REVIEW: “EVERYDAY ZEN”
BY CHARLOTTE JOKO BECK
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I heard about Everyday Zen by Joko (the author’s name of choice) through a podcast about yoga. In my yoga teacher training, the philosophy and religious intersectionality was robust and difficult to get a grasp on in such a short amount of time. That’s why some people end up with higher education degrees in anthropology or world religions. I’ve been curious to dive deeper into Zen Buddhism to find out where its elements are seen in yoga. I was surprised by quite a lot of what Joko said her practice is.
To begin, Charlotte Joko Beck is an American who had a “typical” life — once married with children, full time work outside the home, etc. This has a definite impact on how she teaches the Zen tradition of zazen, (sitting meditation). The preface explains:
“As an American woman whose life was well formed before she began to practice, Joko is free from the patriarchal trappings of traditional Japanese Zen. Devoid of pretension or self-importance, she teaches a form of Zen that manifests the ancient Chan principle of wu shih — ‘nothing special.'”
The version of Everyday Zen that I have is the “plus” version. It’s the original text with interviews in a Q&A format between Joko and her students from zen centers. It’s a clean, simple format. I think there were several transcription issues with sentences, but nothing to kill the reading experience pleasure.
There are nine parts followed by some notes for reference; the citations were in a format I’ve never personally seen before, but it was easy enough to figure out.
Zazen is described as a prolonged period of sitting for meditation for new practitioners (later, one can realize that zazen is doing things too). This is often the sort of thing that alarms people who are unaccustomed to being alone with their thoughts. Your fingers aren’t typing, scrolling, or cooking. You’re only allowed to sit.
However, while sitting, as Joko most frequently calls it instead of meditating, thoughts come and go. There’s no punishment for having thoughts and as a novice meditator myself, I think that’s one of the things that make people believe they “fail” at meditating. I’d also like you to be aware that if you read a book like Everyday Zen and try that practice but think you’re “failing,” please know that there are also many other kinds of meditation out there to try. Some people close their eyes. Joko says in zazen, you keep your eyes open. If you expect silence or only soft ambient music, Joko says in sitting, you are supposed to notice every sound, every smell, every feeling.
“When I am drifting away from the present, what I do is listen to the traffic. I make sure there’s nothing I miss. Nothing.”
Health, Suffering, and Pain:
This brings me to another important piece of information: Pain.
Joko explains that this prolonged sitting causes physical pain; but there’s also going to be floodgates of emotions that surface. There’s a great deal of emphasis on ego and the need to remove “I” from your thinking. In a way, it sounds like you’re supposed to distance yourself from your experiences. Maybe I’m misunderstanding, I’ll admit this is my first book on Zen Buddhism.
Like other radical practitioners, Joko is easy to say we are responsible for our own mental conditions. Naturally, if you read my work, you know I have a lot to say about this theory. I know irrational fear and stress cause physical manifestations in the body. I practice yoga and meditation. I’ve been doing some level of this work for as long as I can remember (decades). I’ve done these things with prescription medication and without. I’ve had supportive people and been all on my own. I don’t think meditation is a cure to mental illness. I will go on record to say it can help greatly control some symptoms. But honestly, I haven’t had that miracle cure so I’m personally not ready to preach about it. I’ll speak from experience that it can help. Leading people away from complimentary systems can be quite dangerous.
“All emotional agitation is caused by the mind. And if we let this happen over a period of time, we often become physically sick or mentally depressed.”
Joko isn’t anti-medicine. I don’t want anyone getting the completely wrong idea about her. But she does say our current incarnation bearing the weight of past baggage (even from another lifetime) are why things happen like getting sick.
There’s also one moment in the book where Joko, like a lot of religious philosophers, state there are only two genders: male or female and we’re either one or the other. I’m not going to do the research for you to explain that there are cases of intersex and other chromosome arrangements not often acknowledged. This also doesn’t account for the different of gender vs sex assignment. You can look that up on your own. As I said, Joko isn’t the first religious scholar I’ve come across to say such things, but be aware that for a “modern American” approach, there is still some enlightening to be done.
What meditation experts agree upon is that eventually your mind can find the present moment. Joko gets so philosophical that she even says the “present” doesn’t exist because as soon as it would, it’s past. Well, okay fine, if you want to get into quantum physics or whatever science addresses time; but for the average reader looking for guidance, “the present” is something we can agree upon as where you are in that moment/chunk of life rather than a possible future or the past.
“The mind quiets down because we observe it instead of getting lost in it. Then the breathing deepens and, when the fire really burns, there’s nothing it can’t consume. When the fire gets hot enough, there is no self, because now the fire is consuming everything; there is no separation between self and other.”
Evil, Ethics, and Divinity:
People searching for divinity are reminded that it’s within them all along. This is not something Joko says any differently than most religious scholars. All of us are divine. The tough acceptance of that theory is, what about the evil? In the sections of the book where students asked questions, one of them presented this very problem. “How about all the evil forces around us that seem to be getting stronger?” the student asked.
“I don’t think that there are evil forces around us. I think that there are evil acts being done, but that’s quite different. If someone is hurting a child you certainly want to stop the action; but to condemn the person doing it is as evil is unsound practice. We should oppose evil action, but people — no. Otherwise we’ll go around judging and condemning everyone, including ourselves,” Joke answered.
Perhaps it’s the witch in me that wants to argue that point to death. People are judged. All the time. Every second of every day. We have systems in each country to address this; some maybe aren’t so ethical or are rooted with corruption. Nonetheless, there’s good and evil and a grey area. Witches aren’t afraid to see those labels. This is why yoga itself can weave through any religious practice.
Krishna said dharma was finding your true purpose, but in the Bhagavad Gita, he talks about the ethical decisions of what our true path (our personal dharma) is. He had no problem with justice systems or standing up to oppression through means of violent actions if that was the last possible resort. Joko refutes this as a Buddhist since she’s not a Krishna Hindu practitioner. All people are divine. Period. They just might not know it or how to tap into that part of themselves. I guess that’s possible, but it’s hard to follow in her brief answer that a child shouldn’t be hurt. But then I take issue with her philosophy that said hurt child would bring upon their own mental illness possibly.
What did make a lot of sense was when Joko said all of us act harmfully at some point; and the point of sitting routinely is that eventually we’ll become aware of ourselves enough to recognize when our actions would be harmful. *There’s a whole chapter devoted to explaining that relationships don’t work. Have fun with that one!
There are a couple other issues that I would like to address. The first is simpler:
“Prayer and zazen are the same thing; there’s no difference. Affirmations I would avoid, because an affirmation (like ‘I’m really a healthy person’) may produce temporary feelings of well-being, but it doesn’t acknowledge the present reality — which might be that I’m sick.”
Here Joko says affirmations aren’t productive, but then expects people practicing zazen to find their own way out of past baggage. It’s confusing. Not to mention that mindfulness meditation affirmations aren’t phrased the way she said. It wouldn’t be, “I’m a healthy person,” but would be phrased something like, “May I be healthy.” Again, I point this out to illustrate that if zazen is what you’re trying and you’re not feeling comfortable with it, try something else.
This is the big Kahuna. Hope. Joko saying that it’s painful and wrong to hope really got on my last nerve. I even took a few screenshots and posted them to ask my friends who also struggle daily with mental illnesses like anxiety, ADHD, and depression what they thought of this.
“A life lived with no hope is a peaceful, joyous, compassionate life. As long as we identify with this mind and body — and we all do — we hope for things that we think will take care of them. We hope for success. We hope for health. We hope for enlightenment. We have all sorts of things we hope for. All hope, of course is about sizing up the past and projecting it into the future.”
To be fair, I see a little bit about what she’s saying, that it’s not a present state of mind if hope is about what may or may never exist in the future. It’s also depressing as hell. Sure we should all be at peace at the thought of dying this very second. But that doesn’t mean we should be devoid of hope for the rest of humanity or our children or our cats or this planet or other planets. I think hope is a good thing.
Since hope is about dreams, you can bet Joko is against those too. Even top therapists will grant that having some fantasies are healthy. But Joko thinks dreams, daydreams, and fantasies can be too consuming. Sure, if the person is mentally ill. People who can’t recognize fact from fantasy are delusional. That doesn’t mean dreaming about your wedding or going on vacation or how many ways you’d kill your terrible sadistic boss are bad things to do.
“Not only do we hope, but we really give our life to this hope, to these vain thoughts and fantasies. And when they don’t ‘produce’ for us, we’re anxious, even desperate.”
Can you even imagine if Martin Luther King, Jr. told people not to hope? Not to dream? Not to envision a better future for their children? Hopes and dreams are what drive every accomplished activist.
As a reader who kept highlighting so many passages, my reading time was far more than what Kindle/GoodReads said the average time to completion was. The book was supposedly four hours average to read and it took me three weeks. I could usually give it an hour at a time before I felt like my mind had too much to take in and consider, mull over, get over, what-have-you.
Since I did learn things from Everyday Zen, I have to give it some stars, only two, because it’s not something I would recommend to people.