the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Tag: meditation

The Zen Meditation Retreat Recap

My blog discussion about my fascinating one day zen meditation retreat with Karen Maezen Miller was cut short by the passing of Sophia’s mother.  Here is a quick recap of that memorable day from a few weeks ago:

The morning and afternoon were segmented into twenty minute periods of sitting meditation (zazen) in the meditation area (zendo).  There were a dozen other students signed up for the retreat, from all walks of life, from students to police officers.  During the meditation segments, we would face the wall and basically, uh, try not to think.   Each session was announced with the striking of the wooden han.  We had a choice of sitting on a map, a meditation bench, or a chair, and it was suggested that we try each of them at least once.  The mat felt the most “authentic,” of course, because it was the most uncomfortable, but by the end of the day, sitting in a chair was pretty nice.

Trying not to think while meditating was as difficult as you would expect, although I didn’t find it particularly painful to attempt.  It was relaxing to sit there and breathe, although it took me a while to understand “how” to breathe correctly.  The tense guy sitting next to me was desperate to “do it right” and was getting more stressed trying to achieve perfection than when he walked in that morning.   Karen Maezen Miller assured us that the act of doing the meditation was more important than doing it a specific way.  I had no preconceived notions, and wasn’t pushing myself to become a zen master, so I think I enjoyed the retreat more than the tense guy.  Los Angeles had a funny way of interrupting our quiet, with fire engines, vans playing Mexican music, and ice cream trucks passing by outside, but while he cursed under his breath, I enjoyed the distractions.

After each sitting meditation period, there was a period of walking meditation (kinhin), where we followed each other around the zendo in a circle, which reminded me of the movie Midnight Express, where the hero was forced to exercise in a Turkish prison.  Surprisingly, I enjoyed this kinhin more than the sitting meditation.  I’ve always been able to better “zone out” when I am walking or doing a repetitive motion.  I’m assuming this is the experience runners get during their runner’s high, or how knitters can knit for hours — where time seems to stand still.  I have frequently had this feeling when walking the streets of Manhattan, as the crowds of passerbys calm me, like waves in the ocean, and I  stop thinking about my life, letting myself become “one” with my environment.

The zen meditation retreat took place in a classic Los Angeles house in mid-city Los Angeles that had been transformed into a modest, but attractive zen temple.  Karen Maezen Miller wore a beautiful, priestly robe.   She had a contagious spirit that was both intense and gentle.  She was assisted by another instructor, a male of about thirty-five, who I assumed was not at the same level of knowledge, mostly because his robe didn’t have as many bells and whistles attached.  He had just completed a longer retreat, and seemed monk-like in his responses, although if you met him at the supermarket, you would think he is another typical LA resident, maybe a screenwriter.

The male instructor was responsible for showing us the rituals involved in zen meditation.  At one point, he taught us how to  bow to the statue of Buddha.  He assured us that Buddha was not a God, but a man, knowing that there might be issues with other religions.  I felt that he was purposely vague about the matter and I wasn’t sure why we we getting into this territory so soon,  especially since very few of us could  sit in the lotus position for more than ten minutes.

I bowed out of respect.  I’m sure no one would have cared if someone felt uncomfortable and didn’t bow.  I had no problem honoring the tradition, but I would have liked to have received more information about Buddha’s role in all of this.   I know Judaism has a strong tradition against idolatry.   I’m curious to understand the intersection between the science of meditation and the spiritual/religious aspects, and how well Buddhism plays ball with Western religion.

If I truly learned anything important about myself during the retreat it happened at lunchtime.  We were served a delicious vegetarian meal, buffet style.  We were expected to keep quiet during the eating period, in order to connect with the sensory eating experience.   I sat with the other students in the living room, eating our tofu and vegetables, being silent, averting the glances of the others.  I don’t remember ever feeling so uncomfortable.  Or, more honestly, I felt the discomfort of the others, like rays of negative energy surrounding me, and I had an overwhelming need to make a joke, to break the ice, and to make everyone feel at home, not for their sake, but for my own.  At one point, I couldn’t stare anymore at my plate anymore, and had to walk outside onto the patio alone, where I could finally relax.   I could be by myself.  I didn’t have this discomfort during the silence of the sitting meditation, because we were each alone in our tasks, like students in a classroom taking a standardized test.  But lunch IS traditionally a time for conversation.  The silence WAS deafening.

What did that discomfort mean?  I’m not exactly sure, but maybe it will help me understand why it is difficult for me to shut up when I am on Twitter, or I feel required to compromise when talking with another individual during a heated exchange.  I feel the energy of others, and my weak sense of self gets drawn into the vortex.  It is difficult for me to focus when there are others around, especially when I sense their agenda. This affects my work patterns.    I work best when I am in the midst of an anonymous crowd, like in Starbucks , or locked in my office like a cage, with the blinds drawn.  The minute Sophia walks inside the room and sits on the couch next to me, my focus turns to mush.  I KNOW she is in the room.

After lunch, Karen Miller Maezen asked us to wash the dishes and clean up after lunch.  Her latest book is all about the connection between zen and every day chores.   I wonder if she uses this technique with her children, to get them to clean her home.

It was a very cool experience, nothing like I expected.  I’m just not sure what to do with  I learned, if anything.

Zen 101

Yesterday, I went to a full day zen meditation retreat for beginners.  It was fascinating, and I will write more about it later in the week.  But today (this was written on Monday), I want to get this specific thought out of my head, putting it into words because I completely forget what I wanted to say, or even more likely, embarrassed to bring it up tomorrow.  I enjoy this type of “fleeting moment” writing, although it can also be scary, because people tend to see your writing as written in stone, as if each post was a manifesto, and not a mere daydream.  If I decide tomorrow morning to say that my life dream is to run with the bulls in Pamplona, please don’t run out and buy me airplane tickets just yet.   By the afternoon, I might have done a little research, or watched the utter chaos on a YouTube video, and completely changed my mind, and decided to go to Hawaii instead.  So, be aware that I spent most of the Sunday staring at a blank wall in silence, so this post reflects that unique (or crazed) state of being.  Today I might be all zen.  That doesn’t mean that tomorrow, I won’t go back to writing sex jokes.

Over the last few years, I have introduced you to my mind.  To my heart.  You have even met my talkative, and overly friendly, penis, who has written some blog posts himself.  But I usually keep my soul locked in the basement, like a crazy, dangerous, uncle.  I pride myself on my rationality and adherence to a scientific approach, and dismiss anything that smacks of the supernatural.  Even when I write about Jewish issues, it tends to be about cultural issues, more bagels than morning prayer.

Every once in a blue moon, I hear my uncle screaming in the basement, and I try to listen to his gibberish.  As much as I try to ignore the rantings of a madman, I do hear him, and his voice intrigues me.  How many wondrous stories have I read in the past where it is the madman who is the one with the most knowledge and awareness?

I was IM-ing with Schmutzie this morning, telling her about the retreat.  She said she was surprised that I would go to a zen meditation retreat.

“It doesn’t sound like you AT ALL.  What made you go to it?”

I was taken aback because I had no coherent story.  I didn’t have a real reason for going other than curiosity.  It just fell into my lap.  Sure, I read Herman Hesse’s “Siddhartha” when I was in ninth grade, but I have never had an overwhelming desire to meditate.  I don’t read books about zen meditation.  I’m not even that attracted to Buddhism as a way of life.  I find the concept of karma a little creepy.  My “path,” if there is one, that brought me there  was completely random, rather mundane, and involves the most un-zen-like of all modern tools — Twitter.

One evening, several weeks ago, Sophia and I were arguing about the dishes.  I’m not embarrassed to mention this, because I assume that this is a common in every modern married household throughout the world.   Sadly, in my home, I am the one usually stuck with the chore.

After cleaning the kitchen, I took my angst out on whoever happened to be sitting on Twitter at 8PM on a Tuesday.

“I hate doing the dishes,” I wrote to whoever was there.  “Is there anyone who really LIKES doing the dishes?”

Another blogger chimed in and replied that I should read a book by Karen Maezen Miller.   She  wrote a book about viewing the mundane household chores from a Buddhist perspective.   I didn’t think much of this, but I noticed that Karen Maezen Miller also happened to be on Twitter.   So, I followed her, mostly as a lark.  I like talking with a weird assortment of folk.

I followed her and soon  I was “chatting” with her on Twitter, mostly making fun of her mellow spirit, as if I was playfully interacting with The Redneck Mommy rather than a zen priest.   And I was surprised that she always had a funny response.  Zen priests are not supposed to be clever, or even “get” movie references to the Karate Kid!

Curious who this woman was, I looked at her website, and discovered that she teaches at an LA zen center, and — just that weekend — was offering an infrequently-held beginner’s retreat!   So, I signed up.

Let me make it clear.  This is not a plug for her book, which I have not read.  This is an actual story of how an argument with Sophia over the dishes brought me to a place where I was facing the wall all day!

Without getting all LOST on you, I think you see where this is going.  The mystery.

At the end of the retreat, Karen Maezen Miller thanked the students, and said some “Mister Miyagi” type statements that you would expect from a zen priest.  She said that  she learned as much from us and we did from her.

What made my ears perk up was this — our meeting was not as random as it seemed.  We were brought together.

It was fairly odd that I was sitting there.  A random tweet.  A random comment.  A random encounter.  A random geographical commonality.

I wanted to fight what was bubbling in my head with every fiber of my being.   It seems so wrong for so many reasons.  Is it possible that everyone we encounter is part of a learning experience that is presented to us on purpose?  I’ve written about THE SECRET before, and HOW MUCH I HATE WHAT IT REPRESENTS.  How do you explain all the bad shit that happens to people?   Karma?  I hate that crap.  I even have a broken friendship over that stupid book.

But why we meet certain people and not others?   Of the millions of people who use the internet, why do I interact with YOU?  Is it all just random, or do we really get what we need, even if we don’t realize it?

OK, sorry.  I will try to be normal again tomorrow.

More later.


I’ve been feeling anxious this week.  Shaky.  Overly-emotional.  Pissed at Sophia.  Unable to work.  Frustrated at everyone on Twitter. Insulting people.

Tonight, I went on YouTube to watch some meditation videos.  I tried my best, but let’s be honest, meditation is just not me. I also found the teacher in the video rather attractive, which was distracting me.

During one of the videos, my mother walked in.  She told me about this winter hat that she saw a vendor selling on the street for five dollars.  I was not interested.

“I’m meditating!” I yelled.

She looked over my shoulder as the meditation video turned red to match the “color of the pelvic chakra.”  An Indian sitar played on the soundtrack.

“What’s going on?” she asked about the video.

“I’m not sure.  I’m trying to meditate!”

“How can you meditate if you don’t know what you’re doing?” she asked, rather logically, but still annoying

“Just leave me alone, please.  I’m trying to be peaceful.”

“Do you want me to buy you that winter hat I saw that guy selling on the street? I noticed that you don’t have a winter hat”

“Don’t buy me a winter hat. Please.”

“It’s only five dollars.  If you don’t like it, don’t wear it.”

“Can I meditate please?!”

“Go look at the hat yourself.  He has all different colors.  Scarves, too.”

After she left the room, I decided to research “meditation” on Google, to learn more about the methods of the ancient art before I watched any more useless videos.   I typed in the word, and pressed enter, and the results were all about pharmaceuticals, which is more of a modern art than ancient art.

I had accidentally typed “medication” instead of “meditation.”

I found that so amusing, that I laughed and laughed, and immediately stopped feeling anxious.

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