One Sentence: Zen for people who live normal lives.
In Summary: It’s your expectations, not life itself, that disappoint you and the best way to sort that out is by learning to see the present as clearly as possible.
The Takeaway: Start meditating, repeat daily.
A Quick Introduction
Charlotte Joko Beck was a wife, a Mom, a pianist and a university teacher. She was also a Zen master.
Interestingly, she didn’t start practising Zen until she was 40. And it shows. She knows what it’s like to be stuck in traffic, to bicker with your family and to stand in line at the supermarket. That makes her flavour of Zen relatable and actionable – no mean feat for a practice that’s usually considered a bit straight-faced and serious.
Reading Joko Beck is like catching up with your super down-to-earth Grandma to have a conversation about meditation, life and love. I’ve read classic Zen texts and this felt like a world apart.
If you’re in search of a wise grandmother or just a more accessible entry to Zen practice, pick this book up.
7 Quotes On Life, Meditation & Self-Knowledge
1. “Enlightenment is not something you achieve. It is the absence of something. All your life you have been going forward after something, pursuing some goal. Enlightenment is dropping all that.”
We’re a culture that champions addition. Socially and economically we’re always pressured to be working toward some higher goal. More money, more fame, more friends, more stuff. But damn, it’s tiring! The feeling that there must be something more fundamental underneath the rat race is intuitive but hard to realise in practice. It just runs so counter to the way many of us live. Joko suggests that what we’re looking for is always right here with us. Try re-working the maths of your life: subtract the extra to discover the essential.
2. “As I know more and more who I am, I begin to strip my life down to what my life truly needs.”
What’s actually essential to your life and, more than that, how do you go about finding it? This follows on from the point above. If you’ve ever felt obliged to attend an event or say yes to something you deep down didn’t want, then this is important. If you let it, life will accumulate crap and distractions like barnacles on a whale. Joko tells us that through practice we begin to see who we are and as a result, it becomes easier to live your life more honesty. It stops you from being that whale.
3. “I’m not as interested in the enlightenment experiences as I am in the practice which builds this understanding, because as it grows, our life changes radically.”
This is the basis for Joko’s flavour of Zen. Practice, i.e. daily meditation, is the foundation upon which we build. It’s not sexy, but there is a plain truth to it. You cannot hack your way to deep personal understanding and insight. You’ve basically got to sit on your butt, practice and let the process teach you. Good advice for life, not just meditation.
4. “The last words of the Buddha were, “Be a lamp unto yourself.” He didn’t say, “Go running to this teacher or that teacher, to this centre or that centre” — he said, “Look— be a lamp unto yourself.”
How often have you stalled longer than needed instead of just doing the thing? I’ve done it plenty of times. Joko Beck touches on this on several occasions in the book. She suggests that we’re often more concerned with reading or seeking out advice when what we should do is turn to ourselves. If you need to write, start writing. If you need to meditate start meditating. You own experience is your best teacher.
5. “There is one thing in life that you can always rely on: life being as it is”
Life doesn’t care what you think or feel. If that sounds harsh then you need to wrap your head around this one now. Most of the time we have expectations about the way we hope life will be or think it should be. Joko tells us that instead of clinging to all these ideas we should become comfortable with the fact that life will do its thing. We’re better off learning to surf the waves then try to constantly shape the ocean.
6. “Being what we are at each moment means, for example, fully being our anger when we are angry. That kind of anger never hurts anybody because it’s total, complete. We really feel this anger, this knot in our stomach, and we’re not going to hurt anybody with it. The kind of anger that hurts people is when we smile sweetly and underneath we’re seething.”
Emotions tend to get labelled as bad or good. Anger is bad. Happiness is good. As a result, we try to avoid the bad and search out the good. Joko Beck points out the problem that this causes – by avoiding ‘negative’ emotions we’re actually not dealing with them. False niceties and buried tension find a way of coming out eventually and it’s often not pretty.
7. “We are so caught in our excitement, our depression, our hopes, and our fears that we cannot see that our function is not to live forever, but to live this moment.”
I remember as a kid I would dream about living forever. Or about cryogenically freezing myself until I could be thawed in some distant future where death will be cured. But what’s the point in any of that if you can’t pay attention to what’s happening right now? Excitement and fear most often relate to things in the past or the future. When we become obsessed with them, we get caught up in things that haven’t happened yet or things that already have. We lose the only thing we have: this moment. Miss this and you risk missing your life completely.
Further Reading & Links
If you want to read more of Charlotte Joko Beck’s work then I highly recommend both of her books, linked below.
Everyday Zen Book – by Charlotte Joko Beck
Nothing Special Book – by Charlotte Joko Beck