There's a bunch of little things on my mind right now that have been gnawing at me — nothing that in the Big Scheme Of Things ultimately means anything, and I know it. But in the moment, all I feel is their little rat teeth pinching away.
I used to have a lot of contempt for the idea that one good way to deal with one's problems was to put them in the broadest possible perspective. E.g., if you worry about the state of your lawn, you put it into the perspective of the planet, and thus your lawn along with it, eventually becoming a cinder after the sun enters its red giant phase. Good for a mordant laugh, but not much of a balm.
Over time I found the real trick was to put your problems in the broadest possible perspective that you could connect to emotionally. Then over time, find a way to broaden what you can connect to emotionally in the first place.
One of the ways I've dealt with the weight of my day-to-day, moment-to-moment worries has been to zoom out to that cosmic scale I just mentioned, but not in the cynical, someday-we'll-all-be-dead fashion. I'm always emotionally staggered by things like images of nebulae and galaxies; even just a picture of the earth from orbit is enough to make me get all misty.
But most of us derive no emotional resonance from something at universe scale, so to speak. It's too impersonal and distant to care about. Maybe you can feel humbled in front of it, but again some folks can't use a feeling of humbling to work through a bad moment.
This was also why, at first, I didn't really see what in Zen would be of much help in such cases. It all seemed terribly abstract and disconnected from anything in my own life. But I also didn't pay nearly as much attention as I ought to all the places where people said things like: It doesn't matter how many sutras you memorize if you don't have a single moment of original, personal insight.
Eventually I started my own meditation practice, and I saw what they meant. The point isn't just to take the words that came out of other peoples' mouths and repeat them back as if you're trying to pass an oral exam. It's to discover for yourself how they can be real, in the moment-to-moment life you're living now. This is part of why I always thought detailed descriptions of "moments of satori" (the kind of thing Philip Kapleau wrote about) were misleading, not just because not all strains of Zen emphasize such things but because they produce unrealistic expectations in you of what to look for and how to find it.
The more I developed my own practice, the more I noticed a few other things happening. One was the way discussions in Zen that seemed entirely theoretical or hopelessly beyond my personal experience were newly charged with relevance. They weren't abstract anymore; they pointed right at all the stuff I'd been sitting with for years on end for half an hour a day. This is why I think I was lucky to encounter something like The Zen Teaching Of Huang Po much later in my Zen "career" than earlier on, because I read it for the first time after I'd already become pretty well grounded in my practice and had come to see for myself what it was meant to be.
The other thing that happened was the thing I've been working my way towards describing since the beginning of this piece. The number of things I could connect to emotionally for the sake of perspective widened and broadened dramatically with my practice. It became easier for me to put things into perspective, because I had grown that much more perspective to put things into in the first place. Time and age alone wouldn't have done it, I think; it took practice to grow that perspective, and it had to be grown from within me, through regular work.
Most people, though, are where I was at the start of this problem. They don't have the benefit of having widened their own perspective from the inside out. But they have some experience putting things into perspective by way of their emotions and their empathy. The trick is to start there, but not settle for that alone, and through that find ways to broaden those feelings. Get good at turning your feelings outwards, away from just yourself, and you get better at finding perspective that you weren't capable of encompassing before.
A key reason why Zen seems to work well for this is because of all the emphasis it puts on seeing the self as a convenient fiction, not as a permanent point of reference. When there's less of a "self" to get wound up about — to defend compulsively, to natter over, to hyperbolize — your vision's cleared to allow that much more into your life.
There was a time in my life when people would say, "Do you need help with that?" and my first thought was Why are they taking pity on me? Can't they see I'm smart enough to do this on my own? Eventually, I saw how this thing I was going to such great lengths to protect didn't even really exist in the form I thought it did, and I saw all those offers more for what they were: offers to help, not attacks on my identity. The universe was bigger than that, and there was more of it for me to connect with than I'd originally realized.
Shorter me: to put things into perspective for yourself, lose "yourself" a little. To lose yourself even a little is difficult at first; you're taking that first spoonful out of the mountain to move it. But a spoonful every day adds up.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind