Les Schaffer

Les worked for many years with Toni Packer and was encouraged by her to share the work of meditative inquiry with others. Les writes about himself:

How do you invite someone to drop what they’re doing, put aside their day to day responsibilities, activities, favorite haunts and friends, arrange with family and colleagues to get along without their presence, and hop in — or on — a car, train, plane, skateboard, or broom, in order to join unspecified others in three days of quiet sitting?

There are many such invitations. I’ll give you the one I just received: the oak tree at the bottom of the southeast slope. It’s a massive tree, growing just southeast and below the Center’s main building, wide at the trunk, and full of branches you couldn’t get your arms around. If we go down there with a rake, we can expose some of the upper roots, but one has the feeling they run very deep and out of sight. This tree will greet the rising sun with a salute to the eastern hills. Come midday in July all the blackbirds will be singing the oak-tree song. At night, the tree will stand bathed in a waxing moon till a few hours after midnight. By 3 AM your eyes will have to be very quiet just to see the tree’s outline. In thunderstorms, its great canopy will dance and shake. On a still day, oak will make you forget the very nature of motion. People come from all over to ask the tree their deepest questions. The tree will speak to our queries, but in a language yet to be fully deciphered. And it doesn’t change its tune when we decline its invitation. It is a tree to behold.

A “bit” about myself and my relationship to meditation and inquiry.

A giant tree once spoke to me as a little child; as an adult I created a computer encryption passphrase from a saying I made up in its honor. In 1973 I quit college after successfully completing my freshman year. One song from that period sticks in my head, “What Am I Living For?”, by The Mark-Almond Band. Venturing further from what seemed like a well-worn way, within a year I joined an affiliate of the Rochester Zen Center and did a few sesshins with Philip Kapleau. I recall being very tight-lipped at that time: one of my Zen mentors even suggested I learn to use my words as part of the meditative work. In 1975 I returned to finish college at MIT, and by the late 70’s I was doing sesshins with Toni Packer, who I had taken a shine to from the moment I spotted her in my first sesshin with Roshi Kapleau. Adrift in a sea of words and practices I did not understand, Toni’s smile and gleaming eyes spoke more clearly to me. In the early 80’s I went to grad school to get a PhD in applied mathematics and astrophysics at Cornell, splitting my free time between climbing mountains in the Pacific Northwest and doing retreats first at Camp Onanda and then at the new retreat center in Springwater. While on a post-doc in London in the late 80’s I opted to attend a springtime retreat. One evening some chirping insects under the oak tree convinced me to step back — once again — from academia and a short time later I joined the Springwater staff. Living at the Center from 1989 through 1994, I spent some of the best years of my life devouring retreats, hauling firewood and mowing fields, making new friends. I credit Toni with getting me to start “using my words”, although I have no idea how she accomplished such a great feat. I do remember sitting quietly with her, being comfortable not speaking.

Unlike our oak, Toni did once directly answer a question I asked her towards the end of my stay on staff. I then spent the better part of two decades far from the Center and its retreats making sense of what she said.

Up till recently I taught physics full time at the local university. Now I split my time between part-time teaching, physics research, and co-managing a consulting business. In the latter capacity, I work on various medical, engineering, and software projects. I am currently working on two projects. One has as its goal to provide better ways to limit hospital acquired infections. A second involves instrumenting a classical harpsichord with electronic sensors, actuators, and control system software. The system allows musicians at McGill University in Canada to study the nature of the instrument’s unique musical expressiveness given the subtleties of human touch on the keys.

So for what did I live these past 40+ years? I’ve been dragged kicking and screaming to accept an unbridled curiosity that takes me off the beaten path, to look under the hood to better understand appearances. This used to get me in trouble with people, until I realized to what end words can be used. I came to see how keeping silent was a way to stay comfortable inside a box, a constructed box, a disposable box. It just occured to me that the extent to which I exit my own boxes, I’ve eased up trying to knock down the defenses of others to gain intimacy. I came to trust what I always suspected, the meaninglessness of separating the various strands of life. Reading a neuroscience article suddenly evokes a curiosity about the mind, and I’m sitting in a coffeehouse meditating, recognizing the faces of people I do not know. Sitting quietly in meditation, some challenge at work may suddenly resolve. If I think — or someone else tells me — that meditation causes X or a meditative experience means Y, I’ll think about the evidence rationally, scientifically, as well as directly/introspectively. Making my bed in the morning, the words and practices I had once drifted through during my time in Zen made sense as the palm of my hand smoothed out the soft cotton sheet in a simple stroke. With the greying of my beard my intensity has begun morphing into a quiet certainty that I never thought could be mine.

So … I personally favor unstructured meditation that goes along with a curiosity that unmasks even my very self. Yet I delight in discussing whatever is one’s favorite method or approach to meditation, perhaps because I seek the method to my madness. I have always been curious about people, and their inquiries, ideals, and expectations. Lately I’ve been thinking and pondering quite a bit about the various forms of resistance that arise in meditation and in retreats. I find myself listening to fatigue, anger, anxiety, and depression with new ears. My own meditation motto is meager and simple, “try all you want, but by all means fail”. When I ask myself how I can best lead a retreat, my eyes moisten and I think to myself: “don’t interfere with the oak tree song”.

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