The question that Colin Beavan just had to ask his Zen teacher is one that’s on the tip of everybody’s tongues. Even the teacher’s!
At the Chogye International Zen Center of New York, part of the Kwan Um School of Zen, where I study meditation, my fellow students and I sit cross-legged on two long, parallel rows of mats and cushions. It is completely quiet except that every so often, in another room, a bell rings. When it does, someone gets up and shuffles through the door. One at a time, we each get a chance to ask our private, personal questions of the Zen teacher.
On this particular day, though my body is quiet, my mind is loud. What’s bothering me? The same things that bother everyone. Money problems. Kid worries. Job stresses. Relationship struggles. Nothing stays still. Everything changes.
The bell rings again and it’s my turn. I unfold my legs and tiptoe to the door. I slip into the interview room and perform the various standing bows and prostrations that are part of our form. The teacher gestures toward the cushion and I sit down in front of him.
“Do you have any questions?” he asks.
Questions? Yes, the same questions probably everyone else has: How do I make the discomfort of life go away, hopefully forever? How do I face up to the fact that I am going to die, like everyone, and stop worrying about it? How do I make it so that I don’t feel the insecurity of life so keenly? How do I deal with the fact that the world is messed up and the politicians don’t seem to care?
Almost as a joke, I say to the teacher, “Okay. Let me ask this. What should I do about my fucked-up life?”
The teacher leans forward with his hands and chin resting on his Zen stick. He smiles. He says, “Make it un-fucked-up.”
Really? I think. That’s your answer?
So I ask, “Is that working for you?”
He says, “Not so far!” Then we laugh. Hard.
I like this. To be reminded that one of my Zen teachers can’t quite get his life together. He has had his fair share of money and romantic problems, I happen to know.
Maybe there isn’t something I’m doing wrong. Maybe this is just being human.
Actually, after years of trying to find someone whose life wasn’t a little messy, here is what I’ve discovered: Nowhere have I been able to find anyone who has transcended her own humanity. Gandhi had a terrible temper and could be mean to his wife. Martin Luther King Jr. had affairs. And so on.
This is no longer bad news for me. It means maybe there isn’t something I’m doing wrong. Maybe this is just being human.
Sitting with me in that interview room, my teacher says, “Now you know what it means that ‘Delusions are endless. We vow to cut through them all.’ ” He is quoting one of the Four Great Vows that guide Zen practice in my school. This one, about endless delusions and cutting through them, like the other three, can mean many different things at different times. But to me, just now, it means, “The confused view of life that comes with being human never goes away, but we vow not to get so caught up in that confusion that we can’t do any good for ourselves and others.”
There is nothing wrong with any of us if we are having a hard time.
My Zen teacher, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., me — all human. So there is nothing wrong with any of us if we are having a hard time. The delusions never stop. The confusion, the desire, the anger that come with being born may never completely go away.
But we can detach from them enough to do a little good. That’s why it’s inspiring to know that Gandhi and King had their shortcomings. They weren’t so different from us. They got caught up in the delusion, but mostly, when it was important, they were able to cut through it. They heard the noise, but mostly, when the chips were down, they rose above it.
The Difference Between Inside Fucked Up and Outside Fucked Up
This is what my teacher, during that interview, talked about next. He said, “You have to remember that there is a difference between being inside fucked up and outside fucked up.”
Outside fucked up depends on circumstances and the changing emotions and feelings that come with them. The loss of a loved one. The end of a relationship. An unwanted change at work. Or even just the little things, like an unexpected big bill or the involuntary cancellation of a well-deserved vacation. We work moment by moment to respond to those circumstances, to put one foot in front of the other and make them un-fucked-up. That is natural.
Inside fucked up, on the other hand, is when you can’t come to terms with the fact that you will always, to some degree, be outside fucked up. It is when you are so caught up in the mistaken idea that you can somehow stop the delusions from coming and going that you put all your efforts into barricading the doors of life.
It’s when you are shaken by the very process of being human. You start to think a bigger house will fix it. Or maybe a better partner. Or a higher salary. Or maybe, if you care about social change, if everyone else in the world just starts to care about the important things the way you do. Maybe then you will feel better.
If you make the mistake of thinking these things will fix you — that they will stop the delusions from coming and going — then your hunt for them might become desperate.
It is not that trying to get something better for yourself or for the world is wrong. But if you make the mistake of thinking these things will fix you — that they will stop the delusions from coming and going — then your hunt for them might become desperate. You might go off course — forget your calling, forget your Truth, start acting from anger and fear instead of love and compassion.
That’s when we suffer and cause others to suffer. We have all done it. We shop as a fix and waste the world’s resources. We stop taking time to participate in the healing of our local and world community.
We stop taking time to help change the systems that cause suffering for so many. Or we do try to participate, but only in an attempt to treat our own emotional need.
We lash out at people — a taxi driver who goes the wrong way, say, or people who disagree with our vision for the world — as though somehow, if these people just did as we wanted them to, that would stop our life’s discomfort. As though the process of life itself can be always pleasant. As though we can actually force something or someone to somehow make things always feel good when we can’t.
Finding Real Freedom
In the interview room, what my teacher was trying to tell me was that if I can accept that the delusions — the confusions — are endless, then I will not be inside fucked up. Because then I will see that fucked up is not fucked up. It’s just part of life. If delusions are endless, why get upset about the fact that we are deluded? Why be controlled by the need to get away from any one delusion? There is always another delusion to follow it.
If I can accept the delusions, I won’t have to put my energy into trying to change what can’t be changed: being human. I will have freedom.
I can do what gives long-term satisfaction instead of just short-term relief.
Even though I feel hurt and anger sometimes, maybe I don’t have to fight those feelings. Maybe I can instead accept some discomfort and leave myself free to invest my energy into things I really care about.
I don’t have to be blown around by changing life circumstances and feelings. I can do what gives long-term satisfaction instead of just short-term relief. And maybe, if I’m lucky, I’ll have just enough equanimity to find a path towards helping this suffering world.
Adapted from How To Be Alive: A Guide to the Kind of Happiness That Helps the World, with permission from the author and Dey Street Books.