In our online sangha we’re studying Suzuki Roshi’s talks on the Sandokai. Reed, one of the facilitators posted this quote, and these exceedingly open-ended suggestions for discussion:
Suzuki—”So usually, when I study for a lecture I go off in another direction, following something interesting, and most of the time I don’t study for the lecture. But still, if I don’t study I don’t feel so good. Because I feel it is necessary to prepare for the lecture, I start to study. But as soon as I start, I go off on my own and study for the sake of studying, not just for giving the lecture. Things are going on in this way endlessly. And it is good, you know.”
Post whenever you’re comfortable.
Don’t hold back, that won’t do anyone good.
And so I did go on endlessly (or nearly so.)
Third time this year of being sick. These last two times it’s been stomach flu followed immediately by a respiratory flue that last for weeks. I wondered what this strange bug is, but clearly the answer is I’m worn out, and my immune system is tired and exhausted. As is the rest of me.
I’ve liked this work of being a mental health social worker or case manager, I believed in it. Sometimes I would think it fits well with practice, this working for the local county. Like the government officials in the heyday of Zen in China who worked for the state, wrote poetry, and sat with the questions of life and death. And that the social aspect of social work was true and right—working with people in the world, and helping to change that world around them, to be more helpful and just, and not being another way to blame them for their lives and difficulties. I long ago, I thought, stopped using it to make up any original sin, stopped trying to be a “good guy” who was helping others, saving the world, choose how grandiose a delusion you want. Or at least I came to live with the compromise that I was trying to be a good guy within the system, a system torn between compassion and blame. A system that sometimes seemed to be bent on making others prove their worth first in order to get the help they needed. I could be the human face of it, bend the rules, work hard, hopefully make it so that people could get the help they truly wanted and needed.
But it’s become too many people homeless with nowhere I can find for them to go, or having the promise of housing or refuge, with a waiting list months long, and catch-22’s that would make Heller proud. So that what they need is never there. I still will argue with those who talk about people milking and abusing the system. The majority are people who need it, and I’ve seen more who say, “maybe I’d qualify but you should give it to someone else who really needs it, not me” than those who take advantage.
At the same time though, I can’t work so hard, harder than some of the people who I’m trying to help. I can’t continue to have their families and friends yell at me for not doing enough. And it’s too hard to have those who refuse, out of shame or powerlessness or anger, to see their own responsibility for their lives. Those who blame me for not fixing what they’ve broken—I can’t them find housing when they are the ones who have felonies and evictions, or get their license back when they were the ones who chose to drive while high on meth. Mental illness doesn’t cause, but it also doesn’t prevent, a person being or acting like an jerk.
It’s become too hard to try to live with the conflicting approach of society to those less fortunate—to give them a little help in order to relieve the guilt of others, but not too much. My working myself to the bone becomes a way to enable that confusion and guilt of the world. To do so, to pay out of my own pocket for someone who’s hungry because the state won’t give them enough, only helps that system itself feel it’s somehow doing enough.
I learned long ago this work is not all I am. I had the pleasure of doing carpentry work for years. I was able to take several years off to raise my son, to retreat from the world of work, slowing down and not just running. That was part of the reason I could keep working at 64, to wait on retirement. Those years at home with my boy in “the middle of life” was my early retirement, and it was a gift and a joy.
The problem is, as I learned with depression, that before you see depression you miss it just because you tell yourself it’s just life’s struggles, a challenge you’re about to solve or an epiphany you’re on the verge of having. Or worse yet, you’ve had that epiphany and seen life is suffering and you’re Buddha, or meaningless and you’re Camus. After you see and know depression, you can miss what’s a struggle or epiphany to work towards because you tell yourself it’s just depression. Which complicates knowing when to push through and when to let go.
Before my practice seemed to be to work in this system, and to my best to help and be of use. Now my practice seems to be to let that go.
So…in the midst of all this studying, and after pouring this out, I could see that I have come to an end, that I need to say I am done. I felt some relief just in getting it all out, and finally slept well for the first night in a while. And a dream…
Not a lot of context, and the details fuzzy. I only know that in the dream, I rob banks. It happens in current times, but has the flavor of an adventure, sort of like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I live on the run, with money, and in the dream fortunately don’t have to harm or kill anyone. And before waking, I am apprehended. In the dream even that seems right. It is what happens when you rob banks. No going out in a hail of gunfire. I am caught and walked through a party or restaurant or something, and the friends and family I have loved watch me walk by. As I do, I am struck by the feeling I have more effectively helped them somehow. Not like dreams where I am trying to save a ship full of people, and each person I save just means there are ten more behind them. Did I give them some of my money, or is it hidden somewhere for later? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s just now with my notoriety they can make money off their stories, from having known the great bank robber…
I wake up happy. Relieved. My friend who’s best at looking at dreams can’t make sense of this one. “Do you feel you’re taking something from people that you don’t deserve or isn’t yours?” she asks. No, it’s not that. I just know it feels good. Then I think of a point Mark, the other facilitator makes, about a sense that his feeling of separation would be overcome just by being a good guy. I realize that’s why this dream was so liberating. It’s letting go of another level of that need, to be the good guy. In the dream, I was out only for myself. And somehow that helps the world more than being a good guy?
It becomes even more clear that this is about being done in some way. No need to walk away in anger. But it is time to begin to walk away, that’s certain. And not to keep on in fear, that new fear that hovered around–that when I am done, will I have enough to live on? Not just money but purpose?
So knowing it’s time, I can set it up to step away about a year from now. In the meantime, I have vacation built up that can be used to cut down to 4 days a week, to keep myself from becoming sicker and more exhausted. I can take time to walk, to read, to write, to do nothing. I’ve wanted for a long time to fix my garage into a small zendo…it would be perfect. But it has been hard to find the time to do what is needed to get it so that it can be used. With more time, I can do that. Do it not to save everyone. But do it so that I can do what I like to do–sit zazen–and do it with other people. Maybe we can all save ourselves together. And if there’s not enough money, well, I can always become a bank robber.
I think of that scene in Butch Cassidy, where the two bank robber protagonists have to jump off a cliff to a roaring river below, to avoid being caught or killed. Sundance Kid is afraid to make the leap, finally confessing to Butch, “I can’t swim.” Butch reassures him, “Oh hell, kid—the fall will probably kill ya.”
Time to jump.