Like many so-called spiritual seekers, I started meditating when I was struggling and open to change. It was my senior year in college, and I was confused about what to do after graduating. At the time, it seemed I had one of two choices: either to follow my freedom-loving and searching side, the one that studied philosophy, traveled during the summers, and experimented with recreational drugs; or to heed my success-is-real-important suburban New York Jewish upbringing—the part of me that gunned for A’s, knew my G.P.A. down to the second decimal point, and could rattle off a list of the country’s top law schools. Ultimately, I abandoned my childhood plans to become a lawyer or a professional of any kind, but it left me anxious. Looking for some peace of mind, I turned to Zen meditation.
Zen promised a take-life-as-it-comes fluidity that I lacked and a way to live well no matter what I did for a job. I was drawn to Zen’s quiet dignity, and my twenty-year-old self found its mysterious methods appealing. I began meditating twenty to thirty minutes a day alone in my dorm room.
Meditating was a real struggle at first. Simply staying still for ten minutes was challenge enough—and then my ankles and thighs would burn from sitting in the half-lotus position. By the end of most meditation sessions, I was shaking, drenched in sweat, and ready to pounce on the alarm clock. But I was intrigued—and desperate enough—to stick with it. I liked the heightened intensity meditation brought to moments that I would otherwise have thought of as uneventful. And I savored those times I could completely focus on one thing. Within a few months I was waking at 4:30 a.m. to sit with a local Zen group. In the evenings, I usually put in another hour by myself, doing two to three hours a day.
Meditating increased my concentration and clarity of thought. It made it easier to appreciate life’s “simple” pleasures. After returning from early morning sittings, I’d watch the sun rise over Lake Michigan and be moved to tears or to shouting by the beauty of the pastel display reflected off the water or jagged ice. Other times, seeing steam dance in a ray of sunlight could take my breath away.
At the time, I thought meditating was getting rid of my anxiety. In retrospect, I see that while it did quiet my mind some, I hadn’t genuinely come to terms with what bothered me.
Back then, I saw emotions (at least the negative ones) as something largely to be conquered. I eagerly lapped up books filled with stories of meditators having powerful, transforming experiences after years of cross-legged concentration or during intense retreats. Some accounts spoke of complete freedom from unhappiness. I became convinced my petty self could be transcended if I worked hard enough. So I buckled down, bent on—I’m embarrassed to say—the quick, it-could-happen-any-day-now enlightenment plan.
For seven years, Zen was my anchor. Meditating helped maintain my sanity while I worked a sixty-hour-a-week job, and it was my steady companion through a series of mostly unsuccessful or nonexistent relationships. I might forget to call a girlfriend, but I rarely missed a day of sitting. And while I might be reluctant to take a vacation, I regularly attended Zen retreats called sesshins—weeklong, silent meditating fests that entailed sitting eleven to twelve hours a day.
During one sesshin, however, my Zen mooring was literally beaten loose by a Japanese Zen master and his wooden stick. At this retreat, during a private meeting with the teacher, I complained of being unmotivated (“Maybe,” I said, “it’s because I’m not in as much pain as I used to be.”). In a flash, the teacher pulled me forward and smashed his kyosaku stick on my back. He stung me again and again with sharp blows as he told me to shout my koan. I hollered really loud and long and lost track of the whacks, occasionally wondering why I didn’t run or grab his stick.
Afterwards, I found my back badly bruised; between my shoulder blades sat a shiny purple-and-blue lump the size of a baseball. Oddly, it didn’t hurt much, but I was dazed. The kyosaku is part of the Zen tradition, but I’d never heard about anything like this. Usually, one gets a few strategic swats on the back for a burst of energy. And in Western countries, a meditator only gets hit if he requests it. This pummeling clearly went well beyond that, and it sent me into a tizzy. I felt stuck between quitting the retreat and rejecting Zen or trying to understand what had happened. Unable to do either, I threw myself into meditating and tried blocking out everything else.
Maybe the teacher had intuited that I was ripe for such a pounding; maybe in Japan he had received many such floggings from his teacher and he didn’t realize he was overstepping cultural boundaries. I can still wrestle with the ethics of that whomping. Was it wrong? On principle, I know it was. But as it turns out, he did me a favor.
During that retreat, even as I continued to flounder, my concentration became very strong as I clung to my koan. Eventually the combination of struggle and effort wore me down and I just gave up and went limp. Then, everything dropped away except for an awareness of pure, formless, universal energy—what some, I think, would call God. It’s hard to say how long this “view” lasted, but I felt no doubt about its reality. It wasn’t a thought; it was something I had come upon. My overwhelming reaction was of awe and then, later, a big “aha.” Now I knew what the expression “the cosmic dance” really meant. Infinite, all-pervasive energy underlies everything and is everything. We may think we do our own thing, we may even exercise our “own” will, but I saw that our life and all things are fleeting, ever-changing expressions of this energy.
I got no sense of whether this energy was benevolent. As far as I could tell, it simply was/is (if in a dizzyingly awesome way). But its very existence had implications. It confirmed that making spiritual matters central in my life was my best—and only real—choice. It gave me a more powerful conviction than ever that an Ivy League career didn’t matter, but that working on myself and helping others did.
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