My dog doesn’t worry about the meaning of life. She may worry if she doesn’t get her breakfast, but she doesn’t sit around worrying about whether she will get fulfilled or liberated or enlightened. As long as she gets some food and a little affection, her life is fine. But we human beings are not like dogs. We have self-centered minds which get us into plenty of trouble. If we do not come to understand the error in the way we think, our self-awareness, which is our greatest blessing, is also our downfall.
To some degree we all find life difficult, perplexing, and oppressive. Even when it goes well, as it may for a time, we worry that it probably won’t keep on that way. Depending on our personal history, we arrive at adulthood with very mixed feelings about this life. If I were to tell you that your life is already perfect, whole, and complete just as it is, you would think I was crazy. Nobody believes his or her life is perfect. And yet there is something within each of us that basically knows we are boundless, limitless. We are caught in the contradiction of finding life a rather perplexing puzzle which causes us a lot of misery, and at the same time being dimly aware of the boundless, limitless nature of life. So we begin looking for an answer to the puzzle.
The first way of looking is to seek a solution outside ourselves. At first this may be on a very ordinary level. There are many people in the world who feel that if only they had a bigger car, a nicer house, better vacations, a more understanding boss, or a more interesting partner, then their life would work. We all go through that one. Slowly we wear out most of our “if onlies.” “If only I had this, or that, then my life would work Not one of us isn’t, to some degree, still wearing out our “if onlies.” First of all, we wear out those on the gross levels. Then we shift our search to more subtle levels. Finally, in looking for the thing outside of ourselves that we hope is going to complete us, we turn to a spiritual discipline. Unfortunately, we tend to bring into this new search the same orientation as before.
Most people who come to the Zen Center don’t think a Cadillac will do it, but they think that enlightenment will. Now they’ve got a new cookie, a new “if only.” “If only I could understand what realization is all about, I would be happy.” “If only I could have at least a little enlightenment experience, I would be happy.” Coming into a practice like Zen, we bring our usual notions that we are going to get somewhere–become enlightened–and get all the cookies that have eluded us in the past.
Our whole life consists of this little subject looking outside itself for an object. But if you take something that is limited, like body and mind, and look for something outside it, that something becomes an object and must be limited too. So, you have something limited looking for something limited and you just end up with more of the same folly that has made you miserable.
We have all spent many years building up a conditioned view of life. There is “me” and there is this “thing” out there that is either hurting me or pleasing me. We tend to run our whole life trying to avoid all that hurts or displeases us, noticing the objects, people, or situations that we think will give us pain or pleasure, avoiding one and pursuing the other. Without exception, we all do this. We remain separate from our life, looking at it, analyzing it, judging it, seeking to answer the questions, ‘What am I going to get out of it? Is it going to give me pleasure or comfort or should I run away from it?” We do this from morning until night.
Underneath our nice, friendly facades there is great unease. If I were to scratch below 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. Some people live that way until the day they die.
As the years go by, it gets worse and worse. What might not look so bad when you are twenty-five looks awful by the time you are fifty. We all know people who might as well be dead; they have so contracted into their limited viewpoints that it is as painful for those around them as it is for themselves. The flexibility and joy and flow of life are gone. And that rather grim possibility faces all of us, unless we wake up to the fact that we need to work with our life, we need to practice.
We have to see through the mirage that there is an “I” separate from “that.” Our practice is to close the gap. Only in that instant when we and the object become one can we see what our life is.
Enlightenment is not something you achieve. It is the absence of something. All your life you have been going forward after something, pursuing some goal. Enlightenment is dropping all that. But to talk about it is of little use.
The practice has to be done by each individual. There is no substitute.
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Charlotte Joko Beck (March 27, 1917 – June 15, 2011) was an American Zen teacher and the author of the books Everyday Zen: Love and Work and Nothing Special: Living Zen. She founded the San Diego Zen Center in 1983 and served as its head teacher until July 2006.
From Everyday Zen by Charlotte Joko Beck. Copyright 1989 by Charlotte Joko Beck. Reprinted by arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. www.harpercollins.com