Fishbein: Finding Your Zen

Happiness requires that we practice having enough.

by Dan Fishbein | 6/29/17 11:01pm

I walk into the meditation room in the basement of the Tucker Center. The monk in charge greets me and invites me to join his prayer circle. For a few moments, the monk, my peers and I walk in a circle with our heads bowed, having come together to participate in a club that both engages in meditation and studies the core concepts associated with Zen Buddhism. We fall into deep contemplation. The room is silent. 

I needed this. While at this class, I feel satisfied and fulfilled. My mind rests as I listen to the monk speak on the true nature of being, on the search for a totality of existence and the quest for nirvana, or something like that. I cannot remember his exact words. All I know is that they were deeply soothing and that I felt a sense of peace, of wholeness, of quiet that I have not felt in a while. I breathe in and then exhale. Relaxed.

I return to the world. After Zen practice, I go to fraternity meetings. I have some drinks, and I stop thinking about 2,500-year-old Vedic texts and the true meaning of consciousness. I stop thinking much at all. This is good, I think to myself. I feel present.

The next day in my 10A, my brain hurts. Too much drinking for a Wednesday. I cannot concentrate. I have returned to my body, to subjectivity, away from Zen. I do not know much about meditation, having only done it once, but I feel as though I need it again. I want to accept the present, without worrying about the past or the future. I realize that this sense of alertness and awareness constitutes happiness.

We live in a society full of distractions: fraternities, alcohol, sex, iPhones, fast cars. These distractions can have disastrous consequences. We build planes that dump carbon dioxide into our burning atmosphere and we spread prescription drugs into our most vulnerable communities. My mind races through all the shiny objects presented to it, looking for some place to settle down. The fulfillment of Zen helps me to slow down, to understand myself within my environment.  

We can all benefit from the experience of Zen. America has one of the wealthiest societies in the world, but this does not mean that America is the happiest society. To attain the happiness that we aspire to have, we need to practice having enough. I know that I come from a place of privilege, but I understand that I need to stop worrying about wanting things. 

That is easier said than done. We, as humans, have an innate drive to want more, to engage in a survival of the fittest contest that encourages us to strive to accumulate resources in order to prosper. As an affluent white male in a late capitalist world, my basic needs have all been met, and I will never have to want for them. But I still have energy and I still have ambition. I feel as though I need to do something to take action. I cannot just sit still. 

I can control what forms of action I take. Rather than continuously chasing bigger and better, a pursuit that will no doubt tire me out and lead me almost nowhere — or at least nowhere that I would want to be — I can stop for a moment, find some Zen, and consider bowing out of that rat race. Of course, I need not bow out completely. I still like material things, and I have no intention, at this point, to become a monk. However, I do want to feel that I control things, and not as though things control me. 

I do not yet have this down. Finding peace of mind is a process, a road I may very likely have to travel down for the rest of my life. But it is a better road with a clearer goal than chasing commodities and resources when I am blessed to already possess enough. 

I think I have found the secret to following this path, though, even if I have just begun to follow it. I have a road map. I need to get outside of my own head in hopes of connecting with my surroundings, of reaching what approximates the Buddhist sense of oneness. I want more, and even though needing more may be a fundamental fact of my existence, I can take some responsibility in deciding which form of more I want to have. More smiles instead of more money. More experiences instead of more things. More understanding, more compassion, more empathy, more togetherness. More freedom, more control and thus more happiness.

I chuckle a bit inside. I have only gone to one Zen practice, but already I feel a longing to learn more about this ancient East Asian philosophy and follow my passions. To do what I, as an individual, am interested in doing.

In the next few days, I will continue to tread outside of my comfort zone, to try to take control of my life, to displace materiality and follow what I have learned about Zen.  This weekend, I will go out into the community surrounding Dartmouth — one where many residents have not had the same structures in place that have enabled me to succeed in a conventional sense — and seek to do good in the world through community service working with children. I will get outside, bask in some sunshine, summit a mountain. And I’ll probably also get drunk at some point. I’m not perfect, and that’s okay. That unattainable goal is not worth striving for.