Zen Q&A Is there a way to become less attached to things in my life I really identify with? Barry Magid September 8th 2017

Rachael asks:

My entire identity is tied up in being a writer. I've spent 40 of my 45 years wanting and studying to be one. I'm now a full-time professional writer with 18 books out, both novels and non-fiction. I meditate regularly and have little problem accepting the temporality of most things. I know that everything will change, and I'll lose everything at some point. While obviously attached to the people I love, I understand and accept the impermanence of all relationships, and this does help me enjoy the now of the moment I stand in. The one thing that throws me into a panic is the thought that someday I might not be able to write - it's not something I'm able to hold with a loose grasp. If I weren't a writer, I wouldn't know who I was. Is there a way to become less attached to this idea? Or is even something to strive for?

A: I think this is a very interesting question, one that really goes to the heart of what we imagine will be transformed in us by practice, what we strive for. Really, what does it mean to be enlightened? Is that a state in which I won’t be affected by impermanence, by the transformations that will inevitably come in my life? I think that all of us at some level have a fantasy of imperviousness, that practice will allow us to meet everything that could possibly happen to us with equanimity. Yet how realistic is this? I think Rachel’s question points to the fact that almost invariably for all of us there comes a point where we can’t imagine being unaffected, being impervious to some radical change in our lives. Even if we could be, is that something we should aspire to? Is that really the point of practice?

Perhaps it’s a picture of classical stoicism that we could discipline ourselves in such a way that no matter what happens, we will retain our equanimity like the old stoic who is said, on hearing that his son died in battle, I’ve always known that my son is mortal. Is that a reaction to be admired more than breaking down in grief at the loss of your son? What reaction do you think is more human? I think it was in Everday Zen that Joko tried to describe enlightenment for people by saying, How would you feel if you had to have your arms and legs cut off? Would that be OK with you? Would it be OK with you if you were publicly humiliated? Then she went through a few of these kinds of scenarios asking, Would it be OK with you if . . . .

The point of enlightenment is not that it’s OK with you in the sense that I’ll be unphased by that, it won’t bother me, I won’t mind, it wouldn’t hurt anymore. I think that’s like the old stoic, a picture of imperviousness, a stone Buddha -- no matter what happens, I will not feel it because I’m enlightened. Joko didn’t mean that. I’m pretty sure she meant that enlightenment means simply being willing to face an experience whatever happens next, no matter what. Are you willing to face and go through losing an arm or a leg? Are you willing to face losing your job or your livelihood or whatever?

So in this case, for Rachel, the question is: Are you willing to face not being a writer? Of course it would be a terrible loss, a terrible change in your life, and I can’t imagine a situation or a practice that would make you immune to that. I don’t think it’s something to aspire to. But all of us have to sometimes face the things we think are unfaceable. I know that when I lost the sight in one eye, I was very afraid of the possibility of going blind in both eyes. My practice didn’t make me unafraid, but if anything, it taught me that if I had to go through that, I would go through that. That’s simply what life is and our practice is simply that willingness to take that next step into the unknown. There’s no assurance or guarantee or get-out-of-jail-free card that is going to make us immune or impervious to what’s going to happen next. It might be quite terrible. It’s not that I or anyone else can promise that we will go through things unfazed. We may suffer terribly.

Now I think, in one sense, when they hear this, people treat it as very bad news, that there is no formula, no discipline, no state to attain that’s going to make you impervious to whatever happens to you in your life. Of course we wish there were some magic formula like that, but I think in a certain sense it’s also the good news. It’s because if there was such a thing, we would grasp after it, but the price we would pay is to be less than human, to be other than human, and I don’t know if that price would be worth it.

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