by Lisa Ernst
A samurai once asked Zen Master Hakuin where he would go after he died.
Hakuin answered ‘How am I supposed to know?’
‘How do you not know? You’re a Zen master!’ exclaimed the samurai.
‘Yes, but not a dead one,’ Hakuin answered.
Recently a friend posted on Facebook that he felt sad because it was the anniversary of his mother’s death, along with a dear friend and mentor of his. Quickly the comments came pouring in. The responses were well intended, no doubt, yet nearly all of them contained a type of story designed to make the grieving individual get past his sadness. Here’s a sample of the comments: “Just remember that your mother is in a better place now.” “Your mother is watching over you from heaven.” The next comment came from the original poster, saying “I’m sad my mother won’t be here to see my daughter grow up.” The comments that followed again were designed to smooth it over “She watches your daughter every day.” “She’s guiding your daughter even though you don’t see it.” Again, the original poster commented saying, “Thanks for your comments, but I’m just really in a funk right now.” Finally the tone of the replies changed. The last few posts were without stories or attempts to smooth over his grief. Instead they just said “I’m sorry for your loss,” and “That must be hard for you.” Comments like these indicated that the commenters actually heard his grief and didn’t feel the need to dissuade him from his experience. His final post reflected that this “caring without fixing” really was meaningful to him.
In my experience, even long term meditators will fall into the pattern of trying to smooth over and create stories when people share a significant loss or feelings of grief. Many of us are inexorably drawn to imagine favorable outcomes to make ourselves and others feel more positively about bad news and loss, often in hopes of not getting stuck in negativity. The truth is that many grieving people are caught in a trap of negative stories, telling themselves that they will never recover, feel happy or find meaning in life again. So it’s understandable that those around them want the grievers to “look on the bright side.” The problem is, it doesn’t work and often makes things worse.
I experienced this myself in 2008 when an art show in Houston I had been preparing for many months was abruptly cancelled because of Hurricane Ike. I had been showing at a wonderful museum district Houston gallery for years, and finally I would see it in person and meet the owner and staff members. In addition, many friends from Texas were planning to come to the show. On the Thursday before the show, I got word that Ike was scheduled to hit the city on Saturday. My initial thought was that the show would be rescheduled a week or two later. That thought made me feel a little better. But once the storm passed through, it was obvious that repairing the city infrastructure would take much longer than expected. The show could not be rescheduled, and I was very disappointed. As I shared this with people I knew, I kept hearing their stories and attempts to put a positive spin on it, such as “I’m sure the gallery will reschedule in a few months,” and “this is proof that the universe has bigger plans for your art.”
I was tempted to believe those stories, to try and latch onto a positive scenario that would take the edge off my disappointment and justify all the work I had done. I also struggled with the tendency to speculate that I had some kind of “bad karma” that had brought on the unfortunate timing of the hurricane. In the first few days after the cancellation, my mind regularly moved across the continuum from positive pep talk to thoughts of despair. But the benefit of my meditation practice allowed me to see this pattern quickly enough that I didn’t dwell there for long. Gradually I began to see through the reactive thoughts to my genuine response: loneliness. Initially this made no sense to me and I tried to overlook it. Slowly, though, I quit turning from the loneliness or seeking an explanation. As I experienced the loneliness fully, the duality of my positive and negative thinking ceased and the wisdom of my true response became clear. Like most artists, I create my work in solitude, and the art show is a celebration of that effort in community. Because of the hurricane, the culmination of my effort — the public celebration — was never realized. Hence the loneliness. Nothing more and nothing less. Acknowledging and experiencing this loneliness allowed me, with lovingkindness, to let go and move on from disappointment.
Wisdom and insight arise when we cease to interfere with what is actually present in our experience at each moment. When circumstances occur that don’t fit our ideas about how things should be, our stories can be quite subtle, to the point that we may perceive them as “truths” rather than concepts and ideas. As long as they’re obscured from our consciousness, there’s no way we can let them go. We may do well to regularly ask ourselves, “what is true in my experience right now? What is the content of my mind and heart in this moment?” Seeing the present, just as it is, creates the ground from which wisdom will reveal itself.
The Zen story at the beginning of this essay points to the mind that seeks answers that are often removed from our present moment experience. Hakuin, in his wisdom, didn’t try to answer the question of his death with speculation or theory. He simply acknowledged the obvious and let it go at that.