I heard the story of Zen Master Hakuin on the podcast Secular Buddhism a few days ago on my drive into the city. I made a note about it and moved on, not thinking much about it until around 24 hours later when “Is that so?” came to mind while I was taking a shower, you know, the epiphany machine!
Later that day, I looked up the story online so I could read it through. I found a great version on Kannon Do. I highly recommend reading it. The idea I kept going back to is accepting the curve balls that are thrown at us. It’s something I have always struggled with.
My typical M.O. is to stress and freak out about whatever unexpected scenario comes my way. My initial response is usually, “Oh my! No! This is bad. What are we going to do?” And then, if no one mirrors my panic and runs with it, I usually back down from Defcon 2 to Defcon 5 fairly quickly. My next step is to pretend like I’ve always been completely at peace with the current situation but harbor a low-level state of fear just below the surface for a while just in case the sky does fall.
I’m fun. Trust me.
For the longest time, I believed this was a brilliant coping mechanism. Sure, my reactions can be a bit jarring for those that don’t know they’re coming (my poor husband), but equilibrium, forgiveness, and peace are quick to return. No harm, no foul. Right?
Buddhist parables and stories sometimes cause me to doubt my practices. Maybe I’m doing this wrong? I try a few different tactics, fail, try again, get a little better, realize what I’m doing, accept the journey and keep going.
Two of the notes I had in my journal from that podcast I mentioned early were, “No doubt = No awakening” and “Unlearn.” I read those words, flipped through the pages in exasperation, “Seriously? That’s it? What does that even mean?” There was nothing about “Is that so?”
I went back to the podcast and skipped through it on fast forward.
“Ooooh! It’s all starting to come together!”
When the Zen Master was faced with unexpected situations, he simply said, “Is that so?” and “embraced the situation without judgement.”
When I experience an unexpected situation, I jump to conclusions about what should or will happen next. This shouldn’t have happened. It’s not what I want to happen. It’s going to end terribly for everyone. Everything is ruined. I have no doubt about it. I know.
No doubt = no awakening. My eyes and heart are closed to the world around me. I know what’s going to happen. I’m at level 49 here! I’ve learned a lot over the years!
What if, instead, I did doubt what I had learned over the years. What if I decided to let go of what I think I know, unlearn, and take a step back? Would things be harder or easier?
That’s what the Zen Master did in the story. He doubted he could know what would happen, accommodated the situation, and took care of the things and people around him. What happened, happened.
I can hear the old me in the background, “But…what about being prepared? Making things better? Fighting for what’s right?!”
The new me answers, “Has crying, yelling, and stressing about what is happening, who’s fault it is, and what we’re going to do, ever made anything better? Or did it only make it harder for you and those around you to adapt?”
Shower thoughts are so profound. The story of “Is that so?” isn’t what I made notes about. It wasn’t foremost in my mind, but it was in there. The night before, I had been stressing about some news and what my future would look like. This whole “empty nest” thing has me running in circles. We really need to change that visual, but that’s a post for another day.
My mind was blank, the morning habits had taken over, and then it came into my head, “Is that so?” A puzzle piece fell into place. What can I do when the unexpected happens? I can take a breath and relax, be kind, love on, and watch to see what happens. Stop trying to control everything.
That doesn’t mean I’ll be happy with the results. I may not get what I thought I wanted. I may be worse off than I was. But only that negative thing will be happening. I won’t be adding to it, making it worse for myself and those around me by panicking throughout the whole process.
I’ll just ask, “Hmm…interesting. What happens next?”