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MF 42 – A Lifelong Zen Meditation Practice with Sandy Haskin
(This is a summary transcript, listen to the episode for the full conversation)
Sandy Haskin practices Zen meditation with the Three Treasures Sangha of the Northwest. She currently lives and works in Spokane, Washington. She works as a Nurse Aide at a home for mentally ill adults, and also sells books, DVD’s, CD’s on Amazon with her sister. She has worked at the former for 10 years and the latter for 5 years.
What was your life like before taking on a meditation practice?
Sandy remembers how she began to meditate and when, she had just left the town she grew up in, Spokane, WA. And she moved to Olympia. And found out because of her family history, she could get some help via friends through the 12 step program, so she joined (ACoA) Adult Children of Alcoholics and began to work the 12 steps. This was in 1986. And she thought moving away from her hometown would help her take care of her problems and her dissatisfaction with her life and herself.
What she had done was move to Olympia, and create yet another dysfunctional relationship, like she had had in Spokane. So she was disappointed that it repeated itself and where her life was headed at that point.
And you mean by relationship, with another?
Yes, with another man. So she was confounded what to do with her life, and how to make her life work. So she read a book called, Women Who Love Too Much, by Robin Norwood. And she said, if there’s any alcoholism in your family, look up a 12 step group. And I said, well, I qualify! (laughing) It was just an afterthought, last chapter in the book. So Sandy went to ACoA, and found her home.
12 steps is all about finding a spiritual answer to your life, to your problems. And it is not an option, that’s the whole basis of the 12 step program. But they don’t tell you what it is going to look like, that is your job to find the answer.
So Sandy began to meditate at home, watching a candle flame. That particular meditation just so happens to be the one she began with. She then ran into a friend, Pamela Lee who invited her to meditate with her in Seattle. So she began sitting with a group, which was fundamental for Sandy. To start a practice, and be connected with a group, a schedule, a teacher, and a community. That was back in late ’86. And she’s been meditating ever since, off for about 5.
Was meditation part of the ACoA, or is it all find it on your own?
I called myself not an alcoholic, but ACoA, I was in 4 different 12 step programs. But yes, the 2nd step is coming to believe that a power greater than myself could restore me to sanity. And the 11th step is through prayer and meditation seek to improve your conscious contact with God as I understood God to mean. Praying only for knowledge of God’s will, for me to carry that out. So yes, prayer and meditation are very basic, I made them basic to my program. But it is not necessary, but it is part a path you could learn. Other folks go to church and don’t meditate, and yet others do go to church and meditate. You gotta find your own way, finding your own spiritual path.
And you were in 4 different 12 step programs?
I was, I was quite the addict! (laughing) In fact I was ordered to go, my best friends were there, it was so much fun. I was going to treatment for my alcoholism, which I love, I love the attention to myself. And the counselor said, when we’re finished with your treatment, you will go to AA. And I said , I will not, I’m already in another 12 step group, I love it, and I’m getting it. So she couldn’t finish her treatment there. She started out in one group and ended up in quite a few others.
So what kind of meditation group did you end up in?
Her friend had sat extensively with the Three Treasures Sangha, a Zen meditation group in Seattle, Washington. They’re under the umbrella of Robert Aitken’s Diamond Sangha in Hawaii. And she has been with them ever since.
What did you find in particular very helpful about a Zen group like the one you’re going to?
I guess the focus is totally on meditation, and not so much what you do or don’t believe. In fact, the people that introduced her to this practice, are Catholics, and don’t even want to be called Buddhists. So the focus is on the practice. Doing the practice, and committing to it. Sandy liked what she saw in these people, they were adults, her age. She seemed to really settle into just meditating. Not too much of read this, follow that person, there wasn’t so much asked. Then when there was a teacher, you could listen. It wasn’t like sermons in church. More focus on meditation, which fit her personality more.
Where there insights during this journey, maybe early on that made you realize you wanted to keep coming back to it. In other words, that kept you motivated to keep coming back to it?
Yeah, one thing about meditation that is hard for our culture, is I don’t believe that there are typically not instant results. There are subtle results, like over time, her personality started to calm down. From the outside, for example, you wouldn’t guess that I have a lot of anxiety. But I did, I was tongue tied, I was very self conscious, worried about things I would say, etc. And meditation seemed to calm things down, but it took a long time.
I remember a strange story. I was sober and looking for God, looking for a program for a few years. And I wasn’t getting it…Like where is God, or the spirit, whatever. I was miserable.
When you go into meetings, Jamborees, retreats, etc. With all these people that seem so happy, and I wasn’t so happy. So I was asking God for a sign. I was desperate. I was like, there is nothing happening, there’s nothing here, I just wasn’t getting it.
And..I was, maybe I need this, maybe some people don’t need to get what I got. So I asked for a sign, but I did, I was up in the middle of the night. I had been sober for a year, religiously doing the steps. And I was on the toilet crying in the middle of the morning. Sometimes you have those nights! About a half hour after that, I started to smell smoke. I lived in an apartment, and I opened the door, there was smoke coming down the hallway, and one of my neighbors apartments was on fire.
So I went back to my apartment, and we ran to get everyone out of the place. I went back and locked my door. It was a mess, my place was a mess, they smashed my door, so don’t lock your door if you’re ever in a fire!
So anyway, I was at a friends house that night. And I was just thinking about everything that happened that evening. And I realized that the day before the fire, I had done this motherpeace Tarot card game. And the I had gotten this card of a person, a woman sitting in meditation, and she was surrounded by flames. I know this is new agey, its weird, but the moment I remembered getting that card, I felt the presence of God. I felt a peace about my life, that this was supposed to happen to me. I don’t know why, I don’t understand. But I gained something through understanding that in spiritual terms this was the way my life was supposed to go.
And her friends would say, aren’t you going to cry? Your stuff is trashed! But she would just say Wow!
So anyway she gained a tremendous amount of peace. I just believe that when we sincerely want answers, that when we sincerely seek, that we do get answers. That we do find guidance, on the spiritual path. Even if it is not what we expected. So yeah, I’ve had ups and downs. But you just have to follow through. I think anyone on any spiritual path, is going to find it is not going to be easy. But the alternative, I don’t want to go back to my old life, and how I used to feel, it was pretty ugly.
Yeah, you get your answers along the way, I guess if you ask in all sincerity.
I’m sure you’ve had more moments along the way..and it just continues to unfold…
Yeah, in the Zen tradition, it’s liked by some people, because it’s not heavily promoted that you have to believe the ancestors. Or that you memorize books. But the longer I meditate, the more I see the world the way they see the world. That it is very satisfying. I know this is because of my meditation, not because of my intellect. They’re talking about a spiritual plane, and it is not something you can intellectualize.
Yes, and I’ve had some whoppers of experiences, that helps one to keep going. But I also think human beings, human contact, having a teacher, are so so important to having a meditation practice. If I had not met that woman, who meditated and who connected me to a meditation group, it would have just been on my list. Oh yeah, some time I’ll meditate….
To be in a group with a schedule, and needs your help, volunteer, do service work, getting involved, it’s crucial. Because I’m self-centered, just want to live my own life, and I still just want to be left alone! (laughing). So involvement in a group is crucial for the long haul of sticking to meditation practice.
At some point you also started to attend retreats, can you highlight some of the benefits of retreats, as opposed to just group gatherings?
Yes, I would go on these 7 day retreats a year, which really solidified my in practice. The experiences in Sesshin (long retreat intensives) are that one is very much supported in turning around your attention to look inwards and do your practice. And it’s really rare to have that opportunity in our culture, because even if we’re home alone, we feel compelled to be productive.
So to have some place to go, where you have permission. It’s set up to not have to thinking, talking, planning, or writing. It’s very helpful. So that year when I started retreats fixed me into practice. The benefits I would say.
When you’re in retreat, you’re with the same people sitting, eating, snoring for 24 hours a day. And it’s easy to get critical or judgmental with people. But going with other people, really opens you up to accepting other people, and being able to help them in their practice. I’m often judgmental with others, but when you’re on retreat, you communicate on a level that is not intellectual, it’s not verbal.
You almost get to experience what I would call love, a unity, and a co-traveler type thing with all of these people, maybe half of whom you’ve never met before. So it’s an experience that speaks for itself. Just having value in the quit time and doing that with a group of people.
Maybe you have an example of an experience that you had during a retreat that stood out for you..
I’ve been over to Mountain Lamp retreat center in the past few years, where her teacher Jack Duffy and partner Eileen Kierra teach retreats there. The weather can be very chaotic, raining, storming, sunshine, hailing etc all in the same day.
So this one day it was storming around around us, and we’re sitting in this zendo (meditation hall), and I was like 5 days in a 7 day retreat. And towards the end of the evening, I’d been listening to the storm, letting it flow in and out of me. And after a while I realized that I was no longer sitting there on the cushion in my body. I was raining. That is just the reality, I was no longer a person, I was rain!
Yeah that’s great. (laughing)
It was fabulous. Yeah, you’re talking about the boundaries that we’re conditioned to think of ourselves as, were dissolving, you no longer ended at the edge of your skin.
And we don’t meditate to “get experiences”, but certain experiences come along. But when they do, you know that you’re really settled. And that was wonderful.
And I think it’s good to see what’s possible during retreats, rather than reading from a book. It’s nice to hear examples of what can happen during a retreat.
I’m always surprised at how much energy we take, to do social greetings, to smile at people, to always have the right composure, etc. All of that takes energy. And when you’re in a group, that the focus is taken care of, and not expected, so you can turn inward. That is a huge freedom.
And it’s very difficult to do alone. When you meditate with a group, there’s a power, a strength to keep going, because everyone else is. So you can do more with a group than you can do alone. It’s just what I found to be true over the years.
It turns into a way of life, which is so wonderful. I set my life up more now on retreats, than on vacations. It’s a lifelong practice. It’s very wonderful to have as I grow older.
When you come out of retreats, do you get the sense of wanting to mingle or integrate that into the rest of your life?
I think in retreats I think you can become rather naive and you’re feeling a certain way, a certain zone of vulnerability. I tend to fall for it every time, I tend to think it’s going to last forever. But it doesn’t. I guess what I take with me, I re-integrate is slowly, have a peaceful the day after a retreat. And I recognize how my judging people stops. I appreciate the work of everyone who’s made the retreat happen. Those are the things I take into my life hopefully. The ability to watch my mind, and lessen the judgement of others.
It’s just a habitual way to separate. It’s not even true. It’s about my ego, having one-up over yours.
That sense of peace is there for a while, but I can’t keep it for a long time. But I think of it later, let that person alone! Don’t hassle him in my own head!
It’s a gift to have a practice.
What would you say to someone who struggles to have and keep a meditation practice?
I strongly urge people to get together with a group. (If you’re into Buddhist meditation practice), check out the web site called Buddhanet. If people are trying to sit alone, it can backslide. It’s very difficult to do that. But if you try a group, like on the web site above, you’d be amazed how many groups there are in the US. So my first idea is don’t sit alone, do that, but also connect with other folks, and talk about your practice.
The motivation I’ve had, was that I was emotionally miserable. The more miserable you are, the more you may want to seek out a spiritual path. It is very difficult. It may not be obvious that you’re growing, or that you’re getting it. And that’s just the way it goes.
Yeah, like a crock-pot slowly cooking….
Yeah, right, but in the end it’s worth it. And it’s good to reflect back. That’s the 4th part of the 12 steps, “Make a searching and fearless written moral inventory of yourself.” It’s good to look back, and look at why you are where you are. I don’t owe it to myself, I owe it to AA and 12 step groups.
Thanks so much!