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How to solve your single biggest problem

You have problems. Here’s how to solve one big one.

Cory Zanoni
Cory Zanoni
3 min read
An ol' timey car with its back tyres half-buried in snow, so it kinda looks like the car is doing a wheely.

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A little while ago, my grandma said one of the best things I’ve ever heard.

I was setting up some tech for her and she apologised for her inability to help at all. She explained that her husband was taking computer classes whereas she felt like she was just saying “Here I am with all of my problems.”

This happened months ago. I’ve thought “here I am with all of my problems” weekly ever since. I want to start using it as a greeting.

“Hi, I’m Cory. Here I am with all of my problems.”


You’ll always have problems

I love it because it’s so plainly stated. She didn’t say it with a tone of complaint or exasperation. It was just a statement of reality.

Here I am with all of my problems.

There’s a modern Buddhist parable about a farmer who took the exact opposite tack. He sought out Buddha to complain (loudly) about his son and wife, his crops and some wild monkeys, his debtors and money.

No matter what the farmer complained about, Buddha said he couldn’t help.

Buddha explained that, at any given point in your life, you’ll have 84 problems. And that the 84th was the main one. “If you solve the 84th problem, the other 83 will solve themselves.

The farmer, of course, asked what the 84th problem was.

“You don’t want to have any problems.”

You’ll always have problems. What matters is how you treat them.

Address your problems as they are

The goal isn’t to pretend you don’t have any problems, of course. You’re trying to foster a way of living that helps you attend to your problems in a steady, constructive way.

In his book Zen action, zen person, T. P. Kasulis argues that immediacy is the goal of Zen Buddhist training. You practice living in the present, free of assumption and preconceived ideas.

It’s not like you suddenly don’t have problems. Zen helps you address them as they pop up, tackling them as they are. You aren’t railing against life for not being how you wish it was – it is as it is.

A problem arises. You acknowledge it, do whatever needs to be done and you go on, living with compassion and spontaneity.

Let’s keep the parables rolling to illustrate this idea. Kasulis shares this one:

Coming to a ford in a river, two Zen monks met a beautiful maiden who asked assistance to getting across because of the depth and strength of the current.

The first monk hesitated, starting to make apologies – the rules of the religious order forbade physical contact with women. The second monk, on the other hand, without a moment’s hesitation picked her up and carried her across. With a parting gesture of thanks, the young woman continued on her way, the two monks going off in the other direction.

After some time, the first monk said to the second: “You shouldn’t have picked her up like that – the rules forbid it.” The second monk replied in surprise, “You must be very tired indeed! As soon as we had crossed the river I put her down. But you! You have been carrying her all this time!”

A problem appears. You address it as best you can. You move on.

This is the work

That’s simple to say, sure, but hard to do. You won’t always succeed and that’s fine – that’s why Buddhism is so often referred to as a practice. You’re always working at it.

And, let’s be real, finding a way to respond to problems with spontaneity and compassion is work. It’s easy to fall into the trap of blame, worry and obsession. It’s easy to ruminate, turning your thoughts into a thick whirlpool of anger or anxiety.

Chances are you’ll need to do a lot of self-reflection to unearth whatever biases, assumptions and mental models you have. Chances are you’ll have to make some changes to your environment to support yourself.

“Living with spontaneity and compassion” implies a kind of effortless tranquility. I imagine that’s part of it. But the road there is paved with practice.

You situation will shape how much work you need to do. People with physical disabilities have to work harder to navigate a world not built for them; people with executive disfunction face cognitive challenges many people will never think about.

I’ll never tell anyone the problems they face aren’t real. And part of the work of living a life of compassion is advocating for the social changes required to help everyone navigate the world with comfort.

The danger, as always, is letting problems overtake you.

The point of both parables isn’t that problems don’t exist or that you should never worry or care. You’ll always have problems. The thing to do, then, is to acknowledge them without assumptions or bias and to solve them with an open mind.

Don’t let “I have problems” become a problem in and of itself.

Nod to Haley Nahman for putting me onto the 84 problems parable – I hadn’t heard of it until she mentioned it in a recent edition of her newsletter Maybe Baby.

Cory Zanoni Twitter

Writer, teacher, tired.