It is only impermanence we can depend on

One of the lessons I have tried to impart to students is to stick with an activity or subject and to understand that results are not always immediate. This lesson is difficult to imbue and should be taught in subtle ways so as not to appear to be commandeering someone’s life. Many times in my counseling sessions, I have tried to share with a student how continuing foreign language study or science classes will not be so arduous once the foundation is solidly underfoot. Sadly our society makes taking the easy way out an option. This certainly could have been my story. I was responsible for my own upbringing if I wanted any success at all, or to see the world beyond, I had to take action. This meant traveling to far-off places alone, banking on a college scholarship, and opening a business with virtually no capital.

My “digging your heels in” approach to life is not right for all students. In my first class as a long-term substitute in San Francisco, Susan was a gifted student with an oft-repeated dream to become an actress. She would improvise skits and loved to be the center of attention. When I read about a children’s theater competition in Golden Gate Park, I immediately thought of her and how wonderful it would be to have the opportunity to perform for a larger audience. When I made this suggestion, she was immediately excited and with a small group we set about to write and put together a play.

As the day for the festival grew closer, my lead performer became more and more absent. She began to have nervous tics and it was evident I had projected on her something that she was not ready for or could not do. This was a big life lesson for me, and one I have tried never to repeat in my teaching. Encouragement is important, but never assume what you want for someone is what he/she wants as well. People have their own time and place. My student was just not ready to leave her comfort zone, and in fact there was no reason why she necessarily should.
Anticipation is often far different from reality once a person hits the ground. One can tend to visualize how something will progress — a trip, a date, or simply a casual meeting with friends — and one would not want to take away all yearnings and planning for what is yet to come, but there is much relevance to the many adages attributed to The Buddha about living in the present. Our country tends to be very future bent. No sooner is a child born than planning for college begins. As they hustle and bustle through life, without time for reflection, there is a fear that stopping might actually be frightening, an acknowledgment of what has been missed in the frenetic effort help capture a dream.

In my own life, a vivid imagination coupled with voracious reading has often led me to assumptions that proved far different from reality. I have moved ahead of myself, especially when planning to live out what was a dream. Several years ago I had the desire to walk from Big Sur in California to the San Francisco Zen Center retreat at Tassajara. I found a wilderness touring company that professed to have considerable experience with the walk and proceeded to outfit myself, even though I only had limited experience camping many years before with the Girl Scouts. Nevertheless, I moved ahead with the plan and paid the piper. I kitted myself out with the best of supplies and thought I was ready for the big event. What I had neglected to research was that the past year had been a violent one in the area. Forest fires raged, natural beauty was destroyed and the paths had not been cleared. Rather than a benign and spiritual walk in the wilderness I found myself with experienced hikers and bushwhackers. Seven days in we saw the first car and I jumped in a New York minute and made my way to the retreat. Although not a complete disaster, it would have been better to leave that part of the adventure to the travel books.

However, as is often the case, the road hard traveled may lead to a reward well worth the Sturm und Drang. The car that picked me up drove down windy roads to the destination at the bottom of the hill, the healing hot springs of Tassajara, the first Zen monastery outside of Japan.

Beautiful, austere and quiet, the rigors and difficulties of the hike soon faded away with the sounds of bells through the rustling leaves and the early morning meditations. Arriving at Tassajara compensated for the difficulties along the road that, with the passing of time, have been long forgotten.

The process of getting where I wanted to go was what I look back on with sheer delight and wonder at the chutzpah that took me there. My six-year sojourn to Europe began on a World War II Victory boat that was sunk and rehabbed by the former Yugoslavian Navy. This vessel next served as a freighter, taking passengers from the Brooklyn Navy Yard to Casablanca before it headed up the Mediterranean to ports in France, Italy, Greece and finally docking in Yugoslavia. I cannot remember much about our cabins other then they were minuscule. What I do remember is that the boat was not seaworthy and we had to spend an additional night or two in Port Brooklyn before setting sail. The trip across the ocean proved memorable, and included being caught in the eye of a hurricane. I made friends and hold tight to experiences to cherish as I began the next stage of that journey, hitchhiking to Berlin with a traveling companion.

Yes, risky, adventurous experiences, and yet I would not trade them for a minute. What one undertakes requires self-awareness and knowing what is comfortable. What becomes interesting to me as I grow older is that the anticipation has somewhat faded and what has taken its place is deeper appreciation for the here and now. Tomorrow is uncertain, as nothing is, and as the sages say, it is only impermanence we can depend on.