173 - True Satisfaction: Dogen's Everyday Activity (Kajo) - Part 2
126 - Budismo de crisis: práctica sostenible del Bodhisattva en un mundo en llamas - Parte 1

It’s July 2021, and although I’m taking a sabbatical from both my Zen center and my climate activism, I decided to release three episodes this month anyway. A change is sometimes as good as a break, so I figured I would change things up a little and share a story of my spiritual journey (thus far). I hope you enjoy!

Read/listen to Part 2: Why I Think Buddhism is Awesome

 

 

Quicklinks to Content:
Disclaimers about My “Story”
Early Childhood Journey: Peace and Good Fortune, and Yet…
Later Childhood Journey: Growing Pains
Adolescent Journey: What Is the Meaning of Life?
Young Adulthood Journey: Going Through the Motions
Age 24: Encountering the Dharma

 

Disclaimers about My “Story”

A few disclaimers: First, I’m not assuming that you care about my spiritual journey in particular. I’m not assuming that you care because I’m so remarkable or wise or I’m a priest or a teacher or anything like that. I personally find other people’s stories interesting even when the person isn’t “objectively” remarkable or unusual. I sincerely believe that each one of us is on a journey. It’s fascinating. Our experience, our growth is fascinating. I personally find it fascinating when our lives are framed as a narrative, including tension in the form of questioning and doubt, challenge and resolution in the form of learning or growth or discovery. I appreciate it when our life is framed as a spiritual journey, including not just the facts, but the internal experience of things framed in the larger context of life and death, love and loss, beauty and destruction, success and failure. I’ll try to use the framing of spiritual path as I tell a story about my own journey.

The next disclaimer is that I’m calling this “a” story because a narrative is, in a sense, an artistic impression of reality. A real life defies distillation into a neat narrative, and any neat or dramatic story is a vast oversimplification. What are you going to emphasize out of all the details over the days and years and decades? What kind of spin does a particular approach or phrase end up giving? Do we come to believe our own narrative as something inherently real?

At my Zen center we have something called the term student program that we go through a couple of times a year. It begins with a small group of committed students coming together and sharing their stories – sharing the basic facts, their karmic history, what’s really shaped them, and their spiritual history. It seems ironic, perhaps, that we would ask people to tell these stories, to create and share them when Buddhism and Zen is supposed to be about giving up stories. Right? Letting go of our narratives? However, we human beings are also creatures of story. It’s less about having no story than about recognizing our stories for what they are. This is how we make sense of the world. A story!

My story is also partly fictional. Even as I make an effort to be honest, it’s shaped by all the times I’ve previously told my story. It’s influenced by my my desire for things to make sense and have a beautiful narrative arc of search and struggle and triumph. It’s framed by my study of Buddhism. It’s also rather arbitrary. Next month or next year my story might be different. It probably will be different. I also confess that I have a terrible memory. For me, most details are lost, timelines are vague, as are the ages at which something happened. What remains are only a feelings and fragmentary images. If anybody happens to know me from the past and I’ve completely forgotten or skewed things, well, I’m admitting upfront that I expect that might be the case.

 

Early Childhood Journey: Peace and Good Fortune, and Yet…

One of the things that attracted me to Buddhism was that the Buddha’s childhood and young adulthood was blissful and protected. He still ended up feeling dissatisfied enough to leave home and embark on an arduous spiritual journey. Similarly, I didn’t grow up rich by American standards, but I had everything that I needed as a child.

To begin, then, in early childhood: I was born in 1971 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. My parents were very young, only 18, but in love, responsible, and hard working. I don’t have any memories from my earliest years, but I also don’t recall a moment in my life where I haven’t felt treasured and loved by my parents, which is pretty remarkable.

Probably the earliest karmic impact on me, though, is when my mother had viral pneumonia and was pregnant with my sister. I was three and a half. My sister had to be taken by cesarean section and my mother was in the hospital for a couple of weeks and was extremely ill. My dad had to be working and going to visit my mom, so I stayed with dear, loving family. This was probably the first time I was ever apart from my mom for more than a few hours. I have a vague memory of being in the hospital. As I recall, it was evening time, or maybe just the light was low. I remember the bed being at eye level, so I must have been very small. I knew my mom was in the bed, but I don’t remember any more than that and don’t have any other conscious memories of this time. Therefore, much of my life I didn’t think that this this event had much impact on me.

Later, when my niece was three and a half – the age at which my mom had almost died – I realized how perceptive and smart she was. My niece would definitely have clocked a lot if, at her young age, her life was upended and her mom almost died. In retrospect, then, I think that early childhood event was probably quite formative for me.

My mom and my sister were thankfully fine, but subsequently, throughout childhood, I had a morbid fascination with imagining the loss of my parents. I pictured someone coming to my classroom door when I was in school, motioning me to come out in the hall, and then quietly telling me my parents had died. I was intrigued by the experience of my universe consequently disintegrating in an instant. This is a curious thing for me to dwell on, because I actually felt very secure. I wanted for nothing, but at the same time, I had a powerful sense that everything can be taken away in an instant. It wasn’t really that I dwelt in fear or anticipation of it being taken away, I just pondered the possibility. I didn’t talk about this. I don’t think I did any way. I recall it simply being part of my quiet inner landscape.

Outwardly, I was a happy, nerdy kid. Just to give you a sense: I pretended to read the book A Bear Called Paddington long before I could actually read. Once I could read, I never wanted to stop. Almost all other activities in life, particularly socializing, were things to endure until I could get back to my book – with a few a few exceptions. I played a lot with my sister, who is my only sibling. We would play imaginative dress-up. We had lots of dress-up clothes and we created dramas. Usually, I would give my sister a character and then I would play all the other characters. We would play with our homemade dollhouse, coming up with endless storylines.

My family also spent wonderful times at a summer cabin, hiking and swimming all day long and living a very simple daily life together. Although even there, there was always a book waiting in the wings. When I was tired of playing with my sister, I would climb a tree she couldn’t get up, and sit up in the branches reading. My poor sister!

 

Later Childhood Journey: Growing Pains

I loved school, at least until things got complicated socially. I’m still only 5’2” and as a child I was very short, lagging far behind most of my classmates in terms of growth. To that nerdiness, add a pride in my intelligence that must have shown itself as some very cheeky arrogance, and a sense that most social conventions were stupid. I existed at the social fringes at best. I can’t remember why, but I recall a whole school bus of kids humming my funeral tune up until the point I was dropped off at home one afternoon. However, I wasn’t afraid because no one in their right mind would physically assault a tiny little girl like me. They would look ridiculous.

Inwardly, with respect to social interactions, I was sad and befuddled. What on earth did one have to do to please these weird human beings? I wondered. I would have enjoyed being popular, but there was no way I was going to do what was required. I was fine, though, with my books, my supportive, immediate family, my imagination, and a few quirky friends. I made it through the social nightmare of middle school.

In the meantime, though, there were a few things that shaped and impacted me – besides books, that is. I was growing up at the height of the Cold War and anti-Russian sentiment. I could not, for the life of me, understand how the adults in charge of the world could be so stupid. We could blow the world up several times over, but I knew that if I met my counterpart, a little 10 year old Russian girl, she would be no different than I was. My parents certainly held this opinion as well, but my conviction about the equality and interdependence of all humanity was based in what I saw as a self-evident truth.

I remember feeling somewhat anxious whenever I took a shower, because while the water was running, I couldn’t hear clearly what was happening around me. The nuclear bombs could roar overhead and obliterate everything I knew in an instant and I’d be none the wiser. Sometimes I thought maybe I heard them. I’m grateful that I was apparently psychologically very healthy and resilient because these kinds of anxieties were never debilitating.

Nonetheless, even if largely intellectual, my concerns were sincere. I also acutely felt, as a child, shock and grief about what we were doing to life on this planet. I saw pictures of starving children in developing nations. Every nature program ended with a warning about how the incredible form of life I had just learned about was endangered. I loved animals more than anything, and early on formed a pretty low opinion of human beings in general. I don’t know how early I formed the determination to do something about the state of the world, but I decided I wanted to save the world. I didn’t think I was going to do it single handedly, but I damn well wanted to do everything I could and play a major role.

 

Adolescent Journey: What Is the Meaning of Life?

Into adolescence: Thankfully, I encountered amazing literature classes in high school full of fellow nerds, which opened my horizons. I would say literature became my first spiritual practice. We had an amazing teacher, Dennis Wadley, who taught us to question, explore and engage the deepest questions of humankind through our study of novels, short stories and poetry.

At some point in my adolescence, the question of the “meaning of life” arose very strongly. What was the point of all this human activity, this busy running to and fro, consuming things, building things, reproducing, striving, and ultimately dying? What gave our lives more meaning than salmon, who we watched grow, head out to sea, return to spawn, and then fertilize their offspring with their dead bodies. Their lives appear so pointless, despite how driven they are, because the only point of a salmon seems to be to make more salmon.

I anticipated with dread having to get my first job because it felt to me like getting on a conveyor belt to death. Once on that conveyor belt, I’d start going through the motions of work, paycheck bills, business obligations, work, paycheck, bills, brief vacations, and then back to work until it was all over. I don’t remember ever wanting to have children in the innocent way most kids seem to assume they will eventually enjoy becoming parents. Not only was there that salmon thing, I figured more human beings would only increase the destruction of the natural world.

You might assume from all these negative views I held that I was an anti-social, maladjusted, depressed kid, but I wasn’t. Instead, I lived two lives simultaneously: At one level, I was happy, appreciative, lucky, and busy. I even enjoyed my first job at a plant nursery showing people the different flowers they could buy for their gardens and then ringing them up at the cash register. At another level, I was thinking, “What the f— is this all for?”

I don’t recall sharing the depth of this despair with anyone. Maybe I did, and I imagine I annoyed my parents and friends now and again by dwelling obsessively on the “meaning of life.” I don’t remember meeting anyone who thought like I did. Of course, they might have been keeping their thoughts to themselves; after all, I kept my innermost thoughts and feelings to myself because I didn’t want to bum anybody out.

However, although, I don’t recall meeting anyone in my childhood who shared my doubts about life, I did find plenty of company in the writers of books I read. Because of authors like Henry David Thoreau, I knew I wasn’t crazy. At least, unless he was crazy, which many people of his time probably thought he was. When explaining why he decided to live in a shack in the woods all by himself for a year on Walden Pond, growing his own food and more or less doing without money or any regular social activities or engagements, Thoreau writes:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”[i]

I still tear up reading this. It was so inspiring to me, so radical, so freeing to read how Thoreau questioned everything. What is the meaning of life? Are we walking about as if in a dream? What does it mean to be awake, to live according to your deepest yearning, or conscience? What is truly necessary and important, and what are we just doing because we lack courage or imagination? Thoreau intelligently and eloquently questions everything, including the way we dress, speak, work, relate to nature, view success and failure, and engage with our political system.

Of course, Thoreau wasn’t the only writer who spoke to me. All great literature – including some great science fiction – seemed to be addressing the great matter of life and death head on.

Unfortunately, reading and writing only take you so far. It’s great to ponder all this stuff, but what are we supposed to do? Short of throwing everything away and living in a shack in the woods, how do we live deep and suck the marrow out of life without getting lulled back into the common dream, which tells us that true satisfaction is always around the next corner – next weekend, next vacation, next purchase, next exciting trip, next (new and improved) job or house or relationship. How can we remain imaginative and free in the midst of so many expectations imposed on us from outside?

And so, despite the inspiration I encountered here and there in literature, or music, or art, or thoughtful people, I continued living my dual life – perfectly well adjusted on the outside, but feeling hollow on the inside.

 

Young Adulthood Journey: Going Through the Motions

The next thing to do was to go to college. I was excited about it on one level, but on another level I was just going through the motions because I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

In 1989 I started at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. I chose the school in part because it had a great biology program and I wanted to become a biologist as a way to save the world, with a strong preference for saving the animals being destroyed by human selfishness. The unofficial motto of Reed appealed to me: Communism, Atheism, and Free Love.

It’s not so much I was into communism or free love, but I liked the rebellious quality of Reed’s “motto,” and I was definitely an atheist by this point. I had a several-year flirtation with Catholicism when I entered parochial school in 4th grade. The church – with the ceremony, stained glass windows, kneelers, hymnals, Eucharist, and prayers – was fascinating to me. I ate all that stuff up hungrily, and for at least a few years believed in God in the light, unexamined way of a child. Although I went to a Catholic high school, by then things weren’t adding up for me. None of my religion teachers invited the kind of deep questioning I enjoyed in my literature classes, and I had no interest in pat answers.

Therefore, I was ready for Reed’s professed atheism, although I have described myself as an atheistic who was mad at God for not existing. I once asked a Christian friend if I could still be a Christian if I didn’t believe in God or Jesus – the morality and community appealed to me – but my friend gave me an apologetic “no.” So much for religion and me, then.

I continued to function adequately throughout college, getting decent grades despite the insanely demanding academic atmosphere. I wanted to take a year off to – of course – explore the meaning of life (at least the meaning of my life), but my parents – bless their hearts – were paying for my schooling and every year tuition increased. So I never took time off, but plodded through.

I recall walking home from studies in the evening, up a hill to the grungy campus house I lived in. It was winter and the trees were bare, glistening in the Portland rain. I thought, “Every day I walk by these same trees. Every day it is the same. The days of my life are spent relentlessly and aimlessly, without passion or meaning. Nothing happens. I don’t know anyone I think is living deep and sucking the marrow out of life, and I have no idea how to do so myself. I just watch the days pass, every one an opportunity wasted and lost.”

Domyo on wildlife surveys for the Forest Service in the early 90’s

The next thing to do after college was to get a job and get married, so I did those things. I’d be lying if I said there weren’t many times of joy, appreciation, humor, and learning in my life. Of course there were. I worked for the forest service surveying for spotted owls, Harlequin ducks, and sandhill cranes. I dove in a pond under a waterfall in a wetsuit and came face to face with a giant Pacific salamander. I got to travel to foreign countries, and the trips were very mind-expanding. My first husband was good company, and my parents continued to be loving and supportive.

Still, as time went on, I felt more and more despair. Not an acutely painful kind that drive me to drink or drugs or desperate measures. Just a hollow, dried-out kind of despair that made me feel like a fraud – like I was going through the motions because that seemed like the only option, but my heart wasn’t in it. The trouble was, I had no idea what my heart could be into.

 

Age 24: Encountering the Dharma

Then, when I was 24 years old, I encountered the Dharma. I probably learned something about Buddhism in my world religions class in high school but I recalled nothing about it. Now, apparently, I was ready.

I was preparing for a tourist trip to India with my then-husband and his family, so I was reading guide books. Buddhism isn’t a major presence in India anymore in terms of numbers, but it’s definitely part of India’s history so the guide book included a section on the Buddha and basic Buddhist teachings.

I was absolutely amazed and thrilled by the foundational, first Buddhist teaching of the Four Noble Truths. First, Buddhism admitted, up front, that life was inherently dissatisfying. Even if everything in your life went great, like the Buddha’s early life, your awareness that things can – and inevitably will – change fills you with apprehension. We all eventually face old age, disease, loss, and death, and these things really suck. I’d never encountered any spiritual teachings that described my experience so directly. In fact, most religions or spiritual paths seemed hell-bent on either denying how sucky life can be, or obsessed with the perfect afterlife you can anticipate in order to make it all better in the present.

Then Buddhism went on to state that the source of our spiritual dissatisfaction was in our own mind and heart, and therefore we could gain freedom from it! Not only that, the fourth noble truth laid out a detailed path of practice to help you gain such freedom – and over the millennia that path of practice had expanded to be so rich that you couldn’t exhaust it in a lifetime.

I was hooked, and I’ve remained hooked for over 25 years. I’ll continue my story in the next episode. Just a little preview: That path of practice I eagerly embraced has not always been easy or pleasant. In fact, there were substantial periods of time where I was, to use the Christian term, experiencing a “dark night of the soul.”

Read/listen to Part 2: Why I Think Buddhism is Awesome

 


Endnote

[i] Thoreau, Henry David. Walden, Optimized For Kindle . American Literature. Kindle Edition. (see https://www.fulltextarchive.com/page/Walden-by-Henry-David-Thoreau1/, “Economy”)

173 - True Satisfaction: Dogen's Everyday Activity (Kajo) - Part 2
126 - Budismo de crisis: práctica sostenible del Bodhisattva en un mundo en llamas - Parte 1
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