The scene is gruesome: in the breakdown lane along I-87 a car is stopped. A boy leans out the passenger side door and, on the pristine white snow covering the brush bordering the highway, spews red. The liquid is expelled from his insides, staining the stark, colorless landscape. A Zen lay monk, Chiso Anagarika, sits in the driver’s seat, shaking her head sadly. That boy is her son. That boy is me. And that liquid? No other than Carlo Rossi sangria.
That was my first trip to the Zen Centre of Ottawa. It was a one-day introductory retreat and my thinking went (as it so often did in those days): If I’m going to spend an entire Saturday sitting, and an entire Friday commuting, I’m going to get drunk as hell on Thursday. And drunk as hell I got. I was a college freshman, and my bodymind was essentially reduced to a mouth and an ass: I drank and ate and shat and sat.
I guess most of those activities can be traced back to my mother. I’ll skip the biological explanations concerning bodily function. But how a zafu ended up in my college dorm room alongside the beer cans and bong is worth telling.
My mom likes to say that I’m the reason she started sitting. As a kid she would drop me off for chess lessons in Harvard Square and go browse the shelves of a local bookstore. She often found herself in the Spirituality or Eastern Religion section, and one day a passage from a book she was thumbing through stuck with her. It was by a Zen master named Anzan Hoshin roshi, the abbot at the Zen Centre of Ottawa. Encouraged by the text, she began to sit, and, encouraged by sitting, she made the 410-mile trip north from Boston to Ottawa. As she tells it, she was on the verge of giving up and leaving during her first retreat, but Bodhidharma’s piercing stare from a zenga on the wall kept her firmly planted on the zafu. Thus began her mysterious journeys north and her devotion to the practice of Zen.
I was eight. And I didn’t totally get what she was doing up there. Or why, one day, she vowed to keep her hair cut short, and her clothing simple, black and white. To me, just sitting was a punishment doled out by adults, and the coolest colors were neon green and electric blue. My mom didn’t push Zen on the family, but it was an unavoidable topic, as it resulted in her spending a fair amount of time staring at walls. I vacillated between considering Zen a nuisance and a curiosity. If I was hungry for Spaghetti O’s and mom was sitting, it was most definitely a nuisance. Understanding and wisdom were all fine and dandy, I figured, if you were ancient, like fifty or some other inconceivable age, but my concerns were much more concrete: the Red Sox, Doritos, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Sour Patch Kids. When I’m old and really on the verge of death, well, I thought, that’ll be a nice time to sit and figure it all out.
As I became a teenager my concerns shifted: the Red Sox, Doritos, beer, and marijuana. Teenagers are fascinating creatures whose driving anxiety comes from wanting to stand out and blend in at the same time (I should know…aside from being one, I now teach them). As a first generation Romanian Jew with a Zen monk mother living in a town of Christians, I was struggling more with the blending in part. My efforts were like those of an ostrich attempting to conceal itself by burying its head in the sand.
I dragged my painfully exposed self from activity to activity: sometimes I was a student, sometimes I was an athlete, sometimes I was drunk, sometimes I was high, and sometimes I sat. All of these activities felt compartmentalized, as if I was just switching costumes depending on the stage. Self-image is often understood as an overarching projection of who you think you are, like a light being cast into the dark night sky (think: Batman). Oh how I longed for that bright, shining light. To me, self-image was like several different flashlights casting several weak beams, one at a time, yet I was the overarching presence that had the unlucky misfortune of suffering as each of them.
It was during this time that my mom gave me a book to read entitled Way of the Peaceful Warrior. The book carried a corny subheading that read, “A book that changes lives.” Just as cornily, it changed mine. Through the age-old conceit of young, ignorant boy meets wizened, mystical teacher, it introduced notions like emptiness, compassion, and meditation. I was attracted to the possibility of self-transcendence and complete understanding that the book suggested came from sitting. Especially at age 15, when the self feels as errant and uncontrollable as erections did in those days. So I started to sit.
But that early stage could hardly be called sitting. I was sort of just sitting around, going rogue, counting my breath as my mom sat zazen nearby. At one point I asked her why she didn’t count her breath, and she said it was a good question and that I should email a teacher at the Zen Centre and ask. So I did. And the response was rational, clear, and simple. That was the first time I’d received instructions. The first time someone addressed questions about my experience with answers that made sense. I stopped counting. I asked more questions. I received more answers. And soon I was making my first trip north.
As I spewed Carlo Rossi sangria onto the snow in December 2003, I was embodying the beam of drunken, collegiate Me. Soon, however, I would be switching over to profound, Zen Me. Just not soon enough. A hangover and the shits plagued my first full day of retreat at the Zen Centre of Ottawa. The next few retreats were similarly plagued. I didn’t understand then how seamlessly intertwined my selves were. I tried to keep things compartmentalized. When I drank, I drank hard. When I got high, I soared. And profound Me just about made Zen my major: I studied Buddhism in India, and my senior thesis was an investigation of Dogen, Heidegger, and something I termed the “human predicament.”
Now here’s where it gets tricky. Because when people think of Zen practice and realizations, they picture riverside revelations of epic proportions, or mountaintop, blizzard nirvana. And, admittedly, my first few (dozen) sittings were tense with the expectation of such dramatic fireworks. After a while, though, I came to grips with the fact those weren’t coming. My back would ache. I’d get bored. I’d itch. I’d scratch. But I kept sitting. And the more I sat the more I began to notice things about my experience. The act of noticing was much more like a match being struck than a firework exploding, but the matches continued to spark, shedding a little light each time on what it meant to be me.
During all those hours spent on the zafu, I began to notice that all these varied projections, these beams of light, came from the same source. There was no one else around, and nothing to be done, really, but practice with them. They simply arose, and I soon became intimate with the boundless identities I tried to avoid, or promote, or annihilate. On retreat I discovered so-tired-I-can-dream-every-time-I-blink-self, quick!-get-the-roshi-I’m-enlightened-self, holy-fuck-my-knees-hurt-self, and thousands, millions, of other selves, rising and falling and rising and falling. And in the face of such self-effacing fluidity, you truly understand the futility of compartmentalization. Of trying to remain in a box. Of defining your self. The millions of me’s bled together, and though I retain the traits and anxieties and hopes and dreams of each and every one, well, I don’t take it so personally anymore. Self happens. And with that knowledge I’m better equipped to navigate the world openly, regardless of which self happens to be happening.
And somewhere along the line, between spewing Carlo Rossi and my latest retreat, a two-day trip in December 2011 with my mom, it dawned on me that boozing to excess prior to a retreat affects my retreat. Perhaps this is not quite on par with Huineng becoming instantly enlightened when first hearing the Diamond Sutra. In fact, it sounds idiotically simple. Because it is. It’s amazing how much you can miss when you’re busy running from your self.
Practice might not make perfect. I still drink, sometimes to excess. But I’m no longer hung over on retreat, and in that sense, practice makes perfect sense. My retreats creep outward like sangria spewed on snow, the circle widening, affecting my behavior prior to, and post-retreat in increasingly tangible ways. The same goes for my sitting rounds. One action bleeds into another and into another, just as one mind state, one self, carries into the next, and the next. It isn’t Dogen dropping through the bodymind, but it is a clearer understanding of my own bodymind, and therefore everyone else’s.
I sometimes wonder what my life would be like if my mom had never gone browsing in that bookstore, had never gone on her mysterious trips to Canada. Frankly, I don’t think it would be much different. I don’t think the trajectory of my life has been significantly altered. Sometimes, especially when I’m in the last hours of a two day retreat and my knees feel like they’ve bored holes in the zabuton and are starting to bore through the wood floor, I envy that parallel universe, devoid of obligation, of sitting. But it is a universe devoid of noticing, of understanding, and of clarity as well. It is a universe ruled by the competing aspirations of unchecked egos. A universe in which I try to alleviate the suffering of self with the oblivion of sangria. A universe in which the snow is stained red.
Alex Tzelnic studied Philosophy, Religion, and Asian Studies at Skidmore College. With that degree, he says, he “of course” became an Athletics Director at a small Montessori school in Cambridge, MA. In his free time he sits, reads, writes and watches sports.