Recently I was driving home from a gig in the Hudson River area and was on a road I like in the middle of Massachusetts. The driver in front of me was going a bit slowly, so when I found a straight patch in the curving road I accelerated and passed him. Right away I saw flashing blue lights in the mirror.
The policeman described in detail what I had done, noting my speed at every turn. I said, “Yes, I was driving too fast.” Responding to his question, I told him I was heading home after a week of teaching. “You’re eager to get home,” he said. “Yes,” I said. I wanted to be exactly where I was with the situation and hope for the best. I was practicing my zazen style.
The policeman gave me a warning, emphasizing that it wouldn’t cost me any money. I liked him and would have liked to have a conversation with him, but I remained almost silent. In the end, he lost his Zen mind and couldn’t help giving me some emotional moralizing advice about not passing someone who was going two miles per hour under the limit. “OK,” I said.
In my teaching that week I read to my students from Shunryu Suzuki’s classic Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: “Our mind should be soft and open enough to understand things as they are…. A flower falls, even though we love it; and a weed grows, even though we do not love it.”
It isn’t always easy to be with what is. We express our experience and then take it back. “I was envious of you,” we tell a friend and then add: “I know I shouldn’t feel that way.” That’s defending the weeds. Unnecessary and far too complicated.
Being simply with what is, you feel yourself and sense the moment. The edges of your experience are intact. You own your world, which is never perfect and is so perfect that way. So delicious. So right.
It’s helpful to find the right words for your experience. No jargon. Instead of “I’m so depressed,” you could say, “I feel lost, without a goal and sense of purpose.” That’s a start toward being with what is and describing it accurately, the way the policeman described my bad choices on the road.
Then you go quiet. The real art of being with what is is to know when to stop talking. Most add-ons are defensive, explanatory, and escapist. You want to speak without speaking, or confess without being guilty. Better to feel the crisp edge of your reality and be with it, weeds and all.
One of the most challenging Zen stories for me is the one in which parents bring their daughter and her infant child to a monk and tell him that he is the father. “Is that so?” he says, and takes the child and raises it. Years later they return and tell him that he isn’t the father after all. “Is that so?” he says, and gives the grown child back.
It is so tempting to explain and defend and be in the right. But it might be far better to keep quiet. Use a few simple words. Do what seems unreasonable. Live in such a way that you don’t have to be innocent all the time.
Another aspect of this lesson is to stay with your painful issue for a while instead of trying to get rid of it. You’re grieving, so you try to be around friends and have a good time. It might be better to show your grief in the way you dress and talk. Be with it until it is through with you. There are no rules for how long or how strong grief should be. You let it do its thing. You submit until it frees you. You don’t let anyone tell you when it should be over. It has something to offer you in the way of an initiation, a sometimes painful transformation. The poet John Keats says, “Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?”
It’s tempting to avoid what is, to defend and escape, to explain and qualify. Yet to stand quietly in the tense realm of reality is really to be, and that is the beginning of a process of maturing and ripening. You become more a person, more the person you are, and more in the world that is your own.
You may think you would like to live in a world of flowers without weeds, but that would be monotonous and boring. There would be nothing to school your intelligence, no way to discover your soul.
Thomas Moore has been a monk, a musician, a professor, and, for the past 30 years, a psychotherapist practicing archetypal therapy with a spiritual perspective. His latest book is A Religion of One’s Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World.