In this three-part essay series, Donovan Irven details his personal and philosophical exploration of Zen Buddhism and the practice of zazen in the context of a situational mental health crisis.
Part I | Part II | Part III
The week after I first sat zazen, the Haku-un-ji Center closed again because of Covid. Just like that, I worried I would be right back where I started.
In Buddhism, the concept of the sangha, or community of adherents, is extremely important. During my first full meditation session, I felt a qualitative difference in the presence of others that contrasted sharply with my previous experiences meditating on my own. Perhaps it was my own very different circumstances at home and work that primed me for this experience, but I cannot ignore the feeling of solidarity that permeated the zendo as we all filed in, hands folded gently against our chests, and took up our seats on the raised wooden tan that ringed the room and formed a row reaching out into the center of the sunlit space.
I realized this experiment was as much about finding community as it was about tending to my precarious mental health. My spouse and I had moved to Phoenix during the pandemic. She was born and raised here, attended college here, and had friends who had become my friends, as well. But we didn’t really see anyone. I had no opportunities to meet friends of my own. I was suffocating under the overwhelming demands of work, my spouse’s illness, and caring for our child. Nothing felt like it was mine anymore—not since I had been dismissed from my faculty position, which had precipitated the move to Phoenix in the first place.
Read “It’s All a Bit Absurd“
The prognosis of my spouse’s cancer was optimistic. We were fighting on every front, and she had gained impressive control over her mental life to continue working with reasonable accommodations in place. It was hard for me to fathom her strength and I felt guilty for not being the breadwinner during this time, when my spouse really needed more time off than she was able to get.
But these thoughts should not entirely overshadow the need for self-care. If I was to fulfill these obligations, to be truly helpful and supportive of my spouse and our son, then I needed to be present. And that’s why she encouraged me to the point of insisting I go to sit zazen in Tempe on Sunday mornings. “Just try it,” she would say, “It’s not going to hurt. And maybe it will help. I’ll be fine for a few hours on the weekend.”
So, I got up and went, first to an orientation, then to actually meditate. And then, again, it was stopped. To protect the sangha.
This stoppage struck me particularly hard because I had glimpsed something I was only just realizing I missed and needed. Community, association, a group of people who were basically like-minded enough to share this religious interest.
Let’s not kid ourselves—this is a religion.
When I was younger and first learning about Buddhism, I encountered several versions of the “Buddhism is more a philosophy or lifestyle than it is a religion,” including in my undergraduate course on Asian philosophies and religions.
But that’s just not true.
There is a whole metaphysical tradition, cycle of festivals, and ceremonial protocols that govern the life of the sangha and condition what may be hoped for here and after death. The realization of that fact when I was younger was one thing that really kept me from trying meditation in any serious capacity before now.
As a teen, I went through a brief period of intense religiosity. My parents had divorced, the familial rug pulled suddenly and violently from under me, and I felt adrift, uncertain that anything could help anchor me. Religion, especially an old-time-protestant type of Christianity, is rampant in my hometown, and so it appeared as a ready refuge. I couldn’t hack it. First, I was increasingly aware of my queerness. I liked boys as well as girls, including a boy in my youth group. Second, I read a lot. I had stolen a copy of Kaufman’s The Portable Nietzsche from the library when I was 13, and this fated volume was in my backpack one night at youth group. The youth pastor’s lackey had gone through my unattended backpack (in what must have been a regular occurrence in the non-denominational mega-church’s coatroom) and found the mustachioed German Anti-Christ.
I was confronted and shamed. I was a sinner. This was the Devil’s literature. They needed to come to my house and go through my other things. Purge my room of demonic influences. Some kind of exorcism might be in order. I decided right there in that church office that these people are fucking nuts. Needless to say, after all, I rejected Christianity outright. I was, fortunately, able to snatch my book back from the unsuspecting youth pastor just prior to storming out of the building for the last time. Militant atheist described me pretty well. I may be less militant now, but the lack of a deity is another appealing aspect of Buddhism‘s response to suffering in the world.
But I still felt the same old questions and longing. My existence, my being, as the existentialists I was reading would say, had become an issue for me. And I could not shake it. I cannot shake it.
I had also been under the sway of a Tumblr-philosophy understanding of cultural appropriation that made me feel disingenuous about my attempts to adapt Buddhism into my own Appalachian-rooted existence. What could a Westerner, a mountain-boy-turned-intellectual, have to do with an authentic Buddhism?
These pseudo-philosophies about authentic racial and national being terminate any serious reflection before it even begins. I now see that this view is against the very ethos of Buddhism itself.
Listen to “Buddhist Reflections on Race and Liberation“
Did not Bodhidharma, the legendary progenitor of the Zen tradition, cross a river into China from India on a reed? He was variously described as Indian or Persian. Did the Buddha not try and spread the word? Was there not, dare I say it, something almost evangelical about the way Buddhism spread throughout the continent, even as it was diminished in India, the land of its origin? Had I even really read or listened to the words of Thich Naht Hanh when I worked through Living Buddha, Living Christ as an undergrad?
I had been teaching Buddhist views on the no-self or empty-self alongside Hume’s arguments that personal identity is a fiction, a story we’re told in order to hold together the ever-changing flow of perception that occurs to us. There was something Frenchly Zen about Sartre’s mantra that “we are what we are not and we are not what we are.” Heidegger was frustrated by his Japanese students in their attempts to translate the Daodejing. The Kyoto School was busy synthesizing German romantic and idealist philosophies with the Buddhist traditions and Shinto. And here I was, afraid of somehow violating the racial law of. . . what exactly?
These categories were illusions. A prison of the mind that prevented me from seeing the fundamental unity of all things and which blocked a profound compassion from emerging when I most needed it. I needed it for myself as well as others. I could deeply feel a longing for and desire to help my spouse, care for our child, but was I loving myself in the process? I’m not sure I saw myself as worthy of these tasks.
I’ve come to Buddhism at times when I’ve felt alienated from myself. A typical affect of my depression is the feeling that all these things are happening to me but that I am not an active agent in my own life. Left unattended, this feeling can deepen to the point of feeling like all this is happening to someone else and I’m an unhappy witness to their misery. Dissociation and so on.
Meditation was a way to harness this dissociation in the service of a good. I could watch, but with the goal of liberation in mind rather than an attitude of helplessness. After all, I may not have chosen the ground of my own existence—where I was born, to whom—but I could certainly take up and define my own position therein. Buddhism emphasizes this mental framework, challenging us to reframe our suffering and attempt to discern a greater meaning beyond our isolated existence.
That is one reason, beyond the fact that comrades will keep you on track, that the sangha is so important. It places the abstract, the Others with whom we must share the world, right beside us. Together we try to reach Nirvana.
As the bell rang out clearly that morning, I suddenly felt a calm descend that would encourage me for some time. This was a service where I felt like maybe I could belong. I settled in. My eyes and mind drifted across the tiles between the stranger’s feet. He sat across from me, an older gentleman unbothered by the lotus positions. The Buddha encourages us to meet people where they’re at.
In zazen, the mind is likened to still water. Thoughts and feelings drift across the surface and disappear. We can observe this, watch the formation and dissolution of these thoughts, but we must not cling to them. Let them go. Do not fret. Just sit and be. With the bell rung and the steady breathing of the others around me, it was easy to slip into this place. I could feel my mind wander, could begin loosening my grip on things, and I felt myself almost physically unwinding. To be a better husband, know there is no husband. To be a better father, know there is no father.
I had felt like I was centering myself, but this is a center in which one loses oneself. Or, rather, one loses the false sense of self that feels guilty for circumstances beyond our control. Let it wash over you, this great Nothingness, and see yourself as the drop of rain, emerging from the storm for a time before being taken up again into the whole. We dance beside myriad other drops for a time. We collide and merge with them. We separate, we spiral. We drift and float or make a speedy descent. But this is only for a time that we can barely call “ours.”
We break from sitting meditation to walk in a circle together through the garden. It is still cool. I coordinate my steps with those in front of me, our hands folded in a now familiar gesture at our breasts. Like my thoughts inside the zendo, I watch the ground filtering gradually under my feet. The gently rising heel of the one before me. All is process. This procession around a brightly lit garden is a living symbol. Be mindful of these things. Watch for them. Try to see them.
We file back inside again for another round of seated meditation. At first, I had thought I might leave after the first round of sitting zazen. That maybe the full session would be too much. But I was fully swept along by it. My legs had fallen well asleep during the first sitting, but they found life in the walk, and I was ready to find my seat again and settle back into the possibility of being Nothing, of realizing the nothingness that lies coiled in the heart of being, not a worm, but a great host of possibilities.
I think my brand of existentialism has been interpreted as optimistic in part because of the subterranean Buddhist influences that I haven’t always acknowledged in my academic life because of how I was trained to market myself. I began to see my exit from academia as a kind of liberation from these expectations. I began to see my exit from academia as liberation. That was a start and a pretty good one.
One thing at a time.
Donovan is a philosopher, essayist, and writer of fiction. He currently teaches eighth-grade science and offers philosophical consultations with the Lawn Chair Philosophy Foundation.
The author of two novels and a collection of philosophical essays, his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Emerge, Queen Mob’s Tea House, and Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art.
He holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy and Literature from Purdue University.