Zen is hard to find. So today is April 16, 2021. I am 48 years old and in 639 days I will turn 50. For those of you who are already 50, I have watched your journey and know this is not an easy moment in life. As we grow older the reality of our time here and the quality of it become more paramount and real. The trivial things of the past seem less so now, and we live our lives with a mix of regret and pride. There are lots of things we did well, and there are lots of moments we wish we had back. According to a 2019 study reported on by the Huffington Post over 90% have at least one major regret in life. Most commonly this regret is over a lost love, a career path not taken, or that we wish we had spent more time with someone or our family. However, when asked about their life in totality over 60% of us say that have no regrets about their lives. I take this to mean that in context, our lives are pretty good, but we do have our moments of regret.
But here is what I am finding as I age a bit. I seem to dwell less on the regret and think about how I can shape the time I have left. How can I find my Zen? When I was 17, I was spending the summer with my father in North Carolina. He was an avid reader and really liked to read philosophy. He had a book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. In the book he introduced the Metaphysics of Quality. In his book he argues that the Eastern Philosophy of Existential Monism is the real path to enlightenment. The idea that there is only one whole, one universe and we are all just parts or tokens of that whole. It has taken me 30 years to figure out what all of that meant.
Afterall, I have lived my life for the benefit of others and the benefit of wealth. While I chose a career focused more on service than wealth, I made many of my decisions based on how I got to the next stop, opportunity, or pay raise. I always made decisions based on how others would perceive the action and consequence as if they knew the better of the two of us what I should be doing. I spent years going to church, pretending I liked certain movies, supporting causes I did not quite believe in just so I could advance my own life. And then it hit me. I was not really helping anyone by not helping myself be my most authentic.
A couple of weeks ago I was reflecting on my time here and where I was going in the future. And as I do, I put on some music that helped me think. I usually use Spotify to start with a certain song and then have it generate a mix that will contain songs I know, songs I do not and some I have not listened to in some time. I chose the song I Wish I was the Moon by Neko Case. As fate would have it, the song mixed in lots of great early and mid-2000s indie folk tracks and then it landed on Hopelessness Blues by Fleet Foxes. I had not listened to this song in years, but it just hit me:
“I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me”
And that was when I reached both my moment of Zen and my moment of fear. It hit me that I had lived my life generally in Subject/Object Dualism that Pirsig argued against. The idea that I was somehow in control of my life while at the same time I had no control over my life. That I could do enough to make someone like me, a job that hires me, or change someone else to satisfy my needs. When, in fact, I was always part of that other person and they were part of me. That the way to a better existence is if I practiced the best of myself and left the rest to exist as part of my universe as it needed to be.
Now, hang with me here. This is where I am really seeing change in myself. In October I joined a gym to “get in shape”. I was always “getting in shape”. I wanted to look better, I wanted to be attractive. I felt that if I achieved certain physical strength and shape then my wife would want to be more romantic with me, that peers would find me accomplished, that I would have a great Instagram post. But recently I have changed how I see my fitness and my time in the gym. I realize that a healthier me makes a healthier us. I will be less likely to suffer from ailments that require the universe to exert energy to heal me, I will contribute to the overall strength of the community. Now, does that also come with personal benefits? Sure, but that is how monism works as I read it. The better I become, the more time I spend on my improvement, the better improvement for all. But this cannot be a solitary effort. I must also do things that bring improvement to others. By working hard in my career then more students can go to college and find meaningful work, by paying my fair share of taxes and living frugally then there will be support and resources for others who need it. But I also benefit from our pooled resources. The vaccine I got for COVID, the internet I get to post this blog and broadcast, the road I will take home is all part of this collective existence.
Look, I am still working on this. It has only been a couple of weeks and I will certainly backslide from time to time. But now that I have a better sense of what I hope it means it has recalibrated how I approach my responsibilities. I try not to think about what the impact of this action on me is but what is the impact of this action on us, and that includes me. I no longer want to be this position at work, or have this level of wealth, I simply want to be kind to those whom I do not know, bring joy to those who I do know, and leave the world a better place than how I found it. That has become my Zen.