I love reading books on zen, but it is not easy to find good ones in my opinion. Most are repetitive, and they either try too hard or they over-simplify everything. Good books on zen induce a head cramp because they often provoke me to think of ways I’ve never thought before, and they remind me that often profound truths lie in simplicity.
There is nothing simple about being simple. It is like how people say it is way easier to say or write something verbose and long, but it takes skill to be capable of expressing the same sentiment with clarity and brevity. I think life is similar: it is easier to live a complicated life, but knowing what and how to pare down, knowing what truly matters and being able to focus on that, takes a lifetime of wisdom.
What I appreciate about zen is the focus on what I describe as “dynamic living”. In tech we talk about dynamic software that enables the outcomes to change with different inputs and variables. Zen is the philosophical layer that encourages us to be open and fresh to whatever comes, which is way more difficult than it sounds, because we are creatures of habits and conditioning. Many of us are taught to design our lives as though the conditions will always be somewhat stable, and growth will somehow be linear – which we may discover to be lies by the time we hit 30, but by then it becomes difficult to change the ways we are used to living.
To be capable of living life dynamically with equanimity: through good times and bad times, sickness or health (I know this sounds like a wedding vow) – I think this will become especially useful as we are entering a period of climate change and geopolitical chaos. We are a culture that doesn’t deal well with failures and crises. I mean, why would we be, when the narrative has been: if you work hard and do x,y,z at certain milestones, life will reward you well; we should all work like soldiers and save well for retirement because interest will compound and we will all be millionaires by the time we hit 60, when we will live another 20 years at least in because modern technology has lengthened our life expectancy to about 80. That is also the narrative of many religions: if you live well, you would be rewarded.
I think we went too far with the reliability of science, that certain variables will define certain outcomes, so we live our lives like it is a science. But life is often chaotic and unpredictable. Just like they say, change is the only constant. If we have been told this right from the start, perhaps we would suffer less mentally and emotionally because that would have been within expectations. People lose jobs, lose money, fall sick, die; natural disasters happen, accidents occur, life can be often random, cruel and unforgiving. But somehow we have built this expectation that everything should go well until we grow old and die (hence people have a deep fear of ageing and death), so we are deeply impacted when something bad happens.
But what I really like about zen is that unlike buddhism (though it branched from it), cynicism, and stoicism, which can be pessimistic: that life sucks and we should just deal with it, zen attempts to be nothing. It is from this nothingness that the creative essence of life can be cultivated, because without preconceived ideas of how things should be, we have a wider capacity to respond dynamically to the situation. For example, instead of sadness when there is failure, we can perceive learnings and new beginnings.
Adjacent to the capacity to respond dynamically, is the ability to see things for what they really are, without the additional conditioning or biases that have become part and parcel of living in a modern society. It is the ability to see things as they are that will enable us to respond appropriately, not too much, not too little.
Personally I have become gradually aware how much I get stuck in unhealthy thought patterns, how much I tend to heap on my own biased interpretations of events, and how much all of that is affecting my capacity to live life as fully as possible. It is like life is constantly giving me new chess pieces and situations all the time, but I am stuck making the same old moves with the same old pieces.
I can’t really see things as what they are. I can’t even see you for who you are, because I am probably projecting on you. And perhaps more critically, I cannot see myself for who I am, because the image of myself in my mind is severely distorted. When everything is distorted, my behaviour and responses are inevitably distorted. It is like seeing through a dusty window, perceiving the world out there is grey and dark, but it never occurred that it is the window that is filtering my perception of the actual colours.
How can I clean my windows? Or perhaps I can open them, or knock them down? Maybe the windows aren’t even there in the first place, but I thought they were there because someone told me that they are supposed to be there.
I don’t know, but maybe for once I am getting better at not knowing, instead of always trying to be somewhere I think I ought to be.