Book Bits

Wandering in the Desert: This is our Life

Charlotte Joko Beck was an American Zen teacher who insisted that Zen training must directly address our conditioned reactions, and that meditative awareness was the key to understanding the emptiness of ego. She also underlined the value of bringing practice insights into daily life by living compassionately and with recognition of the interconnectedness of all beings and phenomena. In this passage from her book Nothing Special, she talks about what we perceive as the tedium of our lives as in fact being the face of God. Echoing Pema Chodron’s teachings about leaning into pain, Beck emphasizes the importance of facing suffering and understanding its universality. 


Wandering in the desert, looking for the Promised Land: this is our life. The discipline of sesshin intensifies this impression of wandering; sesshin feels confusing, discouraging, disappointing. We may have read books that paint a pretty picture of the promised Land, what it’s like to achieve awareness of buddha nature, enlightenment, and so on. Yet we find ourselves wandering. All we can do is simply to be the wandering itself. To be the wandering means to be each moment of sesshin, no matter what it is. As we survive, living through the dryness and thirst, we may come to a discovery: wandering in the desert is the Promised Land. 

That’s very hard for us to comprehend. We know our pain and suffering. We want the suffering to end. We want to reach a Promised Land where the suffering doesn’t exist anymore. 

In working with those who are dying or severely troubled, Stephen Levine observes that true healing happens when we go into our own pain so deeply that we see it is not just our pain, but everyone’s pain. It’s immensely moving and supportive to discover that my pain is not private to me. Practice helps us to see that the whole universe is in pain. 

It’s immensely moving and supportive to discover that my pain is not private to me.

A similar point can be made about relationships. We tend to think of relationships as discrete in time: they begin, they last for a time, and they end. Yet we are always in relationship, always connected to one another, At a certain point in time, a relationship may manifest itself in a particular way, but before that manifestation, it already existed, and after it “ends,” it continues. We continue in some so f relationship even with those who have died. Former friends, former lovers, former relatives continue on in our lives and are part of who we are. It may be necessary for the visible manifestation to end, but the actual relationship never ends. We are not truly separate from one another. Our lives are joined; there is just one pain, just one joy, and it is ours. Once we face our pain and are willing to experience it, instead of covering it up, avoiding it, or rationalizing it, a shift occurs in our views of others and of our life. 

As Stephen Levine states, each moment of persevering with our difficulties and suffering is a small victory. In staying with pain and irritability, we open up our relationship to life and to others. The process is slow; our pattern does not reverse itself overnight. We fight a constant battle between what we want and what is, what the universe presents to us. In sesshin, we see that battle joined more clearly. We see our fantasies, our efforts to figure things out and pursue our pet theories; we see our hopes of finding a door into the Promised Land, where all struggle and suffering will cease. We want, want, want: a certain person, a certain kind of relationship, a certain kind of work. Because no want like that can ever be completely fulfilled, we have ceaseless tension and anxiety that go right along with our wanting. They are inseparable twins. 

In staying with pain and irritability, we open up our relationship to life and to others.

Sometimes it’s helpful to accentuate the anxiety, to reach a point where we just can’t stand it. Then, we may be willing to back up and take another look at what’s going on. Instead of endlessly concerning ourselves with what’s wrong out there— with our partner, with our job, or whatever—we may begin to shift our relationship to what is. We learn to be what we are at this moment in this relationship or in a tedious aspect of our job. We begin to see the connection between ourselves and others. We see that our pain is also their pain, and their pain is also our pain. For example, a doctor who makes no connection between herself and her patients will see patients simply as one problem after another, to be forgotten when they walk out the door. A doctor who sees that her own discomfort and annoyance are her patients’ discomfort and annoyance will be sustained by this sense of connection and will work more precisely and effectively. 

The everyday tedium of our lives is the desert we wander, looking for the Promised Land. Our relationships, our work, and all the little necessary tasks we don’t want to do are all the gift. We have to brush our teeth, we have to buy groceries, we have to do the laundry, we have to balance our checkbook. 

This tedium—this wandering in the desert—is in fact the face of God. Our struggles, the partner who drives us crazy, the report we don’t want to write—these are the Promised Land. 


Charlotte Joko Beck (1917-2011)
From – Nothing Special: Living Zen




1 thought on “Wandering in the Desert: This is our Life”

  1. Thank you, Vanessa and Charlotte. The timing of this post was impeccable! I absolutely needed to hear exactly this at this very moment. This is the most useful teaching that I have received in quite a while. Thanks again.

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