Years ago in Japan, I went on a ferry ride from Tokyo to Oita—about thirty-six hours on the water. The waves were huge, and I get seasick easily; after a few hours of feeling constantly sick and being thrown around, I found a solution in staying as close as possible to the floor. Standing or walking, I couldn’t stay steady, inside or out, but sitting down, I didn’t need to work so hard. I moved with the boat, but I felt as if I was still.
This isn’t rocket science. It took me a while to figure it out that day, but usually it’s just instinct—if you’re trying to get from the front of the plane to the back, and there’s turbulence, you bend your knees, you find your center of gravity. If someone’s about to tackle you and you know you can’t get away, it’s the same. You settle into where you are, drop your weight, curl your toes into the ground. We just know to do this.
This year, I’ve felt a little like I’m on that boat again. The world feels unsteady beneath my feet; I feel like I’m getting tossed around, alongside everyone else. I need to find my center of gravity in order to stay upright.
Buddhism is huge, and some of the teachings can seem unfathomably complex and profound. But when I’m unsteady, I don’t reach for the most complicated sutras or the most intricate practices. Instead, I go back to the basics, to the teachings that are so simple, so clear, so fundamental to my day-to-day existence that I can rely on them without effort.
There are, of course, the three refuges: buddha, dharma, and sangha. Taking refuge in them—entrusting myself to them—can sometimes be a leap of faith, but it’s a simple one. In Zen, there’s a tradition of sewing one’s own robes, chanting the refuges with each stitch. “I take refuge in Buddha”—stitch—“I take refuge in dharma”—stitch—“I take refuge in sangha”—stitch… One robe means thousands of stitches, so that the act of taking refuge becomes a part of you, a kind of muscle memory.
For some, it may feel more solid to take refuge in just one. Sangha is community—do you have a community you can rely on, one that reminds you of who you are? Sink your toes into that. Let it steady you.
There are what Kosho Uchiyama-roshi referred to as “the two practices”: repentance and vow. In repentance, we accept responsibility for our actions and for our lives; in vow, we take up responsibility as a path in itself. When I am lost or overwhelmed, I come back to both, and I am immediately grounded, conscious of the work of my life, both behind me and before me.
And then there are the precepts: do not kill, or steal, or misuse sexuality, or lie, or indulge in intoxicants. Part of being unsteady is not knowing how to get steady again—remembering the precepts, keeping them always in our pocket, gives us a simple guide, one we can refer back to in any moment, even in moments of panic or distress. How do I respond to this moment? These five may not cover every scenario, but they cover a lot. They’re a starting point, which is what we need.
We can’t forget meditation itself, the ultimate grounding (and grounded) act. It’s a powerful thing, when the world is lurching, to find a way to be still; it’s a radical act, when the world is noisy, to be silent. Maybe sitting still in that way reminds you of who you are, or maybe it puts you in a space of not-knowing. Either way, there’s a reliability in that posture—if we do it every day, then even when we’re in motion, we can feel it a little in our bones. We can return to that breathing. We internalize it, so that holding ourselves up becomes the same thing as being held up. It’s seamless.
One more thing: the practice or teaching that grounds you, that holds you steady in difficult times doesn’t have to be beautiful or aspirational. I return often to the three poisons—attachment, aversion, and ignorance—as reminders, not of who I want to be but of who I am, of why I do the things I do. Why do I feel so unsettled? How did I get here? Why do I feel so bad? The answer is always complicated, but part of it is straightforward: I wanted something, or I wanted to avoid something, or there was something I didn’t or couldn’t see clearly. Noticing that and acknowledging it takes away some of the noise, some of the feeling of things being out of control.
What is it for you? What brings you closer to the earth, makes it possible to stay upright in a storm? Notice it. Keep it close. You’ll need it.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the their podcast.
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