Saturday, March 18, 2017

Autism and Zen: Interview with author Anlor Davin

Book Cover FrontWhile researching autism and zen practice I found a link to an amazing book and woman and autistic zen circle and practice.

The book is Being Seen, and the woman Anlor Davin, and her story is worth reading and I recommend the book as a way of understanding more about autism and how a meditation practice can help with surviving in a noisy and chaotic world.

RAVEN: You said you do 2 hrs sitting a day. Is that all at once or separated, night, morning, when stressed?

ANLOR: First of all, nobody is behind you watching and counting how long you sit, it is totally your own business. I personally sit 2 hours first thing each morning as this is the time I feel best and less stressed. Please always remember that five minutes sitting by a beginner is easily the equal of any two hours by an experienced sitter. Without this sitting practice I could not function as well the rest of the day. In fact, the more I am stressed and tired after having gone outside during the day, the more difficult I find it to sit! I do most of my sitting first thing in the mornings, before I have eaten anything and done distracting things -like answering emails! Often I break that time down into two periods. The first period lasts usually between sixty and ninety minutes, depending on what needs to be done (for example prepare breakfast, do some exercise and yoga, even answer some Skype calls from my French family as it is the best times for us to talk due to the time zones). Sometimes I sit some more in the evenings, but I find that then I am unable to sit for as long as I do in the morning.

RAVEN: I have never sat Soto Zen. Could you describe the meditation techniques.

ANLOR: The meditation techniques that I, a California resident at the beginning of 2000, have observed or been told about is that no specific focus point is given while one sits zazen. Only the breath, always returning to awareness of the breath.

I –and we- sit zazen while turned toward a non-cluttered wall. The round black cushion one sits on(called a zafu) is black and so is the flat larger mat (zabuton) on which the round cushion is. Chairs are accepted but they are rare in a zen meditation hall. Zen meditation (zazen) is done in silence, very rarely will the leader say anything during zazen. The color black is most often seen in the priest robes. Whether in a chair or on the zafu cross-legged, the spine is erect, the hands are in the lap, the eyes are downcast.

After zazen there is either another period of zazen or other rituals, for example slow walking mediation (kinhin) in shorter periods, dharma talks, and services. And let’s not forget the time to eat, oryoki style, which is also performed in a silent “dance” whose goal, as always, is awareness.

RAVEN: Do you feel sitting Zen as a spiritual practice is different from purely secular meditation?

ANLOR: Yes I do. Zen is made of individuals sitting, both alone and together. The group is called a sangha. I find it of utmost importance to have a sangha and be with others at times. It nourishes and supports my practice at home and without that I would not have been able to sustain my practice, or I might have started to find ways to be distracted (in my experience, guided meditation can do that) and slumped in my posture. When I first started my zen practice 17 years ago there were monks who, by their living example, gave me faith that this practice had a positive effect; It is a zen friend who helped me find proper medical diagnosis of my autism, it is yet another two friends who advised me to start writing a book, and on and on.

RAVEN: Your Autsit retreats in Lake Tahoe sound wonderful. I even liked the social awareness learning that went on. And I do love wilderness. Could you add some comments about them?

ANLOR: On the downside though I have to say that as the organizers, my partner and I run into challenges. For example, we want to keep it affordable, but between the lodgings and the food costs it is not so easy to juggle. We often end up “paying for” it ourselves in one way or another, and we are not rich at all. Also, there is room for only seven people, it is a cabin after all, so as more and more want to participate the limited space becomes another problem.

In order to fill the need for more people and in a more convenient setting I have started to facilitate a monthly meditation group, held at Dominican University in San Rafael, California, for people on the autism and neurodiverse spectrum. See more information about it on my website

RAVEN: For those who haven't read your book could you talk a bit about how you started and the immediate and long term benefits?

ANLOR: My book is called Being Seen and more information about it can be found on my website, I like the short description a friend wrote about it: “Anlor Davin is an author, teacher, mother, French immigrant and a Zen student. She has recently published her book, Being Seen, a memoir about an autistic woman struggling not only to be seen but to be understood and respected. Today Anlor works daily to help people understand autism of the kind that she experiences, and to let people know the value of basic meditative practice in living, and thriving, in autism."

RAVEN: Do you sit with your eyes open or closed and do you feel that makes a difference?

ANLOR: I sit with my eyes downcast and very slightly opened, that’s is the form used in Soto zen. The few times I had my eyes open, like the first minute of a sitting period, I find that I do not “listen inside me” as well and I do not do it at any other times. However I constantly try to sit while I am waiting somewhere in public, and for that my preference seems to be to close my eyes shut…as if shutting them would take away the constantly changing noise! I have never been able to sit very long in such situations, but I have noticed that when the noise remains somewhat stable (for example once I am inside the plane) I have a better chance.

RAVEN: Did the lack of dogma help you to choose Zen?

ANLOR: Yes and no. Yes because I am a person who does not like any kind of external input, neither in guided meditation or in being asked to focus on something outside (for example an image). When I was a child I badly wanted to not talk as much as I did (I was hyperlexic, a condition often seen in autistic children, which felt to me like if I had diarrhea of the mouth).

No because I am not sure I had a choice when I found Zen: I feel extremely grateful to have stumbled upon this practice, which despite –and may be because- of its challenges seems to me the best shortcut to…let’s call it “contentment”.

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