Stack 1, Flapjack 1
Rivers Meander, So Does Syrup
Rivers meander. They carve arcs through the land based on all manner of natural elements including the erosion of the river banks. Maybe a creative life is a meaningful meander, structured chaos, or a purposeful purposelessness. Or maybe its just a chaotic, purposeless flow. We aim ourselves as best we can and, like it or not, the boulders and the banks take us along bends and over rapids at their will.
I fought the meander for a long time. I bought in to the delusion that the “right” life only flows straight and smooth. I believed in the perfect river and resisted any erosion of its banks. Intelligent effort and force of ego, surely not spontaneity and serendipity, was the ethic I embraced until it nearly strangled me. Truth is, I've got it better than most but that won't stop me from complaining. Bankruptcies, tragic car accidents, depression, recession (both economic and hair) and a greater than average amalgam of American middle class anxiety disorder can take their toll on a guy. Pancakes saved me.
The creative spiritual wisdom of 2500 years comes together for me at The Original Pancake House.
At 7:45AM on most Friday mornings, The Original Pancake House on Cheshire Bridge Road in Atlanta is already percolating with curious characters: the gruff gargantuan waiter, the pink-haired cashier, two prep school kids in one booth, retirees in another, caffeine fiends and refugees from nearby sex shops and strip clubs. Also in the house are a fine artist, a professional designer, an accomplished writer, a compelling public speaker, a skilled musician, a game inventor, a craftsman and a bonafide Zen master but those are all the same person.
Zenkai Taiun Michael Elliston Roshi - “Sensei” or “Elliston Roshi” to me and “Mickey” to his friends and family - sits with the newspaper and a cup of coffee in Booth 4, nestled in the front corner of the restaurant by the windows.
At age 77, Elliston Roshi still has a full crop of downy white hair clustered across the top of a broad head and flanked below by a wispy goatee. He is a big presence, physically and personally. 6’2” tall and bulky, he wears a black sweatshirt, sweatpants and slip-on shoes. You may have seen statues depicting the historical Siddhārtha Gautama or Shakyamuni Buddha - he is the wiry one sitting cross-legged in solemn meditation. You may also have seen statues of the semi-historical, round, robust, laughing buddha named Hotei. At first glance, Sensei is closer to the latter: he is quick with a smile and a laugh.
Sensei looks up, smiles and presses hands together in a slight bow. I do the same and slide across the blue vinyl bench opposite him. We are here for coaching, collaboration, coffee and griddle cakes.
There are formal opportunities, in Zen practice, to have private one-on-one interviews with your primary teacher. Those meetings, called “Dokusan” in Japanese, are a sort of Zen meditation - “Zazen” - coaching session. Dokusan usually takes place in the inner sanctum of a Zen temple and The Atlanta Soto Zen Center - founded over 40 years ago by Elliston Roshi - is just a two mile drive from the pancake diner. Over the past year, though, my encounters with Sensei have spilled beyond the Temple walls, providing informal chances to gain his guidance.
These Friday morning “diner dokusan” sessions provide encouragement and insight. Our dialogue has expanded, too, morphing into a collaboration to develop a workshop on the intersection of Zen meditation and business innovation. I hope to share a portion of that content with you in this blog series. Looking back now, though, it seems that these breakfasts have been about much more than coaching or collaboration; much more than coffee and conversation and high carbohydrate meals. They have been lessons in how to design a creative life. I’ll share with you what I’ve picked up on that little subject, too.
The set of stories that follow on IdeaMonger.org may, I confess, meander like a river of syrup. They run across my pancake breakfasts with Sensei, through his life of art and Zen, over the rocky rapids of my own morass and converge with the lives of a cadre of creators whose lives are braided with ours. Like a good batch of Vermont Maple they, I hope, carry an earthy, caramelized taste and a slightly sticky texture.
Today, Sensei orders salami and eggs and asks the waiter to provide a box so he can bring half of the breakfast home to his wife, Diane. I order buttermilk pancakes and ask that they be shaped like Enso. An Enso is a Zen circle - hand painted in one swift, rough hewn brushstroke. Enso is a fundamental symbol of Zen and painting Enso is a meditative practice that fits in the Japanese genre of hitsuzendō - “the art of the brush.” The waiter could care less and stares at me as if he heard it wrong. “Just a circle, with nothing in the middle?" he asks flatly. “Yes, just like this, you know?” I say and swipe circles in the air. He rolls his eyes and turns back to the kitchen. I am prone to harmless outbursts of sheer idiocy. Maybe this one will at least provide a path in to discussion about the Zen/Creative interchange.
Elliston Roshi was originally trained as a designer. He attended, earned his Masters and taught art and design at the Institute of Design at Illinois Institute of Technology in the 1960s. The school was founded in 1937 in Chicago as the “New Bauhaus” - the American outpost of the German modernist art and design movement of the early 1930s. Unadorned use of basic geometrical shapes was a staple of the Bauhaus movement and none used them more deftly than Vasily Kandinsky - the Russian-born Bauhaus artist who taught the beginners design class at the Bauhaus in Germany before being run off by the Nazis. Kandinsky saw basic geometrical shapes like circles as part of a universal aesthetic language. This is a role they play in Zen, too. The Enso alludes to completeness and wholeness of each moment, a constant flowing of reality and an openness that transcends language. “Walking meditation,” Sensei likes to quote his teacher as saying, “is like circles rolling within circles, rolling within circles.”
Original Frontier, Original Pancake
The basic riddle we all confront daily is this, “What is it to live a meaningful, generative life?” Or, more concisely, what is it to live? Sensei has written and spoken often of Zen as the “Original Frontier.” It is like waking up to an always present but unexplored territory of what is and what is possible. The radical act of paying unflinching, still, mindful attention in the face of the constantly morphing pleasure and pain of existence is deceptively straightforward and effective. To enter the original frontier is to enter the real "real world". Sensei says, “In this Awakening, there is no tangible change in anything, other than our own awareness. In other words, everything changes. Permanently, and for the better.”
You can experience this original frontier anywhere, even at The Original House of Pancakes. My Enso cakes arrive along with butter and syrup and we get rolling down the meandering river of conversation, toward the frontier.
More pancakes, coming soon.