At 7,000 feet, the Zen monastery where I live is level with the clouds, which should give you some idea of where my head usually is—not to mention the heads of those who visit our grounds. Let’s talk about them. Occasionally, college students from the basin below appear through wispy nimbi on our gravel driveway. I first catch sight of them via their hairdos—which are dazzling and neon, like art projects—bobbing spikily through the dull gray mist. They travel in brightly colored, body-buttered, scantily clad, cologned and perfumed packs, like wolves with iPods. They are everything I’m not: still in their twenties, hopped up on caffeine and red meat, and eager to talk about Zen.
“Tell us about meditation!” they implore, pens poised over spiral notebooks like cub reporters on the enlightenment beat. Sharing my experiences as a Zen monk is a great opportunity to take inventory of everything I’ve learned in my three-plus years on the mountain, and I avoid it like the plague. Not because I haven’t learned anything, but because the lessons I’ve learned have been mostly negative. Which is to say, I’ve unlearned things during my tenure on the mountain. You could say I’ve wised up a little: I don’t listen to myself so much anymore. I don’t take that voice in my head completely for granted. I try to follow my heart, which has no mouth. I’ve never heard a word out of it, yet it’s never steered me wrong. Nowhere is its muteness felt more strongly, however, than when someone asks me to speak about Zen.
Isn’t it shameful how you start to sound exactly like those experts in your field you’ve never understood when talking to someone who you’re pretty sure understands less than you? Nothing inspires confidence in a so-called specialist like ignorance in others. I listen to myself holding forth on Zen practice and I want to puke. Who is this fraud? I think. What the hell does he know? Last time I checked he was still putting his hakama underrobes on inside out and backward. Yet I can’t very well tell these diligent seekers the truth, can I? I couldn’t bear the disappointment on their innocent, curious little faces. They want to hear that Buddhism is the answer to all of their problems, not a big fat arrow pointing to the source of all of their problems: ego.
One thing I’ve discovered is that when people ask you about meditation and you pause to frame your reply, they usually waste no time in answering their own question. As it turns out, everyone’s an expert in the stuff that no one really knows how to talk about. People visit our grounds and a little bit of the Zen ambiance sinks in, with blue jays gabbling, the sun cutting affable arrows of light through the treetops, and a bald guy in black robes cross-armed before them, and suddenly it’s open season on the ineffable.
“Buddhist meditation is always like, relaxing and mellow, right? Kinda like soaking in the Jacuzzi but while reading a spiritual classic like Jonathan Livingston Seagull?” This charming description of what in no way resembles my meditation practice came to me recently by way of a bespectacled English major. She was brand-new to thinking. You could tell. She had that facial sheen that college students sometimes have, as if their mind were a child playing with a brand-new toy. For a moment I envied her: so young; so unencumbered by common sense, life experience, and logic.
“It is the Middling Way,” I quipped, but my pun was met with earnest nods.
“Now, what’s my mind supposed to be doing during meditation?” a student they were calling “Colonel Ralph” asked, winking as if I were a used-car salesman and he was letting me know that he appreciated my efforts and just maybe I had a buyer on the hook here. Days later, as I struggled to focus during our morning sit, the colonel’s still-unanswered question had assumed mythic proportions and was all but hunched before me on scaly, roiling haunches, glaring into my eyes and passing its forked tongue over my sweat glands, sizing me up for lunch. Why didn’t he ask me what his mind is not supposed to be doing? I mused. Then we’d have a conversation starter. It does no one any good to harbor illusions about this path, I concluded. You need to know what you’re getting into. You need to go headfirst through the windshield of your expectations.
I decided then and there to sit the next group of students down and give them “the talk,” speak directly from my own experience about the facts of spiritual life. “You’re old enough to know the truth,” I’ll say. And like a sex-ed teacher showing bubbly and clueless teenagers sobering medical photos of STD-riddled genitals, I will lay bare the scabby underbelly of serious spiritual discipline and so challenge them to deeper, more realistic religious views. For starters, deep and meaningful meditation often behaves like a love interest who’s out of your league, or a cat. The more ardently you pursue it, the more contemptuously it ignores you. One instant you’re almost shivering with insights, the kind you’re sure would send a jealous Eckhart Tolle back to his park bench, and the very next you’re wondering if you put deodorant under only one of your armpits that morning (again!), and you waste the rest of the sit trying to subtly sniff yourself to find out. Or you’ve got that song stuck in your head, the last one you heard on the radio before the retreat started—the one your kindergarten-aged niece can’t stop singing, about her booty or some drug deal gone bad. Occasionally, you even catch yourself counting lifetime sexual partners. (For some of us this is a swift game. It barely eats up 5 minutes of a 25-minute sit. The trick is, count them out of order. This makes it harder to catch yourself when you “inadvertently” double up on a partner.)
Deprived of external stimuli, you discover that your mind has a life entirely its own. And between the two of you there is no real consensus on where it ends and you begin. You try to get to the bottom of yourself, to catch your mind in the act of coming up with you, or vice versa, and it’s as though you’ve wandered into an M. C. Escher sketch of a house of mirrors, the subject lost in an infinite regression of reflections. This leads to a kind of mental vertigo, and so you compulsively raid your inner life for something solid to grab on to, some tangible insight, belief, or mantra, as though if you just kept pumping quarters into the inner jukebox, eventually you’d find the perfect track, which you could then keep playing in your head, over and over, grooving out to self-generated bliss. You’d never walk into the forest with the radio blasting and expect wild animals to appear by your side. Yet it never occurs to you to unplug the inner jukebox and get quiet inside so that a natural, organic state of mind can reorganize you and your life from within.
It’s paradoxical game we hunt from the cushion on our sitting safaris. Shakyamuni Buddha and his peers tried to put us on its scent with core injunctions like “Follow your breath.” The sages of the ages in their most prescient moments, however, would never have imagined the world we live in and the kind of mental baggage we lug into our meditation practices. Just look at the culture that surrounds you—the Hollywood blockbusters, the Washington spin machine, the Madison Avenue schlock, that Google-headed distraction hydra: the Internet—then look at your inner life, which reflects it. Sit still for five minutes, and far from watching your breath, you find yourself a captive audience for the relentless stream of self-propaganda within.
This flurry of thoughts, emotions, and story lines, wherein you explain yourself to yourself, endlessly, is generated by what we might call the Ministry of the Interior, a dubious and clandestine entity whose sole purpose seems to be to convince you that you are still the grinning, winning general of the “Army of I,” despite a lifetime of evidence to the contrary. From somewhere behind the closed doors of your mind, there issue forth endless reams of “innertainment,” starring a much more intelligent and morally exacting version of you, someone with capped teeth and a rear end as round and symmetrical as a pair of cartoon eyeballs. To take your seat in the zendo is to discover the packed marquee of fantasies playing on an endless loop in the backwoods multiplex of your imagination.
I can blow three sits daydreaming about the eulogies at my funeral alone. The praise I insert in the mouths of family members, former girlfriends, and an assortment of celebrities, not to mention the image of me in my casket—the shut eyes, face pallid and eerily tumescent, like a massive gourd—never fails to bring tears to my eyes. I linger on the scents and sounds and wend through pockets of guests like the camera in a 10-minute tracking shot that reeks of early Scorsese. Satie’s melancholic yet wistful “Gymnopédie No.1” gently tinkles on an unseen baby grand. Many joyous tears, much heartbreaking laughter. Fruit baskets from the Dalai Lama and Richard Gere. Finally, dead, I am the life of the party.
Perhaps, as the young girl dreams of her wedding, the young monk dreams of his funeral (that celebration of the “final extinction”/nirvana by default). What will I wear?! I wonder. Classic black hakama/kimono combination or my mesh summer koromo with ceremonial whites underneath for that luminescent effect? God, I leave a foxy corpse. I can see it now: the lack of flowing blood and the subtle onset of decay make me look tragic, cute even. This is a body that appears to have been pleasantly exited. Death makes anyone look sophisticated. Such is its charm.
Believe it or not, there are days when deep, focused, fantasy-free meditation comes easily, as though getting in touch with my true self were actually what it’s supposed to be—the most natural thing on the planet. From a simple sitting position, I completely plug in to the world around me. It’s like being wired for DSL. Other days, I sit down and I wait. And I wait and I wait and I wait. Finally I get a connection, but it’s weak and I keep losing it. These are the dial-up days, when meditation is not just trial and error. It is error after error.
Unfortunately, the Ineffable tends to be pretty tight-lipped when it comes to feedback. Which makes the spiritual path a great investment, a great risk. You’re surrendering to the Unknown. Talk about potential for rejection! What if it doesn’t want you; what if you’re unknown to it; what if you’re just not what it’s looking for right now, but good luck with the Known? You chant, light incense, spread statues across your altar like peanut butter on a mousetrap. You try to trick the Unknown out of its natural habitat. And when that doesn’t work, you try to trick yourself.
I’ve learned to question any Big Insight I have on the cushion if I become convinced of its wisdom only to the degree that I can convince others of it. This is the evangelical mind-set. If I’m already, seconds after having it, framing its future presentation as The Experience for friends and family, then I need to head back to the drawing board. Beware of putting things to words in your head that you haven’t fully experienced yet, reflecting on conclusions you have yet to truly reach. There’s a difference between an experience so deep and profound you can’t talk about it and an experience so deep and profound you can’t stop talking about it. The latter is usually accompanied by a semilobotomized grin and the need to hug others for about 35 seconds longer than the absolute outer limits of what they’re comfortable with even on their most touchy-feely days. Perhaps you’ve been the recipient of one of these New Age or born-again hugs. It ends with her extended, soft-focus study of your face as she slowly nods her head, her expression reading either “You too?” or “You will,” depending on how she gauges your spiritual progress. If religious fanaticism is one pole in our spiritually confused age, the “transcendent experience” fetishist is holding down the opposite: religious dilettantism. Oftentimes it’s hard to tell whether I’m faking my practice or just plain getting it wrong. With each new era of personal growth, I laugh at what once passed for insight. Present selves mock past selves, and future selves lie in wait. Meanwhile, the problem of “self ” itself goes ignored. “What was I thinking?!” I chuckle and head off on some new ridiculous tangent. Alas, I’ve spent much of my life trying to change who I am, such that who I am has in many ways become a person who tries to change himself. And how do I change that? My practice often feels like a head-on collision between the classical apophatic self-negation taught by the world’s greatest religious mystics from all traditions and the self-help of affirmative contemporary secular manuals like I’m OK—You’re OK. I want to negate myself, it seems—I just want to feel good about it.
Sometimes I merely trade one mode of distraction on the cushion for another. I mistake a change of scenery for a change of heart and swap inner distractions for outer, mental for physical. During a recent retreat, I went from being completely preoccupied with “adult innertainment” and sexual fantasies during meditation to being utterly hypnotized by every pair of bare feet that waltzed by my cushion as monks and nuns left the zendo for private meetings with our teacher. Oh, the parade of confused, semiformed pinkie toes like little aquarium stones! I learned a lot that day, like how hard it is to tell whether a foot is actually deformed or simply idiosyncratic. There are legions of bizarre and frightening feet out there, and you can waste a lot of quality time on the cushion interpreting bunches of toes as though they were Rorschach inkblots containing key information about their owners. Other times, you simply think you’re seeing toes where there are none. This is called makyo in Buddhism, or practice-based hallucinations: Did he have six toes on one foot? Does she? Him? Her? I must find a six-toed person! For the love of God do not ask why, I simply must!
Not surprisingly, the longer you sit the less seriously you take yourself. Fear and desire become like two formerly imposing parents who have begun to lose control over their 14-year-old. After a while there’s nothing they can tell you that you haven’t already heard. They still boss you around, but their threats are more like nagging, their logic reduced to “because I said so!” Unfortunately, by the time your mind—your outlook—starts to lighten up, your body begins to fall apart. Worse still, the most impressive-looking sitting positions are always the most painful. As such, whenever I take my seat in the zendo, I like to grimace and squint like Saint Sebastian receiving that final volley of arrows. I make a great show of grabbing my foot and yanking it back as though I were planning on resting the heel on top of the opposite hip socket—or lodging it between a rib, yogi that I am. In reality, all I’m doing is lifting the foot up, moving it around a bit, then putting it back exactly where it was, in the most basic cross-legged sitting position, obscured under my robes from any would-be admirers. In a practice that allows little to no opportunity for showing off, it’s important to capitalize on every opportunity to “get a leg up” on your peers.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
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