Moment of Zen

Food for Thought

My friend Pete loves Queens Night Market. It’s actually odd if you’ve known him for a long time because he used to eat nothing but hotdogs, pizzas, steaks, and burgers. He must have had some sort of enlightenment recently.

I met Pete at the School of Visual Arts. During the first year, everyone took the same classes regardless of majors. From the second year, Pete had to study illustration because his state-sponsored financial aid didn’t allow him to major in Fine Arts even though that’s what he wanted to study. I was registered as a graphic design major but because all of the friends I made during the first year were Fine Arts majors, I switched. Ironically, however, Pete and I became more interested in music than in visual arts. When we were not in school, we were in his East Village apartment making music.

One day, we were sitting around wondering, “What would happen if we played 3/4 against 4/4?” This is called “polyrhythm,” in this case “3 against 4,” but at the time, we didn’t know that it’s a relatively common concept in music. We spent a few weeks trying to play 3 on one hand and 4 on the other. Pete has been playing drums since childhood, so, I thought he could do it but couldn’t. As soon as we paid attention to one hand, the other hand would screw up. Our brains could not keep track of two things at the same time. Just as we were about to give up, I thought about programming it into a digital sequencer (personal computers didn’t exist then) so that we can at least hear what it sounds like. It blew my mind. As soon as Pete heard it, he goes, “That’s it?! I’ve been playing that all my life!” and started playing it flawlessly. I too was able to play it after practicing for a few more days.

For me, that was a moment of Zen; the first time I realized that thinking can get in the way of solving problems. Until that moment, problem-solving was synonymous with thinking. In fact, most problems in life are hindered by thinking. If we could just stop thinking about them, the solutions would become obvious. Even if we conceptually understand this, we still can’t stop thinking, which makes thinking the mother of all problems.