The summer before my junior year of high school, a co-worker introduced me to Zen Buddhism. Since I was smack dab in the middle of those awkward years of development and hyper sensitivity to other’s opinion, the Buddhist precept that “attachment is the root of all suffering” seemed like a magical path to happiness. All I had to do was detach, and I’d be happy, right? In a way, it made – and still makes – sense. Attachment causes caring, and when we care, we can be hurt, disappointed, exposed, etc. With such low self-esteem and no real direction in life, I latched onto this very superficially. I got a lot of it wrong in precisely the way that teenagers do – a shallow study and a want of results now, now, now.
Zen was a mixture of two studies that I enjoyed – martial arts and Taoism. At the time, I was too busy with after school sports to enroll in martial arts, but I watched every movie that I could and read as much as the library had. (If YouTube had been around back then, I’d be a very, very different person.) The martial arts had a mystical component to them. For teenaged, small town me, the martial arts were more spiritual than my Catholic upbringing. Masters of these exotic disciplines were wise in a way that no one else I’d met, listened to, or read about where. Of course, I was buying into an incorrect narrative, but I wanted to be seduced by this false view. I wanted it to be true more than anything because it would allow me to rid myself of the pain and suffering that I was going through. Is there anything so dramatic as a teenager?
Taoism held my attention like nothing else. It was a real life version of the Force from Star Wars without all the magic. At that time, I owned at least two different translations of the Tao Te Ching. One of my favorite books was the Tao of Pooh. The Tao Te Ching was inscrutable; it sounded like deep wisdom to a teenager. While I do believe there is wisdom in that text, the wisdom comes from interacting with the words not just parroting them. Because I couldn’t understand them, I would repeat them as if I did, which goes against Taoism’s fundamental teachings. If the Tao Te Ching was a locked box, the Tao of Pooh was a tutorial. It is an accessible book about Taoism because one of childhood’s iconic characters interprets the ancient wisdom for us. Winnie the Pooh’s antics fit the Taoist sensibility perfectly, and the book made me feel wiser for having read it. In fact, I loved the book so much that for a while, people gave me Winnie the Pooh dolls as gifts. I still have a number of the stuffed bears from my mom around the house.
But Taoism wasn’t solving my problems. I still cared too much what others thought of me; I still felt too much. I don’t remember what exactly turned me onto Zen – most likely something mentioned in the Tao of Pooh, but eventually I made my way there. In a way, I dove into the subject. I read everything that the school and local libraries had. In senior English, Mrs. Miller assigned a research paper, and she even took us to a nearby university library as part of it. Of course, Zen was my topic. I read…and read…and read. I made notes; I compiled my thoughts; and I wrote a paper that thankfully has been lost to entropy. Some of the books are still with me, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism by D.T. Suzuki is once again in my “to be read” pile. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig is part of my top ten favorite books of all-time list. But upon finishing the paper, I was no more enlightened, no more detached than at the beginning of my study. I’d gained a lot of knowledge but no wisdom.
With such massive changes looming ahead of me – graduation, moving away to college, being on my own, etc. – I failed to interrogate what I had learned. But one lesson did stick with me. Enlightenment, detachment, whatever you want to call it, wouldn’t come by itself. Work was needed. That work is accomplished through meditation. There is a fundamental flaw in any meditation practice, though. It’s difficult. Sitting down, being still and in the moment for any length of time? Hormone overloaded me just couldn’t do it. I tried many, many of the techniques. Walking, lying down, sitting, standing, counting the breaths, paying attention to how my body feels, etc., etc., etc. If I lasted five minutes doing that, I considered it a win. Once, in the summer before college, I achieved thirty minutes of sitting meditation. It was a knockdown, drag out fight with my own mind, but I stubbornly sat there. It did it’s best to distract me, and a number of times it won the small battles. How much of that half hour I meditated and how much I fought my own thoughts? There was very little mindfulness; it was mostly all distraction. But I did sit in that chair for a half hour with no books, no TV, no movie, no talking. That is the best sitting meditation session that I ever did, and it has never been repeated. Still attachment cursed me. How would I ever detach to find happiness?
Part two is coming soon!