Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Why do we live?

Why do we do it? Why do we get up each day and do the things necessary to live? I am being serious. Have you ever investigated this? This is actually a Koan we investigate in the Five Mountain Zen Order. In the Koan, The question is not asked directly, so I am not going to be giving away any answers.

I had this question put to me directly when on vacation. My wife had a planned a trip, she had been organizing it for months. Before the trip I had some dental pain, and I had it taken care of before we left. Well, sure enough, the night before the flight, that very tooth started hurting. Not in the sharp pain way, instead in the dull throbbing pain way. Mental pain set in, too, as we were going out of the country to some remote areas - fear of nerve pain in a strange land. The pain sort of came and went and I wasn't about to ruin my wife's trip. I brought plenty of Motrin and hoped that would do the trick. That night we were in Lima, Peru and the pain came back - very strongly. Plus more mental pain since Lima was the last big city we'd be in. I was unable to sleep and ended up laying awake in bed all night.

Bringing awareness into the situation, I was watching the thoughts. The pain at this point was probably 7-8 out of ten. There were some thoughts about making the pain go away. I could probably get some narcotics as they don't have the same rules as the US. I have heard too many stories of people getting addicted to painkillers, so I really didn't want to go that route (I have since read that even the narcotic pain killers are not that effective against tooth nerve pain). I could get a dentist, though I was worried about the level of dental care in Peru. And it was Saturday. And it was Peru's independence day. Though at this point I didn't care if the tooth had to be pulled. Watching the thoughts, there was a thought about jumping out of the 7th story window of the hotel - finally, the point of this story!

As a practicing Zen teacher, the primary practice is to watch the thoughts but to not attach to any of them. So it was interesting to watch these thoughts in this much pain. Pain changes things. The generally happy, outgoing guy who loves to travel was replaced by the "don't touch me... leave me alone" guy. So what about this thought of jumping out the window? I have done much practice on death, not attaching, and being OK to die at any moment. After all there is only now - and one of these "nows" will be the moment of death.

So if death isn't a big deal. Why not jump? Well, to start with, I have a wife who was looking forward to a nice vacation with her husband. I have parents, brothers, and other family members that would be very upset by such an action. The list goes on, from the two dogs that I feed to the guys that would clean up the mess. I hope you see where this is going. What am I? Is there a single independent I? Do I live my life for me and my pleasures? Or do I live for all beings? I ask you, what do you live for?

By the way - the picture is from the Parque Reserva in Lima.

How did this play out?
The pain in the jaw
  went on
   and on
    and on
The person had changed
  from the friendly, outgoing guy
  "leave me alone!"

The ache was intense
  The fear took hold as
This was only the beginning of
  A two week trip into remote parts of South America

A dentist search began
  In Lima, Peru
   On Saturday
   Independence Day

Thoughts of
  Life and Death
    and "Fuck!"
Went round and round

A dentist was found
  She was very nice
   Her equipment was old
  She used a lighter to sterilize the needle

She worked for two hours
  on the bad tooth
The worst of the pain went away
  the vacation continued
   with a lot less pain
Getting a root canal in Lima, Peru on independence day

Sunday, July 22, 2012


The transitory nature of existence is a core issue of our lives. Nothing is permanent and nothing lasts. How do we find happiness in a world of impermanence? It may require an adjustment in our thinking. The idea that anything will be static has to change. As the saying goes, the only constant is life is change!

How do we make this adjustment? We could practice paying attention. Whenever we find ourselves grasping or holding on to something, we could question what it is that we are holding onto. It could be a short term thing such as going to a movie, or on a date, or on a vacation. We may find ourselves looking forward to the event. Anticipating the upcoming situation. Then the situation comes and goes. Now it is in the past. We wish it could last forever. It never does. That is human. It is the way life works. Some people deal with this by always having something new to look forward to.

How do we as Zen students deal with this? We continue to return to this present moment. When on vacation, be on vacation. When at work, be at work. Never make where you want to be more important that where you are.

Isn't this nihilistic? Surely, vacation is better than work! No doubt about it. Given a choice, I would most likely be on the Big Island of Hawaii. Yet, I am sure we have all had fun moments at work and miserable moments on vacation. The point is we can't hold on to any of it. Ultimately, we see that life is a verb, not a noun. This, too, shall pass.

Does returning to this present moment, being fully present, really work to relieve suffering? Yes. In fact, this is the practice of meditation. With each breath, we come back to the present moment. Ultimately, we realize this moment is all there is. What else could there be? The past is a memory, which we continue to change. The future is an idea, a hope.

So what changes? Impermanence becomes an outmoded concept! All there is is this present moment.

I am sure this is a topic we will revisit. Here is a poem about the young me trying to hold on to a day at an amusement park.

Six Flags

When I was 6
  I would lay awake
  Having been told about
   Heaven and Hell
  I wondered if there
   were carrots in heaven
  I was scared
   Because if Heaven lasts forever
    I was gonna get bored
When I was 11
  I was upset because
   Everything was always over
  I would look forward to things
   But they would always pass
    and I couldn’t hold on to them
when I was 17
  I knew, someday,
   I was going to
    put on a robe
    put on some sandals
    paste on a beard
   And go sit on a mountain
    until I figured it all out
when I was 27
  I started
   reading zen books and sutras
   learning about don’t know mind
Looking back
  When I was 11
   I couldn’t wait to go to Six Flags
    to ride the roller coasters
     and water slides
   It was so much fun
    Funny, the things I remember most were
     how delicious the 5 cent root beer was
      on that hot summer day
     how well I slept on the bus
      during the ride home
    My 11 year old mind
     made the time at Six Flags
      better than the time
      spent elsewhere
     A lesson it has taken
      a long time to unlearn