“There’s a place for us, somewhere a place for us ...”
– Stephen Sondheim
If we could just get there our problems would be solved. But where is that place?
In Buddhism it’s called the “other shore.” People seem to have an inborn longing for this far shore, even writing songs about it: “Somewhere, over the rainbow…” 1, “I know a place, ain’t nobody worryin’…” 2. As in these songs, we believe that we can end our problems by going somewhere other than where we are right now, or by getting some thing that we don’t have now.
What would it be for you? “If I moved to a different city …”; “If I had a new lover …”; “If I just had more money … more space … a new guru …”.
All these ideas rely on changing our surroundings. And yet, when we really pay attention, we find that none of them actually work. Yes, they make us feel better for a time. But the good feeling wears off sooner or later, and we find ourselves back at square one looking for a new way to fix our situation. We didn’t really reach that far shore.
Ultimately the problem isn’t in the circumstances of our life – it’s in our relationship to them. These circumstances are just simple facts of reality and in themselves aren’t the existential problem. The perception of a problem is what gnaws at us, pushing us to find an answer. This perception comes from comparing reality as it is with what we want it to be. They’re different, causing a sort of dissonance in the mind. We can relieve that feeling of dissonance by forcing our surroundings to match our ideal, but we can only control them for so long. Inevitably conditions change and we lose that perfect match. Reality sets in and our new lover turns out to be just an ordinary human being, we find unexpected difficulties in our new job, or our wonderful new city proves to be less than perfect.
In Zen we resolve the problem not by changing our surroundings, but by changing our relationship to them. We look inward to find that relationship, clearly see how clinging to our ideal solution is causing the discomfort we feel, and finally transcend it by letting go of that ideal. The dissonance vanishes and we are left with just the simple facts of the situation, which we can now deal with free of our hopes and fears.
An ancient Zen monk asked his teacher, “How can we escape the heat and the cold?” The old teacher replied, “The heat kills the monk, the cold kills the monk.” Not very encouraging the first time you hear it! But eventually you see that this is the only way to escape. “Killing” here means letting go of your preferences and comparisons. How do you transcend the heat and cold? When you are sweating, be 100% sweating. When you are shivering, be 100% shivering. Not dreaming about some other condition that might be more comfortable.
When we don’t accept the reality of this moment we get caught in a cycle of frustration and discontent. “It’s hot, I’m sweating, I don’t like it, why isn’t the air conditioner working, will I have to pay to get it fixed, ooh it’s hot, I’m really sweating now …” But when we drop the dream of a perfectly comfortable temperature, the frustration drops away with it – the heat is no longer an emotional problem, just a technical one that may or may not require our attention. If there is no physical danger of overheating, or no cooler place close at hand, we just sweat.
This is the crossing over to the other shore. When we finally let go of our fantasies we find that we have been standing on that mystical land from the start, and that the river separating us from it was only a mirage.
1 "Over the Rainbow", lyrics by Yip Harburg
2 "I'll Take You There", lyrics by Al Bell