The Zen of Barf

I met a fascinating man a few years ago whilst enjoying a well-earned break at a meditation retreat in Devon, England. He shared with me some wonderful stories, including an interesting tale about a close buddy of his.

His friend was an all-or-nothing kind of guy and after really getting into Zen, decided to go spend a few months at a Zen monastery in Japan to learn about the subject first-hand in the country where Zen had originally flourished.

Now, when it comes to Zen, Japanese monks do not fuck about. These guys are pretty hardcore when it comes down to it. Their daily training schedule by western standards would be considered highly extreme. However, the Japanese all-or-nothing approach to Zen apparently appealed to his friends’ way of learning, so was more than happy to throw himself in at the deep end.

Zen monastic life in Japan consists of mainly chores and extreme meditation practice. The style of meditation used at this particular monastery required a person to sit and stare at a blank wall for eight hours each day, (I told you these guys were full on). This meditation style is a kind of sensory deprivation experience, designed to wear down the mind with extreme boredom. The belief being that a person’s connection to consciousness will be cultivated and sharpened if their attachment to their mind is weakened with an absence of stimulation. It requires a high level of self-discipline and huge reserves of patience to persevere with this type of meditation, it is also very hard on the body as sitting still for eight hours each day can be agonising. This is why I would personally only recommend this technique to very experienced and dedicated meditators, those who enjoy extreme-level challenges. There are many styles of meditation available to the individual, this particular technique being just one.

Despite his high enthusiasm, the guy really struggled to adapt to such an intense regime. As anyone who has had any experience with meditation can confirm, huge bouts of it can be tiring, uncomfortable and a little overwhelming. Meditation is a highly effective mind-discipline exercise that can indirectly loosen unhealed hurts, wounds and traumas hiding in the depths of the subconscious. They bubble up to the surface so that they can be addressed, healed and filed away properly. This is why it takes a little courage to meditate; it can be a challenging but very efficient healing method. This poor guy was effectively sitting with his suffering for eight hours each day without a break or anyone to talk to about it, monastery life is generally a very quiet and self-contained affair, but is especially so in this situation when not many people at that particular monastery were able to speak English.

For the record, this is why I believe meditation works best when it is done piecemeal – an hour each day maximum. This way doesn’t overload the meditator, giving them plenty of time in between sessions to process and integrate everything; it allows more breathing room to address anything that may arise from the deepest depths of the mind. Having more of something that is good for you doesn’t always equate to it being better for you.

After a few weeks of this extreme schedule, his friend was feeling so overwhelmed and stressed with it all, that he decided to sneak out one night to make his way to the nearest bar to get drunk. I believe he just wanted to numb himself with strong liquor as a break from such an intense experience.

Apparently, he did not just get drunk he got utterly wrecked.

He staggered back in the early hours and just about found the monastery in the dark, where he stumbled into the reception area. At this point, he violently threw up everywhere, creating a foul smelling lake of unpleasantness all over the reception entrance floor. He was too intoxicated to even care and proceeded to clumsily stagger his way through the mess (falling in it twice) and make his way back to his little room. He then collapsed onto the bed and passed out.

He awoke late in the morning with a pounding headache and covered in dried vomit. In a flash of agonising recollection he remembered what had happened the night before. He then sheepishly made his way to reception to face the consequences of his alcohol-fuelled misadventure, whilst trying to ignore the side-effects of the worst hangover of his life.

The Japanese monks take their Zen practice very seriously; the monastery was considered sacred ground. He braced himself for the inevitable backlash for not only escaping in the middle of the night to hit the sauce, but for also emptying his stomach contents all over the polished floor tiles and not cleaning it up.

When he arrived, he was surprised to see that the lake of vomit was still there. The smell was terrible and there were clear imprints in the mess where he’d fallen over twice. He was surprised to see the monks were walking around the circumference of it and pretending that they couldn’t see it. Feeling mortified and beyond embarrassed, he went to the janitorial cupboard, fetched a mop and bucket and cleaned the mess up.

Having braced himself for the worst, he was shocked to discover that not a single monk or even the Abbot would mention the event, not even in passing or jest. After cleaning up and showering, he went back to his chores and wall staring and no-one said a thing about any of it. He said it was like it never even happened. Then he remembered where he was, he was at a centre of Zen learning, the penny then dropped and it all made sense.

It is said in Zen that life itself is our greatest teacher, providing the exact experiences an individual needs for the evolution of their consciousness. Life has a way of humbling each of us with powerful, multi-layered challenges and in having to process and navigate these experiences our wisdom and consciousness evolve.

The monks knew that the guy’s shame from the ordeal would be sufficient enough to encourage him to not do it again. They were confident that he would learn from it. Plus, Zen is also the way of compassion, they were well aware of the level of suffering he must have been struggling with to feel the need to go out and numb himself with a vast quantity of booze. Adding to his shame and suffering by giving him a telling-off or throwing him out is not the Zen way. So they just left him to wallow in his own self-created discomfort and reflection, knowing that the embarrassing experience would have been a lesson unto itself. Their additional input or perspective wasn’t necessary in order for him to understand the consequences of his actions. Life had done a good enough job of getting the message through to him.

Such is the way of Zen; life knows best.

He lasted a further two weeks before throwing in the towel. He had discovered for himself that the Japanese monk approach to Zen wasn’t his cup of tea. Self-discovery is an ongoing process of experiential elimination; it is a journey of trial and error. We have to first experience who we are not, to understand who we are. This was very much the case for this guy, whose story has stayed with me all these years.