As we begin the new year, it is good to reflect on what is most important in our spiritual quest. For example, perseverance is often emphasized as an essential aspect of the spiritual life. But perseverance is not enough by itself. With perseverance alone, it is tempting to become almost militant and stoic in our efforts. So to balance our spiritual practice, to keep it from becoming almost grim at times, we also have to cultivate the softer quality of curiosity.
Curiosity means that we're willing to explore unknown territory -- the places the ego doesn't want to go. Being truly curious means we're willing to say "Yes" to our experience, even the hard parts, instead of indulging the "No" of our habitual resistance.
Saying Yes doesn't mean we like our experience, or that we necessarily feel accepting. It doesn't even mean that we override the No. It simply means we're no longer resisting the people, things and fears that we don't like. Instead, we're learning to open to them in order to simply experience what's actually going on, minus all of our judgments about it.
A key aspect of the spiritual life is the willingness to be with our life as it is. But, in a way, this is a difficult concept to comprehend: that spiritual practice is not about having a particular state of mind, such as calmness; nor is it about being free from problems. Furthermore, understanding this intellectually is very different from understanding it when we're actually facing a difficulty.
This is not to deny that through spiritual practice we will, in fact, experience more equanimity, and that problems will not seem so burdensome. But, ironically, when we demand that life be a particular way, it almost guarantees the opposite -- a continuing state of unease and dissatisfaction.
The deeply ingrained human attitude that we need to be free from problems is really one of our greatest problems. For example, when something unpleasant happens, we'll almost always react from the deeply held belief that life should be free from discomfort and pain. We might not even be conscious of having this sense of entitlement, but because we believe it, it colors how we relate to reality.
Yet, when we learn what it means to say Yes to a difficulty, to be curious about what life is, this is a turning point in our spiritual path. It allows us to experience life's difficulties more as an adventure than as a nightmare. When a difficulty arises, instead of saying, "Oh no!" -- which is our normal response -- we can say, "Here it comes again; what will it be like this time?"
Ultimately, spiritual practice requires the implicit understanding that whatever situation or emotion we can't say Yes to is the exact direction of our spiritual path. This is particularly true when we feel anxiety. From a spiritual point of view, having anxiety doesn't mean that something is bad. All it means is that there is anxiety, which is simply the result of our own particular conditioning. We don't have to fight it. Nor do we need to fix it. In fact, when anxiety predictably arises, instead of viewing it as a problem, we simply pause, acknowledge it and then say Yes to it -- which means welcoming it with curiosity as an opportunity to work with our own particular edge.
The voice of fear tells us we have reached that place beyond which we're unwilling to go. Yet, our curiosity tells us to take one more step forward. Fear says "No!" -- it warns us to close and defend; but another part of us says "Yes!" -- calling us to open and connect.
Here's a key point: We don't have to like the anxiety. We just need to feel it as the physical experience that it is. But the wonderful thing is when we rest in it and learn from it, we no longer identify with our anxiety as who we are, but rather with a larger sense of what life is.
Saying yes to life ultimately means saying yes to everything, even our strongest discomforts and fears. The fundamental point is that until we become intimate with our fears, until we can welcome them with curiosity, they will always limit our ability to live from the loving kindness that is our true nature. In other words, the path to living genuinely requires giving our willing attention to the very things that seem to block the way to our true heart.
Ezra Bayda has been practicing Zen meditation for almost 40 years and began teaching Zen in 1995. He currently lives and teaches at The Zen Center San Diego and also leads retreats and workshops in the United States and Australia. He has written four books -- "Being Zen," "At Home in the Muddy Water," "Saying Yes to Life" and "Zen Heart." For more information, go to www.zencentersandiego.org.