Charlotte Joko Beck and the Truth of Ordinary Experience

Charlotte Joko Beck was one of the best-known American Zen teachers. Her book Everyday Zen is her attempt to convey the gist of her teachings in writing.

A large number of books about spirituality and meditation exist, and all of them are plagued by the problem that it is intrinsically difficult to write about something that is, fundamentally, a practice that has to be experienced. The quality of a book about spirituality is thus dependent on how well it bridges that gap, on how much insight it can provide to a reader with a given level of understanding of meditation. Everyday Zen bridges the gap very well. The book is suitable for beginners as well as those who are familiar with meditation and spirituality. Whenever I read  Everyday Zen, I understand something I did not understand before.

Beck describes the dissatisfaction we experience in our daily lives, and our elaborate attempts to escape it, as well as our aggression and violence that is hidden beneath the surface. She traces this suffering back to our inability to accept life, and to our constant effort to fix it and to find some remedy outside ourselves. Obvious manifestations of these efforts are all forms of neuroticism that can be encountered in people: substance abuse, overeating, hedonism, verbal or physical abuse, obsession with opinions and judgements, etc.. She clearly analyzes the evasive quality of all these behaviors, and how we are all endlessly spinning in this loop of compulsive evasion.

Beck then goes on to present meditation as a practice that is aimed at stopping this struggle, emphasizing the amount of hard work that is necessary. Meditation is a practice that slowly wears out the illusion that our attempts to manipulate life will be successful in the end, and at the heart of this wearing-out process is disappointment and disillusionment. When all our illusions and hopes will have died, we will finally be able to rest in the present moment. An awareness of fundamental oneness as well as a deep compassion for the suffering of other beings are the natural results of the removal of our selfish attempts to manipulate life.

Almost inevitably, at some point during one’s practice, spirituality itself is distorted into a strategy to manipulate life. We meditate because we believe that this will make us happy, calm, wise, and psychologically resilient. What makes this so seductive is that disciplined practice and true understanding will lead to positive effects, but if we meditate only for the sake of these positive effects, we are back in our loop.

Beck outlines very clearly the decision every one of us must take: we can either continue to evade, which may be easier in the short-term, but will ensure a life of dissatisfaction, or we can face life fully, which is difficult, but not impossible (obviously, we are all somewhere in between these two extremes – even the most diligent avoid problems from time to time).

What distinguishes Beck’s writing is its groundedness, her refusal to indulge fancy, romantic ideas about practice, and her persistent emphasis on the application of practice in everyday life. With great psychological understanding, she connects practice to the sense of entitlement we all have in our relationships and when we face problems in our lives. A spiritual life means that we stop complaining, that we stop trying to manipulate life and the people in our life, and that we stop hurting ourselves and others. Can you follow this path?

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