Suffering as a failure of imagination Barry Magid October 29th 2016

Sandokai (Identity of relative and absolute)

...
I respectfully say to those who wish to be awakened,
do not waste your time by night or day.

I found myself thinking about the closing lines of the Sandokai: "I respectfully say to those who wish to be awakened, do not waste your time by night or day."

I think when I first encountered these words, many many years ago, I automatically took them to be an admonition to practice very hard. Practice incessantly. Practice in a kind of heroic monastic style of the monk who never sleeps, sits with an awl in his hands to stab himself to keep himself awake so he can just keep sitting until he has a final breakthrough. Do not waste your time by night or day. Nothing matters in life except this all encompassing, totally focused, kind of practice that will result in an enlightenment experience.

And as a young practitioner, hearing that sort of thing, it inevitably sets up an internal judgement where I said, "Well, I'm not going to be able to do that." And so we hear that and inevitably conjure up a picture of "the real thing." Whether it's the place or the idealization of a certain kind of Zen student. We're inclined to use that ideal to make ourselves feel like we're never living up to it.

Now there's certainly some people who hear that kind of thing and head off to Japan. They join a monastery and put themselves through the most rigorous training they can. And no doubt that's a very valuable experience for some. And it's certainly the case that one way or another as a young man I made Zen a priority in my life and found time and commitment to sit sesshin and practice daily. I really said that this is not going to be something I did in my spare time, it was something I was willing to organize my life around.

So it's all well and good to understand those lines in terms of that kind of dedication or commitment. We should have some version of that in our lives at whatever stage we're practicing. But now when I read those lines I really think about them in an entirely different way. I don't think of not wasting time as a matter of practicing as hard as I can in order to become awakened. But rather I think of being awakened as the condition in which we see that we can't waste time. Or that whatever we're doing should be enjoyed and respected and appreciated. There's nothing that we do, from the perspective of an awakened life, that can be considered a waste.

Those lines now remind me to pay attention, in the kind of way that Joko taught, to all those moment by moment micro-judgements. Where we treat one moment as better than the other and we think that we're wasting time. That talking to this person or that person is a waste of time. Or doing this or that chore is a waste of time. And there's something I'd rather be doing that's going to be more valuable, more entertaining, more productive. How often we make that kind of judgement, and in doing so, we end up dismissing a very large percentage of the life we're actually living. We consign to a certain kind of dust bin ninety percent of what we do all day as a waste. We'll do what we have to do, killing time until the thing that's really going to matter.

I had an interesting reminder of this at a conference I went to last week. There were hundreds of people there and out of those, a couple dozen of us were presenting papers. That sets up a dynamic among all the participants where everyone is sort of jockeying for the attention of the important people. And while people do pay some attention to what gets said at the conference, most of the time people are preoccupied with "Who am I going to sit with at lunch". And "Am I going to be invited to the party afterwards?". Can I get the important people to talk to me or are they going to be always looking over my shoulder to see if there's someone better to talk to. It's remarkable how much of that goes on all the time with everybody trying to hold the attention of someone that matters and not waste our time with somebody who's nobody. Remarkable. And these are all psychoanalysts. Would it be that way with zen teachers? Just go to an AZTA meeting sometime.

I do think it's very important to see how we squander our life in that sense of labeling things as a waste of time. As not the real thing. And I think Joko was very right that we can't will ourselves to automatically appreciate or value things. We can, however, pay attention to the negative side of that judgement and the internal resistance we feel. Just watch how often, how many hundreds of times a day, you make a little judgement - "This is a pain in the ass," "This is a waste of time," "I don't want to be doing this."

I've found in conjunction with those lines of the Sandokai, another phrase suggested itself which has to do with when we say "We'll make the best of it." I've often heard people say that in a tone of quiet resignation masquerading as acceptance. They feel like they've been dealt a lousy hand or life has not treated them very well. Maybe they're in a bad relationship or a not very satisfying job. But what they're going to do is "Make the best of it." What's striking about the way it's said is the passivity of it. That it really is a a statement of endurance. There's nothing I can do to change this, I have to make the best of it. I'll treat it like a long subway ride in a packed car with noisy and or smelly people around me. And really, that's how we go through life.

The way I thought of it in terms of the Sandokai was the sense that we can actually take that phrase, "Make the best of it," and make it very active. What does it mean to make the best of something? What does it mean to make it an opportunity for something rather than something I have to put up with? It's like saying I have to make dinner tonight, I'm going to look in the fridge and cupboards and see what's in there and what I can make out of it.

There used to be a cooking show where they would take a master chef to an ordinary person's apartment. And they would whip up this great meal out of what they had at hand. And the person hadn't a clue you could ever make something like that from what they had. They were going to eat a bowl of cold cereal for dinner.

Part of what happens is that we lose any sense of initiative, imagination and possibility, let alone responsibility for actually making something good out of what we have. The psychoanalyst Steve Mitchell famously said "At bottom, neurosis comes down to a failure of imagination." Part of how we're stuck is that we see our life as simply in an inevitable kind of rut that we have no idea how to break out of or that there's any alternative. We pretty much see change as coming entirely from the outside. The only thing that will make the difference is if I get something, somebody gives me something, somebody takes care of me, somebody does something that will pry me out of my rut. There's no sense that there is possibility or responsibility for getting yourself out of the rut. That the rut is of your own creation and there is possibility for something else.

In some ways this practice, which involves a great deal of effort and dedication, a great deal of physical endurance, a great deal of dismantling our assumptions about what it is, ought to be a kind of laboratory for seeing how much we can do when we put our mind to it. That we can endure a lot more uncertainty and discomfort than we give ourselves credit for. That we're capable of making strong long-term disciplined commitments if we put our mind to it. And things are not what they seem when we begin. And the world is a far more wide open and interesting place than we imagine. There's not simply one path through this life and everything to the left or right of it is a waste of our time. Our life is a wide open field and whichever way we go through it, there's no reason to think any of it is a waste.

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