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The Talk Nobody Wants to Hear

Charlotte Joko Beck

If we're honest, we have to admit that what we really want from practice -- especially at the beginning, but always to some degree -- is greater comfort in our lives. We hope that with sufficient practice, what bothers us now will not bother us anymore. There are really two viewpoints from which we can approach practice, which need to be spelled out. The first viewpoint is what most of us "think" practice is (whether we admit it or not), and the second one is what practice "actually" is. As we practice over time, we gradually shift from one viewpoint toward the other, though we never completely abandon the first. We're all somewhere on this continuum.

Operating from the first viewpoint, our basic attitude is that we will undertake this demanding and difficult practice because we hope to get certain personal benefits from it. We may not expect them all at once. We may have some limited patience, but after a few months of practice, we may begin to feel cheated if our life has not improved. We enter practice with an expectation or demand that it will somehow take care of our problems. Our basic demands are that we be comfortable and happy, that we be more peaceful and serene. We expect that we won't have those awful feelings of upset, and we will get what we want. We expect that instead of being unfulfilling, our life will become more rewarding. We hope to be more in control of our life. We imagine that we will be able to be nice to others without it being inconvenient.

From practice we demand that we become secure and increasingly achieve what we want: if not money and fame, at least something close. Though we might not want to admit it, we demand that someone take care of us and that the people close to us function for our benefit. We expect to be able to create life conditions that are pleasing to us, such as the right relationship, the right job, or the best course of study. For those with whom we identify, we want to be able to fix up their lives.

There is nothing wrong with wanting any of these things, but if we think that achieving them is what practice is about, we then we still don't understand practice. The demands are all about what "we" want: we want to be enlightened, we want peace, we want serenity, we want help, we want control over things, we want everything to be wonderful.

The second viewpoint is quite different: more and more, we want to be able to create harmony and growth for everyone. We are included in this growth, but we are not the center of it; we're just part of the picture. As the second viewpoint strengthens in us, we begin to enjoy serving others and are less interested whether serving others interferes with our own personal welfare. We begin to search for life conditions -- such as a job, health, a partner -- that are most fruitful for such service. They may not always be pleasing for us; what is more important to us is that they teach us to serve life well. A difficult relationship can be extremely fruitful, for example.

As we increasingly adopt the second viewpoint, we will probably retain the preferences that defined the first viewpoint. We will continue to prefer to be happy, to be comfortable, to be peaceful, to get what we want, to be healthy, to have some control of things. Practice does not cause us to lose our preferences. But when a preference is in conflict with what is most fruitful, then we are willing to give up the preference. In other words, the center of our life is shifting from a preoccupation with ourselves to life itself. Life includes us, of course; we haven't been eliminated in the second viewpoint. But we're no longer the center.

Practice is about moving from the first to the second viewpoint. There is a pitfall inherent in practice, however: if we practice well, many of the demands of the first viewpoint may be satisfied. We are likely to feel better, to be more comfortable. We may feel more at ease with ourselves. Because we're not punishing our bodies with as much tension, we tend to be healthier. These changes can confirm in us the misconception that the first viewpoint is correct: that practice is about making life better for ourselves. In fact, the benefits to ourselves are incidental. The real point of practice is to serve life as fully and fruitfully as we can. And that's very hard for us to understand: "You mean that I should take care of someone who has just been cruel to me? That's crazy!" "You mean that I have to give up my own convenience to serve someone who doesn't even like me?"

Our ego-centered attitudes are deep-rooted, and it takes years and years of hard practice to loosen these roots a bit. And we're convinced that practice is about the first viewpoint, that we're going to get something from it that's wonderful for ourselves.

True practice, however, is much more about seeing how we hurt ourselves and others with our deluded thinking and actions. It is seeing how we hurt people, perhaps simply because we are so lost in our own concerns that we can't see them. I don't think we really want to hurt others; it's just that we don't quite see what we are doing. I can tell how well someone's practice is going by whether he or she is developing greater concern for others, concern that extends beyond merely what "I" want, what's hurting "me", how bad life is, and so on. This is the mark of a practice that's moving along. Practice is always a battle between what we want and what life wants.

It's natural to be selfish, to want what we want, and we are inevitably selfish until we see an alternative. The function of teaching is to help us see the alternative and to disturb us in our selfishness. So long s we are caught in the first viewpoint, governed by wanting to feel good or blissful or enlightened, we "need" to be disturbed. We "need" to be upset. A good center and a good teacher assist that. Enlightenment is, after all, simply an absence of any concern for self. Don't come to this center to feel better; that's not what this place is about. What I want are lives that get bigger so that they can take care of more things, more people.

This morning I had a call from a former student who has lung cancer. In an earlier operation, three-quarters of his lungs were removed, and he's devoting himself to sitting and practice. Some time after the operation, he began to have troubles with his vision and with severe headaches. Tests revealed two brain tumors: the cancer had spread. He's back in the hospital for treatment. We talked about the treatment and how he's doing. I told him, "I'm really very sorry this has happened for you. I just want you to be comfortable. I hope things will go well." He replied: "That's not what I want from you. I want you to rejoice. This is it for me -- and it's wonderful. I see what my life is." He went on to say, "It doesn't mean I don't get angry and frightened and climb the walls. All those things are going on, and now I know what my life is. I don't want any- thing from you except that you share my rejoicing. I wish everyone could feel the way I do."

He is living from the second viewpoint, the one in which we embrace those life conditions -- our job, our health, our partner -- what will be most fruitful to all. He's got it. Whether he lives two months, two years, or a long time, in a sense it does not matter. I'm not suggesting that he's a saint. He will have days of extreme difficulty: pain, anger, rebellion. These things are going on now for him: yet that wasn't what he wanted to talk about. If he were to recover, he would still have all the struggles and difficulties that everyone else does, the demands and dreams of the ego. These things never really go away, but how we hold them can change.

The shift from the first to the second viewpoint is hard for us to comprehend, especially at first. I have noticed in talking with people who are new to practice that often my words simply don't register. Like a cat on a hot tin roof or drops of water in a hot frying pan, the words touch momentarily and then jump off and vanish. Over time, however, the words don't bounce off so quickly. Something begins to sink in. We can hold the truth longer about how life is as opposed to how we think it might be or should be. Over time the ability simply to sit with what life really is increases.

The shift does not happen overnight; we are much too stubborn for that. it may be accelerated by a major illness or disappointment, by a profound loss or other problem. Though I don't wish such crises on anyone, they often bring about needed learning. Zen practice is difficult largely because it creates discomfort and brings us face- to-face with problems in our lives. We don't want to do this, though it helps us to learn, and prods us toward the second viewpoint. To sit quietly when we're upset and would really like to be doing some- thing else is a lesson that sinks in a little. As we recognize the value of practice, our motivation to practice increases. We begin to sense something. We gain strength to sit day after day, to participate in an all-day sitting, to do a sesshin. The desire to do this hard practice, increases. We slowle begin to comprehend what may former student meant when he said, "Now I know what my life is." We are mistaken if we feel sorry for him; perhaps he is one of the lucky ones.

Charlotte Joko Beck, in her book "Nothing Special: Living Zen",
Harper San Francisco, 1993
ISBN 0-06-250256-5