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‘Showing Up – How Do I Get to Square 1?’ by Woo-Young Tetsugen Yang

Copyright – Leah Pearlman @ http://dharmacomics.com, “Worst-Thing-Best-Thing”

Woody Allen said “80% of success is showing up. And often inspiration waits until you do”.  Someone else said “When we are willing to show up with our insecurities we create new possibilities”. What does this mean for you and do you have any experience of its wisdom or otherwise?

This is a tale of 0.

Even before I start, I would like to state that I completely agree with Woody Allen and Someone Else here. Never mind the ‘profound Zen wisdom’ – there are many good old fashioned logical and secular reasons on why the two above statements are true. Firstly, I find practice makes perfect. Secondly, I have found showing up with consistency forms good habits, and in turn good habits make showing up easier, resulting in a virtuous cycle. Thirdly, I can never know what’s happening on the field better than by being on the field myself, and true inspirations for effective and appropriate solutions can only arise from such accurate knowledge.

So far, so good. But what does showing up actually entail? In answer to this question, Andy Tanzan asserted that it meant ‘not running away’. However, as always, there is a catch. If the very insecurities, fears and anxieties stop us from showing up and instead make us run away in the first place, how do we actually get to the Square 1 of ‘showing up’?

A well-known simile in the Indian philosophical tradition tells us a story of a man who mistakes a length of rope to be a snake in the dark. Although he runs away at first, he later decides to return and examine the ‘snake’ more closely with more light, whereupon he discovers that it is not a snake but merely a length of rope. Heartened by his success, this spirited seeker then proceeds to examine the rope even more closely, and discovers that it is not even a length of rope but a collection of intertwined strands of straw… and so on. Nevertheless, when I confront my own insecurities, sometimes they look more like fire-breathing dragons let alone the relatively harmless snakes from which I can at least run away. When he is asked to do something about his own fear, Chandler Bing from the sitcom Friends describes this feeling perfectly: “(I cannot do it) Because I am too afraid!” It is literally petrifying.

It is all the more frustrating because I have experienced both the secular and Zen versions of the wisdom in showing up, and seen their effectiveness both on the cushion and in daily life. I even remember what it physically felt like in my body as the wisdom unfolded. Yet when I struggle it all feels like a distant memory and nothing more. I would often whip myself with the ‘wisdom’ to ‘show up with my insecurities’ no matter what. Phrases like ‘let go of the insecurity’, ‘be one with the insecurity’, or ‘thoroughly investigate’ are written on those whips, but the harder I whip, the tighter I cling on, as if my very own life depends on it. The larger the insecurity, the harder it is to let go. It is just like a mini SM situation unfolding in my internal theatre, where both the sadist’s and masochist’s roles are played by myself split into two. Just like Tenshin Roshi’s favourite version of translation for Dukkha, the wheel gets well and truly stuck. In one corner of my mind a smart arse announces an accurate but unhelpful diagnosis: ‘It is not working because you are making a goal out of it. You are simply trying too hard.’ But surely, I must achieve the goal of showing up or otherwise I will definitely fail! So, what now?

With time, it eventually became clear that continuing with the whips was untenable. Having finally established that, contrary to my hitherto held belief, neither sadism nor masochism was my taste, and I enjoyed neither whipping nor being whipped, I abandoned the whips. Seemingly having exhausted all options, I asked myself without any idea of the answer, “what now?” A strange thing then happened. No longer under the whip, my mind then started to sort out the affairs that I had been anxious about. It was surprising to discover that it seemed to know exactly what needed to be done even before ‘I’ did; that it was equipped with everything it would ever need for its purpose, yet ‘it’ had been, still is, and always will be no other than myself all along; that it has always worked like this, in exactly the same way. All it needed was just a little bit of trust so that I can get out of my own way.

After the trust came compassion, as I no longer had to turn myself into my enemy. With compassion came insight – or a more complete version of the ‘wisdom’ mentioned above. Only then could I see what this ‘anxiety’ really was without colouring it with animosity; how it was in fact telling me about how ‘I’ functioned; how it was showing me what the best plan tailored for me was, instead of someone else’s best plan for me which did not fit nearly as well. In that moment, anxiety became something else – the same thing but different, a friendly unknown. Having accomplished its task, it then naturally dropped away without forcing myself to ‘let go’.

With this insight came courage: to place even more trust on myself; to leave ‘it’ to do what it was actually designed and built* to do – to engage myself in my life in the best possible way I know how, to continue learning from life, to chart another course if a previous course did not work, and to keep going. With trust, these things in fact come almost effortlessly. Pretty much all I have to do is to be clear and awake about what I really want and what my appropriate purpose is in a given circumstance. Yet the most strange and wonderful thing is again that ‘it’ is exactly my deluded everyday self.

Obviously ‘it’ does not bring me an eternal bliss. All my habits, insecurities and delusions are still alive and well. On any given day, my life can be exactly as shitty as it had been before – sometimes it can be even worse! – but perhaps with a little bit more breathing room, which can make all the difference. Sometimes I forget to trust myself again, or I get in my way (or artificially try not to get in my way) again. Sometimes I do not have enough courage to apply what I learnt above. My insecurities then go back to being my enemy, and the whole cycle of Dukkha starts again. It is not fail-proof by any standards either. I am a human, and therefore I make mistakes. Sometimes I genuinely have to say, ‘That did not go so well – what can I learn from this? How can I do better next time?’ But that’s OK, because as I learn, ‘it’ gets updated.

Zen is often called the wisdom school. As if to prove this point, every week we complete our chanting of sutras with the phrase ‘Maha Prajna Paramita’ – the ‘great perfection of wisdom’. However, I now believe that, just like how compassion without wisdom is not true compassion, wisdom without compassion is not complete wisdom either. Quite rightly, Buddhism has always been known as the religion of both wisdom AND compassion.

So, this is my ‘what now’: before rushing to get to the Square 1 which is the most obvious starting point for any of us, there is in fact a secret stage Square 0 of trusting myself. Ironically, it is often hidden in plain sight, where it has always been right from the beginning, yet it is easily forgotten. Only having reached Square 0 can I naturally and without resistance proceed to Square 1, and only then can my own wisdom finally unfold in its true form.

Therefore – metta, to everyone, and also to myself.

*I do not mean to say that there is a creator who designed us to be this way.