffee for me too?"
"Could you . . ." Cabinet door slams. With an indignant reaction, I indulged my anger and stomped off to my office leaving a bewildered husband standing in the kitchen in front of a sink full of dirty dishes.
A sink full of dirty dishes, getting cut off in line at the grocery store, or any other encounter we have from day to day might seem a little too ordinary for a book that talks about Buddhist precepts. But, it is our reactions to these seemingly unimportant situations we face in our daily lives that make up our worldviews and show our true colors. Even a small incident like my experience at the kitchen sink can send us into a tailspin. Within a few seconds, we've gone from a simple encounter to a raging argument. In the heat of the anger, both sides hurl off insulting words and it seems that the sole intention is to hurt one another.
In time, things might cool down enough to leave just the reverberations of our angry actions. After the storm, feelings of guilt, sadness, and hurt might surface. Thoughts to never to do it again might arise. Or perhaps along with the outburst arose feelings of strength, self-righteousness. Perhaps the reactive behavior gets blamed on conditions or others. Maybe there's a combination of guilt and blame. Whatever the reverberation, remorse or anger, one reaction has just moved to another and another. After I answered my husband's simple request for a cup of coffee by barging off to the solitude of my office, the thoughts that blamed him began to turn toward myself. "You're taking my important time from me so that I can wash the dishes you dirtied" became, "What kind of person am I to think this way? I'm not worth much if I can't even wash the dishes without getting angry or feeling taken advantage of."
You can fill in your own most recent story about something that triggered words or actions that got you worked up. Notice what you did after the dust settled. If you didn't take time to question deeply what was going on with you during the incident, then you can be assured that what you did afterwards was react. It seems, then, in order to see things more clearly, we need to be able to see when we've strayed into reactive thinking. Only then do we have a chance to take action that best suits the conditions present at any given time and that best serves the situation. This is how the precepts can be of help, serving as a tool for waking up to our reactive thinking. We don't just think about ourselves, but consider the impact of our actions and words on the people and things around us. We don't think only of what would make us happy, but also include in our choice of action the well-being of others.
My Own Story
Zen practice sort of snuck up on me from behind. After dropping out of high school in 1959 (my junior year) I had little understanding or interest in anything but taking care of my babies, who arrived eighteen months apart, and trying to keep an ill-fated marriage from falling apart. The passion for Eastern religions, particularly Zen, which began to take hold in the United States during the early 1960s, escaped me completely. I lived a stone's throw from the burgeoning counterculture of Harvard Square and the Cambridge Zen Center, but I may as well have lived tucked away in a small town. I had never even read a book from cover to cover, let alone a Zen book! My world was pretty much limited to soap operas, romance magazines, washing diapers, and figuring how I was going to pay the rent each month. Several years later, as a single mother and after a short period on the welfare rolls, I found whatever jobs a high school dropout could land—a factory worker, nightclub hostess, or barmaid—in order to support myself and my children. I soon figured out that prospects would be pretty dismal if I didn't get some education. I returned to school hoping to just get my high school diploma and perhaps get a decent job as a secretary. But it didn't work out that way, thanks to Mr. Sheldon Daly, a Boston lawyer.
I lied my way into Mr. Daly's office after I read in the newspaper's classified section that he was hiring a legal secretary to run his office. By now I had taken the necessary courses to earn my high school certificate, but my office skills were far from what the job required. Nevertheless, I managed to convince him that I really could type and take shorthand a lot better than I demonstrated in my interview. I even arranged for him to call for references from a friend who would back up my story. He believed my story and hired me.
It wasn't long before it became clear to him that I was making a mess of things, and that I had lied to him about my skills. One day, he sat me in his office and said, "Look, this isn't working out. I don't want to hear about why you misrepresented yourself when I asked for your qualifications, but what I do want to hear about is how you would like your life to be five years from now. What kinds of choices do you think you need to make to make that a reality?" The question left me dumbfounded. Not only was he telling me to get a life, but he was also saying that I had an option to choose what my life could be.
Today, what resounds even more for me is that Mr. Daly looked beyond what most other bosses consider their prerogative. He was more interested in how he could help me than how he could judge me. By not seeing me through my faults, Mr. Daly engaged in what I have called the precept of meeting others on equal ground. In doing so, he gave me the freedom of choice and gently, but directly, reminded me that the responsibility for how I deal with difficulties in my life rests in my own choice of action. This implicit responsibility is at the heart of what I would like to offer the readers of this book about the precepts.
Like a good Zen riddle, Mr. Daly's question wormed its way into my psyche, forcing to the forefront of my thinking possibilities that I had only dreamed of in the past. When I met with him again, I told him I wanted to go to college and to perhaps become a teacher. That's all he needed to hear. He got on the phone, made a few contacts, and within several months I found myself attending night school as a college freshman. By his willingness to put aside my dishonest behavior, Mr. Daly had again engaged in the precept of meeting others on equal ground. It was this early, unconscious experience of the power the precepts have that I rediscovered later when I began to practice Zen.
Seven years later my life had made a complete turnaround. I had finished college and graduate school, married my current husband of thirty-five years, and was in the midst of parenting adolescents. I had heard a little bit about Zen Buddhism because by now, Harvard Square bookstores were among my haunts. But I had never read any Buddhist books even though my husband had already started to do some reading on his own.
One late night I was anxiously pacing the floor waiting up for one of my teenage children to return home from a party. I paced the room, thinking about all types of worst-case scenarios, when my eye caught a book lying on the table that my husband was reading. Just trying to get my mind off of my worries, I opened it and thumbed through the pages. I read: "Strictly speaking, for a human being, there is no other practice than this practice; there is no other way of life than this way of life." The book was Suzuki Roshi's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. As I think of it now, there it was again—another reminder to look at my life because that is all there is.
It might seem that my next stop would be the closest Zen center, but not so. Life's lessons continued to sneak up from behind. I had a good job as a high school English teacher, a wonderful husband and children. Everything I had worked hard to achieve was materializing, and yet there seemed to be deeper questions lurking. There were things that were not yet resolved, such as my relationship with my mother from whom I had become estranged.
After moving to California in the late 1970s, I was once again prompted by my husband's interest in Zen. I found my way to the Berkeley Zen Center. When I walked in the door to the meditation hall, I felt that I had walked into a forgotten home. It seemed natural and right. Zen practice had finally caught up with me.
Over the next few years, I immersed myself in Zen practice, meditating mornings and evenings, attending many retreats, reading, and studying. I took the precept vows in the Buddhist ceremony of Jukai. This is a ceremony in which lay Zen practitioners may participate as they deepen their commitment to Buddhist practice. These are the precepts that I will discuss throughout this book: Not Taking Life, Not Indulging in Anger, Not Stealing, Not Gossiping, Not Putting Oneself above Others, and Not Using Substances to Cloud Awareness. Nevertheless, the sense that I was missing something crucial continued to nag at me.
I understood in an intellectual way the teachings of wisdom and compassion—trying to live a life that is not harmful to others. There were times when I experienced very deep moments of openness and peace. But even though I took up the precepts as vows to engage only in action that is compassionate, to let go of anger, to forgive and not judge others, it was still impossible for me to even consider engaging in this kindness and forgiveness with my own closest kin—my mother. I could not bring myself to pick up the phone and call her, three thousand miles away. The four years of silence, harboring anger, hurt, and resentment, made hearing her voice too great a source of dread. In taking the precepts I had vowed to not indulge in anger and to not view others through a lens of fault. But those vows were only words stuck to my tongue. They hadn't yet made it to my heart.
So I, the diligent Zen student, learned that I could be open, giving, and caring around the Zen center, but in some fundamental way, my heart was closed. I asked myself, How can I continue in assuming that I am keeping these vows unless I face the truth about this silent distance? I was so angry at the perceived injustice of my mother's actions that, contrary to the precept, I continued to indulge in that anger. It consumed me so much that I could only see her through a lens of fault. It would be nice to think that the next step in my practice was simply picking up the phone and dialing my mother's number, connecting with her from across the continent, California to Boston. But it wasn't.
In fact, it was over a year before I mustered up the courage to take that first step toward unraveling the beliefs and assumptions that harbored the anger and guilt of all those years. And it took even more years after that to uncover the layers of fear. It wasn't until then that I began to understand that the precepts weren't simply vows to not take actions, speak words, or think thoughts that were hurtful, but that they could lead me to grapple with essential questions in my daily life, such as why I couldn't dial my mother's telephone number. With this realization, the precepts began to stir deeply within me.
Today, the understanding that meditation practice is an everyday part of our relationships is fairly common. Nevertheless this understanding doesn't make what we have to eventually face any easier. We have to face our demons and our disappointments. There is no designated time or place for doing this. As long as we are practicing earnestly, practicing with a sincere effort to face the truth about our lives, sooner or later a light will go on and we'll say—perhaps with a shudder or a sigh—"Oh, this is a crossroad. Maybe, instead of launching into my usual defensive manner of dealing with avoiding the phone call to my mother, I'll hang back and see if there's a bit of something I can learn here."
If we engage in trying to understand our actions, then something begins to change. For example, in the experience with my mother, over several months, I had thought from time to time about making contact with her, but every time the thought arose, the butterflies fluttered in my stomach, my breath shortened, and I quickly drove the possibility from my mind. Then, one morning, instead of ignoring the dread of the phone call, I sat by the phone and gave myself permission to witness whatever came up. At times I experienced dread, other times anger, sometimes righteous indignation, and other times deep sadness. I performed this ritual many times. Each encounter with the phone dial brought me closer to truly understanding the meaning of the precept I take up the way of letting go of anger.
As I replayed the same old story that made me the victim, I learned that just under the rising heat of anger was the quickening heartbeat of the fearful child. Sometimes I wanted to forget it all and lapse into the story of why I didn't have to face any of it—why the silence was justified. Then I began to learn something about the precept of I take up the way of meeting others on equal ground. Maybe I didn't speak ill about my mother or gossip about her to others, but certainly I was invested in blaming or faulting her. Round and round I tumbled, until I finally began to experience the sinews of my resistance loosening. I engaged in this ritual over many months before I finally picked up the receiver and dialed Boston—617 . . .
I found later as a Zen teacher that what took me years to stumble into can be more directly accessed by working with the precepts: the knowledge that understanding of useful action emerges from the most ordinary events of everyday life and in the situations we want to avoid most. This is the approach to the precepts upon which I base my work with my students.
There is no rule or formula that can tell you what to do. There is no calculation that you can always perform that will determine the best course of action for every situation. But one thing we can rely on is that if we learn how to be present in the situation without getting caught in self-centered thinking, our chances of taking action that best serves the situation will be far greater. This is where working with the precepts as an awareness practice can be of help. Sometimes the way will be clear and sometimes not. If it's not, you just make the best choice you can and practice with the results.
So we can think of the precepts both as keys to self discovery, allowing us to see how our habitual patterns of thinking lead us to do things that are hurtful to ourselves and others, and as companions signaling us when we are about to take hurtful action. They encourage us in the spirit of open questioning to unveil our deepest beliefs that define for us the shape and limitations of how we view who we are. They reveal with crystal clarity the truth that our happiness and well-being are intricately connected to the happiness and well-being of others; we can't have one without the other. In the deepest sense, our actions are our heritage let go into the world.
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