Dharma Talk by Patty Underbrink
Are You Listening?
Zen Meditation, a Deaf Perspective
Presented in American Sign Language (ASL)

Part 1: Patty describes being Deaf in a hearing world, how she began her meditation and Zen practice, and how her life has changed as a result.

Part 2: Patty relays experiential stories about attending silent meditation retreats.

Part 3: Patty answers questions from the Sangha.
Breath of Life (Interfaith Mindfulness Fellowship) has American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation at our gatherings each week — Sundays, 5:30 p.m. @ Unity Church of Dallas, Texas.

On February 3, 2008, one of our Deaf members, Patty Underbrink, gave the Dharma Talk in ASL. Jenny Powley interpreted the talk into spoken English for the hearing members of our Sangha. Videos of that talk are at right. Thank you to Dick Williamson for the video recording.

Click here for more Dharma Talks


Are you Listening?
Zen Meditation, a Deaf Perspective

Transcript of a talk by Patty Underbrink
(as interpreted to spoken English by Jenny Powley)

Breath of Life (Interfaith Mindfulness Fellowship)
February 3, 2008 - Dallas, Texas

Br. ChiSing:
Patty, I think I met first at the Cathedral of Hope and the Maria Kannon Zen Center. And so it's been really nice to see her deepening in her practice over the last year. And I'm very grateful that she's here to share from her heart this evening. Thank you, Patty.

Patty Underbrink:
Thank you. Well, first of all I want to explain about Deaf culture and then I'll talk a little more.

Deaf culture, like the word "hearing," like you guys are all hearing, you're not deaf, right? You understand? I'm deaf, you're hearing. In Deaf culture, that's what we call you guys — is "hearing." And deaf individuals, each individual's different. We're not all the same. Like Daniel and I are obviously different. He's deaf. I'm deaf. But, we're very different. We're not the same. Just like you … each of you are special in your own way. You're different.

My eyes are like your ears, for hearing people. Okay? My eyes are like a substitute for my ears. And my other senses, they take the place of my ears. You hear with what? You hear with your ears? Do you hear with your eyes? Do you feel? Do you have other senses? Do you use both your senses — you know, eyes and ears? I take everything in by my eyes and my sense of feeling. Like vibrations, I can feel… I can feel… I'm more sensitive to… I notice things. Like, if ChiSing just moves slightly. And his breath, I can notice his breath… his breathing. And I can feel a draft if somebody walks by and noises like… just different things that go on in the room, I'm more aware of.

I really love… Deaf people just in general love vibration — loud vibrations, loud sounds. Like a train coming by, if it's near, you can feel the train going by. And I've always been fascinated by… You know what a boom-box is? I can feel those vibrations and it actually relaxes me.

Okay? So, really, I just wanted to introduce a little bit about the Deaf culture.

My Zen experience… I want to talk about before and after.

My partner is Joni. Over here. She started Zen. She joined the Maria Kannon Zen Center and I kept noticing… I thought, "Why does she keep going to this place to meditate? I don't understand why she's going there." And, you know, she started talking about your thoughts like clouds going by and I'm like, "Well, I don't hear anything." You know? It's silent. I'm silent all the time. So, I just wasn't interested. A couple of months later, [I noticed Joni at home, just sitting there, facing the wall].

About six months later she went to a silent retreat, a sesshin, for one week. And when she came back from that weeklong sesshin, I saw something different in her. I said, "Whatever that is I want it. She's a different person." She seemed more calm, more relaxed, more laid back. Before she was just all over the place. You know just… Now, she's more relaxed and calm and I just noticed a change in her. And I was just curious about that. I said, "I want that. What is this Zen? Tell me more." So I started going to Zen and that's how I started.

The first time I went, I struggled. It was a real struggle. Before Zen, I was always… you know, I had a lot of worries about "What if this happened?" I would feel vibrations. I'm like, "What's that noise? What's that? What's going on? A draft?" You know, I needed to know now, now. I had no patience.

Additional links…

Deaf Network

The Maria Kannon Zen Center in Dallas

Breath of Life (Interfaith Mindfulness Fellowship)

American Sign Language Browser

Wikipedia: American Sign Language

Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center Information on Deafness (Gallaudet University)

Unity Church of Dallas

And the next time I went to the Zen center, I said, "Joni, what's that noise? What's that vibration?" She said, "There's a train outside." You know and then the next vibration, I'm like, "What's that?" And she said, "That's the heater." And then the lights kept flashing and I'm like, "What's that?" And she's like, "The monitor's playing with the light." So then I started learning to ignore all of those things and then when something happened, I just got centered and focused. And still I sometimes struggle.

One weekend at a silent retreat, I had this experience. There was no talking. It was complete silence … no reading, writing, nothing. It was Friday night, through Saturday, [then Sunday] until noon. We stayed at the place. I was just engulfed in it. And then after it was over, I didn't want to leave. Joni drove me home because I was just kind of out of it. It seemed everything had been going by so fast and it was like I was in slow motion.

I got home and Joni went out to play soccer and I was just around the house, just kind of walking around. I noticed, you know, dust and I started cleaning the dust. Before I hated to clean the house. I just detested it. I always… I wanted to hurry up and get it over with it. It's like get this out of the way and do it. And then that day, for some reason I was just dusting and taking my time and I noticed something on the floor. I went and got the vacuum and I cleaned it. I was just, you know, taking my time enjoying cleaning the house. And Joni came home and she noticed. She's like, "Wow! This is wonderful." You know, I'm like, "What?" And she says, "I noticed, you've changed." And, I'm like… I didn't even realize that I had enjoyed cleaning the house. I don't know. It just realized it was different. And then I kept going and still, I struggled. Sometimes, I didn't want to clean the house. But sometimes, you know I just learned to breathe. I'm practicing breathing while I'm cleaning. You know, it's not bad. I just kept going.

And then at work… before, I would always stress out. I was always just stressed, you know… I'd have to make changes at work. Everything was rush rush rush, hurry hurry hurry, get this done, you know. I'd go home and it would be calm. And then I'd have to change. You know it was lots of changes from work every day. And now, after one year, I've noticed, my boss would come up and, "here you need to change this." And I'm like, "Okay, whatever… I'll just do it." And my boss is like, "Whatever." And it's like, well, I don't have to worry about the past or the future. Just do it now. And then I'd be finished with it and no stress, no worries. I'd just give it back to him and it's like, "Cool." And then later on my boss, he was always giving me things, saying, "Change this and…" This work, my boss just kept saying change it. And the last minute he'd give me things and be all stressed out. And then I'd just like do it and I was like, "just breathe, just do it now, and just focus."

Really, the silent retreat… that was the key that really helped me get more focused. You know, whether it's a weekend, a week, a day… It just really really helped me a lot. I tried to meditate… I do meditate every day like 20-25 minutes. But the silent retreat, that was key. That really had big impact on me over the past year.

I notice some people think deaf people, you know, it would be easy for deaf people to meditate. They think, "Oh, you're deaf. It's easy. You can't hear anything." But it's really not true. We're more sensitive and take in more things. I can feel somebody walking by me, every little movement, it kind of would bother me in my mind. Also, I have thoughts just like you, that, you know, the monkey mind thing. It's like I watch the clouds go by. I struggle with that too.

Hearing people think… hmm… I don't know…

How much time do I have?

I want to share something kind of funny that happened. It's a neat experience.

During a silent retreat. Some people were sitting around in the circle and they started copying my signs during the chant and it really had an impact on me. I noticed that they were all starting to learn sign language. Ruben, the teacher, the last day of the silent retreat… he made everybody in the circle learn how to sign the chant. And I was like, "Okay." Before and after the talk, you know, everybody was trying to learn sign language. And that was pretty cool. It was cool to see.

And it's cool to see you guys, you know, like you all have different accents and voices. The same thing with sign language — everybody has a little bit different style. And I've noticed that about you guys. So, that's really cool. I appreciate you making the effort to sign. You know, some people kind of feel kind of awkward about it but it's cool. That really has an impact on me.

I was going to tell you this funny thing that happened. You know at the silent retreat, no one talks. There's no reading or writing or anything. Nothing. Okay? One night, it was like an optional sit, after like 11 at night or something. You know, it had three different sits… you'd sit and then walk and then sit and then walk. And then I volunteered to monitor and I looked at the time and there was the bell there. The bell was sitting there and I was like, "Okay, I can do this." So, I hit it, hit it and we started. I had no idea.

Again, the last night, we stayed all night. They said, "Would you mind being a monitor?" I said, "Fine. I'll do it." And it's like early in the morning like one in the morning or something. I don't know. It was really late. Same thing with the bell…

The last day, we went around the circle sharing. And like, "Wow. Patty hit the bell really hard. Loud." I didn't realize that I had hit it so hard. One guy… we had this room and we were all sitting in the circle. And the next building was the bedroom. You know like people were sleeping. And that guy, I don't know, he had to go to work or something and came back and was really tired. So he went to the bedroom and he laid down to go to sleep but he heard this big loud boom of a bell and it woke him up and he came in to see what was going on. And he told me and I was like, "Oh. I didn't know." That was kind of funny. I had no idea. I tried to… I didn't know whether to hit it soft or hard. But, a bell's a bell.

Have you heard my bell yet?

Br. ChiSing:
Do you want to ring my bell?

(Patty rings the bell.)

Is that loud? Yeah, I have to learn… But maybe the first time, I just like…

(Patty rings the bell loudly.)

BOOM, I hit it really, really hard or something. It was my first time.


Anyway, hearing people, don't be afraid to approach me or a Deaf person and ask questions. Don't be afraid. How to sign something. Just approach me. I'll be happy to help you. Help you to understand Deaf culture or whatever.

Br. ChiSing:
Are there any questions for Patty?

I would like to know how she learned to speak so… like us?

Well, when I was two years old, Mother sent me to this hospital. There were seven of us that learned to read lips and speak. I didn't understand. They just kept talking and trying to get these words to come out of my mouth. I couldn't hear anything. I didn't understand anything. They were teaching me to use my voice with, like put a feather in front of my mouth, "p… p…," you know, "blow, this is a "p" sound." And touch different parts of your face.

When I was seven years old, I started to learn sign language and then I understood. It was easier to communicate and it made much easier… because lip reading and trying to use my speech was really a struggle. I tried to wear hearing aids, like one of these old box hearing aids and different hearing aids. I just didn't understand voices. It would have to be really really loud. And then I would go to speech therapy. "Oh, your voice is perfect," the therapist would say. "Oh, you have good speech, good speech." And I'd get all excited and I'd go to my hearing friends and try to talk and they'd look at me like, "I don't understand what you're saying." And I said, "My speech therapist lied to me." So, I just decided to turn off my voice and not try to use my voice.

But, some hearing people hear me. They say I kind of whisper sometimes and make noise when I'm signing and I don't realize it. But, oh well. I can't hear.

Br. ChiSing:
Anyone else?

Yeah. Patty, what would you say… Do you hear your own breath inside your head when you're breathing in and breathing out?

No. I feel the breath in my chest. I can feel it, in and out… I feel it moving through my nose and my mouth. I can just feel it. Joni says she can hear me breathing. But I'm like, "How?" I don't know how. I thought breathing was silent. But she says, no.

What would you say is your biggest challenge? Because we each have different when we sit. For some people it's what they hear that distracts them. For other people, it's what their eyes get busy with that distracts them. What would you say would be your biggest challenge?

At the Zen center, the floor… I can feel vibrations real easy. The first time… I guess the first few months, I felt… I kept feeling the floor moving, the vibrations. There's a train track nearby and when trains would go by or the heater or air conditioning would come on, I could feel it. Sometimes people walk and I can feel the vibrations. One time somebody was walking, a man was very heavy and large and he was taking heavy steps. I thought, "Oh." It [the meditation] was over. I looked around and nobody was moving. So, I was like, "Oh, we're still sitting." So, whenever people bow, I don't know… when it's over, what time it is. It's hard for me because I don't pay attention to that.

Sometimes when I'm alone and there's nobody else, it's like there's a [wall] there… I just had to learn to ignore other things. Just kind of stay of focused until somebody taps me on the shoulder and says, "It's time. We're done."

So your mind quickly starts to wonder about the vibrations. Is that what happens? You quickly want to know "what it is," and, "what I'm feeling," and identify it?

Yes. I want to know. I'm just curious. I tell myself that I have to put that thought on hold and ask somebody, "What was that?"

Right now, vibrations don't bother me as much. I just… if it's the train, or the air conditioner, or somebody walking, I just don't care. I just let it go.

I'm curious… your… a comparison of your experience at the Maria Kannon Zen Center and here at the Unity Church [Breath of Life].

At the Zen center, it's easier to focus because we face the wall. Here there are a lot of distractions. The first time I was here, I just could not focus until I got used to it. I had to learn to kind of disconnect from everything. You know, people would laugh… somebody would laugh and it would make me laugh. You know, just things on and off. Like, you laugh and I'm trying to contain myself when Daniel laughs all the time. And same with him and different people, you know. Sometimes I have good days and bad days like everybody else. I just accept it. That's who I am. Whatever. And I go on.

So Patty, I'm wondering… Like the meditation practices like sitting, walking, breathing… I can understand those are straightforward. But, like Dharma teachings… When you're in a meditation group and there are Dharma teachings… Did those concepts take longer for you to grasp since there a lot of words that aren't necessarily in the English language?

Well, the first time, I didn't understand the words. Zen words. I started reading. I would ask Joni to explain. And I would ask Jenny, my interpreter different words. And the first time I didn't understand… same as you and hearing people. The first time I saw the sign for Buddhist, I didn't even know what that was. So, I had to learn. I learn as I go along.

My interpreter at first sometimes would have a hard time translating the signs, the sign concepts, because it's not English. English and ASL are different. She would have to… In the talks, Joni and I would try, we sat down and we'd try to figure out what's the best way to translate these things. And, I just kept modifying it and changing it… We still do as we go along, as things come up…

Br. ChiSing:
Thank you so much Patty. Yes?

Can I ask you a question? I'm not sure how to word this. Could you see your deafness as a… I'm not sure if I should use the word… "gift" to experience life and to go through your spiritual journey in a special way?

That's just who I am. I've accepted it… who I am. Some people call it "hearing impaired." But, I feel like nothing's missing. It's just me.

Br. ChiSing:
Thank you Patty.

Listen to this talk:
Patty Underbrink: Are You Listening? (23 min.) MP3

Click here for more Dharma talks
I just want to say how grateful I am for Patty and Daniel being here. They just really are an enrichment to our community. Sometimes when I have felt distracted by certain people shuffling, or making noises, or whatever, during meditation, I just try to imagine myself like Daniel or Patty because I know that those sounds wouldn't bother them. So, why should they bother me?

Also I try to be more mindful of how we place things in the room, beautifully and symmetrically, because visual is so important for them.

So, thank you so much, again… to both of you.

Transcribed by Cornell Kinderknecht

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