This is an excerpt from Spalding Gray’s novel Impossible Vacation, to be published by Alfred A. Knopf this month. It is the story of Brewster North, a pleasure-seeking puritan and control freak who likes to create his own hells before the real ones can get to him. The film version of Gray’s performance piece about writing the book, entitled Monster in a Box, has just been released in New York.
My attraction to Zen was mirrored in Mom’s father, my grandfather Benton. He was a man who led a middle-of-the-road life of peaceful New England centeredness. He did nothing in excess. You could almost say he did “nothing in excess” to excess. A living example of New England Zen, he was also an example of what we might call the Zen miracle: some sensational Hindu miracle worker is having a competitive discussion with a Zen master about various miracles, and the Hindu is discussing how he can fly, walk on the water, and materialize diamonds, rubies, and pearls out of thin air. The Zen master listens quietly, with stern enthusiasm, and then replies, quite simply, “But that’s nothing. Listen to the miracles I can perform. When I’m hungry I eat. When I’m tired I sleep.”
Grandpa Benton was a sailor, and the whole way he sailed was a reflection of his calm stability; he was always, as they used to say around the Barrington Yacht Club, “steady as she goes.” How he ever gave birth to such a manic daughter as Mom I will never know.
Any propensity on my part to take up the path of Zen came from that steady-as-she-goes quality of Grandpa Benton’s—coupled with a very beautiful book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. It read the way Grandpa Benton sailed: beautifully, directly, without complication or unnecessary excitement. It cried out to me to let go of all the manufactured drama in my life, all the hype that I felt I had to make up in order to feel I was living, really living.
I began to practice meditation at a zendo on New York’s Upper West Side. Two or three times a week, I’d sit for an hour and count my breath while I looked at a blank white wall. You were required to count your breath from one to ten, over and over. When you got to ten you’d go back to one and start again. I could see the number attached to each breath. I could see a “1,” then a “2,” and so on, rise up from my diaphragm and go up and out of my nose. The room filled with numbers, numbers everywhere, hundreds of “1-to-10s.” Except for the numbers and the incense, my Zen sittings were all quite relaxing and centering.
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