Managing difficult emotions

As the topic for the next newsletter Keizan Sensei has asked us to consider the question: ‘What emotion(s) is the most difficult for you to manage and what strategy do you use?’  Here, Anon responds: 

“The emotion that I find the most difficult to manage is inadequacy.

I could write about the various little techniques that I use in everyday life, but I won’t. Instead, I want to talk about when all those techniques failed.

A while back, I was going through a particularly tough period. All the small insights that I had discovered and found helpful along the path of Zen practice seemed to have abandoned me. Literally, nothing worked. Both in Zen and in life. I had been practising quite hard until then, seemingly with the motto of “if it doesn’t work, then make it work.” Zen doesn’t work for you? Then sit harder! But by then even this motto seemed to take a cynical air of resignation and say with a tired sneer, “well, this time it really doesn’t work.” I was disappointed and despondent. If my best efforts didn’t work, what else could I do? I wasn’t even sure if I was sitting ‘properly’, or for that matter, ‘practising properly’. In the end, I went to see Sensei in interview, and said that I would like to stop doing koan study. I then said that in fact I would like to stop visiting him in interviews altogether. I would continue to come to the zendo to sit, but that would be it. I hadn’t realised it then, but looking back, had I continued that way, I probably would have given up the Zen practice altogether. Sensei nodded, and that was that.

It was the next week when I was summoned back into the interview room. True to my word, I hadn’t put my name on the interview list, so when someone made a bow in front of me in the zendo I was confused. When I stepped into the interview room and made a bow, Sensei said cheerfully with his usual gentle smile, “I am sorry I am hounding you, my good man. I know you didn’t ask for an interview, but I just wanted to have a chat with you.” Not sure of what to say, I just sat there and stared at him. I might have said something like “Oh.” Regardless of my blank response, Sensei continued, “I just want to say that I would like you to keep coming to see me even if you don’t do koan study or Zen interview, just so that we can keep having human interaction.” I think I probably said something like “Oh” again. He then said, “You can talk about whatever you want to talk about, or you don’t have to talk about anything. Or you can talk about how your sitting without koan is going.”

Then I finally said, fighting tears in my eyes and with my voice breaking, “…but I don’t even know how to sit.” Sensei replied, “That’s ok. Just keep coming back.”

That’s ok. Just keep coming back.

So I did. And I sat. Not even knowing how to sit. Completely lost in the wilderness of anxiety, shame, inadequacy, wild mind, even wilder emotions, and despair. Fighting. Not fighting. Blaming. Not blaming. Resisting. Not resisting. With koan. Without koan. Then, in the end, everything turned around, and I am still here, sitting.

So – despite the advice of ‘be the light on to yourself’ – if I have to name a ‘strategy’ as such, these are what I did when everything failed. Take refuge in my teacher. Take refuge in the teaching. Take refuge in the community of practitioners. It’s ok. Don’t give up. Keep coming back. Above any teachings or insights, that is the greatest teaching I have ever received. “