How do you feel right now? How do you really feel? Sometimes we make this question harder than it needs to be.
Maybe you know what I’m talking about, especially right now. People say to me, “I hope you’re doing well. …You know, um, in spite of, you know, everything.” Or I’ll ask someone, “How’s it going?” Once upon a time, I might have heard, “Great!” or maybe, “Not bad.” Now, however, there’s a pause. There’s a pandemic, and the streets have erupted in protests; whether from disease or from any of the three poisons—greed, aversion, and ignorance—people are suffering and even dying for reasons that don’t make sense. Perhaps no one is okay right now. So, how to answer that question? “Oh, pretty well…considering.” Or we might be honest about what’s hard, then rush to point out all that we’re grateful for; after all, so many people have it worse. And they do.
So, how’s it going?
If you’re Buddhist, you may struggle with this question. It’s not just that we’re complicated beings who may not be able to put our experience into words. It’s that we’re spiritual beings who have an idea of how we’re supposed to feel, how we’re supposed to react. There’s a tendency, in the face of so much suffering and complexity, to try to rise above it all, to rush to put on our Buddhist glasses and see it all through a Buddhist lens. What, we might ask, would Buddha do?
This is complicated; we shouldn’t pretend it isn’t. On one level, Buddhism is a lens we can choose to pick up or put down. In a moment of loss, I can choose to look through the lens of impermanence and remind myself that loss is constant; I can look through the lens of non-self and feel how this version of me is simply a moment in a lifetime of constant flux. But the danger here is when we put on those glasses as an act of self-protection, a way of not seeing the starkness of what’s before us. We might look at the news, see all the anger and all the reasons to be angry, then remind ourselves, “Oh, I’m Buddhist—I’m not supposed to feel this way.” In that moment—and we may not even notice ourselves doing it—we can do real harm. This is spiritual bypassing: burying or avoiding our actual thoughts and feelings under a veneer of what feels spiritually correct. It doesn’t make you less angry. It just makes you less honest.
So one thing to keep in mind, at this time and anytime, is to not kid yourself. Buddhism invites us to see things as they are, not as we want them to be, and that includes our own minds. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t interrogate our own experience. Is anger impermanent? Yes. Does anger lack any kind of inherent existence? Yes. Can we apply our understanding of dissatisfaction to how we feel anger? Yes. That all works, and that’s all part of the practice. But it starts with admitting, this is really how I feel—even if we think a more enlightened person wouldn’t feel that way.
In the last few months, I have had days of feeling heavy and then reminding myself, constantly, that I have it better than others, that I don’t deserve to feel sad. I’ve also had times of real joy, then catching myself and thinking, the world is on fire—who am I to pretend it isn’t? Buddhist literature is full of stories of awakened masters sobbing with grief, then being challenged by students or passersby who think that crying is beneath someone who has taken up the spiritual life. In our own lives, we’re both characters: the teacher confronting loss, and the student who still thinks awakening always looks like equanimity.
We can have sympathy for that student, for that dream of never losing control. But the teacher is the teacher for a reason. Trust that voice. Trust yourself.
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 Zen Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the ZNS Podcast.
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Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, sits upon the lotus throne. His hands are held in the mudra of meditation. Cast of bonded stone with antique finish