Pity To Waste A Good Crisis

“We’re all connected, and we find out how connected we are on days like this. We try to love our neighbors as we would love ourselves, but today we love our neighbors because we realize they are ourselves.”

— Governor David A. Paterson of New York after the commuter plane crash in Buffalo in February 2009.

Student: “When times of great difficulty visit us, how should we greet them?”
Teacher: “Welcome.”

A plane crashing in Buffalo punctuates a time in history in which crashes of all kinds are happening. Houses are worth less than is owed on them, mutual funds that went up in an orderly fashion fall off a precipice, offices lay everyone off with an hour’s warning, large chain stores close their doors for good, the busy suburban hairdresser is empty on a Friday, and the hardware store is ominously quiet. Panicked reactions amplify the crisis–the VP of the semi conductor company stops work on the half constructed building while the production machinery is in transit on the high seas; the university declares a hiring freeze and the clinic is threatened with shutting down entirely because it can’t replace a receptionist who earns $9.00 an hour. And this all seems to happen very suddenly.

We play with dark fantasies to prepare ourselves for how it might be: “It’s going to be hard, very hard, and there will be breadlines and we will lose all the loot we have accumulated and we will push shopping carts containing all our belongings, and then we’ll die, slowly, while our teeth hurt.” Thus I have heard.

But wait a minute, winter is still cold, summer is still warm, bread, cheese, pickled onion and a beer is still a ploughman’s lunch, the sky still has windows of translucent distance at sunset after rain, a wet dog still smells like a wet dog. Perhaps we will be fine. Perhaps we don’t have to waste this crisis in wailing and gnashing our teeth. “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before,” says Rahm Emanuel.

The beginning of being fine is noticing how things really are, and in my case this comes from having a practice, from meditating, from noticing life without blame or outrage or fear, and if there is blame or outrage or fear, noticing that without blame, outrage or fear. With such noticing compassion enters.

1. Life Is Uncertain, Surprises Are Likely.

Consciousness works by making maps, and there is always a gap between our maps and the territory of our lives. A surprise is a landscape feature that was not on my map. I have an idea I am one kind of person, with, say, a bank account, but it turns out I am another kind of person, without a bank account. Surprises are common and an indication that you are alive. I grew up with people who remembered the First World War; it started in August, 1914, and everyone thought it would be over by Christmas. Instead it led to a century of wars. Wars do that. At the time, that was a surprise. After The War there was the influenza epidemic–another surprise that took millions of lives. There have been positive surprises too. Vaccines were invented, banishing polio, saving my life, and antibiotics, also saving my life.

Our representations are fragile and based on poor data. The mind assigns value to events, saying, ‘this is good,’ and ‘this is bad,’ but the values we give things are usually just arm waving and scrambling about. The world is truly unpredictable in its consequences and our reactions to events are also unpredictable, even if we have a deep meditation practice.

We can make an ally of surprise. Meditation methods are not intended to make the world predictable, but they provide a space in which we can have our reactions without fighting with ourselves. And in the end, meditation resets the maps and opinions to zero. It overcomes the problem of James Joyce’s Mr. Duffy who “lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.”

Meditation is one thing we know that does work. When we meditate there is nothing else in the world, and whatever we have is enough.

2. Lower The Bar: If You Are Alive, That’s Good

In any predicament you can notice that you are alive. Considering the vastness of the universe this is an unlikely event and you can rejoice and take delight in this occurrence, even if times are not hard and no stars are going nova in your neighborhood. Happiness is not really related to having a bank account; if it were, most of the world would be doomed to being unhappy. I have a friend who, for reasons mostly unrelated to foresight, drew her money out before the financial crash. I also have a friend who saw it coming and made money from it. I have another friend whose investment advisor put all his money in Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme and presumably lost it. I asked this last friend what the symptoms of money loss were, and he left a voicemail, “Well I have a previously unsuspected interest in cooking and in fixing up the kitchen. And sometimes I wake in the middle of the night and my left leg is twitching. That’s about it.” When you really look at what your situation is, it is not what you might have thought. My friend who lost his money is not visibly more unhappy than the other friends. He has also found a more lively and amusing attitude to his work, perhaps because of the thought that he needs to earn replacement money.

The hard bits of life might not be the ones you are dreading. The good bits might be the ones that are always available–a slant of light through the garden and then the rain; running inside to get dry, cooking for friends, the sound of a bird in the early morning when you can’t get back to sleep, the act of impulsively giving something away when you have almost nothing. When you are present in your own life it extends infinitely in every direction.

3. In A Dark Place You Still Have What Really Counts.

The beauty and nobility of your life may be more visible to you if a dark contrast is available. A woman who was meditating with the koan at the head of this piece–the little conversation about hard times and Welcome, was in an unusual situation. Her father was prosecuted for the murder of her mother, a death that happened decades ago and for which no resolution has been found. No one close to the situation believes her father did this. But someone with a grudge, and hearsay evidence, and a relative with dementia, and an eager prosecutor–if it’s a cliché that a prosecutor can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich, it becomes personal when you are related to the ham sandwich. The woman with the meditation practice noticed something unexpected though–she is happy, she’s not outraged, and although people expect and even want her to be angry with the prosecutor, that is not what she feels. She gave counsel, and sympathy, and money for defense lawyers, but she didn’t have to give her own emotional well being. The intensity of the difficulty actually drove her to deeper practice and the world suddenly became very beautiful, not at an unspecified future date, when the situation will be resolved, but now, when nothing is resolved, or fair, or sensible–now, when it’s now. Even the prosecutor’s face glowed with light. “No one told me it would be like this,” she said. Awakening might happen at any time, perhaps especially when we are convinced that something else is going on. That’s a positive surprise, a benign catastrophe.

4. If You Are In A Predicament, There Will Be A Gate.

In the main, koans are predicaments that you can use in case you don’t have one lying around in your life. Usually of course you do have a predicament since being human is a predicament. I might think that it’s a bad thing to have lost something but if I start from the current situation there will always be a doorway. When I meditate it’s like calling out a spell in a forgotten language; the spell slowly traces the outlines of a door, making the way out visible, even in twilight, even in the darkest, most forgotten prison. When we lose money or get a diagnosis, we might decide that this is a bad thing, but we might be wrong. Uncertainty and the unknown are not things to endure, they are things to rely on. If you don’t even consider winning or losing, there will always be a doorway.

When I had cancer, I thought that it might be inconvenient or frightening, but it turned out to be interesting. It made me a lot less lazy about being present. There was a time when diagnosis, course of treatment, and outcome were all uncertain and, in that condition, my mind reached for certainty over and over again. That quest, being hopeless, brought pain. But when my mind stopped reaching out and fell back into the warm dark of uncertainty, time stretched out infinite on either side and there was a pool of joy that seemed bottomless–joy in breathing, joy in hearing the birds in the cold before dawn. Having cancer was much more exciting than sitting in an armchair, watching the game on Sunday. And everything I looked at had the aspect of tenderness and delicacy. I looked into the checkout clerk’s eyes and saw the universe looking back.

5. What You Need Might Be Given To You

The dark can be warm and beautiful even if you are complicit in your situation. You don’t have to be innocent. Lots of people used their houses as ATM machines in a fairly reckless manner; it seemed like a good idea at the time. There is nothing wrong with noticing this; transgression is a known path to wisdom. Taking drugs, clueless love affairs, gambling your money away with Wall Street–losing your grip can empty out your life enough for you to appreciate the kindness at the bottom of things. In the end we have to forgive the universe for the way we live in it, forgive it for the mistakes of our own learning.

We also have to trust our own responses. When I first sat with dying people, I was aware of how ignorant I was and that I didn’t know the right thing to say or do. I didn’t know whether to say, “Go for the light,&#8221 or to read aloud (as one of my friends does at such times) The Tibetan Book of the Dead, or to play Beethoven or to meditate, or to tell a joke. And this wondering was just the nature of the mind fetching around, trying to find the right map. Actually, a map wasn’t needed. I truly didn’t know what to say, and if I didn’t just make up some nonsense, words would float up out of the black lagoon of uncertainty, words that were not the sort of thing I could have thought up. And if nothing floated up, I could sit there. The important thing wasn’t having the right answer, it was keeping company with a friend when neither of us knew where the journey was headed. That was a deeper meeting than I could have planned for.

6. The True Life Is In Between Winning And Losing.

Contradiction is the fully human place to be. The illegal immigrant can’t go home because she won’t get back into the country if she does. The Republican mayor of a small city, who speaks out against illegal immigration, gives her a job.

We don’t have to pretend not to have our opinions. Mostly we would rather be rich than poor, but also, it isn’t usually terrible to have lost our money. We can have a life in between those rather uninteresting discoveries. In between is where humans always are–that’s what we have to welcome, a story with an uncertain ending. And this condition is interesting if you inhabit it; it’s alive. If I’m facing something that I don’t know how to do, the not knowing is what is true and the resources I have, deeply ignorant as I am, will have to be enough.

I have an amusing memory of being in between. I was on an old wooden trawler, steaming up the coast towards Townsville in North Queensland with a storm starting to come in. It wasn’t bad yet, it was three-quarters of a gale but increasing. Visibility was good. We were rolling a lot but then we always did with a sea running. We were loaded with prawns and we thought we were rich, rich. So you can see the way the mind swings around: it’s good we have prawns, it’s bad the storm is coming, it’s good the storm isn’t here yet, it’s bad we are nowhere near port–the whole human story.

We came upon another boat in the fleet. He had taken a wave over the stern and his cockpit filled and wasn’t draining. The boat was now more down at the stern than was really desirable with weather coming in. He was trying to bail but his stern was low enough that water kept washing in. He could probably solve the problem by throwing his catch overboard but, hell, he wasn’t going to do that. He had pawned his guitar and slipped out of port at night ahead of the bailiffs; he wasn’t going to surrender those prawns. He was alone, without a deckhand, and there was some discussion on the radio whether I would swim over to his boat to help out. I wasn’t that thrilled at the prospect. Although the water was warm, which was positive, there were sharks, which was probably a negative. But perhaps they weren’t tiger sharks, a positive, if true. Also, from his point of view, if I came on board, would he have to pay me a share? And would his boat sink anyway? He was clearly overloaded. The situation looked pretty sketchy. Then he beached his trawler on a sandbar where through some peculiarity the wave action was not so bad. He was grounded and trying to pump out his cockpit, and it came to me–everybody was completely, deliriously happy. Will he lose his boat? Will I swim over? Are there really sharks? Should I swim over? How much will we get for our catch? How far over will we go on this roll? Everybody was as interested as it is possible to be, as interested as angels would be, watching over the pretty earth. We were delighted to be there wallowing along with our very own predicament. It was funny and it was also a moment of insight&#8212the Buddhist word is prajna, the wisdom that cuts through delusions and leads to a natural appreciation and compassion. Not only can we be happy in our difficulties, but if we really truly notice, we are happy already.

It’s important not to discount the idea that in a crisis, you might be having the time of your life.

7. If You Have Nothing–Give It Away

It rained in the night and I thought I was the rain. When I woke I had many things to do but I lay there and listened. It was an eternal moment. And when I got up I saw the drops on the deck in the dawn and watched them. The child of the house where I am staying woke up and ran downstairs and jumped into my arms. We kept watching the rain. Nothing else was happening and it was enough.

Whatever we are doing, all of history is here now. Our minds think we are the rain, and then that we are the little boy, jumping; our minds think we are each other. It’s not so hard to give ourselves completely to the world in this way. And when difficulty visits us, perhaps we will see more clearly that we can look after each other, and that, if we have little, we can be more generous than we were when we thought we had a lot. Helping each other might be more fun than guarding our loot.

In Buddhism that is called the Bodhisattva path, in which we want everyone to share in the joy of understanding. This path comes from losing things more than from gaining things.

If you lose everything, you may also be lucky enough to lose who you thought you were, along with any fear and despair that goes with that identity. It might be that what we have to learn is to play in the world like someone who really did run away to join the circus when she thought about it as a child. We are part of something vast, and generosity is an effortless consequence of discovering that. We give away in our turn what we have discovered and what we have been given.

— John Tarrant

Note: This article was written for the Shambhala Foundation in February 2009.