Post #3289: My Way-Seeking Mind

In my Zen tradition, some time after we take our vows (precepts), we are called on to deliver a “Way Seeking Mind Talk” to our community. This commitment had been on my agenda for some time, but between foot dragging and the pandemic, I only delivered the talk this past September 2022. Although it was well-received by the people who attended (and those who listened afterwards), I was reluctant to share it elsewhere. It is an intimate talk that reveals some painful details from my life – it took a lot of courage just to share it once! But the spiritual path is one of courage, and of facing up to one’s own life – something one of my teachers reminded me on my trip to the zendo this past weekend. I’ve removed my identifying details from the talk so it doesn’t show up in a google search of my name.

My name is….  My pronouns are….. 

I live in….. / territory of…..

I grew up in…… / territory of……..

I have been in this practice for eight years, taking Jukai in March of 2017 and adopting the Zen name of Tosho Jakuen which means Clear Advocate/Serene Garden.

This is my first time back in the zendo in about three years – though I have practiced online with many of you during the pandemic. I thank my teachers Shinmon Michael and Myoshin Kate for the prompt to prepare this talk, something I have been planning to do for many years. After such a lengthy absence from the zendo, returning to give a talk feels like the right way to re-enter physical community with you all. 

I’ve been sifting through my ideas for this talk like a handful of stones from the beach, trying to choose the one that stands out the most or could be polished up as the shiniest. It seems foolish to collect stones, but I do. Almost everytime I go to the beach across from my house on Gabriola Island, I come back with another stone which might sit on a window sill or find a place in the garden. I have a stone that sits beside my laptop on my desk, one that I chose earlier this year when I was having some difficulty with work. It’s got an almost satin surface, and yet it’s not so smooth as to be boring. When I close my hand around it, I am reminded of the ocean down below and the way in which it gives me solace when I am most in need.

Right as the pandemic was starting two and a half years ago, my neighbour Nancy died of heart complications resulting from a long bout of pneumonia. She wasn’t very old, only in her early sixties and her death troubled many of us in my neighbourhood even though she had only lived among us for a year or so. She died alone, for one thing. But for another, she was a person very much not at peace in her life and it seemed wrong that she was robbed of having a chance to grow old enough to find that peace. At least that’s how it seemed to me. 

At this time, I was hosting a weekly meditation circle at my house, which Nancy attended along with some others who lived close by. I decided that in the absence of any closer person to her, I would convene our neighbours in the park at the appropriate social distance. I found a zen prayer and collected beach stones. As part of the informal service, I asked everyone to write a word or thought on a rock and then share some words with the group before returning the rock to the basket. After everyone had dispersed, I took the basket of written-on rocks down to the beach, and I chanted the Makka Hanya Haramitta Shin Gyo (the Heart Sutra) on the edge of the sea before taking the rocks and throwing them one by one into the water, wishing our friend Nancy well in her travels on the other side. 

There are two things at work here as I write this talk, one is the solidity of stone – the reminder of earth and hardness – and the other is the fluidity of water as represented by the ocean which washes the stones away and makes them soft. These are both a kind of refuge which I will touch on in my Way Seeking Mind Talk today. Like a collection of stones in my palm, it’s hard to choose the right stories with which to begin. I have started by talking about the ocean which I live beside, and the death of my neighbour Nancy, but I could start just about anywhere. 

In Brad Warner’s recent book The Other Side of Nothing he calls the Way-Seeking Mind Talk “What Am I Doing Here”. I just happened to read that a few weeks ago, after I had agreed to come and give my talk in the Zendo. This rephrasing was helpful because it made the whole thing seem a bit more approachable, but it also made me laugh because the first time I went to Dokusan here in this Zendo, I asked Michael – What Am I Doing Here? It seemed to me very preposterous that I would find myself in a Zen meditation center sitting in a room the size of a supply closet with a monk-like person wearing black robes. I’m sure I am not the first person who has gone into the dokusan closet and asked this very question, and now many years later I am here to give some thought to that question in front of all of you. 

I am grateful that so many of you are here to listen to that answer, here in the Zendo and online. I am grateful that as the pandemic winds on, there is still a Zendo to attend. So thank-you to my teachers, and to my Sangha for that.

There are a lot of ways to answer “What am I doing here?” and so I’ll start with the simplest story I tell about how I ended up in this Zendo, which is that way back in 2013, I was doing my Master’s degree in Liberal Studies at SFU downtown. That program is different than other graduate programs – it’s aimed at older, working students – and the courses are all over the intellectual map. So in one semester I was studying the philosophy of scientific discovery and I did a term project on the emergence of neuro-plasticity as a concept. In the course of that research I read a lot of scientific studies about meditation that were interesting to me. In the next semester I chose a course lead by Heesoon Bai, an education professor, called “What is Enlightenment,” in which we explored the philosophical concept of awakening. As part of that course we were required to do an experiential project, and so curious from my prior research, I decided to meditate for five minutes a day and write about that experience as it unfolded. Pretty soon I was meditating for longer and longer periods of time, becoming more curious about the experience and the subtle changes to my thinking and awareness. During that time I met a couple of guiding meditation teachers, one at my workplace, one at the university – and at the end of the semester I went on a four-day self-guided meditation retreat. I wasn’t ready to go find a temple or anything at that point, but I was interested in finding people to meditate with – and I started having people in my neighbourhood over to meditate once a week. 

Around this same time I heard Norman Fischer giving an interview on a podcast and liked the sound of his voice, so when my friend Carmen recommended coming to this Zendo and I made that connection between the voice and the head teacher, I was more willing to come here than I might have been to another Buddhist Center.

But still another part of that story involves going to a Tibetan Buddhist Retreat on Denman Island when I had just started coming here, and deciding that the aesthetic of Zen practice and practice life worked better for me than other forms of Buddhist practice. 

So that’s one thread of how I ended up here. But it’s the simplest answer and perhaps not the truest. It makes the whole thing sound like a rational, academic venture – like through research I discovered meditation was good for me and so I became a Zen Buddhist. The end. It’s a good story for parties. Doesn’t make anyone too uncomfortable and so on. 

Another version of how I ended up here starts for me in a childhood in which I was much alienated from myself. Though my parents did their best, I did not come from a family of unconditional support. We are very duty-bound to each other, but I think it’s fair to say we find one another difficult a great deal of the time (and haven’t been afraid to tell each other so over the years). In our family mythology, I was the difficult child – fussy and angry in babyhood, and labelled too emotional by the time I was a toddler. During my formative years I was frequently in trouble because I talked too much, was too loud and exuberant, got frustrated easily, and often cried. Attempts to control my behaviour involved yelling, scare tactics, isolation and sometimes hitting. I was blamed often for larger family problems such as marital issues and my mother’s depression which I believed myself to be the cause of. As I have come to look back on my childhood, I now understand that I was a child who didn’t know how to regulate my emotions, being raised by people who were pretty deficient in this way also. 

But when I was younger, I didn’t understand that at all. Because there are a lot of mental health problems on both sides of my family – clinical depression, manic depression, schizophrenia, and suicide are leaves on the branches of our genealogical tree, as are alcoholism, violence, and other forms of acting out – I was lead to believe that my moods were hereditary and something that were not quite my fault (even as I was being punished for them). I think it was supposed to help me somehow, to know that other people in my family had similar difficulties, but instead of making me feel better, that knowledge left me feeling defective and trapped inside something I had no control over. 

As a teenager I attempted suicide and was medicated for depression which left me feeling ill and lethargic. SSRIs weren’t a thing at the time, and the drugs they gave teenagers were intended for adults and mostly heavily sedating. Trouble within my family intensified during these years and I spent much of my time with other alienated youth hanging around on the streets and at punk rock shows, beginning a period of fairly heavy drug and alcohol use in my life that lasted into my early twenties. I moved out of my parents home the day I graduated from high school and from then on have refused to take any medication for my mental health episodes which up until a few years ago involved severe bouts of depression, anxiety, and a form of obsessive compulsive disorder which manifests in recurrent negative thought patterns. Although I was raised to believe myself genetically doomed to suffer from disorders like this, I have come to understand them as something else – something learned in a disordered family system, something embedded through repetitive stories and projections, and something that I can ameliorate through diligent practice if not eradicate all together. 

I have no doubt this persistent alienation and my mental health context is a major factor that brought me to meditation and then to Zen practice. Though I didn’t perceive myself as in crisis when I showed up here eight years ago, my practice since then has illuminated for me the crisis that is just being alive, and my need to find a place of rest and refuge. This practice has become my daily refuge when I take my cushion for morning meditation and chant my robe chant. 

About a year after I started a daily meditation practice, the obsessive compulsive thoughts ceased completely. I almost didn’t notice when it happened because it’s hard to remember an absence, but one day I realized that my mind was so much clearer without those persistent thought cycles. My mental health is much better for it and I experience life quite differently now than I did when I was younger. 

But meditation isn’t the only factor in that, because yet another part of the story of how I got to be here is that fifteen years ago I met my husband Brian, and discovered the power of love in healing old wounds. Our anniversary of meeting is next weekend, as is our wedding anniversary since we met on the last Sunday of September fifteen years ago and married on the last Sunday of September twelve years ago. 

Brian and I entered each other’s lives at a time that was strained for both of us in different ways. Without going into too much detail here, I had been involved in radical environmental circles which resulted in a number of people close in my life arrested and in American prisons (or on the run, underground). As one of the key support people to those who were arrested, I spent much of my time taking phone calls from prison, and travelling to federal court dates in Eugene Oregon which is where the bulk of the hearings took place. My own life had been investigated by three law enforcement agencies as a result of my associations, but because I was never a law breaker I was mostly left alone to support the people I knew who were. It’s a weird chapter of my life, and one that few people could ever understand, but it resulted in the loss of many friendships that were very important to me. By the time I met Brian, my life and mental health had been unstable for a number of years, and I was recovering from a bout of serious depression in our first months of dating. 

It seems remarkable to me now that he accepted all of that about me, and not only that, came from a political family history that had some similar characteristics. From very early in our relationship he accepted me unconditionally, and not only that, loved me more than anyone has in this lifetime. He brought with him a daughter who became a part of my family, and from the two of them I learned so much about myself and my own family of origin struggles. When I was first with Brian and his daughter Mica, I would feel jealous about their relationship – not in the sense of being displaced in our partnership – but because it modeled for me what a healthy parent-child relationship might look like. Which highlighted that I hadn’t exactly had that growing up. Helping to raise a child and then teenager gave me an entryway to reflect on how I was treated and spoken to during my difficult years, and whether or not I would do the same to a child in my own care (turns out – no, I can’t imagine speaking to my daughter the way I was spoken to). 

By experiencing and witnessing love in this way, the alienation I had always felt from myself and from the world in which I lived, diminished substantially, and through my partnership I have become a much more open person, truthful to my emotional reality instead of armoured in the shell of “toughness” I had cultivated from my teenage years onwards. This opening in myself allowed me to acknowledge my desire for greater connection and spiritual understanding of the world, something I had rejected since my teenage years. It was this seeking that lead me to my university program, and directly into a course about the nature of Enlightenment. As much as I can tell a story about neuroplasticity and meditation, the truth is, I was curious long before that. And when I got curious enough, I had a person in my life who encouraged me, who took my longing for spiritual communion seriously, and who has been with me in this journey all along. I might have made it here some other way, but the support and love of my partner has been instrumental in learning to give and receive love in the broadest sense of that concept. And to practice in vulnerability and unselfconsiously. 

But I’m not done yet, because another version of how I got here is about my never-ending desire to be a part of community, something bigger than me that holds out the possibility of change. Because I was dominated and alienated as a child, I grew up with a keen sense of injustice at play in the world. That drove me into activism from my early teen years, first engaging to save the Carmanah Valley old growth from logging in high school, followed up by anti-racist organising, housing actions such as WoodSquat, supporting the early needle exchanges in the DTES before they were legal, and into some more radical environmental circles in my mid-to-late twenties. It’s why I became a workplace advocate and the union leader I am today. 

I am an organizer of people and I strive to work with others in common on projects – my closest relationships and friendships have always been based on shared work. And I fantasize often about living and working in a more collective way. As part of that drive my partner and I run a residency out of our home for songwriters and musicians, as well as hosting regular house concerts (we just had one last night). 

Where I used to focus my drive for community around protest to make change, I now work towards building resilience and connection in all the work that I do. Which isn’t to say I discount playing an oppositional role in order to open up dialogue or space, but that I have found to live in continual resistance is straining. This was a significant identity shift in my life and one that came about after some hard experience that demonstrated how difficult it is to sustain love inside of inflexibility, whether that is systemic or personal.

My drive for common cause is still strong however, and that includes being in spiritual community, a place where we come together in acceptance of the present moment, and support each other in making the journey from one part of our lives to the next. A place where we co-create refuge in the zendo and on retreat, and in our minds when we think of one another practicing in another place like our teachers are this month. A big part of how I got here, is that eight years ago, I walked into a welcoming space with others who take seriously the ethics of care for each other and the planet – and while it might seem odd to build community with people who are mostly silent in each other’s presence, I have felt that by paring back the social expectations, I have known some people in the community as well or better than many people in my life. 


I started out by talking about stones from the beach and the ocean but I’d like to finish today by taking you to a different place from my life which served as a refuge when I was young. Besides books, which were my first refuge, I was lucky enough to grow up on the edge of a forty-acre wood, which belonged to an old man named Mr Baerer who let the community use it as a park. In that forest there was a creek, an old rubbish pile from logging days, and a small cave framed by an oak tree that was big enough for two children to sit in. There were trails that lead to other parts of the neighbourhood, and these took us to places away from adults for hours at a time. My friend Miranda’s older sister Tanis would make up stories and games for us to play, and drew magical creatures on the walls of their pony paddock. My brother’s best friend Tim spent hours learning to walk without making a sound so he could go right up to a deer in the forest without it running away. Though the original trees had been cut, the mature second-growth cedars and Douglas Firs towered over us, giving way every once and awhile to a grove of Arbutus trees up on the dry rock outcrops. I have walked those trails with my friends and alone through all the years of my life, it has recently been protected as a park. As I have been working on this talk over the last week, I keep coming back to a spot in that forest where the creek opens up from the foliage and a small log bridge crosses over it. There is a trail to this spot, but when I was a child it looked more like a deer trail than anything and so only the children followed it off the old logging road. I think the reason I’ve been returning to this spot in my mind is because it was a profound place of refuge and exploration for me, a place owned by no one and shared by all, and where the trees offered a watchful presence to life unfolding all around. 

I think about my practice these days much like that, like the cool forest floor on a hot day, like the creek cutting through the snow, like the nettles that only sting for a moment before they are made into tea. My practice is also like the ocean rising and receding over the stones that I pick up from the beach whenever I go there to walk. It is one of the ways that I continue to make peace with my life history. It is my refuge, and my path. 

I thank you again for being present to witness my way-seeking mind talk. I thank my teachers for their dedication to our practice, and everyone who helps to continue this tradition so that others may also discover their own way to it.

3 Comments on “Post #3289: My Way-Seeking Mind

    • It’s funny how other people’s stuff is more enticing than our own! I’d much rather read your life reflections than mine! Thanks for the kudos 🙂

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