Hi, I’m Sara, and this is Tiny Revolutions, a weekly-ish dispatch of personal writing and links about becoming who you are. Reply anytime, I love to hear from you.
One of the things about studying Zen Buddhism is that it’s hard to talk about.
Kodo Sawaki, who I’ve written about before, is famous for saying that “all of Buddhism is a footnote to zazen.” (Zazen is Zen-style meditation.) What he meant by that is that some things can only be experienced, not explained, and the only way you can experience them is by getting quiet and paying attention to what’s happening in this very moment.
This becomes clear when you go on a silent meditation retreat. The idea of not talking can be terrifying, but after a couple of days it’s easy to see how much we communicate with each other just in our way of being.
I came to Zen after discovering that adopting a consistent meditation practice was doing wonderful things for my life. A friend told me about a Zen center that was right down the street from where I lived, so I decided to check it out. I started going for the group sits – it’s somehow far easier to meditate with others than it is to sit alone – and got drawn in by the talks afterward.
Which is not to say that I always understood them. A lot of times I didn’t. Zen is weird and maddening like that. You don’t get easy answers. Instead you get encouragement to ask better questions about your own precious little ideas and theories. You’re constantly pulled away from any delusion you might have that you have it all figured it out.
What Zen reminds you of is that you don’t. To wit, here’s a popular story that comes up a lot in Buddhist talks and literature:
There was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.
“Maybe,” the farmer replied.
The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.
“Maybe,” replied the old man.
The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy for what they called his “misfortune.”
“Maybe,” answered the farmer.
The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son's leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.
“Maybe,” said the farmer.
We don’t know what we don’t know. We can’t. We never will.
Our perception of an event has little to do with the full reality. And that doesn’t mean we shouldn't do what we think is right at each moment to move forward, it just means that how things turn out is, for the most part, out of our hands.
I go back to this story when things don’t unfold as I wish they would. Especially when I’ve tried my hardest. You don’t know, I tell myself. You don’t know.
Here are some other things I found worth sharing this week.
Decades of research now show that talking to yourself this way inside of your head—also called "distanced self-talk" can help foster psychological distance, a phenomenon that leads to better emotional regulation, self control, and even wisdom.
This seems worth trying: Why You Should Talk to Yourself in the Third Person
“Frame adversity as a challenge, and you become more flexible and able to deal with it, move on, learn from it, and grow. Focus on it, frame it as a threat, and a potentially traumatic event becomes an enduring problem; you become more inflexible, and more likely to be negatively affected.”
Great New Yorker piece from a few years back: How People Learn to Become Resilient
More Zen Stuff
Here’s a short video from Brad Warner, the head teacher at Angel City Zen Center, where I practice, about advice his teacher gave him for what to do when you’re overwhelmed.
The TLDR is below, but it’s worth watching the full video.
Just follow circumstances
Make things a little better
There’s no such thing as a result
“I did not wake up one day and magically decide to quit all my vices. Each one was its own battle, fought on its own time. Recovery tends to go like that. The only thing linear is the sequence of Ah, shit! realizations that come one after another, unpredictably but relentlessly.”
Alex Olshonsky writes a great newsletter that mixes philosophy, spirituality, and sobriety. I enjoyed his latest post on celebrating five years clean. This one about Tony Hseih and the myth of high-functioning addict is also great.
“Moonstruck sees you the way you always wanted to be seen. Moonstruck tells you to love the wrong people and then die. This movie sheds light on your loneliness until it seems like nothing at all.”
Loved this movie recommendation generator I came across that suggests films to match your mood (I picked “lonely” to get the rec above).
We’re doing another Tuesday night silent Zoom work session and you should join. Last week’s attendees made progress on a play, a book proposal outline, poems, and a picture book. It was a sweet way to avoid the Netflix trap – you can RSVP here for this week.
To close us out, here’s a poem by Molly Brodak, who died last year at 39.
A Tiny Assignment
Be kind to yourself and others and do the best you can. That’s it!
p.s. Share this with a friend who needs it.
Hi, Sara. I landed on your newsletter after someone I follow on Twitter shared a picture of you holding the DESERT ORACLE book, which is one of my favorite things in the world. So I followed your link back to here, read your most recent piece, and I love it. It raises a question I've been pondering pretty hard lately.
You write, "I came to Zen after discovering that adopting a consistent meditation practice was doing wonderful things for my life." I've been meditating off and on for several years, and consistently now for two or three. I have floated around the fringes of adopting Zen as a "practice" but I can't say I have. I just sit. I've never sat with other people because it feels like it would be uncomfortable to me. But I wonder what even the meditation is "doing for me." I recognize that isn't even the way to look at it, especially because it's ... different. I mean, if I was doing push-ups twenty minutes every day for two years straight I'd be a beast, there would be a physical representation of all that hard effort.
So I'm curious — what were some of the tangible, "wonderful things" you could see your meditation practice manifesting in your life? I hope it isn't rude to ask. I don't interact with anyone else who has a consistent practice, I don't have a teacher, none of it. People ask ME about it, and if I may roughly quote Jim Harrison relating to his own Zen studies, I'm merely "a potato."
Anyway, thanks for writing.