Ground Zero

Roshi Robert Joshin AlthouseIt might be exciting to talk about spiritual concepts, philosophies and metaphysics, to wax poetically about harmony and enlightenment. But that actually seems to be pretty far removed from your daily experience. So I'd like to talk about "Ground Zero" where you actually live your life in the trenches. At "Ground Zero" there is a constant struggle taking place. Everyone is busy surviving, making a living, going to work, making money, putting food on the table and sending kids to school. All over the world, in every country, every day, people are involved in this brave endeavor. It's really a beautiful thing. You shovel down breakfast to prepare for the daily war. And then you head out by car, by train, by bike or on foot ready to attack, to win, to achieve something.

Is it possible to appreciate what "Ground Zero" is from a direct, experiential level? Is it possible to get close to the bone, instead of philosophizing or moralizing about it? It's a messy situation. There is constant confusion and bewilderment taking place. Buildings which seemed so solid have disappeared in a matter of minutes. Here there is aggression and chaos. It's very sharp and painful. It cuts through you completely. You can't get comfortable here.

So the problem seems to be that you don't want to acknowledge the pain at all. You don't have a direct relationship to the pain. You relate to your projection, to your reaction to the pain. You only relate to your struggle to overcome the pain. Either you win or you lose. Either you attack or you will be attacked.

"Ground Zero" rears it's head through gaps in your daily experience. Some interruption takes place. You have a flat tire on the way to a meeting, and now you will be late. You forget someone's name. You go to the doctor and are told you have cancer. That moment is a gap and it's taking place in your daily experience. It's bewildering and confusing, and you feel slightly embarrassed.

So your first, knee-jerk reaction is to panic, to react. You quickly fill in the gap so that you can maintain the illusion of your own continuity, solidity and invincibility. It's as if you are trying to make something eternal out of a situation that is constantly shifting and changing. The reaction is your projection. And this reaction then leads to further suffering. The suffering is predictable. It manifests in five distinct patterns of ignorance, aggression, passion, pride or jealousy.

So the spiritual path I have learned from my own teachers starts at "Ground Zero". It starts by relating to your pain, fully and properly. You practice mindfulness meditation so you can pay attention and be more aware of what you are actually doing. You begin to understand projections. There is always a relationship between projection and projector. They both confirm and solidify each other, freezing space and giving birth to the five patterns of suffering.

So this spiritual path begins by surrendering, by giving up hope, for hope at this point, would be hope for the wrong thing. Hope at this point, would be some kind of spiritual materialism, the use of spirituality to promise some kind of escape from the pain.

If you are honest, if you are brave enough, you will realize there is no escaping your life. There is no escaping "Ground Zero". The pain is there and you can't wish it away. It's a self-existing situation. If you can relate to the pain properly, then it's no longer so personal. It's not really your pain because you don't exist in the way you thought you did. The sharpness cuts through you and begins to wake you up. It has an empty-hearted quality about it. It's very lonely. You begin to acknowledge your own sad and tender heart. Unless you are able to be alone in this way, it's not possible to be truly compassionate.

So perhaps you will take this to heart and begin a meditation practice. There are so many ways this practice can benefit your life and those of people around you. Resolve today to begin living a Zen-inspired life of openness, empathy and clarity in the face of change and uncertainty. There is no escaping your life. There is no escaping your death. And this wisdom of no-escape is the spiritual tradition I gratefully, joyfully and whole-heartedly embrace.

Roshi Robert Joshin Althouse