Julie Nelson is the Interim Spiritual Director of the Greater Boston Zen Center, although – she tells me – “I don’t consider myself so much a Buddhist as a Zen student.” I first became aware of her through her blog, in which she wrote about the events which led up to the separation of GBZC from the Boundless Way collective. Zen is just one of the topics the blog deals with. It also includes essays on economics, which she had taught at universities both in California and Massachusetts. “I do feminist and ecological economics. I’m a fringe economist from the point of the mainstream.”
Her introduction to meditation came at a time when – as she describes it – her life was “falling apart.” Her marriage was dissolving, and she was engaged in a dispute with the university over tenure. She felt a general panic about things. “How was I going to support my kids! Where was I going to get a job! I couldn’t just move anywhere in the country; my kids were in joint custody. I had to find a job in my field in this area. Find a place to live. You know, deal with all the emotional repercussions of that, dealing with the law suit, the charge against my employer.”
She was also scheduled to have surgery at the time and took part in an adult education workshop intended to help people prepare for surgery and to heal more quickly afterward. The workshop included some guided meditation. “The interesting thing was that I found as I sat quietly listening to the guided meditations or just without them, I could also watch my panic rise up and fall away. And that was very powerful, because I would have thought I was my panic, was living from my panic, was panic all the time, but sitting quietly I could see it as something that arose and left.”
After the surgery, she decided to investigate meditation more thoroughly. “I got some books, and for the next few years I did some meditation at home just on a kind of as-needed basis. Ten minutes here; five minutes there.” One of the books was by Larry Rosenberg of the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center which is in the Vipassana Buddhist tradition. “I went to a few retreats there. I was a member there for a couple of years. Didn’t get there regularly. I found the teachers relatively inaccessible. That is they would only teach group things. You had to be a very senior student to get a one-on-one meeting with them.” When she applied for a personal interview, she was given an appointment six months off.
Then she learned about James Ford, the Zen teacher at the Henry David Thoreau (“we call it ‘Hank’”) Zen Community in Newton. Once a month, James offered dokusan to anyone who wished to attend, whether they belonged to the center or not. That was one appeal. Something else also struck her during her first visit to Hank – the chanting of the Five Reminders.
- I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
- I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.
- I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
- All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
- My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.
“That grabbed me. You know? Here’s a group of people that face facts. I found that very appealing.”
Slowly she began a regular practitioner at Hank. I asked if it gave her a clarity about things, and she said, “More like a visceral sense of direction, that this was something I wanted to do.”
Further Zen Conversations: 92-93; 140-41.