"Being Alone" by Barry Magid
1 March 2010
Whether we are sitting alone or together with a group, we are sometimes liable to fall into a way of thinking in which we imagine that our experience is in some way or another unique. It can take many different forms. We might imagine that no one else could be going through the kind of pain we’re experiencing, whether emotional or physical. We might imagine that our thoughts, feelings, or the essence of who we really are is intrinsically private—that we fundamentally exist inside our mind or our body and that we can only imperfectly send and receive messages out into a world of other separate, isolated minds. Or, we imagine that no one can ever really understand what it’s like to be me.
What we lose track of in the midst of these various forms of dualistic thinking is the fact that who and what we are is constituted, and constantly, moment-by-moment, re-constituted, by the world we live in and are part of. It’s true that I may not be feeling exactly what is going on in your knee at this moment, but I know what pain is. I may not be thinking the exact thought you’re thinking at this moment, but I know what thought is. The same goes for longing, anger, anxiety, tension, and so on. All these constitute the emotional ground of what it is to be human just as much as having and recognizing height and weight are part of what it is to be an embodied being. We all share, or rather, are all part of, a common fabric of being.
One of the reasons we maintain some of the traditional elements of Buddhist practice in our lay zendo is that they remind us that whatever we are experiencing on our cushions today has been experienced by many thousands of others, over hundreds and even thousands of years of practice. What we feel, they felt. What we suffer, they suffered. What they learned, we can learn. All of us are simply human beings trying to clarify what it means to be human, and to come to terms with the suffering that being human entails. When we imagine that our experience is unique, we may imagine ourselves particularly talented or particularly hopeless at what we’re doing. Sitting may one day catapult us up into heaven; another day plunge us deep into hell. But when we arrive there, we find that heaven and hell are crowded places. Whatever we achieve, others have achieved; whatever we suffer, others have suffered before us. No matter how bad you think you are at this practice, no matter how hard you find it, don’t forget: it was designed by and for people just like you.
There’s an old saying, “Don’t try to put somebody else’s head on top of your own.” Well, I think we’re only tempted to exchange our head for another when we’re convinced that its contents are somehow unique—that I could trade my head, which is full of hurt and anger and anxiety, for a different head that has none of those things rattling around inside it. But the more we come to realize the contents of our heads are all alike—that all of us are struggling with the same hurts and problems inherent in being human—the more we’re willing to simply work with the head we’ve got. One’s pretty much like another! The strange thing is, it turns out that all those things we thought were so unique about ourselves are precisely what we have most in common.
Excerpted from "Ending the Pursuit of Happiness" by Barry Magid (Wisdom Publications).
Barry Magid is the author of the books Ending the Pursuit of Happiness: A Zen Guide and Ordinary Mind: Exploring the Common Ground of Zen & Psychotherapy.