Hard Times

Is the world the problem? Or something else?


How do we meet hard times? Like perhaps many others, I woke up on November 9th, the morning after the United States presidential election, thinking “I’m not living in the kind of country I thought I was.” The world suddenly appeared to me as far more harsh, more dangerous, and less reasonable than I ever would have thought.

I have been struggling with how to respond to this. While I’m still groping and muddling about, at least one thing has been clear: I’m pretty sure that responding to manifestations of greed, anger, ignorance, and fear with more greed, anger, ignorance, and fear is not going to be helpful. Kosho Uchiyama substitutes for “ignorance” the phrase “group stupidity,” which I find telling. I so much want to point out the untempered greed of our newly elected leader, be angry at those who favored what I see as an exceedingly bad choice, and rail about the group stupidity encouraged by broadcast- and social-media echo chambers that blatantly repeat lies as truths. Yet my Zen practice turns me towards recognizing my own greed, in the form of demands that the world go the way I think it should. My own anger, reflected well in the saying “I love humanity; it’s (those) people I can’t stand.” My own echo chamber, which allowed me to not realize that such an outcome could be possible.

I recently read an article by John Tarrant, the dharma grandfather or great-grandfather  of many students of Boundless Way Zen. I found it to be provocative. But rather than only direct you to the article (which would make a far better dharma talk than the one I’m about to give!), I’d like to reflect on a few passages that jumped out at me. The title of the article is “How to Welcome the End of the World.” The text Tarrant reflects on is:

A student asked, “When times of great difficulty visit us, how should we meet them?
The teacher said, “Welcome.”

That didn’t seem to me very plausible at first—in fact, it seemed to border on the irresponsible. But then I read more. And sat with it more.

The first phrase in the article that gave me a kick in the pants was “I will die, those I love will die, bad people will get elected, diet plans will fail…” I had to laugh in self-recognition. As huge and serious as death is, and as national and global convulsions are, I have to admit that—on the level of how I experience them mentally and emotionally—they bear a certain similarity to “diet plans will fail.” In my case, my usual personal battle is less about diet and more about wanting to get past the fatigue and malaise that have been my frequent companions for, now, almost a full year. But the election and the fatigue both belong in the bucket labeled “ways the world just isn’t doing what I think it should.”

The next line that struck me was, within a discussion of Zen emptiness, the phrase “We will know what to do.” I scribbled in the margin next to this, “Or not.” One of my fantasies about Zen is that it will make me always, seamlessly, know exactly what will be helpful in any situation. Then I could live my life gracefully, never having to feel regret. Yet, on another level, Tarrant is right. What I’ve found is that sometimes what I need to do, right now, on this step of the bodhisattva path, is feel muddled and confused. Maybe the circumstances are such that I have to take some immediate action, whether or not I know which action will be helpful. That action, too, is “what to do.” And perhaps the next step on the bodhisattva path is feeling regret for what I have just done. That feeling of regret is also “knowing what to do.”

That fantasy of the always-graceful me is an outgrowth of my constant urge to make Zen into a self-improvement project. But Zen does a classic bait-and-switch on us: Most of us enter into the practice because there are parts of ourselves, such as confusion about what to do, that would like to get rid of. Instead, regular practice brings us face to face with exactly this. Instead of pushing the unwanted parts away, with prolonged practice we start to become more intimate with our own lives, accepting their realities rather than spinning off into fantasies. Tarrant continues, “Welcome…becomes something I notice about reality. Then I’m not opposed to my own life…”

These thoughts of needing to be rid of something—for example, of my fatigue—are just thoughts. We have a saying in Zen, “Don’t believe everything you think.” Tarrant tells an amusing story of, as boy, being sent to a store for “striped paint or a yard of milk.” Our thoughts are like that. Our thoughts are secretions of our minds. That’s what minds do. The mental secretions need not always be taken seriously.

And here’s the kicker: Zen is not only not a self-improvement project, it’s not a world-improvement project, either. It does not at all prescribe passivity in the face of world events (more on this below), but neither can we make Zen into just another one of our projects.

Tarrant writes of following the bodhisattva path, “The effect is to make us helpful without having to feel virtuous and worthy…” In contrast, I would have to say that the usual motives behind my efforts to fix the world are 98% about wanting to feel that I’m on the right side—and preferably incredibly effective, as well, thank you very much. By careful choice of echo chambers, I could be continually assured that I’m on the side of virtue. But Zen brings us to doubt our fantasies. Whatever heavenly city we think we are aiming for, it is a variety of striped paint. When real helpfulness arises, it comes from welcoming reality as it is right now, and taking our next step from a place of emptiness, openness, and vow.

So what do we do? Tarrant writes, “[W]elcome is destructive of prejudices, and then a spaciousness opens. Then even sorrow has welcome inside it…” I hurt, when I think about what is coming for our world, in addition to all the ongoing pains of war and oppression. I feel sorrow, particularly, when I think of even more species going extinct, and bullying receiving encouragement.

Much of me wants to take the thought I’m not living in the kind of world I thought I was as a sign that the world has, in some sort of special, unique way, suddenly taken a wrong turn and needs to be put back to rights. Yet, similar to seeing a picture as two profiles, and then suddenly seeing it instead as a vase (as above), Zen moves my focus from seeing the world as unacceptable to perceiving the root of the problem in I thought. The world is simply the universe continuing to universe; it is the rigidity of my thoughts about it that are leading me astray. If I have been over-optimistic, tempted into believing stories of progress, that’s just been me, failing to open my eyes and forgetting to doubt my thoughts. The shock to us, who have who have had the privilege of living lives of relative security and peace, of our world coming to an end gives us a useful (if painful) wake up call about ourselves and our narrow perspectives. The Syrian refugee child knows that worlds end. The collapses of previous cultures and the extinction of dinosaurs were world-ending as well. We’ve got lots of work to do, of course…but maybe we aren’t so special.

Being an academic, the first thing I do, of course, is read. I’ve been reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind and Arlie Hochschilds’ Strangers in Their Own Land, to try to understand the ethical and emotional underpinnings of the divisions in our nation. For years I’ve intended to read Ghandi and Martin Luther King, without ever getting around to it. Now I’ve finally bought the books, figuring that, in seriously threatening times, skills in nonviolent resistance will become increasingly useful. I’m still muddling. I’m still looking for responses to recent events that go beyond the too-easy ones arising from self-righteousness, anger, group stupidity, and fear.

So, how do we welcome the end of the world? Tarrant concludes,

“So this is what the end of the world is like,” I’d think, feeling awe and probably happiness. I could stop bargaining, say, “Welcome,” and listen to the vast pulse of the changes Nothing is ever truly lost.

I grew up Christian, and today is Christmas Eve. Sometimes a baby is born in a stable, of all places. Sometimes grace happens. Tarrant writes, “It’s always too early to despair.”

Based on a talk given at the Greater Boston Zen Center on Dec. 24, 2016.

Author: Julie A. Nelson

Julie A. Nelson is a writer on gender, ethics, economics, ecology, and Zen; a Professor of Economics, Emeritus; a Dharma Holder and Teaching Coordinator at the Greater Boston Zen Center; and mother of two grown children.

2 thoughts on “Hard Times”

  1. Thank you! I’ve just read Arlie Hothschild’s book, and found it very illuminating. It struck me that many of the values that progressives seek at the community level are similar to those that people who support the Tea Party value, so there may be grounds for a kind of partnership, at least at the local level:

    • The importance of community, kindness, and helping neighbors;
    • The importance of a strong sense of belonging;
    • The importance of self-respect, and being able to contribute to your community;
    • The value of small businesses;
    • Compassion for those who are in difficulty and need;
    • Love for the places where we live, and the need to protect their beauty, ecology and traditions.


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