I started to practice zen in 1999 when I went to live for six months in a zen center (sfzc.org). Since then this spiritual practice has subtly and deeply transformed me, and doubtless the ways in which I express myself in my book reflect this.
The basis of zen practice is zazen. Zazen is simple upright seated meditation, in silence and complete stillness, without any outside distraction. There are variations on how people sit and for how long exactly - that’s all decided beforehand and it usually is about forty minutes – but people usually sit upright on their black cushions (zafus) while turned facing the wall with their eyes half opened.
I was 35 when I went to live in the zen center. While I wrote about this experience in my book, there was not enough space there to tell all, so I will give some more specific incidents that marked me during that time.
Most often I worked in the guest house, cleaning bathrooms and making beds. When a visiting monk, who also was the head of a major nearby abbey, came to help me make beds it was for me a lesson in humility.
One morning when I went in to clean one of the small kitchen areas, I found out that because the room had not been locked properly raccoons had entered. Milk, sugar and honey coated the floor, but the monk who helped me clean (in silence) did not seem flustered in any way.
It was interesting to observe the changes that took place in me in just six months. When I first arrived I often did the dishes in the main kitchen. The monk I worked with at the time was very upset at me when I tried to kill a cockroach. Six months later this same monk noticed my discomfort when I inadvertently crushed a snail’s shell (as soon as I heard the sound I took my foot off) and she kindly made me feel better as we said a prayer together in order to lessen the karmic damage.
I was extremely embarrassed when during my first sesshin (an intensive meditation period) I dropped my chopsticks on the floor during one of the silent oryoki meals. This is the formal style of serving and eating meals practiced in Zen temples. Everyone present stopped eating while the head server came to pick up my sticks, brought them to the altar in the middle of the room, passing the chopsticks through incense smoke there in a sort of purification ritual, before finally returning them to me, whereupon everyone resumed eating. I was so shaken I became nauseous and had to force myself to finish the food that was in my bowls.
In a community where everyone was friendly I mostly stayed alone. When people were allowed to talk, at dinner time, I retired promptly to my bedroom or I took a little walk to the nearby beach where I sat on the same rock each time and gazed at the sea for a long time. During the millennium festivities, which lasted well after midnight, I went to bed at 7:30 pm.
Though no one understood what was going on with me and I felt all alone, several of the zen center’s “old timers” helped me. When I had to find an apartment to rent, a monk lent me her car in order to allow me to search. The day I moved out a second monk gave me her old zafu, the black cushion to sit on, and a third monk gave me a broken tiny buddha figure and an altar cloth. A few times after my move to a nearby apartment, the head cook (tenzo) of the center brought me a portion of the breakfast he had prepared earlier for the zen center residents.
Last but not least, for several months after my move (until I moved away too far) yet another monk met with me every week at a nearby cafe because he had once seen me write, as we were working together in the kitchen, the word “help”. Each time, when we left the coffee place where we met, this senior monk straightened our table and brought our dirty dishes to the kitchen although it was not required. He was a real teacher. His ways and help proved to me that there really was something to this practice.
When I left zen center in 2000, at first I only sat once a day for thirty minutes every morning. It did not cost a penny, nor required any great physical effort on my part (though it did require great mental effort). I yearned for it and I slowly increased the amount of time I sat.
However when I became paralyzed on the left side of my upper body in September 2006 it became very challenging. Here I was, in excruciating pain, and there was nobody around to keep me from moving away from my cushion. I had to constantly discipline myself, willing myself not to move for the length of the sitting period no matter what came up in my mind. I visualized that I was screwed onto an unmovable stool. At times what came up mentally was so difficult I could not wait for the end of the period. Several times I tried to use the wall for support but it did not allow me the neck support I needed. I dreamed of a chair that would have narrow high back and its legs cut off. At that time there was in my apartment a full length mirror on the wall in front of the spot where I meditated. Usually I did not look at it, but when I unconsciously happened to glance once I was freaked to see my head jutted out of a crooked neck and spine. It reminded me of the pictures of abnormal human beings that can been seen in some medical books. Each time I checked again it was the same distorted contortion.
But in the end my physical pain was not made worse by zazen. On the contrary, if I kept searching for ways to distract myself from the pain it was still there -worsening, unnoticed, and unattended. For a few years zen events were the only social events I managed to attend, and this kept me sane. Thanks to my zen practice the wheel of my life was slowly set to right, eventually outside help appeared, and I was able to find ways to better care for myself.
Nowadays I sit zazen about two hours a day. At first 90% of it was done alone at home but as I am getting stronger I am more able to reach out in the zen community around where I live. My partner also practices zen and for the past 3 years twice a week I lead an online mediation hall using video conferencing software to sit. More about it can be found at autsit.net.
Thanks to this zen practice I often give the impression of a collected appearance and it makes it more difficult to see my autism.