“You Have to Burn Through It”: Remembering Robert Hall

I first met Robert Hall in an interview room at Spirit Rock, during the February part of the 2-month retreat in 2000. I had just started practice there the previous summer, and this was my first long silent retreat. I had found my way to Insight Meditation the way lots of folks did, by stumbling across Jack Kornfield’s book, A Path With Heart on a friend’s bookshelf. By 1999 I had been struggling with Zen for a few years, and while my Roshi’s ongoing misconduct was making things worse, the more internal part of my struggle was the sense that I wasn’t getting anywhere in meditation.

I hadn’t felt truly successful at even the few koan I had “answered,” and the basics of focus and distraction were still out of my grasp. My mind was a mess, much as it always had been. In my Zen lineage, instructions were infrequent and abstract. The most concrete instruction was around posture. We were told to keep our eyes open, and down, and to sit without slumping or moving, even slightly. Hands in cosmic mudrā with the tips of the thumbs touching just enough to keep a piece of paper in place, without wrinkling it. When your mind wanders or you slip toward sleep, your thumbs are the canary. As for the mind, when I asked Joshu Roshi once what to do about thoughts and distraction, he said, “Oh, I don’t know.” You’re on your own, kid.

So on a quiet spring afternoon in Boulder, visiting a friend, I pulled Jack’s book off a shelf. The mind was like a puppy, he wrote, and needs to be firmly but lovingly trained. No matter how many times it runs off, bring it back to the breath and body. These instructions, which I now think of as so basic they’re almost not worth saying (though they totally are), reminded me of something I didn’t know I’d forgotten, or hadn’t really learned in the first place: I could actually do something to change my experience.

Zen, with all its hair-on-fire effort, hadn’t ever given me the sense that I could get a handle on my mind. After all, if I’m nothing other than a spontaneous display of impersonal phenomena appearing and disappearing by themselves, isn’t trying to control thoughts and feelings similarly futile? “Illusory dreams, flowers in the sky,” Rinzai reminds us, “Why trouble to grasp at them?”

The Zen mystery, technically correct in its rigorous philosophy that you can’t find or attain your always already here and now true nature because there is nothing to attain and nobody to attain it, shimmered through the looking-glass as a spiritualized version of my childhood trauma: everything that matters is fundamentally outside my control. Jack’s sweet puppy-training image was not only a much kinder meditation instruction than any I’d gotten in Zen, it was more instruction period. And it made me feel like I could actually do it. That feeling is everything, as it turns out.

I did a 5-day retreat at Spirit Rock that summer, and though I was confused at first by teachers who were actually nice — it took me a while to trust that they weren’t hiding keisaku [the Zen student-whacking stick] under their shawls — I immediately felt like the practice they offered there could really help me. I did a 10-day that fall, and signed up for the next 2-month retreat, which turned out to be the first one. It was clear that despite the fact that — through my Zen-baked eyes — the meditation hall was a riot of disorder, both of cushions and postures, and most of my fellow students didn’t seem to understand that sitting was a war of attrition with Old Yama, the god of death, there was something happening here. And so, a week into the 2-month retreat, I went in for my first interview with Dr. Robert Hall.

B&W photo of Robert Hall in a dapper hat with eyes closed, with a partial smile
Robert Hall in 2012, photo by Robert Salzman

I didn’t know anything about him. Only much later I learned that he had been one of the founders of gestalt psychology, a student of Fritz Perls and Ida Rolf, and part of the spiritual Wild Bunch that had floated around the Esalen cliffs and hot tubs in the 1970s. That he’d hosted some of the first Insight Meditation retreats at his house, with Jack, Joseph Goldstein, and Sharon Salzberg, all of whom were 10 years his junior. He had done men’s work with Michael Meade and Robert Bly, opened a low-fee therapy clinic that’s still going (The Lomi School), and what all else! He was a poet too, of course.

The Spirit Rock interview rooms are bland, in a comfortable way, and there’s no formality or rituals built into the teacher-student meeting. I never lost the habit of bowing, though, and being fresh out of Zen I’m sure I bowed rather formally to Robert when I came in. He smiled. Robert’s smile had something like bemused affection as its primary tone. I want to say that it was the smile of someone who’s seen everything and just doesn’t complain anymore. His face was friendly, soft, and his eyes bright.

I don’t remember what we talked about that first meeting, but over the weeks I came to trust his listening and responses, I think because I could tell that they weren’t just a refrain like “Stay with the breath,” and also weren’t what I was already coming to expect at Spirit Rock: “Be kinder to yourself and don’t try so hard.” Both are good advice, but his was different. It had an edge, a wildness. If I’d known his lineage, maybe I would have sussed him out quicker, but it’s great that I didn’t. I would have tried to perform something, and somehow I knew I didn’t have to perform anything with him.

One day, a few weeks in, I was feeling super quiet and sweet, and just sat in the chair, looking into his eyes. I think I wanted something, as always, but not much, and was maybe as comfortable in my own skin as I ever got in those days. I was mostly doing soft then, and dressed pretty femme. Hippy guy in his Saturn Return. Coming from the dance world, I hadn’t worn anything firmer than silky wide-legged pants for years, just doubling them up on colder days, and on this morning they were spring green. I wore spaghetti-strap tank tops I found in dance studio free boxes and my hair in two curly pigtails. I think at that retreat I even had this salmon silk shawl I was using as a sun shade, basically wearing it like a head scarf. So I’ve floated in for my interview with Robert, dressed like this, with nothing to report, and we just look at each other for a while. He eventually says, “What are you aware of?” Just in that moment I’d been seeing the reflection of the window behind me on his pupils, so I said, “I’m watching the lights in your eyes.” He says, “I see the light in yours.” And we just sit for a while.

I’m sure I hadn’t ever sat and held eye contact with an adult man as long as with him that day. At some point I say that I feel like a flower, and later, as I get up to leave, he catches my eye once more and says, “You are a flower.” Pedagogically, this wasn’t so different from the koan from Joshu Roshi I had tried so hard to solve for all those years: “What is your true nature when looking at a flower?” I got it immediately, both the Dharma teaching and the feeling of being seen by an elder man with more power in his gaze than anyone I’d known, maybe including old Joshu. And I floated out the door.

Robert saw my queerness, my misfit-ness, my still searching for a personality comfortable enough I could wear it in public, and he saw the confusion and desperation that powered my practice in those days. Near the end of the month, in one of the last interviews I had with him, I described to him what I would now recognize as freeze, the nervous system remnant of an ancient fear, as a barrier between my body and the world that protects but also smothers. I said it was like a rubbery, transparent film covering my whole being, and nothing I was doing, no matter how fiercely I tried, seemed able to pierce it, break through it, cut it open. He leaned in and said almost in a whisper, “You’ll never break through it.” I wilted in my seat. I knew that. “You have to burn through it.” I wilted even more. Because I knew that too. The cure for depression was passion. I had to want to be free with a kind of inner heat before this old caul could melt away. Dammit. I had always hoped that passion would be a side-effect of healing and liberation, not the other way around: a necessary condition for healing and liberation to arise.

But I got it, the transmission from the old gestalt trickster. I had to figure out, somehow, how to burn through it. I had no idea how to do this. Robert set me up to interview with Jack that March, and I went back to the 2-month retreat the following year as well, and the year after that. My sitting got softer, my patience deepened ever so slightly, and my poems matured from romantic to modern. I started to care about transforming my life for real, not just about performing it well.

In late summer of 2001, I borrowed a bare-bones adobe cottage from some friends in northern New Mexico who agreed to buy my groceries for 6 weeks, and went into a solitary retreat. Robert had agreed to be my interview teacher, and we had a date for a weekly phone call on Wednesdays. I decided I wanted to do a mettā retreat, so settled in to my phrases and began as I’d been taught, with self. “May I be safe… May I be happy…” All day, every day.

Weeks passed. Our check in calls were simple, kind. He wanted to know if I was happy, if I was enjoying the solitude. He didn’t ask much about the formal practice. One day, sitting on the back steps listening to songbirds chatter in the huge grey cottonwood behind the cottage while we talked, he asked as always how I was doing. I said everything was fine, but that for a couple days I had been feeling this deep sadness, like there was so much cruelty in the world, almost too much to bear. The afternoon was as gorgeous as they get in the Sangre de Cristo mountains, warm and still. I can feel it now as I write.

He paused and said, “I wasn’t sure if I was going to say something to you, but since you’re sensing this, I have some news…” and he paused. It was September 12, 2001. He told me the barest outline of what had happened the morning before, and we decided that I didn’t need to come out of retreat because of it, but that I would shift my phrases from lovingkindness to compassion. He said that me walking through the arroyos doing compassion for all beings was probably the most useful thing I could do that week anyway. I thanked him for telling me, sent love to everyone, and walked out into the silent hills, tattered scarf around my head.

The compassion phrases morph the basic quality of unconditional kindness, mettā, into karuna, kindness meeting distress. “May all beings be free from pain. May all suffering be eased.” While the rest of the country watched the same horrible images again and again, I sat under the cottonwood and in the little shrine room I’d made, said my phrases, and walked every day across dusty red earth, the voice of my teacher in my ears. “It’s real…” he had said, “the cruelty you’re tuning into.” Grief at the violence of this world is an appropriate response.

Practice and the slow growth of maturity and insight doesn’t mean you stop seeing illusory dreams, flowers in the sky, forms changing constantly in flickering light, beautiful and horrible in rhythmic oscillation, and though it’s taken me a long time to figure out how this is true, it also doesn’t mean that you feel them less. Turns out you feel them more. But with a different kind of… heat behind the seeing.

Robert was already in the process of moving to Todos Santos, down at the tip of Baja, with his partner, where he lived and taught the last 20 years of his life in the warm sun, and I saw him just a few more times after that. I never got to do formal practice with him again. He died this September 20, 2019, a few months after his friend Claudio Naranjo, another of Fritz Perls’ brilliant spiritual heirs. He remains in my heart one of the most sensitive and beautiful teachers I ever got to work with, and the queer Buddhist poet elder I didn’t know I was missing until he became mine.

Tibetan circular mandala image indicating the compass directions overlayed with title and logistics for 12.15.19 class.

Honoring our teachers is one of what the Buddha called Honoring the Six Directions. Next Sunday I’ll be at EBMC exploring the beautiful discourse, Advice to Sigālaka (DN 31), that teaches this practice, an embodied inquiry into the distinct kinds of relationships that comprise our families and communities. Through practice in this way, we grow in gratitude and forgiveness, and deepen on the path of Right Action in the world.

More info & registration here.

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