I was motivated to follow a spiritual practice, like many others, through the gate of suffering – through a sense of lack. My own suffering was nothing compared to what some others face, but it was enough to sow within me the seeds of a niggling doubt; a sense that there was more to life than this.
I was a precocious and serious child who asked a lot of questions. I was also an over-thinker, an over-analyser, as well as a loner and an introvert. I remember always feeling different, like I didn’t fit in, or belong; like I was on the outside looking in. I had this sense of lack, of the picture being incomplete somehow. As I became a teenager, the game of life began to seem increasingly surreal and inherently dissatisfying. I watched others seem to just get on with life, or play the game effortlessly. These people must be too stupid to see the absurdity of it all I felt, secretly envying their apparent freedom.
The Catholic faith I was brought up in did not provide me with satisfactory answers to my questions. I did not really, even as a young child, believe the fantastic stories about God creating the Universe in seven days, or Jesus walking on water and rising from the dead. However, I was drawn to something… the ritual and ceremony, the incense and bells, that somehow spoke of something inexplicably sacred. Something beyond the game of life I found so absurd.
Meanwhile, my parents, with the very best of intentions, sold me the idea that I must put all of my effort in to striving to get to University, where I would escape the council estate that we lived on, gain the key to a well-pain professional job and the middle-class comforts that this provided (and that we lacked). The big house in a leafy suburb, the nice car, foreign holidays. Some variant of this aspiration is surely familiar to most of us, transmitted from our parents, and from society at large. The not-so-subtle though unspoken message was that happiness and success lay somewhere in the future, in the form of status, income, lifestyle and opportunity.
This narrative was quite compelling to my younger self. Perhaps University would be the panacea to all my problems. Perhaps all of the pieces would come together. Perhaps I would even feel like I fitted in. My life could begin. So I put all of my energy and hope in to the veracity and nobility of this narrative, working hard and striving to excel academically. I would be the first generation of my family to go to University. I would find myself at University. I would finally connect with others like me and belong. I would play the game of life and be successful.
Inevitably, when I finally reached my destination, it did not meet my expectations. At University, I still did not feel like I fitted in or belonged. I still felt like I was outside of my life looking in. The law degree I had chosen (not out of any genuine interest or passion in the law but because it was perfect for the narrative) bored me. The narrative collapsed around me. My life script defunct, shown to be a lie.
Writing it down now, it feels like nothing, but at the time, it felt like my world fell apart as I realised that I’d spent the last decade striving for the fulfilment of a ‘dream’ that wasn’t real, based upon values that weren’t really mine. My well-defined, over-analysed sense of self no longer made sense. Its foundations built on sand. I didn’t know who I was anymore or what I wanted to do with my life. It felt like a breakdown of sorts, or perhaps more accurately an existential crisis. It may well sound dramatic, but I questioned the very nature of my existence and the point of my life.
I unceremoniously dropped the narrative I had been pursuing, dropping out of University. But the problem was, without a new narrative to replace it, or any new sense of direction, I felt lost, confused and angry. Without a well-constructed life script to cling to, my sense of lack and inadequacy was exposed in all its raw ugliness. A bitter, cynical nihilism filled the void. The niggling doubts that had whispered to me since childhood began first to shout, then to roar. So I quelled them with drugs and alcohol. There was no god. And no purpose to life beyond hedonism. I fell in to a deep depression, becoming increasingly numb to life.
Inevitably, this strategy of avoidance was not sustainable. Thankfully, I didn’t have the resources (financially or internally) to continue on this destructive path for more than a few years. The doubts were not satisfied by nihilism nor by intoxication.
I can’t explain why it arose there and then, but I remember clearly – where I was, who I was with – when I experienced a moment of clarity. In that moment, out of the blue, coming down from a bender and filled with self-pity and angst, I suddenly saw that my life wasn’t ‘working’, and that I was creating so much of my own suffering, that I was making choices that perpetuated all of this. I intuitively felt there must be a better way to address my questions – what was the point of it all? How should I live? What is the purpose of my life?
It was these questions that eventually drove me in to the arms of a spiritual practice. I went through counselling, personal development, paganism and new age spirituality before finally discovering Buddhism, first in the Tibetan tradition before finding my home in Zen. The Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path just made sense to me. The honesty of Zen’s ‘not knowing’ philosophy was refreshing. And it had bells and incense without requiring me to believe in anything! So I learned to sit. To sit with myself and those persistent questions.
Zen didn’t so much provide me with definite answers to those questions. But it did show me where to look. And after sitting with them for the last four years, I have some sense of intuitive knowing that is difficult to express in words, that the answer to these questions lies in embracing my life as it is; opening to my here-and-now, moment-by-moment experience. If you’d have told me that 10 years ago, I’d have rejected it. “Is that it?”. I probably did read it in spiritual books several times and dismissed it. There must be more! I had to experience it for myself. But today I know that this is my life and it is enough, so much more than enough, if I can just allow myself to experience it fully and freely without the hindrance of self-consciousness.
Of course, this goes against a lifetime of conditioning, and against the stream of a capitalist society driven by striving, craving and grasping. So today I measure the ‘success’ of my Zen practice by how often and how fully I can go with the flow of my life, being present and appreciating it all. Living wholeheartedly. Spending the next 40-60 years trying to practice, manifest and embody this gives me a sense of purpose.
Alan Crawford, July 2016