Want a happier life in the midst of stress and disappointment? Take
Diane Rizzetto's advice and stretch the "dead spot."
The dead spot, Oakland resident Rizzetto says in her new manual of Zen
practice, "Waking Up to What You Do," is the breath you take when a driver
flips you off on the freeway, your kid screams in your ear or your spouse
leaves that one last dirty dish in the sink that puts you over the edge into
It's the moment of non-action, the counting to 10, the interval when you
separate your ego from the complex reality of a superficially upsetting
situation and respond with a quality Rizzetto calls natural intelligence.
Simply put, natural intelligence is the intelligence of relationships --
one to one, one to many and one to the whole scheme of things. The exercise
of natural intelligence isn't easy, and the result is often far from giddy joy.
But those who work on it, Rizzetto says, will find that they add richly to
their own and the world's well-being.
Rather than strictly a guide to inner peace, the book, Rizzetto's first,
is a manual of ethical action. Rizzetto, who serves as abbess and guiding
teacher at the Bay Zen Center in Oakland, takes precepts designed to govern
Buddhist ascetic communities centuries ago and applies them to the modern
world of work and relationships. She covers eight in all, revolving around
truthfulness, generosity, restraint, respect for others and respect for life.
The precepts reflect the Ten Commandments, but they're guidelines instead
of directives. They're phrased as vows, as in "I take up the way of speaking
truthfully" and "I take up the way of engaging in sexual intimacy respectfully
and with an open heart."
Rizzetto writes in clear language without the riddles one might associate
with Zen dialogues. She gives a brief discussion of each precept followed by
pages of suggestions on how to put the guidance into action through meditation
and other practices to heighten awareness.
Rizzetto said she wrote the book for people who are studying the precepts
formally and for those who might not have a background in spiritual practice.
She offers it to "anyone who's interested in taking a sincere look at the
actions they put out in the world. What are the motivations and consequences
of those actions?"
The student of the precepts delves into that question by stilling the ego.
Rizzetto asks her readers to imagine that life is a trapeze in which the real
trick isn't grabbing the flying bar but grasping the moment of suspension in
midair. The performer must not be attached to any outcome, marvelous or
disastrous, because she can never be sure how her next move will turn out.
Life, Rizzetto says, is like that.
"Our dead spots can take many forms," she writes. "They can occur at the
time of major events, like changing a relationship or a profession. It can be
the loss of a loved one or indecision over what action to take when faced with
a job choice.
"Whatever it is, no matter how big or small, the dead spot appears when
we cannot engage in our habitual way of holding and grasping for the bars,
either because we are forced to let go or we willfully launch ourselves into
"Life pries our fingers loose and no matter how much we try to avoid it,
we end up in the suspended moment, not knowing what comes next."
Rizzetto describes her struggle to break out of the self-centered plot
line of her estrangement from her mother. As a Zen student in her early 30s,
she embraced the precept "I take up the way of meeting others on equal ground"
but found she couldn't extend the vow to her closest kin. After years of work
she finally broke through her resistance and picked up the phone to end the
The will doesn't surrender without a fight. As the Buddhist teacher Ajahn
Chah says in "Everything Arises, Everything Falls Away," it's easier to level
a mountain with explosives than to let go of conceit.
But Rizzetto said she learned as she grew into Zen teaching after her
breakthrough with her mom that the ego softens by applying the precepts in
everyday situations. The precepts "reveal with crystal clarity," she writes,
"the truth that our happiness and well-being are intricately connected to the
happiness of others."
"Being a parent and grandmother now," Rizzetto said, "there's no way
we're going to do it perfectly. We're going to screw up. When we look back at
our parents and realize maybe they didn't do a perfect job and maybe they
didn't do what I wanted them to do, then there's an opportunity to really
Rizzetto's section on the precept related to sex centers on a fable about
a hermit who jealously guards his separation from the world.
The old woman who provided the hermit's food and lodging decided to send
her lovely granddaughter to test his understanding by enticing him. The girl
placed her head on the hermit's lap and the old man jumped up, recited a bit
of dogmatic poetry and tossed her out into the cold without a cover.
The old woman, deciding the hermit just didn't get it, set fire to the
hut and sent the seeker out into the world.
"He's left to go off into the world where he's really going to learn to
be a whole person, learning how to deal with his sex energy," Rizzetto said.
To Rizzetto, the story also points up the perils of absolutism. "Remember
that the purpose of precept practice is not to fix ourselves," Rizzetto writes,
"but to find real freedom to engage in life, realizing clearly that all that
we think we are, all that we believe we must have, and all that we strive for
is only an illusion, part of the self-centered dream."