Life Is Tough: Six Ways to Deal With It
ancient set of Buddhist slogans offers us six powerful techniques to
transform life’s difficulties into awakening and benefit. Zen teacher NORMAN FISCHER guides us through them.
There’s an old Zen saying: the
whole world’s upside down. In other words, the way the world looks from
the ordinary or conventional point of view is pretty much the opposite
of the way the world actually is. There’s a story that illustrates this.
there was a Zen master who was called Bird’s Nest Roshi because he
meditated in an eagle’s nest at the top of a tree. He became quite
famous for this precarious practice. The Song Dynasty poet Su Shih (who
was also a government official) once came to visit him and, standing on
the ground far below the meditating master, asked what possessed him to
live in such a dangerous manner. The roshi answered, “You call this
dangerous? What you are doing is far more dangerous!” Living normally in
the world, ignoring death, impermanence, and loss and suffering, as we
all routinely do, as if this were a normal and a safe way to live, is
actually much more dangerous than going out on a limb to meditate.
trying to avoid difficulty may be natural and understandable, it
actually doesn’t work. We think it makes sense to protect ourselves from
pain, but our self-protection ends up causing us deeper pain. We think
we have to hold on to what we have, but our very holding on causes us to
lose what we have. We’re attached to what we like and try to avoid what
we don’t like, but we can’t keep the attractive object and we can’t
avoid the unwanted object. So, counterintuitive though it may be,
avoiding life’s difficulties is actually not the path of least
resistance; it is a dangerous way to live. If you want to have a full
and happy life, in good times and bad, you have to get used to the idea
that facing misfortune squarely is better than trying to escape from it.
is not a matter of grimly focusing on life’s difficulties. It is simply
the smoothest possible approach to happiness. Of course, when we can
prevent difficulty, we do it. The world may be upside down, but we still
have to live in this upside-down world, and we have to be practical on
its terms. The teaching on transforming bad circumstances into the path
doesn’t deny that. What it addresses is the underlying attitude of anxiety, fear, and narrow-mindedness that makes our lives unhappy, fearful, and small.
bad circumstances into the path is associated with the practice of
patience. There are six mind-training (lojong) slogans connected with
Turn all mishaps into the path.
Drive all blames into one.
Be grateful to everyone.
See confusion as buddha and practice emptiness.
Do good, avoid evil, appreciate your lunacy, pray for help.
Whatever you meet is the path.
1. Turn All Mishaps Into the Path
The first slogan, Turn all mishaps into the path,
sounds at first blush completely impossible. How would you do that?
When things go alright we are cheerful—we feel good and have positive
spiritual feelings—but as soon as bad things start happening, we get
depressed, we fall apart, or, at the very best, we hang on and cope. We
certainly do not transform our mishaps into the path. And why would we
want to? We don’t want the mishaps to be there; we want them gone as
soon as possible.
the slogan tells us, we can turn all of this into the path. We do that
by practicing patience, my all-time favorite spiritual quality. Patience
is the capacity to welcome difficulty when it comes, with a spirit of
strength, endurance, forbearance, and dignity rather than fear, anxiety,
and avoidance. None of us likes to be oppressed or defeated, yet if we
can endure oppression and defeat with strength, without whining, we are
ennobled by it. Patience makes this possible. In our culture, we think
of patience as passive and unglamorous; other qualities like love or
compassion or insight are much more popular. But when tough times cause
our love to fray into annoyance, our compassion to be overwhelmed by our
fear, and our insight to evaporate, then patience begins to make sense.
To me it is the most substantial, most serviceable, and most reliable
of all spiritual qualities. Without it, all other qualities are shaky.
practice of patience is simple enough. When difficulty arises, notice
the obvious and not so obvious ways we try to avoid it—the things we say
and do, the subtle ways in which our very bodies recoil and clench when
some- one says or does something to us that we don’t like.
practice patience is to notice these things and be fiercely present
with them (taking a breath helps; returning to mindfulness of the body
helps) rather than reacting to them. We catch ourselves running away and
we reverse course, turning toward our afflictive emotions,
understanding that they are natural in these circumstances—and that
avoiding them won’t work. We forestall our flailing around with these
emotions and instead allow them to be present with dignity. We forgive
ourselves for having them, we forgive (at least provisionally) whoever
we might be blaming for our difficulties, and with that spontaneous
forgive- ness comes a feeling of relief and even gratitude.
may strike you as a bit far-fetched, but it is not. Yet it does take
training. We are not, after all, talking about miracles; we are not
talking about affirmations or wishful thinking. We are talking about
training the mind. If you were to meditate daily, bringing up this
slogan, Turn all mishaps into the path,
in your sitting, writing it down, repeating it many times a day, then
you could see that a change of heart and mind can take place in just the
way I am describing. The way you spontaneously react in times of
trouble is not fixed.
mind, your heart, can be trained. Once you have a single experience of
reacting differently, you will be encouraged, and next time it is more
likely that you will take yourself in hand. When something difficult
happens, you will train yourself to stop saying, “Damn! Why did this
have to happen?” and begin saying, “Yes, of course, this is how it is.
Let me turn toward it, let me practice with it, let me go beyond
entanglement to gratitude.”
you will have realized that because you are alive and not dead, because
you have a human body and not some other kind of a body, because the
world is a physical world and not an ethereal world, and because all of
us together as people are the way we are, bad things are going to
happen. It’s the most natural, the most normal, the most inevitable
thing in the world. It is not a mistake, and it isn’t anyone’s fault.
And we can make use of it to drive our gratitude and our compassion
2. Drive All Blames Into One
The second slogan on transforming difficult circumstances is famous: Drive all blames into one.
It, too, is quite counterintuitive, quite upside down. What it is
saying is: whatever happens, don’t ever blame anyone or anything else;
always blame only yourself.
is tricky, because it is not exactly blaming ourselves in the ordinary
sense. We know perfectly well how to blame ourselves. We’ve been doing
it all of our lives. We don’t need Buddhist slogans to tell us to do
this. But clearly this is not what is meant.
Drive all blames into one
means that you can’t blame anyone for what happens. Even if it’s
actually some- one’s fault, you really can’t blame them. Something
happened, and since it did, there is nothing else to be done but to make
use of it.
that happens, disastrous as it may be and no matter whose fault it is,
has a potential benefit, and it’s your job to find it. Drive all blames into one means that you take full responsibility for everything that arises in your life.
is very bad, this is not what I wanted, this brings many attendant
problems. But what am I going to do with it? What can I learn from it?
How can I make use of it for the path? These are the questions to ask,
and answering them is entirely up to you. Furthermore, you can answer
them; you do have the strength and the capacity. Drive all blames into one
is a tremendous practice of cutting through the long human habit of
complaining and whining, and finding on the other side of it the
strength to turn every situation into the path. Here you are. This is
it. There is no place else to go but forward into the next moment.
Repeat the slogan as many times as you have to.
3. Be Grateful to Everyone
Be grateful to everyone: this is very simple but very profound.
wife and I have a grandson. We went to visit him when he was about six
weeks old. He couldn’t do anything, not even hold up his head, much less
feed himself. If he was in trouble, he couldn’t ask for help. Unable to
do anything on his own, he was completely dependent on his mother’s
care and constant attention. She fed him, cuddled him, tried to
understand and anticipate his needs, and took care of everything,
including his peeing and pooping.
were all at one time precisely in this situation, and someone or other
must have cared for us in this same comprehensive way. Without one
hundred percent total care from someone else, or maybe several others,
we would not be here. This is certainly grounds for gratitude to others.
our dependence on others did not end there. We didn’t grow up and
become independent. Now we can hold up our heads, fix our dinner, wipe
our butts, and we seem not to need our mother or father to take care
us—so we think we are autonomous.
consider this for a moment. Did you grow the food that sustains you
every day? Did you make the car or train that takes you to work? Sew
your clothing? Build your own house with lumber you milled?
need others every single day, every single moment of your life. It’s
thanks to others and their presence and effort that you have the things
you need to continue, and that you have friendship and love and meaning
in your life. Without others, you have nothing.
dependence on others runs even deeper than this. Where does the person
we take ourselves to be come from in the first place? Apart from our
parents’ genes and their support and care, and society and all it
produces for us, there’s the whole network of conditions and
circumstances that intimately makes us what we are. How about our
thoughts and feelings? Where do they come from? Without words to think
in, we don’t think, we don’t have anything like a sense of self as we
understand it, and we don’t have the emotions and feelings that are
shaped and defined by our words. Without the myriad circumstances that
provided us the opportunities for education, for speech, for knowledge,
for work, we wouldn’t be here as we are.
it is literally the case that there could not be what we call a person
without other people. We can say “person” as if there could be such an
autonomous thing, but in fact there is no such thing. There is no such
thing as a person—there are only persons who have co-created one another
over the long history of our species. The idea of an independent,
isolated, atomized person is impossible. And here we are not only
speaking of our needing others practically. We are talking about our
inmost sense of identity. Our consciousness of ourselves is never
independent of others.
is what nonself or emptiness means in Buddhist teaching: that there is
no such thing as an isolated individual. Though we can say there is, and
though we might think there is, and though many of our thoughts and
motivations seem to be based on this idea, in fact it is an erroneous
idea. Literally every thought in our minds, every emotion that we feel,
every word that comes out of our mouth, every material sustenance that
we need to get through the day, comes through the kindness of and the
interaction with others. And not only other people but nonhumans too,
literally the whole of the earth, the soil, the sky, the trees, the air
we breathe, the water we drink. We don’t just depend on all of this; we
are all of it and it is us. This is no theory, no poetic religious
teaching. It is simply the bald fact of the matter.
So to practice Be grateful to everyone
is to train in this profound understanding. It is to cultivate every
day this sense of gratitude, the happiest of all attitudes. Unhappiness
and gratitude simply cannot exist in the same moment. If you feel
grateful, you are a happy person. If you feel grateful for what is
possible for you in this moment, no matter what your challenges are, if
you feel grateful that you are alive at all, that you can think, that
you can feel, that you can stand, sit, walk, talk—if you feel grateful,
you are happy and you maximize your chances for well-being and for
sharing happiness with others.
4. See Confusion as Buddha and Practice Emptiness
The fourth slogan, See confusion as buddha and practice emptiness,
requires a bit of explanation. This goes beyond our conventional or
relative understanding to a deeper sense of what we are. Though
conventionally I am me and you are you, from an absolute perspective, a
God’s-eye view, if you will, there is no self and other. There’s only
being, and there’s only love, which is being sharing itself with itself
without impediment and with warmth. It just happens to look like you and
me to us, because this is how our minds and sensory apparatus works.
This love without boundary is emptiness practice.
See confusion as buddha and practice emptiness
means that we situate ourselves differently with respect to our
ordinary human confusion, our resistance, our pain, our fear, our grief,
and so on. Rather than hoping these emotions and reactions will
eventually go away and we will be free of them, we take them to a deeper
level. We look at their underlying reality.
is actually going on when we are upset or angry? If we could unhook
ourselves for a moment from the blaming and the wishing and the
self-pitying and look instead at the actual basis of what is in fact
going on, what would we see? We would see time passing. We would see
things changing. We would see life arising and passing away, coming from
nowhere and going nowhere. Moment by moment, time slips away and things
transform. The present becomes the past—or does it become the future?
And yet right now there is no past or future. As soon as we examine
“now,” it is gone. And we cannot know how or where it goes.
may sound like philosophy, but it doesn’t feel like philosophy when you
or someone close to you is giving birth. If at that moment you are
standing in the delivery room or are yourself, in pain and joy, giving
birth—in that first bursting-forth moment, you are amazed. This small
life you think you have been living, with its various issues and
problems, completely disappears in the face of the miracle of visceral
life springing forth in front of your eyes. Or if you are present when
someone leaves this world and enters death (if there is such a place to
enter), you know then that this emptiness is not just philosophy. You
may not know what it is, but you will know that it is real. You know
that this reality is powerful and makes you see your life, and the whole
of life, quite differently. A new context emerges that is more than
thought, more than concept. When you view your daily human problems in
the light of actual birth and actual death, you are practicing with this
slogan. Every moment of your life, even (and maybe especially) your
moments of pain or despair or confusion, is a moment of buddha.
do attend births and deaths whenever you can and accept these moments
as gifts, as opportunities for deep spiritual practice. But even when
you aren’t participating in these peak moments, you can repeat and
review this slogan, and you can meditate on it. And when your mind is
confused and entangled, you can take a breath and try to slip below the
level of your desire and confusion. You can notice that in this very
moment time is passing, things are transforming, and this impossible
fact is profound, beautiful, and joyful, even as you continue with your
5. Do Good, Avoid Evil, Appreciate Your Lunacy, Pray for Help
the slogans bring us back down to earth. If spiritual teachings are to
really transform our lives, they need to oscillate (as the slogans do)
between two levels, the profound and the mundane. If practice is too
profound, it’s no good. We are full of wonderful, lofty insights, but
lack the ability to get through the day with any gracefulness or to
relate to the issues and people in ordinary life. We may be soaringly
metaphysical, movingly compassionate, and yet unable to relate to a
normal human or a worldly problem. This is the moment when the Zen
master whacks us with her stick and says, “Wash your bowls! Kill the
the other hand, if practice is too mundane, if we become too interested
in the details of how we and others feel and what we or they need or
want, then the natural loftiness of our hearts will not be accessible to
us, and we will sink under the weight of obligations, details, and
daily-life concerns. This is when the master says, “If you have a staff,
I will give you a staff; if you need a staff, I will take it away.” We
need both profound religious philosophy and practical tools for daily
living. This double need, according to circumstances, seems to go with
the territory of being human. We have just been contemplating reality as
buddha and practicing emptiness. That was important. Now it’s time to
get back down to earth.
First, do good.
Do positive things. Say hello to people, smile at them, tell them happy
birthday, I am sorry for your loss, is there something I can do to
help? These things are normal social graces, and people say them all the
time. But to practice them intentionally is to work a bit harder at
actually meaning them. We genuinely try to be helpful and kind and
thoughtful in as many small and large ways as we can every day.
Second, avoid evil.
This means to pay close attention to our actions of body, speech, and
mind, noticing when we do, say, or think things that are harmful or
unkind. Having come this far with our mind training, we can’t help but
notice our shoddy or mean-spirited moments. And when we notice them, we
feel bad. In the past we might have said to ourselves, “I only said that
because she really needs straightening out. If she hadn’t done that to
me, I wouldn’t have said that to her. It really was her fault.” Now we
see that this was a way of protecting ourselves (after all, we have just
been practicing Drive all blames into one) and are willing to accept
responsibility for what we have done. So we pay attention to what we
say, think, and do—not obsessively, not with a perfectionist flair, but
just as a matter of course and with generosity and understanding—and
finally we purify ourselves of most of our ungenerous thoughts and
The last two practices in this slogan, which I have interpreted as Appreciate your lunacy and Pray for help,
traditionally have to do with making offerings to two kinds of
creatures: demons (beings who are preventing you from keeping determined
with your practice) and dharma protectors (beings who are helping you
to remain true to your practice). But for our purposes now it is better
to see these practices more broadly.
can understand making offerings to demons as “appreciate your lunacy.”
Bow to your own weakness, your own craziness, your own resistance.
Congratulate yourself for them, appreciate them. Truly it is a marvel,
the extent to which we are selfish, confused, lazy, resentful, and so
on. We come by these things honestly. We have been well trained to
manifest them at every turn. This is the prodigy of human life bursting
forth at its seams, it is the effect of our upbringing, our society,
which we appreciate even as we are trying to tame it and bring it gently
round to the good. So we make offerings to the demons inside us and we
develop a sense of humorous appreciation for our own stupidity. We are
in good company! We can laugh at ourselves and everyone else.
making offerings to dharma protectors, we pray to whatever forces we
believe or don’t believe in for help. Whether we imagine a deity or a
God or not, we can reach out beyond ourselves and beyond anything we
can objectively depict and ask for assistance and strength for our
spiritual work. We can do this in meditation, with silent words, or out
loud, vocalizing our hopes and wishes.
is a powerful practice. It is not a matter of abrogating our own
responsibility. We are not asking to be absolved of the need to act. We
are asking for help and for strength to do what we know we must do, with
the understanding that though we must do our best, whatever goodness
comes our way is not our accomplishment, our personal production. It
comes from a wider sphere than we can control. In fact, it is counter-
productive to conceive of spiritual practice as a task that we are going
to accomplish on our own. After all, haven’t we already practiced Be grateful to everyone?
Haven’t we learned that there is no way to do anything alone? We are
training, after all, in spiritual practice, not personal self-help
(though we hope it helps us, and probably it does). So not only does it
make sense to pray for help, not only does it feel powerfully right and
good to do so, it is also important to do this so that we remember we
are not alone and we can’t do it by ourselves.
would be natural for us to forget this point, to fall into our habit of
imagining an illusory self-reliance. People often say that Buddhists
don’t pray because Buddhism is an atheistic or nontheistic tradition
that doesn’t recognize God or a Supreme Being. This may be technically
so, but the truth is that Buddhists pray and have always prayed. They
pray to a whole panoply of buddhas and bodhisattvas. Even Zen Buddhists
pray. Praying does not require a belief in God or gods.
6. Whatever You Meet is the Path
This slogan sums up the other five: whatever happens, good or bad, make it part of your spiritual practice.
spiritual practice, which is our life, there are no breaks and no
mistakes. We human beings are always doing spiritual practice, whether
we know it or not. You may think that you have lost the thread of your
practice, that you were going along quite well and then life got busy
and complicated and you lost track of what you were doing. You may feel
bad about this, and that feeling feeds on itself, and it becomes harder
and harder to get back on track.
this is just what you think; it’s not what’s going on. Once you begin
practice, you always keep going, because everything is practice, even
the days or the weeks or entire lifetimes when you forgot to meditate.
Even then you’re still practicing, because it’s impossible to be lost.
You are constantly being found, whether you know it or not. To practice
this slogan is to know that no matter what is going on—no matter how
distracted you think you are, no matter how much you feel like a
terribly lazy individual who has completely lost track of her good
intentions and is now hopelessly astray—even then you have the
responsibility and the ability to take all negativity, bad circumstance,
and difficulty and turn it into the path.
© 2013 by Norman Fischer. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications.
Illustration by Keith Abbot.