The Sickness of Being Human

In quoting Albert Low’s Zen: Tradition and Transitions, this morning’s reading of Jean Smith’s The Beginner’s Guide to Zen Buddhism closed out a chapter on the zendo (or monastery) by noting:

“The good news is that we are Buddha; the bad news is that all beings are Buddha. The sickness of being human is the sickness of wanting to be unique.”

This resonated with me relating to a feeling that came up the earlier chapter, aligned with a comment about how Zen practice and tradition are not easily adapted in the West.

“Americans are often extremely resistant to the services at first. Many come to Zen thinking it’s some kind of psychological practice they’re going to do with their mind, facing a wall. They’re appalled when they discover robes and incense and bowing. If you respond this way too and can’t immediately embrace the spiritual and reverential aspects, just look at the services as a good means to practice awareness, openness, and what Shunryu Suzuki called beginner’s mind: the ability to meet every experience with the innocence of first inquiry.”

My gut reaction when reading about the traditional practices associated with what I understand Zen to be was something along the lines of: Forget that bullshit. Who wants to do the bowing before the bowing and stepping into a room with the correct foot at a certain pace of breath? Not this guy.

My mind is an expert when it comes to pointing out what I don’t like about something and using that as a point of leverage to push myself away from that thing. So, you’re telling me that Zen isn’t about what I thought Zen was before I ever investigated what Zen might actually be? How dare the 2,500 year old tradition not bow to my ill-educated presupposition!

It took me several go-arounds before I let go of that premeditated judgement and became willing to open myself to 12-step traditions, and in doing to I ended up learning an immense about myself and gained a tremendous amount of healing in the process. It was what some call my “bottom” that helped me adopt the beginner’s mind, and the process of doing so served me well. The symptoms of the sickness of being this particular human, I might add, sometimes include violent rigidity in the face of helpful suggestion. I don’t always do well with adopting new beliefs, habits, or traditions—who does?—which often comes down to me thinking I have a plan, and that said suggestion won’t result in me getting what I think I want the result to be.

There’s a big word there: “Think.” Thinking I know what’s possible has gotten me into a lot of trouble in the past, and if I’m not mindful of that pattern, it’s bound to get me in trouble again.

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