Hard Times, Simple Times

When you sit, teaches Norman Fischer, “noticing the breath and the body on the chair or cushion, noticing the thoughts and feelings in the mind and heart and perhaps also the sounds in the room and the stillness, something else also begins to come into view.” Life.

Norman Fischer1 September 2009
Photo by Manouchehr Hejazi.

When sudden loss or trouble occurs, we feel shock and bewilderment. For so long we expected things to be as they have been, had taken this as much for granted as the air we breathe. And suddenly it is not so. Maybe tomorrow we will wake up to discover it was all just a temporary mistake, and that things are back to normal. After the shock passes, fear and despair arrive. We are anxious about our uncertain future, over which we have so little control. It’s easy to fall into the paralysis of despair, caroming back to our childish default position of feeling completely vulnerable and unprepared in a harsh and hostile world. This fearful feeling of self-diminishment may darken our view to such an extent that we find ourselves wondering whether we are worthwhile people, whether we’re capable of surviving in this tough world, whether we deserve to survive, whether our lives matter, whether there is any point in trying to do anything at all.

This is what it feels like when our raw spot is rubbed. The sense of loss, the despair, the fear, is terrible and we hate it, but it is exactly what we need. It is the embryo of compassion stirring to be born. Birth is painful.

Sitting there with this basic feeling of being alive, you will feel gratitude. After all, you didn’t ask for this; you didn’t earn it. It is just there, a gift to you.

All too many people in times like these just don’t have the heart to do spiritual practice. But these are the best times for practice, because motivation is so clear. Practice is not simply a lifestyle choice or a refinement. There is no choice. It’s a matter of survival. The tremendous benefit of simple meditation practice is most salient in these moments. Having exhausted all avenues of activity that might change your outward circumstances, and given up on other means of finding inner relief for your raging or sinking mind, there is nothing better to do than to sit down on a chair or cushion and just be present with your situation. There you sit, feeling your body. You try to sit up straight, with some basic human dignity. You notice you are breathing. You also notice that troubling thoughts and feelings are present in the mind. You are not here to make them go away or to cover them up with pleasant and encouraging spiritual slogans. There they are, all your demons, your repetitive negative themes. Your mind is (to borrow a phrase from the poet Michael Palmer) a museum of negativity. And you are sitting there quietly breathing inside that museum. There is nothing else to do. You can’t fix anything—the situation is beyond that. Gradually it dawns on you that these dark thoughts and anxious feelings are just that—thinking, feeling. They are exhibits in the museum of negativity, but not necessarily realities of the outside world. This simple insight—that thoughts and feelings are thoughts and feelings—is slight, but it makes all the difference. You continue to sit, continue to pay attention to body and breath, and you label everything else, “thinking, thinking; feeling, feeling.” Eventually you are able to pick up your coat from the coat check, and walk out of the museum into the sunlight.

Confronting, accepting, being with negative thinking and feeling, knowing that they are not the whole of reality and not you, is the most fruitful and beneficial of all spiritual practices—better even than experiencing bliss or Oneness. When you sit, noticing the breath and the body on the chair or cushion, noticing the thoughts and feelings in the mind and heart and perhaps also the sounds in the room and the stillness, something else also begins to come into view. You notice the most fundamental of all facts: you are alive. You are a living, breathing, embodied, human being. You can actually feel this—feel the feeling of being alive. You can rest in this basic feeling, the nature of life, of consciousness, the underlying basis of everything you will ever experience—even the negativity. Sitting there with this basic feeling of being alive, you will feel gratitude. After all, you didn’t ask for this; you didn’t earn it. It is just there, a gift to you. It won’t last forever, but for now, in this moment, here it is, perfect, complete. And you are sharing it with everything else that exists in this stark, basic, and beautiful way. Whatever your problems and challenges, you are, you exist in this bright world with others, with trees, sky, water, stars, sun and moon. If you sit there long enough and regularly enough you will feel this, even in your darkest moments.

Norman Fischer

Zoketsu Norman Fischer is a poet, essayist, and Soto Zen Buddhist priest who has published more than thirty volumes of poetry and prose, including most recently When You Greet Me I Bow. He is the founder of Everyday Zen, a community based in the San Francisco Bay area, as well as former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center. He and his wife, Kathie Fischer, also a Soto Zen priest, have two children and three grandchildren and live in Muir Beach, California.