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Lately I have been thinking about some true life stories of women who have tackled the tough task of leaving it all behind and embarking on incredible journeys of self-discovery. I stumbled upon a book I once loved and it got me thinking that I’ve always loved these stories and soaked them up like great fiction. But in these cases, the stories are documented and real, and here are just a few I highly recommend.

on-the-way-to-satori1On the Way to Satori was written by Gerta Ital, a German-born actress who entered a Japanese Zen Buddhist monastery late in life. She recorded her experiences in two books, The Master, the Monks and I: A Western Woman’s Experience of Zen, and the one I read: On the Way to Satori: A Woman’s Experience of Enlightenment. Both books were published in German in the mid-1960s, but were not translated into English until much later. She recounted the physically and emotionally harsh conditions of being the first Western woman admitted to a Zen monastery.

sorcerers-crossingThen there is The Sorcerer’s Crossing: A Woman’s Journey written by Taisha Abelar with a forward by Carlos Castaneda. Abelar, an anthropologist, recalls the mysterious and mystical journey which took her on many leaps of faith into the world of sorcery. In the late 60s, she was sketching in the mountains around Tucson, Arizona when she met a Mexican woman named Clara Grau. With intensity, gravity and fortitude, Grau convinced Abelar to visit her house in Sonora, Mexico– right then, and right there. Facing her own feelings of being directionless and confused about her future, she went. What followed was a powerful entry into a family of sorcerers which produced powerful healers and wisepeople like Castaneda.

eatprayloveAnd more recently, Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert hit a major nerve with women seeking purpose, meaning and real clarity in their lives. Though she didn’t shave her head or become inducted into a secret world of magic, Gilbert did have life-changing moment after moment in a global trek which spanned Italy, India and Bali.

The bottom line with all these fine reads is that the real experiences of these brave women have produced books that are as mesmerizing, surprising, enchanting and deeply inspiring as any novel you could crawl into. Check them out.

Zen Master Seung Sahn

Zen Master Seung Sahn

Back in the mid-90s, I was in my mid-twenties and living in Hollywood. For the most part, I had no idea why I was there or what I was going to do. All I knew was that my mother had just passed away and most of my friends from Emerson College were working in one capacity or another in the film business. So I made the decision to drive my seafoam green Mazda from Austin to L.A. to find out what to do next.

I ended up living two blocks from Melrose Avenue in a very quaint “Melrose Place” type efficiency apartment. I did some PR, read screenplays and took temp assignments at various studios. It was fun, but somewhat silly at times and definitely at odds with my aspirations to be a serious spiritual student and creative. I was always very unclear about my creative path, but crystal clear about the need to find meaning and purpose in my life.

Then one day I did something very simple. I picked up the phone, dialed 411 and asked the operator for the number for Dharma. And you know what? She gave it to me. She gave me the number for the Dharma Zen Center which happened to be a few blocks away from me. Now, if you know anything at all about Los Angeles, having a convenient drive anywhere is a miracle in and of itself.

So the next evening, I went there to sit. I was not prepared for the enthusiastic and complicated Korean chanting, but I fell in love with it almost instantly. This began a very intense and joyful chapter of my life. It was also a strange and wonderful backdrop to working in a city that sort of chewed up and spit people like me out. The irony of my peaceful evenings juxtaposed against my super-stressful days of being “the assistant” or “temp” or “reader” was certainly not lost on me. In fact, I felt like this place provided a perfect balance to what I was trying to accomplish in the material world.

I was then introduced to the teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn. To me, his pictures made him look like a kindly grandfather, a very happy Buddha. He was not intimidating at all, but radiant and joyful. I had the opportunity to mediate, sit and eat with Dae Soen Sa Nim and I consider myself extremely privileged to have been among such a enlightened and pure soul, however brief.

But what impressed me most about the Dharma Zen Center was the people I met and practiced with and the intense loving care that everyone put into deeply connecting to their true nature. It was refreshing.

The inner journey can seem very scary at times, and confusing. But within the walls of Dharma Zen Center, there was friendship, reality and safety. I enjoyed being a layperson among monks and nuns and I actually lived in the center for a few months sharing house duties like cooking and cleaning the altar. By the time I left I knew every chant by heart, and many of the customs of this very rich tradition. I thought I would learn a lot, but I suppose what really happened was that I remembered a lot.

I found out that my body was strong (108 prostrations every morning at 4:30 a..m. sure helps); that my mind was strong (I could sit for two hours and look at the floor without freaking out); my spirit was strong (I could sense a deep connection with people and sounds and the natural world which I had never experienced before); and my heart was strong (I knew love was the center of it all and that the way of compassion was a deep truth I had been longing to understand).

Here are some books by and about Master Seung Sahn, the champion of “I don’t know.” What a beautiful thing to let go of needing to know it all and moving in the direction of being.

Dropping Ashes on the Buddha

Only Don’t Know: Selected Teaching Letters of Zen Master Seung Sahn

And there is a wonderful documentary about Dae Soen Sa Nim called Wake Up! On the Road with a Zen Master. Here’s a clip:

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