Islander reflects on Zen and the human condition
By Ellie Lande, Managing and Copy Editor
Part-time island resident Jyl Brewer hasn’t led the most traditional life, but her experiences have been no less fulfilling. She pursued every ambition that’s come her way, ranging from acting to dance to zen studies.
Brewer grew up in small-town Iowa, moved to Seattle to attend UW, and then went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts for three and a half years. While in New York, she witnessed butoh, a form of Japanese dance and artistic movement, for the first time, watching as dancers “fell” down a building with controlled ropes.
“It was almost like the city stopped,” Brewer said. “Everybody stopped and watched them. … [It] shifted your sense of time and space.”
Craving a break from the intensity of acting in New York, Brewer returned to Seattle and was cast in a theater production. Coincidentally, her instructor had a book on butoh.
This sparked a series of butoh study and performance trips across Asia, followed by the forming of her own group back in Seattle. However, Brewer soon realized that she knew very little about butoh’s roots: Zen and its connection to the human psyche.
“I kept wanting to go deeper into the … human condition,” Brewer said. “I always felt like there’s so much going on, more inside of me could be expressed.”
These set of combined interests led Brewer to a traditional monastery near Kyoto, Japan. Initially planning to stay for only three months, Brewer lived at the monastery for 11 years.
Monastery life was far from relaxing. The monastery members woke at 3:40 a.m. to do an hour of sutras, followed by work around the monastery. For three weeks a month, they mediated up to 14 hours a day, reflecting on koans, a set of 1700 seemingly paradoxical questions formed by Zen masters as far back as the 12th century.
After nine years, Brewer approached her roshi, or teacher, with the wish to be ordained. Ordaining women is not common in traditional monasteries, but she eventually became a monk, shaving her head and wearing traditional robes. For the next two years, she continued her study of Zen, but slowly felt confined by the traditional limits of the monastery.
“I always told myself in the monastery, ‘If I’m anxious or lonely or scared, I won’t … leave the monastery.’ If I get bored, that’s more of an alarm,” Brewer said.
On a return visit to the U.S., Brewer became concerned at the rates of depression and became determined to find an alternative to pills as treatment for patients. Also wanting to grow beyond the monastery, Brewer eventually left with another monk. The two studied Zen in Paris for three years before splitting up.
Back in Seattle, Brewer dug deeper in the American situation of mental health, specifically related to money and materialism.
“I started to do hospice work, and I worked with dying people and I realized that I needed more training, not just meditation,” Brewer said. “I want to delve more into psychology and so … I decided to go back to school for [a] degree in psychology.”
While her life may be more “normal” for American culture, Brewer hasn’t lost her desire to pursue what interests her. Ultimately, Brewer hopes to become a licensed therapist, mixing Zen into how she guides her patients through their struggles.
“It sounds kind of like dorky or new agey or whatever, to follow your heart and [have] things fall into place, but that was my experience,” Brewer said. “I want to go back to just continually following my heart fearlessly.”