Old Zen Masters Feel Things Too

by P. Braithwaite

The other day, during my Zen Class, our teacher told us the story of an old zen master that really stuck with me. She got the story from Diana Winston’s book, Wide Awake, which is a book about Buddhism written for teenagers.

The story goes like this:

Once there was an old zen master who was known for his deep wisdom and mindfulness. He was an expert and a leader in his country. One day the old master’s son died in a terrible accident, and people came from everywhere to offer their condolences. They came because they hoped to provide comfort to the old master, but they also came to see how the old master would react. Would he have a greater deeper understanding of life that allowed him to be still and peaceful during this horrible ordeal?

When the people came upon the old master he was crying, and they were shocked.

“You’re not supposed to cry!” they said. “You are a zen master and you aren’t supposed to be attached!”

The zen master said, “like you, I experience the pain of loss, but for me, the turnaround time is quicker.”

The turnaround time is quicker.

This story hit home for me in such a deep way — so much of my underlying journey to find balance is wrapped up in the expectation that I won’t have to FEEL as deeply. If I meditate a little longer, do an extra
Sun Salutation maybe I’ll learn not to be hurt, scared, lonely…or even too happy, excited, or enthusiastic.

This story indicates that, maybe, I’m ignoring the point. Humans feel things. I’d wager that from the moment we’re born we are constantly faced with the discomfort that comes from being alive. To not feel is to cease to be human. So, I am allowed to recognize the feelings that arise. Here’s the trick though, the old zen master realized the transient nature of feelings and pain. Buddhist believe that pain is inevitable…suffering however is the choice. And so, In the midst of his despair, the old zen master knew it wouldn’t last forever. There was space between his awareness and his pain.

So that’s the key: The understanding that we ARE NOT our feelings. We are humans…being. We are awareness, having a human experience, so it’s okay to recognize and accept how we feel when edged up things happen, but when we think we ARE the feelings…when we think we ARE the effed up thing that happened…that’s when we get into trouble.

So today, ambivalence has creeped into my life. Today there is a mix of anger and profound fear that is blocking my ability to love freely. I am not fear, but it feels like I am. The fear that exists here is palpable. Though I want to, I will not try and ignore or suppress these feelings — like the old Zen Master, I will create space and permission for these feelings to exist, and trust that (like everything else) the feelings will eventually pass.

What feelings are you avoiding today? Can you create space for your discomfort?

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