I didn’t decide to train in a Zen monastery.
I didn’t say to myself one day, “I think I’d like to give up everything I have and go train as a monk in a Zen monastery for 14 years.”
Before I discovered Zen, I had no interest in anything even remotely resembling spirituality. I was interested in the exact opposite. I was just a regular artist dude who liked to read a lot and collect shiny objects. By all rights, I had everything I thought I should have that would warrant happiness. My planets had aligned. I had the magnificent home, the beautiful girlfriend, the excellent job, the money to buy whatever I wanted, the free time to do my artwork, and all the friends I could ever want.
So when I followed my girlfriend into that new age bookstore on South Street, it was merely to humor her. On my own, I would never have been caught dead in there. I often scoffed about how it was the “$500 Self-Help Buddha Statue Shop.” A store full of expensive junk to buy that signaled to everyone that you were enlightened because you owned it.
But that weekend, my girlfriend’s bestie from out of town came to visit, and they both wanted to go in and look around, so I joined them. Being the good boyfriend, I left them to wander about together, and while they did, I tried to keep my mouth shut and stay out of trouble.
So I picked up a random book off the tabletop that caught my eye. It had a long, weird title and a drawing on the cover of something I didn’t know what. As I thumbed through this slim book, I noticed the text inside was handwritten, and there were cute drawings scattered throughout. I looked at the back cover, and there was a photo of the author, and she looked radiant. Beaming.
Now, I’ve got to tell you, that everything about this book should have sent me a strong signal to put it down and avoid it at all costs. Because serious authors wrote the books I was interested in. Serious authors with serious photos of them taken in shadows with serious looks on their faces. They weren’t cutesie. They were authors like Edgar Allen Poe. Grim, in shadows and menacing.
But for whatever unknown reason, I started to read this book. And from the first few words in, I was hooked. The author was talking about life as though she was talking about my life. And the life and thoughts were my life and thoughts. She was describing me and what I was struggling with, even though I would never have said I was struggling. It was as if she was standing in my head speaking through me explaining why I experienced life the way I did.
This one passage in particular then jumped out at me. Here’s my paraphrase of it:
“One process does not lead to another. One process leads to more of that process. So wanting does not equal having. Only having equals having. Just as wanting only leads to more wanting. If I wanted to experience having — I needed to have, not want. The same was true with peace. If I wanted peace, I needed to experience peace. I was not going to have peace by striving after peace.”
I saw my life flash before my eyes at that moment. The insight was so simple, yet so profound. Suddenly everything made sense.
Because even though I was not miserable, I wasn’t exactly happy. I would describe my life as a series of “seeking moments” that led to briefly obtaining what I was seeking. And those only resulted in me seeking again. Like I was some bottomless hole that could never be filled. There was always going to be new things to have, new places to see, new people to meet, and new experiences to be had. Which in itself could be okay. The trouble was, I never felt like I was there with any of them. While I was obtaining one, I was thinking about how I could get the other. I never had anything. I was eternally wanting. And in the process, I was missing out on my life and feeding my dissatisfaction instead.
My girlfriend passed me while I was reading this book several times and finally made the observation, “It looks like you’re enjoying this book. If you like it so much, you should just buy it.” And so I did.
Then in a couple of days, I bought another. And another. I became addicted to these “Zen books.”
However, nothing would have ever changed in my life had I not done one simple thing. Meditate.
And I almost didn’t. You see, these books were full of exercises to do, and there were constant encouragements to meditate. I just gleefully skipped those. They seemed to interrupt the flow of my reading. And what I was reading was so inspiring.
Stop to do an exercise? Nah, I don’t think so.
It was by book #9 that it finally dawned on me. How ridiculous to be buying and reading books about meditation and not be meditating.
That afternoon, before work, I went to that same $500 Self-Help Buddha Statue Shop and bought myself a meditation cushion.
That’s when everything changed for me.
That’s when I saw how I was living my life. I saw what wasn’t working. And I saw how I was living as a collector who was never satisfied.
Of course, I thought, if the answer wasn’t in what I purchased or owned then the answer must be “not to purchase or own” anything.
It took me a while to realize that this wasn’t the answer. That’s just the other side of the duality. So I struggled with this. For a while, I tried to stop myself from buying anything. I got rid of a bunch of stuff. But I wasn’t any happier. I understood the concepts, but my logical mind was concluding what to do with my understanding and messing things up.
When my girlfriend announced that she wanted us to travel cross-country together, it was a perfect opportunity to visit a Zen monastery I knew about there. I said nothing but kept it in my mind for when the time came to discuss it with her.
In the process of preparing for this trip, I would sell most of my belongings. Now I had my excuse to do so. But it was incredibly challenging. I had LOTS of fantastic stuff. Art books worth a great deal. Hundreds of compact discs. The used bookstores and record shops thought I was nuts for parting with such collectible stuff. But I needed the money to fund our trip. Besides. I had found Zen and I no longer needed these things.
I said this on the outside while my stomach did flip flops on the inside. Everything I was doing was threatening my identity, and it felt horrible.
So off we went across the country.
I remember telling my girlfriend casually that I thought it would be fun to visit a Zen monastery when we arrived in California (our destination). She agreed. When we got to Tennessee, I called the monastery to see if we could arrange a visit. I got a jovial woman on the phone who said, “Of course” and then told me she would send me an email that would include all the information I needed about the orientation. I was excited.
However, when we got to Mississippi, things took a drastic turn.
We went to visit a woman I had met in Philadelphia who was the mother of an employee I knew. She, herself, had spent years in an Ashram training in spirituality, meditation, and yoga. She and I connected and along the way she became a bit of a spiritual mentor to me, although I would never have called her that. She was always just Fruma to me. I would tell her some stories about how I was struggling with my girlfriend, and she would give me straightforward advice.
Rather blunt advice. Advice that left me inspired yet slightly disturbed.
For example, she told me that “The world wants an honest Alex, not a nice Alex.” So I left her after our conversation, and this simple sentence floated around in my head for a long time. After a while, I could suddenly grasp what she meant.
I was having trouble saying “no” to my girlfriend and instead did some rather foolish things to please her. I wasn’t telling her what I wanted, and this was getting me upset. “Of course,” I thought, “the world needs an honest Alex who will speak the truth instead of a nice Alex who will simply do what will please others.”
So when I got to see Fruma in Mississippi, and we had some time alone together, she said, “What are you doing on this stupid trip with this stupid girl?” My heart made a familiar Fruma thud. Did she just say what I thought she said? I sat in silence for a bit because I didn’t know what to say to that.
Finally, I knew she was reading my mind. I did think this trip was stupid and I did see my girlfriend as this silly girl who was in control of me. Again. Somehow I got talked into yet another ridiculous situation that had more to do with me pleasing her rather than staying true to myself. And it was costing ME money and going to leave us in a bad way in the end.
I told Fruma that she was right. But what to do? Then she asked me, “If you weren’t on this stupid trip with this stupid girl, what would you be doing?”
Without any hesitation at all, I said, “I’d be in a monastery.”
Now we both sat in silence for a bit to let that sink in. Finally, she said, “That’s not a typical response from a man your age, so I suggest you meditate on this a bit.”
But at that moment, it became clear that I wanted to see if it would be possible to extend my visit to the Zen monastery.
Later that night, I told my girlfriend that I’d like to see if I could stay there a month. She was a little hesitant, but she had been very supportive of me the whole time. She saw how powerful meditation and the practice I was doing in those books were for me. The moment I began meditating I became more loving, kind and attentive. So she said yes. Of course.
I called the monastery to discuss the possibility. I remember getting the same jovial woman on the phone again. The jovial woman agreed on the more extended stay but said that I would need to get a few other details taken care of to proceed. For example, because of the longer time commitment, I would need to have a tetanus shot. I remember agreeing because I was so excited my request was granted so quickly (I later found out that “the jovial woman” was to be my future Zen teacher).
As I got my other details in order, and the reality of me parting from my girlfriend for a month was starting to settle in, I became uneasy. This decision, while exciting, began tugging at my heartstrings. My girlfriend started calling herself “The Lone Wolf,” and she made this crayon drawing of herself at sea with me far away on some distant shore. It made me cry to look at it.
In San Diego, I got my tetanus shot and began my ½ day bus trip up north to the monastery. I had my “hobo” sleeping bag packed up with minimal belongings and tears in my eyes, sobbing goodbye to my girlfriend. I think the last thing I said to her before boarding the bus was, “You’re the best girlfriend in the world.”
Pulling away from that bus station was hard. The same flip-flop in my stomach started to happen as I realized that everything I knew and was familiar to me was getting further and further away. My girlfriend took the van, our cell phone, our money and everything we owned to settle in California for a short while. I had next to nothing, and I was going off to God-knows-where.
When I was finally dropped off at the last Greyhound bus station, I was exhausted. My trip began early in the morning, and now it was late in the afternoon, approaching evening. I was supposed to meet a monk at the bus station who was going to pick me up. I had no way to contact anyone. No one at the nearly abandoned station looked like a monk.
What did a monk look like anyway?
I waited and waited for over 20 minutes. Finally, a young woman pulled up in a station wagon and began looking around. She was wearing beads around her neck, and when our eyes met, she asked, “Alex?”
I sighed in relief and smiled. She looked down at my “hobo” bag to see if she could help me load up for the ride to the monastery. But I had it under control. The expression on her face led me to believe that no one else just showed up like a homeless person to go to the monastery before.
Our car ride was in silence, as per the guidelines. So all I could do was sit there with the endless stream of thoughts racing through my head.
The highways turned into four-lane roads, which turned into two-lane roads, which winded deeper and deeper into the woods. The weather got more drastic.
Eternally sunny San Diego seemed like a distant dream as the cold, windy rain dropped in bucket loads onto our windshield. The sound of the wipers quickly swooshing mirrored the racing of my heart.
After a couple more hours of traveling, the winding road turned into a narrow dirt road that ran up alongside a hill. I could barely see anything because it was so dark.
We finally slowed down and passed a single cattle gate. The monk at this point, stepped out of the car quickly to close it behind us and then get back in out of the rain. We crawled at five mph along our final stretch. I saw some lights up ahead in windows to a building on the hill we passed and then more darkness.
She parked before a small brown trailer sitting in the woods. Together, we walked inside, and she showed me the contents with her flashlight.
“This is your hermitage.” She said with her voice slightly raised so it can be heard over the rain. “Here’s the propane tank for your heater.” On top of the tank was short metal neck attached to a small round grill. “Here’s how to light it. Be sure NOT to keep it on overnight. The fumes are toxic, and if you leave it lit while you sleep, you might not wake up.” She said this in a way that was supposed to be funny. But after an entire day’s worth of travel and the shock that had set into my system, I just nodded while she laughed awkwardly to herself.
Before she left, she asked if I had a flashlight. I said yes and pulled mine out from the hobo bag. She said, “If you’d like to join us for meditation and then something to eat, the hall is back where we passed.” I thanked her, and she left.
There was no electricity in my “hermitage.” Just an oil lamp in the corner by the mattress on a plywood box. It was a good thing I wasn’t claustrophobic because there was no room in this structure for more than me and my bag.
I went over to the lamp and attempted to light it. I noticed the box of matches sitting by it was damp and so I had to strike the box repeatedly. After attempt #9, panic began to set in as my strikes became more and more frantic. I finally put the box down as I thought I was about to lose it.
Flashes of my girlfriend by herself in a strange place, The Lone Wolf, me in the dark, in hell with this wet box, the futility of me trying to light a godforsaken match, paper ripping from the box, my breath showing in the flashlight beam, the sound of rain crashing on all sides, buried alive, my heart racing, and feeling desperately alone. Panic!
Finally, I remembered to drop everything and focus on my breath.
A life raft. Thank you!
I began to breathe consciously. Just like I had been doing since the moment I started meditating. The way I had been meditating in the van as I traveled cross country. The way I had been training myself to redirect my attention. Shifting my focus from my thoughts to my breath. Again and again.
I felt myself instantly calm down. I picked up the box, struck it with another match, and it immediately lit. The oil lamp glowed warmly and illuminated the hermitage.
My new home.
I plopped down on the bed and continued to focus on my breath and listen to the rainfall.
There was nothing left to do but undo my sleeping bag, prepare to join meditation and get something to eat. I was exhausted.
This was Day 1.
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Originally published at www.zenlife.coach.
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