If you are looking for life advice, it’s best not to start with Zen. But if you are continuing your search, as I am, it’s a good next step. It helps to find a muse. Mine is DT Suzuki, a Zen philosopher and fellow lover of cats, and a man who has made the circuitous logic of his field a little more straightforward. He is long since deceased, but a museum has been built to honor his work in his hometown of Kanazawa, the same small Japanese city where I currently live and work.
I moved to Kanazawa last summer to begin a job as an English teacher. It sounds cliché (is cliché), but the transition was just as much about finding myself as it was about a career change. I had been a Peer Specialist in Massachusetts for the past three years, and had reached the point where my involvement in the community was doing me more harm than good. Too much banging my head against the wall and beating a dead horse and whatnot. Advocacy overload if you will.
More than that, I was unsatisfied with me. I’ve considered myself recovered for quite a few years now. Despite this minor feat, my identity continued to feel fractured. I was still missing a key puzzle piece that I had lost over half a lifetime ago.
And so I went looking for it at the DT Suzuki Museum. It’s a small square building, broken into three sections. The first is a rotating exhibition room (the pieces, not the room), the second a quiet library and reading area, and the third an outdoor contemplative space dominated by a shallow pool called the Water Mirror Garden. After a two-hour tour of the whole museum and a part-mimed conversation with the curator, I circled back to the library.
It was a hot day in early August, and my shorts stuck to the chair despite the air conditioning. On the wall to my left hung a large calligraphy tapestry. The picture painted on it was Suzuki’s interpretation of Sengai Gibon’s enigmatic Circle Triangle Square. DT Suzuki had been somewhat obsessed with it in the later stages of his life. I had a collection of Suzuki’s books in front of me on the table and was flipping through his Essays in Zen Buddhism. I was about to put it down when a passage near the end caught my eye. It was a small extrapolation on identity and the self from Seeing Traces of the Cow:
“He now knows that things, however multitudinous, are of one substance, and that the objective world is a reflection of the self.”
This sentence carried me from my chair and into the past. The nature of my identity has always bothered me. A diagnosis of Bipolar at the age of 14 will do that to you. I’ve never met a person who knows who they are, at least not an honest one, but most of us know what we are by a fairly early age. Regardless of the privileges or disadvantages that come with the labels, we have a fairly strong understanding that they exist. I didn’t suddenly wake up one morning in 7th grade to discover I was white. Although I did walk into my first crush in 2nd grade and realize I was straight. But even with sexuality lagging behind, it was something that came from me and that I understood fairly well (at least until puberty).
None of these identities came from at outside source. While I appreciated my mother’s support, I didn’t need her telling me I was a hockey player. I was rather proud of the fact. And I was the one that dragged her and my dad around from rink to rink in the first place. My English teachers all knew I was obsessed with (and competitive about) literature, but they weren’t informing me of the fact. My daily experiences with reading and living did that.
And then came my diagnosis. It happened in a stuffy, grey office with giant windows down one wall, which was entirely too small to fit my mother, the doctor, the social worker, and me in any sort of comfort. But outpatient facilities, for some reason, aren’t built for comfort. I sat on my aluminum chair, with my head down. The doctor listed off a number of supposed facts that would be ground into my identity and my personality over the next decade. He said it was genetic, that it was a lifelong illness, and that it would severely debilitate me for the rest of my life. I had no idea what was going on, but it took this man only a few hours of observation and five days worth of service notes to find a clinical (and billable) reason for my problems.
I could not begin to tell you if this man was right about all of that, but it certainly feels like he was wrong. Genetics aside, I’m currently failing to live up to his fortune. I successfully graduated university, established myself as a Peer Specialist, and then moved halfway around the world. I no longer experience the ups and downs of mania and depression, and I found out years ago that when I was, most of it was due to my own life habits. If I walked into a psychiatrist’s office for the first time today, I have no doubt that they could find something wrong with me. But it wouldn’t be Bipolar with depressive tendencies.
And that is precisely the annoying little detail that made Suzuki and his cow stick out to me. Who we are (and how we are) is very much influenced by what we believe we are. And certain labels, coming from certain places, bolstered by certain continued experiences, tend to mushroom in our consciousness as being more dominant than others.
For nearly a decade after my diagnosis, I WAS Bipolar. Almost every emotion, action, and thought was attributed to it. If not by me, then by my parents or providers. An argument with my mother was mania, sleeping in class was depression, and an accidental broken window (at the hands of an errant street hockey puck) was anger problems. Looking back, none of these had anything to do with Bipolar. The sleeping, in a twist of irony, was actually caused by my medication, which I took copious amounts of in the morning. This fact somehow went unnoticed by my providers, who gave me everything from lectures to light-boxes to “cope.” Even when my experiences weren’t attributed to mental illness, they had to go through an agonizing analysis just to be granted that privileged status.
Even the mental trick of saying, “I have Bipolar” instead of “I am Bipolar” didn’t help. Bipolar wasn’t a pet or a tumor, I couldn’t just point at it and distinguish it as different or separate from me. There was no “on/off” button I could press. It was mixed into my ocean of consciousness. Sometimes it was calm and sometimes it was stormy, but it was still, very plainly, me.
I want to be clear here that my experience as a client in the system was not inherently negative, and that I sorely needed professional support for a number of years. I won’t pretend that I could’ve magicked my teen self into any sort of healthy-minded individual all by myself. And other than a few bad eggs, I’ve been fortunate to have had trusting relationships with a number of providers. And the keys to my recovery (CBT, exposure, and mindfulness) were all introduced to me in a therapeutic setting. The main problem was that for any of them to work, and to make any sort of progress, I had to step out of the clinical world and into my own personal experience.
And it wasn’t even a provider that taught me that trick. It was actually my introduction to another master of Zen, the monk Thich Nhat Hanh, that opened my eyes to the world of just being human.
Like much of my recovery, this realization was an accident. I was in an outpatient class, in between semesters of my sophomore year of university, learning mindful meditation as a coping skill. After several sessions, and seeing my developing interest, the therapist mentioned the monk’s name and a few of his books as good resources for further practice. I bought Being Peace the next day. It wasn’t until I was a few chapters in that I discovered that the mental health field had usurped meditation (like so many other human experiences and habits) and worked it to its own devices.
My mind met this discovery with a mix of relief and confusion. If I had a clinical problem, why was something as ancient and simple as meditation helping me? And if normal positive human habits could be so profoundly useful, why the heck was the field marketing pills and “clinical” coping mechanisms to me instead? This frustration helped me jump ship from the medical mindset and hop into the world of humanity.
It took a conscious effort and a lot of reading to switch my brain into a human mindset. After devouring a handful of meditation books, I ventured into other nonfiction, from The Power of Habit to In Defense of Food. To steer away from identity for a moment, it was this latter book that helped me realize where clinical psychology had gone wrong.
But that is a tangent for another time. This story is about me, after all.
Being human, or trying to be, was one of the biggest keys to my recovery. It unlocked the path to self-acceptance and lessened the distance between me and “normal” society. It made every new problem that arose more approachable and less alien. My wellness tools shifted from medication, CBT, therapy, and exposure to meditation, exercise, healthy eating, challenging myself, and a better sleep schedule.
By the end of university, I had stopped going to therapy, reduced my medication and altered my perception of who I was. I was making progress. Ironically, it was becoming a Peer Specialist that delayed this progress, and kept me from fully recapturing my identity. It wasn’t the act of being a peer (something I feel proud and fortunate to say), but the daily experience of surrounding myself with the mental health world that nagged at me. I needed to separate myself from that world entirely to make that last step.
And so the reason for coming to Japan and discovering myself in Zen and cattle.
My parents thought it was a terrible idea. In fact, everyone was fairly surprised. It came out of left field for them. I had expressed my dissatisfaction with my life a number of times, but no one was expecting such a drastic decision. The question floating in the back of everybody’s minds was: Is this Greg? Or is this Bipolar?
I wondered it myself for a while. Even through the six-month application process, group interviews, and the bigger group trainings and introductions. Was this a mature, healthy decision brought about by self-reflection and personal growth, or just another instance of me running away and creating a bigger problem? I felt differently about it depending on the day. It plagued me all the way up to the day I left.
That changed about two months after landing in Kanazawa. It wasn’t so much of a change, actually, as a sudden realization that what I was doing felt extremely normal. It would have happened sooner, but adjusting to a new country is a bit taxing on the nerves. The thing that really did it was the amount of other foreigners in my city. Disregarding the total number of gaijin (the casual term for non-Japanese folk), there are nearly one hundred English speakers employed by my program in the Ishikawa prefecture alone. Not enough to make a dent in the local population, but enough to form a pleasant community.
There’s a word. Community. Everyone talks about the importance of having a community. I used to tell that to all the people I served. And I suppose I was in one, as a peer. But this one is different. My community of friends in Japan is the first one I’ve had since my hockey days that is built solely on positive mutual interests. And very importantly (for me at least), on independent choice.
There’s a strong connotation with ex-pats in Japan being anime-loving weirdos. In my experience, that is almost entirely untrue. And the ones I do know are some of the coolest weirdos around. Contrary to being misfits, they seem to be some of the most well-grounded, unique, and intriguing people I’ve ever met. Although, interestingly, a lot of them have felt like outcasts themselves at certain points in their lives.
And so for the first time since I was 14, I found myself in a community I really felt a part of. But it wasn’t just community that I needed, so much as one filled with the reasons above. I needed that background texture to support me as my new experiences slowly altered my identity. Because that is was experience does. And due to my new surroundings and new community, the words that filled my world were “adventure, experience, Japanese, teaching, culture shock, writer, bullet train, high school,” etc. Most notably, whenever the topic of stress came up (which was frequently), everyone considered it normal. After a few months of this, a lot of teaching, and even more cultural adjustments, I felt like a completely different person.
Over the past year, I’ve done things I thought I would only ever read about. I’ve climbed Mt. Fuji to see the sunrise. I’ve gotten lost in the woods in Kyoto and danced with deer in Nara. I drank sake with old men in Hiroshima, fed bunnies in Okunoshima, and meditated on top of a mountain in Miyajima. And along the way, I’ve come to understand the words in that Zen quote.
It’s nothing special, and it may not even be right. But it makes sense to me. Who I am is both what I do, and how I see myself when I do it. So I needed a more positive identity, better associations to go along with it, experiences that reflected the kind of person I wanted to be, and people surrounding me to implicitly validate all of the above. And for it all to work, I needed the whole package.
It was ten months ago that I read that passage. I later bought the book, which I confess I have yet to finish. While it is brimming with other similar life-changing quotes (usually with less bovine inspiration), it is not what you would call a page-turner. It is not a story for you to read, but a collection of ideas to apply to your own story.
And now, finally, I feel like I’m the author of mine.