Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living with Fearlessness by angel Kyodo williams

Excerpted from Being Black by Angel Kyodo Williams. Copyright © 2000 by angel Kyodo williams. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Putnam, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.  HTML and web pages copyright © by

Wouldn't it be nice if someone offered you a map to navigate and negotiate your life by? It wouldn't be a complex city-type map, with so many signs and symbols that you don't know which way to go. Instead, this life map would be simple and clear, more like a treasure map. The map would have a very neat circle representing a specific destination, a place to arrive where you could rest and feel content, at ease.

Obviously, if there is a destination to which you can go indicated on your map, there would also be a path to get there. It would be bold and clear, and would stand out from all its surroundings.

If you traced your finger backward along the line, the map would have a thick red X to show you the starting point. That way, no matter where you were in life, if you felt lost, you would only have to look at the big X to gain perspective on how to continue on your journey.

Finally, like all good maps, this life map would have a key. The key would be your reference point for understanding the map. It would be the foundation on which the map was built. If you studied the whole map for a while, you could put it down and probably still remember the important things when you really needed to.

What if you paid extra-special attention to the map, gave it your full concentration, until you knew it by heart? No doubt you would be able to approach the task of making your way through life with a deeper understanding of the bumps, curves, mountains, and valleys that you are sure to encounter every day.

In many ways, we are like noble warriors that have somehow been separated from our tribe or clan. We are out in the woods lost and alone, without a map to guide us back. We have forgotten how to use the skills that are the marks of true warriors. In our hearts, we know that we have something great, even beautiful, to accomplish while we are here. We know that we have a grandness and elegance inside us, and we really want to live up to it. But without our skills, we feel stuck and cannot move forward. We know, very deep down, that we do have the ability to manage any situation that comes to us, But because we have lost touch with our true nature and awareness of our abilities, we remain in fear.

It is only natural that as human beings we want to feel happy, satisfied, and secure. But early on, we are given messages that attack our sense of case with who we are. We are not bright enough, or tall enough. As black people, we learn that our skin color is not right, our hair too kinky or curly, our lips too full and our presence too strong. Sometimes these messages are subtle, and at other times they are harshly direct. We carry all of these lessons inside us everywhere we go. They become the box from which we operate and see ourselves. Inside this box, we become smaller and smaller, and forget how amazing we really are.

Because it seems way too hard to confront, and because we were never taught differently, we put many of these feelings in our back pockets. Our coping mechanism of choice is to ignore. To say "’sall good!" or "That's alright ... whatever," when really we do not feel alright. We learn to turn and look the other direction whenever something uncomfortable or negative comes our way. As a result we live with these small, nagging sensations of inner dissatisfaction and inadequacy without rest. This internal discomfort plagues us on a daily basis. From time to time it reveals itself as a questioning of the meaning of our lives. We want to know why we cannot be happier than we are, feel better than we feel, get more of what we want, and enjoy life more than we do.

On the surface, in full view of the world, we are working our jobs and paying our bills (or trying to, anyway). We are trying hard to manage our existence. But many of us feel lost, out of place. We describe this feeling in many ways. We say, "I don't know, I'm just not happy." "I know I should be doing something more with my life." "I feel as if I haven't found my purpose." Often we are not only unable to express how we feel, we do not even know what these feelings are about. Instead, we just feel ill at ease and move through our lives with a sense of agitation and irritability. We may even treat other people with disregard be-cause we don't know how else to express our inner dissatisfaction.

This feeling of being out of place is particularly disturbing to us because we usually feel as if we are experiencing it alone. Everyone else seems to belong to this life, to this universe, more than we do. We feel powerless because we believe we do not have the skills we need to master our lives.

Life is truly an art form. It is like any art form – painting, sculpting, playing an instrument or a sport – in that you have to develop your skills in order to be masterful. Even though you may not think of it this way, no matter how excellent you get at whatever your art is, you started out with the basic ingredients for that skillfulness right from the beginning. When we watch Michael Jordan soar high above the rim, hear a Miles Davis riff, or look at a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting, it seems amazing that they could be so good at their arts. Ifs as if they were just born that way. And ifs true, they were. So were you and I.

We have all the basic skills we need to master the art that we call life. But usually, we forget this. Either we are not reminded of it enough or we were simply never told. So we go around in life feeling as if we don't really know what we are doing. Or we spend a lot of time pretending that we're in control when deep down, we feel exactly the opposite. Either way, we end up wishing someone would give us a cheat-sheet that we could use to find a quick fix to everything that bothers us. We want to know how we can just get everything right, fast.

There are lots of things I don't know, but the one thing I know for sure is that there is no quick fix for our lives. The first reason that the quick fix doesn't exist is because nothing truly valuable happens quickly. Every art requires practice, even if you are a natural. Michael lived in his backyard basketball court. Miles played relentlessly and constantly. Basquiat studied the masters.

The second and more important reason that we never find a quick fix is because we don't need it. There is nothing to fix. We already have the skills we need to accomplish everything we truly want, to access everything we really need. The only thing we have to do is to see that the skills are present in ourselves and then sharpen them up with practice so we can use them effortlessly.

The closest thing we can get to a cheat-sheet might be some guidelines and pointers that help us look in the right direction. So a map, with a key, would be very helpful. In fact, such a map is available for us already.

Some 2,500 years ago, a warrior-prince who felt the same sense of unease left his comfortable, wealthy life, his palace and his clan behind him. He set out on a journey searching for the essential truth about life. He wanted to know why old age, sickness, and death existed; why life seemed plagued with misery. After a lot of effort, this prince who would become known as the Buddha, meaning "the awakened one" or "one that has been enlightened," saw clearly the truth about life. From that point on, he made it his life's work to create a map that others could use.

He broke his directions down to Four Simple Truths that go something like this:

1. Life is uncomfortable.

At first, this simple truth seems so simple that there is no revelation in it at all. And really, that is exactly the case. As a part of our ongoing life experience, we are prone to discomfort.

There are the mundane, everyday discomforts: This apartment is too hot. Outside is too cold. The train is too crowded. My parents make me crazy. My kids are too grown. My lover is cheating. I hate my job, I hate my boss, I hate doing dishes, and will somebody please turn that hip-hop off. There is a constant stream of small distractions that plague us like flies buzzing in our ears.

Physical pain is part of this discomfort as well. The aches and pains of our own bodies come from many different sources. When we are not careful, we cut ourselves with a knife or the edge of a piece of paper. We lift something that is too heavy and our backs suffer. We overdo it at the gym and end up sore the next day. As we get older, parts of our body that were unprovoked begin to nag at us. Our knees get stiff and we can't get up as fast as we used to. Older still, our bodies begin to seem no longer our own. We cannot walk as fast or run as far. Stairs suddenly seem twice as long. As with any complex machinery, especially if we have not taken good care of our bodies, or have just outright abused them, they will begin to fail us.

There are also the discomforts of illness and disease. We may suffer from stress and get ulcers. We may abuse alcohol or drugs that damage our bodies inside and out. Our lungs may become blackened from excess cigarettes, cigars, or marijuana. And while the rest of the country is becoming more educated about AIDS, black people – and black women in particular – have the fastest growing number of cases. We lose our minds to Alzheimer's and our bodies to cancers. Suffering and discomfort seem to be everywhere and without end.

If that isn't enough, our lives are punctuated by crises that cause us pain. We lose the job we thought we hated but now, unemployed, our dilemma is greater than before. The predicament of a cousin in jail or a sister fleeing an abusive partner brings home to us how profoundly we can all be affected by family turmoil. As so many of us know firsthand, heartbreak can feel just like it sounds, bringing with it large doses of pain that are not always easy to let go of. Finally, there are the deaths of our loved ones, bringing with them grief and sadness that seem too much to bear.

More so than our daily discomforts, the pain of tragic, abrupt, or otherwise upsetting events in our lives serve as sharp reminders that life is not within our control. We feel shuffled around by it, cast this way and that with nothing to hold on to. There seems to be no end to the potential for discomfort and pain, and we live our lives in fear of meeting them again. We be come intimate with pain and discomfort very early in life. From our earliest lessons that not everything is within our control, to this very moment, most of us are in a neverending battle with our own discomfort.

So life is uncomfortable, that much is true. But we knew this already, didn't we? Even if we have not said it in such simple terms.

We may feel a moment of relief at having it revealed in such a clear way: It is not just me. I am not crazy, nor am I alone. The truth is that life is full of suffering and pain. Everywhere you look, whether you turn on the television or walk outside your own door, once you are aware of this truth, you notice it more readily. Look! There is pain. There is pain among people of all ages, races, incomes, and education levels. We are all experiencing discomfort. We are all suffering.

Once you know this simple truth in your heart, it becomes the key to understanding the nature of your own existence. It may not happen in this very second, or tomorrow, or next week, but some experience or feeling at some time will bring this simple truth home to you. It will not be words in a book or a passing thought; you will feel it. It will open up before you and be as clear as the bright blue sky on the most perfect day. In that moment, the First Simple Truth that life is uncomfortable will be profound.

2. Desire causes discomfort

As humans, we are in a constant state of suffering over who we are and our life situation. By this, I mean that we feel that we are poor when it comes to what we have in our package to present to the world. We never feel that we have enough. We always want more of this or extra that. If I had that coat, I would be so happy. If I could just get this job or meet the right person, everything would change and my life would be better. Of course, when you get the coat or the job or the new lover, there is another someone or something that comes along in a few days or months or years that seems better, brighter, and more appealing.

We do this in all areas of our lives, from the smallest to the greatest. It is this wanting, this ever-present, unchecked desire that is at the root of our discomfort. We possess a constant craving and insistent desire for things to be either different than they are or to stay the way we want them to be longer. We develop fixed ideas about the way things should be and the ways we always imagine things should be different. We think we should have a bigger car or get with that person (or situation). If you tell yourself often enough that this is the way it should be, you begin to believe that idea in your mind, no matter where the idea came from to begin with.

As human beings, we have a habit of attaching ourselves to things, people, and situations, and holding on tight. In turn, that clinging becomes the single source of our conflict, tension, and frustration. Why? Because we really can't control all of the elements that go into making up life. And because we are human, we are self-centered, so it is heartbreaking to realize that things do not necessarily go our way and we are not the center of the universe.

Some days it seems like the world has it in for us, trying to ruin our days or plans in a series of bad events stacked up one after the other. But life really has no interest in whether we want it to turn left or turn right. It is only the fact that we view our own desires as special that makes us think we should have things exactly as we want them. Our desires must be more special than anyone else's. It may be perfect in our minds that the grocery store is open on a holiday because we forgot to get bread. But the cashier is miserable because he wanted to go to the movies in-stead of working. Had he not come to work, he may have lost his job. In that moment you are happy and he is not. But we are only concerned with the benefits that we get from each situation. That is what I mean when I say that we are self-centered.

Our wanting and desires are often in direct conflict with the reality of the current moment. No matter how much we want it to be dry and sunny because we have plans for our day, the fact is that it is raining. There is nothing we can do about it. So we sulk and curse and complain. If it hadn't rained, I could have done my laundry or gone to the park. Why did it have to rain today? How inconvenient this is for me. Nature goes about its business despite our plans and it continues to rain. We are inside, miserable and discontented. We can become intensely self-centered in these moments.

Sometimes, our wanting seems grand and altruistic, and we do not think of it as something that we cling to. All I want is to be a better person. I would become more spiritual if I went to temple (or church or the mosque) more often. I will speak quietly and keep my eyes cast to the floor. I will become a reverend, a priestess, or a nun. I'll be the perfect father. I'll be a Super Wife. Secretly, we may begin to think of the result. If I do these things, I will be better than these people around me. They will see me as special and I will be revered. We shouldn't fool ourselves, because before we know it, such a goal can become one and the same as wanting and desire.

In communities of color, we have lived for a long time without access to the material possessions that signify success in our country. We know that we are just as worthy, and we desperately want to have a measure of our equality with white people. This has contributed to a rampant, crippling case of a need for instant gratification. This may be the cornerstone of American culture in general, but it seems to be in overdrive where black folks are concerned, where there's an entrenched belief that who you are is directly related to what you have.

When persistent craving is combined with a need for instant gratification, the possibility for discomfort is doubled. If desire sends us on a journey toward accumulation, instant gratification propels us at light speed. By giving in to this need, we rob ourselves of thoughtful decision-making. We are more likely to spend recklessly. We do not save. We are even less realistic about what we actually need. The desire for instant gratification is at the heart of substance abuse. We want to "feel good," so we drink, or we smoke, or do anything to get a high. Soon we are unable not to want it, and an addiction is born.

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