Sick and Useless Zen

If Zen doesn’t make us feel better, or make us into better people, is it a total waste of time?

Two years ago I had a sudden bout with a virus. As yet, I still haven’t gotten entirely over it. The acute phase slowly morphed into a long-term, sometimes debilitating, slog through fatigue and general crappiness. I don’t like it. And it has helped open me up to the wide universe.

The way I usually roll is with one or another of two projects. I want to feel good, or I want to be good. While both at the same time is even better, usually attachment to one or the other of these two goals dominates my activities and thoughts.

When in the “feel good” mode and I feel bored, I want to be entertained. Other times I feel a sense of lack, and feel that if I only had a certain something (a favorite food, say, or a more satisfying relationship) I’d feel better. Or I’m bothered, and feel that if I could only get rid of something (stress, headache, tiredness of body), then I’d be really be able to live my life to the full. While, of course, there is nothing wrong with experiencing joy in good things when they arise, this obsessive desire to feel better than I feel at this moment adds a static-y, distracting element to my experience of daily life. While sitting zazen, however, I have the opportunity to experience this urge in something more like controlled laboratory conditions. I can (sometimes, at least) recognize that last night’s movie plot echoing in my head arises from my desire to be entertained; the image of a glass of wine is the arising of desire for an object “out there”; and rejecting my current state is yet another version of “this can’t really be it!” And then I can return to my practice. Yet, since most of us initially come to Zen with some kind of “feel good” motive (such as relieving stress and developing a less painful life), it’s also easy to fall back into trying to make Zen just a tool for my “feel good” project.

When I’m in the “be good” mode, I’m intent on making sure that my life, in the end, will tally up to something positive and worthwhile. I feel obligated because my living requires dying (of plants, and sometimes animals, for me to eat); because my warm room requires depleting fossil fuels; because I have been given so much (good home, education, job, freedom from violence). To make counteract the debits I’ve racked up, I push to create some credits. I want my life, on net, to be helpful to others and the planet. I want to do things, solve things, fix things. I want to use my work life to turn things around that have been going badly, and my roles as friend, citizen, and community member to do something about the suffering of the world, as well. I want to be productive and effective. Responding to the suffering of the world, of course, is far from a bad thing. But practicing zazen, I can (sometimes) notice how the attachment to personal accomplishments is actually a subtle variant of the “feel good” project. Deep down, many (if not all) of us come to Zen because we feel that we ourselves need fixing. We hope that Zen will rid us of those bad parts of our character—those faults that we feel make us somehow fundamentally (perhaps even even uniquely among all humans) unable to be appropriately wise, peaceful, vital, or loving. We want Zen practice itself to serve our productive urges, moving us towards some ideal better self. We make it part of our project of wanting to feel good about ourselves.

Yet Zen, over and over, points us back to the realization that this–even this!—is really it. The basic instructions are “sit down, shut up, and pay attention.” In the practice of following or counting the breath, or the practice of non-doing that is shikantaza, practiced resolutely, there is absolutely no room for working on either the “gotta feel good” or “gotta do good” projects. We see those stories coming up, and are invited to release them and come back to the breath or to other arisings of the moment.

But from the point of view of our projects, what possible use could Zen practice be? If it doesn’t make us feel better, or make us into better people, isn’t it a total waste of time?

These two years of feeling lousy have helped put my two usual projects under increased scrutiny. (It seems I have a case of mild-to-moderate Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, also known as CFIDS/ME, though continuing tests may yet turn up something more specific.) When I’m feeling buzzy-headed and tired and achy all over, “feeling good” is not an option. “Being good” is less possible, as well. I’ve always identified closely with my career, yet my illness has caused me to cut back to half-time. Along with the physical fatigue, an often foggy brain with a lessened capacity for concentration or sustained mental work makes it hard to get anything much done.

And beyond the physical and mental fatigue is a sort of moral fatigue. I hear terrible news about bad decisions related to my university, the most recent Trump administration lunacy, or the state of the polar ice caps, and I often find I can’t summon more than the tiniest, rather fatalistic, blip of care. Holding my smart phone, I easily switch from reading the news to feeding myself dopamine hits by playing games. The release of escaping into entertainment is accompanied both by a pang of defeat (relative to my “do good” project) and, I admit, a blip of guilty pleasure. Having zero energy provides me with something of a “get out of jail free” card: a legitimate excuse for not even trying in the face of overwhelming obstacles. Then, usually around 2 a.m., the great black cloud descends on me. Awake with insomnia and pain, I’m captured by the thought, “I’m miserable and my life has no meaning or purpose.” Both my projects have failed. My life, I feel, is worth nothing. From the point of view of that thought, the universe appears cold and harsh.

This utter failure of my projects is, actually, in a weird way, the good news. Zen was never about those projects to begin with. Zen was never about making my little life more consistently pleasurable, or building me into some kind of hero or moral icon. Zazen practice continually reminds us to unhook from our projects, which always reflect in some way a desire to be elsewhere. We are continually invited to come back to “just this,” to come back to who we really are. When I bring my sickness and uselessness to Zen practice, they fit just right. Doing sick Zen, I meet my feelings of achiness with a gentle, “Oh yes, just sick.” Doing useless Zen, I’m reminded that while sitting zazen (as well as in much of day-to-day life), paying attention is the first, and in some ways the only, point. We “do,” in most ways that word is understood, precisely nothing while in our formal practice.

Zen pulls me away from my “little me,” isolated projects, and sets them in a much vaster perspective. I recognize that the dark-of-night “My life has no meaning” thought is just another thought that is arising. The alchemy of Zen practice converts the apparent black hole of despair into the gentle observation, “Oh, this little corner of the universe—this particular person, in this bed, at this hour—is suffering.”

When, in daytime, I sit on my meditation bench (or, on worse days, lay on the rug) and allow all my “selfing” to thin out, I find I don’t have to dig up energy in order to manufacture a feeling of care. Simply dropping the belief that I am a good judge of what is important (“Obviously, my thoughts are important, and the sound of traffic is not”), the intimacy of hearing—really hearing—the sounds of wheels on the road, seeing of the sun on the wooden floor, and feeling my breath come and go, calls me out of my small self. Offering that pure and open attention feels a little bit like giving a gift. Perhaps attention is the only thing we ultimately can give.

I get very frustrated whenever I think of this mysterious malaise as something that saps my vitality and takes me away from the full life I should (if the universe would just do things my way) be living. My practice of sick and useless Zen, on the other hand, reminds me that this life, as it is, is my full and vital life. It just has some issues. It’s just human.

Eihei Dogen wrote,

Firewood becomes ash, and it does not become firewood again. Yet, do not suppose that the firewood is before and the ash after. You should understand that firewood abides in the dharma-position of firewood which fully includes past and future, and is independent of past and future. Ash abides in the dharma-position of ash which fully includes future and past, and is independent of past and future.

Julie-sick abides in the dharma-position of Julie-sick, and is not Julie-after-healthy. Dogen also uses the metaphor of seasons: “We do not call winter ‘the beginning of spring.’” It’s possible that I’ll recover health. But Julie-sick is not Julie-waiting-to-get-healthy. Julie-sick is Julie-sick arising, and is my full life coming forth.

What a relief! How wonderful! If Zen practice depended on us being in good physical and mental states and piling up accomplishments, it would, without doubt, fail us just when we will need it most.

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.

8 thoughts on “Sick and Useless Zen”

  1. Julie Hi, thanks!! I enjoy reading your essays. And I’m reading your book. It’s a great book. I hope you will overcome the virus attack and get better. Truth and zen make us free!!!


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