DT-Nothing Special-Joko Beck- Whirlpools

Tonight, I’ll begin a series of dharma talks based on Charlotte Joko Beck’s book Nothing Special: Living Zen. Although she practices in the Zen tradition, her teachings are relevant for practitioners in all Buddhist lineages and on other spiritual paths. Her simple direct words, “Things are always just as they are,” resonate with anyone who is ready to relinquish habitual distractions and obsessive striving for something special. When we connect with ordinary experiences in this very place and time, our life transforms from self-centered to reality-centered.  

Joko likens us to whirlpools that spring up spontaneously, appearing to be separate entities, and then dissolving back into the river of life. If we accept that it’s natural for our temporary form to fade away, we flow with life’s energy, which seeks transformation. But most of us imagine that our own particular whirlpool is permanent and stable instead of being part of the collective stream.

To protect our supposed separateness, we erect fixed, artificial boundaries that collect debris and clog up the whirlpool, preventing water from circulating freely to other whirlpools and to the great river itself. Whatever trash floats into our whirlpool, we try to avoid, expel, or control. We are constantly on guard, anxious that we might be hurt or that something might go wrong.

Worries about finances reflect our struggle to maintain set boundaries. We wonder, “What if I’m fired from my job or if I lose my investments in the stock market?” Because our money supply feels threatened, we cling to our assets. With a hoarding mentality, we stop donating to charities and political causes. We block the flow of funds between us and the world around us.  

As Joko says, “What we can do for ourselves and for life is to keep the water in our whirlpool rushing and clear so that it is just flowing in and flowing out. When it gets all clogged up, we create troubles—mental, physical, spiritual.” We misuse our life function if we spend most of our energy creating stagnant water. Blinded to the truth that whirlpools are integral to the river, our dammed up, stagnant pools breed contamination and disease and start to contend with one another.

Meditation practice helps us to see stagnant areas in our lives. We realize that our self-centered thoughts create stagnation. We may be sitting peacefully noting the breath moving in and out, when suddenly a memory surfaces: “She hurt my feelings, and I don’t like it.” Stuck in recrimination, we halt. No longer in touch with our breathing, we are cut off from what is unfolding in that moment.

When we wake up, we notice unpleasant sensations of contraction in the belly and jaw and are again in touch with signs of life.

Until we acknowledge the rigidity of repressed depression, fear, and anger, we cannot flow with life. Opening to the liveliness of incoming sensations refreshes our whirlpool. We begin to see how much we manipulate our daily circumstances. The process of becoming intimate in the stream of life can be a painful change. We are used to our stiff, controlled defenses, and fresh currents often feel uncomfortable.

My teacher Koshin Paley Ellison reminisces about his childhood in the 1970s, when his Jewish parents taught him to hate anyone who had contributed to the Holocaust—especially Germans and Poles. As if they were living in separate whirlpools, Koshin had no contact with anyone German or Polish until 1998, when he joined one of Roshi Bernie Glassman’s “bearing witness” retreats at Auschwitz-Birkenau. At that site where some of Koshin’s family members had died, he met a Polish woman, who was mourning her grandparents’ role in killing some of their Jewish neighbors. As Koshin listened to her, his heart melted, and they sobbed together. He let go of habitual opinions and assumptions. By recognizing that descendants of both Holocaust oppressors and victims were carrying similar burdens of grief, he was freed to flow with people regardless of their nationality.

Ideally in our meditation practice, we are not seeking bliss or a special state. And yet devoted practice does lead to being more awake. We come to know our troublesome tendencies well enough that we are less likely to impose them on others. We learn to set goals for ourselves, without accelerating into a fast-forward mode and clinging to the results. Instead of fantasizing about attaining a goal, Joko recommends accomplishing little steps in the here and now and building gradually towards our aim.

In her words, “[Al]though we think of the goal as some future state to achieve, the real goal is always the life of this moment. There’s no way to push the river aside. Even if we have created a dam around ourselves and become a stagnant pool, something will turn up that we have not anticipated…. Life seems to present us with whatever it takes to stir up the pool.”

I’ll give you a simple example of pool stirring. In the aftermath of the pandemic, Mark and I were becoming somewhat set in our daily routines, when his great niece and her boyfriend surprised us by inviting themselves for an overnight visit. As I awaited their arrival, I felt nervous about hosting them. Yet during their stay, we had enlivening conversations, and they were excited to learn about Mark’s ancestral line. Flowing with their unexpected visit benefited us all. 

Sometimes an unexpected health crisis can roil the waters of our whirlpool. Recently I read “Notes on the Art of Surgery” by a physician who had just removed a malignant tumor from the face of a young woman. In the process, he could not avoid severing one of the nerves near her mouth. When the doctor visited her and her husband in the post-operating room, she greeted him with a crooked smile. Although she was grateful to be cancer free, she asked, “Will my mouth always be like this?” The surgeon nodded empathically and explained, “I had to cut a facial nerve.” Her husband intervened, “I like it like that. It’s kind of cute.” He leaned over to kiss her, twisting his mouth to accommodate hers, to show that their kiss still worked. This kind of compassionate action is a reminder of our human capacity to transcend our apparently separate boundaries.

Joko applies the analogy of the whirlpool to the process of dying. She describes how in our youth, the vortex of water spins around a center that pulses with vibrant energy. As we age, the center weakens gradually until the vortex flattens out, and the water becomes part of the river again. Throughout their entire life cycles, whirlpools are part of the river, but most people do not see beyond the distinct form of their individual whirlpool.

Although in an absolute sense, there is no life and death, from a relative viewpoint life and death exist. When we are stuck in a relative stance, we cling to life and fear death. If we open to an absolute vision of multiple whirlpools spinning at various rates for different periods of time in the river of life, we are less afraid to die.

Recently, Mark and I traveled to Lake Sunapee, New Hampshire to see my 96-year-old father. As I was growing up, our family life revolved around my dad’s schedule. As a busy leukemia research doctor, he was seldom home. A highpoint of the year was his two-week summer vacation, when my mother and the four of us children would accompany him on adventurous camping and canoe trips. One summer, he taught us to fly fish, and another year he arranged for us to navigate rapids in a rubber raft on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. An avid sailor, he captained his yacht past icebergs along the rugged coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland. For many years, his whirlpool whirled vigorously.

Now my father forgets names and loses track of sentences in midstream. Because his gait is slow and unsteady, he depends on caregivers to help him move from his bed to a chair near a picture window, where he can look out over the lake. There, he likes to count boats on the water and keep track of weather changes. I sense the energetic center of his whirlpool diminishing in power and intensity.  

In my chaplaincy work at Omega House hospice, I accompany some patients who ease into dying and others who resist the process. At first glance, one patient I will call Kent looked too physically fit to have terminal colon cancer. He reminisced with me about the pinnacle of his athletic career as a track runner when he won an Olympic medal, and then mused about how fleeting fame is. Shortly after he ran a race in record time, another runner bested his time by a fraction of a second. With a smile of acceptance, Kent commented, “Records are made to be broken.”

He stated, “I’ve had good experiences in my life, and I hope that I’ve brought joy to others. I’m tired and ready to die. We are all born to die at some point. I don’t need to become an old man.”

At Kent’s request, I prayed aloud for him to have a peaceful death. We sat together in comfortable silence until he moaned involuntarily. I asked if he wanted a nurse to administer more medication to control his obvious discomfort. Shaking his head, Kent replied with dignity, “I’m trained to deal with some pain.” He wanted to be as clear-headed as possible as the whirlpool of his existence merged with the big collective river.

Now take a moment to reflect upon how Joko’s whirlpool image relates to your own life. Can you identify some areas that are stagnant and others that flow spontaneously? DISCUSSION