What made you want to spend 100 days in the woods alone?
First of all being 25, I was pretty unencumbered. I was very much a dharma bum at the time. I wasn't tied into a big corporate job and a mortgage payment and all that, and I was practicing my Buddhism hard. The year prior I had done a 90-day retreat in the winter at the Providence Zen Center. And the year before that I did six months-I was a long-term yogi at Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts. And then I felt like I was just getting into it.
The retreats you're describing that you had done the previous couple years, was it similar to the sorts of things you described doing in the book?
The year before I was in the Zen school and that was very similar except it was in a group. But, I mean, I did 6 months of a solid, silent meditation, all-day, all-night practicing retreat.
So you didn't speak?
You speak with the teachers when you have an interview or something. But no, I didn't, it was in silence. And I had all that behind me before I did this one by myself, but I think if I go back to the very beginning, I always had this curiosity. I felt like I needed to confront that-to confront myself in the barest form. What would that be like?
How old were you when remember first thinking you wanted to do that?
I was 19. I was living in Italy, doing the junior year abroad thing. I went to college when I was young, so I was a little younger than my classmates and I said to myself, that was my first spiritual weekend. One day I woke up, and I said, "You know, my whole life I have always been with other people, whether it's my family or the college dorm or something. I've never, ever spent one day alone." So I decided to go to Siena for a weekend, by myself to see what it would be like, to just be by myself.
And I think that was sort of the beginning of starting to practice, but I didn't really know that it was.it certainly didn't have anything Buddhist on it yet. And I remember being in Siena and kind of not knowing what to do with myself. Just sitting under a tree and thinking, "Well, so here I am" and of course pretty soon people walk by, and I started chatting with them and remained friends. You know, it was hard to be alone, so I just always wanted to know what would happen.
That seems very unusual to me for someone as young as 19 or even for that matter 25 to have this deep longing to be alone. Did it strike you as unusual? Did you know that it wasn't what a lot of young people wanted?
It wasn't so much that I wanted to be alone per se, because I really love being around people. I think it was more the question: "What am I?" The question was so deep that I would do anything to get at it, and that struck me as very important to confront myself alone with nothing there. What would be there? Who would I be? What would I find? And maybe it's unusual, but in another way, maybe everybody has that question. What am I? What is this life? But they just put it away somewhere because it's too big and too hard to get a handle on it and you don't know what to do with it and you just tuck it away and you think, "I'll do that another time."
It was helped by a major event in my life. When my dad went to Vietnam and died, he didn't get killed. He just he was over there .he was a pilot and he died. It was right at the beginning of the war and I was six. That was in 1964. And so he went off there for a year and he was gone for nine months and then we got a phone call one day and he just died. He was taking a shower-he was 44 years old---and he just died.
And I think that question went into my psyche and it formed that big question. Because you experience it first hand, like "Whoa, this thing is just a bubble and it's out of my control."
So is that what drew you to Buddhism?
I was raised Catholic, went to Catholic school. The heart of Catholicism is probably pretty much the same as the heart of Buddhism, but the whole thing was just very rote to me. And it wasn't in any way satisfying that question in my heart. Because it just didn't address it by going through these standard procedures in the church .