“Most of our difficulties, our hopes, and our worries are empty fantasies. Nothing has ever existed except this moment. That’s all there is. That’s all we are. Yet most human beings spend 50 to 90 percent or more of their time in their imagination, living in fantasy. We think about what has happened to us, what might have happened, how we feel about it, how we should be different, how others should be different, how it’s all a shame, and on and on; it’s all fantasy, all imagination. Memory is imagination. Every memory that we stick to devastates our life.”
― Charlotte Joko Beck, Nothing Special
Charlotte Joko Beck (1917-2011) was a Dharma heir of Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi and also studied with Haku’un Yasutani and Soen Nakagawa. She established the Zen Center of San Diego in 1983 and was the author of Everyday Zen (1989) and Nothing Special (1993). It is no exaggeration to say her teaching transformed the nature of Zen in America, restoring a sense of emotional reality to a practice that all too often bypassed the “merely” psychological in the pursuit of realization… Enlightenment, she taught, was the absence of something, not the added presence of some special experience. Being ‘just this moment’ was compassion’s way.
Whirlpools and Stagnant Waters
excerpt from NOTHING SPECIAL by Charlotte Joko Beck
We are rather like whirlpools in the river of life.
In flowing forward, a river or stream may hit rocks, branches, or irregularities in the ground, causing whirlpools to spring up spontaneously here and there. Water entering one whirlpool quickly passes through and rejoins the river, eventually joining another whirlpool and moving on. Though for short periods it seems to be distinguishable as a separate event, the water in the whirlpools is just the river itself. The stability of a whirlpool is only temporary. The energy of the river of life forms living things—a human being, a cat or dog, trees and plants—then what held the whirlpool in place is itself altered, and the whirlpool is swept away, reentering the larger flow. The energy that was a particular whirlpool fades out and the water passes on, perhaps to be caught again and turned for a moment into another whirlpool.
We’d rather not think of our lives in this way, however. We don’t want to see ourselves as simply a temporary formation, a whirlpool in the river of life. The fact is, we take form for a while; then when conditions are appropriate, we fade out. There’s nothing wrong with fading out; it’s a natural part of the process. However, we want to think that this little whirlpool that we are isn’t part of the stream. We want to see ourselves as permanent and stable. Our whole energy goes into trying to protect our supposed separateness.
To protect the separateness, we set up artificial, fixed boundaries; as a consequence, we accumulate excess baggage, stuff that slips into our whirlpool and can’t flow out again.
So things clog up our whirlpool and the process gets messy. The stream needs to flow naturally and freely. If our particular whirlpool is all bogged down, we also impair the energy of the stream itself. It can’t go anywhere. Neighboring whirlpools may get less water because of our frantic holding on. What we can best do for ourselves and for life is to keep the water in our whirlpool rushing and clear so that it is just flowing in and flowing out. When it gets all clogged up, we create troubles—mental, physical, spiritual.
We serve other whirlpools best if the water that enters ours is free to rush through and move on easily and quickly to whatever else needs to be stirred.
The energy of life seeks rapid transformation. If we can see life this way and not cling to anything, life simply comes and goes. When debris flows into our little whirlpool, if the flow is even and strong, the debris rushes around for a while and then goes on its way…
Over the years, we have trained ourselves to do the opposite: to create stagnant pools. This is our false accomplishment. Out of this ongoing effort come all of our troubles and our separation from life. We don’t know how to be intimate, to be the stream of life. A stagnant whirlpool with defended boundaries isn’t close to anything. Caught in a self-centered dream, we suffer… When we are used to the rigidity and controlled stiffness of a defended life, we don’t want to allow fresh currents into awareness, however refreshing they may truly be.
The truth is, we don’t like fresh air very much.
We don’t like fresh water very much. It takes a long time before we can see our defensiveness and manipulation of life in our daily activities. Practice helps us to see these maneuvers more clearly, and such recognition is always unpleasant. Still, it’s essential that we see what we are doing. The longer we practice, the more readily we can recognize our defensive patterns…
What we do get out of practice is being more awake. Being more alive. Knowing our own mischievous tendencies so well that we don’t need to visit them on others. We learn that it’s never okay to yell at somebody just because we feel upset. Practice helps us to realize where our life is stagnant. Unlike rushing mountain streams, with wonderful water flowing in and flowing out, we may be brought to a dead halt by “I don’t like it…. He really hurt my feelings,” or “I have such a hard life.”
In truth, there is only the ongoing rush of the water. What we call our life is nothing but a little detour, a whirlpool that springs up, then fades away.
Sometimes the detours are tiny and very brief: life swirls for a year or two in one place, then is wiped away. People wonder why some babies die when they are young. Who knows? We don’t know why. It is part of this endless rushing of energy. When we can join this, we’re at peace. When all of our efforts go in the opposite direction, we are not at peace.
Book to Hang Out With: Nothing Special by Charlotte Joko Beck
‘Nothing special’ proposes an interesting approach to life, quite different from the general Western principle of seeking happiness: it’s the Zen way.
As Charlotte Joko Beck explains, “We’re far away from ‘just living’, as a natural man or woman would live. We’re thinking about living all the time.”
The Zen practice of direct experience brings us back to living.
‘Nothing special’ helps you to allow the present as it is. Through answering her students’ questions, Charlotte Joko Beck gently shows us what Zen actually is.
Order the book via Amazon HERE.
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