When the responsibilities seem like too much…

Part 2 of a reflection on birth, death, and the Linji Lu

messy desk

Master Linji said, “Once there is right view, birth and death can no longer touch you……You should … achieve the state of having nothing to do…” At some moments, it is the responsibilities that come with birth that seem overwhelming to me. I was born a human, and feel a responsibility to do something worthwhile with that. What Linji describes sure doesn’t sound like my life! I live by to-do lists, crossing out work and personal tasks as they get accomplished. I feel myself racing ahead, as if log-rolling, trying to get somewhere. I’m doing and doing to keep that log spinning forward, and myself upright.

After a night of being ill at the Zen retreat, I made a doctor’s appointment and headed home. The first few days at home, while I would have much rather been at the retreat, dealing with sickness wasn’t so hard for me because I expected to recover soon. I had very carefully carved out three weeks of my life in January for intensive practice, telling everybody that I’d be out of contact. I found it was quite easy and enjoyable, in fact, to continue to ignore work. I set up my zabuton (large cushion) and bench in my bedroom, and sat zazen when I could. While resting, I listened to talks from the sesshin that were being recorded and posted on line. The first  major issue I confronted was not about the death and loss side of “birth and death,” but about the responsibilities that come with birth.

Sitting in zazen, what arose was a feeling of real, gut-wrenching dread about having to get back to work after sesshin. You see, I work in academia (which I heard described in the online dharma dialogs as a giant “factory of lack”), and I had a particularly big chance to measure myself against expectations coming up. January marked the beginning of a half-year sabbatical during which I had committed to write a book. (This is the kind of thing I do. If you can’t relate to writing a book, think about some demand of your job or your life that brings you stress.) Sitting in zazen, I allowed this feeling of dread to arise, held it, turned towards it, and looked into it.

My stream of consciousness went something like this: “I feel that more is expected of me than I can handle. I fear I will screw it up. I don’t fear the fact that it will be hard work, or that there will be frustrations and false starts. I’m used to that. What I really fear is that the work demands of me something better than I can do. Clearly, the book should be written by someone with more skill in writing than I have. And more insight. And more knowledge. And even if I write it well, I may end up signing with the wrong publisher, or making mistakes in the negotiations with them, or in promoting the book. Clearly the book should be written by someone with more publishing savvy. Clearly, the book I will write should be written by someone other than me.”

And then the turning point: “Oh, for dumb! How absurd it is to imagine that it would be possible to write a book that is better than the best I can do. It will be whatever it will be, and can’t be anything else. I will have difficulties, and I will make mistakes. All I can do is say, to the best of my ability, how things look to me.”

I don’t need to have it all together. I don’t need to know everything. I notice that even great teacher Linji modestly prefaced his words with “as far as the insight of this mountain monk goes.” In koan #84 in the Blue Cliff Record, Manjushri, one of the central mythical characters in Buddhism, is asked a question. He begins his response with ‘My idea is this…” Manjushri, buddy, you’re the Bodhisattva of Wisdom! You’re the man! If you don’t “have it,” who does?

All I can do is what I can do. All I can do is be this log. Trying to write someone else’s book is “chasing after external objects.” “When it is necessary to walk, walk.” When it is necessary to write, write. Nothing to do. No spinning or seeking elsewhere is required.

(End of Part 2 of 4. Forward to Part 3: Judgment day. Back to Part 1: Stopping the Mind.)

Author: julieanelson

Julie A. Nelson is a Professor of Economics; a writer on gender, ethics, economics, and ecology; a dharma teacher in the Boundless Way Zen school; mother of two grown children; and an avid dancer.

2 thoughts on “When the responsibilities seem like too much…”

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