At the tail end of Summer, 1997 on the floor of the Ring of Bone Zendo, Gary Snyder taught me and a class of UC Davis students Zen meditation. This morning I remembered the lesson because I was thinking that thoughts about thoughts are unmoored from reality.
The lesson in meditation was part of a special course, the highlight of the Nature and Culture program at UC Davis, where students and professors camp out for a little over a week in the Sierra foothills. Being a Landscape Architecture student I was not supposed to take the class, but I managed to talk my way in anyway. The course had two professors, a scientist and a poet. The subject of this course in nature and culture was a back to the land community from the 1960's, one of the few which had persisted. Gary Snyder, also a professor at UC Davis, lived there and offered us a place to stay on his land near the Ring of Bone Zendo, the community's spiritual center.
The evening of the first day began for me on the zendo's perimeter deck. Some zen monks from some monastery stood about. Some of the students engaged them in casual conversation. I played guitar and tried unneccessarily hard to charm the woman next to me as she told me about Asturias, where her family was from. A few of the hippie kids were listening to the music, and one of them, the recognized musician of the group, excitedly brought over his guitar to play alongside me, the new kid. Not long into our jam, someone struck a bell. We quieted. The bell continued ringing out across the meadow and into the distance. I imagine it was heard in the other houses off in the woods.
We were called together for a thing called "sesshin". I did not know what "sesshin" meant. I figured that it was a hippie way to say "session". As I put away my guitar, I started to think that this was probably a zen thing, but it was not until I returned from my stash of stuff, that I noticed the monks for the first time. Then I realized that THE Gary Snyder was going to teach us "zen stuff".
We gathered shoeless upon the floor in rows. I was in the third row back, right side of the room. At the front of the room, in robes which reminded me of a martial arts uniform, sat Gary Snyder, literary celebrity, and object of some of our celebrity worship, Japhy Ryder from the Dharma Bums, the poet, our host for the week, and at that moment our teacher. He began with an introduction to Zen and "sitting sesshin", and I kind of listened to this, but also daydreamed about scenes from Mishima's Spring Snow due to the aesthetics of the moment. Then Gary recaptured my attention when he said that he would be teaching us how to meditate.
I focused on Gary Snyder the man for a moment rather than what he was teaching us. I studied his face, and his posture, listened to the sound of his voice. I was impressed by how self-possessed he was, how clearly he explained himself, and how well he projected his presence throughout the room. He was an old man even then, but undiminished. The poet half of our pair of professors later said that he believed Gary Snyder's ability to communicate was honed by years of performing poetry. I however was reminded of my martial arts teacher in Oakland, who commands a room with a calm, masculine charisma as firm as the stance he assumes when challenging you to sweep his feet out from under him, and also Yukio Mishima's treatise on the integration of mind and body through martial arts, Sun and Steel. I thought at the time - not to question why my thoughts about physical and mental discipline included fascist literature, but - that the physical and mental discipline of zen practice probably contributed similarly to Gary Snyder's talent with clear communication.
Gary described and demonstrated the sitting posture in steps for us to follow along, sitting shoeless, legs crossed comfortably. We tilted our pelvises slightly forward, then relaxed to equipose, straightened our backs, then relaxed, spine erect, but natural, tilted our shoulders back to open our chests, then relaxed, loosening them with gentle shrugs. We rested our forearms gently upon our knees, palms up, again relaxed, thumbs almost but not touching the pointer finger. I do not remember his exact words, but I interpretted his description of the posture as sitting in a state of quiet readiness.
Gary Snyder then said, "We carry a great deal of tension in our stomachs. Most of us do not realize just how much." I imagine but do not remember that he also used a nature metaphor to describe it, a knot of vines, or something like that. As thoughts about the stress in our stomachs grew within us, he continued to speak, like a drone accompanying us as we adjusted our posture, and made sense of what he - our celebrity hero - was trying to teach us. Gary described all the stress we carry within our stomachs, the legacy of pain done to us, guilt from pain inflicted upon others, the stress of success, worry of failure, the drive for more comfort and privilege, and other first world problems. I thought of the woman who had spoken to us the previous night. She was a 90's San Francisco dotcom-yuppie-cum-hippie who espoused mystically about how much Zen and the San Juan ridge community had saved her from her corporate-capitalist existence. He obliquely referenced her talk, and here I paraphrase, "Zen is not a path to salvation. Zen will not make up for deficiencies in your life. Zen is for those who are already healthy, and want to improve themselves."
Gary then guided us through breathing as a means to relax our stomachs, to focus without distraction. I daydreamed about the people I had known like that woman from the night before.
I remembered Rick with stars in his eyes, running off to L.A. to make it as a commedian. He was a funny, hyperactive guy, a friend of my parents. I liked him. I still have the superman hairbrush he gave child-me as a present. But even as a child I could see that attention was what he craved, and the cocaine, and the weird mysticism in the shit he would talk about to sound interesting. "Hey, I am astroplaning into your living room. Tell me what I am wearing," was his greeting when child me answered the phone. "What?" I handed the phone to my dad, and Rick repeated the same phrase to which my dad responded, "You're supposed to tell me what I am wearing, Rick." and later "Are you calling me high again?"
I remembered Kristin pursuing eternal youth through younger men and new age shit, to the exclusion of her husband and daughters, but I also remembered one New Years Eve, the last time I had thought she was fun. She was single. Recently moved to our neighborhood. Seemed younger than my parents, though she wasn't. I flirted with her like the ten year old I was. She leaned in close, wine on her breath, egging me on, the only child in the room, to call the president, a prank my dad was known for. I had wanted to be her boyfriend, and her New Years' kiss. I recalled a picture of me in cartoon pajamas, with a cartoonishly big glass of champagne, trying to impress an older woman by getting Reagan on the line, a brilliant stage smile on my face, the phone to my ear. On the floor of the zendo, I cringed at the memory, realizing that my actual on and off again girlfriend was nearing 40 while I was not even 25.
And I remembered Lisa, my eldest cousin, beautiful, charismatic, seeking escape in the limelight as a singer in a band. All of us gathered one night in our living room for music. It was like the dress rehearsal for her rite of passage, my dad teaching her how to sing into the mic, while accompanying her on guitar. She was my vision of a rockstar, a thin black scarf around her throat, guitar in her lap, wavy blonde hair a little Marsha Brady, a little Farah Faucett, framing her face as she sang. Her smile was warm, excited, but also distant, as if she were on a boat, sailing away, at last, to somewhere else. It is the last positive memory I have of her. I also remembered, years later a trip with her to Anchor Bay. Our grandparents were dying. Lisa's eyes were dull, and tired, far too dull for someone her age. Was she even 20? She spoke strangely like a child. I was not sure if it was an affectation or brain damage. To me it seemed that the ship which Lisa had sailed away on had sunk, and the ocean had thrown her back. I never saw her again. She fled her family, especially her abusive father, and sought heroin for escape, wrapped up in the tribe of her band. She died young, and homeless.
And now I remember Pam, a friend of my mother, and mother of a girl I played D&D with sometimes. They had a messy but creative household, a kinda "Berkeley" place in Oakland, intellectual, and worldly, intensely laise faire when most households in our neighborhood were more orderly and traditional. Pam later lost her husband tragically to a brain tumor, and joined a cult. She told her children that she was having great sex, the best in her life, and abandonned them, giving everything she owned to the cult. A cult just like the Ananda cult up the road from the Ring of Bone.
I knew what Gary Snyder meant when he described people seeking zen to solve their problems, people with first world problems who lacked the means or will to face them. Even though her wealth and privilege turned me off, I understood what that speaker from San Francisco was talking about, and was curious what secrets I would find at the Ring of Bone. I too still believed a bit in the magic of mysticism, and admired seekers of "truth". The Razor's Edge was a favorite book because I thought of myself as a kind of Larry. The Dharma Bums too. I had read it earlier that summer when just like Japhy and Keruoac, I backpacked into Desolation to the feet of Pyramid Peak, and thought somehow magically I was walking meaningfully in their footsteps. I believed in the significance of symbols over actual meaning far more than I wanted to admit to myself, grasping for anything to prop up my own mediocrity, weaving a shell of stories about my life, of dreams and plans as if they were accomplishments rather than aspirations. I too was hollow inside the shell of my self-image, and wanted something of substance to fill myself with.
The next day a friend on the trip, a christian, expressed his disdain for all these wealthy Californians seeking for answers through Zen practice. "You can't find answers in perfecting yourself," he said. "We can't reach perfection. Only God is perfect. We can't become God." That is what he was saying, but the undercurrent of the conversation was a clash between his practical, rural values shaped by the poverty around Mount Shasta, and the Bay Area's wealthy, liberal-libertine dreamers snearing at tradition in their pursuit of pleasure and self-actualization. He considered zen to be impractical, an attempt to be godlike, by airheads seeking disconnection from the reality of sin, human nature, and the struggle between good and evil. I was incapable of articulating my dawning conception of Zen as a practice of mental discipline rather than transcendental spirtualism, and thus more grounded in reality than "good and evil" and "sin", concepts more often used as shibboleths than as principals to guide right conduct. Instead I said, "Zen's main principal is simple, do no harm. Isn't that just as practical as the Golden Rule?" Thus our debate went in circles. I was unwilling to offend him by identifying the classist resentment I saw behind his protests or the racist ignorance behind his conception of "eastern" religions as purely transcendental. Instead I cut it short with, "I don't believe in good and evil. I think they are ideas divorced from reality, and thus dangerous. I prefer to think in practical terms such as whether or not my actions cause harm." And that was that, but I failed to bring the conversation around to what I cared about at the time, my respect of meditation as a practice for honing mental discipline.
After the breathing exercise and talk about stress in our bellies, Gary Snyder explained how to meditate. "Tilt your head slightly down. Keep your eyes open. Focus on a point on the floor or in space in front of you. You are not daydreaming." I was doomed. "You are seeing, and you are hearing." He described the use of a bell to help in meditation, the exercise of listening for the moment that a deep bell finally stops resonating. That helped me finally understand what we were supposed to be doing, but a gap remained between understanding and execution.
We sat there quietly trying to meditate, focusing on our senses, being present instead of lost in thought. I struggled. I daydreamed, fantasized, projected my imagination out into the surrounding forest as I listened. I smelled the musk of Kitkitdizze wafting into the zendo, green, sticky, and pungent. "Asturias" girl and a friend of hers chuckled quietly. I thought about her, our conversation outside, and found remaining present, relaxed, and alert to be extraordinarily difficult. I fought down an erection. I had to fart. Either could have been what they laughed about. To still my thoughts, I focused on my breathing, how my body felt, trying to see without actively looking, and accepting what I heard on its own terms all at once rather than isolating identifiable sounds from the background noise. I understood the goal of the exercise, but had little success in fulfilling it. We were at it for maybe 30 minutes. Those minutes felt incredibly long, yet were not long enough for me to achieve the exercise. Toward the end I noticed another student in the front row just to my left for the first time. She appeared to be in the zone while meditating. I thought she was awesome. I tried to emulate her.
I was daydreaming again when Gary Snyder ended the session. We quietly stretched, rubbing the blood back into our legs, and filtered out into the night. I noticed that many in the back rows had bailed out much earlier, and smiled boyishly when the in-the-zone meditator smiled at me, perhaps for being one of those in the group that took it seriously. She had no idea how much I had been struggling up there, and I never told her though we became friends later that week.
The rest of that class trip also impressed me. We learned much about how the multigenerational community had persisted beyond their "60's" idealism, raised kids, worked at preserving the forest, restoring streams denuded by mine tailings from the Malakoff Diggins, made a living off of forest products, furniture building, farming, and GIS mapping. It was all fascinating, and set my curiousity ablaze when I realized I was in a 24/7 lab in which I had constant access to the people teaching us, with the landscapes around us to explore. I also discovered on the first day, that one of the older students grew up in the same neighborhood as I had. Child-me had occassionally played with her brother, a kind of mama's boy. I remembred her as his fierce protector, much bigger than me at the time. We reminisced for maybe an hour about all the people we both knew from our childhood, sharing very different points of perspective. Reconnecting with my childhood while immersed in a rich 24/7 learning experience broke down my defenses. I felt at home amongst the other students. For the rest of the week, I was far more often engaged in what was going on, rather than lost in my thoughts.
Years later, when I lived in San Francisco, I briefly studied Aikido in Japantown, and considered practicing Zen at the temple there, but the impetus was not strong enough for me to commit to it. I had shed my romantic notions of a "spiritual life" by then. And I knew that I lacked the cultural context to really "get" Zen. The discipline of meditation is the beginning and end of it for me, and whether I do it in a particular style does not matter to me. I learned enough from Gary Snyder that night on San Juan Ridge to practice on my own. The practice for me is like wearing a notch or ledge into the surface of a stone, yet rather than working stone I am disciplining my mind. The ledge I work at expanding is a place where I can rest in a state of quiet readiness and awareness rather than sliding down into my habits of ceaseless analysis and daydreams. But it has been some time since I worked at it.
This morning I thought about all of this again because I have largely lost my intuition, and identity. I once had a good sense of direction for my life. No longer. I'm rudderless. I emerged from a terrible marriage five years ago, and am still recovering my sense of self.
In the wake of my divorce, I have spent much time wrapped up in thoughts and feelings which are no longer moored to what is happening in my life. These are thoughts about other thoughts about things in my past. Little of my internal life is rooted in my actual experience, and so I surmised this morning that I lacked good instincts because I'm disconnected from my present reality. I'm not delusional. I operate just fine, and am doing well at my new job, but I am neither emotionally nor intellectually present. I am wrapped up in thoughts and feelings about long gone experiences. It makes sense that my instincts are shot to hell. They are lost in noise. And undernourished. Famished from lack of engaging new experiences.
And so here at the end of my personal essay is where I am expected to announce my plans to practice Zen meditation as a means to solve my problems. No. Neither Zen nor any other thing is going to save me from myself. Gary Snyder said that too, remember? Regardless Zen, at least for now, is not "the thing" for me. The lesson I received in meditation however is still with me as an example of how to discipline myself to focus on the here and now. And I think of it as just an example. It is not the only means. Full engagement with my work, my relationships, political activism, and my routine, cooking, sleeping, exercising, whatever, full engagement in everything that I do should work just as well as long as I keep the lesson in mind. I think so anyway. Only one way to find out, and I can hedge my bets by practicing meditation again too.
The point is that I need to better integrate my thoughts with my current lived experience. While self-reflection, daydreams, idealism, and all the rest of my internal life is valuable too, thoughts about thoughts can eventually lose touch with reality. Given how much time I spend in my head, and in words and code on the screen, I think focusing on the surface of lived experience rather than on the meaning beneath that surface could do me some good.
And with that thought, I realize the benefit of Zen's spiritual lessons in tandem with mental and physical discipline. The rule "do no harm" is a wise one for people out of touch with reality, seeking discipine to make themselves better, possibly to make them feel superior to the people around them.
I have much work to do and other things to think about.