My most difficult emotions – Keith Shingo Parr

Here we have another contribution on the theme of Difficult Emotions. This time from Keith relating how his recent visit to Yokoji Zen Mountain Centre in California was part of dealing with these head-on. Keith also kindly shares some lovely sketches done during his Yokoji stay.

I recently travelled to Yokoji, a place I had wanted to visit for some time. I went not only to experience an extended period of practice but also to break away from the normal routine of my life. For nine years now I haven’t been anywhere or done any travelling; it was time to give my life and my practice a kick up the backside.  There are many reasons why I haven’t travelled but part of the reason was a fear of flying. I’ve lived with panic attacks since I was eighteen and can still remember the first one I had while working in a factory in Liverpool. An overwhelming sense of fear and dread came over me, waves of terror I can’t begin to explain, which continued to plague me right up into my adulthood, burdening and hindering my life. After many years of struggle I came to realise that my fear, and the attacks, were existential in nature; this has, ironically, spurred me onto a ‘spiritual’ path, which eventually led me to Zen. It is Zen practice which has ultimately helped to see into nature of my panic attacks, to the point where they are no longer hindrances for me and they no longer occur as frequently. One of the strategies I would use to deal with them was to put myself into a situation which triggered an attack, face it square on and suffer it until it passed; difficult at times but it eventually worked. A fear of flying course, recommended to me by Jenny, and two transatlantic flights along with some internal flights, soon sorted the flying fear out.

Dealing with certain emotions can be difficult and challenging but for me the only way is to acknowledge them and deal with them head on. It takes me some time to pluck up the courage however. So I had fear, emotion number one to deal with; then emotion number two which led to my decision to visit Yokoji.  Of all emotions the most difficult and potentially debilitating for me personally is sadness. I’m talking about a deep sense of unease and longing I can’t explain. Perhaps born of those nine years of being alone and feeling isolated and adrift, like Odysseus, longing for my own personal Ithaca. But I feel that it’s been there for a long time and that most of us experience it in varying degrees.  A favourite book of mine on this theme is ‘Sailing Home’ by Norman Fisher, ‘Using the wisdom of Homer’s Odyssey to navigate life’s perils and pitfalls’. It’s full of good stuff and resonates with me on a deep level and I find myself often dipping into it for inspiration.

What I learned from my visit was that for me this sense of sadness was part and parcel of my ‘way seeking mind.’ That sense of sadness and longing goes deep in me, and for me it is the need to connect with my true home, ‘my true self’ in Zen parlance. That true home however is always here and always has been, right in front of me. So why pay so much attention to this ‘way seeking mind’? After all it’s just another voice among a queue of voices clamouring for attention. I came to realise that I have to wear out the ‘way seeking mind’. At the start of my practice this was a great asset, but now it is becoming more of a hindrance, obscuring what is right in front of me.  My fears and my sadness, all my emotions are me, are my true authentic self and I have to look at them, embrace them and experience them, as painful as that can be at times. Jokai Sensei told me there is always suffering but also that everything we need, all the ingredients to live our life are right in front of us.