Everything changes and the Picayune


Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki was once asked how to define Zen Buddhism in the briefest way possible, and he answered precisely and succinctly: “Everything changes”. I remember the insight of this revered Zen Master when I reflect on the fact that after 46 years this newspaper that you are now reading, the Westlake Picayune, ceases to appear.

I had written periodically for the Austin American-Statesman over the years, but when it became clear that the COVID-19 pandemic would inexorably impose painful changes on everyone in our society and around the world, I wanted doing whatever I could to help heal our society. . So, in March 2020, I approached a Picayune editor to write a regular column incorporating ideas from Zen and psychology to try to help people in the midst of the complexities of our time.

David Zuniga, with daughters.

Social science research shows that one of the best ways to unite disparate or divided groups of people is to have them work together toward a common, shared goal. At first, I hoped the COVID-19 pandemic could be a galvanizing force, uniting us in community and common purpose. Instead, over a million of our citizens have been killed by COVID-19, so far, and we may be more divided than at the start of the pandemic.

It is therefore with sadness that I write my last column for the Picayune. Our country also seems to be moving from viewing COVID-19 as a pandemic to an endemic situation. As of this writing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID Data Tracker, 313 Americans die from COVID every day. I’m a psychologist, not an epidemiologist, so I don’t claim to have all the answers on how to handle a pandemic that only happens once in a century.

As a psychologist, I specialize in oncology, chronic and terminal illnesses, caregiver support, grief and trauma. The vast majority of my patients are immunocompromised. I estimate that about half of my patients have died during the pandemic. As a parent, on a personal level, I see how hard the pandemic has been on my wife, an elementary school teacher, and my children. I can understand and relate to a need to “get back to normal” regarding masking and socializing. It feels like much of our society has already moved on from COVID-19. As a psychologist, I worry for my immunocompromised patients who continue to live with the ramifications of conspiracy theories and misinformation during a pandemic that is not over. I also worry about the psychological trauma that will linger in our society much longer than the pandemic.

Many of my colleagues are retiring or changing careers and I can certainly understand why. It’s easy and understandable to feel depressed by the world. I too have had my moments of despair and doubt. Is the pandemic really coming to an end, or will another terrible variant come roaring back? Will our partisan divisions be overcome? How are things like the war in Ukraine, China-Taiwan tensions, supply chain issues, inflation and global warming, etc. going to play out? ? Sometimes when stressful events occur in our environment, it prompts us to engage in unskillful behaviors, which we certainly see. As a society, we sit not knowing, and sitting not knowing can be very difficult.

More than one thing can be true at the same time. Each generation believes that its particular moment in history is the most difficult. World War I and the Spanish Flu, the Great Depression, World War II, the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis; our history is filled with moments that have felt overwhelming. And yet, as a species, we endured and in many ways continued to progress.

It is easy to worry about the direction of our individual lives and the fate of our nation and the world as a whole. When I worry, I try to remember an old tale “Farmer’s Luck”. Once upon a time there was an old farmer who worked hard for many years. One day one of his horses ran away and all the villagers said that the farmer must have bad karma. “Maybe,” thought the farmer. When the horse returned, the villagers said that the farmer must have good karma. “Maybe,” thought the farmer. When her son then tried to mount and tame the horse, he was thrown off and injured. All the villagers said that the farmer must have bad karma. Maybe, thought the farmer again. A few days later, the army came to conscript the farmer’s son into the army to fight in a war, but as the son was injured, he was excused from military service. All the villagers said that the farmer must have good karma. Maybe, thought the farmer again.

Many people make predictions about how things will unfold in our world. The amount of variables that affect us and our world is incalculable. As a species, we sit unknowingly, which has always been true. It may seem more acute right now, and the task of being human has always been to sit unknowingly as we seek to live with purpose, transforming suffering and cultivating joy. Whether things get better or worse is our way, doing what we can even without knowing the outcome.

I am sad that Westlake Picayune is no longer published. It has been an important part of my life. I hope this has been a healing factor in your life as well. Recently, I received a grant from the Institute for Social Innovation at Fielding Graduate University to write a book exploring the intersections between the ancient origins of Zen and mindfulness with contemporary psychology. I am grateful that my writing journey continues.

Everything changes, and we do our best to bring us back again and again on our way. It is the human way. To stay true to our path, we must take care of ourselves. We all need help sometimes. Local journalism matters. As this legendary local newspaper ceases publication, let us recommit to transforming the suffering of the world, making it kinder and more peaceful. And thank you for reading my column over the years.

Dr. David Zuniga is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Austin, and is also a vice-bishop in one of the oldest lineages of Korean Zen. His website is a free, cross-disciplinary source of support: drdavidzuniga.com.


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