The fourth instalment in a series of short writings on Buddhism’s “Five Great Fears” by Zen teacher Lewis Richmond.
The fourth “great fear” of Buddhist teaching is “fear of loss of livelihood.” It is interesting that this doctrine was formulated by monastics living a life of mendicancy and voluntary poverty. One would think that the vow of poverty would liberate monks from the ordinary anxieties of earning a livelihood, but of course the monks and nuns were utterly dependent on what was put into their begging bowl by local villagers. If nothing was put in, there would be no meal that day. The fear of not being fed or having our material needs taken care of is deeply human, and not just human. Every creature lives with this fear. It is basic.
All of us have just gone through a time of such anxiety. Millions of people have lost their jobs. Many peoples’ life savings were depleted and have still not fully recovered. Buddhism is right; this fear is a “great” fear. It keeps us from sleeping at night. It causes panic attacks and depression. It predisposes us to drink or drugs, and stresses relationships and marriages. Even for otherwise healthy people, this is a big one. What does Buddhist practice have to offer us, especially if we are older and are not able to envision making a new start and recovering what we have lost?
First of all, it is only among the middle-class and above in America that we can routinely assume much real financial or material security. Most people in the world today never have such security, and in some parts of the world people are like the Buddhist monks of old — they never know from one day to the next whether they will have enough food for themselves or their children. So here most people (but by no means all) start from a baseline of basic needs being reasonably met.
What Buddhism teaches us is that clinging to anything as a “baseline” (whether it is our physical body, food, money, or a home) creates a baseline of anxiety as well. Suffering is caused by clinging — that is core teaching. Fine, we say, now that I just lost my home I know that. What else have you got for me?
What Buddhism has for us is the up side of continuous change — the possibility that things might change for the better. Even when we are old, even when we are ill, even when our life is a sea of compounding losses, there is always this next moment, this next breath. This is the principle of “every breath, new chances.”
This is something that one of my early Zen teachers liked to say. As I said before, this is the “upside” of the fact that everything changes. One of the hallmarks of negative mind-states such as sadness, grief, or depression is the sinking conviction that this is it, nothing will ever change for the better. This is the “death-spiral” or feedback loop that sends people deeper and deeper into despondency. During one of my illnesses, I experienced this and I can testify to the incredible certainty with which my mind viewed my condition as unalterable and permanent. At one point, my wife was reduced to repeating to me over and over, “This is temporary!”
I remember thinking, “Oh, fine. She’s just saying that to cheer me up. No good. I know better.”
Of course she was right. And when I did get better and looked back, my state of mind during that dark period now seemed deranged. But the Buddhist view of our ordinary confused and emotional mind-states is that they are all in some sense deranged. The belief that anything will last, or stay the same, or never change, is rather deranged, and not at all in accord with reality. But we persist on thinking that way, because we cling to whatever we have, even if it is a tiny cleft in the rock of our suffering.
Fear of loss of livelihood: there is no getting around the fact that for many people, the loss of a job or home or life savings is indeed irrevocable and perhaps for the rest of their life there is no getting those things back. In that sense it is like having your leg amputated — you never go back. But of course amputees learn to adjust, change, and go on, and most often revive to lead full and engaged lives. When Buddhism teaches that things can and often do change for the better, it is not necessarily the “better” that we prefer or imagine. In fact, it is not “better” — in the sense of comparing it to some former state — at all. It is just something else, something new, the next thing.
Every breath, new chances. But do we notice? That’s the trick.
Read Lewis Richmond’s Five Part series on Fear here: