Another westerner writes about Zen and the thing they do
I am a westerner, who grew up in the Bible Belt, who got into Zen to help myself navigate the world and play the violin better. But why share this story if others have already shared similar ones? What’s important about my experience?
To answer that I need to explain why I sought out Zen, and what I was trying to alleviate. Those reasons and sufferings are things I don't think are unique to me, or to chamber music. I share it for the same reason I share music, or stories or my thoughts. Which is to say there are a myriad of reasons, some of which will apply more specifically for different people.
Let me start with where I was before. There was a period where I had difficulty responding to emails, or phone calls, or text messages to friends. It made being friends or work colleagues with me, very frustrating. Nearly everyone around me was incredibly gracious, especially in my quartet, but I could sense their natural and warranted frustration, and I felt a great deal of disappointment in myself for not being better.
It didn’t stop with professionalism. I have a perfectionism inside of me, that both helps what I do, and hinders it. Sometimes the perfectionism is paralyzing, other times motivating. Sometimes it has pushed me to keep working through warning signs, eventually leading me to tendonitis. Other times its helped me focus on a piece of music and do well in a high-pressure situation. I was incredibly exhausted with the inconsistency, and the lack of measuring up to what I imagined myself to be. Critiques meant to help in rehearsal would become these repeating negative mantras in my mind. I would hear that critique playing in my head for days or months after that tiny moment in rehearsal. I can still hear some of these critiques from 5 or 6 years ago. And come concert day, when I would get to that tough passage, it was like an asshole in my head would softly whisper one of those comments just to make me mess up.
I found myself having a racing heart at night while trying to sleep, waking up to night terrors, suffering from irritable bowel syndrome in the morning, being unable to eat from lack of appetite or nausea. This was so chronic that I jumped to physical illness as the culprit in my life first. I thought I must be out of cardiovascular shape, or perhaps I was drinking too much coffee. Maybe I had a gluten intolerance, or my gut biome was not optimal. Perhaps my immune system was weak, so I needed to take supplements to strengthen it.
Slowly I started to notice that there was a correlation between these events, the IBS, the sudden heart rate increases and the worrying over my professional failings, the depression from replaying my critiques from rehearsal in my mind. It suddenly hit me that my suffering wasn’t simply physical, maybe it was coming from my mind.
I did what a lot of people do in my generation, I youtubed “How to deal with anxiety.” And many things popped up. Some of it looked like Cosmo magazine and offered these little things one could do in the moment of anxiety. Other videos were TED talks teaching breathing techniques. I tried a few of those, but each time they felt like they managed my symptoms, and only slightly at that. So I kept watching videos.
Eventually, I came to a recording from a lecture by Alan Watts. He basically said that many people who face anxiety are imagining an illusionary future that is exaggerating all of the terrible things we think could happen. And from that imagining our bodies and minds react as if we were in that very situation. When I heard this it resonated with me very strongly. I could see myself in that trap. Now I call this type of anxiety “Future Tripping.”
As the video continued Watts offered up an analogy that I still find powerful today.
“Muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone.”
This was shocking to me. My whole life I was working so hard to progress, thinking that the solution to all my problems was found in effort and resolve. But here I was hearing “leave it alone,” that my effort was stirring up the mud. You cannot solve the problems created by thinking, by thinking them away.
In that same video, Alan Watts quoted a Zen Master. When the Zen Master was asked what the essential teaching of the Universe is by a student, the master replied in essence, “Have some tea!”
The next day I went into a bookstore and bought Alan Watts’ book, The Way of Zen. And from there I have gone through a list of texts written by ancient Zen Masters, early Buddhist writings, and modern Zen and Buddhist writings. I slowly started to change my perceptions and reactions and started to develop a practice of mindfulness.
As I started to talk about Zen in my life with my friends and colleagues I started to see a common theme emerging among the responses or conversations. At first, I pushed back, but I started to realize I was replacing one type of perfectionism with another. Still, I want to discuss some misunderstandings.
When I mention Zen people often immediately respond with a reductionist and absurd argument like, "but what about when someone is stabbing you in the heart, where is your Zen?" or, "Isn't Zen just being peaceful and passive during shitty situations?" The image most people have is that of a person totally in control of their actions, and always guiding their actions toward those of passiveness and tranquility. The truth is far from this myth.
To quote a Zen Master: “The instant you say what Zen is, you miss the mark.” - Wumen
MYTHS ABOUT ZEN?
Here are some things that I think people mistake about Zen:
Zen is a religion
Zen teachings that point to no Self mean that the world is a fantasy and you as a person don't exist.
There are a lot more but let's start here.
Zen as religion
By a lot of definitions, Zen resembles a religion. There are monks, who live in a place that has strict and dogmatic rules or practice, and they offer something for people. In return they are funded by the community and laymen practitioners, like a church in the west. I do not disagree with these points. There is some truth to walking like a duck and talking like a duck makes something a duck.
But the comparison is more vanity than profound. Religions often teach a deity/ies that is/are in control; Jesus, Allah, Yahweh, Atman, Wotan, Zeus, and in some sects of Buddhism a supreme Buddha.
Zen has no God, no deity. It is more accurate to describe Zen as a personal philosophy that looks at the nature of ourselves and reality. In fact, many western therapies have borrowed forms of meditation, yoga, and mindfulness practices and secularized them as a way to treat patients. Look into the work of Jon Kabatt Zinn for example. There is also a new book out that looks at the neuroscience of meditation called Altered States that looks at the measurable benefits of meditation. All of those things take place free from a spiritual lens.
Now, for the idea of Self. Zen teaches no Self, like a lot of Buddhism. Many westerners take that to mean Zen is saying “You don’t exist, man, that’s just all in your head!!” This can be a terrifying prospect for many people who deeply believe in the soul. Others interpret the idea of no Self as meaning that the world is an illusion, and thus we as beings are also an illusion.
No Self doesn't mean you don't exist. It doesn't mean you have no soul. No Self is not making any metaphysical claim in that sense, because we can’t know either way. No Self means your ego is not all that you are. Your Self that you internally hold onto is an illusion that creates bondage and suffering in your life… possibly. The religious part of some Zen schools says definitely, but I don't buy into that, because that doesn't help me. What helps me is knowing that my ego is not me-- that I am so much more than my idea of who I am. Think about it, how many times have you said something incredibly stupid that doesn’t measure up to your idea of you? How many times have you surprised yourself by doing way more than you thought you could, or creating something way cooler than you believed you could?
That idea of myself is part of why I was attracted to Zen. I have over my life cultivated a powerful internal image of who I am. I reinforce who I think I am internally with my actions in the world. But that is a curated identity. And who am I cultivating that person for? For those around me. But then who am I? Am I the me I want to be? What would the me I want to be look like? What is Kevin?
My parents raised me in a common American way. With hard work and dedication I can unlock my limitless talent and ability. And through that challenging work, I can show the world I am the best.
"Always strive to be the best - You are the best Kevin - You are the best violinist I have ever heard - you are so smart at math - I am so proud of your grades - did you make a mistake at that performance? - You are supposed to be the best, work harder! - The best don't make mistakes - Others are practicing harder to be the best, and you give up the chance to be the best if you relax! - You can't be the best if you perform like that -I'm so disappointed you got a C in chemistry, the best don't get C's - Oh, you didn't score as high as you wanted on the SAT - I thought you were the best? - You aren't living up to your potential - Work hard, you are the best, all you need to do is realize it! - Wow, I heard you mess up in that concert - you didn't win the competition - the best are working harder than you, you are wasting your chance to be the best - you aren't the best in your science class - you aren't doing the things you are suppose to do - oh you didn't sound like you nailed that part in your violin practice guess you aren't serious about being the best - that was out of tune - your tone was scratchy - that sounded goooood - oh I'm so proud of you for winning that audition - see I told you you were the best..."
And eventually my parents and teachers and colleagues stopped having to say any of that at all - I had internally reinforced it enough to be fluent myself. My sense of Self was (is) a constant measure of how successful I was (am) and it translated into nearly every aspect of my life.
Now as a professional chamber musician, where the work environment is continually being evaluated by my colleagues, coaches, audience members and myself, I found that my emotional state was reflecting my “success” on stage or in rehearsal. The success of my musical ideas "winning" in rehearsal, or success of nailing that hard passage in a performance, or "earning" an “excellent job” from my colleagues from a performance.
My Self was (is) nourished by the successes and wounded by the failures of my life. And those would become self-fulfilling prophecies, creating lengthy month long periods of performing well or poorly, triggered by short events of success and failure in my everyday life. This was cause and effect that I was warping and construing in mind.
I was in a place where I was so anxious that I was nearly shitting my pants on the way to rehearsal and struggling to sleep because I was replaying all of my failings from the day, and all of the critiques from my colleagues. I found myself feeling very sad, hurt, resentful, and irritable. But all of those feelings weren’t anything like who I imagined I was supposed to be. I was supposed to be able to work through, grind it out, stay optimistic, this was only an episode, it would pass.
I was trapped in a dualistic world of good and bad, success and failure, exceeding my personal expectations and failing them. I was suffering.
So I started reading. One book led to another, and to another, and eventually I started to act based on the things I had read that resonated with me.
“Muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone.”
This saying led me to meditation, specifically, Zen meditation, commonly called zazen. Zen literally means meditation in Japanese, evolving from Chan in China, and Dhyana in Sanskrit. The za refers to the style of meditation, meaning sitting. There is a bit more to it than just sitting and meditating, because how does one meditate? What does that mean exactly?
In Zen, the style comes from the so-called founder, Bodhidharma, an Indian Yogi who brought Zen to China. Many of his teachings would become the foundation of Zen Philosophy. In addition to just sitting, we strive to “think the thought of non-thinking.”
It took me a long time to understand this, and perhaps I still don’t. But I’ll give you my best answer right now. In essence, you allow your thoughts to arise and fall of their own natural progression. Avoiding adding energy to any thought, either good or bad. In a clinical setting we might describe this as non-judgmental awareness of your thoughts.
We already exercise a judgmental awareness of our thoughts. For example, when we have an intrusive thought, we reject the thought outright. Many people have had the thought while driving of suddenly turning into a tree, or while standing at the edge of a steep drop think of jumping. But as soon as the thought arises we push the thought away thinking “that’s not what I want to do!” We already recognize that our thoughts are not who we are. Zazen cultivates a practice for all thoughts in this regard. The thoughts that arise constantly in your mind are the mud, the mind is the water, and the way to clear it is to leave them alone. Sitting meditation in this style is a practice that builds a nonjudgmental awareness.
On the surface it seems so simple, yet it has had profound impacts on my life. My sleep struggles went away. My IBS went away. My depression and anxiety diminished significantly. I found myself able to respond more consistently to emails and texts. I could play difficult passages without judgment and debilitating criticism.
Most importantly who I thought I was, is no longer getting in the way of who I actually am.
I still get anxious, and upset, and ruminate over comments from rehearsal, and worry about paying my bills, and get exhausted from being away from home for a long time. But these normal human feelings and reactions and dreams don’t snowball into what they use to. I found a small bit of freedom and spontaneity in life, as well as a new-found ability to savor all the infinite present moments of which I am part.
If you feel anything like I have felt, take a moment to try some meditation. Sit down - it can be in a chair, or it can be in the lotus position. I usually set a timer using the Belfast Zen meditation app. Then start by counting your breaths, counting to 10 in between each inhalation or exhalation. Watch your thoughts arise and fall, just like your breath. And like your breath feel that commonality of both voluntary and involuntary action and thought.
Some people feel worse when they meditate like this. If that's the case for you, it's ok. Don’t do it. Anything that works for you is the name of the game! If meditation doesn’t help you right now that is totally fine. You can try similar practice in your actions. Whatever it is that you are doing, either walking, or sitting, or cooking, or playing music, or talking with friends, or driving - simply watch the moment and thoughts without judgement.