Lately, my younger son has been rushing around, getting geared up for the high school prom, an annual American event at which high school seniors dress up formally, go to a dance, and spike the punch. It is very grown-up looking.
The eight-person group my son will travel with to the dance has decided to pitch in the money to rent one of those obscene limousines ... the kind of thing that plastic Hollywood celebrities are seen arriving in.
It's all pretty snazzy and pretty grown-up. Dazed parents everywhere are probably wondering as I do how in heaven's name the kids ever got so big and, concomitantly, how they ever got so old. A time of joy, a time of edginess.
And all the preparation and anticipation about the prom -- all the frills and excitement and uncertainty; all the whispering questions that boil down to, "Is there life after high school?" -- makes me remember a time when I wanted to become a Zen Buddhist monk.
I was about 35 at the time and after a number of years of practicing zazen or seated meditation it seemed like a 'logical' progression: If doing sometimes as much as 40 hours a week of practice at the New York Zen center I attended was good, imagine how much better things might be if I went to a monastery where the practice was 24/7. That was what grown-ups in spiritual endeavor did, wasn't it -- take the next logical step?
But like a teenager going to the prom, my heart fluttered and fretted ... dressing up in monastic garb might be one thing, but inside I was still an uncertain kid whose logical bravura (the tux and limousine and spiking the punch of spiritual life) was not matched with the understanding that comes from experience. What if I hated it? What if I went crazy? What if I never saw my friends again? What if I fell off the edge of the world? Was there life after high school ... I really didn't know.
Well, I went, and looking back, it was one of the most sensible things I ever did. I signed on for six months as a trial period. I lasted something like two.
Set in the rolling hills of the Catskill Mountains, the monastery in March and April was cold. And the cold weather was the least of the chill. The rigors of the schedule took a bit of getting used to, but I had been in the army, so a hemmed-in schedule was not that foreign. There were eight or ten other residents at the time, all of them doing what they could to do whatever they were doing in their spiritual endeavors.
If I had to pick a word that would sum up why I left, it might be the word "contrived." I was deeply serious about my spiritual longings and monastic life was too damned contrived ... too cramped and truncated for the wide world in which I longed to flourish.
By using the word "contrived," I do not mean to say that monastic life as a whole is somehow contrived ... even if it is. I mean only that it was too contrived for me. My tux was too tight and my limousine too unfulfilling. Monastic life wasn't, for lack of a better description, "for me." And finding this out constituted a recognition, not a criticism. I really didn't like hanging out with a group of people who were trying to be good, any more than I would like hanging out with a group of people who could talk about nothing but baseball. At the time, this came as a shock: My next logical step proved to be utterly illogical, but the illogic was truly logical ... this just wasn't who I was and by knowing who I wasn't, I had an improved chance of finding out who I was and what spiritual life was in my book.
In a retrospective nutshell, I am delighted I screwed the pooch -- treated myself to the experience of testing my swooning dreams. True, for a few months after leaving the monastery, I wondered what was the matter with me ... why couldn't I be more like the heroes and heroines, saints and holy people, I had read about? I was a failure, a sissy Zen student, an ersatz lover of the holy, a hypocrite, someone who could do no better than posture ... the criticisms went on and on. Why couldn't I do what others had done with apparent success? Why didn't this white-as-snow tuxedo fit?! Why couldn't I play this contrived game ... everyone else seemed content. Why was I so pedal-to-the-metal distrustful and in some ways, disgusted?
How often does anyone treat themselves to failure? Failure is something to avoid, to shun, to do our utmost not to be. And yet, in the event, in the experiential event, what a blessing and a treat. To test out what is believed and hoped for ... and then, based on previous presumptions, to flop. What a treat! Of course there's life after high school, life after marriage, life after business success, life after whatever rousing chorus of hope and belief anyone might sing.
Of course there is ... it just isn't the life we pretended to be in control of... it far more interesting and fulfilling than that.
My son will wear a white tux. He will be as snazzy as Sidney Greenstreet. Me, I feel more comfortable in a nudist colony.