One day recently I noticed the koan "Stop the War" lying around in my mind, and I wondered what it was about. I had recently been thinking about how turning toward a difficulty changes things. But this day I became interested instead in the things I turn away from, the features of me or other people that I just think of as trash, useless, not worth attention. A few different friends had been talking about how they were drinking more that they thought was good for them. It seemed to be a comfort, maybe to help with some internal suffering even though the underlying suffering wasn't apparent. A few other friends were trying not to spend every waking hour on reddit (a news/social media forum with many links to click), one brilliant one lost his place at a prestigious university from spending time on the web rather than going to class.
We are drawn to do things that both comfort and are cause for self loathing: drugs, sex with strangers, self-mutilation, shopping. I have my own comfort behaviors that cause me varying degrees of trouble. They have shifted over the course of my life, and my current ones seem trivial to the point of embarrassment, like cleaning the bathroom or checking the weather report, not at all the vices I associate with artists or tortured intellectuals. But I don't think that magnitude matters. Like everyone with a comforting behavior, I do these things at inappropriate times, when I could be doing something more useful or worthwhile, or when my attention is clearly needed elsewhere (I shouldn't check the weather while driving, perhaps).
There's a feeling around these longings, a clawing need, a searing irritation that seems to only be addressable by opening another bottle, clicking on a link, by a razor blade or a credit card or an app. And the clawing doesn't stop on its own, it keeps screaming. It's inside me, I can't run away. I imagine that everyone in the universe has longings like these, even ancient zen teachers. And turns away from them. I was hoping to find a koan that would point to an understanding of this sort of thing and "Stop the War" came into my head.
I rejected it.
But "Stop the War" kept coming back, and became hard to ignore.
Koans build a world that, without even noticing it, you live inside. They are autonomous and involuntary. You can also use a koan, wield it as you would your scimitar, to alter your thoughts, and that's interesting too, but beyond that you can trust the koan to be doing something that changes you without you telling it to.
There are actually a lot of koans that have a similar form to "Stop the War": "Stop the sound of the distant temple bell," or "Put out the fire across the river," or "Save a ghost" to name a few. All of them have a verb at the front that seems to require an impossible task. But you know from working with koans that it won't be impossible. You also know from koans that your task, like the task of the heroine in the fairy talk, will become clear in the doing of it. And the effort required won't be the effort you imagined. The outcome will be a surprise. Even if we forget, we have always known that the impossible is to be expected.
One of the things about koans being autonomous is this: You can take them on, having no idea what they're about, and they will show you what they are. So I agreed to keep company with "Stop the War" for awhile. I'm meditating with it, and carrying it around with me. Or probably it's carrying me around. And this is what I see.
- There are little wars everywhere. I have way more wars than I'm usually aware of. There are wars with who I am and what I do and don't do. There are discomforts. My foot hurts and I think it shouldn't. As I sit in my chair I complain to myself about my posture. And it's a bit too cold, is that because I've been sitting still too long? When was the last time I cleaned this room, really? Or as I'm walking down the street I think that guy over there should be taking his meds, so he wouldn't be shouting at his demons. The store front I'm walking past assaults me, why is it so full of cheap corporate plastic things? I wonder if I should be somewhere else, doing other things. I feel vaguely guilty. I feel vaguely guilty a lot of the time, or suddenly jolted by remembering something I'd forgotten. It's an endless series of wars, like scenes flying by outside a train window.
- My wars are imaginary. The things I have a problem with are things I've not bothered to look at. My aversion to them keeps me jumping from thing to thing without any curiosity. I don't know why I'm doing anything, I just make up my reasons. Even the biggest wars are just made up by a tired sad angry person, making up a world for other tired sad angry people to believe in, to fight until everyone gets worn out. And any war I really allow myself to consider or enter changes and softens and becomes mysterious and deep and worthy of my curiosity.
- Wars can seem too huge or too small for consideration. I avoid looking at them sometimes because I think I need a more appealing, more dramatic, less horrifying, less shameful, different war than I have. But all wars are the same.
- I don't have to do anything at all to stop the war. Just seeing it changes it so completely that it's not the same war anymore. I become kinder, even reading the newspaper about all the wars everywhere, I don't push things away.
- This war is my life, the only life I've got. When I let myself be there and have what I long for, or have the pain of wanting, or have the clawing or the disappointment, I sometimes find that I'm satisfied.
Embarking on a spiritual journey is just looking at my life as if it mattered, as if everything I've ever wanted is right here. I don't have to go looking for other lives, other people's tragedies or their faults or their virtues. I don't need to have any other life but this one. Stop the War is just this. It's wild, it's beautiful, full of courage and danger and trying things just to see what will happen. Insight doesn't mean getting the right answer, it just means asking the question.