This book reassures me that it’s okay to be sixty years old—old enough that I’ve actually started getting shorter—and still trying to grow up. It turns out that being a grown-up does not correlate directly with either age or height. “Spiritual practice,” Norman Fischer tells us in Taking Our Places, “is in essence the practice of maturity.” He explores the subject of growing up as something of concern to people of every age, and by growing up, he means becoming our true selves. He tells us, “Bantu tribesmen sneak into the rooms of their children as they sleep and whisper in their ears, ‘Become what you are.’” And this is what Fischer is whispering in all of our ears as we read.
Fischer has published a number of poetry books, but this is his first straight “dharma book,” which is surprising, since he’s been a Zen teacher for many years. (He was a resident teacher and then abbot of San Francisco Zen Center, and now leads his own sangha without walls called Everyday Zen.) The book is written in straightforward, accessible language appropriate for beginners in Buddhism, and is full of basic good advice.
Some years ago, Fischer was asked by the parents of four boys in early adolescence to mentor them in a “coming-of-age” group. The boys were all children of San Francisco Zen Center families, and Fischer already knew them. The five of them met for two years, deciding together what growing up was all about and devising their own rituals. Taking Our Places comes out of that experience.
The book opens with the first tentative and self-conscious meeting of the group, and closes with a moving description of their final rites of passage. Fischer and the boys identified various aspects of maturity, and the book takes up six of these, dealing with each in a separate chapter: listening, persistence, connection, meditation, vowing and conduct. Anecdotes from the group’s meetings pepper the book, and I loved getting to know the boys and hearing of their struggles to grow up.
But most of the book is composed of general advice and encouragement about how to become a kind and responsible human being—sort of a contemporary Zen version of Lord Chesterfield’s letters to his son—for readers of all ages. The more personal and particular Fischer gets with his examples, the more I learned and remembered. In the chapter on listening, Fischer tells how he used some useful communication techniques—“looping” and “dipping”—“during a nasty argument” with his wife while they were stuck in traffic on a rainy night. I also appreciated the examples that come from the lives of Fischer’s friends and sangha members, and the rich illustrations from Jewish and Buddhist literature—such as a new perspective on the disturbing story of Abraham and Isaac in the chapter on “vowing.” In fact, I could have used more examples throughout the book.
An interesting section of the book for me was on our relationship with our parents. “Forgiving our parents is an important step in the direction of maturity. It is astonishing how many people fail to take this step, choosing to remain, in effect, adolescents throughout their lives.” And he’s talking about all of us here. “The truth is that no matter what kind of upbringing we have had . . . all of us were hurt in the early years to some extent, and so all of us have some forgiveness work to do with our parents.” Fischer’s own kindness and compassion come through, always reminding us that we don’t have to be embarrassed not to have it all figured out.
In the final chapter, on ethical conduct, Fischer discusses the sixteen bodhisattva precepts and how they apply to the life of a contemporary layperson living and working in the secular world. In discussing the precept “not to be possessive,” Fischer offers an example from his own life:
Having lived for so long without much money, I always found it difficult to go shopping and pay the high prices the stores always seemed to charge. I decided that I could work on this by recognizing that when I bought something, I was not, as I had always felt, relinquishing too much of my hard-earned money, scarce as it was. Instead, I was giving money to people who needed it—store clerks, factory workers, farmers. Practicing like this over time I was able to shift my perspective so that I no longer minded or worried as much about the price I paid for things.
I found Taking Our Places encouraging. Fischer tells me it’s never too late to grow up and become my true self, and he gives me some new ideas about how to continue that journey. I recommend it to any of you who have not quite finished turning into who you are meant to be.