So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love
The Passion of the Monk
“ ‘Follow your passion’ is dangerous advice.”
Thomas had this realization in one of the last places you might expect. He was walking a trail through the oak forest that outlines the southern bowl of Tremper Mountain. The trail was one of many that cross through the 230-acre property of the Zen Mountain Monastery, which has called this corner of the Catskill Mountains its home since the early 1980s. Thomas was halfway through a two-year stay at the monastery, where he was a practicing lay monk. His arrival, one year earlier, had been the fulfillment of a dream-job fantasy that he had nurtured for years. He had followed his passion for all things Zen into this secluded Catskills retreat and had expected happiness in return. As he stood in the oak forest that afternoon, however, he began to cry, his fantasy crumbling around him.
“I was always asking, ‘What’s the meaning of life?’ ” Thomas told me when I first met him, at a coffee shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts. By then, several years had passed since Thomas’s realization in the Catskills, but the path that led him to that point remained clear and he was eager to talk about it, as if the recounting would help exorcise the demons of his complicated past.
After earning a pair of bachelor’s degrees in philosophy and theology, then a master’s degree in comparative religion, Thomas decided that Zen Buddhist practice was the key to a meaningful life. “There was such a big crossover between the philosophy I was studying and Buddhism that I thought, ‘Let me just go practice Buddhism directly to answer these big questions,’ ” he told me.
After graduation, however, Thomas needed money, so he took on a variety of jobs. He spent a year, for example, teaching English in Gumi, an industrial town in central South Korea. To many, life in East Asia might sound romantic, but this exoticism soon wore off for Thomas. “Every Friday night, after work, the men would gather at these street carts, which had tents extending out from them,” Thomas told me. “They gathered to drink soju [a distilled rice liquor] late into the night. During winter there would be steam coming from these tents, from all the men drinking. What I remember most, however, is that the next morning the streets would be covered in dry vomit.”
Thomas’s search also inspired him to travel across China and into Tibet, and to spend time in South Africa, among other journeys, before ending up in London working a rather dull job in data entry. Throughout this period, Thomas nurtured his conviction that Buddhism held the key to his happiness. Over time, this daydream evolved into the idea of him living as a monk. “I had built up such an incredible fantasy about Zen practice and living in a Zen monastery,” he explained to me. “It came to represent my dream come true.” All other work paled in comparison to this fantasy. He was dedicated to following his passion.
It was while in London that Thomas first learned about the Zen Mountain Monastery, and he was immediately attracted to its seriousness. “These people were practicing really intense and sincere Zen,” he recalls. His passion insisted that the Zen Mountain Monastery was where he belonged.
It took nine months for Thomas to complete the application process. When he finally arrived at Kennedy airport, having been approved to come live and practice at the monastery, he boarded a bus to take him into the Catskill countryside. The ride took three hours. After leaving the city sprawl, the bus proceeded through a series of quaint towns, with the scenery getting “progressively more beautiful.” In a scene of almost contrived symbolism, the bus eventually reached the foot of Tremper Mountain, where it stopped and let Thomas out at a crossroads. He walked from the bus stop down the road leading to the monastery entrance, which was guarded by a pair of wrought-iron gates, left open for new arrivals.
Once on the grounds, Thomas approached the main building, a four-story converted church constructed from local bluestone and timbered with local oak. “It is as if the mountain offered itself as a dwelling place for spiritual practice” is how the monks of the monastery describe it in their official literature. Pushing past the oaken double doors, Thomas was greeted by a monk who had been tasked with welcoming newcomers. Struggling to describe the emotions of this experience, Thomas finally managed to explain it to me as follows: “It was like being really hungry, and you know that you’re going to get this amazing meal—that is what this represented for me.”
Thomas’s new life as a monk started well enough. He lived in a small cabin, set back in the woods from the main building. Early in his visit he asked a senior monk, who had been living in a similar cabin for over fifteen years, if he ever got tired of walking the trail connecting the residences to the main building. “I’m only just starting to learn it,” the monk replied mindfully.
The days at the Zen Mountain Monastery started as early as 4:30 A.M., depending on the time of year. Remaining in silence, the monks would greet the morning with forty to eighty minutes of meditation on mats arranged with “geometric precision” in the main hall. The view outside the Gothic windows at the front of the hall was spectacular, but the mats kept the meditators too low to see out. A pair of hall monitors sat at the back of the room, occasionally pacing among the mats. Thomas explained: “If you found yourself falling asleep, you could request that they hit you with a stick they kept for this purpose.”
After breakfast, eaten in the same great hall, everyone was assigned jobs. Thomas spent time cleaning toilets and shoveling ditches as part of his housecleaning duties, but he was also assigned, somewhat anachronistically, to handle the graphic design for the monastery’s print journal. A typical day continued with more meditation, interviews with senior practitioners, and often long, inscrutable Dharma lectures. The monks were given a break each evening before dinner. Thomas often took advantage of this respite to light the woodstove in his cabin, preparing for the cold Catskill nights.
Thomas’s problems began with the koans. A koan, in the Zen tradition, is a word puzzle, often presented as a story or a question. They’re meant to defy logical answers and therefore force you to access a more intuitive understanding of reality. In explaining the concept to me, Thomas gave the following example, which he had encountered early in his practice: “Show me an immovable tree in a heavy wind.”
“I don’t even know what an answer to that would look like,” I protested.
“In an interview,” he explained, “you have to answer right away, no thinking. If you pause like that, they kick you out of the room; the interview is over.”
“Okay, I would have been kicked out.”
“Here’s the answer I gave to pass the koan,” he said. “I stood, like a tree, and waved my hands slightly as if in a wind. Right? The point was that this is a concept you really couldn’t capture in words.”
One of the first major hurdles a young practitioner faces in serious Zen practice is the Mu koan: Passing this koan is the first of the “eight gates” of Zen Buddhism. Until you reach this milestone, you’re not yet considered a serious student of the practice. Thomas seemed reluctant to explain this koan to me. I had encountered this before in my research on Zen: Because these puzzles defy rationality, any attempt to describe them to a non-practitioner can be trivializing. Because of this I didn’t press Thomas for details. Instead, I Googled it. Here’s one translation I found:
A pilgrim of the way asked the Grand Master Zhaozhou, “Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?” Zhaozhou said, “Mu.”
In Chinese, mu translates roughly to “no.” According to the interpretations I found, Zhaozhou is not answering the pilgrim’s question, but is instead pushing it back to the questioner. Thomas struggled to pass this koan, focusing on it intensely for months. “I worked and worked on that koan,” he told me. “I went to bed with it; I let it inhabit my whole body.”
Then he cracked it.
“One day I was walking in the forest, and a moment passed. I had been looking at these leaves, and ‘I’ had disappeared. We all experience things like this but don’t attach any importance to them. But when I had this experience, I was prepared for it, and it clicked. I realized, ‘This is the whole koan.’ ” Thomas had achieved a glimpse of the unity of nature that forms the core of the Buddhist understanding of the world. It was this unity that provided the answer to the koan. Excited, at his next interview with a senior monk Thomas made a gesture—“a simple gesture, something you might do in everyday life”—that made it clear that he had an intuitive understanding of the koan’s answer. He had made it through the first gate: He was officially a serious student of Zen.
It was not long after passing the Mu koan that Thomas had his realization about passion. He was walking in the same woods where he had cracked the koan. Armed with the insight provided by passing the Mu, he had begun to understand the once obtuse lectures given most days by the senior monks. “As I walked that trail, I realized that these lectures were all talking about the same thing as the Mu koan,” said Thomas. In other words, this was it. This was what life as a Zen monk offered: increasingly sophisticated musings on this one, core insight.
He had reached the zenith of his passion—he could now properly call himself a Zen practitioner—and yet, he was not experiencing the undiluted peace and happiness that had populated his daydreams.
“The reality was, nothing had changed. I was exactly the same person, with the same worries and anxieties. It was late on a Sunday afternoon when I came to this realization, and I just started crying.”
Thomas had followed his passion to the Zen Mountain Monastery, believing, as many do, that the key to happiness is identifying your true calling and then chasing after it with all the courage you can muster. But as Thomas experienced that late Sunday afternoon in the oak forest, this belief is frighteningly naïve. Fulfilling his dream to become a full-time Zen practitioner did not magically make his life wonderful.
As Thomas discovered, the path to happiness—at least as it concerns what you do for a living—is more complicated than simply answering the classic question “What should I do with my life?”
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|Epub||May 28, 2021|
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