What do I do now?

There are moments in life when everything suddenly changes, when things shift in an instant and the world seems unfamiliar and new. In these moments we often feel confused, ungrounded, shattered, disoriented and disenchanted. No matter what we call these turning moments, we tend to think of them as problems to be solved, difficulties to be set right, or at least understood so the world can be made “normal” again. But the truth is, there is no going back.

We all have our list of these moments and their residual impact: the death of a loved one, the birth of a child, passing a major milestone in life, the achievement of a lifelong goal, witnessing something completely inspiring or totally devastating. We may be brought to a new and more vivid place of aliveness by art, music, poetry or architecture. Something opens, turns, falls away, or is shown to be possible that simply did not exist before that moment. Then what?

Attempting to regain our bearings is the strategy for ordinary life. Moving with and through the sudden reversals and surprises is the direction offered by spiritual practice. Everyday questions seek a clear and sensible answer. Through spiritual inquiry we turn things upside down and question our seemingly clear and sensible answers. The “not knowing” of beginner’s mind is the open curiosity of “what do I do now?”

Our primary practice is zazen—sitting in silence and stillness. In doing so we learn to tolerate our questions without grasping too quickly for a sure answer. The essence of “silence” is simply learning to wait. Patience and curiosity are far more likely to open a space for what wants to emerge than a habitual reaction based in fear. At the heart of “stillness” is the capacity to resist the urge to fix. This can be a particularly difficult challenge, but practicing not-fixing along with waiting allows something new to emerge in the space that opens through the steady practice of zazen.

These are just a few of the things we met in Inquiry as we faced the question—“what do I do now that everything has changed?” The recording of this Inquiry is available (on my blog) following this short reflection. In addition to the Inquiry I would like to recommend the new book from my teacher Zenkei Blanche Hartman, beautifully edited by my dharma sister Zenju Earthlyn Manuel. The title is Seeds for a Boundless Life: Zen Teachings from the Heart (Shambhala, 2015). Here is a quote from Blanche in which she speaks to the question arising from surprising change:
“If we’re open to embracing the surprises as they arise, then there will be inconceivable joy. If we fuss and fume and say, “That isn’t what I expected,” then there will be inconceivable misery. Just to welcome your life as it arrives moment after moment, to meet it as fully as you can, being as open to it as you can, and meeting it wholeheartedly, this is renunciation—this is leaving behind all of your preferences, all of your ideas and notions and schemes. Just meeting life as it is.”
Blanche’s dharma name, Zenkei, means Inconceivable Joy.

The following is a snapshot of Blanche resting on the steps of the cabin where her sewing teacher Joshin-san lived while at Antai-ji Monastery. We had traveled from Kyoto to the West coast of Japan to pay homage to the newly installed marker on Joshin-san's grave site. Joshing-san passed on the lineage of sewing Buddha's Robe to Blanche and it was the many hours I was fortunate to spend assisting Blanche in the sewing room that showed me her deep devotion and the true spirit of Zen.

Inquiry recording: