- Category: Spiritual Friends
- Created on Monday, 09 April 2012 23:52
Rev. Mike Stamper
My path to Zen Buddhism had a curious beginning: a corporate retreat that my former Washington-based employer, the infamous financial institution Freddie Mac, conducted for senior executives in the 1990s. The retreat was led by a California-based group of consultants called Human Factors. The purpose of the retreat was to improve executive leadership skills. We learned to become less attached to our own ideas, to become aware of our egos and when they took control, and to speak from an emotionally neutral space. While on the retreat we ate vegetarian, dined silently and practiced meditation.
The immediate result of this retreat was that I became vegetarian and began to practice meditation seriously. My management and leadership skills improved also as I began to use what I had learned. I discovered later that these skills were largely derived from Buddhism. It took a somewhat “enlightened” employer to offer this program to its executives. Yes, it was the same Freddie Mac associated with our dire economic collapse. I was the Chief Credit Officer before the crisis.
Freddie Mac was an amazing place to work in the 90s. Later, led by a completely different management team that took over in the mid-2000s, the bank would become notorious. By then, I was long retired, but Freddie Mac gave me a second spiritual lesson: to not become attached to career and past accomplishments. The pride I once felt about my banking career became an embarrassment overnight.
My meditation practice deepened when I connected with Rudy Bauer, a psychologist who created the Washington, D.C. Center for Consciousness Studies. I now had a regular place to meditate with a group and also provided a skilled teacher. The WCCS also offered a two year certificate program in Gestalt Psychology from which I graduated. Although the program was designed for therapists (which I am not) it nonetheless helped me be more “present” in day to day situations. I also engaged Rudy as a therapist at the time. This period in my life was not Zen Buddhist in form - but looking back, it may have been Zen in practice and content. I had a regular meditation practice, I had a teacher who provided the equivalent of interviews (his therapy sessions) and I was getting training in being more present in every day life (the Gestalt Psychology course).
I also began a regular practice of service at that time. It began when I connected with a Catholic priest (Father John Adams) in D.C. who had organized So Others Might Eat (SOME), a well known soup kitchen/service organization for Washington's rather large homeless population. I later migrated from SOME to a similar organization called Martha's Table. I worked one evening per week driving a van to parks in the district where we would serve soup and sandwiches to those in need. Looking back, my motivation may have been to assuage a sense of guilt I had about being financially successful when so many others were not.
Thanks to Freddie Mac's success, I was able to retire young at 53 in 2000. I first satisfied an interest I had in mythology and Jungian psychology by attending Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria, California and earning a Ph.D. Shortly afterward, I married a wonderful woman in Florida, and moved to the Melbourne area. Elizabeth was then and remains now a spiritual teacher for me. I also attended Chaplaincy Institute (ChI) in Berkeley, California, which trains men and women to become interfaith chaplains. I wanted to engage in interfaith studies and have a good excuse to spend time in the San Francisco Bay area.
I had no conscious desire to become a chaplain but a couple of experiences at ChI changed my mind. The first was that the school requires a 200 hour practicum (internship). I did my internship with Father River Sims, at Temenos Catholic Worker, a street ministry in the San Francisco Tenderloin. As the name implies, Temenos (which means “sanctuary” in Greek)is part of the Catholic Worker movement started by Dorothy Day. Temenos is focused on a transitional section of Polk Street long notorious for male prostitution and heroin dealers. The purpose of Temenos is simply to be a “presence in the lives” of these young men. Temenos serves them by offering them food, socks, condoms, syringes and conversation. Father Sims also engaged me in Bible study from a liberation theology perspective. It was an intense internship - one that changed my life. I embraced the teaching that Jesus calls us to be in communion with the outcasts of society. In doing so, I found myself better able to be in communion with the disowned parts of myself.
The second was that the school required us to delve into a second religious tradition. That is, to deeply engage in a tradition significantly different from the one the student brought to the Institute. During my mid-term evaluation, the dean recommended Zen Buddhism to me - she felt that it would be something well suited to my disposition and temperament. Since there was a Zen center called the Open Mind Zen conveniently near my home in Melbourne, I followed her advice. During my first sitting at OMZ, the teacher, Sensei Al Rapapport, mentioned that there was an opportunity to sit with inmates at a prison in Clermont, Florida. I initially dismissed this because I was new to Zen. However, as I sat, a voice in my head kept saying “who do you think that message was for”?
Within a few weeks, I was in my car headed to Clermont. It has now been three years since I began serving at Lake Correctional Institution. In the beginning I focused entirely on serving the prison's Zen Buddhist sangha, which I continue to do. However, my service branched out in other directions as well. I became a “day chaplain”, making frequent visits to inmates in confinement and in the mental health unit. I also began working with Kairos Prison Ministries, a Christian group that conducts weekend retreats in prisons. Through this work, it has become clear to me that above all else, my spiritual path is service. It may have seemed like I stumbled into chaplaincy, but I can now see that something greater was at work, guiding me. As Dogen said: “Here is the place. Here the way unfolds”. I feel like chaplaincy, wherever it may lead me, is the place where the way unfolds.