Wendy Egyoku Nakao
According to Zen Buddhist Wendy Egyoku Nakao, life is not a straight line, or even a circle—it’s a spiral. In this fascinating conversation, we go deep about living in the present while recognizing past experiences, developing “spiritual muscles,” and the importance of choice.
You’ve been in LA for a long time now.
It’s a daunting city to get to know. You really have to work at it. You know, everybody who has transplanted here, for whatever reason, will tell you that being in LA made them search for a spiritual path.
You can become very isolated and alienated here because it’s hard to connect. It’s hard to find your grooves in this city unless you grow up here. But once people do get to know LA, then the city opens up in different ways. And you know, LA has the most spiritual groups in the whole world.
Why is that?
I think part of it is that LA is fundamentally a really open city. It’s open hearted and open minded. So, religions get created here. Art is very experimental here. It’s very open. People aren’t busy censoring each other. I think that kind of openness is very unique to a city.
Do you remember your first week in LA?
Yes I do. I came on January 1, 1978. I had taken a sabbatical from my job to come to this center [Zen Center of Los Angeles], for four months or six months. I arrived on New Year’s Day when the center was closed because they had just finished a big retreat and everybody was taking a little break. So I just took that first week to settle into the center more than into Los Angeles.
What brought you to the center?
I was interested in doing Zen practice. At the time, I was going to college in Washington State and I had gotten into Zen meditation. A friend of mine had brought me a flyer from the Zen Center that said, “Zen living ain’t easy. Here are three-month intensive retreats you can do.” I thought, “I want to do that.” So I applied for a sabbatical and that’s how I came down here.
You’ve said before that your Zen practice started because of a bet.
Somebody challenged me that I couldn’t sit still and be quiet for a week. I said, “Okay!” It was only a $50 bet. But something had already stirred in me about it. I had been taking a Japanese architecture class. At the time, I was married to my first husband and we had planned a trip to Japan, so I took a summer class to learn about the architecture. The trip never materialized but it just so happened that the professor was also a Zen practitioner. He mentioned that there was a Zen master coming from Japan to lead a seven-day retreat on a little island off the southern coast of Seattle. So I told him that I was very interested, and he said, “Sure.” He may have thought that because I have an Asian face I knew something about it, but I knew nothing. [Laughs]
Then I went home to tell my husband. His best friend, who was visiting, said, “I bet you couldn’t sit still and be quiet for a whole week.” And I said, “Okay, well, I'm going.”
And something big happened after that.
Something big happened when I was sitting in that retreat. I realized that I had no clue as to what my life was about and who I was. I was clueless.
When I was very young I had a deep interest in spiritual things, but it never got explored. Our religious upbringing, so to speak, was totally neglected but I always had these brilliant questions about it. That’s how it was reignited—me sitting quietly there for a week, and asking the question, “Wow, what is my life about?” It was such a powerful feeling.
I went home after that and told my husband I was going to leave him, because I was clueless about who I was and what my life is about. Something just awoke inside me.
Do you think American culture makes people ask themselves who they are?
You know, Americans are real seekers. I feel that strongly. I wouldn’t say we’re deeply religious people, but we’re certainly seekers in that way. Certainly the people who come to the Zen Center have tried many different things, whether they were raised in a particular faith or not. They’ve been looking all their lives, it seems.
Can we ever really find what we’re “looking for,” or do we accept that we are ever-changing beings?
In Zen, we say, “You are already what you’re seeking.” Right? Yet we have to go on this journey. It seems to be a very human impulse, to realize who we are and to find our place in the world. So I think that’s a very deep instinctual thing that awakens for some people.
I find that sometimes people come to the Zen Center because this question has always been alive for them, but they’ve never really had a chance to explore it because of family or work, or other things that are pressing for them. Some people start to really question things when something happens in their life… a traumatic event, losing a loved one, losing a job or home. When life doesn’t seem as stable as it did before, then the questioning begins. Then, there are those who come because they want self-improvement. Of course, it really isn’t about self-improvement, but that can be the catalyst to start.
It’s not that we don’t change, but we learn to accept who we are in a very, very deep way.
That’s interesting. People can justify an action or behavior by saying, “Well, that’s just who I am.” Does that mean you have accepted who you are, or have you resigned to something?
Or you’re making an excuse.
So then, how can we say we accept who we are?
In the Zen spiritual world, we learn to deeply reflect on this so-called “self,” and we really come to see a couple of things. One is that we are not fixed beings. And yet, we have this body, this person that is responsible for what this body does. We also begin to recognize that there are many parts of ourselves that we haven’t explored. We call these “the shadow areas.” It could be a traumatic area. It could be whatever deep personal suffering we have, which we haven’t been present to. So, when we talk about self-acceptance, we’re talking about that process of deep self-exploration. In the Zen world, that exploration includes the fact that ultimately there is no one fixed sense of me.
Over many years of this practice, we begin to have more courage to look at the things that we never look at about ourselves. Active meditation brings those things up. Sometimes people are really caught off guard; they might end up crying a lot or suddenly remember some trauma from long ago, be more aware of the pain in their body, or things like that. So we learn to have a relationship to those things without repressing them. Without having to act out all the time. We develop those spiritual muscles to just be present to it.
How does it change?
Let me give you an example. Let’s take anger, because a lot of people have a lot of anger. Let’s say somebody is meditating and their anger arises really intensely. For a while, it may be that they cannot really be present to it. They may just immediately go into their story about the anger. In their story about the anger, they think they’re experiencing anger but they’re not. They spend all their time arguing about it, telling their story, blaming everybody. They finally come to realize that, “Oh, this feeling has a reason and this feeling is very uncomfortable for me and I don’t want to feel that. I don’t want to be angry.”
In our fundamental practice of sitting, we follow our breath. We notice when thoughts and feelings arise, and we return to the breath. It’s much harder than it sounds. The minute you realize that you’ve gone off on your story, you come back to your breath. You’ll make the choice to return. You have to learn to do that because you don’t have that muscle initially. For a lot of people, the impulse is to go flying off the handle and taking yourself somewhere else, right? So, as we start to sit, we learn that this intense feeling has a reason. Over time, I no longer have to shove it away. We start to see through our own story. Breathing and being open to the actual sensation of this “thing” I'm calling anger. So the sitting over time gives us a real sense of stability and grounding. It also gives us a sense of spaciousness. We create space around our anger.
The other thing that’s happening is that our awareness is strengthening. The quality of awareness is getting stronger and more precise. So I can see the minute that I get lost in my story land. The minute I wake up to that, I see I have a choice, right? This moment of choice is important for us to see because most people will say, “It just happened.” Well, it doesn’t just happen. We have a choice. Now, I have a choice in this moment. I can continue my story or I can come back to my breath and be present to this awakening. It’s very experiential, this practice. I can’t think myself into this. I have to actually do it.
So there’s always a space between experience and reflection? And often people might not reflect at all?
So experience is just a constant reaction.
Both experience and reflection are really important. If you engage in the reflection, you’re not purely meditating. We would encourage you to just stick with the practice of focusing on the breath and not actively engage in reflection. It doesn’t mean reflection or insights don’t arise. I encourage people to take a few minutes to reflect after meditation or at the end of the day. Try to reflect without judgement. Ask yourself, “What have I learned? What am I noticing about myself? What are the insights that are arising? What are the things I’ve seen that really bother me about myself?” Not to go into judgement about it, but just open up the space to question.
What advice would you give to someone who doesn’t meditate? How might they incorporate a similar experience into their lives?
That’s a great question. I wouldn’t say everybody should meditate, because we all find our own expression and have our own styles of being. But certainly find a way to be quiet. People do that in different ways, but I think that’s really important in our busy, busy world. There’s so much stress and demand on us and our time; we’re slaves to our schedules. I tell people to consistently take five minutes a day just to sit quietly. Feel your body on your chair, be aware of your surrounding, and just practice letting everything go. Empty out for those five minutes.
Some people find that early morning is a great time because you’ve just woken up, you haven’t started your day yet, and your mind is fairly quiet. Other people find that the evening is good because it’s the time you could just let your whole day go.
The time when you just go quiet and breathe and you feel everything drain out of your body and mind, then reflect from that open space. Let it all go before you start to reflect. I encourage you to keep that separate.
We can do it anywhere. This is the great thing about the practice. We meditate here in Koreatown and it’s noisy, helicopters are constantly going overhead, ice-cream trucks come down the street, car alarms go off…. Where does quiet exist, right? We could sit quietly anywhere.
So even if all you’re doing is being still, connecting with your body, being present in your own skin for five minutes, that’s worth doing.
I want to talk about the notion of following your gut. Can you talk about that recognizing that feeling and what you do about it?
Yes, it’s such an interesting thing, isn’t it? I think that’s where I experienced it, in my gut. [Laughs] Other people like to use the word “intuition.” It’s like a deep sensing or a knowing. I say the word “knowing,” but I need to qualify that because it really comes from not knowing. We have a fundamental wisdom that’s inherent in everyone. It’s somehow alive and activated. So there’s an instinct that cuts through all the rational thinking, the evaluating of pro’s and con’s.
Many children have that instinct, but it sort of gets beaten out of them. They grow up! [Laughs] Some parents consciously nurture that in their child, but not a lot do. For whatever reason, that intuition was always alive in me. It never got doubted by the adults in my life, and so that’s always been a guiding force for me. It’s like when I suddenly left my marriage and everybody else was like, “Oh my God, what are you doing?” [Laughs] I didn’t know what I was doing except I knew it had to be done. That’s all I knew—there was a real, deep thing moving in me.
I have come across people, especially women, who have really had a huge disconnect from that “gut” instinct, and it takes a long time to reconnect with that. It could come from having a traumatic relationship with a parent or something like that. Where a sense of ourselves hasn’t been developed naturally from early on. To reconnect and rediscover, that takes a lot of deep spiritual work.
How do I know if my gut is really telling me something or if I’m just confused?
I think that’s what we learn, to discern what’s actually going on. That’s when the quiet helps. Sitting is when we can be our own laboratories—we can investigate and explore. Buddhism is very much this kind of investigation. The Buddha once said, “Come see for yourself. This is what I discovered, is it true for you?” He's not saying to just believe. He said, “I’ve seen that everything isn’t permanent.” Well, he didn’t tell you to believe that, because that’s something we can prove through our own experience.
When we train in meditation, we begin to discern: What is my imagination? What’s my story? What’s my nervousness? What’s my confusion? What’s my body actually telling me and what may I be imposing on it? We just begin to become very nuanced and very astute about all these dimensions.
Before you married your first husband, did you have a feeling that it wasn’t right?
I don’t think I thought about it that way. At that time, I was just following the agenda that had been laid out for my life. You finish college, you get married, and you have a family. It really wasn’t an agenda I owned, but it’s all I knew. I didn’t have the imagination to think that I could be doing something different. In my family you just didn’t do that, and there weren’t a lot of examples of people who did that. For me to go to college was a very big deal. I came from a very poor family but I managed to do it. My parents are good, simple people who went to high school and worked all their lives to support their five kids under really difficult circumstances.
Although I had teachers who always encouraged me to dream big, I didn’t have a vision of what that could be for me. So when I got married, I just followed my little agenda. Then, when I sat at that one-week retreat, I thought, “I’m only 25! What’s going on? What is happening?” And I had a vision of myself 20 years down the road, having a complete nervous breakdown. I said, “I can’t go down this path.” I didn’t know where I was going, but I needed to open a new door. That was what happened to me.
That agenda is still so strong in our culture and puts a lot of pressure on people.
It’s one option of many and there’s nothing wrong with that option. I think it’s great if that’s what fits you. I wish I had adult children, but I just didn’t want to go through having to raise them. [Laughs]
I gave birth to spiritual kids, so my “motherhood” took a different form, but having kids was clearly not a path that I was going to take in this lifetime. I was always clear about that, but I think it’s great when people do that. Being a mother is an amazing spiritual path and I like to encourage women to take it on, because children are amazing teachers.
In this country, which is not true around the world, we have so many more options. My mother didn’t have these options. She did her best with what she had. She really is an intelligent, amazing woman, but she had these huge responsibilities when she was very, very young, and wasn’t able to do the things I did.
Did you ever regret not having children?
You know, it’s very interesting, I had a moment of intense regret once. This was fascinating. When I would sit, I would see these kids come and drop on my lap, and then I realized that they were from a past existence. You have a lot of these experiences when you sit. But one day I was talking to my partner, who lives in Seattle; we’ve been together many, many years. I was up there in Seattle and everything shifted like a kaleidoscope, and I said to him, “Why have I spent my life doing what I am doing? We could’ve had a family, we could’ve raised kids.” And he was like, “We could?” [Laughs]
I mean, he had kids with someone else and that’s a great thing. But in that moment I said, “Yes. I so regret that I didn’t have children.” I had that moment and I just let myself have it. And then, of course, it passed. [Laughs] But it’s okay, there’s a part of me that can go there, and it’s fine that it surfaced, and yet I am very fulfilled with my life and I don’t regret it. I had that moment of deep regret.
It’s what you talked about earlier, allowing yourself to have those emotions but then letting them go. We can spend our whole lives creating a story about something and it stops us from moving on.
Exactly! I always say life is not linear. I think of it more as a spiral. I love spirals. Zen is a circle which means boundless, seamless life, but I love the spiral because nothing ever goes away, right? A lot of times we live in a linear sense, in that we may go through some traumatic experience and we think we come to the other side of it. We come to a certain peace about it and we go on with our lives. But then 10 years later, boom! There it is again. That’s why I think of life as a spiral. We go through the same experiences, but it’s not the same because we’re different now. It’s one of these very powerful awakenings that I’ve learned: our life is multidimensional.
Definitely! I’ve always sought stability or neutrality within myself, but now I’m realizing that I need to embrace upheaval.
It’s interesting to use the word “neutrality.” Let’s talk about meditation—it’s not about being neutral at all. Neutrality for me implies that somehow things are flattened out. But life is so vividly alive, there’s nothing flat about it. [Laughs] That flattening, many meditators fall into this. They’re actually repressing, right? They aren’t as alive as they could be. What we are doing is getting a sense of groundedness in a world that is totally ungrounded. We’re becoming open and willing to trust our own awareness of what’s happening. So feelings come out and we can learn to be present to them and embrace them, but not be totally overpowered by them.
Meditation can help you achieve calmness no matter what’s going on?
Well, that expectation can get you in a lot of trouble if you're attached to it. What I always say is, develop the skill to live in a very centered way. This is something you're constantly training. So when you’re very emotional or crying, let yourself do that—it’s not a problem. And when that episode is over, just come back to your center. When you train yourself to do that, you’ll get to the point where you can just let yourself feel really strong emotions and still have a sense of your centeredness.
What is the best piece of advice you could give?
What comes up for me is to really get to know yourself in a deep way. Who is that person and what does that mean? And listen to your gut! [Laughs]
How old are you?
Oh, wonderful! Your generation is going to live to be 100. So, there’s no rush. We are living a very long time.
Yeah, no rush. Except for the biological clock.
There is a biological clock, but there’s always adoption, there are many unwanted children in the world. There are so many ways you can fulfill that. You know what my teacher who founded this temple would always say? People who really want children end up not able to have them sometimes, and people who don’t want them find themselves pregnant, so who is determining what? [Laughs]
We think we can plan all these things out and some people seem to manage to do it. I am always amazed when people say they are going to have a certain number of kids and they actually do it! [Laughs] It doesn’t always work out that way. It just doesn’t. It doesn’t mean we don’t have dreams about things we want to do, things we focus on. But maybe something totally different arises—we just don’t know. Say, you have a child who has a mental or physical handicap and life veers off into a whole different direction. There’s no right or wrong about it.
It’s exhausting, fluctuating between the excitement of possibilities and the fear of things not working out.
Here’s the thing: We’re always living a life of not knowing. We have no idea what’s going to happen. It doesn’t mean we can’t plan, but we don’t know if the plans will ever be fulfilled. I don’t know if this house is going to be standing tomorrow, we could have the 8.0! [Laughs] It doesn’t mean I stop working. So, we’re always in a state of not knowing. Not knowing can become a fearful thing or it can become a deep spiritual underpinning in our lives. I’m training myself to meet life however it’s going to manifest, because that’s all I can do.
What does “working out” mean? Dreams are great, but I say don’t fixate on them, don’t get attached to them. What’s important is that you train yourself to be stable and grounded so that you’ll have the spiritual muscles to meet whatever arises in your life.
What does LA mean to you?
Oh, I love LA. I’m an LA girl. For me LA means creativity. I love the real possibility of LA. It’s in the air, it’s on the very ground we walk. Anything can be created here and I think that’s very, very exciting. At the same time, I say that knowing that we’re sitting on a land that was inhabited by Native American tribes for over 10,000 years. In a way, I have a deep responsibility to that history. So, the minute I said “creativity,” somehow my mind and my heart just went there. [Laughs] Part of the creativity for me is how to honor these ancestors.
Photography by Magdalena Wielopolski ©