How is it for you when something changes in your life suddenly and unexpectedly? A death of a dear one; change in the status of a personal relationship; a shift in your work life? And how does Zen practice help in such a dynamic situation?
I have been thinking a lot about my granddaughters -- and what would be the most important thing I could convey to them. It seems very likely that the world in which they will live will be radically different from the one we now share. Change is happening exponentially and so the future, while always full of surprises, is always different from what we think it will be and is completely un-knowable to us right now. What is the most helpful training for meeting the unknowable? I say it is training in "flexible mind."
I recently have had a circumstance radically change. I got the news of this change on the first day of a three-week vacation. A range of responses arose -- from annoyance to hurt but, with the help of a good friend, I was reminded that I was disturbed by this big change because I had a clear plan. A plan that I was quite fond of, a plan that my vacation was going to be a certain way, and that I was going to return home to an unchanged world!
In accepting this change, I was back in balance and much better able to attend to the situation. A mind that is able to flex from one view to a new view is a mind that can meet any situation with the kind of equanimity that is the basis for compassionate and creative responses.
One of my favorite Zen stories is an illustration of this kind of flexible and dynamic acceptance. Three hundred years ago in a small Japanese village Zen master Hakuin lived a quiet, contemplative life and was well loved by the villagers. A beautiful girl whose parents owned a food store lived near him. Suddenly, without any warning, her parents discovered she was with child. This made her parents very angry. She would not tell them who had fathered the child, but after much harassment she at last said" "It was Hakuin." In great anger the parents went to the master and expressed their rage. "Is that so?" was all he would say.
When the child was born, the parents brought the little boy to Hakuin, who now was viewed as a pariah by the whole village. They demanded that he take care of the child since it was his responsibility. "Is that so?" Hakuin said calmly as he accepted the child.
A year later the young girl could stand it no longer. She told her parents the truth -- that the real father of the child was a young man who worked in the fish market. The mother and father of the girl at once went to Hakuin to ask his forgiveness, to apologize at length, and to get the child back again. Hakuin slowly placed the baby in the grandmother's arms. In yielding the child all he said was: "Is that so?"
Put yourself in that situation. Leading a quiet life, well respected by all -- then suddenly you are responsible for caring for a baby while all your neighbors turn away from you. Then, after caring daily for this baby for a year, calmly letting go of what had become dear. How is this possible?
Meditation is what makes a Zen master a Zen master.By becoming deeply aware of how everything, every idea, pain or other mental formation comes and goes one develops the ability to not be moved by the urgency of change, and more able to tolerate the unknown.
Flexibility of mind is strengthened through sitting still. As we resist the urge to jump up and do something about our thoughts and feelings we begin to develop a softness in our minds. We begin to have other options than the knee-jerk response, the habitual thoughts and stories about a situation. We become pliable.
So for my granddaughters, whose mechanistic tools for meeting the future may be obsolete the day after they are invented, I encourage them to sit down and sit still. And let the strong winds of change blow over, under, around and through them.