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Lions Roar : July 2017
Often we find secure attachment in a spouse or family member, but neither a marriage license nor blood ties is necessary. According to Waldinger, you just need to have the sense that there is at least one person in life you can really depend on to experience the health and well-being benefits of a relationship. STUDYING PEOPLE’S WHOLE LIVES—from childhood to old age—has given Robert Waldinger a sense of how finite life is. He says that when you see the totality of a life from begin- ning to end, when you see there is nothing more for that per- son to become, it gives you a different perspective on life. “What is really important? What do I want to be sure I do with this time, and what don’t I want to do? Of course, we can all ask ourselves that question at any moment, but studying lives in this way makes me ask the question more often.” At the retreat he attended as his TED talk was going viral, Waldinger received transmission to teach Zen. After the cere- mony, Waldinger felt he made a terrible mistake, and that he was the biggest imposter in the world. Yet it was also an abso- lute thrill. “It’s a role I hope I grow into,” he says. “Zen is so much about this being our life—just this, what- ever is coming up right now,” says Waldinger. “It’s brought more contentment to my life and has allowed me to step back from some of the things I’m so certain of, and then realize they aren’t certain at all.” “Maybe there are religions that get to total happiness and bliss. But Zen doesn’t work that way, and it certainly hasn’t for me,” he says. Happiness in the real world doesn’t mean every day, every moment is happy. Through meditation, Waldinger has gotten to know his own mind and body, and this knowing has been a source of frustration because, as he puts it, he watches his mind “do the same ridiculous things it’s always done.” But beyond the frus- tration, he’s found more self-acceptance. Waldinger laughs when he tells the story of having tea dur- ing that retreat. A little tray of snacks was being passed around and, from the end of the line, Waldinger was eyeing the one remaining brownie. “I found myself really wanting it and thinking, Oh God! Who’s going to take it? Then I stopped and realized, In a few hours, I’m going to receive dharma transmis- sion, and all I can think about is whether I get that brownie! Yep, this is what I do, and this is what I’m always going to do, but there’s much less pain about it, much less agitation.” Being able to live a fortunate life depends a lot on luck—on having good health and having your loved ones with you. Cir- cumstances can always change in a heartbeat. But right now, says Robert Waldinger, “I’m living a very fortunate life.” “ONE OF THE THINGS that our participants talk about is the satisfaction from being involved in endeavors beyond the self,” says Waldinger. “It might be nurturing their grandchil- dren. It might be making a beautiful garden. It might be vol- unteering in Africa.” Like the study, says Waldinger, Buddhist teachings also place a high value on relationships. In fact, sangha, commu- nity, is one of the “three jewels” of Buddhism, on par with the Buddha and the teachings. Members of a spiritual community can support each other in practical ways, driving people to doctor’s appointments or cooking them meals. And the relationship in community provides spiritual nourishment as well. “Individually, we can get lost,” Waldinger says. “We get caught up in worries and in being so sure that something needs to be different than it is. In community, we remind each other of truths that are easy to lose sight of—the truth of impermanence, the truth of no fixed self, the truth of every- thing being okay at a certain level just as it is.” Whether it’s with our spiritual community, family, cowork- ers, or friends, there are ways we can improve our relation- ships. Maybe we can let go of our grudges and reach out to the family member we haven’t spoken to in years. Maybe we can replace a little screen time with “people time,” or liven up a stale relationship by doing something new together. In Zen, it’s said that in the expert’s mind there are few pos- sibilities, but in the beginner’s mind there are many. What would happen if we were to bring fresh eyes to old relation- ships? What if we looked at our family members as if for the first time? “What if we brought beginner’s mind to the family dinner?” asks Waldinger. “Often what happens is that relation- ships become ossified. We settle into roles and fixed images of the other, but of course those images are distortions.” According to Waldinger, one of the most powerful tools for improving our relationships is meditating. Through medita- tion, we get to know ourselves, and when we truly understand our own minds and bodies, we understand a lot about other people’s minds and bodies too. That makes us more compas- sionate with ourselves and everyone around us. ♦ Waldinger at his ordination as a Zen priest: “It’s a role I hope to grow into.” The photos on pages 34–37 were taken by Willie Davis for Lovingday.org, which promotes events every year around June 12 to celebrate Loving v.Virginia, the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision declaring laws against interracial marriage unconstitutional. LION’S ROAR | JULY 2017 39