Suzuki Roshi wrote, in Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, that for the Student, everyone one and everything is a teacher. Or, as Anna sang in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King And I …as a teacher, “by your pupils you’ll be taught.” Yes, but just what is the lesson learned?
Years ago, I was driving across the SF Bay Bridge, in a good mood when suddenly, a speeding driver drifted across several lanes of traffic, forcing me to break to not hit him. Fear went to anger and the outraged thought that ‘he could have killed me.’ Because I was thinking rather than just reacting, instead of continuing to speed up and feed my anger, I took a deep breath and quieted down. Whatever was going on for him, I realized didn’t have to let his behavior ruin my evening. It felt incredibly freeing.
The lesson for me was that I had a choice, not only of how to behave but also what my state of mind would be. Fear and anger came up. Even though justified, consciousness allowed me to choose to reclaim my peace of mind.
Not that I have always chosen peace of mind over feeding the beasts. What we learn from life’s events is framed by our presumptions. Conscious attention gives us the options of going along with them, or choosing a different direction. Sometimes we need to change if we want to live more according to our values. The struggle to do so in many ways is the spiritual practice.
There can be a dark side to this. If one’s values are dark, for instance if one believes killing ‘non-believers’ is a high moral deed, it can lead to homicide—whether or not suicide is included. Yet the same ability that enables some to overcome their natural hesitation to hurt others, can be used instead to overcome one’s natural fears and anger toward others who think, act or look differently. We can choose love over fear.
Returning to Suzuki Roshi, and the attitude of the student, all events potentially hold lessons for us. The lessons may actually not be to change our behaviors to match our values; sometimes it is our values that need clarifying or changing. Can we, like Anna, learn from those we teach? I have found it so, and my life much enriched by it.
How about you?