A student asked, “When times of great difficulty visit us, how should we meet them?”

The teacher said, “Welcome.”

~ Pacific Zen Miscellaneous Koans

Several weeks ago, a friend of mine asked if we could take up this koan together. As a koan, it was somewhat new to me, and a bit to my surprise, I have found it helpful in my own practice of working with students. Recently, several of them have, indeed, faced difficult times, and I share in that. Together, we have said Welcome.

One friend, in his eighties, was recently diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and though he is feeling a bit better physically following some chemo therapy, he is wracked emotionally by worry over the relations between his partner and his family. Another friend went through not-too-major surgery, which went fine, but he found himself floating in a post-procedure fog for some weeks before once again finding his footing. And a third had a melanoma removed from the top of his head, and is getting treatment for some spots found in his lungs. How do we say Welcome to all of that?

I was on BART yesterday afternoon, and unlike some of the newer rolling stock, this car was old and loud, roughly slamming left and right as it headed south toward Millbrae. Even ear buds with Led Zepplin Greatest Hits streaming on Spotify could not neutralize the mind-rattling noise. So rather than tune out in an attempt to banish that hard ride, I said Welcome. I took out the earbuds, turned off the music , and just settled in. It was rough and jarring, at first, but after some minutes of meditation, I felt the clanging of the train soften a bit. An easy edge surrounded the cacophony, and the noise became familiar, kind of intimate. I also noticed when (silently) I directed Welcome to others on the train, they began to take on a kind of soft light, and glowed with a simple kind of beauty, no matter what their outer look.

It takes courage to say Welcome to things that we abhor and fear. And in some cases, our mind-states are held hostage by our body chemistry, which itself can be a cocktail created by physical stress. But even to whisper Welcome when everything is aligned in the opposite direction is a small act of rebellion and freedom. And every small opportunity; even in times of great difficulty, a small taste of freedom is, indeed, welcome.