Can Anything Hurt Us?

A Zen student called me recently to complain about my emphasis on the difficulty of practice. She said, “ I think you make a mistake in urging your students to take their practice so seriously. Life should be about enjoying ourselves and having a good time.” I asked her, “ Has that approach ever worked for you?” She said, “ Well, not really...yet. But I have hope.”

I understand her attitude, and I sympathize with anyone who feels that practice is really hard work. It is. But I also feel sad for those who are not yet willing to do this kind of serious work, because they will suffer most. Still, people have to make their own choices, and some are just not ready for serious practice. I said to the Zen student, “ Just do your practice or not according to your own lights, and I’ll support you in doing that.” Whatever people are doing, I want to support them—because that’s where they are, and that’s fine.

The fact is that for most of us, our lives are not working well. Until we engage in a serious practice, our basic view of life usually remains pretty much untouched. In fact, life continues to aggravate us, and even gets worse. Serious practice is needed if we are to see into the fallacy that is at the bottom of almost all human action, thinking, and emotion.

As human beings we see life by means of a certain sensory apparatus and because people and objects seem external to us, we experience much misery. Our misery stems from the misconception that we are separate. Certainly it looks as though I am separate from other people and from all else in the phenomenal world. This misconception that we’re separate creates all the difficulties of human life. As long as we think we’re separate, we’re going to suffer. If we feel separate we’re going to feel that we have to defend ourselves, that we have to try to be happy, that we have to find something in the world around us that’s going to make us happy.

Now the truth of the matter is that we’re not separate. We are all expressions or emanations of a central point—call it multidimensional energy. We can’t picture this; the central point or energy has no size, no space, no time. I’m speaking metaphorically about what can’t really be spoken of in ordinary terms.
Following this metaphor, it’s as though this central point radiates out in billions of rays, each thinking that it’s separate from all others. In truth, each of us is always that center, and that center is us. Because everything is connected in that center, we’re all just one thing. 

We don’t see that unity, however. Perhaps if we know enough contemporary theoretical physics, we can see the point intellectually. As we practice over the years, however, some inkling of this truth begins to creep into our experience here and there: we don’t feel so separate from others. As we begin to feel less separate, life as it happens around us isn’t as upsetting. Situations, people, and difficulties begin to land on us a little more lightly. A subtle shift is taking place. Over a lifetime of sitting this process slowly strengthens. There may be brief moments when we flash into who we really are, though by themselves, such moments are not terribly important. More important is the slowly growing realization that we’re not separate. In ordinary terms, we still appear to exist separately, but we don’t feel as separate. Consequently, we don’t struggle with life as much: we don’t have to fight it, we don’t have to please it, we don’t have to worry about it. This is the path of practice.

If we don’t struggle with life, does this mean that life can’t hurt us? Is there anything outside of ourselves that can hurt us? Being Zen students, we may have learned to say—intellectually at least—that the answer is no. But what do we really think? Is there any person or situation that can hurt us?
Of course, we all think there is. In working with my students, I hear countless stories of being hurt or upset. They are all versions of“ This happened to me.” Our partners, our parents, our children, our pets—“ This happened, and it upset me.” We all do this, without exception. That’s what our life is. Perhaps things go fairly smoothly for a time, and then suddenly something happens to upset us. In other words, we’re a victim. Now that’s our usual human view of living. It’s ingrained, almost inborn.

When we feel victimized by the world, we look for something outside of ourselves that will take away our hurt. It could be a person, it could be getting something we want, it could be some change in our job status, some recognition, perhaps. Since we don’t know where to look, and we hurt, we seek comfort somewhere. Until we truly see that we’re not separate from anything, we’re going to struggle with our lives. When we struggle, we have trouble. We either do foolish things or we feel upset or we feel unfulfilled or we feel as though something’s missing. It’s as though life presents us with a series of questions that can’t be answered. And as a matter of fact, they can’t. Why? Because they’re false questions. They’re not based on reality. Feeling that something is wrong and seeking ways to fix it—when we begin to see the error in this pattern, serious practice begins. The young woman who called me hasn’t reached this point. She still imagines that something external will make her happy. Maybe a million dollars?

With people who practice, on the other hand, there’s a little chink in the armor, a little insight. We may not want to recognize this insight. Still, we do begin to comprehend that there’s another way to live beyond feeling assaulted by life and then trying to find a remedy.
From the very beginning, there’s nothing wrong. There is no separation: it’s all one radiant whole. Nobody believes this, and until we have practiced a long time it’s hard to get. Even with six months of intelligent practice, however, there begins to be a little shake in the false structure of our beliefs. The structure begins to fall apart here and there. As we practice over the years, the structure weakens. The enlightened state exists when it falls apart completely.

Yes, we do have to be serious about our practice. If you’re not ready to be serious, that’s fine. Just go live your life. You need to be kicked around for a while. That’s okay. People shouldn’t be at a Zen center until they feel there’s nothing else they can do: that’s the time to show up.

Let’s return to our question: can something or someone hurt us? Let’s take up some real disasters. Suppose I’ve lost my job and I’m seriously ill. Suppose all my friends have left me. Suppose an earthquake has destroyed my house. Can I be hurt by all that? Of course I think that I can. And it would be terrible for such things to happen. But can we truly be hurt by such events? Practice helps us to see that the answer is no.
It’s not that the point of practice is to avoid feeling hurt. What we call “ hurt” still happens: I may lose my job; an earthquake may destroy my house. But practice helps me to handle crises, to take them in stride. So long as we are immersed in our hurt, we’ll be a bundle of woe that is of little use to anybody. If we’re not wrapped up in our melodrama of pain, on the other hand, even during a crisis we can be of use.

So what happens if we truly practice? Why does the feeling that life can hurt us begin to soften over time? What takes place?
Only a self-centered self, a self that is attached to mind and body, can be hurt. That self is really a concept formed of thoughts we believe in; for example, “ If I don’t get that, I’ll be miserable,” or “ If this doesn’t work out for me, it’s just terrible,” or “ If I don’t have a house to live in, that’s really terrible.” What we call the self is no more than a series of thoughts that we’re attached to. When we’re engrossed in our small selves, reality—the basic energy of the universe—is hardly noticed at all.

Suppose I feel I have no friends, and I’m very lonely. What happens if I sit with that? I begin to see that my feelings of loneliness are really just thoughts. As a matter of fact, I’m simply sitting here. Maybe I’m sitting alone in my room, without a date. Nobody has called me, and I feel lonely. In fact, however, I’m simply sitting. The loneliness and the misery are simply my thoughts, my judgments that things should be other than what they are. I haven’t seen through them; I haven’t recognized that my misery is manufactured by me. The truth of the matter is, I’m simply sitting in my room. It takes time before we can see that just to sit there is okay, just fine. I cling to the thought that if I don’t have pleasant and supportive company, I am

I’m not recommending a life in which we cut ourselves off in order to be free of attachment. Attachment concerns not what we have, but our opinions about what we have. There’s nothing wrong with having a fair amount of money, for example. Attachment is when we can’t envision life without it. Likewise, I’m not saying to give up being with people. Being with people is immensely enjoyable. Sometimes, however, we’re in situations where we have to be alone. The difficult, slow change of practice grounds our life and makes it genuinely more peaceful. Without striving to be peaceful, we find that more and more, the storms of life hit us lightly. We’re beginning to release our attachment to the thoughts we think are ourselves. That self is simply a concept that weakens with practice.

The truth is that nothing can hurt us. But we certainly can think we’re being hurt, and we certainly can struggle to remedy the thoughts of hurt in ways that can be quite unfruitful. We try to remedy a false problem with a false solution, and of course that creates mayhem. Wars, damage to the environment—all come out of this ignorance. 

If we refuse to do this work—and we won’t do it until we’re ready—to some degree we suffer, and everything around us suffers. Whether one practices is not a matter of good or bad, right or wrong. We have to be ready. But when we don’t practice, a sad price is paid.
Of course, the original oneness—that center of multidimensional energy—remains undisturbed. There’s no way that we can disturb it. It always just is, and that’s what we are. Fromthe standpoint ofthe phenomenal life we live, however, there’s a price that is paid.
I’m not trying to create guilty feelings in anyone. Such feelings are themselves merely thoughts. I’m not criticizing the young woman who didn’t want to take practice seriously. That’s just exactly where she’s at, and that’s perfect for her. As we practice, however, our resistance to practice diminishes. It does take time.