With virtually no prompting, Marinda de Beer reviews her early biography, born in South Africa, family moved to Canada when she was 11. Raised in the Methodist/United tradition but pulled away from Christianity when in college, rejecting the concept of God as a judgmental male figure. A 20-year career as a stage manager in Toronto. Happened upon Steve Hagen’s books Buddhism: Plain and Simple and Buddhism Is Not What You Think It Is. The books, she tells me, “came to her”; however, she skipped the chapter about meditation in the latter because she didn’t consider herself disciplined enough to take up the practice.
“Then about thirteen/fourteen years ago, I got to a point where I was very stressed. I wasn’t happy. And I read that book again; I read the meditation chapter this time, and it suggested sitting with people.”
“Why were you feeling stressed?” I ask.
“Why was I stressed? Well, now I think if I look back, it was because I wasn’t paying any attention to my own needs. I wasn’t paying very much attention to my own authenticity. I had basically given myself over to my career and my family. And the idea of sitting and meditating and being with myself, I was doing the opposite of that in the way I was living my life pretty much. You know, with all the right intentions. And I was thinking, ‘I gotta do yoga; I gotta exercise.’ Well, that wasn’t me. I just didn’t believe I was that kind of a person. And also, the theatre world, you’re working approximately sixty hours a week, six days a week And I’m raising two children. I get one day off a week. Like, when do you want me to exercise? It wasn’t happening. So I decided to try meditating. I immediately googled my area, found a place, went and sat twice with four random people on a Wednesday afternoon, enough to get some instructions on ‘just sitting’ – zazen basically – and was doing a show that was touring to Vancouver, and the director of my show had been sitting in the Zen group for many years. And I remember going into his hotel room and saying, ‘Yeah, I’ve started to meditate.’ And I looked over and his cushion was setting against the wall, and he said, ‘Yeah, that’s where I sit.’ And I was like, ‘Oh?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I sit facing the wall.’ And I was like, ‘What!?’ ’Cause I was sitting on my bed with my cushions. And he sent me a couple of videos from – I don’t know – a sangha somewhere in the States. What I remember from them is that our thoughts are clouds, and can we sit and imagine these clouds passing. And I’ll never forget that image ’cause I just understood it, and it became the basis of my sitting. And I sat every day – not very long, but I sat – and very quickly my life started to change. Within two weeks, I’d say my stress level was reduced by 25%. I could feel a difference in myself.”
“You’re still practising by yourself at this point?” I ask. “Even though the Hagen book said to sit with other?”
“Still by myself. And I started to dialogue with this friend who had been sitting for a long time, and very quickly I was asking him questions which were beyond his capability to be able to help me. I was saying, ‘Okay, these emotions are coming up, but if emotions are just . . .’ I mean, my world was exploding all of a sudden in trying to understand this new perspective on what was going on inside me. And he said, I think you need to talk to Patrick, my teacher.”
Patrick is Patrick Gallagher of Oak Tree in the Garden in Toronto.
“So Patrick and I made a date to meet in the park near Loblaw’s grocery store, and it was August, and we sat on a bench, and I kind of told him what was going on with me and what I was doing. And he kind of talked me through a little bit of technique. You know, just physical technique and also what I was doing when I was sitting. And then he said, ‘I think you would be a pretty good candidate for our group that starts in September.’ And I had just that year left stage management and had tried to go into administration which actually meant I had my evenings free, which hadn’t happened in eighteen years. So, again, it was like, ‘Oh! Perfect. For the first time in my life, I’m actually free on a Wednesday night, and I’m being invited to sit with this group on a Wednesday night.’ And – you know – thus began my journey with Zen.”
Through koan work, Marinda had an opening experience. Tradition holds that people not speak about these or koan work, so I put the question generally, asking if it had made a difference. She doesn’t answer immediately but eventually says, “It made a big difference, and it made no difference.” She pauses again. “I wasn’t able to hang onto it very long. I tried my best, but I came back to the city, and I came back to my life, and – you know – all that happened. And so, in a way, it didn’t. But there is something about, for example, this idea that the opposite of everything is always true. These kinds of concepts for me . . . I think what it did was, it deepened my faith. And my faith is what makes me trust sitting and the truth and wisdom that everything is unfolding as it should. Faith in my journey, even if it has all kinds of suffering. It’s not about everything turning out great, and it’s not about me being ‘happy.’ It’s about it being as it should. And I do think my opening was one in which I understood that on a very deep level in that moment, or in the period of those days, there was a wisdom I already had but didn’t have access to. So this is, for me, a really big thing. The act of sitting every day helps me access something that’s already inside of me, a wisdom that I have. But there’s all this noise that comes. The things that in Buddhism we call attachments are the things that cause our suffering, but also our belief systems, our emotions, all this stuff is noise that can cloud our wisdom of trusting that everything is unfolding as it should, which allows me to accept what is happening. And if I can accept what is happening, then I’m not suffering.”