How Zen led one man to awareness of the miraculous.
When he was 19, traveling in South America, award-winning poet, novelist, and travel writer Shukman (Archangel, 2013, etc.) had an experience so shattering that he could hardly put it into words. “I thought I wanted to go out and see the world,” he reflected soon after. “Instead it was the other way round: the world opened its arms and pulled me in. What did it all mean?” As he recounts in a graceful, insightful, and disarmingly candid memoir, he spent the rest of his life trying to answer that question. The son of academics headed for Cambridge and, he thought, a career in academia himself, Shukman was not given to spiritual or mystical speculation. However, he felt overwhelmed by the “numinous grace” that enveloped him on the beach, a feeling that freed him from his “ordinary self, with its cravings and complaints.” Among those complaints was severe and persistent eczema: “itch and pain in the dermis, frustration and misery in the psyche.” He sought relief from all manner of medical, psychological, and alternative treatments and finally tried meditation: first transcendental meditation and then Zen. At Zen centers, he felt “a sweetness, a sense of justified indolence, of coming closer to life, to a more authentic self.” He went on retreats, emerging with “a sense of having been cleansed, absolved even, and of returning to the world with new eyes.” He studied with several masters, one of whom was a traditional koan teacher. A koan, he learned, is a verbal formulation that the student thinks about while meditating and must give up trying to understand but instead “let it reveal itself” to the heart and deepen one’s understanding of reality. Zen, Shukman writes, teaches not to withdraw but to accept life, pain, suffering, and beauty: “Unless a path leads us back into the world—reincarnates us, as it were—it’s not a complete path.” Shukman now leads his own Zen center in New Mexico.
A vibrant chronicle of a profound spiritual journey.