In the teachings of my teacher, Joko Beck, I might use her admonition to “suffer intelligently” to sum up what she taught all those years. I would say that goes up there with her other life-affirming sayings like, “relationships don't work,” and “there’s no hope.” A very grandmotherly teacher. She wanted to bring a sense of emotional reality into the practice of Zen, not have it be in the service of some transcendental project but down to earth, where we live, our day-to-day emotional lives.
As I reflect on that teaching now, I find that I would probably add to “suffer intelligently,” my own expression of that in the form of “be dependent intelligently.” I think these are two sides of the same coin but they create a different emphasis. Suffer intelligently, I think, focuses on the side of the gap that inevitably arises between our expectations of life and other people and how life actually is moment to moment. And so her idea of practice was confronting that gap, and life always presented a gap between reality and expectation, so each moment, life as it is, was always a teacher. And basically she would say, Where there’s a gap between expectation and reality, which one do you think is supposed to give?
Now we can put a lot of effort into trying to make reality change, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s a whole side of changing reality that gets summed up in things like, When you're hungry, eat. When you’re thirsty, drink. When you’re tired, sleep, and so forth. They’re very straightforward ways in which you can say Zen practitioners are allowed to come in out of the rain, you don’t have to just stand there. You can change reality, but there’s going to be a point at which reality is an immovable object and you’re going to have to be stuck with it not meeting some level of expectation.
For Joko there’s sort of an image of reality being a kind of grindstone that you put your expectations up against, and self and expectation in that book are pretty synonymous, so you use just that endless gap, that endless failure of reality to meet expectation as a way gradually to just wear down expectation or this kind of curative fantasy or narcissistic demand that life should conform to my expectation. So she focused on that gap, the idea being that when there’s truly no separation, when we’re really willing to fully meet life as it is, including the suffering in life, that’s compassion’s way. There’s also the path of joy as well as compassion. Because then there’s this free non-separate flow and functioning of ourselves in the midst of life regardless of its content.
However, there’s a side to her metaphors, particularly how relationships don’t work, and relationships, when she talks about them that way, are all about, What do you expect from another person? And how do you expect them to be an antidote to your needs, your loneliness, or whatever, right? And so, the not-work aspect of relationships focuses on that expectation gap. And at one point she said, I could live with anybody, which for her meant, I can just be with anybody with no expectations whatsoever and I’ll let them be who they are, and however difficult that is, I will just practice with that.
I think that’s a very useful way to practice with frustration. But there’s not a lot of room in that for the positive side of relationships. Either it’s neglected or it’s taken for granted. And so I would complement what Joko says with this alternate admonition to “be dependent intelligently.” And by that I mean to put the focus of our attention back on our needs and our feelings without focusing on the gap or the frustration that they will inevitably bump up against.
See, when Joko says that I can live with anybody, it’s all on the side of frustration, where I can just deal with whatever is. It’s not much on the side of what relationships are actually for and why anybody would want one. It’s like being stuck on the subway at rush hour. You know, you just have to deal with being crowded in there with all these other people, but it doesn’t sound like anything anybody would ever choose. Why would you ever let another person into the apartment if it’s always clean and just the way you like it for yourself? Sometimes there is another person in there and you just have to deal with it, right? It’s not the most romantic vision of relationship, is it?
So I would prefer to find a way to include the side that says, We are dependent mammals that need love and nurturance and connection and groups. We’re social, dependent animals, and we all have to find a way to acknowledge and meet those needs. In the course of that there’s going to be inevitable frustration, and the challenge is not to blame the need, not to say, I’m going to use practice to get over ever needing anything or anybody. I want to become independent, more autonomous, more self-soothing, more self-directed, self-regulating, self-teaching. All these ways we’d like to dissolve our dependence on other people who are imperfect and changing.
See, that’s the problem with people. You can’t control them and they change. But we really are deeply stuck with them. Right? So that’s where the “suffer intelligently” thing comes in. We’re really stuck with each other and we have to deal with the imperfections in the other, and the fact that the other changes. This is the fundamental Buddhist picture of suffering, in that everything is going to be changing and nothing can be fixed into just the state we want and have it stay there, whether it’s our mind, our relationship or anything else about this life.
There's historically a big danger in Zen practice, and I think a lot of religious practice, that we try to transcend through practice our connection or dependence on other people. Some religions say we can’t trust people but we can always trust God. God will be never-changing and all-loving, so if I can’t get what I need in this world, I can always count on it in the next or in God’s love in this world. Buddhism tends to throw you back into this world, but we have a strong temptation to always try to become more self-sufficient.
But I think the importance of practicing with a sangha, practicing with a teacher, is that it both evokes our dependency and our frustration. I don’t think any of us really are very capable of practicing alone. We can do it up to a point for a while, but if we’re going to practice intensively, just in terms of the structure of sitting, most of us, if we're ever going to do a sesshin, are going to need to do it in the context of a supportive group, a supportive tradition. We’re not going to be able to invent or sustain this on our own. And so we have to acknowledge that we need others to be able to practice.
We even may need a teacher in order to practice, and we may start out with a very high idealization of who a teacher is and what a teacher is. Part of the experience of being with a teacher is getting to both acknowledge one’s need and one’s dependence on another person, but also to see how we deal with the particular humanity of that other person when the teacher doesn’t stay in an abstract idealized fantasy but is another human being with strengths and weaknesses who, nonetheless, we are in a position of having to rely on.
You know, Joko used to say, it takes people quite a few years to learn what practice really is, and then most of them quit. What she meant is that for the first few years, people spend a lot of time trying to actualize their fantasy of practice, both what they’re going to accomplish and who the teacher is. At some point they really get the idea that practice and the teacher are not going to fulfill their fantasy, and that’s the big turning point, and the majority of people will leave and go and pursue a different fantasy or a different teacher. And they’ll say, well, this place, this isn’t the real Zen, or that teacher really isn’t enlightened, and then they’ll go find another one and do it all over again for another ten years and then they’ll have to go through it one more time. But to really stick to practice is to stick to the particulars and limitations of one situation.
Now that’s not to say you just have to stay with something no matter how bad it is or how bad it gets. Like marriages or other relationships, sometimes they don’t work and it’s appropriate to leave and try to find something better, and that works with sanghas and teachers as well, but there’s always going to be something you have to figure out, that you’re going to stick to, even though it falls short of an ideal. In our life we really have to come to terms with the fact that we’re going to have this and we’re not going to have that, and every choice we make in our life is going to be closing the door on some other opportunity, so we have to face the limitation of every decision we make.
But fundamentally we need each other, and that will take many forms. There will be personal relationships, social relationships, group relationships, professional relationships, and we will rarely get the perfect trifecta of having all these things fulfilled in line all at the same time. It would be great if we could but it just doesn’t happen that often, to just be able to line up our personal relationships, our professional lives, our relationships with practice and a teacher and just have all of them working perfectly. Well, it doesn’t happen most of the time. For most of us, if we get two out of three we’re really lucky, and if we get one out of three we’re not doing bad, right? And what we really see is how some needs in one sphere will have to compensate for x in another. But we can’t say, those needs aren’t real, or I will transcend. I can’t say, well, I get satisfaction in my job so it doesn’t matter that my home life is miserable or something like that. We really have to try to figure out and acknowledge the full spectrum of our needs.
See, rather than our practice making us more autonomous, our practice makes us more vulnerable and it opens us up more and more to the fact that we are connected to one another and that that connection is the connection to people who are at least as imperfect as we are. Sometimes even more so. Right? So we have to be dependent intelligently.
Unintelligent dependency is a life of complaint. It’s a life of endlessly being angry at the other people for falling short of what you need. They can fall short by just not being there, by being imperfect, by being difficult, by getting old. But unintelligent dependency is basically a life of anger. And so that’s one of the things I think we can watch and try to practice with. How much of our life is taken up with angry complaints? About how we’re being let down, how we're not being given what we need. Intelligent dependency doesn’t try to repudiate the need, doesn’t try to deny the frustration, but really moves in the direction of acceptance of the whole package.
Like Joko says, we have to always watch the gap between our expectation and reality, but when we wear things down, when we use life as a grindstone, we’re not trying to grind our needs down to zero. That’s the danger with that image. We're not just grinding and grinding and grinding until there’s nothing left. But we’re letting things wear down to the point where we’re able to say, This is it. This is me. This is you. We’re in this together. That may be the fundamental lesson of practice. We’re in this together.