#5211 – Charlotte Joko Beck on relationship Zen

Last week’s profile I did on Joan Tollifson reminded me of a favourite book of mine by one of Tollifson’s influences, Charlotte Joko Beck. The book is called Everyday Zen: Love & Work, and my edition was printed in 1989. The quotes I include in today’s issue all come from that excellent book.

Beck began her own Zen practice in her 40s, after raising a family of four and then separating from her husband. According to her Wikipedia page, she opened the San Diego Zen Center in 1983 and was its head teacher until 2006, when she formally revoked Dharma transmission from two of her students and also disavowed any further relationship with the Center. She founded a branch of dharma called the Ordinary Mind Zen School in 1995.

Charlotte Joko Beck passed away in 2011 and left behind a teaching legacy that was strongly focused on teaching students how to use their Zen practice to work directly with their own emotions, as opposed to using it to escape from or transcend those emotions.

One common thread that runs throughout her teaching is that a regular sitting meditation practice can help students recognize the inherently false nature of their personal stories. She taught, as a direct result of her own daily sitting practice, that freedom from personal suffering and anxiety is based on seeing your own personal suffering narrative for exactly what it is: just a story concocted by the ego-mind.

Pandora’s box is all of our self-centred activities, and the corresponding emotions that they create. Even if we’re practicing well there will be times (not for everybody, but for some people) when the box seems to explode—and suddenly a hurricane of emotions is whirling around. Most people don’t like to sit when this is happening; but the people for whom this eruption resolves most easily are those who never give up sitting, whether they want to or not. In my own life the release went quite unobtrusively, probably because I was sitting so much and doing so many sesshins.

Beck also had a clear way of managing the expectations of highly-aspiring students, especially those chasing the enlightenment bug in earnest:

In this lifetime, if we practice well, there is the certainty of moving far along the path, perhaps with enlightenment experiences illuminating the way—and that’s fine. But let’s not underestimate the constant work we have to do on all the illusions that constantly interrupt our journey. Consider the Ox-herding Pictures, for example (i.e. a traditional set of 10 drawings that depict the progress of practice from delusion to enlightenment, cast in the form of a man progressively taming a wild ox): people want to jump from one to ten. But we can be at nine and slip right back to two. Advances are not always permanent and solid. We might be at ten for a few hours, and then the next day we’re back at two. In retreats our minds get clear and quiet—but just let somebody come up and criticize us!

I appreciate the solidly-grounded nature of her teaching. Like Joan Tollifson, Sharon Salzberg and Pema Chödrön, she spoke from the heart but she was also eminently practical; especially when she discussed the inherent challenges of choosing to follow a path of self-discovery in any serious fashion:

Practice is not easy. It WILL transform our life. But if we have a naive idea that this transformation can take place without a price being paid, we fool ourselves. Don’t practice unless you feel there’s nothing else you can do. Instead, step up your surfing or your physics or your music. If that satisfies you, do it. Don’t practice unless you feel you must. It takes enormous courage to have a real practice. You have to face everything about yourself hidden in that box, including some unpleasant things you don’t even want to know about.

Beck also enjoyed raising awareness about the fertile ground for spiritual growth that is provided by our interpersonal relationships. She cautioned us against the dangers of expecting too much from our partners, and she also implored us just to sit with whatever pain and disappointment we experience, instead of trying to fight it or run away from it.

When emotion-thought is not seen as empty, we expect that our relationship should make us feel good. As long as the relationship feeds our pictures of how things are supposed to be, we think it’s a great relationship.

Yet when we live closely with somebody, that sort of dream doesn’t have much of a chance. As the months go by the dream collapses under pressure, and we find that we can’t maintain our pretty pictures of ourselves or of our partners. Of course we’d like to keep the ideal picture we have of ourselves. I’d like to believe that I’m a fine mother: patient, understanding, wise. (If only my children would agree with me, it would be nice!)

So if we’re in a close relationship, from time to time we’re going to be in pain, because no relationship will ever suit us completely. There’s no on we will ever live with who will please us in all the ways we want to be pleased. So how can we deal with this disappointment? Always we must practice getting close and close to experiencing our pain, our disappointment, our shattered hopes, our broken pictures. And that experiencing is ultimately nonverbal. We must observe the thought content until it is neutral enough that we can enter the direct and nonverbal experience of the disappointment and suffering. When we experience the suffering directly, the melting of the false emotion can begin, and true compassion can emerge.

In recent issues, I’ve discussed how beneficial I’ve found the releasing of my personal story to be when caring for my young children. Letting go of my expectations about how they should behave in every single circumstance has been tremendously liberating for us, as well as beneficial for our relationship in general.

Similar benefits have accrued from cultivating this stance with respect to my wife. By releasing my sense of “being personally wronged” over petty peeves and daily frustrations, I’ve noticed that many, many days in a row will go by without anything in our relationship truly bothering me—and by this, I mean things that used to get on my nerves and make me feel resentful towards her or unappreciated by her.

Since the relationship I have with my wife and kids has such an enormous effect on my daily life, it’s worth noting how much this stance of “no-person” has helped my day-to-day peace of mind. With no sense of a separate person being wronged, there are precious few reasons for me to take serious offence at any of the regular goings-on in my day. When more major issues arise, certainly they require their own honest and open dialogue. But anxiety over the more minor, petty daily stuff—that is, the stuff that usually drives me the craziest due to its higher frequency—mostly dries up.

I’ll let you know if I can ever think of any downsides to that.


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