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.

On the other hand, my new, sort of regular, job was not so relaxing and centering. It was not a regular job so much as a full-time part-time job in the recently finished Gulf & Western Building at Columbus Circle. I was in charge of making sure all the right office furniture was placed in all the right offices. And each day I could see my job heading toward termination, because each day we’d be on a higher floor, working our way to the top.

Image courtesy of Henrik Drescher.


I was planning to make a big retreat at the Dogen Zen Center in the Poconos as soon as we filled the top floor of the Gulf & Western Building with that God-awful gray-and-chrome furniture. In order to get it done, I’d even taken up smoking cigars. This seemed to make the men trust me more, or at least respect me and listen when I’d act angry. I was smoking those cheap, rum-soaked, crooked cigars, and suddenly the right furniture started ending up in the right place.

I rode up to the Poconos with a bunch of fellow meditators from the Upper West Side zendo. A long dirt road led into an old converted hotel next to a trout stream. It was spring and trees and bushes were just budding.

The hotel was a cross between a sort of Japanese restaurant and an American hunting lodge, with an authentic resident Japanese Zen master to guide and instruct us in our meditations. I was longing for enlightenment. I couldn’t wait to begin sitting.

Sitting was exactly what we did. We sat fourteen hours a day. We were up at five-thirty in the morning and sitting by six. After a short morning sitting, there was breakfast, then a sitting until lunch, then a short rest, then an afternoon sitting, then dinner, then an evening sitting, and to bed by nine. I never dreamed I would do such a crazy thing to myself: to sit with my eyes open staring at a white wall while counting my breath from one to ten over and over again. I never could have done it without the others, and, of course, our Zen master.

His name was Hara Sho Roshi, and he was a fiery little speedball with a shaved head, dressed in the most colorful Japanese robes. He looked like a big bullet, like a decorated bomb, like something you might load into a big circus cannon.

There were about thirty of us, men and women, all sitting in a row cross-legged on round black cushions, just staring at a white wall, counting our breaths. There goes a “7,” there goes a “6,” there goes a “5,” floating right across the room. Now when I say I was “watching my thoughts,” they weren’t exactly thoughts so much as they were images and memories that would come in from the storage in my mind. The best time at the zendo was mealtime. No one was allowed to talk, so all you could do was just chew and taste your food. It was a simple vegetarian diet with lots of brown rice, but I’d never had such a pure and intense taste sensation before. We couldn’t do a running commentary. It was the same when we walked outside for our fresh air breaks. No one said things like “Oh, what a beautiful spring day! Oh, look at those red buds!” Instead we became the silver stream and the red buds. Just like it said in the books, it happened. Without words or commentary we became a part of it all and blended with those spring breezes and the land and the light around us. It was all new and glorious and very confusing.

Then around the third day of sitting things began to get more than a little claustrophobic. I was stuck in my past. Memory felt almost like a substance now. Memory felt like the only thing that was real. Memories of my past played over and over again. Memories flowed into horrors of hindsight and regret, thoughts of how I would do things differently if only I could relive them, if only I could come back with the knowledge that I had now. That would truly be heaven. Then I’d realize I’d forgotten to count my breath, and I’d be back in the numbers again.

Every morning Hara Sho Roshi would give us a little talk after breakfast, just a little talk to help fuel our meditations. The first morning he said that to study Zen is to study ourselves and to study ourselves is to forget ourselves. This was wonderfully paradoxical, I thought, but I was frustrated that I couldn’t quite figure it out. He said that only then will we be free to return to what he called “big mind.” He said before we were born we had no feeling and were one with the universe. He called this “mind only,” or “big mind.” Then at birth we are separated into individual minds, but we can still experience the ground from which we came. He told us that many sensations and images would come and go, but they are just mindwaves from our small mind and we should not get attached to them. We should just let them come and go until we reach the calm of big mind at last.

And so it went into the third day: a tortuous review of my small, sad mind, my small life with no big mind in view, nothing larger than myself and my memory, over and over. Then, on the afternoon of the third day, the black-and-white porn movies began.

I had no sense that I was creating them. It was as though they were being projected on the wall, and for a while I wondered if the people sitting on either side of me could see them too.

Here on the zendo wall were giant disembodied erect cocks with balls and little fluttering wings like butterfly wings growing out of them. These cocks were flying and diving all over the place, soaring on the white plaster walls of this Pocono zendo, and I didn’t know what to make of them.

I couldn’t figure out who was making them up. I didn’t feel like I was doing it. And the more I tried not to hold onto them (sure that they were small-mind ephemera), the more baroque the images became. Soon the wall was also full of vaginas that looked like fleshy butterflies in flight. They were deliciously swollen, pink, puckering vaginas with a little edge of black hair around them. They would fly and then stop and flutter and pose and then start flying again all around the zooming cocks. The whole wall became a film of a springtime meadow of cocks soaring and diving into the butterfly vaginas. When they got to one, they’d glide in and pump real hard for a moment and then fly on to another vagina, like bees pollinating a flower.

After a while they got connected to bodies. I’d never seen anything like it in my life, so I knew I wasn’t recalling it from some pictures I’d observed in the past. A body-pile of naked men and women, in the most outrageous combinations ever imagined, began to appear on the white wall in front of me. I had an erection popping right up through the fly of my underwear, straight up into the brown cotton meditation robe, turning it into what looked like a Bedouin tent.

I have to say I’d never encountered anything like what I saw and heard on the walls of that Pocono zendo. And I had no interest in transcending it. It felt all right and good and I didn’t want to go beyond it; I was no longer experiencing small mind, I was sure, or my past history. I was experiencing for the first time in my life pure cock mind. I was stuck there, very much stuck there.

During the course of our daily meditations we were allowed one three-minute audience with Hara Sho Roshi in which we could discuss our particular meditation problems. We were asked not to discuss anything psychological, because he was not trained or versed in such matters. We were only to discuss the quality of our particular meditation practice.

I was touched on the shoulder and led into a room off the meditation hall, and I was overwhelmed by what I saw. There he sat before me, Hara Sho Roshi, dressed in Japanese robes of silver, cream, and crimson, rock-hard in full lotus, like a beautiful Zen statue, like a Buddha. He sat with his back to the window and the white spring light spread and emanated like a silver aura off his robes. I just sat there stunned, looking into his dancing eyes, and for a moment the whole room seemed to be filled with love; and yet how could it have been? I hardly knew this strange head-shaved Japanese man.

Hara Sho Roshi said sternly and directly, “Sit! Speak! What do you have to say to me?”

I sat, feeling like this humble little boy back in Christian Science Sunday school, and I said softly, hearing the odd sound of my voice for the first time in four days, “I’m seeing a lot of strange things on the wall.”

And he, speaking now in the low, deeply centered voice of a Zen roshi, said, “Those are only small-mind waves that will pass. Soon you will be in big mind. Continue your meditations with vigor.” And then he dismissed me, and I went back to the endless porn films on the wall.

Then on the fifth day it happened. It came completely unexpectedly, as I assume something like that must. It came like a great clear sky at the end of a storm. I was just sitting there on my Zen cushion with my spine fully erect watching a particularly complicated daisy chain of naked men and women all intertwined in the most complicated pleasure connections—the way we all might be in this meditation room, I thought, if only it was a hotel for swingers. And just as I was contemplating that idea, everything suddenly broke and went clear—just as clear as that time I had seen the stars on LSD. Suddenly there was no “me” observing. There was only the room and bare essential presence. It was as though I was the whole room and the whole room was me, and we were all sitting breathing together. The room had breath, everyone had breath, it was one big swelling breath, and we were all one with it. There was no boundary, and as I breathed, I could feel the whole room breathe and expand with breath so that now the room was breathing and there was hardly any “me” left, only breath and a room and all of us breathing together. And at the same time there was just enough awareness left in me to feel the magnificence of it all, the magnificence and beatitude of what I guess was big mind, and my God, how sweet it was. It couldn’t have been very long, maybe a few seconds, and then it burst, just like a precious soap bubble.

It was broken by some grasping analytic mind in me that leaped on it, ripping and tearing. This beast of analysis leaped upon the precious moment and tore it to bits: “What was that? How do I name that? How do I explain it to anyone? How do I tell its story?” And then, poof, the big mind moment was gone, gone into a new memory. The memory of it blended now with the other memories from my past, which blended with the porn films on the wall. I sat there for the next three days longing for what I thought was big mind to come again. I felt so very sad; I had looked through a window into a landscape that seemed larger than me and yet a part of me. I’d experienced it, and it might never come again. I felt so very, very sad that I sat there with tears flowing down and dripping onto my perpetual erection.

At the end of seven days of silence I was popping to talk. I was bursting at the mouth. I came into the men’s dorm room just after we were allowed to speak again and a fellow meditator was making his bed. I burst into a vivid description of all I’d seen, felt, and heard over the past six days, and he just turned to me very directly and said, “There are things to be done.”

It was the same driving home. All the people in the car seemed more interested in maintaining the silence they had cultivated than in talking about what happened to them there. They just sat there and looked out the window, while I babbled on. All that silence had made me sad and a little crazy. The silence allowed the great and always present sadness behind words to rise up in me, and I didn’t like it one bit. It covered me like a great gray web. For the rest of the trip I rode in silence thinking about Grandpa Benton, and I realized for the first time that I’d never known him beyond his style of control and order. That upright, uptight pillar of the community. That steady-as-she-goes man. And for one dark moment I wondered if Mom had gotten beyond that in him. Had they ever touched hearts? I wondered.

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