March 27, 2009
by Norman Fischer | March 27, 2009 at 2:30 PM
Dear Everyday Zen friends,
In Dharma seminar last month we studied Hamlet. We had all read the play years ago, but reading it again together turned out to be an emotional experience. We commiserated with poor Hamlet's pained and honest subjectivity as he looks with anguish at his own confusion. We could see ourselves in him: just as we are sometimes too smart for our own good, and turn that intelligence into merciless self-critique, so is Hamlet scathing in his self-assessment. We suffered too with Hamlet's agonizing compulsion to act - we too sometimes become paralyzed, not knowing how or when or what to do, even though we know we have to do something. We sympathized with Hamlet's grief. Most of us had missed this when we first read the play, but now, after suffering many losses ourselves, we could see how painful it is for Hamlet to have no one to share his grief with. Maybe, we thought, this is really his worst problem, and accounts for most of his anguish. Saddest of all, we saw Hamlet's great potential and talent, that could find no outlet, no encouragement or partnership. He desperately needs to express his life, he needs a way, a path, but he can't find one. The noble act he craves comes only at the end of his life. We ended our month long seminar a bit wrung out by all this, yet hopeful that we can be just as serious about our lives as Hamlet is about his, but with the confidence that our practice provides us with a means of expression, a form of activity, and a community. Hamlet is a tragedy, but our lives need not be. (We experienced some pretty good amateur acting as well. If you are interested, you can listen to the Hamlet talks through the website).
It occurs to me that Hamlet is strikingly relevant at this time of deep feelings, huge problems, uncertain action, and loss. As I write this, the economic news remains very disturbing and agitating, and will no doubt remain so for some time to come. It seems that we are in much more than an economic downturn; we are experiencing a cataclysmic economic reorganization, something that comes along maybe once in a century, when the whole basis of wealth and the fundamental underpinnings of material society no longer work. Economics isn't just economics, of course. The lives of so many of us are being or will be reorganized in fundamental ways, causing a rocking of our sense of self and of our life's purpose. This will be painful and in some cases tragic. There is loss of expectations, loss of prospects, loss of home and identity, loss of hope. The high-flying life of the last twenty five or so years has come to an end. Our President is handling things, as far as I can tell, in the best way possible, given that no one really knows what to do, and with the equanimity and honesty that has already made him famous all over the world. And he is saying pretty clearly that we can't expect to go back to business as we knew it - ever. Like Hamlet, we may well question the value of our lives with anguish.
And there are worse challenges ahead. With all the terrible economic news, we have all but forgotten about the climate crisis, which is going on at a much faster rate than predicted. Warming, which is causing glacial melt and changes in availability of water all over the world, not to mention rising sea levels before the end of this century, is creating enormous problems. There is no ignoring this. We know we have to reduce carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere - but how? There are so many possibilities, none of them easy and none of them certain. We wonder if we, collectively, have the courage and the will to accomplish what needs to be accomplished. Like Hamlet, we know we have to act in a desperate situation, but we don't know how. We have already hesitated far too long.
Fortunately, before we studied Hamlet we read the Indo-Tibetan text Seven Points of Mind Training. The text includes 59 famous practice slogans, among them "Turn all mishaps into the path," "Be grateful to everyone," "Don't be so predictable," and "Don't expect applause." Lecturing on this text cheered me up considerably. It reminded me that of course things will be difficult, because if you are alive in an impermanent body in a vulnerable world, among necessarily imperfect human beings, how can there not be difficulty, and even very great difficulty, from time to time. This is simply normal life. If it's not one thing, it is sure to be another. If times are good, they are sure to be bad later on, and vice versa. This is just the way it is and must be. The difficulty of this Saha world is exactly what we need for practice, the crowing achievement of a human lifetime. There is no compassion without suffering, and no love without apathy and antipathy. (These talks are also up on the site).
So cheer up! Make love and compassion your watchwords, because if there was ever a time for these best of all human qualities to come to the forefront, it is now. Lets keep on encouraging one another to practice.