Continuously Stepping off a Cliff

“Most people won’t go to a monastery…but for most people the monastery will come to you.” -Shinzen Young

In 2020 it would seem the monastery has come to us, whether we wanted it to or not. The coronavirus pandemic, economic recession, a reckoning on the systematic horrors of racism; we are all in this “monastery”, practicing together.

The challenge level is extremely high for some. Loss of work, loss of childcare/school, not enough food, housing insecurity, violence inside the house and out, illness, death. For those lucky and/or privileged enough to be safe and not in extreme crisis, things continue to be scary and unpredictable.

“It’s like continuously stepping off a cliff.” Shinzen Young, the meditation teacher who trained me, told me this years ago when we were talking together about some of the effects that happen with extensive meditation practice.

Perhaps life right now feels akin to continuously stepping off a cliff. The conditions are constantly changing. Nothing’s going according to plan. There’s no ground on which to stand.

Buddhism teaches us that this is actually the reality of things. Ultimately we are not in charge. There’s no guarantee things will go our way. Constant change is the constant. Impermanence, anicca in Pali, is one of the “three marks of existence”, after all.

“Fear is the mind-killer.” -Elon Musk on Twitter channeling Frank Herbert

One difference between the “stepping off a cliff” experience that Shinzen was talking about and the “stepping off a cliff” experience that many of us are struggling with is fear and what we do with it.

Meditation alone is not going to solve a pandemic or fix systemic racism, but it can be an effective tool to go beyond fear (and hope!), to find a way through hopelessness, and to disengage from the samsaric wheel of suffering. It can be a route to freedom. Wise actions become more available. The desire to serve our fellow beings springs forth.

Let’s practice together and support each other. The monastery has come to us.