BY DEBRA KEEFER RAMAGE
I have flown to star-stained heights, on bent and battered wings
In search of mythical kings, mythical kings
Sure that everything of worth is in the sky and not the earth
And I never learned to make my way down … where the iguanas play
—Dory Previn, 1970
Little did I realize when I heard this song, age 19 in 1971, that she was foretelling my future. Almost. Around about this same time, I met a woman—a few years older, perhaps as much as 25!—who fancied herself a practitioner of Zen. I grew up in East Point Georgia; I had never heard of Zen. When I asked her what Zen was, she threw a pack of cigarettes at me. I caught it on the fly and she pointed at the pack or maybe my hand and said, “That. That’s Zen.” “Jesus, what an asshole,” I thought to myself.
That was my second encounter with Eastern philosophy. My first was when I visited a one-time class in something called Kundalini Yoga at the Quaker House in Atlanta. I had an actual experience of feeling my kundalini—orsomething?—rising up my spinal column, filling my skull like a lighter-than-air gas. When I lay on the floor in corpse posture, being guided through what may have been my first meditation, I saw fantastic colors on the back of my eyelids. This occurred, I think, when I was 18, before I had ever had so much as a J, let alone mind-expanding drugs. Probably I am just very suggestible. But I wanted more of this. But there was no more for me, at least not at that time or in that place.
I didn’t make any connection between this thing called Zen and my kundalini experience.
Nor did I connect either of these to the mysterious wisdom of someone called Lao Tsu that Seymour Glass imparted to his younger siblings in my favorite book at the time, “Franny and Zooey” by J. D. Salinger.
Over the years from then to now, I had other, more intelligible encounters and built a knowledge structure about East and West, about Christ and Buddha, about tzaddiks and sannyasins, about what I accepted and what I rejected.
One of the reasons I came to Minneapolis from Georgia in 1984 was to seek spiritual community, and I found it at Walker Church, in South Minneapolis. It was there that I finally heard Lao Tsu, and embraced it as profound truth. It was there I learned about many varieties of meditation practice. I practiced most of them, but never committed to one.
The closest I came to a commitment was a fairly regular weekly practice of the psychosynthesis exercise of “disidentification.” This form of meditation seeks the “I,” the passive observer and active will (beyond and often opposed to “mere” desire) that forms the center of the ego and connects it to the Higher Soul. The practice focuses attention on the body, the mind, the emotions, and any other aspect that one is or is likely to become “identified with” (for me it’s generally the mind), and one repeats like a mantra for each aspect: “I have this mind, I appreciate this mind, but I am more than my mind.”
I did learn, in the years from 1998 to 2011 when I lived in England, to commit to practices, but they were physical practices. I took weekly yoga classes in a style called Dru Yoga and went on a retreat to their center in Wales, a beautiful, peaceful place. After my yoga teacher left, I used Pilates, walking and working out in the plain old Western way as contemplative activities.
Throughout all this time of seeking and learning, I filtered out the essence of Eastern philosophy and thought myself well-versed in it, even if I didn’t walk the talk.
I never really crossed the boundary from West to East (including now). I am strongly repelled by spiritual appropriation, pay-for-enlightenment, and charismatic gurus. I called myself “a nominal Christian,” “a gnostic Christian,” “a Jesusian” (since the sacrificial aspect of “Christ” was one of the things I rejected). I came to consider Jesus, as the Muslims do, a prophet and a messenger, but not a god.
As a joke, and tribute to my passion for yoga, Ayurveda, and another book that was very meaningful in my journey, “Choosing A Path” by Swami Rama, I called myself “a Hindu trapped in the body of a Methodist.” If asked to choose, I would probably say that “gnostic” best defined my spirituality. I felt, like Jung, that I knew God, and didn’t have to believe. I read every issue of Gnosis magazine (1985 – 1999) and I confidently blogged as an auto-didactic theologian.
The last thing I ever expected, even though I have said conversion is a life project and not a single moment of revelation, was to be captivated by Zen.
I have this young friend, J, a comrade in Democratic Socialists of America, who is a licensed psychotherapist. In late March, he began to offer a Zoom-based daily meditation practice, based on combining modern mindfulness-as-therapy and the American Zen tradition of Shunryu Suzuki aka Suzuki Roshi. I thought daily was too much, and I have a history of absenteeism dating back to kindergarten, so I didn’t think I’d make it that often. But I ended up being the most consistent attendee of all, having only missed four sessions so far.
Most times we open with a brief reading from Suzuki’s “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.” I downloaded a PDF of this book, and was gradually drawn into it. I remembered that in an earlier time, I had a fridge magnet with a headshot of Suzuki and the slogan “Don’t Goof Off.” (Although it’s not in his book, I found out that he did say this all the time to his students and friends in California.)
I started writing down the insights I am gaining almost daily from this simple but profound practice. I explained this on my blogpost: “We have been doing this practice for about 40 days now. I found that one of the main ways my mind would wander in early days of practice was about the practice itself, spiraling out into an intricate thought process until I would—as instructed—acknowledge the thought and let it go. Sometimes they would refuse to go for long. I decided this insistence meant I should write them down, and the reason I kept getting them was that I was intending to write them down, but not following through! Classic goofing off, right?”
The post (tinyurl.com/yaeadukv) goes on to explore my thoughts on non-dualism, non-striving, Big Mind and Beginner’s Mind, key concepts in Zen practice.
The need to record led to this self-reflective monograph as well. I think I am hooked on Zen. I am so surprised to find that it synthesizes all the things I sought in my youth, gave up seeking in my middle years, and thought I was beyond in my elder years. In a full circle, this maps onto one of the things I love about Hinduism and Ayurveda: its distinction between the renunciate, who withdraws from the world to seek God, and the householder, the adult with a job, in the thick of the world.
The mahayana Buddhist tradition, and the Zen tradition which is part of that stream, offers a way for the householder to incorporate contemplative practices into the whirl of the worldly. In a way, our present reality under Stay-at-Home puts us in a borderline place between the renunciate and the householder, so Zen is the perfect refuge for sanity and stability. At least I find it so for me.
Update from May 29: J is winding down the Zoom practice and today will be our last, exactly 60 days. I hope it was enough to enable me to continue on my own. This past week we have also had the searing grief of the George Floyd slaying and the trauma of seeing our cities burn. We started last night with a reading from Thich Nhat Hanh where he described using Zen to find compassion for American bombers destroying villages in his native Vietnam. This Zen Mind is a simple thing, but also very, very hard. To me, that’s how you know it’s real.