The Laundromat is atypically uncrowded and I get two jumbo washers right next to each other so I don’t need to take a deep breath and remind myself to accept life “just as it is.” I was ready for it, though, after spending the morning immersed in Charlotte Joko Beck’s Everyday Zen, a book-length collection of dharma talks on Zen practice, its purpose (no purpose) and the philosophy behind it all. I did manage to misread the SOAK and WASH cycles and dumped the detergent and bleach in the wrong ones. Oh well. Perfection is not the point, after all.
Beck was a plain-speaking, no-nonsense Zen teacher (she died in June at age 94) who covered the Zen precepts from basic practice to enlightenment with stories, examples and candid directives. Sitting zazen—the Zen term for a meditation session—seems uncomplicated: sit, breathe, empty your mind. But it is a rigorous practice that exacerbates or initiates aches and pains and could torpedo your psyche. Get too emotionally uncomfortable, a very real possibility, and you might abandon the effort in order to avoid confronting your callous, misguided and unattractive dark side.
The dharma talks explain how—and why—to persevere. “From the withered tree, a flower blooms” is Beck’s favorite quotation from classic Zen teachings, much repeated. Uh oh. Guess who’s the withered tree in this metaphor? The flower represents your progress—maybe a joyful breakthrough or an experience of inner peace. Don’t count on a big explosion of light, O Buddha-wannabe. Imperceptible change is the norm—very incremental. Sit down on your cushion and settle in for the long haul.
It’s a seductive practice, though, tough as it may be. “Enlightenment is not something you achieve,” Beck writes. “It is the absence of something.” Sounds nicely minimalist and elegant, unlike the life of someone with every towel and bathmat in the house putting the soap in the wrong cycle and trying not to splash bleach on herself. I think I soaped too early the last time I was here, too.
Beck cautions that to seek enlightenment is futile and ambitious. Zen is a progressive clarification, a lifetime of lifting veils, shedding misperceptions, accepting the moment. She details ways to handle anger, pain, disillusion, confusion, even breathing. She punctures all the bright balloons of dreamy, nirvana-like states and says simply that you get better at knowing what is true for you and making decisions about your life as you progress.
Duality and individuality are false notions in Zen. Everyone and everything is connected, no separation, no difference. That maniac neighbor who screams and cusses at his kid for six hours straight on Saturday night? You. Every Presidential candidate with his hand out for corporate largess? You. That prune-faced fourth grade teacher who kept you in for almost every recess all year? You. The Dalai Lama? You. All the same. Zen is great physics. Nonduality contradicts James Hillman’s theory of The Soul’s Code, the book I read before this one. Hillman builds his work around the concept of individual fate. Zen is a zebra of another stripe. Not only are you interrelated to the entire universe but nonattachment is a central issue and benefit of all that focused sitting.
Nonattachment loosens the bonds that lash you to your desires so your life becomes calmer, less driven to get and do things, less tinged with disappointment at all you want but don’t have. People who aren’t in the grip of attachment tend to have fewer things, Beck says, but that’s really irrelevant. What is crucial is that you can tell the difference between what is impermanent and what is important. Soap cycle—impermanent. Clean towels—a greater good. All the toys in the toy box? Fine. Few or no toys–make do with your imagination? Also fine. You become free, light and smarter about how to live.
Zen isn’t for everyone. But it isn’t some esoteric practice reserved for a few hardy initiates either. Sit every day, according to Beck, and you’ll gradually open your life to a quiet joy and a peaceful acceptance of each moment as it is.
Everyday Zen: Love and Work (Plus) Charlotte Joko Beck | HarperSanFrancisco 1989