Wading into Zen practice in the wake of “the very worst thing”

I first encountered meditation when I was around 11 or 12 years old. I didn’t know what it was, but I recognized it as something important.

I discovered it through an old Western that they used to re-run on Sunday afternoons called Kung Fu. Now, if you don’t remember Kung Fu, it was a pretty simple premise. In the time of the “wild, wild West” a student, having returned from an exotic distant land where he had studied under a wizened “Sensei,” would find himself involved in physically and ethically challenging dilemmas: a bar-room brawl, a bank robbery, or the chastisement of some poor widow’s daughter by bootleggers and horse thieves. Having no gun to defend himself with, he would have to whip out the ol’ Kung Fu on the assailants. At the end of the episode they would inevitably flash to some scene of the Kung Fu master, “Young Grasshopper,” sitting quietly in meditation; having managed his external conflicts, he had now turned to the more contentious, deeper strain of sitting in this dark stillness. I didn’t know what he was doing, but it seemed important. I wanted to know what was in there.

I didn’t have any money at the time. I did not have any kind of steady income or an allowance to speak of. I shoplifted a book and cassette tape combination from a local bookstore that promised to teach me how to meditate. (This probably says as much about where I was in my life in those days as anything ever could.) I remember listening to it intently night after night, but not understanding what it meant to do when it sagely instructed me to “clear your mind of all of your thoughts.…” There were other things on the B-side of the cassette that were maybe a little more useful. It included a couple of classic Zen stories and it was my first introduction to the phrase, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” I have to confess, I still don’t know the answer to this one.

I later gave up on meditation; or rather, my life took multiple turns away from that path. Mainly, I discovered mood-altering drugs and alcohol which delivered the instantaneous relief that all of the other spiritual avenues I had explored seemed to be promising me. I didn’t reject meditation whole-heartedly; I was largely indifferent to it. I had tried yoga on a few separate occasions. I recall one class taught by an older, rotund, fellow who sat in a rocking chair in the front of the class, instructing us through the various asanas. I was irritated through the roughly hour-long course. He pretended at being enlightened quite well. His students seemed to devour his acumen. I simply resented him and never returned. Later, through my own experiences with meditation I would come to see this as a rather fascinating personality trait that I have. I like to call it “getting in my own damn way!” It seems to be one thing that I am highly skilled at, a kind of natural ability.

Instead of following any path that he may have intended, I followed the only one that seemed real. I got high. Some people self-identify as cocaine addicts or alcoholics, or pot-heads, whatever; my drug of choice was “more.” Honestly, I’d pretty much do anything that was put in front of me. I huffed dangerous aerosols and did too many hallucinogens. I’d take different colored pills and mix them up to see what would happen: truly, horrifying, dangerous stuff. There’s a clinical term for this; it’s called “poly-substance use,” but we just referred to it as being a “trash-can junkie”.

In my early thirties I had lost my house to foreclosure, I had lost my romantic relationship of nine years, my employer had told me that he had kind of had it with me and suggested that I get help, but I was sure that he had no idea what he was talking about even though I was homeless at the time. This was the second occasion in my life of being homeless. I even had a girlfriend who told me with exasperated frustration that she refused to be homeless with me. I got a different, more understanding girlfriend. Whatever I was doing just was not working.

And then the worst happened.

The very worst thing that could have ever happened… happened.

On November 1st, 2003 I was in a drinking and driving accident. Two cars had collided on highway 54 in Raleigh, North Carolina. A person had been pretty seriously injured in that initial accident and many people had stopped to help. They had pulled him into the road and were desperately waiting for help to arrive. My van had crested a hill, and there were all the people in the road, and I couldn’t stop in time. I just could not stop in time. I tried swerving, tried to miss, but it was too late. And for that I will always be sorry.

Many people lost their lives that night. Because of me. It was my fault. It should have been different, but it wasn’t.

I spent most of my thirties in a state prison, but there was nothing that I could say about that. They could lock me up forever; what could I possibly say?

I spent most of the first two years of my incarceration obsessing about suicide. Sometimes the very worst thing that can happen is that you have to wake up again to another day.

A friend of mine had sent me the book We’re All Doing Time by Bo Lozoff. It teaches basic yoga and meditation techniques to people who are incarcerated. For me it was invaluable. The most important thing that it taught was that if I had some time to do in prison, I could turn it into a kind of monastic retreat. I started seeing myself less as a convict, and more as a monk. I still wasn’t sure that I was doing meditation correctly. For one thing, everyone seemed to be having such a great time at it, but that wasn’t my experience at all. I’d sit quietly and work on counting my breath. Then my face would start itching, or I’d get a cramp, or anxiety would set in. I couldn’t figure out if I should count my breath in and out as “one” or just the in-breath as “one” and the out-breath as “two.” Also, when I saw images of people doing meditation on television, or talk to other guys about meditation on the yard, they would all appear to be so into it. They’d talk about how relaxing they found it to be. Well, it wasn’t relaxing to me; I had to be doing this wrong!

I kept at it. I have some great meditation stories to tell you. Some of them were profound, life-changing, realizations that I had through doing a full Rohatsu sesshin all by myself, while following the schedule of a local Zen center. But one of my favorite meditations happened when they decided to wax the floors of one of the dorms right in the middle of my daily 40-minute sit. “Bird,” one of the guys that I was locked up with, had decided to use the industrial grade floor buffer around me rather than ask me to move, so I sat there quietly trying to count my breaths as I worried that his floor polisher would somehow catch my mat and send me flying, spinning across the cell block.

I spent one practice period with another inmate who was also interested in Zen, sitting in the phone room during the very early morning hours. We would tap a plastic coffee cup with a prison-grade spork three times to start and end our rounds.

We arranged to occasionally have all-day sits at the prison, with me and a few other guys, which even included a work schedule where we would voluntarily go and clean the yard. I’m sure the guards either loved us or thought we were nuts!

Eventually, I was moved to minimum custody. As I got closer to my release date the prison started letting me out with community volunteers. I had a regular practice of attending the Chapel Hill Zen Center in Hillsborough, North Carolina, and to me this was where my practice really began. I would be allowed to go two or three times per week for occasionally up to six hours. I’d frequent part of their all-day sits, and I’d occasionally have dokusan there. My wife and I were even married there, which again, is part of a much longer story, but it was such a healing part of my life. I had honestly thought that I would eventually get out and try to become a Buddhist priest or something like that. It was the path that I felt most drawn to at the time, and sometimes I still have the yearning to be a monastic, but this is not anywhere in my future at this time.

Not long after I was released I was back in school full-time. My wife, Kara, and I had moved to Rochester and in fact the Rochester Zen Center had played a pretty significant role in our decision to move here. She had a job opportunity here and Brockport had the degree path that I was pursuing in drug and alcohol counseling. We had investigated the city over a few days before making our decision to move here, and had gone to a Saturday morning service at the RZC. It was very different, but it had a lot of things that we both loved.

This is funny: the place where we had been practicing was in the Soto Zen tradition, so lots of bowing, eating with chopsticks, lots of Japanese everything. It was my biggest complaint about the practice at the time. I felt like I was always walking around pretending at being Japanese. Then we came to the Rochester Zen Center. Nobody bowed! We ate with forks! There was nothing Japanese about it, and all of my insides screamed “Heathens!” That’s what helped me realize that nobody can win with me. This is my lifelong practice of getting in my own way. I can always find a reason why the way someone else is doing it is wrong.

My practice slipped away. I’d love to tell you it was finally having freedom, or my busy school schedule, or finding employment or something like that. The truth is that Kara and I had a child together, and from that point on we both have always been trying to squeeze our practice in around the edges, just trying to make it fit.

I’ve been out for five years now. Our daughter just turned four last July. Kara and I have a nice little meditation spot in a guest room upstairs in our house and sometimes we manage to sit there pretty regularly for 10-15 minutes at night before we go to sleep. When we do, we both usually find that our meditation turns into a sitting nap, but it’s okay. I don’t push that away anymore. Sleepy zazen counts too for me these days.

I work as a Behavioral Health Therapist today. I actually am an addiction counselor, so I spend a lot of time talking to others about anxiety, stress, meditation and sober support meetings. I’m an addiction therapist in the middle of an opioid epidemic unlike this world has ever seen. It’s something that I am very passionate about in part because of my own experiences, but honestly because my internal mantra through much of my incarceration and my ensuing education had been part of our vows: “Beings are numberless, I vow to save them.” That became my practice: whenever things would get difficult or I would start to feel like I was overloaded, I would return to that particular line of our vows.

Going to school directly out of prison was just absolutely overwhelming. I didn’t know how to do anything. I started school five days after I was released; classes had begun the previous week. My first day back to school was a disaster. Professors were speaking a foreign language. One of them said, “All of your assignments must be submitted through D2L on Dropbox.” I didn’t know what a D2L was or a Dropbox. I really didn’t know how to use the internet. Most significantly, I didn’t know how to tell the teachers why I didn’t know how to use the most basic of technologies. I went home that afternoon, burst into tears, and confessed defeat to my wife. “I can’t do this. There’s no way that I can do this.” Then I would return to my vow, the only real practice I had left at the time: “Beings are numberless, I vow to save them.” If I was going to help people with addictions, I simply would have to learn, and learn fast.

Then we had our daughter, Story. I remember about 48 hours after she was born some friends came over who had a long history of involvement with the Rochester Zen Center. They sat on our couch admiring this new person. I had innocently asked them how they managed to maintain a practice when their own daughter had been born many years ago. They didn’t really answer, but rather, looked at each other knowingly, kind of shrugged.

That had been their answer.

Practice has been such a significant part of my life for so long now, but I honestly feel like I am always just trying to squeeze it in around the edges. I have meditation cushions at my office and a co-worker and I try to sit together for 20 minutes two times per week, but due to time constraints, meetings, and as I mentioned before, the opioid epidemic, it’s just not always feasible. Sometimes I come in early and sit by myself, but sitting alone is hard. There’s so much offered through the silent support of a Sangha.

About a year ago some friends of mine and I started a local Refuge Recovery meeting together. Refuge Recovery is not a 12-step meeting, but rather a Buddhist-inspired recovery meeting that explores the correlation between Buddhist teachings and the recovery process. We were looking for a location, and a friend of mine who had just moved into the Zen Center had stated that he would see if we could have our meeting there. Honestly, I wanted it to be anywhere else, mostly because I had been away so long that I was embarrassed to go back, but the Rochester Zen Center seemed to make the most sense. He discussed it with a few people and it was agreed.

When I walked back into Rochester Zen Center this time it felt different. Somehow in my absence those many months it had grown more familiar. I was happy to walk through its quiet walls. I had missed this, and hadn’t even known it. I had initially renewed my membership so that I could feel comfortable having the codes to the doors, so that I could allow people in for the Refuge Recovery meeting, but it rapidly became more for me. I needed this back in my life, not just the heavy smells of many years of lingering incense, or the beauty of the back gardens. I needed the support of the Sangha. I bumped into familiar, but not too familiar faces, and everyone seemed happy to see me, which was nice and inviting. I went to a few early morning sits, and realized how much I missed our chants. My wife suggested that I sign up for a two-day sesshin at Chapin Mill, which is the only sesshin that I have done entirely outside of prison. I remember vividly one of my favorite conversations with Wayman during that sesshin. I shared some of my story with him and he looked at me familiarly and said, “Oh, you’re like me. You have to sit. That’s very lucky for you.” But my legs hurt and I was feeling frustrated with my meditation, and I didn’t feel very lucky at all, even though he was right.

I’ll be honest, I’d like my practice to be more rigid and structured than it is. If I could I would probably go to the morning services four to five times per week. I’d attend dokusan regularly, and have a great and familiar relationship with Roshi who would guide me easily in my practice. I might even talk him into calling me “Grasshopper” every once in a while. This isn’t where I am. Not yet. I try to go at least once a week. I can’t even commit to a regular day.

One morning as I was downstairs changing into my robes I started talking to a long-time member about his own practice. I see him at the Zen Center a lot. When I mentioned my daughter, he said that he didn’t come for many years when he was raising his children. Somehow that gave me hope. He didn’t sound like he was any less committed to his practice during those years, and somehow it made me see that through all of this, prison, my release, college, my career, I have been practicing all along. Maybe it is not the practice that I want, or envision for myself. Maybe it’s not the time for that yet. Not yet. But it is there, and it is real, and I am committed to it, and I have been all along.

So, for me it is not so much that I am returning to practice. I have been practicing somehow all along. It’s more like I have a foot in the water, and then I find a way to put another foot into the water, and someday I’ll find a way to wade in a little deeper, and who knows, maybe someday, I’ll take one deep breath and dive all the way under. Someday, I will go for a swim. / / /

Robert VeederIn 2003 Robert Veeder was responsible for a drinking and driving accident which cost six people their lives. Today he is focused on helping others find and embrace sobriety as an addiction therapist, while also speaking out publicly about the need for significant prison reform. Robert has been a member of the Center since 2012.