Here’s a koan for you:
Sickness and medicine heal each other. The whole world is medicine. What am I?
In day-to-day life, it seems like there’s a general consensus on certain things: getting into a car accident sucks, getting a raise at work is good, it’s terrible when someone you love dies. This koan offers the possibility that those assessments may not always be true, that life might be more interesting than that, and that if your world falls apart, it might not be a bad thing.
There are crises all around us. Even here, in one of the most developed nations in the world, single mothers raise children while living out of a car, floods kill hundreds of people and displace thousands more, and racial tensions cause violent social upheaval. There are smaller crises as well: a car breaks down in the middle of a busy freeway, someone shows up to the airport without an ID, a child gets sick with the flu.
I like to ask people what brought them to meditation. More often than not, their story involves some kind of crisis, a disruption in homeostasis. One friend realized that yelling at his young son for no good reason had become a normal occurrence; a college student suffered the unexpected death of a parent; a musician quit using drugs after years of addiction. The story of the Buddha starts in a similar way: a young prince is suddenly faced with the frailty of being human, leading to the discovery of an unexpected depth to life. What starts him on his journey is the disturbing realization that things fall apart: we get sick, we get old, and we die.
Of course, we all know that these things happen, but there’s a difference between seeing them on the news and having them barge into our living room. Crises have no respect for what is reasonable or fair or even possible. They take us out beyond the luxury of our usual resources and demand that we respond anyway. They bend us to their will and shatter our expectations.
We cannot know if a loved one will recover or how we will afford the car repairs. When our basic certainties desert us, we are forced to rely on reality: the smell of the hospital waiting room, hot tears on our cheeks, clouds crawling lazily across the sky. We are sustained, moment to moment, by very small things.
Although there is often chaos in the midst of a crisis, there can also be an unusual sense of clarity. We are given the opportunity to notice things we never noticed before, as though in the commotion, someone accidentally left a door open into the universe. We see the way things are in a different light.
While spending time with this koan, a friend received news of several separate family crises in one day. His usual response in these situations was to be the composed one, to warehouse his feelings at a safe distance so that he could be the hero. But this time, he felt a pull to meditate, to take his time with sadness and fear. It’s not that it wasn’t still painful, but he seemed to be genuinely enjoying it, in a way. The crisis and the koan had worked together to change his sense of who he was and how he responded to life.
Meditation is not a way to solve or avoid a crisis so much as a path to savor it fully. Just as children grow new taste buds that help them to appreciate more complex flavors, so can we more fully taste the complexities of life. We learn to love the sour and spicy as well as the sweet.
While I was on a recent trip to the west coast, a friend suddenly fell ill and had to be taken to the hospital. I spent the wee hours of the morning in the emergency department, keeping company with his family while they waited for news. We had just come from a wedding reception, so everyone was dressed impeccably. We looked like a cocktail party that had been blown off course. After the ordeal, the family apologized for the inconvenience, but I considered it one of the best parts of my trip. It was an opportunity to access the world just beneath the crust of my expectations, to be shanghaied by unusual circumstances and smuggled into real life. Having navigated a crisis together, I felt closer to all of them.
Crisis can simplify things. Unnecessary concerns drop away and we just do what needs to be done. Who we think we are becomes irrelevant as we are caught up in the flow of things. But sometimes the most painful parts of a crisis are when things have calmed down a bit, because they give the mind an opportunity to tell itself horror stories, a dubious attempt to recoup certainty. This, too, is an interesting moment: like the Buddha, sitting up all night under the Bodhi tree, we are assaulted by our worst fears, judgments, and delusions. If we can stick around for the show, we will see the house of pain constructing itself right before our eyes. We may or may not have achieved supreme enlightenment by sunrise, but at least we will have lived with a degree of compassion, just by not turning away.
The tricky thing is that a crisis isn’t any different than the rest of life—it’s just an unexpected arrangement of circumstances, really—but it can serve as a gateway deeper into life. That’s not to say that we won’t be sad or angry or terrified or even in danger of losing our health or our life, but we don’t have to refuse what we’re being given. And that might change the way we experience life in a very unexpected way.
It’s Alive! Zen is a home for Zen meditation and koans in San Antonio, Texas