H O P E  A N D  F E A R: What can you do when there is nothing left to do?

H O P E  A N D  F E A R
What can you do when there is nothing lef to do?

ON PRACTICING ZEN IN GREECE, A COUNTRY WHERE THINGS HAVE ONLY GOTTEN WORSE FOR MOST PEOPLE IN RECENT YEARS (AT LEAST ECONOMICALLY) BY BERND BENDER

For the last three years I have been flying to Athens every three months to practice Zen with a group of people there. From my very first visit, I was struck by the city’s extreme contrasts. I enjoy going to Monastiraki Square in the heart of the city, where I sit on the steps of an old Byzantine church, which seems lost among the modern concrete buildings that surround it. My gaze wanders to the ruins of the Acropolis, which lie above the square, still standing imposingly to this day. Apparently the people who lived 2,500 years ago also believed in the permanence of things – in eternity, even – and expressed it their architecture. Yet one day the ancient Greeks experienced their own crisis, a veritable catastrophe: the end of their civilization. Everything flows, everything is in flux.

Today’s crisis is vividly apparent in Monastiraki Square. Young Greek men (55 percent of whom are unemployed) break dance daringly in the hope of collecting some spare change from tourists. Yet their dance is not just an expression of their straitened circumstances; it is also the postmodern play of satyrs, one with an oddball humor that seems in open revolt against the inevitable. With their forceful performance, the men seem to be proclaiming: Sure, everything’s going downhill here, but we’re alive, we’re laughing. Let’s enjoy that! I set out for the Athens Zen Center just a few streets away. I pass shuttered stores and once beautiful houses from the 19th century which are simply falling apart. Their facades have now become canvases for a horde of street artists who are using them to depict both their fears and hopes. Scattered among them are rather unsightly concrete buildings from the 1980s and 1990s that appear older than some of the antique ruins nearby. Yet in the midst of this urban crisis, places can still be found where life is reshaping and rewriting itself. Young people are opening cafés where the chain-smoking patrons loudly discuss current events. People laugh and flirt. The Zen Center is located above such a café, in the heart of decaying, self-reinventing Athens. It’s a lively site where people learn martial arts and practice Zen. 

From the very first day I was fascinated by the kindness, the individuality, the humor, the lust for life and the gentle optimism of the people I met there. And yet, every single life is part of the crisis and is unfolding in ways that were unthinkable ten years ago. What can you do when there is nothing left to do? This question could be asked by most of the Zen practitioners I have gotten to know in Athens. What can you do when in the last eight years your parents’ monthly pension has been cut from $1,500 to $400 and is now being halved to $200? What are the very human fears behind those figures? What can you, a 21-year-old, do when you are told the hospital will probably not be able to purchase your HIV medication abroad due to Greece’s capital controls and no one in the county produces it? How does a young man feel, for whom the austerity policies of the EU suddenly become life-threatening? What can you do, when you, a public servant, are laid off and then denied unemployment benefits because public servants cannot be laid off, a situation worthy of Kafka? According to Zen teacher Bernie Glassman, there is something we can do when there is nothing left to do: bear witness. The practice of Zen meditation is also a form of bearing witness. We sit quietly in the midst of our experience, trying to hold on to nothing, rejecting nothing, simply observing what is there. In our retreats in Greece, these periods of sitting Zazen alternate with periods of intense listening and active participation. 

Interestingly enough, in many cases a space opens, a wide, creative space in which new things can arise: long forgotten feelings of receptivity and ease that transcend the often burdensome feelings of everyday life, creative impulses in response to situations in which nothing seems possible. And not least, when we bear witness to our experience in absolute silence, it becomes increasingly clear that we do not have to identify with what we perceive. 

Yes, there is a crisis taking place, and in human terms it’s a catastrophe. Yet there are other things as well, transient things that are often difficult to grasp. Life’s basic elements, for example: earth, air, water and temperature, in their always changing forms. These things remain untouched by the crisis; they are always there, a sort of consolation or reminder, telling us that everything is always shifting and we do not know what will be one moment from now. Yes, everything flows, everything is in flux – something taught by the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus at the same time the Buddha was sharing his insights, albeit at a remove geographically. When we entrust ourselves to the course of events, we do not gain ground to build on, but we are touched by life as it is – by its tenderness, its vulnerability, by the love it awakens. Maybe that is enough. Near the Athens Zen Center there is a phrase scrawled on a wall: “Frau Merkel, you can take everything from us, but not our nice weather.” Isn’t that a cause for hope?

MEMBERS OF THE ATHENS ZEN CENTER ON HOPES AND FEARS IN GREECE How has your life changed as the crisis in Greece has unfolded?

Panayotis Panayotidis: I had to sell my business and have been employed on and off for the last five years. Whenever I have a job I feel gratitude, when not I still feel grateful for the roof over my head, the food I have, my friends and my family. I am single and have colleagues who are in a much worse situation because they have children and both they and their spouses have lost their jobs. 

Manolis Illiakis: Several years arise in everyday life. I have recurring worries about the future and my family. It’s not easy to make clear-cut decisions in such a fluctuating, unstable situation. As an architect I haven’t had any commissions for three years now. I have to find a new profession. What does Zen practice give you in times when so many things – at least in the outside world – are falling apart?

Panayotis Panayotidis: Zen practice helps me stay in the moment. Throughout the day I often pause and simply become attentive. I breathe and try to maintain an upright position in life. The people I practice with give me the strength to refocus and to practice compassion, giving and gratitude.

Manolis Illiakis: I’ve come to understand sword master Tesshu Yamaoka’s poem:

Perfect when clear
Perfect when cloudy
Mount Fuji’s original form
Never changes

What are your hopes? What are your fears? And how are you dealing with both?

Panayotis Panayotidis: Basically, I just live day by day. Sometimes I think this economic situation will last forever and I find myself getting depressed. It paralyzes me. But then, step by step, I accept things the way they are. I try to become aware of all the things to be grateful for. I see all that I have and never really valued, things I constantly took for granted. I tell my fears “You’re not real” and I tell mysel “Tis too shall pass.” Since good things don’t last orever, the same holds for bad things. I hope things won’t get worse. I want my country to regain its dignity. I feel sadness and compassion when I watch well-dressed men and women digging in garbage cans. What I would like is for the next generation to rediscover their hopes and dreams.

Manolis Illiakis: I mainly have economic fears and fears of getting sick. I try not to analyze them. I don’t try to manipulate them, thereby rejecting them. I try to see them as good friends instead. My hope is not to have hopes. What do you rely on in these uncertain times, which seem to be only getting worse?

Panayotis Panayotidis: I try to focus on the positive aspects of the crisis. People are growing closer together. Pride is losing its glamour. I read yesterday that a Bavarian aristocrat raised €385,000 so he could donate it to refugees on the Greek islands. Life recycles itself and by practicing openness you can realize that refugees are part of the same whole.

Manolis Illiakis: An empty heart relinquishes fear. As with the sun, which shines on young leaves and nurtures them, the heart allows anything and rears everything. The heart that sees through evanescence becomes empty. 

Harris Mitsouras: We were supposed to live like “brothers and sisters” according to the ideals of the European Union. Instead, the only thing I hear in the media nowadays is that according to northern Europe “the Greeks are lazy.” I see freedom and kindness in our society crumble away day by day. However, as Martin Luther King said, I have a dream. I still have a dharma dream. To put it in Dogen’s words, my dream is that one day we will all be able “to take a step back and thus reverse the activity of the mind that seeks happiness outside. That we’ll be able to turn our light inwards and illuminate our true face.” In my opinion, our true face is everybody’s face: I am the Syrian refugee, I am the killer, I am the shepherd in the mountains, I am the dog that dies alone in the streets.

Deep inside everyone’s heart lies what Buddha called “basic goodness.” Nobody wants to hurt anyone else on purpose. He or she just seeks his or her happiness through “right” or “wrong” measures. When I sit still and am quiet, I can somehow perceive this knowledge deep inside my heart. Then I can forgive myself for the pain I’ve caused others willingly or unwillingly and I can – to some degree – forgive others.

In Greek, “to forgive” means “to give space.” to have the courage to be familiar with the small child in me that cries for its toys (hopes) and to be familiar with my father’s voice admonishing me (fears). When everything seems to be falling apart, Zen gives me the chance to enjoy a good cup of coffee. After all I am a Greek! May all ot us live like brothers and sisters. May all of us find happiness and the causes of happiness.

Soto Zafira: The saddest facet of the so called crisis is that it somehow forces you to feel Greek. That’s sad because, though we have the means and the knowledge to think deeply – transcending borders and apparent separateness – our mind constantly relapses back into the separation of being Greek, German, French... 

While most of us think we are studying dharma and have integrated it into our life, the reality is, when real life knocks on our door and confronts us with problems, we escape through the next window to spend time with our (dharma) hobby.

As western societies we consider it our legitimate right to exhaust this planet’s energy sources and create more and more garbage, while taking advantage of the weak. 

The truth is: The sky of life will always create clouds. Instead of viewing them as potential thunderstorms, why don’t we understand them as “adornments in our sunset”?