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Perfectly Useless

Barry Magid has a message for you, although you may not want to hear it: You’re perfectly fine just as you are.

Magid is a psychoanalyst practicing in New York City, but the pronouncement above reflects the Zen half of his resume: he’s the guiding teacher of the Ordinary Mind Zendo, a small Zen practice center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He’s also the author of a couple of books examining the relationship between psychotherapy and Zen. His more recent offering is entitled Ending the Pursuit of Happiness

Being told you’re okay as you are should come as a gigantic relief, but for Americans (and others) bent on self-improvement, that idea may tend to stick in the craw. It seems to carry a huge sense of letdown. But that, Magid would probably say, is perfectly fine, too. 

Magid didn’t always see things with such equanimity. Though today he frequently lets loose a rollicking, hearty laugh and tends to convey a sense of perpetual amusement, he was, he says, a depressed kid. He grew up in New Jersey and moved to New York City in 1975 to do his medical residency in psychiatry at Roosevelt Hospital. Medical school had been his father’s idea, but once enrolled, the son pulled something of a bait and switch, opting for psychiatry, which wasn’t at all what his father had in mind. Yet already Magid knew that what most compelled his interest wasn’t the body and its catalog of ailments but the mind and the unending mischief it gets into.

After completing his residency, he spent several years getting psychoanalytic training, venturing one step further off the path his father had envisioned for him. But he wasn’t quite finished confounding expectations. He was also becoming quite an adept student of Zen Buddhism.

As a concept, Zen, once strange and exotic, has become thoroughly mainstream, and the word now trips off the tongue of people who have no actual idea what it is. The word popularly suggests unflappability and calm, both of which do and don’t have anything to do with actual Zen, which is essentially a religion that dates back to seventh-century China.

Magid, who’s 59, first encountered Zen the way many people of his generation did: through the Beats and Alan Watts, whom he read while he was in college. Later when he moved to New York, he became a student at the Zen Studies Center, which was led by a Japanese teacher named Eido Shimano, who was, in Magid’s word, “hardcore.” Eido Roshi (roshi is Japanese for “master”), who still teaches at the center, was big on endurance, which meant sitting motionless in meditation for gruelingly long hours, which resulted in lots of physical pain.

But back then, if you wanted to study Buddhism, there weren’t many other options. Today you can take your pick of Tibetan, Theravaden, Zen, and a whole assortment of other offshoots, all similar in some respects but each with its own lineage and traditions. But in New York City in the mid-1970’s, Magid says, “Eido Roshi was the only game in town.”

This, however, was slowly beginning to change. Americans were increasingly interested in Buddhism, and while Zen was still the main tradition on offer, new teachers and practice centers began popping up across the country.

Which was good news for Magid, who was becoming disillusioned with Eido Roshi. In the late 1970s, the venerable teacher and exacting task-master became ensnared in an unseemly scandal: he was accused of having sexual relations with some of his female students. For Magid, the revelation was unsettling. “It shakes your confidence, and makes you wonder, What is it all culminating in? What does enlightenment mean if you’re going to behave like that?”

His ensuing break from the Zen Studies Center, could be viewed as a kind of Zen kismet, because it ultimately led him to the person who would become his true teacher, a sixty-something American mother of four named Charlotte Joko Beck. Beck had studied with a number of Japanese Zen masters on the west coast, and in 1983 became the resident teacher at Zen Center San Diego. Magid began making cross-country treks several times a year to do retreats with her.

What made Beck’s way of teaching so compelling, to many people and certainly to Magid, was her insistence on looking at thoughts and emotions, which Buddhism had tended to ignore, traditionally viewing them as chaff rather than wheat. What Beck was saying is that it’s all wheat, it’s all grist for the mill, and everything that takes place between the ears is worthy of attention. If Zen was interested in the present moment, then Beck insisted that emotions were important too.

In Zen, paradoxes abound. For instance, here’s one: Zen produces personality change, but the point of practice isn’t to become different. As in psychoanalysis, where patients learn to let in the parts of themselves they’d rather not know, Magid says Zen practice simply encourages you to be with all of your experience, the good, the bad, and downright hideous. That’s why, when asked if psychoanalysis and Zen are compatible, Magid takes compatibility one step further and answers, “They’re the same thing.”

In 1996, at Beck’s suggestion, he started up a small Zen center in New York City, and three years later, Beck officially made him a teacher. In the last decade, the center has moved locations a couple of times, but now seems happily ensconced in a first floor unit of a large apartment building with about 40 [?] members and one student in full-time residence. The center holds daily zazen (sitting meditation) as well as longer retreats called sesshins.

And what exactly are they doing in there? Nothing much, according to Magid. Certainly not self-improvement. “More and more I’m trying to articulate a techniqueless, goalless, useless kind of Zen.” Yet as with all religions, he says that at bottom Zen is a devotional practice. Devotion to what, precisely? The present moment.

If there’s a point to Magid’s goalless, useless Zen, it’s to help his students realize “the inherent all-rightness of everything just as it is.” Nobody’s a finished product, he says. “But Zen helps you get comfortable with that idea.”

                                                                                             Carol Ghiglieri