Question: I have been practicing for almost thirty years. I find when I meditate or study dharma teachings, I feel wonderful, as if all my problems have disappeared. But that feeling doesn’t usually last long. In my daily life at work and at home relating to my wife and children, I experience stress and anxiety. This manifests as a feeling of intense hunger, which causes me to overeat and occasionally causes severe muscle spasms in my lower back. I also struggle with feelings of sorrow and anger relating to financial problems and the behavior of others. I think about how my job and family situation aren’t what I want them to be, and I fantasize about a life where I could spend more time meditating and studying dharma, which only exacerbates my feelings of discontent.
Evidently I keep my act together in some ways, because my teacher wants to certify me as a dharma teacher, but I feel like a fraud because of my personal situation. Please help.
Zenkei Blanche Hartman: I am touched by your heartfelt “Please help.” It is so disappointing to see the same old self-clinging habits of mind arise after years of sincere practice. When I began, I thought, “I’m a mess now, but I’m going to do this Zen practice and get myself together so I can get on with my life.” Then I realized, with some disappointment, that I’m never going to be finished with this. Just as delusion is endless, so must practice be endless.
Have you talked with your teacher about the stress and anxiety you experience in daily life? If not, why not? Are you trying to look good for your teacher? Is that what “keeping your act together” means? How can your teacher help you if you don’t show him or her all of you?
No matter how much you love meditation practice or how good your intellectual understanding of dharma teachings may be, the point of it all is liberation. And liberation is about being free from notions of “self” and “other.”
Suzuki Roshi said, “A bodhisattva should be grateful for problems. When you have a problem, right there is where your practice is.” Dharma practice is exactly there where you want your life to be other than it is.
In the spirit of the bodhisattva, shouldn’t we attempt to take care of our families, jobs, relationships, and relationships to substances (including food) so we can be more effective in being of service to others? If the only time we get any satisfaction out of our life is when we’re on the cushion or hearing dharma teachings, might we be using the dharma as a way to avoid the people, places, and things that are demanding our attention? Bringing your understanding of dharma to work with the difficulties that arise in your life is what will enable you to help others when you are ready to teach.
You might also benefit from therapy. I myself have found it very helpful and a good adjunct to practice.
Narayan Helen Liebenson: This is a classic dilemma that many practitioners struggle with in this day and age, and I know it must be extremely frustrating for you after so many years of committed practice.
Although it’s not easy, I do think it is very possible to turn this around. You can begin by shifting your perspective and attitude toward the practice. Until you see that discontent is created by a false separation between what is seen as practice and what is not, you will always be split between the two. Ask yourself what mind you are meditating with. Is it the mind that seeks only calm and tranquility, or is it the mind that is interested in discovering how things actually are?
In shamatha meditation, the goal is calmness and peace. In your formal meditation periods, this must be what you are experiencing. The problem is that this calm is not transferring to your daily life. Peace that only occurs during sitting meditation or while studying the dharma is conditioned peace—peace that only arises under particular circumstances.
The goal of vipassana meditation is wisdom. Wisdom emerges out of recognizing and observing the mind and body in a continuous way, regardless of what is happening. What we are truly interested in is an unconditional peace—peace that is present in all circumstances. The only way to know this kind of peace is to expand what you are calling “meditation.” A true understanding of the Buddha’s teaching reveals that every moment is an essential moment in which to practice. Can you bring the same mind to the stress, anxiety, worry, and anger that you experience in your daily life as you do to the calm and tranquility that you experience in formal meditation periods?
Also remember that fantasy, even if about wholesome subjects such as a life of meditation, only takes away from one’s life and causes it to remain fragmented. The trick is to use each moment that you are thinking “I wish I could meditate” to actually meditate. To actually meditate means to be aware that this thought is occurring and to observe your mind. In that moment, ask yourself, what is happening? What is the quality of your heart? Can you relax and observe this moment as it is? Can you accept all mind states as they are?
Lastly, it’s important to bring your real life to your teacher. We all want to present ourselves in the best possible way to the people we look up to, but if you don’t bring your true situation and struggles to interviews, the help and guidance that you receive will be quite limited.
Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche: Dharma is a profound and complete psychological as well as spiritual path and can address the apparent split between the psychological and spiritual well-being you describe. If your meditation practice has become a means to simply sit by yourself and be quiet, you are subtly escaping your life, and the benefits of your practice will be short-lived. Bringing your life to the cushion is essential; we should not separate our spiritual life from our worldly life, but rather seek to integrate them and recognize that our daily life is dharma.
How can practice and daily life be integrated? It is important to take the opportunity to reflect upon the preciousness of your human birth. Also, consider the amount of suffering evident in this world and reflect upon the gifts of your situation. From that base of support, bring the issues and challenges of your personal life directly into your practice, working with your body, breath, and mind. For instance, if you’ve had a disagreement with your partner, bring that to mind when you sit down to do your meditation practice and allow yourself to feel the disturbance as it exists in you in that moment. Rather than focusing on what your partner did or did not say or do, look directly into your experience at that moment, without judging or elaborating upon it. Be aware of the tensions in your body, the quality of your breath and emotions, and the movement of your mind. Simply be with it. Allow your posture and your breath to support you in being fully present. Discover the space of open awareness in the midst of your discomfort, and when the space opens up, rest there with clear attention.
If you have accumulated tensions in your body, you may benefit from the practice of yoga and breathing purification-exercises to help release these tensions. Also, if you are feeling overwhelmed, psychological counseling can provide an environment to safely examine and work through some of these feelings and help you to reduce this split you feel between the distress in your personal life and the relative peace of your practice.
In the dharma, we endeavor to develop compassion for all sentient beings. When you engage in such an aspiration, consciously include your partner and family or anyone with whom you are having difficulty. Generate a clear intention and prayer that compassion and love will ripen in you in the midst of those challenging relationships and the irritation and conflicts of daily life. Then, through the power of your practice and the ripening of your intention, during these difficult moments you may find yourself spontaneously open, or discover more willingness to be present, or at least recognize the possibility that this moment is an opportunity to practice. In this way, we come to experience that daily life is dharma.
You expressed concern about being a teacher. There are three levels of being a teacher: You teach something you have realized; you teach something you have understood but not yet realized; or you teach something you are reflecting upon and are in the process of understanding but have not yet realized. If you have a clear connection with your teacher and have been given his or her blessing and permission to teach, it is OK to do so. Every teacher does not have to be fully realized, but should be fully honest.
Zenkei Blanche Hartman is former abbess of the San Fransico Zen Center.
Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche is a lineage holder of the Bön Dzogchen tradition of Tibet.
Narayan Helen Liebenson is a guiding teacher at Cambridge Insight Meditation Center.