How Do I Live My Life?

Is this a problem that cries out for a solution? Or an invitation to investigation?

grassThe question “How do I live my life?” has been coming up for me lately. I’ve been exploring  two versions of it.

The first version arises as a cry from the heart: “How do I live my life?”

Life has difficulties. One I’m currently dealing with is a change in my health. I’m not able to live my life the same way I used to. How do I adjust? I also recently retired. “How do I live my life?” came up more rarely when I had a routine—when my time was taken up with things I was working on and working towards. When that structure disappears, what do I do with myself? And then there is the situation of the world. People everywhere are hurting. The U.S. government is in shambles. Climate change is already causing great destruction, and worse is on the way. I can’t be complacent, yet I’m only one individual. What do I do with this life I’ve been given, in this world of pain?

Life can seem like a big problem. How do I work it out? This is a spiritual and existential question, equivalent to “Who am I?” and “How do I fit in this universe?” The question is especially distressing at 2 a.m., when I feel like I’m definitely screwing up.

The question is a valid one, and one we all face in some form. Yet I’ve noticed that I want the answer to the question to come in a very specific form. I expect a big solution. Perhaps because I’ve read too many novels, I want my life to have a consistent, meaningful story line, with a strong ending. I don’t want failure, mistakes, or regrets. I don’t want to fizzle out. I yearn for a way to be confident now, and for all time, that that I’m on track.

There is a lovely alchemy to Zen Buddhist practice, however. We delve into the spiritual questions. But the way we do, and the sort of responses we get from the universe, are very often not at all what we expect.

So the second way the question has been arising for me is “How do I live my life?”  While the first version was a plea for an answer, this change in emphasis turns the question into an opening for investigation. It becomes an invitation to dig deeply into what is immediately present, into what is happening right now.

There are many such invitations in the liturgy we use at my zendo. In Shitou Xiqian’s “Song of the Grass Roof Hermitage,” we are instructed to “Turn around the light to shine within, then just return.”  Eihei Dogen’s Genjokoan contains the well-known words, “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self.”

So what do I notice, when I’m investigating “How do I live my life?” Well, one important factor in living is breathing: No breathing, no more life! Our instruction for beginners is to practice zazen by sitting still and upright and focusing on the breath. In through the nostrils, down with the diaphragm, filling up the lungs and belly, letting it out…We examine this closely. We also do walking meditation (kinhin), noticing how we take this step—what muscles we use, where we feel pressure, when we change weight. And, of course, in the process of intending to focus on our sitting, breathing, and walking we also get to investigate our “monkey mind.” We may have had the illusion that we were in control of our attention, but we quickly learn that our power to direct it is extremely limited. Our boredom, our habits, our desires, and our projects regularly take over. When, while doing formal zazen or walking practice, we are given the opportunity to recognize that we’ve been carried away down a mind road, we gently release those thoughts and return to our practice. When we don’t get the chance to recognize that we are distracted, then we do formal practice with our distraction.

I’ve also recently been asking myself “How do I live my life?” here and there as I go about my daily business. Often, I regard seeing things and hearing things as simply routine, as just background stuff. When out on a walk, for example, I see a lawn. It registers as a pleasantly green area in my vision. I am also slightly conscious of recognizing that it is someone’s yard, and so somewhere I shouldn’t walk. “Turning the light to shine within,” though, I notice that I am attending to only those aspects of sensory input that serve my projects—in this case, the projects of enjoying pleasant things and knowing where to step. Yet my eyes are actually seeing a great deal more than “a lawn.” When I can drop my projects—when I can temporarily cast aside the habit of picking and choosing only what will be pleasing or useful to me—I see thousands of blades of grass, individual, pointy, and all different shades of green. And the crack in the sidewalk, the dry leaves in the gutter. I stop, and hear what I hear. The chirp of insects. And the sound of an airplane. And traffic. And the breeze through the trees.

Dogen wrote in Genjokoan, “When you see forms or hear sounds fully engaging body-and-mind, you grasp things directly” and “To forget the self is to be actualized by the myriad things.” He wrote, as well (emphasis added):

Accordingly, in the practice-enlightenment of the Buddha Way, meeting one thing is mastering it—doing one practice is actualizing one practice completely. Therefore the reality of all things is thus. Here is the place; here the Path unfolds.

Taigen Dan Leighton, in his book Zen Questions, quotes Dogen’s phrase, “to be steadily intimate with your mind field” (p. 126). This “mind field” is not just what is in our heads—though it includes that—but also everything around us. Studying how we live our lives lets us become intimate with all of it.

To use a modern analogy, it feels to me like my conscious mind is something like a radio tuner. When I’m lost in habits, I flip ceaselessly among stations. One station is for making up a to-do list; another rehashes the plot of a movie I saw last night; another complains about having a headache; and so on. Because of my self-centeredness, only a tiny range of mental frequencies is dedicated to reporting on what I perceive as the “outside” world. While, of course, we do have to use some of our mental energy to consciously make plans, part of the invitation of Zen practice is to use most of it differently. What if–particularly when we find ourselves tuned into a static-filled or meaninglessly repetitive part of the spectrum–we turn and pay attention to thus? We turn and pay attention to here? We don’t always get the choice—we aren’t in control of our radio dial—but on occasion we do have the choice. What happens when we take it?

The question “How do I live my life?” is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery we live into. We live into it by this “meeting one thing.”

Now, from the point of view of I started this essay with, this sounds disappointing. I wanted the big solution. I wanted the meaningful story line. But life is not a novel, and we get no assurances about what is coming next. As Dogen wrote,

A fish swims in the ocean, and no matter how far it swims there is no end to the water. A bird flies in the sky, and no matter how far it flies, there is no end to the air…So, if a bird wishes to fly or a fish wishes to swim only after investigating the whole sky or whole sea, this bird or this fish will find neither path nor place.

If this human being wants to live her life only after discovering the really big solution, she won’t find her way, and she’ll never be at home. Genjokoan continues,

When you find your place where you are, practice-enlightenment occurs, actualizing reality. When you find your way at this moment, you become actualized reality; for the place, the Way, is neither large nor small, neither yours nor others’.

Taking notice of that blade of grass is not something small. The universe comes forth in a blade of grass. And, Dogen also reminds us, we don’t actualize reality alone. As one of my Zen buddies (thanks, Dan!) put it, we are all co-authors of each other’s lives.

I yearn for the big solution, the one that will guarantee that I make no mistakes and have no regrets. But Zen practice gives us something much bigger and more powerful than that. Having to always be right is precarious. That sort of success is fragile, being conditional on circumstances and events. Zen practice, in contrast, is unconditional. It doesn’t require that we first get things right. We practice facing into our mistakes, living with regrets, accepting our shadow sides, and opening to changing course.

So how, then, do we respond to the situations we face in our lives? In our troubled world? Leighton notes that some characters in a phrase that Dogen often uses, the “samadhi of self fulfillment” can be literally translated as “to accept your function.” Leighton further notes, “This is not mere passive acceptance but actively taking on and finding our own way of responding” (Zen Questions, p. 130).

Yearning for the big solution to “How do I live my life?” leads to frustration.
Actively investigating “How do I live my life?” helps us find our path and our place.

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 “How Do I Live My Life?”

  1. Thanks. I liked hearing this in person and liked reading it too. Though my lack of intelligibility keeps me from responding in “real time” that will change. I am working with a speech therapist!


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