This morning I came across some great passages in Charlotte Joko Beck's "Nothing Special -- Living Zen."
Anxiety is always a gap between the way things are and the way we think they ought to be. Anxiety is something that stretches between the real and unreal. Our human desire is to avoid what's real and instead to be with our ideas about the world:
"I'm terrible." "You're terrible." "You're wonderful." The idea is separated from reality and anxiety is the gap between the idea and the reality that things are just as they are.
When we cease to believe in the object that we've created -- which is off to one side of reality, so to speak -- things snap back to the center. That's what being centered means. The anxiety then fades out.
Beautiful. Anxiety is something that stretches between the real and unreal. That's the best one-sentence summation of anxiety I've ever come across. It has a ring of truth.
I'm alive. But one day I'm going to die.
Shit! Damn it! Yikes! I don't want to stop living! I should be able to live forever. Give me my goddman eternal life. Now! Well, that isn't possible because I'm still living my impermanent human life. But still... it makes me anxious to envision my everlasting non-existence. What a bummer that will be, leaving aside the minor detail that I won't be around to be bummed out if I'm non-existent.
I think Beck is right. A good way to cut through crap like that is by eliminating thoughts of the unreal, which deprives anxiety of an anchor point. Then there's no way anxiety can stretch between the real and unreal.
It might bubble up, but since it lacks a hub of unreality to stick to, anxiety soon dissolves. Nothing like here and now to erase worries of there and then.
Here's another passage that I liked a lot, an interchange between Beck and one of her students.
STUDENT: Maybe I don't understand what you mean by being "one with."
JOKO: "One with" is an absence of anything that divides.
STUDENT: But I just don't feel like a table.
JOKO: You don't have to feel like a table. By "being one with the table," I mean that there's no sense of opposition between you and the table. It's not a question of some special feeling, it's a lack or an absence of feeling separated in an emotional way. Tables usually do not arouse emotion. That's why we don't have any trouble with them.
Charlotte Joko Beck died in 2011 at the age of 94. Here's a nice eulogy of this Zen pioneer.
Joko was the author of two very important books that are frequently recommended by interviewees at Sweeping Zen— Everyday Zen (1989) and Nothing Special (1993). Her first book, Everyday Zen, is a book in which she described what meditation is and, more importantly, what it is not. Author Ruthann Russo writes, “…she says it is not about producing psychological change, achieving some blissful state, cultivating special powers or personal power, or having nice or happy feelings. She does say that meditation practice is simple, and it’s about ourselves. To practice effectively, we need to remove ourselves from all external stimuli. Then we experience reality, which is challenging for most of us.”
Her second book, Nothing Special, is, as Maezumi himself once remarked, very special. In it Joko expresses what is the original essence of Zen—unencumbered by some of the formal practices and activities we’ve come to associate with Zen practice over the years. For Joko, Zen is simply being right here in the moment, with nothing extra. Zen practice will yield us nothing other than this moment. In the book she answers her students questions and helps highlight, again, what Zen practice is really about. She says, “Practice has to be a process of endless disappointment. We have to see that everything we demand (and even get) eventually disappoints us. This discovery is our teacher.”
...[I]t is not too much to say that Joko Beck transformed the nature of Zen in America. At a time when a focus on kensho experiences and becoming enlightened after the manner in which we imagined our Japanese masters led to a dismissive attitude to problems that were “merely” psychological, Joko restored a sense of emotional reality to a scene increasingly plagued by scandal and misconduct by our allegedly enlightened role models.
She had the courage to say that her own teacher’s training had done little to curb his own alcoholism or deal with his character problems. Furthermore, his wasn’t merely an unfortunate exception but that it pointed to a deeply ingrained tendency to enshrine emotional bypassing into the very heart of traditional Zen training. She put dealing with anger, anxiety, pride and the self centered sexual exploitation of students into the center of what we must deal with in practice.