Why I Started Practicing Zen

personal stories

When I was 12 years old, I remember often feeling out of place. People seemed to like me, but I never felt I fit into a particular group. Other kids in school had interests and seemed to know who they were and what they wanted. I wasn’t interested in sports or after-school activities. I didn’t know where I fit. This changed for me when, one year later, my Dad bought me a guitar. I had finally found what I was looking for, something that was “me”. I was music and music was me. It was something I could express to people and something that gave me an identity. If I was playing music, I was happy and fulfilled. If I wasn’t playing music, I felt dissatisfied and empty inside.

A few years after high school, I moved to Seattle with my high school sweetheart. I started studying sound engineering and got a job in a recording studio. My girlfriend and I got married. I was playing music around town in a couple of bands. Everything was going great! But then things changed. I lost my job at the recording studio. The relationship with my wife was falling apart. My parents got divorced. I was experiencing extreme pain in my hands and arms when I played guitar. As I looked around, I saw many people spending so much time and energy chasing something outside of themselves for happiness and comfort. When these things changed or disappeared, they were deeply dissatisfied. I started to worry and fell into deep anxiety and depression. A friend at work noticed my state of mind and recommended that I go see a therapist. I said, “No, no, no. Therapists are for crazy people.” She responded, “Well, that is not true, but if it was, you are crazy right now!”

I took her advice and saw this therapist. She was very interesting in that she used a blend of eastern and western psychology. I saw her by myself for a couple of sessions. Then my wife and I saw her for a few more sessions. It was pretty clear that a separation was the correct path for us. It was an extremely painful and confusing period.

I decided I would see this therapist one more time to thank her and say goodbye. At the end of the session, she said she had a couple of questions for me.

She asked, “you say you are music and music is you? What percent of music is you?”

I immediately responded, “90%”.

She then asked, “if you are not playing music, then what are you?”

I was completely stuck. This kind of question is something I have never heard before. I just sat there in silence.

She continued, “What is it that goes to the grocery store? What is it that eats? What is it that speaks?”

All I could answer was, “I don’t know."

She then said, “I think you should investigate that.”

When she said that, I immediately thought of meditation, even though I really didn’t know what mediation was. But I remember leaving that session feeling relieved. Relieved that I didn’t have to pretend to be somebody or something. Later, this question burned inside me. What... am... I?

A good friend of mine suggested I go with him to a place where they practiced an Eastern style meditation. He never showed up, so I ended going in by myself. The meditation instruction was very short and the sitting lasted for 1 hour. That had to be one of the most difficult physical and mental challenges I have ever experienced! My body was in pain and my mind was flooding with thoughts. After the sitting, we played music, sang together, and had a wonderful meal.

I practiced with this group for a couple of months, but it was not addressing this big question I had. I remember asking one of the teachers, “You say that we practice meditation and our mind becomes clear. Then what?” He did not have an answer. So I left in search of another group. I had already read a couple of books on Buddhism and Zen. In flipping through a local magazine, I saw an advertisement for a Zen Center called the Dharma Sound Zen Center (now Ocean Light Zen Center). My friend who recommended the therapist drove me to the center for their Beginner’s Night. A very kind monk named Chong Hae Sunim (now Tim Lerch JDPSN) welcomed us and gave us meditation instruction.

The first thing he said was “Zen means What Am I?” When I heard this I knew that I had found home. I didn’t care about some of the forms like chanting and bowing, I just wanted to investigate this question. The monk then continued, saying that Zen can help us realize our true selves and help others.

I told him, “I want to help people, how can I do that?”

He responded, “What are you doing right now?”

“Sitting and talking to you," I replied.

He responded, “You are already helping this world.”

Intuitively I got it and in fact, it was exactly what I needed to hear. But when I thought about it, it didn’t make any sense. How can sitting here and talking help this world? Though it made little sense, I trusted my intuition. Twenty-five years later, the question is still burning inside. What am I and how can I help this world?

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