How Should We Live? (Urgently?)

Yesterday morning, filming Dana DePalma for a course we’re making at Spirit Rock, I read this passage from the epilogue of Phillip Moffitt’s book, Dancing With Life

To be ‘anxious to learn’ [which the Buddha encouraged in his last teaching] means that you have the passion, the enthusiasm, to gain freedom.

Phillip Moffitt, Dancing With Life (285)

And in the afternoon, I sat with my father, who has just begun receiving hospice care, and we talked about his grandkids, work, and the logistics of dying.

Buddhist teachings are famously, at least in part, devoted to becoming radically present, accepting things as they are, including the realities of old age, sickness, and death. In the Early discourses, this is expressed with some urgency: the kind of acceptance that is truly liberating actually takes quite a bit of work to manifest in your life. So the path is traversed with effort. It takes passionate effort, called saṁvega, to accomplish the subtle, internal reprogramming required to be free. In Zen, this urgency is a constant refrain: 

Life and death are of supreme importance.
Time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost.
Each of us should strive to awaken. Awaken.
Take heed. Do not squander your life.


But this urgency also breaks down upon closer inquiry. The Mahāyāna teachings Zen is based on, like those in the Diamond Sūtra, take radical presence to its nondual endpoint, breaking down the categories of existence and nonexistence, suffering and freedom, in ways that suggest that striving to get somewhere else, like “enlightened,” is deluded:

“Subhuti, what do you think? Did the Tathagata realize any such a Dharma as unexcelled, perfect enlightenment?” … “No, indeed, Bhagavan, the Tathagata did not realize any such a Dharma, Bhagavan as unexcelled, perfect enlightenment.” … “So it is, Subhuti. So it is. The slightest Dharma is neither obtained nor found therein.”

DS 22 (Diamond Sūtra translations by Red Pine)

But the sūtra also is filled with exhortations to memorize the teaching, recite it to others, and do extraordinary acts of charity and generosity, all without attachment. There is clearly still some “doing” to be done. And the entire teaching in the Diamond Sūtra is a fleshing out of the question of how a bodhisattva should “stand… walk.. control their thoughts.” (DS 2) The path is still a path that must be walked. Thoughts still must be controlled. You still have to sit in meditation. 

Our task, I think, is to practice with urgency, but without anxiety.

Our lives are full of relationships, obligations, projects, and a deep accountability to the web of life we are an expression of. We hear the teaching of emptiness, or of nonattachment, or of dispassion, and may think it means we shouldn’t work hard to make things better for ourselves or others or the planet. Or we try to hold on to motivation, but the ground keeps slipping out from under us. Without personal ambitions or cravings, why would I do anything? Nihilism slips in. This is called the “Zen sickness.” 

Or we hear the teachings on urgency and think it means that we can’t relax for even a moment, what with aging and death bearing down upon us like mountains rolling in from all sides crushing everything in their path. This is the simile the Buddha gave to a busy king as a reminder to keep things in perspective:

Suppose there were vast mountains
of solid rock touching the sky
drawing in from all sides
and crushing the four quarters.

So too old age and death
advance upon all living creatures—
aristocrats, brahmins, peasants,
menials, outcastes, and scavengers. …

That’s why an astute person,
seeing what’s good for themselves,
being wise, would place faith
in the Buddha, the teaching, and the Saṅgha. …

SN 3.25

Urgency without anxiety can feel like just a semantic shift, or too subtle to really get traction with, but it’s a worthy inquiry if we want to stay out of the extremes of nihilism and grasping. Mindfulness isn’t supposed to be a chore—which is good, since we really need to have it as an active companion in every moment of every day. Staying clearheaded, taking things as they come, and not taking things personally or all disciplines that can actually decrease the amount of stress in our practice rather than increase. They all involve doing less, not more. But less in a very particular way: less rumination, less strategizing, less maneuvering to protect something. Someone. Yourself. 

Taking everything impersonally is at the heart of the Dharma. When it’s time to work hard, don’t worry about it, just work. When it’s time to apologize, don’t fret, just apologize. We might sum up the definition of dukkha as “how it feels when you don’t like what’s happening.” You are doing something you would rather not have to do, whether that’s an unpleasant task or be present with an unpleasant feeling. Since life is full of unpleasantness, the only way out of the problem of dukkha is to change our relationship to life. This is the whole program. 

This is why bodhisattvas do not “create the perception of a being, a life, or a soul.” (DS 3) And why the Buddha famously refused to answer any speculative questions about his existence or nonexistence, returning only to the core teaching of ending dukkha by extinguishing the burning fire of greed, hatred, and delusion. (MN 72) All three of these great poisons depend on the sense of a fixated self, myopically addicted to its own illusory security. When we shift into taking our life impersonally, the result is a greater tolerance for the unavoidable discomforts, and a greater skill at avoiding the avoidable. 

Anxiety—misattuned effort, and indolence—misattuned acceptance, both drain away life force that could otherwise be given to compassionate, joyful engagement. If we understand urgency as respecting death, and non-anxiety as respecting life, we may find a middle way of practice that is as passionate as needed to accomplish the subtle, but very real, task of liberating the heart, and undeluded about the underlying peace that is always already here. 

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top

Connect with the beauty and power of Buddhist training.

Receive articles, guided meditations, and tools for starting or deepening your practice, along with Dr. Oakes’ teaching schedule.

We use cookies as part of website function, and ask your consent for this.