Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Stranger in our Midst

It is interesting to me to see people in Zen quarters talking about a problem we have talked about in my Unitarian Universalist church: We are so white here! Why do we have just a sprinkling of African-Americans and other people of color? A friend of mine has the answer: A black woman  wouldn't dream of coming to a church where people wear shorts and flip-flops on Sunday morning. Actually, that is a kernal of a truth recognized in the book "Crowns," which is largely photographs of beautiful black women in distinguished hats.

The truth is that all institutions are based in specific cultures.  And there are always plenty of opportunities to welcome whoever walks in the door, even if every last visitor is the same skin color as you.  I am wide awake lately to the fact that people who, ah, seem different, who might be mentally ill, are routinely avoided.

Think Jamie Holmes, Colorado shooting suspect.  Just today the Houston Chronicle published a short article to the effect that teachers at both the U of Alabama and Iowa had recommended against admitting him.  Here's someone who was obviously smart, but too....strange....and that was in 2011, before he died his hair.  Anyway, he was Not My Problem.  Just don't admit him.

I think it may be a primal instinct to avoid people with a strange energy or aura or body odor or manner, however you want to think about the differences in people.  I imagine I had it too before bipolar disorder burned down my life in my mid-thirties.  Now I'm sort of the other way, to tell the truth - attracted to other people who have been broken.  The saying is, that crack is where the light can come in.

 This has brought me to a sad memory.  Some years ago I took off driving one morning, just east.  I can't describe what I had gone through with my family, but it was at a crisis, and people I tried to talk to about it weren't interested.  I liked to drive; it calmed me down.  You can kid yourself that you're in control.  I found myself near a town where there is a noted Zen center so I bought a local map and found it.  I'm not going to name the place because, I don't know, what good would that do?

I asked to talk to a teacher.  The woman who was at the desk and phone was very sympathetic; I remember she gave me an apple, and went off to talk to a teacher.  She came back looking embarrassed to say that the teachers were involved in a retreat, and could talk to me a week from Tuesday.  Something like that.

I suppose now that someone in charge was trying to deliver a big Zen message.  I got it, the kind of message that was, the kind of awakening they were selling.  That experience was part of what drove me to reject the puritanical high-attainment kind of Zen I was seeing in a local sangha, where people were unkind to newcomers who disturbed the peace of the sit.

All these years later, I still think it was unkind. At that time, I thought, they probably get a lot of crazy people.  Walking away, I noted all the Lexuses in the parking lot. I thought, They probably think they are training the leaders of tomorrow.


  1. At one time or another we all need help from others, and I am surprised that the person you asked did not pick up on this. If it meant just to sit with you in awareness of our common needs that would be fine.

    1. She seemed flustered. She had been confident someone would talk with me. She did offer that I could sit there by the fire as long as I needed to; otherwise wasn't able to offer anything.

  2. It would be great if they chanted this for you:

    1. Tom had to do things on my computer - install Adobe Flash maybe? - then we listened to this. It is lovely. Thanks.