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Liberation at Hand: Zen and Trauma — A Review of Daiho Harvey Hilbert’s Zen in your Pocket
Zen in Your Pocket (2016) is the new book from Harvey Daiho Hilbert-roshi. Short, elegantly clear, and deeply moving, it is both a guidebook and a profound meditation on trauma, written by a Vietnam veteran, Zen priest, and PhD in psychotherapy. This short book is subtitled “A Small Manual for a Large Challenge”; bluntly, that challenge is waking up to life as it is. This includes waking up to all the little ways we deceive ourselves, deny what has or is really happening, or invent coping strategies to flee what we cannot face. Like many teachers in North American Soto Zen, Roshi Hilbert fuses Zen teachings with Western psychotherapeutic insights in an effort to liberate all beings from suffering. This book is a guide to practicing that liberation in your everyday life.
Divided into three sections across just 132 pages, Part One focuses on “The Zen of Everyday Life.” Daiho-roshi begins, “I will speak to you as if we were in a conversation.” He tells us a story from everyday life, his life:
This morning, for example, I woke with the thought, ‘Every day is a good day.’ I am 68 years old and have lived a rich and full life; first as a professional soldier, then as a student, then as a psychotherapist, and finally as a Zen Buddhist monk. It took some doing to get from soldier to monk. There were a lot of challenges in between (Hilbert 5-6).
Much of the rest of Part One introduces readers to the practice of Soto Zen, leading us through how to sit zazen (sitting meditation), how to do walking meditation (kinhin), work practice (samu), how to eat, how to cook, how to start your own sitting group at home. Hilbert’s voice is direct and uncomplicated, a plain and simple American voice, yet one seasoned by a fully lived life, one filled equally with trauma and luck.
Hilbert’s opening pages establish this direct presence and assert a fundamental point: “Trauma taught me something about the appreciation of everyday life.” This voice and this poignant assertion hold us through the basic instructions in Soto Zen practice that fill most of Part One. But it is in “Part Two: The Zen of Trauma” that Daiho-roshi’s teachings grip the reader. He admits that a discussion of trauma, Zen, and spiritual life “seems at first a stretch.” But this deeply experienced psychotherapist and Zen teacher notes how “life is revealed more deeply by the challenges we face.” His words on trauma reveal how, fundamentally, the sudden and unpredictable event “outside the realm of ordinary experience” can jar us so profoundly that we may open to “the willingness to experience our essential nature and to recognize our ability to actively engage in transforming our lives.”
First, Roshi Hilbert begins Part Two by critiquing the label PTSD, showing how “‘disorder’ [is] an offensive term bearing no use-value whatever to understanding or living with post-traumatic stress. It is a label and little else. I use it only because it is part of the common clinical community’s language.” Next he proceeds to show how “Zen” itself is a slippery term, one “not easily defined and, like the Dao, as soon as we think we have it, we have lost it.” Spirit, writes Daiho-roshi, “especially the human spirit, is something like Zen or Dao. It is elusive, untouchable, non-concrete, and ever-changing: like breath, it flows through its host and has no independent reality. To see the Dao, the human spirit, we must look indirectly.” Ultimately, this humble little book presents a quiet convincing case for contemplative living in general, and Zen in particular. “In order to live our life directly,” Daiho-roshi writes at the outset, “we must be willing to practice.”
This little book, then, is about a practice you can carry “in your pocket,” in your everyday life. Zen is this practice, “a way of perceiving which teaches us to let things present themselves as they are and in so doing, allows them to be what they are.” But Daiho-roshi goes further in Part Two, elucidating how in Western societies like the U.S., we perceive time as linear, as having a beginning and an end. By contrast, Eastern cultures (and Native American cultures) perceive time as cyclical or circular, much like cycles of recovery from trauma are circular. By sitting meditation routinely, as a practice, we can begin to inhabit the present more fully, to become quieter and less busy. Ultimately, Daiho-roshi shows us how, in relation to any traumatic event disabling our lives, we can learn to see how we form habits of denial and coping. Finally, he writes how we can let go of these and face the presence of trauma within us: “we can enter into it, embrace it, work our way through it, and finally integrate it.”
Towards the end of Part Two, Daiho-roshi connects his themes to the central idea of Soto Zen’s founder, Eihei Dogen, who asserted how “practice is enlightenment.” Daiho explains, “In Zen practice, it is crucial to continue the practices. We do not just sit, get enlightenment, and move on. We sit some more. We sit with others. We engage a Teacher. We structure in supports for our practice through these tools and many others.” The book’s final section, “Part Three: The Zen of Diasability,” is about “asking for help.” As a disabled veteran, Daiho has had to request aid many times, but his book acknowledges how frequently we assume expectations of independence, ones that, in essence, deny our interconnectedness and interrelatedness. Zen, he shows us, “challenges my deeply held view of myself as independent and capable of overcoming hardship.”
Reading and writing about this wonderful little book over MLK weekend has helped drive home how traumatized this nation is. It confronts me with our individual and collective habits of denial, of coping, of avoiding practices that would truly help us see and compassionately heal by accepting and integrating our wounds. The histories of slavery, colonial oppression and cultural destruction, systematic racism and discrimination, as well as the wounds of wars waged in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan are still palpably present within the social fabric of this “United States.” This book shows us a way to be quiet yet fully present, grounded enough to actually begin to see, and feel our wounds, then move beyond ineffective and harmful strategies of denial and coping, and ultimately open to the surrender of self that can accept how “none of us exists without the help of others.” Daiho-roshi shows us how this contemplative practice of Zen can help us help ourselves, and therefore, quietly help each other.