Zen and the Art of the LSAT

Editors Note: This piece was first published in 2006 before I took the October LSAT. And while two years have passed, the stress of the exam still lingers, the exhaustion of the preparation at the forefront of my mind. This being a piece about Zen Buddhism, it’s perhaps then strangely appropriate that I, along with countless othersteachers and non-teachers alikeprepare to take the exam once again this Saturday. Because of this, I was reminded of this old piece I worked on so long ago. And while I cannot promise a spiritual awakening, I can promise a good read.

To say that this is has been an awkward time in my life is at the same time both an understatement and a blatantly selfish cry for sympathy amidst a generational struggle for identity in this strange jungle that is the post-college universe. These past few weeks were a time of a seemingly futile search for meaning, for some greater significance that somehow lay beyond the horizon. Despondent, I became frustrated with the lack of coherence between everyday events, which blatantly unfolded without either my consent or agreement. I often found myself searching for meaning in even the most trivial places, even reading several newspaper horoscopes every day. At that point, their guess was as good as mine.

I have been caught up in the bleak post-college landscape against my will, a place where our lives have simply degraded to a series of numbers or a list of references. We struggle for self-worth and doubt because we have become cast among the faceless masses, soul-less souls who have settled for mediocrity and conformity. They once dreamed of adventure; they’ve settled for dental plans and two weeks of vacation.

I pretentiously thought I was impervious to such matters, but I was wrong. I was privy to the same fate as my peers. In my case, fate hinged upon a number, a score, chances in life painfully calculated at the mark of a number 2 pencil. I’d like to say I’m rarely intimidated, but it’s amazing what an 8×11 booklet with the words LSAT can do to even the most confident of men.

So naturally I panicked, and my life as I knew it was shaping before my eyes without any approval. As a creature of habit, I tend to appreciate things laid out in pattern in certain respects; this was the wrong assemblage in the wrong color at the wrong event. I needed a fix—spiritual comfort to squash the butterflies in my stomach—and I needed it fast.

A few days before the exam, I wandered downtown Berkeley in search of comfort, a tick to quell the test pangs in my mind. It was then that I found the Berkeley Buddhist Temple, a place I figured would be spiritual enough to conquer even the most desperate student’s anxieties.

But my conversation with the receptionist changed all of that, revealing a Zen truth in its own right in my mind and perhaps changing me for the better. Simply put, she called me out: “Are you here to learn more about spirituality, or are you here simply to calm down for the test?” She then explained that the temple existed for the former, a source of both information and nourishment for long-term spiritual sustenance. But if my concern was the latter, than the temple could do nothing because spiritual anguish could only be extinguished from within.

Candor is usually appreciated, but in this case I was impatiently peeved. Personal reflection didn’t seem as easy as rubbing some prayer beads together or chanting some old prayers. This was going to take spiritual insight, yet another thing to add to the already long list of things to do.

So I grudgingly sat at my spot on campus, along Strawberry Creek within an earshot of Haas Pavilion, and meditated. I had read a fair share about Buddhism and meditation so I had a fair understanding of its practice and principles. And amidst the serene sounds of the creek, the warm autumn breeze, and the calming effects of my rhythmic breathing, I had a revelation. It didn’t come all at once; rather, it required some assembly and some crucial pieces are still currently being shipped from overseas factories. But the gist of the message got across.

On an immediate level, I realized that I nor anybody can be adequately defined by a three digit number. It simply cannot do justice to the human condition and its wonderfully complex glory, even if it occasionally leads to moments of frustrating bewilderment.

But on a greater level, the message reinforced the fact that often in life we are bogged down by momentary obstacles that obscure our view of the greater picture. The LSAT has become such a daunting obstacle in my life it almost deterred me from my ambitions. It was only when I realized that it was simply a means to an end that I was able to smile, realizing at that point that it was neither an indication nor a collective sentiment of my own self-worth. Character is determined by dreams, ambitions, and priorities, and whatever those may be are determined solely by the individual in question.

As a self-proclaimed oblivious optimist, I now see the world with a greater sense of clairvoyance. Career ambitions are important, but those too can become hindering obstacles if not treated with the right regard. The bigger picture indeed contains images of future career goals and responsibility, but we must be cautious to maintain a semblance of balance within our lives, a truly Buddhist sentiment I unintentionally stumbled upon sitting on that rock on campus. I seemed truly at peace, ready to accept what fate would come my way, embracing it as my own. I took the test without a second thought, and I haven’t thought about it since.

Now I have my life back. More time for reading the stack of books I have accumulated over the past few weeks. Time to work on my law school applications. Time to devote to the classes I have indirectly neglected as a result of my previous obligation. Time for this blog, which has been sorely discarded amidst piles of other priorities.

But most importantly, I have more time for myself. And what I have realized from the past few weeks was that I have forgotten an important lesson I have learned to appreciate over the years. The wise philosopher Ferris Bueller once explained that life moves pretty fast, and warned that if we don’t stop to look around every once in a while, we might miss it. A true disciple of the Buellerian school of thought, I took it upon myself to “take a look around” after the test. Whether it was sharing an interesting appetizer with an unpronounceable name at a Thai Restaurant or a lazy afternoon adventure in the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park, I was elated, understanding that life’s bigger picture—which I was beginning to come to terms with—necessitated such excursions in order to pursue the unrealized yet elementary blessings in life we often overlook and the things we hold dear in our hearts that we must refuse to release from our determined grips.

Our collective uncertainty comes from the struggle to maintain the brash youthful spirit of discovery and adventure amidst a bleak and desolate future. Trials arise from this cold institution that seemingly hinders our preconceived notions of success. It’s necessary, therefore, to recognize these tests as is, maintaining our priorities under constant attack from a future we perceive as inevitable and beyond control. The truth, however, is that our future is fully within our control, as long as we maintain our goals within the context of the larger picture but at the same time are mindful of “taking a look around” every so often.

And with that I achieved a strategic spiritual victory over the LSAT. It was a struggle, but I overcame, as exhausting as it was. Exiting the exam, I swore that I would never take a test like that again. It was but a momentary victory. Only minutes later did I resentfully realize the irony of my ways: that with any luck I would be fortunate enough to take the BAR exam in three years.

–Eugene Lee

Originally Published in October 2006 in Delightfully Tacky yet Unrefined, my personal blog


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