My earliest Zen teachers were failure and my father, in that order. The first thing I failed at was being physically big. This wasn’t my fault, of course, but kids always feel directly responsible for how they look. And how I looked was small.
In a Christmas photo from my youth my sister and I are wearing outfits we’ve received as presents: She is dressed in a ballet unitard and pointe shoes, her exaggerated smile seemingly achieved with the help of invisible pulleys. I, at six, am outfitted in cowboy couture — leather chaps and matching vest (sans shirt) with a terrified grin. Neither of us looks quite right. It’s as though our gifts have been switched: she is beefy and dense, while I am lithe and graceful, with skinny legs that would be adorable beneath a frilly pink tutu.
As the years passed, my body did not change much. I sprouted a few perfunctory black hairs in the appropriate regions, but then puberty forgot about me, leaving the task half done. My health-conscious mother augmented my diet with Malabar — a gooey gray protein supplement that listed cow brain and spleen among its ingredients — but to no avail. I could have swallowed a truck tire, and my metabolism would simply have disintegrated it. In peewee soccer I earned the nickname “Spaz” because I had too much energy and too little ability. Though small, I made a rather large target for bullies. After a boy-man of a goalie tipped over the porta-potty in which I was trying to hide from him, I decided to start pumping iron — or, rather, stones, curling buckets of rocks in the basement. Picture a bug-eyed seventh-grader in a tank top, squeaking to himself, “One . . . more . . . rep!”
Every Friday night I would present my father with a tape measure from my grandmother’s old sewing box and ask him to measure my biceps. Dad had once been scrawny like me, but in his late teens he’d turned himself into a powerhouse with the same intensity of purpose with which he pursued all his goals. He now had sixteen-inch arms and thick jaw muscles. (He’d actually looped a weight through a rope and lifted it with his mouth, “to flesh out my face,” he said.)
I tore off my tank top and flexed, my whole body trembling as I tried to swell that dainty ping-pong ball of a muscle on my upper arm.
Peering over his reading glasses, Dad circled the tape around my biceps and studied it carefully. “Ten and a half inches,” he said.
I asked him to check again as I strained harder, clenching every muscle from my eyes to my anus. I must have looked as if I were peeing on an electric fence.
“Ten and a half inches,” he confirmed.
I nearly collapsed. I just didn’t measure up.
I spent several shirtless hours a week flexing before the bathroom mirror, trying to will myself to grow bigger, but the mirror showed no transformation. By this time my voice had begun to crack on every third word, and my manhood resembled a pink baby bird falling out of its nest.
A good Catholic boy, I decided to petition my Maker in the hope that he might reconsider his decision to give me a boy’s genitals and a little girl’s body. My mother had taught me that if you asked the Blessed Virgin Mary for something, she would ask her son, Jesus, to ask God the Father to grant your wish. From what I had seen of family dynamics, this was just complicated enough to be believable.
I knelt before my private Catholic school’s life-size statue of Mary and prayed for a miracle: I prayed to be big. I waited for a wink from Mary’s painted eye or a rustle of her plaster robes to indicate she had heard me, but the Virgin stood frozen, one chipped foot peeking out from under her azure robe.
So I took the matter of my failed prayers to my own in-house religious-complaints department. When I told my mother of my plight, she was cubing hunks of venison with a massive silver knife. She turned to me and ran her hands, covered to the wrists in deer blood, across her white apron. Then she tightened her black hair in its bun, fixed me with her liquid brown eyes — which were perpetually filled with confusion and love, the hallmarks of a nervous young mother — and said . . .
Actually I don’t remember what parental platitudes she offered. I just remember that, for the first time, I questioned her beliefs, which she’d so desperately tried to graft onto the nascent green shoots of my spiritual yearnings.
My father, on the other hand, was not a religious man. Every Sunday he would take his place at the end of the pew and make a great show of nodding off like a junkie. Ah, Catholicism, he seemed to be saying, you bring out the vegetative state in me. Though I remained a believer, I began to fall asleep with him during Mass: father and son, side by side, mouths open, bodies slumped — dreaming about being somewhere else, doing something else.
What Dad dreamed about was shooting guns. Rifles were his religion. He and I spent long hours at the Daniel Boone Rifle Range together. Thump! Dad’s shot would whack the hillside behind the target. Rrrrring! I’d bring the target back on its pulley. Thump! Rrrrring! So it went, hour after hour, as the humid summer air reverberated with the buzzing of horny cicadas. It was painfully boring, and the best possible thing for an anxious child like me. Seeing my father made solid by doing what he loved made me feel solid, too.
He also taught me to shoot. “Sight alignment is paramount,” he explained late one afternoon as he adjusted my prone form, pressing various parts of my body into place. Posture, stillness, relaxation, focus — these were all important, but the most crucial factor when it came to hitting the mark was breathing.
“When you finish exhaling,” Dad said, “just when you’re about to breathe in, you sort of let the trigger pull itself.”
Since the beginning of time fathers have taught sons how to do something right and fully, mastering the task by surrendering to it completely. I needed this more than I did my mother’s pious belief system. I needed to get lost in the rigors of a discipline.
Fifteen years later a Vedantic-meditation guru would direct my attention to the same sweet spot between exhale and inhale, and I would imagine my father poking his head into the guru’s hut and announcing, He heard it from me first, Swami.
One morning in my freshman year of high school, as I bent to reach into my locker, a pair of hulking legs appeared behind me. They were attached to the body of Todd Hunter, whose blue eyes hooked into mine like a raptor’s claws. There was a lot of him to take in, most of it muscle. Todd was a legend. One year, during halftime in a football game against the school for the deaf, he had vowed to put two of the opposing team’s players in the hospital — and then he did just that. Even his bright-red hair looked angry.
Right now Todd was engrossed in the pictures of a bodybuilder that I’d taped to the inside of my locker door. In my zeal to become big, I’d developed an obsession with eight-time Mr. Olympia Lee Haney. His rippling flesh looked like the sort of thing a mad geneticist might grow in a lab. As he flexed for the camera, there was nothing in his expression that even remotely resembled joy. He looked like he was trying to shit out a cactus.
“Is that what you want to look like?” Todd cried. “Really? That ain’t right!”
From the surrounding lockers my peers engaged in a competition to see who could laugh the loudest. I chuckled nervously. Todd had a manner of joking that made it hard to tell whether you were in on the joke — and if you weren’t sure, that pretty much answered your question.
He strode down the hall, striking bodybuilding poses and shouting, “That ain’t right!” As others began to repeat his catch-phrase, a new goal appeared on my horizon: I would become a jock. If there was one way for a guy to avoid being the target of jokes, it was for him to be good at sports. I briefly tried football and quit. Then I went out for basketball.
Because I couldn’t imagine accomplishing the objective of becoming a jock on my own, I once again entreated the Creator through one of his underlings — this time Saint Thérèse of the Little Flower. Her name was attached to a novena, a nine-day series of prayers that allegedly provided a strong return on one’s investment of time and credulity. My relationship with God at this point was like that of a scheming grandson to his billionaire grandfather: I somehow had to obtain a portion of his infinite bounty without his catching on to the mercenary nature of my supplications.
“He’s a quiet one,” I imagined God telling his right-hand angel as he watched me on my knees in my bedroom through a hole in the heavenly nimbus. “He’s not asking for much. Increase his vertical jump by seven inches, and then let’s get back to work on this African famine.”
My private school was so small that everyone who tried out for basketball made the team, but not everyone made it onto the court. I sat at the lonely end of the bench, forgotten by all except Todd Hunter. During timeouts he would walk down to my end, spit in a Styrofoam cup, and hand it to me. Desperate to get a few minutes in the game, I shot hoops at school every night until Andy, our cross-eyed janitor, shut off the lights. After that, I shot in the dark, which made no difference in my accuracy. When I tried to dribble, my hand and the ball behaved like the positive poles of two magnets. Plus the rules confused me. I couldn’t stop fouling my teammates during scrimmages, and whatever play Coach called, I usually wound up running around in circles until the ball hit me in the back of the head.
I attempted to apply the lessons my father had taught me about shooting a gun to shooting a basketball: relax and let my performance take care of itself. But I couldn’t relax. I couldn’t let go. I was unable to lose myself in the game.
“You think too much,” my father said. “That’s the problem. The second you catch the ball, you have to go to that other room in your head, the one with the sign on the door that says, NO THINKING.”
Twenty-five years later my Zen master would offer similar advice: “No thinking! Completely manifest Zero!” Zero was his term for the zone, that place where you are on your game and the ego is completely dissolved into the activity. Of course, the game for him was life, not basketball.
I understand this advice now, but when I was a boy, my father’s admonition was a little too esoteric for me. So I decided to give my mother’s religion one last shot. To hell with the saints: this time I went straight to God himself. I created what I called the “Sacrifice Tabulator”: At the top of a piece of notebook paper I drew a basketball that emanated crude rays of light, signifying its spiritual worthiness. At the bottom I drew the first rung of a ladder. For each good deed I did, I would add another rung to the ladder, which would eventually arrive at the basketball. Then, I thought, the hand of God would reach down and nudge all my shots into the hoop. (In fairness, God and I never actually shook hands on this deal.)
As I recall, the ladder wound up reaching the basketball pretty quickly, as I hadn’t set the bar for a good deed very high. Calling my brother a “little asshole” instead of a “goddamn little asshole”? That counted for one rung. Washing my own filthy gym socks instead of passing the task off to Mom? Two socks, two rungs. Unfortunately the Supreme Being behaved the way all powerful people I knew did: he kept his power to himself, and I rode the bench all season.
To make matters worse, I was on the junior-varsity squad, which scrimmaged against the varsity girls’ team. This meant I had to guard Megan Dunleavy, a shapely shooting guard with whom I was achingly in love. She would bump and push me with her hips to get a better position under the hoop. (This was not what I’d had in mind when I’d fantasized about her sweaty body rubbing up against mine.) She often dribbled past me as though I were invisible or sank a three-point shot, then high-fived her teammates and pointed to me as if to say, Your ass is mine!
Meanwhile the fear of failure was in the air in our house. My father had inherited a small machine shop from his own father, but business was slow, and we were barely getting by. If the bottom line didn’t improve soon, we would be plunged into poverty. My father made the bold choice, against my grandfather’s wishes, to transform the machine shop into a rifle-barrel business. By my sophomore year orders were picking up, and I watched as success transformed him. He became somehow both lighter and more substantial. He smiled when nothing funny had been said. He brought home boxes of doughnuts and left them on the kitchen counter.
What was his secret? Not prayer. I saw now that prayer was for those who couldn’t make it, for the “blessed” meek.
Prayer was for losers.
In the winter of my junior year, as my father drove me home from basketball practice, he slid into the van’s tape deck a cassette that would complete my conversion from Mom’s Catholicism to his all-American belief system. He was amassing a library of self-help audiobooks from various business gurus with comb-overs and market mystics who claimed to have unlocked the secret of financial success. As I traveled to and from school every day, we listened to books like Facing Your Inner Demons and Triumph: A Road Map! We gravitated toward the self-help sages who preached the gospel of subliminal reprogramming. The subconscious, it seemed, was a vast, unknowable wellspring of psychic energy that could be tapped and brought into your service — akin to an all-powerful God, but one you could trick into granting what you wanted.
One day a parcel arrived at our doorstep from Nighthawk, a company my dad called the “Cadillac of the self-help industry.” Inside were a dozen black cassette tapes featuring subliminally layered inspirational messages. Each tape was labeled with a goal, such as “Money,” “Courage,” or “More Joy.” Side A always contained a soundtrack of ocean waves; side B, breezy light jazz. I borrowed the tape titled “Confidence” and kept it on repeat.
Appalled by its aesthetics — the crashing waves! the smooth soprano sax! — I decided to create a subliminal-messaging tape tailored to my tastes and needs. With the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour blasting in the background, I pushed record on a tape deck and whispered such inspirational nuggets as “You will score points!” and “Believe in yourself!” I would always whisper too loud, though, and when I played the tape back, I could hear myself say, “Nothing can stop you!” while the Beatles sang, “I am the walrus / Goo goo g’joob.”
Finally I got into a game and scored two points. It went like this — and I know this is accurate because to this day my father still reminds me of it: without thinking (this is key), I stole the ball, pounded the length of the floor, and “laid that miserable son-of-a-bitching thing in!”
“You went into that other room in your head,” my father said. “You didn’t have time to think about it.”
To illustrate his “no-thinking” philosophy, my father told me the story of how he’d once competed in the state marksmanship competition at Camp Perry: He’d missed enough of his initial shots to feel that he’d blown his chance of winning. With the pressure off, he released the tension he’d been carrying in his belly, felt a slight breeze on his face, and adjusted his aim accordingly. Having let go of the desire to win, he began to plug the target with each shot and had a high old time.
“I almost shit my drawers when they told me I’d won the match,” he said. He called his strategy the “power of negative thinking.” His logic was that, when you can’t do anything right, do the opposite of what you think you should do. When I continued to struggle on the court, he related this strategy to basketball: “When you get the ball,” he advised, “tell yourself, ‘There ain’t no way I’m gonna make this shot.’ ”
So I did. Standing at the free-throw line after I’d been fouled, I thought, Haubner, you’re gonna brick this shot off the backboard, just like you always do.
Then I put up an air ball, missing the basket entirely.
Whether I used positive or negative thinking, my athletic abilities did not improve. In the car one evening I was moping about my latest poor performance when my father asked if it was necessary for me to do well to enjoy playing basketball. Couldn’t I just love the game for its own sake?
My silence told him everything he needed to know.
“You want me to tell you the most important thing you can do in this life?” my father asked. He had black grease from the machine shop under his fingernails and tears in his eyes. “Find the one thing you love to do, and then do it, and don’t let anyone stop you, no matter what. Not even me.”
My father was telling me the real secret to his success. It wasn’t subliminal self-help tapes. You just had to love something so much that you were willing to risk everything for it.
I knew then that I would remain a failure, because there was nothing and no one I loved that way. I had no genuine passion for anything. It’s hard to think of a moment when I have felt more worthless or alone.
My undistinguished high-school-basketball career wouldn’t be the last time that I would try to become gifted at some pursuit through sheer force of will. As the years went on, I would turn to philosophy, then writing, then comedy, then film, each time hoping to make something of myself. And each time I would fail.
I would eventually fail my way into a spiritual practice whose defining teaching is that there is no “self” in the first place, only a void, a vast emptiness that can never be filled. From the Buddhist point of view, it wasn’t success I was seeking. I was driven by a fear of that emptiness inside and a desire to fill it with something, anything.
During practice one week I had to guard Todd Hunter. He caught the ball in the lane, pivoted, and drove to the hoop. The second-biggest player on the team had tried to challenge this move the week before, and the episode had ended with the two of them trading blows. So naturally I tried to scramble out of Todd’s path; instead I wound up fouling him.
On the next play he snagged a pass and made the exact same move. I fouled him again.
Todd was quite an animal — big, graceful, and deadly. As he caught the ball a third time and powered his way to the hoop, I gave him plenty of space, fully content to let him score, but I couldn’t backpedal fast enough. He plowed into me and almost lost his balance. His shoulders shook with laughter, and he hurled the ball against the wall. The sound reverberated through the gym, which grew quiet, even at the other end, where the girls were scrimmaging.
The coach blew his whistle: “That’s it for today!”
In the locker room I skipped showering and scrambled to strip off my uniform and put on my school clothes. As I dug my penny loafers from the bottom of my locker, I sensed Todd’s presence behind me, and my teammates’ chatter dimmed. I was squatting before my locker, clutching my shoes, afraid to stand up, because then I would have to face him.
“Hey, Jack,” Todd said. “You were all over me out there: jumping up and down, waving your arms. You were like a little dirt monkey!”
He started banging on the lockers and screeching like an orangutan while imitating my defensive moves on the court.
“Dirt monkey!” someone else shouted.
I could tell the nickname would stick, so I put on a big grin and laughed along with my teammates. And then, to solidify my status as the team joke, I hooted like a chimp.
That evening I sat at my bedroom desk for a long time, staring at a hunting knife my father had given me years earlier. We’d used it to skin a buck the previous fall, and there was still a bit of fur on the serrated side of the ten-inch blade. I didn’t have much interest in hunting anymore. I was contemplating a new use for the knife.
When I felt ready, I made two cuts in the palms of my hands — to remind me, every single time I caught the basketball and felt the sting, that I could not fail anymore.
As the blood flowed harder than I’d expected, I heard my father in the hallway outside my room. He banged on my door and called my name. His rifle barrels had been featured in American Rifleman magazine, and he wanted to show me.
“Just a minute,” I said.
I waited for his footsteps to disappear down the hallway, and then I ducked from my room into the bathroom, where I bandaged my palms.
After I’d slipped back into my room, I dropped my shirt to the floor and gave in to that most perilous of teenage temptations: I stared at myself in the mirror and cataloged my body’s every flaw. The main problem was that there wasn’t enough of it. The man I’d been waiting to become still hadn’t arrived. I was stuck with what I had. This was me: oversensitive, miniature, hopelessly below average.
“I hate you,” I said to the mirror. “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you.”
My dad was standing in the doorway with his magazine. He walked over and put his hand on my shoulder. I didn’t turn to look at him.
“I love you, Dad,” I said.
Speaking these words made me uncomfortable. I had no idea where they had come from. I wasn’t even sure I meant it. Yet I knew that if I didn’t love someone or something soon, a vital part of me would be lost forever. I could already feel it slipping away, whatever it was.
“I know,” my father said as we stared at each other in the mirror.
I may have been clueless about whether or not I loved him — or anything at all — but he knew better. My father had faith in me.
By midseason of my senior year I was just beginning to enjoy being in my body. Though I hadn’t grown much, I’d developed a goofy persona and was now beating everybody to the punch line. Like a comic actor, I’d turned awkwardness into an asset. I wasn’t a joke: I was funny.
Late in the fourth quarter of a tie basketball game, a loose ball bounced into my path. I grabbed it, did a spin move around a big all-conference power forward, and bolted down the court. There was nothing but clear hardwood ahead of me. Mr. All-Conference did not even pursue. No one did. Suddenly I was alone with my destiny. I remember the crowd’s roar carrying me like a wave. This was my moment.
I scored a left-handed layup. As my sneakers hit the floor, I was already whirling around to meet my celebrating teammates. And Todd was right there, his face crumpled in agony. The others were closing in, screaming at me. The cheerleaders for the other team were joyously airborne.
I looked up. The scoreboard clicked over. We were now down by two points.
I’d scored on the wrong basket.
All I wanted was to become whole, to fill that void at the core of my being, to create a substantial, enduring identity — something I could definitively call “me.” What I’ve learned is that the void can never be filled, because it’s not mine to fill. It belongs to everybody and nobody at the same time. We all share it, but none of us owns it. It’s who we are when we forget ourselves completely, and where we go when we’re lost in the act of doing something we love.
After my botched basket Todd belittled me with his confident gaze, then proceeded to win the game, drawing a foul, hitting a free throw, purposely missing the next one, and soaring in to score two points at the buzzer.
In the locker room Coach gave a speech: “This is what basketball is all about,” he said. “I love that kind of effort. You give it your all, and the rest is up to the gods.” He patted my shoulder to indicate he meant me as much as anyone else. Then he left to fire up the school activity van. As the team departed, I heard Todd’s footsteps coming toward me. I turned to face him, this boy who was bigger, stronger, and more athletic than I was, the embodiment of all that I thought I needed in life, everything I was certain I lacked.
I wish I’d possessed then the insights that Buddhism has given me, but I didn’t. And so, when Todd got in my face, I gave him what he wanted, which was not what any of us needed, least of all me. I made like the dirt monkey he said I was. I hopped up and down. I drummed the lockers with my fists. I let out a primal scream into the void.