Day one

Before the start of Ramadan, I searched the internet for tips on fasting. I downloaded an app to my smartphone that uses GPS to alert you when the fast begins and ends each day based on the precise rise and set of the sun where you are.

Two things I hadn’t thoroughly considered worried me. This Ramadan was falling smack in the middle of summer and I happen to live far north of the equator. The day light hours at this time of year are extremely long. They may not be as intense as summer days in Canada or Alaska, but they are much longer than places where day and night stay more evenly divided throughout the year. Here, we can have about 18 hours of light during the peak of summer. That this particular Ramadan would be my first was a bit like deciding to start my mountain-climbing with Everest. How would I make it so long without even a sip of water, especially as the sun blazed and temps climbed well into the 90s?

I set those concerns on the backburner to focus on the logistics of my coffee consumption. Normally, I drink two large mugs of coffee when I wake up in the morning. I usually sip them slowly, over the course of a few hours, as I’m working. With my new schedule, I had a couple options. Online, I learned that many Muslims change their days to wake up early during Ramadan and go about their morning routine before the sun comes up. I could see how this might be a nice alternative even if the sun rises as early as 5 in the morning. According to my app, my first day of fasting was to begin at 3:01 am. This meant I would have to start my day at about 2:30. I set my alarm to see how I felt at that hour. When I heard the beep, I turned on my light and sat up in bed. I guzzled a tall glass of water and downed a container of yogurt I had left on my nightstand. I snapped off the light. No way was I getting up at that hour and starting my day. For me, the only possibility was going cold turkey.

I suppose I have the raging headache to thank for distracting me from thirst and hunger on the first day of Ramadan. The morning started okay. I was able to work for a few hours at my laptop, though my thinking felt muddled. The pain set in at about noon and built over the next several hours. By 7 that evening, I was horizontal on the sofa, eyes shut and a hand at each temple, wondering if my brain was actually pulsating or if it just felt that way.

I had read that if one’s health is threatened, Muslims are permitted to relax the standards of fasting. Allah wants us challenged, not packed like sardines into local emergency rooms. After seeing that, I determined I must listen to my body throughout this experience and respond accordingly even if it meant bending the rules. I felt my headache was bad enough to do something about, so I choked down two aspirin with a tiny sip of water.

All day I had been focused on the exact moment my app said the fast could be broken: 8:43. I had fantasized about the foods I would consume when the time came. I was planning on making at least two grilled cheese sandwiches and letting my heart’s desire guide me in scooping out my ice cream. I’d chase it all with big bowl of granola before bed. Instead, 8:43 came and went with me sprawled on the bathroom floor, intermittently dry-heaving into the toilet. The situation I had created by taking aspirin on an empty stomach was worse than the original pain. As the waves of nausea reached a sickening crescendo, I moaned pathetically and wondered what purpose, if any, my suffering was serving and if this was anywhere near a typical Ramadan experience. I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude as the queasiness subsided enough that I could eat a piece of toast. I was content to simply crawl into bed and say goodnight to day one.


As I plotted the start to the Muslim portion of my religious exploration, the holiest month in Islam, Ramadan, was quickly approaching. Ramadan is the four weeks out of each year when every adult Muslim who is healthy enough is expected to refrain from all eating and drinking from sun up to sun down. It falls according to the lunar calendar and, therefore, migrates a bit annually. This year, it would start in the second week of July and last through August.*

My goal was to participate.

The fasting of Ramadan is meant to shift the normal power dynamic between the two components of our dual natures: the physical side is stripped of dominance, and the spiritual side gains it. It is also intended to increase one’s compassion and gratitude. Having gone through such a trial, one’s consideration grows for hungry and thirsty people. Around this time of year, devout Muslims are expected to make extra charitable contributions, especially of food. The willingness to give is hopefully rooted in deep understanding.

Obviously, not consuming anything—not even water—during daylight hours is a difficult challenge. But in communities and countries where many are participating, it can also be festive. Maybe in part because of the demands of the task, fun elements are added in. The work day is shortened and restaurants open late, and people gather to feast after sunset.

Before Ramadan began, I hoped I might find a Muslim who would be willing to take me on as a friend—not just to offer a few pointers on the logistics of the fasting, but to help me feel less alone in the daunting endeavor. I imagined we could provide a bit of support for one another and, perhaps, celebrate together. I was on the lookout for a female roughly my age.

During a haircut, my hairdresser mentioned having another client who was Muslim, an unmarried woman who converted to the faith from Christianity several years earlier. I thought the universe was sending me a friend, the ideal person with a foot in both worlds who might even need a Ramadan friend herself. I jotted out a heartfelt note asking if she would meet me. I wanted her to feel safe, so I wrote out my cell phone, my email, and my street address. That same week, our mutual hairdresser passed the note along. I never heard back.

I put out feelers again. This time, I learned of a lady through one of Phil’s coworkers. She came from a Muslim family, but was born in the United States. Our mutual friends contacted her first, and she agreed to help me. They gave me the green light and I phoned her. She seemed really nice and I thanked her profusely. I had thought the previous woman from my hairdresser would be my perfect Muslim mentor, but now I realized I had been wrong. We set a place and time to meet. Just before our date, she texted saying she couldn’t make it. I tried a bunch of times to reschedule, but she grew more and more evasive.

It looked like I would be on my own for Ramadan, even more so since Phil would be on a work trip for the first two weeks.

*This is last summer’s Ramadan (2013).


As I wrapped up my trip through Buddhism, I started to get nervous. I knew the time to explore Islam was fast approaching. Unlike the places of worship of the previous religions that had allowed me to tailor my explorations to ease into a particular faith by degrees, theological variations among Muslims are less apparent. Perhaps this is especially true in the United States, where congregants who gather under one roof may hail from a range of countries and represent a spectrum of belief. In all likelihood, I would have no way of readily identifying the individuals whose convictions put them at the extremes of Muslim faith.

Back at home, I gave the matter more thought. My tiny town serves as home to a surprisingly diverse Islamic community, many of them young men and women from countries across Northern Africa and the Middle East who earn degrees from the university. The absence of a busy urban environment seems to render them more conspicuous here and I watch with interest. One day I witnessed a man and his two young sons pause to offer afternoon prayers at the local mall. They knelt on small rugs facing a Bath and Body Works, their backs to the walkway. I wondered about the trust it took to assume such a vulnerable position in public. Their faith was as enveloping as the sweet fragrance from the store.

Phil and I encountered a group of Muslims at a remote county park. Ours was the only car in the lot when we arrived but after our hike we encountered two picnicking groups. One was a cluster of men sitting and eating. Several hundred yards away, several women were stretched out together on a blanket in the grass laughing and relaxing. We knew they were Muslim because of the scarfs fastened securely at their chins. So unexpected was this sight that I felt Phil and I had entered the forest in rural Washington state, but had emerged somewhere on the other side of the planet.

I was forced to consider what seemed like an irony: Islamic female garb may be worn to conceal, yet it never fails to identify. This might not be the case in places where the population is predominantly Muslim, but in countries where this is not the case, Muslim women stick out. Often, if it weren’t for the women, the Muslims in my midst would have gone unnoticed. A guy in the pasta aisle at Safeway was just a regular dude until I spotted his wife in a hijab draped from ear to ear; she had a bare band around her eyes like the opposite of a masquerade ball. Her face may have been hidden, but the collective identity to which she belonged was on display. I wondered what it must be like to bear the brunt of public scrutiny, to have your presence function as a symbol. I once walked behind a woman wearing a full burka that rendered the woman inside as invisible as a ghost. The fabric of her garment rolled and snapped so wildly that it appeared to contain its own weather pattern. Outside a breeze blew gently; underneath, a storm raged.


I’ve read that Zen Buddhism is as much about unlearning as it is learning. It offers a process of removing “the veil.” We can begin to see the world with fresh eyes, without all the interpretation and beliefs we’re accustomed to glopping on top of everything. I think all religion, at its best, strives to offer a path to a new perspective. There’s a saying about this. Before studying Zen, mountains and rivers are mountains and rivers. While studying, they are no longer these things. Further down the path of enlightenment, they are again mountains and rivers.

Yet, I’m not ready to abandon my thinking—the jurisdiction of my “little I”—altogether. Like my Zen master pointed out, I need it and her. What would I write about if not for the realm of ideas? How would I get it written? But I can see the importance of coming back to the present moment, which offers an alternative state of awareness: my true nature is more than a “little I.” Maybe, then, she panics and lashes out because it is like a death for her—and what if I never come back? Inevitably, I do. Something draws me away from “the now”— some dissatisfaction or distraction. I return to the thoughts, and my “little I” is reborn. These cycles of awareness may happen a few times a week, or many times a day.

When I started this exploration of Buddhism, I thought the concept of reincarnation was cut and dry: a person’s body died and their consciousness or soul would appear in some other life form. I would be me, only looking out from the eyes of, say, a turtle. But this path encourages realizations inside of realizations. Now I see, like karma, it can be more subtle, and more complex. Perhaps Buddha was referring to cycles of awareness when he said every life contains countless deaths and rebirths. The thoughts and actions in one affect the thoughts and actions in the next, and so on down the line, because nothing arises independently. The influence of each of our lives ripples out based on how we live. Jews have history and story passed through generations, Christian’s call it “eternal life,” and Buddhists see a web of interdependence in which a separate self is an illusion. In all of them, our existence continues to matter long after the body is gone.

Killing ‘little I’

The Zen master invites me to sit opposite him. “Do you have a question?” he asks.

I nod and search for the right words. “I’ve noticed that sometimes when I’m meditating…” I hesitate, wondering if what I’m about to say will make any sense. “…something will happen. I’ll be really aware of my breathing and the present moment and then suddenly I feel like I’m about to have a panic attack. Do you understand why this happens?”

He nods knowingly. “That’s your ‘little I.’”

“My ‘little I’?”

“You begin to occupy the space of the ‘big I’ and then your ‘little I’ gets scared. Before, the ‘little I’ is who you thought you were and now you have the understanding that you are more. She is threatened. You are making progress and you might not need her. That feeling of anxiety or panic is her tool. You have no choice but to come back to her.”

I’m amazed at how effortlessly he presents his answer, as if this issue was brought to him regularly. Then I remember a small detail I read about the Buddha. In recalling the years leading up to his enlightenment, when he was meditating in the forest by himself, he said fear and terror became his “constant companions.” They could be aroused by the smallest things like “a peacock dropping a twig and the wind blowing the fallen leaves.” That must have been Buddha’s ‘little I’ rebelling against his increasing awareness.

So maybe these sensations aren’t a sign of my going backwards, as I had believed. I think back to the moments of panic, not just on this trip but at other times in my life too. Perhaps they were all fueled by the dawning realization: I might be more than this individual identity. Maybe I was starting to sense the vast space outside the thought highway.

“So how do I get rid of her?” I ask my Zen master.


“My ‘little I’? How do I kill her off for good?”

A look of concern washes over his face. “You don’t.”

“I thought that was the point.”

“No. You need her.”

“I need her?”

“She takes care of you. She gets things done. Be compassionate toward her.”

“But…” I was about to say that I thought she was the enemy when it occurs to me what a bizarre thing that would be to admit. She’s me…

“Be aware of her. That’s enough.”

I’m staring at the patch of nubby white carpet between us trying to recalibrate my perspective when my Zen master asks, “What is all that exists?”

I look up. It’s a koan, a Buddhist brain-teaser meant to slap me upside the head so I can see things with fresh eyes.

“Truth?” I say.

He slams his open palm against the floor, making the thwacking sound I’ve been hearing all afternoon.

“If you can name it, you’ve limited it,” he says. He’s been transformed into a Buddhist drill sergeant. “This…” he hits the floor again. “Is all there is. It has no words!”

He tries again. “What do you see?”

Now I’m worried. I don’t know the answer. I’m looking into his eyes. “A soul?” I say. The second it comes out, I know it’s wrong.

He looks disappointed. “You see a soul?”


“Come on!”

“Love?” Another stupid answer.

He bulges his eyes out at me. “What…do…you…SEE?”

“Eyeballs! I see your eyeballs!”

He smiles. “What color are they?”


He looks pleased. “That is what you see.” He smacks the ground. “All there is with no thinking.”

The energy hose

It’s not difficult to imagine the Zen center’s main sanctuary as an old-timey classroom like the kind in Little House on the Prairie where kids of all ages sit together. At one end, where a chalkboard might have hung, sits a simple wood altar with a statue of Buddha. The school desks have been swapped for cushions, offering occupants a shift in perspective, one in which the windows on both sides look exceptionally tall and the ceiling far away. The floor seems to stretch endlessly and must be from an ancient Red Wood tree because it glows a rich rosy patina.

Today will be the longest I’ve sat in meditation at one time, though the hours will be broken up by periods of walking. What’s in store is nothing compared to the agenda of some retreats, which can go on for days but, for me, today is a challenge because I’ve never spent so much time cross-legged as I have these last couple of weeks. You wouldn’t think sitting could be so physically demanding, but doing it with nothing to lean against requires a surprising amount of strength in the muscles of your back and belly. I’ve realized this the hard way—by discovering my core is extremely achy. By the end of the first hour of the retreat, I’m eager for the part where we get up and move around the perimeter of the room in a line.

In the middle of the second hour, my spine droops and I begin to question whether I can sit upright for much longer. An older woman across from me has dragged a folding chair to her spot and I consider doing the same. The discomfort becomes so acute that I even think about getting up and leaving—just walking out the door and not looking back. Forget trying to watch my thoughts, I’m just struggling to stay seated; I’m barely holding on, inching from one painful second to the next. Then I remember a tip the Zen master told us in the meditation instruction a few days earlier. He said when your energy flags, sometimes it’s helpful to imagine a hose—a big one like the kind firefighters use—going into your stomach. He explained that this shouldn’t be too difficult if our arms are in the traditional stance with the tips of our thumb and fingers of one hand lightly touching the tips of the thumb and fingers on the other; this forms a loose circle that rests just below the belly button. He told us to picture this as a feeding tube of sorts, one that can nourish us with energy from the universe. In my moment of desperation, I try it. I imagine it like a pipe pumping fuel. I breathe in a tiny bit of strength. Slowly, I feel my spine straighten and a second wind blows into my core.

The Zen master isn’t in the sanctuary with us. He’s in a small room that shares a wall with this one, accepting his consultations. When a person returns, the next goes. In the meantime, the rest of us continue our meditations. At some point, I begin to notice a crashing noise that sounds like a two-by-four being dropped. At first I think there must be construction going on nearby. But, no, it’s perfectly silent in the space between crashes. No hammering. No buzz saw. Just, “thwack!” out of nowhere. It dawns on me that the crashing might be coming from the room where the meetings are taking place. If this is the case, I hope it is a technique reserved for the most advanced students. As people reappear, I surreptitiously study them for signs of trauma.

My turn arrives. I bow to my cushion upon standing and again to the altar as I leave the room. I enter the dark hall, where I open the meeting room’s door. The Zen master is sitting cross-legged on his cushion. I scan the area for a two-by-four but see nothing. I walk in and perform the “sandwich bow” that the abbot showed me earlier. It is comprised of two bows at the waist with a single prostration of forehead to floor in between. Although it is optional, I was told it is the traditional way of greeting a master. I am hoping this lessons the severity of my beating should one be in store.

The master

I don’t know what to expect from a private meeting with a Zen master. Part of me hopes it will be like sitting with Buddha himself. He will say some phrase that will ping around my skull releasing profound wisdom. Or maybe he won’t say anything, just put a hand to my head and pass on enlightenment via touch. I’ve been told that my “dharma interview” is a chance for me to ask a question, which seems like good timing because I have one that’s been gnawing at me.

I want to see if he understands why, at times when it seems I’m finally getting a hang of this meditation thing, I’ll be rudely yanked out of my peaceful contemplation by some awful sensation. It’s the sharp crack of panic, or some other random thing like the explosion of itches. They come out of left field, in response to nothing; I’m not considering anything troubling when I’m stricken with the anxiety. In fact, it happens when I’m especially absorbed in the meditation practice, which is why I find it perplexing. The Zen master will probably say I just need to ramp up my efforts to stay on the side of the metaphorical “thought highway,” firmly planted in the “big me” zone. When I get lazy, I must wander into the on-coming traffic.

This particular Zen master is a Jew by birth and psychotherapist by trade—two characteristics that apparently lend themselves to being a good student of Buddhism; I’ve found they are not uncommon among practitioners in the area. My consultation with him is part of a one-day meditation retreat. I became familiar with this opportunity and the master a few nights earlier at the weekly lesson for newcomers held at this particular center, which occupies an historic school house in the middle of a residential neighborhood. The Buddhism practiced here hails from Korea and often employs seemingly mysteriously combinations of words or strange little questions as part of the path to enlightenment. The master told us that during his own meditation he favors a silent statement for each inhalation and exhalation. “Clear mind,” he says, breathing in; “Know nothing,” he says, breathing out. He invites us to use these words or come up with others.

This Buddhism bears a resemblance to the type I experienced at the other Zen center I visited earlier, which came to the United States via Japan. At both, those further along in their practice are distinguished by robes, bowing is frequent, decorations are subdued, and walking is orderly. However, seated meditation here does not take place facing the walls. The cushions are set up so that we sit side-by-side facing the middle of the room. I’ve watched others coming and going, so I know to bow as I enter the main sanctuary and then again before I sit. Today, I am assigned a spot between two more experienced practitioners. I bow to my cushion and take my place.