Gesshin Greenwood

‘American culture is not set up in a manner that values preservation. In fact, the message our culture sends us says the opposite—that we should always purchase the new thing, the coolest or freshest thing. We are told that if our refrigerator and pantry are not completely stocked to the brim, we are not successful, we are not providing for our family. The problem with this is not accumulation in and of itself, but that we are not taught how to take care of and value the things we already have.

The same is true with people. People are only worthy of our time and attention if they have value to us personally, if they conform to social norms, if they are easy, pleasant, and attractive. We divide people into categories like “successful,” “failures,” “contributors,” “leeches,” “motivated,” “useless,” “lazy.” Then we allow these words to become the totality of a human being.

We are afraid of difference and weakness. We are afraid of poor people because of the labels we create, and then we become ashamed of our hate and fear. Instead of examining our shame and fear, we keep society’s outcasts at a distance. We treat them like trash and throw them away. We make laws saying they cannot sleep in tents. We make laws saying they cannot sleep on benches. We say they did this to themselves, that they “chose” this life, when nothing could be farther from the truth. (No woman wants to sleep on concrete; it is very painful, not to mention unsafe.) We say they are someone else’s problem. We forget they are human beings just like us.

Bernie Glassman, the Zen teacher famous for his work with the homeless, explained that when we care for the outcasts in society, we are caring for the parts of ourselves that we have rejected, the parts of ourselves we hate or feel shame about. It took me many months before I realized that this is what I was trying to do in my work with addicted clients. Working with people who relapsed over and over, I saw how easily I was frustrated by my clients, how quickly I moved to judgment and then to an impulse to discard them, to punish them by withdrawing kindness and compassion.

Abbess Aoyama Roshi would often say, “How you spend your time is how you live your life.” Spiritual practice shows us that the way we relate to small things—washing dishes, cooking, waiting, cleaning—is indicative of how we relate to everything else. The training in Zen practice is learning how to take care of even the smallest, most mundane task, because the task in front of you is the totality of the universe. So eventually I began to see that the way I was relating to addicted people was how I related to myself. I saw that when I was tired, sad, or struggling, when I didn’t receive labels like “successful,” “beautiful,” “rich,” and “competent,” I hated myself. I felt like trash.

I want to have compassion for the parts of myself I hate—my anger and selfishness, my lust, my introversion, my seriousness. I want to have compassion for these because they are everything that makes me me. But it is hard. We are taught to hate difficult things, difficult emotions, anything that does not contribute to a well-functioning individual. Part of me knows that, in order to have compassion for the world around me, I will have to radically transform how I take care of myself.’ (from Tricycle Magazine)

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