A Zen Moment by George Merrill


According to a Zen parable, a martial arts student goes to a master warrior and earnestly asks: “I am devoted to studying your martial arts system. How long will it take me to accomplish the mastery of it? The teacher thinks for a moment and replies, “Maybe ten years.”

The student is disappointed. “Ten years?” he mutters impatiently. But I need to master it much faster than that. Look, I will work very hard, and I will practice ten or twelve hours every day, even more if I must. If I can do that, how long will it take, then?

The teacher replies, “Twenty years.”

Today we live at breakneck speeds. We’re losing one of life’s fundamental skills: patience.

These days, waiting for almost anything, is considered a personal insult. Amazon was once the name of a legendary tribe of female warriors. Today, Amazon is the iconic symbol for speed. As a Prime member, you can order just about anything you want with a guaranteed delivery 48 hours.

Since I bought a Kindle, I must confess I have enjoyed instant delivery. Never before have I learned about a book that I’d love to read only to have it in my hand moments later. I’ll search the title on Amazon and have it delivered to me with one click, ready to read. Google and Safari offer me instant access to dates and facts that in days of yore would have involved trips to library and hours of research.

Some blessings we enjoy often have darker sides.

Speed is our contemporary epidemic. I believe we’re addicted.

Even romance, something which we used to cultivate with time and patience, is now available 24/7 on the net. With apps like Tinder, Grindr and JSwipe, there are fifty million romantic candidates right there at the keyboard, waiting for us to filter them out instantly by location, gender, religion, hobbies and how desperate they want a partner.

When I consider flies and other insects, whose lives are brief, speed makes sense. They’re born, must find a mate, have babies, forage for food and then die. There’s little time to dally and it’s wise that they make haste. We, on the other hand, have plenty of time.

In fact, what is so ironic for us today is that, unlike flies or our ancestors, we are living lives that enjoy unprecedented longevity – some lives lasting as long as five score and still rising. Our predecessors, even with the disadvantage of less time, lived life at a much more leisurely pace.

Even with instant gratification, the hallmark of the post-modern generation, why is there so much boredom? Addictions. Whether we’re addicted to speed or drugs, neither offers enduring satisfaction.

One of the characteristics of addictions is the way they sate desire quickly, but only momentarily. Its pleasures are short lived. The junky is just finished scoring and he’s figuring out how to get his next hit. Alcoholics know that one drink is not enough, a thousand is too many.

With our culture addicted to speed (velocity, I mean) a new syndrome has been identified called ‘road rage.’ Drivers being stuck in traffic by another car driving slowly can turn motorists into predators. Initial symptoms may include tailgating, making obscene gestures or screaming one’s head off while pounding the steering wheel with both fists. Accidents occur and even homicides. Driving a car in stalled traffic can be worth your life.

I confess I am impatient with pokey drivers. It irritates me when I’m driving the St. Michaels road to and from Easton and get behind a car that’s creeping along. I come up close to the rear of the offending vehicle to see who’s holding me back. If I see no head above the driver’s seat backrest, I know it’s got to be an old lady or an old man reduced in size by age. I’m sure it’s not some kid, since teenagers that drive slowly are a vanishing, if not extinct, breed. They’re into serious speed. That the elderly drive slowly does make good sense; after all they’ve lived most of their lives and with what remains, they want to savor every minute of it, even if it ties traffic up and drives other motorists nuts. Although I say this reluctantly, I believe they’ve earned the right.

What is it that drives our need to be such a hurry, anyway? To save time. Save time to do what?

Spend the extra time on a smartphone. And what do we do with the additional information we’ve gleaned? Search for even more. And just what is all this time we’ve spent on gaining more information providing us? Well, more information. We have more information available to us than at any other time in human history and it’s never enough. We don’t know how to use half of it.

I suspect that the Zen master was telling his eager student that slowing down will achieve his goals more effectively than being in a hurry.

Locally, I drive on two lane roads. As I have begun thinking in more Zen-like ways to conduct my life, I’ve discovered something that occurs with remarkable predictability. It happens when I drive the St Michaels Road. If I’m in a hurry, some slug invariably pulls out from a side road and then creeps along at 35mph. I wait impatiently for a break in the traffic and pass him. As I do, and I feel triumphant as his car grows smaller and smaller in my rear view. What’s eerily predictable is that the light I come to is always red. I stop. Then in my rear-view mirror I see the same car I passed awhile back creeping up right behind me.

I gained no advantage by passing the slow car. My triumph was short lived. We both arrived at the same place at about the same time.

What would the Zen master say to that?

Make haste slowly.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.


Letters to Editor

  1. Beryl Smith says

    Once again you are right on! I will think of you every time that slow car creeps up behind me at the stop light.

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