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Why I Gave Up Zen

In 1999, a flier appeared in my mailbox announcing that a class in Zen was about to begin in my hometown. If I believed in synchronicity, coincidences too eerily meaningful to be mere coincidences, this flier’s arrival would have seemed a clear case of it. I had just begun researching a book on science and mysticism, and I had decided that for the book’s purposes—and for my own well-being--I needed a spiritual practice. Zen was my first choice. With its metaphysical minimalism, it seemed quite compatible with the skeptical outlook I’d acquired after two decades as a science journalist.

A dozen students showed up for the first class, which convened in the basement of my town’s library. The teacher, whom I’ll call Sumi, was a middle-aged Japanese-American woman with short dark hair and a paradoxical expression: When she smiled, her eyes crinkled, but the corners of her mouth, downturned even in repose, sagged even more sharply. She looked as though she was being tickled and jabbed with a needle at the same time.

After we settled onto our mats and cushions, Sumi picked up a little bronze bell, walked up to a woman in the front row, and asked, “What is this?” The woman, smiling uneasily, said nothing. With the same grimace-grin, Sumi asked someone else: “What is this?” I knew the answer: The bell is a bell but it is also Ultimate Reality, Nothing, Everything. But I didn’t want to show off, not on the first night, so I remained smugly silent.

Pete, a rock-jawed karate enthusiast with a mane of heavy-metal-style hair, brayed out, “Are you asking, like, what’s the metaphorical meaning of the bell?” Sumi’s upper body jerked backward, as if buffeted by Pete’s words. Collecting herself, she spoke haltingly about how the words and concepts we attach to things keep us from seeing them as they really are. Zen helps us to see “this”—she held up the bell—for what it really is. Scanning our blank faces, she added mournfully, “It’s very difficult to talk about these things.”

True knowledge comes through meditation, Sumi said, before giving us some basic instruction: Find a comfortable posture, relaxed but not too relaxed, back straight. Keep the eyes slightly open, focused on a spot a few feet in front of you. Pay attention to your breath going in and out. As thoughts, sensations, emotions arise, watch them come and go without reacting.

Sitting back on my heels, I felt itches on my face and scalp, a tickle in my throat. I wanted to cough, to scratch my head, but I remained silent and still, like Sumi. As other students squirmed and coughed, I felt a pleasant surge of superiority. After 10 minutes or so, the air glowed and hummed with energy, and faint auras appeared around Sumi and other objects in my field of vision. Cool, I thought. Satori, next stop.

At Sumi’s command we rose, eyes downcast, hands together, and walked around the room, once, twice. A muscle knotted in my lower left back. I trudged along, listing to the right, wondering if the man behind me noticed. I watched the short, sturdy legs of the woman in front of me go back and forth, back and forth.

In subsequent classes, I found myself becoming increasingly critical of Sumi’s teachings. She told us about retreats during which she meditated for up to 14 hours a day and didn’t speak to or make eye contact with anyone else. After two weeks or more, these retreats sometimes left her wobbly-legged from all her sitting and averse to any human contact. To dramatize how she felt, Sumi scowled and pushed her palms outwards, as if fending off a repugnant suitor. What is the spiritual benefit of being repulsed by your fellow humans? I wondered.

The goal of Zen, Sumi said, is to restore us to a state of child-like innocence. She showed us a photograph of Ho Chi Minh sitting on a beach surrounded by kids, one of whom was pulling the despot’s beard. This child was acting spontaneously, with no self-consciousness or anxiety, Sumi said. “Just do it,” she summed up, smile-frowning. Is this the goal of Zen? I wondered. To regress to the mindless hyperkineticism celebrated in sneaker ads? And anyway who said childhood is so great? My young son and daughter had plenty of anxious, miserable moments.

Sumi told us about a master who asked a monk “What is dharma mind?” and whacked him whenever he tried to answer. Why, Sumi asked us with a mischievous glint in her eye, did the teacher hit the student? I started to speak, but Sumi cut me off with a loud “Ahh!” Someone else spoke and again Sumi interrupted: “Ahh!” Her expression was tremulous, triumphant. Eventually she explained the master’s point: language prevents us from seeing the world as it truly is. I thought how tired I was of this Zen cliche. How many millions of words have Zen masters spouted telling us to get beyond words?

Sumi recounted how the Zen patriarch Bodhidharma went into a cave and stared at a wall for weeks on end, waiting for enlightenment. He became so enraged with himself for falling asleep that he tore his eyelids off; this was the origin of the Zen technique of open-eyed meditation. Bodhidharma used to make would-be students wait outside the monastery to cull out the uncommitted. One young man, to demonstrate his commitment, chopped off his own arm. He went on to become a great master in his own right. Sumi seemed to think these men were heros, but to me they sounded like masochists and sadists.

Some of my fellow koan-heads were also distracting. The worst was Cell-phone Man, so-called because the first time he came to Sumi’s class his cell-phone beeper kept going off. During Zazen he also infuriated me by yawning, sighing, and twisting his head with a crunching noise. When Sumi at the end of our sessions asked if anyone had any questions or comments, Cell-phone Man invariably piped up, loudly, as if he were hard of hearing.

Once he told us that something amazing had happened to him the previous weekend. All the thoughts in his head began spontaneously turning into songs, and he realized that creation is nothing more than God turning silence into song, which is really just vibrations, and, you know, energy. As he related his epiphany, I watched him coolly, thinking how foolish and loathsome he was. Then I realized how loathsome I was to loathe him, and I loathed him even more.

The voice in my head kept carping when I tried to practice mindfulness outside of class, too. Waking one winter morning to freshly fallen snow, I strapped on my cross-country skis and pushed off into the woods behind our house. The sky was sunless, white, lacking features or depth, like the phony sound-studio skies in old black and white movies. The light was directionless, omnipresent; it seemed a quality of the air rather than an emanation from above. Every tree and bush was finely etched, drained of color. The leaves of the mountain laurel looked not green but black, like wet stones.

Sliding through the trees, my face pushing through my own exhalations, I thought about falling stock prices, about a local real-estate development my wife was fighting, about our daughter’s cold, about my Zen class. Abruptly I realized I wasn’t being mindful. My monkey mind was running wild, swinging through the trees, hooting and chattering, and I scarcely noticed where I was, what I was doing, where I was going. When I did focus on what I was doing, my thoughts tended to be exhortatory, goal-directed: Push harder. Not getting enough exercise. Watch out for that buried branch.

Stop! I chided myself. Pay attention! Be here now! So I stood in the middle of the path, leaning on my poles, expelling great plumes of mist. I gazed around me at the still, snow-dusted trees, the gnarled mountain laurel, the animal tracks criss-crossing the trail. What are those? That’s deer. That’s rabbit. That’s...what, racoon? Stop! I told myself again. You’re not being here now!

Then I rebelled against this drill sergeant in my head. This exercise in self-discipline is absurd. Every time I order myself to be here now I’m not being here now. I’m thinking about being here now. It’s self-defeating from the start, like trying to remember to forget. In heeding the command, I violate it.

My rebellion spread to other spiritual truisms, to Sumi’s injunction to be child-like. Childrens’ spontaneity and joy spring from their self-absorption and ignorance. What do they know of death, suffering, the woes of the world? A spirituality that denies these realities is shallow, escapist. And what’s so great about being in the moment, anyway? We should revel in our minds’ ability to range freely through space and time rather than being trapped like animals in the here and now.

Wait, another voice countered. Am I just rationalizing, justifying my habits of mind to myself, out of laziness, or timidity? So that I can stay sealed inside my cozy intellectual perspective and avoid a deeper confrontation with reality?

As this argument raged in my head, my body stood silently. Blood pulsed in my temples, beads of sweat inched down my forehead. A tree creaked, and the chill, colorless air hissed into my lungs and out again, in and out.

Soon after this episode, I stopped attending Sumi’s class. I no longer have a spiritual practice.