Setting Sail in Stormy Waters


We are living through chaotic, unprecedented and unstable times. It can be hard to find your bearings. It seems we may have taken the values of our democracy too much for granted and now they need to be defended. We need to stand not only for core values but for each other.

There are so many ways we can separate ourselves from each other. If you believe life is a zero-sum game then you will fight to win at all costs, no matter how much suffering results. And this is indeed the political environment we find ourselves in. So why is the Zen spiritual path relevant in such times as these?

Zen was born in early China and came to prominence during the decade-long An Lushan Rebellion. It’s said that 1/3 of the population of China was wiped out by violence, disease and hunger. And yet Zen flourished because it rose to the occasion by helping people turn towards the suffering rather than avoiding and running away from it.

So there are five ways Zen might help you navigate these choppy waters to reach the other shore.


The spiritual path begins with waiting. You must be patient. You can not begin the journey with impulsive or ill-conceived action, no matter how good your intentions. Before you unfurl your sails and set forth on the high seas of the unknown, you need to be prepared. Fishing nets need to be mended. Leaks in the boat need to be caulked. The boats need to be sanded and painted. You have to wait for all of the crew to arrive.

Waiting can teach you many things. It can teach you to listen, to rest, and to pay attention to small things. You begin to appreciate the crew that have joined you for this journey.

In Zen practice, meditation teaches us how to wait. It teaches us how to hang out with ourselves and with others. It teaches us how to be with our experience, directly, intimately. It teaches us to let go of our attachment to the outcome. It teaches us to respect ourselves and our world.


Waiting teaches you to listen to your own experience with greater care and kindness. And what you may discover is that you are often in the grip of what Tara Barch calls the "trance of unworthiness". Another word for this is "shame". It's one of the most common sufferings I see. Shame cripples any positive initiative or creative impulse. It is highly correlated with depression, aggression, violence, bullying, addiction and sleep disorders. It's message is, "I am bad". "I am not OK as I am". Shame always has a prerequisite. "I'll be OK once I ____________." And you can fill in the blank for yourself.

In the grip of shame you find yourself working hard to fit in, to always please others and to do everything perfectly. You spend enormous amounts of energy trying to avoid being shamed or humiliated by others. The fear of rejection is often at the fore-front of your consciousness.

Ironically, it seems to me the prerequisite for entering the spiritual path is overcoming shame. As you work with this, you gradually realize that there is something in the heart of your experience which is rich, sane and worthy, and it's unconditional. It does not depend on other peoples' approval of you. It does not depend on how much money you earn, how smart you are, or how many friends you have on Facebook.

So there is some wholeness in you that is lovable and good. This wholeness is not divided in any way. So it includes everything. It includes your world, your neighborhood, your government, and yes, even politicians. The spiritual path of living a Zen-inspired life returns you to the wholeness of who you are. And in coming home, you make friends with your world.


Once you trust your own sanity, you're ready for the journey. And the basic principle that applies here is that you should approach difficulties. This may be counter-intuitive. You have developed habits of avoiding suffering, which contribute to your dissatisfaction. You discover that the journey is headed straight for the rocks. But now instead of freaking out, and pretending a crisis is not happening, you take this as another opportunity to wake up, and to be more skillful. You don't stop loving someone because they are suffering. You show up and spend time with them. You are present with their suffering, without pity, without judgement. Some fortitude is being born in your own sad and tender heart. Some tenderness and care for the enormous suffering of the world around you.


Grief is how you know that you've set sail on the high seas. Adventures are to be experienced. And yet, it's surprising to discover that an important part of this journey is returning home again and again.

You've started make friends with yourself and your world, and you discover this soft spot in yourself, this sad and tender heart that has been disappointed, hurt and betrayed so many times before. Your own sanity, inspires you to stay, to grieve, to open your heart further to this incomprehensible and insane world you find yourself living in. You don't need to wall off your heart any longer.

I still remember 9/11 vividly. I remember the loneliness I felt and the need I had to be with other people, to share my pain and my confusion. I believe that if we as a country had been able to properly grieve this tragedy, we might have transformed ourselves as a country. But we unable to do this. We rushed to judgement and reaction that led us into two wars, one of which we are still trying to extricate ourselves from.

We could grieve for our planet, for the species that are rapidly disappearing. We could greave for our oceans where the coral reefs are dying. We could grieve for the hundreds of children being shot and slaughtered in their own schools. We could grieve for our own divided nation and the impasse we have reached politically.

Grieving is how we come to our senses, how we wake up and embrace our world. It takes courage to remain open hearted and face a world which seems to have gone crazy. What's born from this brave, open heart is a vow, an aspiration to live your life for the sake of healing suffering wherever it resides in the human heart.


Ordinary people live by the habits of their karmic actions. Those who live a Zen-inspired life live by vow. They aspire and orient their life around serving and giving of themselves so that others may wake up and be liberated from suffering. They are freed from the constant self-preoccupations that plague others. They are inspired to engage with the suffering in the world. They do not run away from suffering. They don't try to fix it. They have tremendous power and fortitude born from the strength of compassion. They are able to show up with kindness and care and respect.

The only obstacle to living a Zen-inspired life in this way, is your own doubt, your own fear that you are not worthy or good enough or brave enough to live in this way. Face your fear, and then go beyond it. Live a larger life and make a difference in the world around you. Live your life as if it mattered.

No matter how crazy the world seems, its still possible to show up here, sane and open. In Zen practice we renew this practice daily through the practice of meditation. Meditation is our base-line practice that helps us keep our ship upright and sailing through rough seas. Please take good care of yourself, your family, your community, your country and the planet. May all beings be free of suffering.

Robert Joshin Althouse, 2019