Zen and the Art Of

I was supposed to be following my breathing. I was supposed to stare at this white wall—“the emptiness of it”—and silently “count my breaths.”

Simple Zazen: Breath in and count one. Breath out and count two. When you reach ten, begin at one again.

I was supposed to sit on this hard buckwheat pillow, legs in a half-pretzel pose, and learn to ignore what the Zen Master called my monkey mind—“always fidgeting around!”

“You are undisciplined!” he told me in our private talks. “You emotionally react to your thoughts!”

He folded his monk’s robes in a fluid motion and relaxed into a full lotus. It was like watching a dancer move, or a serious athlete. He sat directly across from me. Very close. Too close. I could smell the onions on his breath. He continued his speech.

“For most people, getting emotional about thoughts isn’t much of a problem,” he began poking me gently in the forehead, “but that imagination of yours is dangerous, boy. You must tame it.”

When I first met the master,  I told him that, as a child, I would uncontrollably imagine entire narratives for strangers.

For example, if I saw a person genuinely smiling—the smile that hits the eyes—I’d compulsively create a story to explain that happiness. I’d weave an entire tale that ended with that one smile.

It was my private game, sort of. I mean, I assumed everyone did it, and I generally enjoyed it.

Unless people’s misery caught me. Particular looks of suffering,  scowls or deeply sunken eyes,  depressed tones of voice—any of these cues could thrust me into a dark fantasy. Deeply unhappy people overwhelmed me.

On several occasions, these are emotional memories, I literally burst into tears, wept over the look in a stranger’s eyes. Flashback: “Oh what a cute baby!” Explosive sobs. My poor mother.

The Zen Master had heard enough. He sat me on an earthy crunchy pillow, and told me to:

“Detach from your thoughts. All that you are is breathing. Follow your breathing and ignore your monkey mind.”

He sat to the left of me, facing me, upon a three foot raised platform: to watch.

“Do not move!” He commanded. He always bellowed his voice. I always flinched, involuntarily. “Do not move, I said!” Again and again.

As I sat there breathing, I could see him peripherally: a wooden statue frozen in the corner of my mind. Stone. Rigid. Watching me. Not even blinking.

What is this person? I thought.

Then I felt the bamboo reed on my left shoulder. See, the advanced students strode silently around the meditation hall. This was their meditation. They were training to be masters by watching the beginners for signs of wavering focus—“slouching, a slight fidget, breathing too noisily.” The master had explained all of this.

The bamboo reed was an offer of assistance. My hyper-focus on the looming master was setting off major alarms. I had moved my right foot, slightly.

“Would you like some help?” the reed figuratively asked me. The master was watching, and I wanted to please. I said yes in the way I was trained to: hands together and raised to my forehead.

The first two quick whips were sharp—like two wasps stinging my right shoulder. The second couplet—to my left shoulder—were harder. They felt like belt straps.

The four lashes jerked my spine straight. I stared at my wall.

Breath in and count one! Breath out and count two! When you reach ten, begin at one again!

I put the pain to the side, but I did not ignore my thoughts. I thought about my father. I was twenty-two years old, and I hadn’t seen or heard from my dad in over ten years. His war trauma had ripped my family apart. By my eleventh birthday, he was court ordered to stay far away. And he did.

In many ways, this is where my story begins.

Chapter One: I was hanging out with these abusive Zen-assholes for a few months. I don’t know why I was there. I guess I was looking for something. Anyway, this one night, one of them gave me a good old-fashioned beating! And I fucking took it. In fact, I asked for it. Can you believe that shit? I let this scrawny, cue ball motherfucker whip me with a bamboo reed!

Thank you, sir! May I have four?!

I couldn’t fucking believe it. I mean, I just sat there wounded, pretending to meditate, thinking over and over and over again, like a new mantra: Fuck, I have to find my father.



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