Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Zen Mind, MCAT Mind

In three months, I'm going to take the MCAT, the medical college admissions test. To prepare for it, I got a bunch of prep books, compiled my notes from the last two years of classes, set aside time from work to study, and--oh yeah--moved into a Zen monastery.

The SFZC meditation hall
Just a few days ago, I moved into a room at the San Francisco Zen Center to begin their winter 2013 practice period. I'm still adjusting to the 4:50am wake-up, but I'm glad to be here. After all my talk about Zen over the last few years, this is my opportunity to practice what I "preach". It's going to be a major challenge to study for this big test and keep working part time while I follow a monastic schedule, but I've come to appreciate challenges.

Last semester, I pushed myself very hard by taking an EMT program on top of a full science courseload. I thought I was going to fail. I wanted to drop the EMT program in order to take control of my fate, to avoid failing. But giving up isn't that different from failing; I kind of felt that it was worse; so I made use of the Zen practice of "just being with" uncertainty and managed to stick it out. To my surprise, I finished the EMT class, got certified and licensed, and also got As in my other classes. It was probably the busiest and most stressful period of my life so far, but getting through all of that made me grow. I'm not exaggerating when I say that it changed me as a person. This is why it is very good to take on seemingly impossible challenges.

But it is hard to take on challenges without support from friends, community, or your own life practice. If your practice is watching TV, you will develop a practice of changing the channel, i.e. running away from difficulty. You will not get support from that, so you have to be thoughtful about what activities comprise your daily practice. I owe a lot to the Zen practice for giving me the mental tools to deal with challenges and actually overcome them. This brings me to my current slogan for zen practice:

Zen: "It works, dammit!"

Of course, there's more to Zen than being an effective problem solver. In fact, the most apparent thing I've noticed in my first few days here is what a wonderful feeling it is to be in a real community--not a neighborhood full of people who ignore each other because they lead different lives, but a block full of people who know each other and participate in each others' lives on a daily basis. For all the short-term fun we get from personalized media and our ruggedly individualistic career paths, it's pretty clear we've given up an essential element of connection to our community. Maybe this is a good time to ask yourself whether the "personal freedom" you experience through modern society and technology is worth the isolation. The reality is that it's hard for people to band together and grow together when they don't have some daily practice in common, whether that's in a collaborative profession, in the military, in a church, or in a Zen center. All of those things bring people together, for better or worse.

On Saturday, Earthlyn Manuel gave a talk about Martin Luther King Jr.'s fundamental vision, to see people reject hatred as their motivator and turn toward love. That message resonates on an emotional level with my experience. All my bitterness as a teenager brought me nothing but more pain, while my small gestures toward loving others have led to everything I enjoy and care about in life. I believe we should consider how our actions will foster our love for others and healthy love for ourselves as we make decisions--as we decide what activities to incorporate into our daily practice, as we decide what groups and causes to join in our yearning for community, as we decide what careers to pursue, and even as we decide how to study for the MCAT.

1 comment:

  1. Good luck Matt! I'm very excited for you. I have a deep yearning to move into the SF Sivananda center, but I have a cat, so it's an impossibility for now. We will have to catch up at some point so I can hear about your experiences at the Zen Center. Also, I've been meaning to thank you (and Angel) for taking the time to prep me for the chem lab final. That was a very compassionate thing to do, and it worked. By some miracle I got an A- in the class. So, thank you! Talk soon...