“At a hospital, he was told that both his legs should be amputated at the knee. When he had the operation, he only said to his army surgeon, “Please cut both legs evenly.” — The pivotal point for him was that he chose to think: “Today, at this moment, I am born.” One could think, “I was born with both legs, then I was drafted and forced to go to war. Because we lost the war, I was sent to Siberia as a prisoner. On the way, my legs got frostbitten and I had to have both of them amputated.” If we think of this sequence of events, it’s too painful even to cry.” -Kosho Uchiyama on Reverend Ozawa
You can’t integrate this. There is no place for this tale of sorrow in the narrative of your life. Such an event is far too real to be abstracted into a story. As such, you have to live it. Every day you endure it. Every day you cultivate patience.
“It is no patience
Which you can bear patiently;
Patience is to bear
What is unbearable” -Sengai
At some point along the way, our minds decided that the best way of understanding this world of constant change was to construct a singular, immutable, monolithic sense of Self. This Self is embedded in an equally constructed life story. As such, all events that happen, happen “to” this Self. All decisions and choices are made “by” this Self. And this is alright - until you go looking. When you take this idea of an individual agent enacting their will upon the world as substantive, then you run into trouble. The world of abstraction that your “I” inhabits is a castle in the sky - a whisp of cloud. It is a game your brain plays to make sense of the world - but it’s only a play. When you go looking for the actors no one is found. Comedian Demetri Martin unintentionally describes the situation of searching for the Self aptly:
“I feel like my washing machine is sneaky because I put clothes in there and detergent and start it up. I hear all this noise as it’s turning around, then I open the lid to see what was going on and it’s like...”
Just like the washing machine, it feels like our Self is really there - and not only that but it’s extremely active. But when you open the lid to see what’s going on - nothing! The washing machine stops running! The moment you start to looking for it you realize it can’t be found. It is like when Saint Augustine is asked to define time.
“I know what it is, but when you ask me I don't.”
Yet for many, we abide solely in this world of construction. It is only when an event so catastrophic, so destabilizing occurs, that we are woken up from this solidification of reality into a singular point. When the world is too much for a ‘Self’ to bear - we have a chance to awaken. And to awaken does not mean to stop the narrative. It just means to see it as it is - an appearance.
“When I heard the temple bell ring, suddenly there was no bell and no I, just sound” - Yasutani Hakuun
For some it takes a temple bell. But this is a habit that is hard to break - that of thinking of ourselves as a character in a story. Famed psychologist Carl Rogers has a list of nineteen propositions that detail the construction of this self. Point eight is as follows:
“A portion of the total perceptual field gradually becomes differentiated as the self”
Some of the sensory experiences that arrive to our awareness we call ‘I’ - the weight of our foot, the thoughts in our head. Others, such as the smell of grass, or the sight of a bird are markedly not the Self. But can we remember the experience of life that is not mediated by this narrative? Is there an experience of life prior to conceptualization?
“Just be aware of the sense of being, it is not personal” Mooji
If we extricate our awareness from the story of our lives - we can return to immediacy. A non-personal mode of experiencing the world.
“The world is, sort of, as it is. The way you go through it changes” - David Lynch
But you are the world are you not? Your narrative may change, your Self story may adapt - but you are never truly apart. The Self structure will construct itself whether or not you pay it any mind. Give it some oversight, be curious about the story - but to become too fascinated is to fall into its game.
“We are like children who shrink from pain but love its causes” - Shantideva
In meditation the experience is all too salient. We sit down to focus on the breath, and an interesting thought arises. I often think - okay, let me just follow this train of thought and then I’ll return to the breath. But like a child I am utterly swept away into a world of imagination. I need patience to endure the pecking thoughts of my mind without compulsively indulging. And there is nothing wrong with thinking - thoughts are beauty! But often, it can become a compulsive activity as opposed to a conscious one.
“Patience is not sitting and waiting, it is foreseeing” Shams of Tabriz
Patience is not a passive resignation - patience is an exertion and a commitment to remain with felt experience. Dogen describes it as strenuous.
“If I exert myself totally, I am in some sense sustaining, enduring or perduring something going on in me that I did not and could not produce myself. My part in it is precisely to stand it, stick out, which is not active, not passive, but strenuous”
When you sit with experience in a non-symbolic way, you are somewhere in the middle. You aren’t doing anything active since you didn’t create your circumstance. But you are neither being passive, as there is certainly something going on. Dogen calls is strenuous.
Others call it Reality. But a label is just a label, simply:
It is as it is.
Nothing Better Than This
There is no fortitude like patience
Animals have been patient with us, but it is now shown that cuttlefish have self-control