Most newbies to the Zen bench can’t count to ten without their minds starting to wander. And I was no exception.
In 1985 I graduated from Colgate University and headed off to New York City to start my career as an MBA student and budding Certified Public Accountant (CPA). Immediately, I missed the structure that college athletics provided and wondered how I was supposed to maintain my physical and mental sharpness in that intense grind environment. As I considered this, I recalled my college roommate. While I balanced college life with sports and a healthy social life, David trained diligently for his black belt in Shotokan Karate. I watched him transform from a lanky, awkward, yet cocky guy into a focused, self-assured warrior. When I graduated, I was older, but I didn’t feel my character was any different from when I arrived four years earlier. Hmm.
I wanted to be more complete. I wanted to be more confident and to ease the internal suffering. In other words, I was hungry to be more like David. One evening, as if the universe were answering my request, I wandered past a building and paused under a flag on an awning: World Seido Karate Headquarters.
Mr. Tadashi Nakamura instantly became a mentor to another desperate seeker. He was the humblest and most integrated individual I had ever met, altering my concept of what a powerful leader looked like. And so began my love-hate relationship with the Zazen bench (a wooden meditation stool I’d threaten to burn on more than one occasion).
After a few months, I started to notice a shift. Back in the streets after practice, the air around me felt thicker, as if I were swimming in an energy matrix. I felt connected to my surroundings and more alive during those ten-minute walks home.
And after more than a year of daily practice, I’d developed deep concentration skills and clear metacognition over my thoughts. That meant that I could witness my thinking mind in “live time,” flag negative, distracting chatter, and replace it with a positive focus. I was also gaining clarity on the flawed nature of my origin stories. Still, I was early in the game of mental development and unaware that I was both the inmate and the guard in my thought prison, and the vision for my future was still murky, though a sense of being a warrior (and NOT a CPA!) was emerging.
On a new route home from the dojo one evening, a poster in the window of a Navy recruiting office stopped me in my tracks. “Be Someone Special” was written across the top of it. Commandos were jumping out of a plane, driving a mini submarine, stalking the enemy. I was captivated and fell into a fantasy, imagining I were them, until my monkey mind took over: I can’t walk away from a secure job. What would the parents say? What would my peers think of me? Where would I be in six years after my commitment was up? With my internal dialogue in charge, I didn’t feel very “special.” I discarded the idea outright.
The next day, against my monkey mind’s advice, I asked: Why not? I was miserable in my current vocation. I began meditating on this new possibility.
Two long years after standing in front of that poster, I left my “old life” behind—my CPA, MBA, black belt, and even all my belongings—to chase my new most prized possession: the invitation to Navy SEAL training. Like David, meditation and a martial arts master helped me tap into uncommon levels of focus, positive energy, and insight. With over 1,000 hours on the Zen bench, I had serious mind power… and most important, I had found my purpose. It was November of 1989, and it was just the beginning.
Consciously focusing your mind is no small task. It’s also no harder than mastering any physical skill—thus all the sports references! It takes years of practice, but all you have to do it the next practice session. I’m going to reiterate this, so it sinks it: Mastering your mental mountain is achieved through disciplined practice. Period.