Some background: Zen
In 2010 I was lead software quality engineer on one of the most demanding projects of my life. Then I got a second one. I was leading two high profile projects simultaneously, finishing a graduate class, daddy to two little girls, and husband to the most incredible lady I’ve ever known. The stress was tearing me apart. I was losing sleep and now the stress was causing me physical pain. I needed to learn to relax, so I asked around. A frequent response included meditation. This led me to a Buddhist retreat in Soquel where I stumbled across a book by Brad Warner, Hardcore Zen : Punk Rock, Monster Movies, & the Truth about Reality.
This book wasn’t so much about learning to relax, I had a couple of those and they were great, it was about challenging my preconceptions – question everything. It was clear that the author and I shared some key traits:
- a general problem with authority
- rock and roll: he is a bass player in a punk band. I played a guitar really amazingly badly. OK, I was never the whole rock and roll lifestyle, but I went to a bunch of the crazy L.A. metal clubs and sure thought it was awesome.
- questioning everything
My parents raised me that way although I’m not 100% sure they realize this. Dad always insisted that we kids think for ourselves and to accept nothing on face value. I think I got this message by about age 4. Heck I’d even managed to turn that into a career. That’s effectively what being a Software Quality Engineer is: a professional questioner of every damn thing. This is why I love my job so very much.
Change of plans – Yay Twitter!
I was expecting Brad to be at Tassajara all of September per his own blog where he posted his speaking schedule. He had three engagements within striking distance, but the one in Humboldt was too far and I was taking a trip to Las Vegas to attend DefCon during his talk in Sacramento. The September date seemed like a decent opportunity. I made some calls to somebody at Tassajara (they have one phone) to confirm that he’d be there. It turned out they honestly weren’t sure. I traded email with Brad asking when he was speaking. His response surprised me because he wasn’t sure himself – and likely wouldn’t know until the day they told him he was up.
By coincidence I just had gotten more active on Twitter after a very long absence and Brad was one of my first new additions to follow in years. Bingo, a new tweet arrived from somebody posting on his behalf saying that he was going to be at Tassajara with zero Internet access for the month of August. The rest of the tweet included a link to an article he wrote on SuicideGirls (a really cool web site if you’ve got an open mind about the human body, love, and philosophy. That and the girls are flippin’ hot). Well I had a decision to make fast. I had a Sunday free and my friend Karen offered up her Jeep for the trip.
The Journey There
First let me give you a quick description of the location. This place is remote, and I say that generously. Tassajara Zen Mountain Center is located in the mountains of the Los Padres National Forest, southeast of Monterey. The road itself is dirt although at one point it looks like it was probably paved. The road is bumpy, curvy, hilly, and a challenge to a software-geek-turned-day-adventurer like me. From the mountaintops I could see the marine layer over the ocean. Looking east I could see the rich farmland along CA Highway 101 between Salinas and King City.
A little further in the distance was the mountains around Pinnacles National Monument. I honestly thought I was seeing farther than that, perhaps overlooking I-5, but the curvature of the Earth makes that pretty unlikely since that would have been below the horizon from my perspective. But in my mind I was seeing clear to Nevada.
The night before the trip I dug up my spiffy old Canon SLR for reasons I can’t really figure out, maybe so I could use the telephoto lens I had. On a whim I asked Lisa to pick up some new batteries and ISO 400 film while she was grocery shopping. This turned out to be very fortunate because unbeknownst to me the tab on my digital camera’s SD card broke off leaving it in the locked position. I could take all the digital pictures I wanted, but I wasn’t going to be able to save a single one of them. I haven’t used the SLR camera since Bethany was a baby, so it had sat diligently in its bag for nearly ten years. The really good news is that I took a couple of photo courses in college and thought to bring my tripod along.
The plan was to be on the road by sunrise. Naturally this did not happen, but it was close enough. I left the Santa Cruz Mountains by 8:00 which put me into Seaside (just north of Monterey) by 10:30 for a quick breakfast at McDonald’s.
I had plunked the location into my Android and had the map going the whole way. As I approached my only significant turn I was busy singing along to the Grateful Dead, blinked, and missed it. I realized my error almost immediately so no harm done. I just felt a little silly for being that well prepared and nearly blowing it anyway.
This turn went from a small rural road onto an even smaller, ruraller road, but still paved. Some houses and horse pastures with a couple of one-lane bridges to keep things interesting. There is an entry point with several parked cars and the beginning of The Dirt Road (I think everything sounds more important when you capitalize it). A sign indicated that maybe you really didn’t want to do this if you didn’t have 4 wheel drive – oh, and it’s impassible in inclement weather, so don’t bother trying. And you might get a splinter or nose warts, so for Chrissakes be careful, etc.
Double-checking that I did in fact have 4 wheel drive engaged, a full load of caffeine, a reasonably empty bladder, and a good solid dose of Advil I sallied forth. I had practiced in Karen’s Jeep the day before on some dirt in Boulder Creek so I had an OK sense for what the vehicle could do. This may have been stupid. Wonderfully, wonderfully stupid.
The Dirt Begins
It didn’t take very long for me to encounter another visitor going the same way; a rather timid driver with an enormous Chevy Suburban moving about the pace of tectonic plates in a sprint. Honestly I didn’t mind. What bugged me was the dust he was kicking up. Not that it’s avoidable, it’s just that I like to drive with the windows down and my dainty complexion doesn’t like to get all dirty. Clogs the pores and all.
I tried taking a movie of the adventure by jamming my Flip digital video camera against the windshield with double-stick tape. The idea worked pretty well for a while. About 30 minutes into the dirt and 2 minutes into the rough stuff it broke loose. That’s just as well because my on-the-fly editing was probably going to get me killed.
- wake camera up
- push the “record” button
- realize I had pushed the “delete” button
- dodge big rock
- push the “cancel” button
- avoid tree
- push the “record” button for real this time
- avoid cliff
- lather, rinse, repeat
Let me start by saying that I am deeply in love with my native California. I was a Boy Scout as a kid and we went everywhere. Death Valley, backpacking around Catalina Island, Los Padres National Forest, bike trips through Monterey and San Diego. I spent my teenage years on the beach, in the water, racing bikes on back roads, you name it. I got to know my state up close and personal and I love her.
Before I even got to the seriously interesting stuff I was already in awe, and I had just passed Laguna Seca with a full day still ahead. Way out on the dirt road there were a couple of opportunities to stop and take photographs. From one particular vantage point I could see across the valley towards Pinnacles National Monument. My jaw was agape. This was every amazing bit of California I had ever seen in panoramic glory.
As I was packing up the camera and feeling pretty good about things the last thing in the world I expected went by: a Mercedes Benz. The Jeep was doing great, and I had read on Yelp! about somebody trying this in a Honda Civic, but to actually see somebody do it in a sedan earned me a new hero. I just had to get a picture of this because I didn’t think anybody would believe me. This was where the road started to get really rough.
The rest of the drive was rolling hills, but mostly downhill from here. A lot of it was very steep with bits of the road seriously eroded away, leaving exposed rock jutting out. The side of the road was a steep drop. I had commented to my Head Honcho at work that if I was really late into work on Monday that maybe he should call the CA Department of Forestry. I hoped he remembered that. I spent a good solid chunk of the rest of the drive in low gear trying like hell to let the motor do the hard work so that I didn’t overheat the brakes.
Naturally this is when a vehicle had to come the other way. Not that this detail is terribly interesting in itself, but I honestly couldn’t recall who was supposed to have the right of way. While I tried to remember it seemed less important since I was clearly the only one with a serious shot at making things passable for both of us. So… reverse gear back up the hill a bit so the other guy could pass. I’m sure that to an experienced driver of such terrain this was mere kid stuff.
When I got there I saw a dozen or so cars parked along the road. Cars that made the Mercedes Benz look like a regular rally car by comparison. Some brave souls did this trek in a Toyota Prius and another in a PT Cruiser. The PT Cruiser driver could be my new hero if he could get that thing back home. AAA was not coming, that’s for sure.
I wandered around just a little bit to get the layout. There were dozens of small cabins and a few larger structures, enough places to be indoors such that I had to come to terms with the idea that it was unlikely that I’d just bump into my new favorite author. It occurred to me, “Gee how creepy this could seem, I hope nobody thinks I’m a stalker. Oh geeeez I hope I’m not a stalker…”
I stopped into the office where I bought a day pass which entitled me to use of the facilities, the pool, classes, talks etc. I mentioned to the fella running the office that I was hoping to meet an author that was visiting. The nice guy replied, “Oh you mean Brad? Yeah he’s around and he’s really approachable. He’s probably just wandering around and wearing a Godzilla shirt.” This was easy for me to imagine because he used to work for the company who made Godzilla movies and the Ultraman TV show in Japan.
While poking around through the books and other great stuff I found the last copy of Brad’s latest book Sex, Sin, and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between. I had been meaning to get it and this was as good an opportunity as any. I paid up, tucked the book in my backpack and headed back to the Jeep for some lunch. Lunch is only worth mentioning because I brought a turkey sandwich to a place crawling with vegetarians who I dearly didn’t want to offend. Not that offending a Buddhist is especially easy, but I really didn’t want to get off on the wrong foot.
Meeting Brad Warner
I hiked around a little and came to peace with the idea that I might not see him around. I thought “OK, I’ve really enjoyed my day so I’ve already surpassed any kind of goal I set out with. This is already a win.” Almost immediately after coming to that conclusion there he was sitting on a rock by the trail. It turned out that he was a little lost; he was out with some other folks earlier who wanted to turn off the main trail onto something that fell off the map. I joked that I’m usually all for coloring outside the lines, but not so happy about walking off the map. Brad asked if I knew where the Tea Trail was. It turned out I did since I was just on it and offered to show him the way. This was also an opportunity to sit down and just chill for a few, so I set down my pack and plopped down on a convenient rock.
We talked a bit, threw rocks into the stream, and reviewed the little map I had. It was both no big deal and really great at the same time. I told him that I read one of his books, Hardcore Zen : Punk Rock, Monster Movies, & the Truth about Reality and that I found it meaningful. I had kind of practiced saying this, and honestly it was odd to hear the words actually leave my mouth. It may have been the least stupid thing I said all day. After a bit I thanked him for hanging out with me for a while, but not to feel obligated to stick around if he needed to be someplace else. To my surprise and delight he decided to stick around.
He was scheduled to lead a ceremony that evening, the details of which escape me and I doubt I would have understood anyway. There was a protocol with bows, bells, and the like but he was struggling to remember the details. He wanted to get it right and not look like a doofus by forgetting. I said it was likely nobody would even notice if he flubbed one. He might even get away with playing it off like “hey, that’s how we do it back home.” I was of course kidding since I’m inherently a silly person and I find just about everything funny. He commented that it must seem odd to see a Buddhist monk stressing over something like this. All I could do was nod and smile, trying to do the Buddhist under-reaction thing as best as I could, but inside I was utterly delighted with this simple moment.
Brad mentioned that he gave a talk the day before which he didn’t think it went all that great. Unlike other talks this time he decided to have a list of talking points. According to him this didn’t seem to work nearly as well as when he just lets things flow. Topics included Dogen, were the historical writings about him all that accurate, and does it matter? For example it was reported that he traveled extensively through China. What would “extensively” mean in the 13th century? After all there was very little infrastructure. Were the stories embellished? I asked given that the stories of Buddha himself are largely considered heavily embellished over the centuries that maybe it doesn’t matter so much? He didn’t seem thrilled with that idea (although with a keel that even it was hard to tell).
Brad asked me what I do to get by for a living. I smiled and said that I break software. This got a fun reaction: “What?” To which I tried to explain that I’m type of software engineer that specializes in validating that it is working then goes about beating the hell out of it to make it fail. And that I absolutely loved doing it because I got to make computers cry. He mentioned that he had a Mac so I asked if he ever used StuffIt Expander. “All the time!” I smiled and said that I was test lead on the most recent one (and on and off for the past decade) and it was a tremendous amount of work. I’m stoked that something I worked on was on his Mac, but it’s on a lot of other people’s Macs too. (I’m still sorry for StuffIt 5 by the way, but hey I knew everything everybody complained about way before releasing it, so honestly I did my very best. That’s why StuffIt 5.5 was so much better.)
Brad asked if I was at Tassajara for the weekend, to which I responded that I was simply there for the day. This also got another fun reaction (again, super even keel): “What?? Where did you come here from then?” “Santa Cruz, across the bay from here.” “What?? You came all that way just to be here for the day?” I checked the clock on my phone (I haven’t worn a watch for over a decade), sighed and responded “Well more likely for around 3 hours. Honestly though the trip itself was a ton of fun and I’m really enjoying it.” I also mentioned that I bought the day pass, which surprised him. I explained that it seemed fair and that they had to pay the bills too. I told him that he had tried talking me out of taking the day trip in an email a month ago or so because it was so hard to get to. “Oh you’re that guy!” he replied. What fun! Now it was time to lead the way back to the trail.
When we got back there was a nice spot for snacks and tea. This was also a great opportunity to get a picture. I asked politely if I could and he asked if he looked like anything special. I said “No, did you want to? Or ‘sure’, whatever you want it to be man.” He seemed to appreciate that. Either way, it was fun. Around then he had to get going, we shook hands and parted. I finished up my tea so that I could make it to an Intro to Zazen class.
Intro to Zazen Class
What absolute serendipity! It was a wonderful coincidence that the class was being offered on a day and time that I could attend. I had the general idea, but felt silly if I was ever meditating with other people around. The class included the basics on the simple protocols and mindfulness from a sweet lady instructor. There were maybe 12 students, most of them pretty clearly affluent people, and knucklehead me in the corner. Here’s the general gist of what I picked up from the class:
- everybody lines up with their hands clasped in a relaxed position
- entry into the room involves a gentle bow then stepping into the room with the foot closest to the left side of the door frame.
- follow the leader’s direction to your spot
- gentle bow to the room (acknowledge everybody who came before and comes after)
- gentle bow to the cushion (it’s a great cushion…)
- sit and get comfy, rotate around your seat in a clockwise fashion looking for best balance and position
- I deal with back pain, so I asked the instructor to please not mind if I got a little squirmy from time to time. She was glad that I brought that up because there was a little protocol for that too!
- acknowledge to yourself that you’re achy
- turn around
- stretch by bringing your knees together vertically up to your chest until you feel a little better
- return to your sitting position.
- I deal with back pain, so I asked the instructor to please not mind if I got a little squirmy from time to time. She was glad that I brought that up because there was a little protocol for that too!
- When meditation period is over the leader will ring a bell (a wonderful resonating sound).
- Stand and file out of the room.
The actual period of zazen was only around 5 minutes long, but it was still very very nice. Our instructor came by each student with suggestions for posture. My posture is absurdly poor and she was really nice about it. What surprised me was that she had only a little suggestion, not a “Good god what’s wrong with you man?!”
Zazen is simply just sitting there. I think the Japanese word for it literally translates to “just sitting.” Face a wall, fold your hands gently, sit in a stable manner, lower your eyelids some, drop your eyes to about 45 degrees, and appreciate the nothing. Blink, breathe, think, whatever. Sit quietly and rest. This was bliss. Sound boring? Sure, but that was also the point. Sit quietly and let the experience happen.
Office again: Book signing & Godzilla (fun!)
I stopped by the office one last time to see if there might be something in there I might like before I headed home. Brad was inside chatting with the guy running the office who mentioned that I had bought his book today. I joked that Brad could now honestly say “Oh you’re the one!” He was really cool about it and asked if I wanted him to sign my book. AWESOME. He did so and drew a Godzilla in there.
I asked if he could do an Ultraman too, which he was really stoked with. He asked if I was a fan of Ultraman and I had to admit that I was
the type of American weenie who utterly didn’t get it, but as a kid I did enjoy “Johnny Sokko And His Flying Robot.” Also in the office I found this cool beaded wrist band thing. It was a little unusual and also very simple. I really like it.
Drive home – more confident, more pictures.
This time I was familiar with the terrain and the rough stuff. Karen’s Jeep continued to be great. I stopped a couple of times to take some pictures of the scenery. I also tried a couple of vanity pictures of myself by the Jeep. It seemed like it would be a good idea to include in the story and heck I might be able to show off the new tattoo a little.
Once on pavement I goofed and accidentally took another road through Carmel Valley rather than Hwy 68. Porsche, Mercedes, Jaguar, BMW, dirty as hell Jeep, Jaguar, Jaguar, Porsche, Latte.
Wrapping up my story
This has been a wild year of personal exploration and challenging things that would have never occurred to me to try. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still not jumping out of an airplane or something. I’ve met a whole lot of people who for some reason never bothered breaking out of their little comfort zone. Only recently did I find that some of those folks thought I live a fairly exotic life (these are the same people who don’t believe me when I describe dolphins surfing). Honestly up to that point I thought I had been pretty mundane and even uptight with enough hangups to keep Dr. Drew busy for years. In 2009 things changed radically, not in a health kind of way (although there was a health component in there) to where I decided hell with it, there’s a lot of things I’ve never done and there’s just no good excuse for this. This particular outing is a highlight because I came at it with few expectations.
- I expected to take make it to where the pavement ended
- I expected to take some pictures.
- I had hoped to get to Tassajara.
- I had hoped to meet my new favorite author.
Anything beyond the two expected outcomes was gravy. And here’s the kicker: it was no big deal. Some of that is from the whole zen thing and other bits were from looking at it from the point of view of just driving down a road. Driving down a road to the dirt. Driving on the dirt. Bouncing around a bit. Taking a walk. Sitting down on a rock next to somebody interesting. Talking with that interesting somebody about nothing spectacular. Heading home. No big deal. And it was huge.