• Meditation is not what you Think it is - Interview with Sugatha DeLorenzo

    Q & A with Dan Sugatha DeLorenzo

    Long-time Chicago jazz bassist, certified Feldenkrais instructor, and IMU member, Dan Sugatha DeLorenzo has been meditating for more than forty years.  His music has been featured at the Chicago Jazz Festival, The Green Mill, and Sip Restaurant, where he appears the last Monday of each month with jazz band Petra’s Recession Seven.   He also teaches Feldenkrais Awareness through Motion classes at the Ridgeville Park District in Evanston, Wednesdays at noon, and at IMU, Thursday evenings at 5 p.m. These classes are open to the public.

    Q: How did you first get involved in meditation?

    Sugatha: I was in my twenties, and active in the jazz community in Champaign, Illinois, where I had been a music major at the University of Illinois. I had dropped out of school, like a lot of the aspiring musicians. It was early 1970s. There was a lot of drinking and a lot of drugs. I really was just questioning the whole thing—not really feeling right about school, but really interested in music.

    I was kind of more living the jazz life—hanging out, playing jam sessions, drinking a lot of beer, smoking a lot of pot. But there was a guy named Joe, who was an aspiring pianist. He would come to the jazz sessions. Mostly he would come and listen. I started noticing that when he would come to a jazz session, the music would take off—even when he was just listening. I started talking to him. He told me that he did Zen meditation with one of the professors at the University. So I went with him to the professor’s house in the rural area outside of Champaign. It turned out that the professor and his wife were students at the Rochester Zen Center.

    This got me started. I eventually wound up going to the Rochester Zen Center for a three-week training program.

    Q: What impact did that have on your life at the time?

    Sugatha: It gave me some perspective on the drinking and drugs. I began to question whether they were useful.  I gradually started cutting back. It was a slow transition to starting to feel what was appropriate—now I can look at it more from a Feldenkrais perspective, where we ask: What is most functional?  

    At the time, the Rochester Zen Center had a Japanese tradition, with robes, chanting, and rigorous sittings. They used the stick (ed. note: A keisaku, which meditation leaders would ‘tap’ on students’ shoulders or backs to help remedy lapses in concentration.)

    There was a lot of momentum toward accomplishment, toward attaining enlightenment.

    Q: How has your practice changed over the years?

    Sugatha: It’s been very interesting. I went to retreat first with Toni Packer (who was then the head teacher at the Rochester Zen Center). The retreat was still in that Japanese tradition, again, a very rigorous application of effort to achieve the goal. We worked with koans (Zen riddle), we had interviews with the teacher.  I think at that time you had to scramble as fast as you can to interview room when the bell rang. It was first come, first served.  They didn’t have option of sitting on a chair. My feet would fall asleep, so I would always be the last one up the stairs. Often I would wait and wait in line and never get in. That was quite frustrating. But eventually Toni came under the influence of [Indian philosopher and writer] Krishnamurti and felt that she couldn’t work in Zen tradition as she had been. She decided to lead her own group, which evolved into the Springwater Center, in nearby Springwater, New York.  I liked Toni’s approach.

    Q: Can you tell us a bit about Toni’s approach?  

    Sugatha: She started questioning the traditional Zen way of going about meditating, with the retreats, chanting, incense, statues, robes, etc.  It gradually became a method in which you were freer to find your own way in the retreat, with less structured time and more options of not going to every round of sitting. She eventually became known for her "meditative inquiry" approach to meditation, which in its most simple sense means paying full attention to the present moment.  She did not have much use for hierarchy at a meditation center.

    I think one facet that really resonated with me is Toni’s appreciation of nature, and emphasis on being in a place where natural life was available and that wasn’t all a man-made environment. It really became important to me to be outside and to experience the woods and the meadows and the hills and just the life natural life in that Springwater setting. Because they had hundreds of acres of land around the Center.

    Q: What does your practice look like today? How did your background evolve into your current practice?

    Sugatha: For years, I pretty much went every year for a seven-day retreat at Springwater. And I sat on my own in Chicago, fairly consistently.  Several times I would start a little group, and it never took hold. But then about seven years ago, I came to IMU. I just appreciated the lighter atmosphere, and there was music and dancing after the meditation. With my previous Zen experiences, starting with the Rochester Center, it was a pretty serious accomplishment-oriented atmosphere. This is lighter.

    Q: What is your practice today?

    Sugatha: I think it starts with listening. Listening to the physical sensations in the body that arise. Listening to the breathing. Listening to the sounds in and outside of the room.  And listening to the thinking that comes up. And this subtle distinction is very important. I had a strong conditioning through Zen work to somehow to use intention, will power, effort to quiet my mind, my thinking. And what has become clearer to me over time is to let the conditioning come up, rather than try to make myself into an enlightened person.  I think there’s a bit more freedom to be as I am.

    So it’s sort of allowing my brain to function as it is, rather than put the brakes on it. Also, I found that I was having an almost physical correspondence to that effort to restrict thinking. I could feel it in my eyes, tension in my forehead.  When there is a loosening of that effort, there’s an openness and freedom to breathe, and just kind of be.

    Q: How does this connect to your music?

    Sugatha: As a musician there’s a big desire to play well, and to be a good musician—for me, to be recognized as a good jazz bass player. However, I find that the more I’m caught up in trying to project that image of competency, the more it can restrict the musical expression. Then I’m trying to live up to some ideal, rather than listening and hearing what’s appropriate in the moment, wondering how this music can develop in the group. So, today, I have more of a listening, open approach, which takes the pressure off of me, and brings it more towards enjoying the group sound, the sound that we all make together. And I think that’s what jazz is about. It’s really about swing—and this implies producing something together without having to take total personal responsibility for generating it by oneself.

    Q: How does this apply to your daily life?

    Sugatha: That’s a good question. How much planning and thought and preparation is really necessary for life? Or can life just be the opening, the listening in the moment that interacts with knowledge and study?

    This applies to my Feldenkrais work, too. There’s a certain amount of anxiety and apprehension in teaching a class. Or working with a client, in a private session. Of course, there’s a need for study and for learning lessons to teach. And to experience the lessons myself. But there’s also a need for openness to the situation. Can I really sense and look at who is in the class, and what’s appropriate for them, that day?

    Q: After more than forty years of meditation practice, what can you tell someone who has never meditated, especially when it’s become such a buzz word?

    Sugatha: It’s hard to start to talk about it because there’s so much. But this is one way of looking at meditation that occurs to me: It can be a tool to get to know oneself.
    And so all the external things of sitting—being in a certain position, of having a particular practice, aren’t the most important things. The form isn’t so important. Rather what’s important is just the simple contact with basic sensations. The simple contact with breath, with perceptions, and, of course, with thinking. And you can experiment with the form, with position, the amount of time you sit, whether your eyes are closed or opened, your posture, etc.  

    It’s like the sign that hangs in our little IMU meditation space: Meditation…not what you think it is. Becoming aware when we meditate of what we think it is, and then what is actually going on.

    Q: What impact does your practice have on your life today?

    Sugatha: My life seems rather disorganized and scattered if I look at it overall, or it can seem that way. But there are moments of real connection with people: in music, in the Feldenkrais work, and just in my daily interactions. Sometimes my best practice is just living in relationship with my partner, listening, or noticing that I’m not listening sometimes. Just feeling the emotions that come up when there are misunderstandings, frustrations. Just being able to let go of the judgement of a situation if I realize that I’m not listening, or really caught up in myself, and missed the chance to do something or connect with someone.

    It’s like jazz. A big part of jazz is not being afraid of the mistakes, and letting go when appropriate. When I’m not stuck in that anxiety and worry about myself, then there is this life energy that’s available between myself and others; between myself and the Earth, the natural world; and between myself and my music.

    It’s similar to my Feldenkrais work, which is a movement process that doesn’t go for the goal of a certain posture.  This work is more interested in how we transition from the starting point to another place. And as practitioners we're interested in making movement more functional, so the transitions are important.Like anyone, it’s possible in any aspect of my life to feel I blew it: Perhaps I missed that chance to relate to someone, or I avoided something because I was afraid. Meditation is to experience that, and then let it go. It’s that transition, back and forth. Our ‘mistakes’ don’t have to be felt as lapses into unconsciousness, but rather that there can always be learning.

    Meditation is the unstuck-ness.

    Interviewed by Clare LaPlante

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