Zen and the Art of Adapting to Life's Curveballs

Zen and the Art of Adapting to Life's Curveballs via Buddhaimonia, Zen for Everyday
"If a man has nothing to eat, fasting is the most intelligent thing he can do."

- Herman Hesse

The Freak Out

Two weeks ago, I found out I was going to be a father. For the third time. We didn't plan it.

I'll get back to that in a sec.

The way we normally go about our lives, our brains use our "local" consciousness to gather information and make both small and larger predictions in order to create the best chance for our survival.

And generally, as humans, we're often not just trying to survive, but we're trying to take steps to thrive. Specifically, to overcome our troubles and find peace, to be happy and enjoy our lives, and to forge some sense of greater meaning.

But because we only have so much power to change the world around us, and because our predictions can't be right 100% of the time, we're constantly hit with surprises- events which we didn't predict or expect would arise (i.e. the curveball).

So we do our best to not only predict what will happen so as to be ready for it, but also to affect the world around us in our favor in various ways. But what do we do when shit totally hits the fan (as it does, so often)?

When I found out I was going to be a father for the third time, on the cusp of my wife and I's upcoming wedding (we never had a formal ceremony), writing and working like a madman on everything Buddhaimonia (so many awesome things in the works!), and the already full-time job that is taking care of our two little dudes, I was honestly a little freaked out and questioned whether we'd be able to handle it.

What on Earth were we going to do? She already had a hard enough time taking care of these two crazy dudes during the day while I worked, what were we going to do with a third?

On top of that, the community at Buddhaimonia has really taken off, was this going to crush that? Was I just going to be so busy taking care of my 3 children that this amazing project I've devoted so much of my life to was just going to rot from neglect?

I started to flashback to all the conversations I've had with so many of you through the past couple of months, all the great things that are happening here and will happen in the future, and the force for good Buddhaimonia could grow into in the future. Then I instinctively imagined my books, notes, and all of my work burning in a great big fire, never to be seen again.

It's all over man. Why did you have to do it?

Shining a Light

...All of that went through my mind over the course of about 2 minutes.

Our minds can do the most irrational things at times.

Once I came to, grounding myself with my mindful breathing, I did a few things:

1. I recognized the emotions running through me with my mindfulness and simply observed them for a while, seeing that they weren't attached to any rational thought or were in any way sensible.

2. I realized the amazing gift that this new child would be and accepted her or him fully in my mind with love (don't go through a pregnancy despising your future child for what they kept you from doing, it's a sure way to depression and resentment).

3. I thought more closely about the fact that our oldest son Malik could actually be a big help to me and my wife with regards to taking care of this new baby.

4. I reminded myself of my growing flexibility with my work and I reaffirmed that nothing would ever keep me from giving my best effort to this, Buddhaimonia, which I've put my heart and soul into.

But most of all, I openly and consciously accepted everything as it was, including whatever may come.

Now, I couldn't feel better about the whole situation. I know it won't be easy, but what ever is?

I chose the Herman Hesse quote above because it perfectly describes my point:

 Life is not a straight path. If it were, we could see clearly each next step and be able to prepare for it. That’s just not how life is- no matter how hard you try to make it that way.

Life is not a straight path. If it were, we could see clearly each next step and be able to prepare for it. That’s just not how life is- no matter how hard you try to make it that way.

Accept everything openly and mindfully as it is. Resistance creates friction which keeps you from peace. 

Not having food to drink might sound like an extreme example, but it gets the point across perfectly.

If you don't have food to eat, and you're constantly thinking and stressing about the fact that you don't have food to eat, that's pressure you're placing on yourself.

But accept the fact that you don't have food, and decide in your mind that you're fasting, and as a result of accepting the situation as it is you'll release the friction keeping you from being at peace.

Resisting the natural flow of life is like purposely pressing your hand up against a sanding belt. It's definitely not going to feel very good and as much as you try to stop the sanding belt with your hand you're just going to end up hurting yourself more.

This is how most of us live our lives. We don't even notice that it's our resistance which is causing the friction, the suffering in our lives, and not the event itself.

Some of this is easier said than done, admittedly, but no less true.

What's important isn't perfection, it's simply that you make your best effort in each moment. That will be enough. You've got your entire life to work at it.

The Monk and the Geisha

I figured it'd be wise to explain this idea in a little more detail as this is a topic easily misunderstood.

There's an old Zen story about a priest and a geisha that perfectly exemplifies this point:

A Zen Buddhist priest was among a group of guests who were attending a dinner party one evening. In traditional Japanese style, the guests were all seated on the floor surrounding a low rectangular table.

Resting on the table in front of each guest was a small hibachi grill filled with hot coals. Each guest cooked their own portion of meat and vegetables, which were brought out by geisha's and placed in various areas of the table.

The priest noticed that one of the geisha's conducted herself as if she might have had some Zen training. He decided to test her, so he called her over.

The geisha knelt across the table from the priest and bowed. The priest bowed in return and said, "I would like to give you a gift." Using his chopsticks, he reached into the hibachi, picked up a hot coal, and offered it to the geisha.

She hesitated for a moment, then finally pulled the sleeves of her kimono down over her hands. She grabbed the coal, ran into the kitchen, and dropped it into a pan of water. Her hands were not hurt, but the beautiful kimono gown was ruined.

When the geisha returned with a new kimono, she went back to the table and knelt across from the priest.

She bowed to the priest. He bowed in return. Then she said: "I would like to give you a gift as well."

"I would be honored" the priest replied.

She picked up a pair of chopsticks, removed a hot coal from the priest's grill, and offered it to him. The priest reached into his robe and took out a cigarette.

As he leaned forward to light his smoke he said, "Thank you. That is exactly what I wanted."

In this story, the priest, as well as the geisha, exemplify the true spirit of Zen.

In the case of the geisha, she could have easily gotten angry at the priest. But the only thing anger would have done would be to burn her.

Instead, she accepted the piece of coal with her unrolled kimono and went into the other room to dispose of it and change.

In the case of the priest, he didn't just, "roll with it" so to speak, he adapted the coal as a light for his cigarette.

Both the priest and the geisha adapted to their situations and accepted what was presented to them without creating friction.

This may just be a story, but one which highlights an important point: to go with the natural flow of things is part of the path to peace and harmony within oneself.

Keep in mind, this doesn't mean you should lie down and take whatever comes at you and live without goals or intentions.

There is a time to act, but it should be done in the spirit of naturalness instead of in the spirit of resisting what is. It should also be done while considering the well-being of others as well as ourselves. And we should live mindfully in order to observe when we're creating that friction in order to be able to identify what's the natural way in the first place.

When to Push, When to Go with It

Right about now, if you've been following along closely, you might be confused as to just how you're supposed to know when to push and when to go with the flow and adapt.

There's no science to it, it's mostly intuitive. For the most part, it's our "broad" or greater intentions which make up the majority of our "pushing" efforts. For instance: deciding you're going to build a business, save for a house, or work towards a promotion.

And it's life in the moment which is where we must adapt and "go with the flow". We set goals or intentions and life moves along naturally, without any mind for those goals or intentions.

In this way, life can often seem as though it's trying to keep us from accomplishing our goals, but it's really just impartial.

So when we set goals or intentions, and something gets in the way, the best thing to do isn't to give up on that goal or to fight back and continue to try to make it happen as is, but to adapt and accomplish it by going with the natural flow of things.

In general, friction is caused because we fight back against what's presented to us. But we fight back because we had other plans or desires in the first place, something else we wanted to happen in a certain situation. So it's those plans and predictions which are causing us to want to fight back against reality.

So don't hesitate to set goals or make big plans, simply do so without any attachment to them or to the way you originally expected to do or accomplish said thing. If something changes, you accept those changes openly and move with them.

Have Courage

The ability to adapt at a moment’s notice to the curveballs of life, whether big or small, while not labelling them bad and just going with the natural flow of life is a big deciding factor in our ability to maintain our peace of mind.

By doing so, you consciously decide that you don’t derive your peace and happiness from external events but rather the deeper and ever-flowing “thusness” of life (resting in the present moment, feeling the interconnectedness of all of life) which is always available to us no matter what's going on in our lives.

If you're constantly reacting negatively to change, whether big or small, whether it’s trying to push or pull to change reality into something you believe more pleasant or just getting bitter and angry over what’s already happened, then you’ll be frequently unhappy with your life.

In the "modern" world, there's such a strong sense of, "Fight back!" "Resist!" "Make/Change your destiny!" And to do so while not only ignoring our own well-being but the well-being of others.

There's nothing wrong with living purposely, but if you live your life thinking you're always fighting back against it and everything in it then you're just placing your hand on that sanding belt again.

I grew up in the U.S., so I can't speak for anywhere else, but most Americans have a strong sense of this. Most of us grew up thinking that life was a constant pushing and pulling, fighting against the odds, against the "forces", and making it happen no matter what.

And while this mentality can help accomplish tasks, it creates a lot of harm too.

Going with the natural flow of things isn't a sign of weakness, it's a sign of strength and courage. It takes both to accept that you're not completely in control, and to realize that you don't need to be to find happiness, and by doing so you'll be well on your way to finding peace.

So, baby #3. This is me announcing, "I'm rolling with it". Who's with me?

"The pain that you create now is always some form of nonacceptance, some form of unconscious resistance to what is. On the level of thought, the resistance is some form of judgment. On the emotional level, it is some form of negativity. The intensity of the pain depends on the degree of resistance to the present moment."

- Eckhart Tolle