During a recent interview conducted at ASZC for Atlanta Interfaith Broadcasters, to air this Fall, questions regarding my childhood and the influences that may have led to being involved in Zen Buddhism triggered some memories that may find some resonance with the experience of others. The positive reaction of those resident members who witnessed the interview inspired me to share some memories in greater detail.
I must have been seven or eight years old when I stopped sharing a bedroom (and bed) with my older brother, and moved into the upstairs room at the back of the farmhouse where we lived in southern Illinois. It had small windows on two sides, and an opening into a smaller side room with another window beyond the stairway. My memory works in such a way that I can sketch out the plans and layout of the farmhouse with fair accuracy, as well as that of my grandparent’ homes in the same small town (population 15,000±).
It also had a door in the wall, a few feet above the floor, that opened onto the attic, which had a small enclosed room where my younger sister and I would hang out, watching old cartoons (early black and white Disney Mickey Mouse) that was found rummaging through an uncle’s possessions stored there during the war. Amongst other items of interest were professional artists supplies such as drawing pencils, which had a compelling fragrance I found quite exotic, which partially explains my interest in visual arts, which developed over the ensuing years.
My maternal grandmother helped me clean up the room, and during the process, I showed off by standing on my head, dropping my legs into the crossed (“full lotus”) position, and walking around the room on my knees. Always wanting to encourage, she exclaimed, “Why, people would pay to see you do that!” There was something strangely familiar about the cross-legged position, which was quite comfortable at that age, but I had never seen anyone else do it, if memory serves.
Being next to the attic door was a bit disconcerting, to say the least, as a prior tenant had died in the house, we were told — just fell into his eggs one morning and that was that. For an impressionable child, familiar with ghost stories and the entertainments of radio and movies in that pre-television era, the proximity to the attic door provided a source of anxiety, especially late one night when it drifted open, apparently of its own accord, or under the influence of unseen presences.
As the person assigned the unenviable task of carrying the ashes out to fill in the driveway, and stoking the coal furnace at night, which was located at the back of a long and dark basement, I was subject to some subterranean feelings of terror, especially the night after returning home from watching the first Frankenstein movie. I exited the basement a great deal more quickly than I entered it.
An active imagination and the relative isolation of my existence away from the other members of the family — downstairs and at the front end of the house — may explain certain things that happened in my perception, such as the appearance of smoky, ghost-like figures at the foot of my bed, but they seemed more familiar than frightening, as if they were folks I knew somehow. Other experiences were less easily explained.
For example, when I would go to bed, my parents did not come and tuck me in, so I was left to experience drifting off to sleep in utter isolation. One night I recall wondering how it is that we fall asleep, and so began to pay close attention to the process, looking for that “switch” that gets thrown just as we lose consciousness. This obsession, of course, led to my staying awake, until I imagined that I was lying on the edge of a cliff, its exact edge corresponding to my spine, so I was half on the cliff, half off. Then I would imagine gently rocking over to the “off” side of the cliff, further and further, until I was in danger of falling, which eventually I did. And woke up the next morning.
The ceiling above the bed consisted of a rather large horizontal area in the middle with sides sloping down to the walls, following the pitch of the roof. The entire room was covered with the same wallpaper, a fine print with nearly invisible seams. Lying on my back and looking up, the entire field of vision was filled with this predominantly beige, unbroken surface. When I would awake in the morning, lying on my back, it would cause a kind of disorientation. Until I looked around, I could not tell which way direction I was lying on the bed (as a child one tends to move around while sleeping, and so I would often be lying across the bed or even 180 degrees to where I had started out).
More startlingly, I could not discern the orientation of the room, with my field of vision so completely filled with indistinguishable visual cues (there was no ceiling light fixture). The first few times this happened, I would quickly raise my head and find a wall or other cue as to how the environment was aligned, as the disorientation was disturbing. But one morning I just lay there, for the moment enjoying the not-knowing, and the strange feeling of sensory dislocation.
Because the wallpaper I could see was only the top layer of many, the underlying layers having been only partially removed before being papered over, the finer scale of the surface was quite uneven. The patches of paper underneath were irregular, both in size and shape, and so constituted an organic patchwork of bas-relief patterning, blended by the common covering, if one bothered to look at them closely for some time. Lying on my back on the bed, I would let my gaze wander on the ceiling, and after some time I would detect the dimensional relief occasioned by the layering, and began to distinguish subtle and quite beautiful patterns in the chaotic, accidental surface. It became clear that these patterns were not static, but moving in an equally subtle fashion, a kind of slow dance, wherein the print pattern, the 3-dimensional shapes, and a shifting radiance of the light were all intermingled.
In retrospect I recognize that this kind of subtle scale of visual impression is engendered by the fixed gaze that we practice in zazen, whatever its provenance. It seems less productive, as it did at an early age, to attempt to explain the phenomenon away, than to simply observe and enjoy it. Later experiences with psychedelic and psychotropic drugs, which in Chicago in the sixties were practically de rigueur, only reaffirmed that we don’t normally see everything that we are really seeing. Nor do we register everything that we are hearing, feeling, et cetera.
I could go on with other memories — such as having a fever that lasted for three days, with the world spinning and jumping around, running butt naked through soybean stubble, and hiding in a muddy ditch with my dog late one night, to escape the tornado that was only in my mind — but maybe later. For now, suffice it to say that those odd things that we all experience in our early days may have more significance than we allow. Many people report a strange familiarity with zazen, the first time they try it. Maybe a resonance on past lives?
When we practice zazen, in some ways we return to a younger, more open and innocent mind, where the sheer wonder of existence, with all its sensory subtleties, can once again intrude into consciousness. What prevents this natural process of mindful remembering from taking place is our own resistance. It is not so much a matter of “letting go,” the new age prescription for achieving an imaginary non-attachment, or “letting be,” a formula for non-engagement, as it is of “letting happen” — particularly while on the cushion. Since we cannot be aware of what it is that we are letting go of, until we think of something or identify a problem, we are stuck with an intellectual analysis of what it might be, or those things we are taught to let go of.
Until and unless we put down our conditioned reflex to discriminate the negative from the positive, we cannot really allow just anything to happen, naturally, in our meditation. But if, like a child, we really do not know what it is that we are doing, let alone looking for, it may just be possible that a new door to direct experience will open before us. Let’s keep trying. Trying itself is not the problem; it is what we think we are trying to do that gets in the way.