As I sail from country to country exploring the sources of stress and anxiety and it’s implications on our health and well being, I discover a condition that seems to be a root cause of this discontentment, no matter where I am in the world. I am not speaking of the stress caused by poverty, oppression, starvation, lack of healthcare or disease, as these conditions present a set of circumstances, more often than not, out of the individual’s control. Here, I’m talking about the stress we experience as a result of our continuous push away from living in the present, towards a future where we imagine ourselves to somehow be better off than we are right now. The majority of our stress and worry seems to result in our inability to be present in our lives as they unfold before us, moment by moment.
Why are we so terrified of being present? Why do we seek to become constantly numb to our life’s unfolding? How else could we be, having been beaten and often defeated by the sudden knocks and blunt strikes of life? Some unexpected, some of our own making, attempts to conceal what sneaks up between the cracks of this resistance to ourselves, just as we are. What we are left with is a constant and often empty struggle to fill in the cracks, attempting to stifle what emerges when we unconsciously let a little bit of ourselves seep out.
What we fail to recognize is that this is the suffering in itself, the stifling, the withholding, and the denying ourselves the opportunity to become familiar with who we are. It is not the pain of our anger, our sadness or even our loss that causes us the most suffering, it is our relentless determination to conceal from ourselves and others the fullness and beauty of who we actually are; what is exquisitely contained within all of our experiences, both the pleasant and the unpleasant.
Much of this comes by no fault of our own. We spend years in school studying, without learning to tap into the deep internal resources that are dependable and available to us at any moment, waiting to relieve us of this suffering. Instead our society continuously bombards us with offerings that promise richness and freedom, but instead lure us into continuous exploits of temporary self-satisfaction. The marketing is genius and put forth with a calculated consciousness; knowing we are terminally ill in this longing, sick with this insatiable hunger to know ourselves deeply. Consequently, the longer we attempt to satisfy this hunger with toxic prescriptions or possessions, trivial titles or authority, the more hollow and empty we become; frazzled, anxious and addicted to the pursuit.
The truth is, that each of us holds within us the capacity to alleviate our suffering by surrendering to the actuality of our lives unfolding before us. To allow the wisdom of loss, heartache, anger, guilt, sadness and joy to nourish us. . To understand that our suffering is not caused by what is contained within the cracks but results in our endless attempts to conceal, deny and extinguish who we actually are. To recognize that what is discovered within the cracks provides the sustenance we need to nurture our suffering, know ourselves deeply and obtain freedom.
Make an effort to be mindful of when you may be trying to use external means to take care of your inner turmoil. Instead, allow yourself a glimpse of what lies beneath the surface of your own withholding. Let your disappointment, heartache and loss be felt, trusting that the wisdom held within these experiences will gradually provide for lasting and sustainable freedom from your suffering. In doing so you will slowly begin to discover that stress and worry are not a result of what is happening, but results from what we refuse to allow to unfold, as it is. As always, practicing self-compassion and treat yourself kindly, moment, by moment, by moment.
As the ship neared the harbor of Yokohama, Japan, the sun was just beginning to rise and the sky was illuminated with vibrant layers of yellow, orange and red. A slice of moon and a bright shining star added to the magnificence of the welcoming sunrise. Filled with excitement that we’ve arrived at our first International port, I quickly dressed and headed to the back deck where clusters of students were gathered, buzzing with eagerness as the ship drew closer to the shore. The sound of cameras clicking filled my eardrums and although I felt a strong impulse to follow suit, my practice reminded me to resist this temptation and be present. My skin began to tingle and goose bumps spread across my arms and legs, in part to do with the powerful sense of wonderment that came over me in the moment and the other due to the brisk air and chilly wind coming across the ocean. Signs of springtime in Japan are just beginning to surface. The warm glow of the sky gives promise to a pleasant day. As I observe my being, I am overcome with a powerful sense of acknowledgment as to where I am standing in the world, at this moment, in my life. For a brief time, all that I have had to endure becomes tolerable as I stand in this place with recognition that pain and suffering are a significant ingredient in realizing my joy. My throat begins to tighten and a few tears filling up my eyes blur the landscape before me. I swallow hard, allowing one salty droplet to roll down my face, the wind taking it into the sea. I smile, breathing in and breathing out in this wonderful moment of pure presence, everything perfect just as it is.
After breakfast, I am scheduled to go on a field program to experience “the way of tea” and meditate with the Zen monks. However, before we are allowed to disembark on our respected trips, the ship must be cleared with Japanese customs. This takes quite a while as 700 passengers line up to meet Japanese officials face to face. Although the process can take over two hours, the excitement of stepping foot in Japan makes the wait bearable. At last I am called up to the table, met with an intoxicating smile and a gracious bow. I instantly feel myself blush, surprised and pleased to have been greeted with genuine kindness and respect. I clumsily return the bow, immediately noting my self-dissatisfaction with it. The official takes my passport, thumps in a few stamps, hands it back to me and once again bows and instructs me to enjoy my stay in Japan. I return the bow; this time more skillfully, carefully secure my passport and head outside. I’m in Japan!
The itinerary of my field program quickly immerses me into the daily life and culture of Japan. Our guides are again, three smiling and bowing Japanese men who seem genuinely excited to show us around Japan and just as interested in who we are and where we call home. After a brief introduction to the history of the Zen Temples we will be visiting, we line up to follow our guides, each donning bright green hats so we don’t lose them, and head to the subway station. As I become acutely aware of our sheep-like procession my mind wandered to trips to Niagara Falls where I’ve witnessed busloads of Japanese tourist being hustled by a guide from one place to the next, reminiscent of the position I find myself in. I couldn’t help but giggle. Although our guides speak very good English, most of the Japanese people only speak their native language. As we arrive at the station, I notice everything is written in Japanese with very little English. I stick close to the group as swarms of commuters pack into the trains. Some 4 million people make the daily commute to Tokyo and I am careful not to get lost in the shuffle.
After two subway changes, we arrive at the Engaku-ji temple, one of the most important Zen Buddhist complexes in Japan. It is situated in the city of Kamakura, located to the south of Tokyo. The temple was founded in 1282 by a Chinese monk at the request of the then ruler of Japan, Hoje Tokimune, built to honor the soldiers who died during a joint Mongolian-Korean invasion in Japan as well as serve as a center from which the influence of Zen could be spread. As is common in Zen, the Temple has two gates, one is the outer gate called Somon and the other is the inner gate called Sanmon. I passed through the magnificent outer gate, a double decker colossal structure to arrive at the Main Hall. As I step in the main hall, also called Taiko Myo-ho, I am greeted by an 8-foot tall sedentary statue of Shake Nyorai, the main object of worship, enthroned on a gigantic lotus support. In front of the Buddha I find a long wooden bench, lined with purple pillows used by the laity every morning. It is open to the public and anyone may join. I immediately imagine the appeal of a similar spot back at home. From here, the guides take us through several Zen gardens and to other temples around the grounds. Although it is early spring, the trees are beginning to show signs of bloom and the smell of jasmine and orchids sporadically make their way to my nose. The scent was so luscious that I found myself hurrying to take my next in-breath, attempting to make it last as long as possible, not to lose the enchanting scent between breaths. The calm and peacefulness surrounding me, makes me wish I had come alone, without a schedule, as I could imagine myself joyfully immersing in this beautiful stillness for hours. However, attached to an arm, I saw the green hat waving us along to our next stop. I hurried over; certain not to lose sight my group.
We walked approximately 10 minutes through a small town and proceeded up a long driveway to the Chojyu-ji Temple. Before heading into the temple to enjoy a tea ceremony and a sitting meditation with the monks, we were guided along a pathway through another Zen garden. Obvious signs of winter were still evident and the brisk air made the sparse trees tremble. Tiny buds were just forming on the trees and the branches seemed to be stretching and yawning, attempting to awaken themselves from a long slumber. Although the gardens had clearly been through a harsh winter, their refinement and elegance was still evident event though much of it was a wintery gray. I took some mental notes for plans of building my own Zen garden when I return home this spring. At the end of the path, we entered the temple, stopping to remove our shoes before heading in. The temperature inside the temple was comparable to the outside and I felt my feet beginning to tingle, my baby toe already starting to become numb. I quickly rubbed it to regain blood flow.
Our group gathered along the edges of the room where a red felt-like carpet lined the exterior. The room was very Zen-like with simple lines and minimal décor. Kneeling in front of us was Ms. Hasegawa, patiently waiting to present the tea ceremony. She was beautifully dressed in a traditional Japanese Kimono, her hair neatly tied back. She sat in a usual Japanese manner with her knees facing us, her buttocks resting on the back of her heels. Her posture was perfectly aligned and her petite hands were resting softly on her thighs. I looked around noticing a few others attempting the same posture. It looked so comfortable that I decided to try it myself. Within minutes I my left foot started to become numb and I immediately turned myself back around into a cross-legged posture. For a moment, I began to worry whether I’d be able to sit in the cold room to meditate without losing feeling in my feet. I acknowledged the thought and returned my awareness the tea. Ms. Hawegawa went through each step of the traditional “way of tea” in the Japanese culture. Afterwards, we ate a Japanese sweet and enjoyed a drink of tea before heading in for a sitting meditation with the head monk.
The smell of incense began to tingle the inside of my nose before I fully entered the room. Once inside, I took a seat on one of the many burgundy meditation pillows that lined the walls of the rectangular meditation hall. I was tempted to sit directly next to the tall jovial looking monk who would be leading the group, but opted to have him in my view. He was dressed in a customary long black robe with a dark red sash. His eyes were particularly squinty, so much so that it was hard to tell if they were open or closed. After the group settled in, he began to speak aloud in Japanese. Once he stopped, the gentleman seated to his left began to translate to us in English. He showed us how to sit comfortably on the mediation pillow by folding it in half and placing it under our sits bones to ensure a correct upright posture. We were told to keep our eyes open and softly gaze on the floor about a meter in front of us to keep from falling asleep. While doing so we were to inhale naturally and exhale for a count of 8-10 breaths, focusing on each breath. This was very familiar to me and I was happy we were about to begin. Lastly, the monk lifted up a rather large stick, approximately 6 feet in length and addressed the group in Japanese. Again the gentleman to his left explained that the stick was a discipline and posture correction tool used in traditional Zen training. The monk was open to allowing anyone to give it a try and if we wanted to, when he walked by us, all we had to do was place our hands together in prayer over our hearts and bow deeply. That would let him know you wanted a correction. Now we were about to begin.
I folded my pillow comfortably under my sits bones and sat cross-legged with my left foot resting on my right thigh. I felt rather comfortable at first but then became aware of thoughts about my cold foot falling asleep and becoming numb again. I acknowledged my worry and concentrated on finding my gazing spot three feet ahead. I spotted a very tiny red piece of lint on the carpet in front of me and decided to softly gaze there. Three loud bangs rang one after another as the monk rapped two large wooden blocks together signaling that our mediation had begun. I began focusing on my breath, one natural inhalation and a long exhalation. A few breaths in and I became aware of the woman to my left taking some rather loud inhalations and I wondered if she was going to be doing this the entire time. I acknowledged the thought and drew my attention back to my breath. I never heard her after that. Instead I became fully aware of where I was and again a powerful sense of acknowledgment came over me about where I was in the world, in my life in this moment. I was struck with an inner stillness and a sense of pure joy. For the second time, I sat with recognition that suffering has been a significant ingredient in realizing my joy. Thoughts of pain and suffering are made tolerable by the recognition of where I have arrived. Again, I feel a lump in my throat and the tiny red lint spot becomes blurred as my eyes glaze over, my ducts burning as I resist the flow of tears. Suddenly, I am distracted by the monk who has gotten up from his pillow and is now standing over someone. With all my might I resist the temptation to look away from my red dot. Without any warning, I am startled by the sound of two very hard whacks that have been delivered to the back of someone in the group. My entire body is jolted from the inside out, raising me a little bit off my pillow. I am stunned and no longer focused on my red dot. Thoughts come pouring into my mind. “Oh my goodness… that sounded like it hurt like hell...Did he really hit him that hard? ... How could that be of any use? … That sounded horrible!... Who would ask for that? … Did the man know he was going to be beaten? That sounded like a beating!! How could anyone feel calm after that? This is crazy! No thank you!” I tried to remain still, my eyes trying desperately to find my red fuzzy dot, although I concluded that when the monk walked by me, he must have moved it away. As best I could, I redirected my awareness back to my breath; natural inhale, longer exhale, I tried. “Whack, Whack,” I heard again. “Whack, Whack” went another. “Whack, Whack” yet again. Suddenly, I felt a fit of laughter beginning to arise within me. The kind that makes you feel like you’re about to explode because the last thing you want to do is burst out laughing. My face widened with an uncontrollable smile and my body begins to shake up and down as I struggle to hold it in. With each whack my horrified thoughts turn to humorous ones and my silent laughter intensifies. I am in disbelief as to how many in my group bowed for a beating. I am also fully aware that it is absolutely impossible, at least for me to concentrate on anything other than my anticipation of the next whack.
At last the monk returns to his seat and moments later I hear three loud bangs of the thick wooden blocks, indicating that our meditation is over. The monk thanks us and welcomes us to come again. Before rising, the woman to my left taps on my shoulder and tells me how beautiful my posture is. I recognize her from the tea ceremony. With a sweet genuine smile she says, “You should have tried the stick”. Of course I knew there was nothing violent or unkind about the stick. In fact, I did not encounter one unkind person during my entire stay in Japan. Everywhere we went we were greeted with a kind, genuine smile and an open heart. Part of me immediately wanted to explain every reason I didn’t want the correction, how awful it made me feel to even imagine getting hit for any reason at all, how my body reacted to hearing it, how just the sound of someone getting whacked sends my stress response system into high gear. But I didn’t. Instead I smiled back. “Maybe next time” I told her, maybe next time.”
Practice suffering. Allowing ourselves to experience our pain, whether it be in the form of anger, sadness, guilt, disappointment or envy, is an essential ingredient in being able to fully experiencing our moments of happiness and joy. However, we spend most of our time doing anything we can to avoid feeling, period. We grasp at external means to take care of our inner turmoil, and as a result, deprive ourselves of the wisdom contained in everything. This week, practice allowing yourself to be fully present with whatever is, even if you feel a resistance to it. In doing so, you will tap into the deep internal resources that we all have to take care of our suffering and consequently experience authentic joy.
Please come back and comment on your experience, both the difficult and the joyous.
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