Elizabeth Hamilton

Zen teacher and Untrain Your Parrot author talks about how to wake up to reality

Interviewed by Jon M. Sweeney

Elizabeth Hamilton

Elizabeth Hamilton teaches and lives at the Zen Center of San Diego with her husband and practice partner, Ezra Bayda. She has been a Zen practitioner for thirty years, and teaching since 1992, the same year she and Rosa Parks co-founded the West Coast branch of the Rosa Parks Institute. She leads retreats and Zen programs throughout the United States and Hawaii, Australia, and Canada, including co-leading a retreat at Pema Chödrön’s Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Her first book, Untrain Your Parrot: And Other No-nonsense Instruction on the Path of Zen, was recently published by Shambhala Publications, and selected by Spirituality and Health as the “Best Zen Book of 2007.” She can be reached at www.zencentersandiego.org.

We sat down recently with Elizabeth Hamilton to talk about spiritual practice…

Explorefaith: What first attracted you to Zen practice, Elizabeth?

Elizabeth Hamilton:  Life got too good! By age 25, I had accomplished two of my main goals, teaching at a university and concertizing as a harpsichordist. Yet the seeds of discontent that were churning within me were demanding a hearing. I knew I could keep setting goals and trying to achieve them, yet it was obvious that many of my colleagues were as ill-at-ease as I was, despite successful careers. I was becoming “dis-illusioned” of one of the major illusions, the belief that music and success could be the key to happiness. I began to reflect, does happiness arise from within?

I had already explored various self-help modalities, and looked to Zen as “the court of last resort”. In 1975 at age 33, I signed on at the Zen Center of Los Angeles, while continuing to teach and perform. Three decades later, Zen practice is still front and center at the Zen Center of San Diego.   

Explorefaith: What are your own spiritual practices? Are there certain things that you do daily, weekly, (monthly), annually?

Elizabeth Hamilton:  Since Zen literally means “meditative awareness for the purpose of awakening to reality,” every activity is an opportunity for spiritual practice— provided it is approached with mindful, embodied awareness.

However, without some grounding in still, silent, seated meditation, it’s difficult to learn the lessons of what we might call “the monastery of daily life.” Daily meditation is a direct route for encountering the ground in which the seeds of wakefulness bloom—as well as discovering the ways we blind ourselves to the omnipresent wonder of existence.

In addition to seated meditation, an actual spiritual “exercise” that has been part of Zen from the beginning is mindful movement, such as chi kung, yoga, or tai chi. Bodhidharma, who is credited with founding both Zen and kung fu (a fast moving form of chi kung) at Shaolin Monastery, included chi kung in the monastic regimen as well.

Another of my daily spiritual exercises is the Loving-kindness meditation. Also, almost every month we have retreats at the Zen Center. These provide extended opportunities for reflection, renewal, and intensified mindfulness, open awareness and loving-kindness practice.

Then there’s the path of service. Currently hospice volunteering and Rosa Parks Institute activities are my primary involvements. Service practice helps us appreciate the interconnectedness of our lives, as well as bringing us face to face with our inevitable resistance which, unaddressed, leads to burnout and usurps our wish to give back to life.

Explorefaith: Your new book—Untrain Your Parrot—is really warm and lighthearted. Is that how you approach your spirituality? I’ve also heard about some very serious Zen teachers, stories of students being walloped with sticks to keep them awake during long meditation sessions—that sort of thing. Is that sort of seriousness part of your practice, too?

Untrain Your Parrot: And Other No-nonsense Instructions on the Path of Zen by Elizabeth HamiltonElizabeth Hamilton:  Seriousness and lightheartedness seem to be two sides of the spiritual coin. Obviously, spiritual practice and life in general can be arduous at times, as the extensiveness of the “Disheartenment” section in Untrain Your Parrot attests. Seriousness of intent doesn’t imply stoicism or somberness; rather, it’s making efforts to stay awake and aware. Retreats and simply sitting still for a period of time can be quite difficult even without external whacks; the jolts provided by life itself, as well as seeing into our own minds, can be strong motivators.

Enigmatically, as our sincere determination to awaken is refreshed regularly, lightness of heart can flower. Part of the path that unifies the apparent dichotomy of seriousness and lightheartedness is learning to approach both the easy and difficult things, with compassionate awareness. It’s invaluable to have had some training in this when things heat up. For example, within the last month I was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy.

Unexpected occurrences like this help us understand why spiritual practice has to take us to places we may not want to go. In the solitude of meditation, we discover how much unnecessary suffering is added when our deluded views run rampant. It can be shocking at first to see the extent of our upside-down way of looking at things—and the consequences. Yet as we go through the process, we find that seriousness and lightheartedness can conspire together to enlighten the excess baggage that can make things seem so unworkable. When we see some of the nutty things we think and do, a sense of humor is bound to cut in eventually.

By the way, losing a breast is a pointed reminder of the need for keeping abreast—that is, of staying attuned to what matters most. We humans seem to need regular reminders to continue exploring what nurtures aspiration and determination.

Explorefaith: Thank you for sharing that with us. Can you now tell us, from your perspective, what are the qualities of an ideal human being? Christianity has the ideal of sainthood. In Judaism, there’s the notion of being a mensch. Is there some sort of equivalent in the Zen tradition? What is such a person like?

Elizabeth Hamilton:  Zen founder Bodhidharma referred to Zen as “a teaching not relying on writings or preaching, pointing directly to heart-mind”—that is, the mind that resides in the heart. So we might say that the “ideal” of Zen training is “awakening heart-mind” in terms of compassion, clear seeing, loving-kindness and clear thinking. Zen’s Three Primary Precepts also point to some of the fundamentals that enable heart-mind to come alive: refraining from harm, functioning beneficially, and vowing to awaken to the interconnectedness of existence, not just conceptually, but as a living reality.

One reason we say “practice” is that it takes a lot of practice, and skillful effort, to move from bright ideas into the nitty gritty of walking the walk. Having ideals is tricky territory, since some of them can lead us into a kind of false hope that readily defaults into false hopelessness or discouragement— particularly when we think that we, or others, have fallen short.

Explorefaith:   In Untrain Your Parrot, I found your discussion of “not knowing” very interesting. It kind of reminded me of the Catholic mystics who talk about the “dark night of the soul.” Do you think they’re similar? What do you mean by “not knowing” and why can that be a good thing?

Elizabeth Hamilton: While I’m not a spiritual genius like St. John of the Cross, most of my dark nights have been precipitated when things I thought I knew, or could count on, fell through the cracks. These dark nights are part of what W. H. Auden calls “watching our illusions die,” and at such times it can seem as if the lights have gone out— particularly if we’re still convinced that our small mind, or ego, can figure out the big questions. It can’t, and holding this notion exacerbates our suffering, and keeps us caught in the painful side of not knowing. It seems that all our misguided assumptions must be seen for what they are—delusions that don’t serve any purpose other than keeping us caught in waking sleep.

Zen reminds us that the dark nights are wake-up calls that encourage us to enter the realm of Great Doubt, one of Zen’s primary tenets, along with Great Faith and Great Determination. It seems that learning to abide in the doubt and dark nights, experientially and objectively, is a precondition for entering into the profound “not knowing” that is a doorway into the mystery and miracle of our heart’s deepest request.

Explorefaith:   Zen strikes me as being really down-to-earth sometimes, and then not so much at other times. For instance, you talk a lot about simple things like walking meditation and sitting meditation, but then you also throw in concepts like “The whole world is your body.” Is practicing Zen kind of like going to school, in that you need to start with the simple stuff and then graduate to more advanced classes?

Elizabeth Hamilton: It’s all simple stuff—which doesn’t mean it’s always easy. The down-to-earthness is what helps seemingly arcane-sounding things like “The whole world is your body,” bloom organically, moving from theory into a living reality.

Practicing presence is what allows the false Jericho walls of ego-centeredness to come tumbling down. As our fears and protectedness are investigated compassionately, we can open increasingly into sensed awareness of our interconnectedness with everyone and everything. Things may look different, but that doesn’t mean they’re separate. 

Most traditions include certain statements that thwart the rational mind’s insistence on staying in the driver’s seat. For instance, John Donne said “As s/he that fears God hears nothing else, so, s/he that sees God sees every thing else.” Donne’s reference to fear reminds us of the need for spiritual tools to help clarify our fear-based emotions and thinking, one of the main obstacles to clear seeing.

Since Zen says “This is Nirvana” and Christianity claims that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, lines like this invite us to bring physically-grounded awareness to whatever the moment presents. This may sound obvious and simple, and we may think we’re usually right here, but staying present is arguably the hardest thing of all. It requires learning to decline our favorite temptations: intellectualizing, judging, burrowing into our archaeological dig of memories, and taking flight in future fantasies.

Explorefaith:  A lot of religious leaders don’t like it that people of other faith traditions dabble in their spiritual practices. What do you think of Christians, or Jews, or people of other traditions, who want to add a little Zen practice to their usual spiritual lives?

Elizabeth Hamilton: You’ve just described a fair number of the participants at Zen Center San Diego. Many are involved in other traditions, or are agnostics. We also have some Buddhists!

ZCSD is nondenominational, so the emphasis is on the universal, experiential aspects of the path of awakening applicable to those of many beliefs, or none. If particular religious beliefs or predilections speak to a participant, there’s plenty of room for them in the spaciousness of the moment. I’m grateful to Fr. Brian Taylor, whose teaching and books have been mentioned on the explorefaith W eb site. He has encouraged my trans-denominations inclinations, and invited me to facilitate some retreats with his Christian Zen meditation group.  

Perhaps Zen is a bit like fertilizer, helping to cultivate the seeds of awakening that are inherent in all beings, and midwifing them as they emerge into the light of day.

Explorefaith:   Do you dabble?

Elizabeth Hamilton: Can we say “partake”? I make personal retreats at Prince of Peace Abbey and Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside, both Roman Catholic retreat houses. And I’ve attended retreats with Thich Nhat Hanh over a period of almost three decades. I’ve also explored much of the gamut of psycho-spiritual modalities.

Attending retreats elsewhere is particularly valuable, since it’s possible to participate invisibly, rather than choreographing things. There’s much to learn in unfamiliar territory—which, as it turns out, is a code name for the present moment—always new, always a call into not knowing.

When Ezra and I travel, we go to churches and temples to attend services and meditate, especially the Loving-kindness meditation. This meditation, in conjunction with practices that help shed light in the shadow regions, invites us to awaken to the compassion and insight that are inherent in what Zen calls our true nature, and Christianity calls the Kingdom within.


Untrain Your Parrot: And Other No-nonsense Instructions on the Path of Zen by Elizabeth Hamilton

To learn more about Elizabeth's book Untrain Your Parrot, visit  amazon.com.

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