Whipping the Donkey

By John Tarrant

Having a meditation practice is a way of fully entering your life, without reservation. When you meditate, when you sit and notice without assessing how you’re doing, you just show up for your life. In the moment of meditation, nothing is required of you. It’s enough to be here on the planet, to experience a moment of presence, to fully honor the gift of being alive. And it is a gift, one that just comes to you. You don’t have to ask.

If we don’t show up for our own life, we tend to ask other people to fill in the bits we won’t show up for. That makes it hard on them. So love begins with really showing up. And practice helps. It’s a way of not dodging the difficult, painful bits. It’s also not dodging the beauty and the marvel of life, the wonder and our capacity to connect to others. Love starts there.


But we often make a few really basic errors. We sometimes have the idea that a relationship is like a machine, one we can fix if we put the right oil on it or replace a few sprockets. We also can think that a relationship is a matter of calculating the sums of good and bad, what we’re getting and not getting.


If we start looking at other people as a gift, it helps us out of these traps. I have a teenage daughter and I’m close to her. You notice with a child that you show up without wanting a lot in return. It’s not an exchange: give this, get that. It could be like that in all our relationships, with lovers, teachers, friends, what have you. It’s not a trade. The word bodhichitta conveys wanting to open our own hearts and minds because it’s good for the world, not just for us (but it is good for us, too). Bodhichitta is not esoteric; it’s a fundamental human experience. It’s part of the nature of mind.


Relationship is not an event isolated from our spiritual practice. We’re involved in a relationship because we’re on our path. We have a practice and somehow our relationship has become part of our practice. It’s not something different from our practice. It’s not this thing over there that makes me happy so I can have a practice over here. It’s not the other thing that pays the rent or gets me laid. It’s part of practice.


There’s a long arc to love, just the way there’s a long arc to having a spiritual practice. When you’re on that long arc, you don’t say, “I tried meditation once, and I didn’t get what I wanted, so it’s not right for me.” If you have a spiritual practice in your life, you’re actually showing up for your life. If your mind is restless and uneasy, you’re showing up for your mind being restless and uneasy.  If you stop fighting it, stop thinking it should be different, if you allow a little bit of an opening—even just having compassion for your inability to have compassion—the donkey will start to turn toward home.


You don’t have to be good at this stuff. You just have to have a little bit of turning toward it and it will start teaching you and giving you gifts. It’s much better to do a spiritual practice really badly than not to do it. In fact, it’s much better to do a spiritual practice really badly than to do it well, because if you’re doing it badly you’ll probably learn something, so long as you keep doing it.


A while ago my mother was dying. I traveled home, went to the hospital, held her hand, and sat with her. The next morning she was still alive, so I did the same thing. Meanwhile, my sisters were negotiating with the nurses about oxygen levels, my father was trying to encourage mom to stay in this world, to eat for him (“May I tempt you with just a spoonful of this custard, Allison?”), and my mom was holding off my dad with garlic and crosses. But I didn’t have anything to do, no special role, and I began to think that was probably good. I noticed that when I wanted anybody in that room to be different, it became rather painful. “Dad, ease up. I mean, she’s dying. She doesn’t want to eat.” Or, “Mom, he just loves you and he’s trying to be helpful and it probably would help if you ate.” Or, “Girls, you could relax; the oxygen is not going to help her now.” I had all those let’s-improve-the-world thoughts, but I noticed that when I didn’t go with those, everything was completely at peace. People were doing what they were doing because they needed to. Who am I to know what they should be doing? It was beautiful appreciating how much they cared about each other.


The koan for that situation is, “Not knowing is most intimate.”

What if someone shouldn’t be improved? Maybe if they gave up smoking, they’d turn out to be a serial killer. How about not wanting to change others? How about not wanting to change yourself?


We spend a lot of time whipping the donkey. If we stopped doing that, we might find we change in unexpected ways, and others do as well.

Most projects to change other people or ourselves are really projects about interior decoration for the prison. A spiritual practice is really about jail breaking. When you show up for your life, what kind of ride do you want to take? Do you want to spend your time telling other people they should be different?


Love means bearing people’s differences without trying to change them—not just bearing, but valuing and appreciating and loving people’s uniqueness. That’s a path all by itself. What if the fact that you’re different from me is a gateway rather than an obstacle?



John Tarrant, Ph.D., is a Zen teacher who for many years had a practice in Jungian psychoanalysis. Author of Bring Me the Rhinoceros and The Light Inside the Dark, he teaches physicians and executives at Duke Integrative Medicine and directs the Pacific Zen Institute.


via Shambhala Sun – Love & Relationships: What the Buddhists Teach.

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