Worst Zen Student That Ever Was

Opening the anthology The Best of Inquiring Mind at random I encountered Susan Moon's delightfully thoughtful essay "The Worst Zen Student That Ever Was", telling of her own up-and-down experiences with Buddhism, reprinted from the Spring 2001 issue (V. 17, n. 2). Severely depressed, she tells of anguish, failed relationships, obsessions, and self-hatred:

Physical pain is hard to describe, and psychic pain is even harder. I was in intense, moment-by-moment pain, and all I wanted was to get away from it. The pain was in the thoughts, which I didn't (and couldn't) recognize as just my thoughts. A voice in my head repeated what I took to be "The Truth": that I would never again love or be loved by another person.


I couldn't eat—a common symptom of depression. It wasn't just loss of appetite. Chewing itself was unbearable. A blob of bread was scary because it got in the way of breathing, and breathing was already hard enough to do. Liquids such as hot milk with honey and Earl Grey tea were more manageable. It occurs to me now that I'd regressed to the stage before I had teeth, when the only kind of eating I could do was sucking.

Like many other depressed people, I didn't sleep well. I clutched my pillow and called out to the flapping curtains for help. I took sleeping pills—sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn't. I couldn't read in the night (or the day, either, for that matter) because I couldn't get past the fear to concentrate on anything.

Waking in the morning was the worst of all. The moment consciousness returned, the pain came with it. Oh no! I have to breathe my way through another day.

Moon's tragic story has a happy ending. After years of meditation without relief, she tried medication and found that it helped nudge her brain chemistry into a better configuration. "Zoloft did what zazen didn't do—it quieted the voices in my head: 'I hate him. I hate myself.' It didn't shut them up entirely, but they weren't as loud, and I was sometimes able to turn away from them." She concludes on a note of realism and acceptance, with a lovely image of self (and non-self) awareness:

Now I can say this: there are times in life when nothing helps, when you just have to feel terrible for a while. All you can do is go through the agony and come out the other end of it. It's a gift, in a way, to hit the bottom (though it didn't feel like a gift at the time!). If you lie on the grass, you can't fall down.

Once, when I called Zen teacher Reb Anderson in despair, he came to Berkeley to see me. We sat on a park bench in a children's playground, and he told me, "The universe is already taking care of you." I said this mantra to myself over and over: "The universe is already taking care of me."

I remember a turning moment when, at the end of a hard summer, I was visiting friends on Cape Cod. One late afternoon I walked barefoot and alone down the beach and into the salty water. There were no people about, so I took off my bathing suit in the water and flung it up on the sand. I swam and swam and felt the water touching every part of me. I was in it—no dry place left. I wasn't afraid to be alone with my skin because I wasn't alone; there was nothing, not the width of a cell, between me and the rest of the universe. I did a somersault under the water and looked up at the shiny membrane above me. My head hatched into the light, and I breathed the air and knew that I would be all right. No, not would be, but was already. I was back in my life.

I still don't know why I suffered so much, or why I stopped. I can neither blame my self for the suffering nor take credit for its cessation.

I sit again—I mean on a zafu—but not as much as I used to. I also bow and chant and pray. I've stopped taking Zoloft, though I'd return to it without shame if I thought it would be useful.

I practice curiosity. What is it to be born a human being? What does it mean to be embodied in your separate skin?

I now admit that I sit zazen for a reason: I want to understand who I am (if anybody), and how I'm connected to the rest of it.

^z - 2012-03-10