Resilience has been a popular topic over the last year for obvious reasons. And the business press is filled with advice from psychologists, psychiatrists, mindfulness experts, and business gurus of all stripes.
But I’ve been curious. What would a Zen monk say about these challenging times? What advice would they have about resilience? After all, the Buddha’s first teaching after enlightenment—the Four Noble Truths—points at suffering and the cessation of suffering.
I reached out to Meido Moore Roshi, a Rinzai Zen master, who is the abbot of the Korinji Zen Monastery near Madison, Wisconsin. Moore is also the author of The Rinzai Zen Way: A Guide to Practice, and Hidden Zen: Practices for Sudden Awakening and Embodied Realization.
(This interview has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)
Kevin Kruse: Suffering obviously didn’t start in the year 2020, but people seem to be really struggling to the changes brought on by the pandemic. What was your experience of 2020? I would assume a monk doesn’t react to external things the way most people do.
Meido Moore: I’m not something special. I struggled with the year, same as anyone. Suffering has always existed. Yes, that’s true. But also, we’re living in a modern lifestyle that is uniquely not matching the way our bodies and minds evolved to function. We evolved to be hunter and gatherers in small social units, and we’ve thrown that to the winds. Even our social structures, you don’t even know your next-door neighbors quite often, right? We already set up to feel a little cut off, then the pandemic hit, and it just exacerbated and revealed those things so much more strongly. I struggled with it too. I’m in rural Wisconsin, in a monastery environment. It can feel very isolated.
But what I am grateful for is that I could prevent myself from spinning off into the depths of that because of my training. Something as simple as learning to breathe differently when I feel the anxiety, or the depression start to come up. I know how to breathe in a way that changes that feeling very quickly. Because we have that ancient technology or ancient understanding how to use the body to change the mind.
I don’t want to say that anyone should feel bad for losing it this past year. But I would want them to feel empowered and to understand, there’s things you can do. There’s no one who doesn’t have the tools or some tools they can use to improve that experience.
Kruse: With vaccinations increasing we may find the stress related to the pandemic subsiding somewhat. But life was hard for many before the pandemic. Any other keys to resilience to keep in mind?
Moore: At the end of the day, let’s also recognize, this is human life. There’s always something coming. This disaster will blow over and then the next one will come, because there’s always something like that, and that’s been the nature of our existence for hundreds of thousands of years.
But the more we can reconnect with each other, I think the easier it’s going to be. No matter what disaster comes down the path, we have to do it together. That’s how we are hardwired. Could be that this pandemic has reminded people that, “hey, relationships are important, and I really do need other people. What happens when they get taken away from me like this?” Let’s take it positively. That’s a great result. I hope we can capitalize on that.
Kruse: I’m surprised to hear you emphasize social connection so much, given that you live in a remote monastery.
Moore: A lot of folks imagine monastic practice as a hermit-like practice. No, the human relationships within the monastery, the way that you learn to support one another, even in silence, is so crucial. Otherwise, you would never make it.