We were played last night. During a Primer 2 class: Foundations of living a Zen-inspired life, a black woman showed up who said she had attended and paid for the Primer 1 class from the previous week. But we had no record of her in our system. In situations like this, we are likely to let the person come to the class. Though we knew we were being played, we did not know how badly it would turn out. By the end of the evening, she had walked off with $110 cash from our front desk.
It's ironic because much of the class I taught that night was about loving kindness, basic goodness and forgiving our enemies.
June and I walked down to the local super market after the class to get some fruit. I noticed that I was looking for that woman, and that my attitude towards many of the black people I saw at the market was less than friendly. I was feeling angry and for me, the world at that moment seemed like an unfriendly and hostile place.
A good nights sleep, and a morning meditation helped me begin to practice with this experience. I began to wonder what her life had been like. What kind of suffering and abuse had she experienced growing up? And what gave her that entitled attitude, that allowed her to come into our Zen Center and steal from us? It took some hutzpa to do that.
At times like this, it's easy to take these experiences personally. But one practice I have given my own students over the years, is to take whatever suffering you are experiencing, and make it larger. I began to imagine all the people in Oak Park that had personal possessions stolen from their houses and garages. And then I imagined all the people in Chicago who have suffered injustices and have had their personal possessions or money stolen from them. Just over the fourth of July weekend, 72 people were shot. I wonder how the ones that survived must be feeling right now. I imagined how it must feel to be a Morsi supporter in Egypt and feel like your political and religious group, which was legitimized only a year ago, had just been striped of all that power and legitimacy by a ruling of the supreme court.
Looking at the world in this way, my suffering does not seem personal at all. It's just suffering, but it's not abstract. It's immediate. And our practice is to open to this suffering, to be willing to live with our broken hearts and our disappointments. The world doesn't always turn out as we would like.
I'm sure in the future we'll be tougher, and we probably won't make this mistake again. But we could. There is no great virtue in being clueless, but perhaps some naivety is better than becoming bitter, resentful, jaded and cynical.
I'm reminded of one of my favorite poems by Rilke which goes like this:
“I can tell by the way the trees beat, after so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes that a storm is coming, and I hear the far-off fields say things I can’t bear without a friend, I can’t love without a sister.
The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on across the woods and across time, and the world looks as if it had no age: the landscape, like a line in the psalm book, is seriousness and weight and eternity.
What we choose to fight is so tiny! What fights with us is so great! If only we would let ourselves be dominated as things do by some immense storm, we would become strong too, and not need names.
When we win it’s with small things, and the triumph itself makes us small. What is extraordinary and eternal does not want to be bent by us. I mean the Angel who appeared to the wrestlers of the Old Testament: when the wrestlers’ sinews grew long like metal strings, he felt them under his fingers like chords of deep music.
Whoever was beaten by this Angel (who often simply declined the fight) went away proud and strengthened and great from that harsh hand, that kneaded him as if to change his shape. Winning does not tempt that man. This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively, by constantly greater beings.”
I prefer to keep my heart open and live a Zen-inspired life. I'd rather have a sad and tender heart than a closed one.
by Robert Joshin Althouse