A Different Approach
T o a musician, music can be a terrible strain. Night after night of playing the same songs, of listening to the same jokes, of accompanying the same dance routines can bankrupt the fund of pleasure his art had once provided. Gurus and other spiritual teachers may extol the value of sweet melodies: a musician may find more value in being away from music altogether.
I no longer perform live. I traded that life for one in an office. Naturally, as a Zen Buddhist priest, I still teach meditation and preach about its value. To hear me you'd think that I find meditation to be the answer for everything. And, in fact, through the years that was my answer to every problem. The more stress I encountered, the more I meditated. And then, just as it can be with a musician, the solution began to be the problem. It wasn't relaxing my stress, it was creating more because it wasn't working. I was just going through the motions, same cushion, same chants, same incense lighting.
The pleasure was gone.
I had survived the ordeal of moving my household halfway across the country. The car, the pets, the boxes, the furniture movers. I settled in and got a job and then the tension began. I don't know why I thought the new office job would be different from the old one. Office jobs are pretty much the same everywhere. But for awhile I pretended not to notice. I allowed myself to be seduced by the new views I had from my back porch. I can now look at a river - Missouri is famous for them - and watch deer graze on the lawn and hear and see the loveliest birds. (I especially love the hummingbirds because they've been a profoundly spiritual symbol in my life.) But the new job stress was the same as the old job stress and the new landscape couldn't cure that. The stress soon began to ruin the view. I tried to meditate more and succeeded in making the tension worse.
A few months ago, a friend of mine, a musician, called to chat and vent her frustrations with the same problem I had been having. Our daily routes were opposite: she performed on stage in the evenings and to cure the monotony of the evening shows, got herself into a meditative zone during the day when she composed songs. But then, she too, found herself creatively tapped-out. Neither of us could see a solution.
A month later she called again. She was decidedly upbeat. "I found a cure," she announced. "This weekend we're going to watch the race-cars. You'll love it. I'll pick you up at noon on Saturday. We'll do lunch."
"Whoa!" I said. '"Not so fast. I don't go to car races. Never have. Never will. It's just not my style."
"That's the point," she said. "You're stale and you need refreshment. I'll pick you up at noon."
I debated with myself about going, but I found myself buying something new to wear, something that the salesgirl said with a slightly condescending smile would be appropriate for afternoon auto racing.
She picked me up; we had a nice lunch in town and then began the forty-five minute drive out to the track. The route was all back roads, narrow, winding, hilly. I was relieved just to arrive at the parking lot which, to my surprise, was full. We rented cushions (I thought of the one I was supposed to be sitting on at that hour), paid the entrance fee, and walked to the grandstand. One vendor was selling cotton candy, another souvenirs. A hamburger stand offered burgers and drinks. The smells reminded me of the county fairs my family went to when I was a kid.
The first race had already started. It was loud and I hated it right away. The noise of the cars as they roared by scared me - what if there was an accident? We moved to a higher row in the stands.
My friend pointed to an orange and blue car, Number 56. "He's my favorite," she shouted over the noise. They call him Lightnin' Rod. People say he's been racing here for thirty years."
"Oh," I said, thinking that this was going to be a long day.
At first, I didn't know where to watch. An accident occurred and all the people got excited except me. I missed it. The cleanup was a boring process. I squirmed.
At the end of the race, the three winners drove into the infield to be weighed and have their winning positions validated. Simultaneously, a new set of cars came rolling out of the pit on the far side of the track. They came out and drove right up to the starting line where I expected them to stop. But they didn't stop - they just kept right on going.
I was confused "What are they doing?" I yelled.
"Watch the moderator - the guy with all the flags. You'll see him getting them lined up. When they come around the next time, he'll wave the green flag and they'll take off!"
And, Indeed, as the cars drove two-by-two on the back stretch of the small, oval dirt track, they all sped up at the same time as they came around the bend. I watched with only a little interest until I noticed a white car, Number 118, come up from fourth place. Suddenly, I found myself wanting him to win. He was trying so hard - and making progress, too, that I felt the need to help him with a little cheer. He won! I was excited and when some of the other people in our section of bleachers stood up to clap, so did I.
My friend clued me to the action. "These are 'heats'. These guys race for the big finale at the end."
Strange word, I thought. 'Finale'. It's a musical term. Composers don't completely leave their music behind.
The more heats I watched, the more fun I began to have. I didn't pick any more winners until the last race - the big 'finale'. But I didn't care. I even stopped worrying that I wasn't meditating. The longer I sat there the more vocal I became. By the end of the evening I was screaming along with everyone else. It felt good. I felt good.
I'd seem some incredible accidents, heard the roars of cars and audiences trying to drown each other out, listened to jokes by the announcer (a few of them were actually funny), but most of all, I was having a great time.
When the final race began, over 30 cars came out onto that little track. The sound was awesome. As I sat there listening, I remembered being taught by my teacher, Ming Zhen, the importance of sound as a meditation tool. She used to make me listen to Mahler to learn the technique. Mahler is hard to take. You have to listen in a detached way. I was amazed to realize that this was how I was listening to the cars on the track. The volume and the harshness of the noise became a focal point for my brain. It worked just like the way Mahler works when I listen to his music. She used to say, "He'll take your brain apart; clean all the pieces, discard the junk, and then put the pieces back where they belong." Now I was listening to something that was literally pulling my head apart from the sheer volume of the sound, pulling out my brain and releasing some stresses I'd been feeling for quite some time. My own screaming was washing my brain, and I knew the parts would soon be put back in proper order when the race ended.
Lightnin' Rod was in 6th place. I nudged my friend. "He won his race - why is he so far back?"
"I don't know - I don't understand it, either. But you just watch what happens!" She shouted.
Coming to the bend in the track, the moderator waved the green flag and they all sped up at the same time. They thundered past us toward the other bend in the track. Suddenly, four of them, including Lightnin' Rod, got into a pile up. The cars were wrecked. I was sure Lightnin' Rod was done. He slowly drove his car off the track.
The cars were slow for several rounds as the wreckage was removed by tow trucks. Then, to both our amazement, Lightnin' Rod came out of the pits.
"What was he doing?" I screamed.
"He was getting in touch with himself, I guess!" Then we both laughed hard because we knew what she was referring to.
The green flag waved and the cars raced past again. Round and round the track, lap by lap, Lightnin' Rod moved ahead until he took the lead. By the time the race ended, he was a full 4 car lengths in front of everyone.
The crowd was on its feet. Cheers came from everywhere. It was so loud that I couldn't hear myself scream. Lightnin' Rod drove his car from the scale in the infield onto the track in front of our bleachers to accept the trophy. I watched as he lifted himself through the window of his car. He was just as he had been described: early sixties, short and stocky, and bald. If I had met him in any other circumstance, I would never have guessed that he was such a fearless competitor.
As we were leaving the track, my mind felt relief from some of the problems that had been haunting me recently - my problems at work and my dried up meditation. It occurred to me that taking a break from dull or ineffectual routine is a long-standing remedy. I don't know why I hadn't thought of it before. I didn't just feel the relief of having taken a break from my troubles. I was invigorated. When I got home I put Mahler's 9th on and zoned out.
Sunday morning I lit some incense and had the best meditation session I had had in ages.
Sometimes I think we have to remind ourselves that Zen Buddhists are just people, after all. Sometimes, in order to be calm and relaxed we place ourselves under inordinate stress. We try to use meditation as a kind of therapy, and it's not supposed to be therapy. When we find ourselves taking the sacred and converting it into some mundane purpose, we know that it's time to take a respite from ourselves.
I can't wait to see what the Lightnin' Rod will do next week!
Last modified: November 22, 2004
©2004 Zen and The Martial Arts