Sangha Spotlight: Don Irwin
AN INTERVIEW WITH CLEAR LIGHT SANGHA MEMBER DON IRWIN OF CORTEZ, COLORADO
Clear Light Sangha:
Dan Irwin spotlight interview:
Clear Light Sangha: “Hi, Don! Let’s just start from the beginning; where were you born and what was your early family life like?”
Don Irwin: “I was born in 1959 in a suburb of Rochester, New York and lived there until I was about 12. I lived a normal suburban life in a good family. My mom and dad were both involved with the psychological profession working at the state hospital system in New York. You know, I did the normal thing playing with the friends in the neighborhood, and such.”
CLS: “How many sisters and brothers do you have?”
DI: “I’ve got two brothers; one is a year older and one is two years older. Maybe three by now! Ha ha! I was the baby of the family and so I got lots of good conditioning out of that. Oh, when you grow up with siblings that are older they set patterns so, you kind of walk into things that you don’t know anything about and, of course, one brother frequently played the bully and the other played the know-it-all. Just family dynamics.”
CLS: “Sure, family dynamics, we all got ‘em! You know I grew up in Buffalo, New York. Not far from Rochester. I remember the winters!”
DI: “Yeah, back when, I remember 20 foot snowdrifts. We used to climb on snowdrifts to get on top of the roof on top of the school and stuff like that. I don’t know if it snows like that a whole lot anymore.”
CLS: “Do you still have family there?”
DI: “No, when I was 12 we moved to West Virginia. And then, later, when I had gone to college my parents moved to Virginia. I’ve never been back to where I grew up. My mom‘s family came out of Connecticut and my dad‘s family came out of the Youngstown, Ohio area. My mom’s folks moved here from Greece. I never met my Greek grandfather but I knew my grandmother on that side. The mutt side of the family is out of Ohio. Really early on, my grandmother and my grandfather on my dad’s side died. So, I don’t have a whole lot of memories there.”
CLS: “Were your parents religious or spiritual?”
DI: “My mom was hooked into the Greek Orthodox Church. Before I was 12, when we still lived in New York we would trundle off to Sunday school. We popped into church with the high ritual and all that on special occasions. But they liked to keep us kids in a more controlled environment. I don’t have a whole lot of memories of it. I do remember my mom bringing a couple of seminary students to stay with us and kind of trying to intrigue us about the seminary.”
CLS: “Do you think your mom would’ve like that?”
DI: “Oh, I think she would’ve. She didn’t push real hard or anything but I do think she was trying to expose us to that side of things. Believe it or not, I was an altar boy for a while. Most of my friends would be totally shocked at that! I got a reprieve when we moved to West Virginia and they didn’t have a Greek Orthodox Church there so I didn’t have to do the church thing anymore.
Later in life I learned about the Gnostic gospels and some of the interpretations done by spiritual teachers, that I can relate to. Christian dogma in and of itself and the way it manifests in our churches is not all that intriguing to me. Although, I must say, growing up in the Greek Orthodox Church is probably a little different from other folks’ experiences. The Greek Orthodox Church had its own rituals; it’s got some moving aspects to it.
It’s like when I was in Nepal I would walk into a Tibetan monastery and it would just be like ‘boom.’ You could feel the stillness inside and silence viscerally. The Korean Buddhist monasteries didn’t have that feel at all. Catholicism and the Orthodox Church are similar with the ritual emphasis and it feels different than when you go there as opposed to some other denominational churches. It just has a different feel. But I’m not really of this persuasion.”
CLS: “So when you were in high school was there anything that was spiritually significant that occurred, were you a seeker when you were young?”
DI: “When I was 12 or 13, I moved to a little 9,000-person town in West Virginia. For me it was like moving to the Andy Griffith show or Mayberry, RFD. It was a total culture shock and I was in a lonely place and it stayed that way through junior high. In high school, I tried to get involved with sports activities and other things but didn’t find anything. I was right at that age where I probably shouldn’t have been moved because I lost all my friends and I didn’t replace them. In that time, I got lured by my hungry ghosts of alcohol and other tastes. I eventually found friends through that avenue.
I bumped into these old ladies, those women were probably in their early 40s, ha ha! They were teaching us transcendental meditation and we kind of enjoyed that. We would pop in and just sit with them and do transcendental meditation. It was the first time I had an out-of-body experience at the age of 16. And it was just weird. I would find myself in other parts of the room, perceiving from some other place than my body. As a 16-year-old, coming into his psychedelic years and everything, it was kind of cool! But I totally missed the point on the spiritual end. Ha ha!
When I was 17, I graduated from high school. I couldn’t get away far enough or fast enough. I bopped out to Arizona and started studying archaeology at Arizona State University in Tempe, AZ. I lived out there for several years after college. I had met a friend and became interested in meditation, herbal medicine and diet and was playing around with that kind of stuff. I took a college class in the Religious Studies department on Zen Buddhism taught by this really amazing man named Jim Ford. I was just really into it but I realized that I wasn’t going to run off and become a monk. I was too interested in the typical sex drugs and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. So, I was fascinated but I didn’t enter into the stream at that time.
For my special class project my teacher pulled me aside and said, 'I have a special assignment for you. I think you should study a book on the Sōtō school of Zen which is by Dōgen.' It basically places the emphasis on sitting silently as opposed to the koans and stuff.
I didn’t do a meditative practice at that time but I did learn a lot about Zen and it was just the first glance at what later became my more natural path. I don’t have a lot of flash-bang in my thing, it’s just sitting quietly. I tend to savor stillness over bhakti and things like that.
So, it was my first glimpse at the path. I became fascinated. I was all involved in studying the Japanese and Chinese history and then I expanded it to India. Being an anthropologist, it’s kind of, well, all about people! They fascinate me. Cultures fascinate me. So, I proceeded to delve into the eastern world.
Then another chapter of my life began; while in college I met my first future wife and fell in love. I moved in with her. And I kind of got distracted from just about everything else. After graduating we jumped on bicycles and decided to ride to Canada from Arizona. We took off with 50 bucks in our pockets. We had this great adventure; camping, bicycling, backpacking. Long story short, we ended up running out of money in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and getting jobs. When we finally decided to leave, we hit winter in Yellowstone park. We had just finished doing a 45-mile backpacking trip and we hit 6 inches of snow. So, when we got our bicycles, we couldn’t ride so we hitchhiked. We got picked up by an RV and they told us all about their daughter who just gone into the Peace Corps.
A few months later we found ourselves living in Eugene. It was snowing and we couldn’t continue north. We applied for the Peace Corps. After going broke in Eugene in 1982, we hitchhiked back to Arizona and lived in a tent for a while. We were contacted by the Peace Corps asking us if we want to go to Lesotho, Africa. So, we went to Africa. I was there for close to three years between my Peace Corps training and Peace Corps stint and traveling afterwards.”
CLS: “Were you two still together? Was she an anthropologist?”
DI: “The Peace Corps insisted that if we wanted to be stationed together we would have to be married so we got married. Although, 8 to 10 months into it, we started to have a lot of marital problems. Imagine the stressors of having difficulties when no one around you speaks your language, you’re isolated and all of that stuff. It was pretty intense. We ended up splitting up after we came back to the states.
I went into graduate school at Arizona State University in Tempe for archaeology. I almost went into agriculture but I went back to archaeology. Got my Masters degree there. What a long, winding story! No one’s ever asked me my story before!”
CLS: “Oh, it’s awesome. This is how it goes! We’re in a great process right now. I think it’s really cool.”
DL: “I’m looking at my life and I see where at every turn… Like the universe would just hand me something and it would be this interesting opportunity and I would just go.
The next interesting twist was when I met my second wife in grad school and we fell in love. She was into Human Osteology, Forensic Pathology, diseases, all that kind of stuff. It wouldn’t be uncommon to have a few dead people in the back room. It’s kind of grizzly for most. Then she took a job in Nevada. I went to the Zuni Pueblos in New Mexico and worked. Eventually she came by and lived there a while with me. She lost her job the same week I got cut to half time. So we ended up moving to Cortez, Colorado at that point in the early 90s.
CLS: “What brought you there? Why did you pick Cortez, Colorado?”
DI: “Back when I was in the Peace Corps I got this notion to start a farm. So, this was in the background all the time. I had a good friend who had moved to this area and it looked like a good place for me to be able to do my farming as well as my archaeology. I ended up buying property with my wife in 1994.
We tried but you know how human endeavors are, we didn’t quite make it. In the late 90’s we ended up having a blowout in our relationship. My wife moved on and we got a divorce. I’ve been continuing to live in the Cortez area on my farm.
I found myself being a single guy. I ended up having to take a job in Albuquerque with a company. So, I was living in Cortez, working for a company in Albuquerque, and doing fieldwork in Utah. It was a crazy, crazy, crazy life. And I was so broke because I was assuming the whole mortgage. And all the debt. It was just insane!
And then one day I drove home and Mesa Verde was on fire. And I said to myself, ‘I’m coming home.’ And sure enough, applied for a job in the post burn areas of the Mesa Verde National Park and got the job. I got to move home and stop wondering around the Southwest. And then within a few months, they told us we were being furloughed indefinitely because of money problems.
In 2002, I started working for the Forest Service in southeast Utah and I’ve been doing that job ever since. It’s allowed me to go from actually building a farm to actually having a farm and then being able to fix the total neglect from the inability to run the farm myself. I have a full-time job running the farm and a full-time job running the archaeology on 5,000 hundred acres of Forest Service land. I basically can’t keep up with anything. So, I watch as things kind of deteriorate. It irks me when I look at my garden I see there was still lots of usable kale but it froze because I couldn’t eat it all in time. It’s been a joy and it’s also been a lot.”
CLS: “How does your schedule work with the Forest Service and your farm?”
DI: “I commute an hour to work over to the Monticello, Utah area and I work with a big chunk of land, Elk Ridge, Bears Ears and I work at Moab as well. I manage the archaeology on two districts. So, I got this as a Christmas present last year; the announcement of the Bear’s Ears designated as a monument. And then we have a Christmas present this year with the president trying to reverse that monument protection. So, just imagine this little hermit, archeo-farmer, spiritual-seeker type who’s working at a place that’s having a controversy at a national level. Ha ha. It’s entertaining!”
CLS: “So let’s go back and pick up that spiritual thread. When did that start to arise for you again and how did that arise?”
DI: “I get a little fuzzy on dates… It came in big time sometime around 2007 or 2008. I had been with a woman for about five years and she decided to dump me and move on. And I was in a pretty depressed place and a lonely place. I found out that I was pretty alone in this community, that I didn’t really have friends standing by me. I got pretty angry and cantankerous and ended up, finally, eventually, realizing that I didn’t even like myself - why would anybody else like me? Ha ha. So, I just decided to change.
I began reading things like some Wayne Dyer stuff, then I trended towards things like the Autobiography of a Yogi, and then Ram Dass and Eckhart Tolle and kind of did that dance for a while. I spent a year doing a Course in Miracles on my own. Eventually I ran into the book, Ordinary Women. That’s when I read about Sharon and several other female teachers. I followed the thread of their teachers - I was delving into Gangaji, and Adyashanti online.
I decided to go to Boulder and sit with Adya in an intensive that was really my first entry at that point into the serious, heavy-duty seeking part of my life. It was great! It blew my shit away! I was so filled with love and everything and then of course that faded because it’s experience.
I think it was 2010 and I decided that I would to a week-long retreat at Mount Madonna with Adya. He pretty much blew me away. I could hardly talk for about a week. I was hooked by then.
I did one additional retreat after that and more intensives with Adya. In about 2011, I decided I couldn’t chase Adya around California so I began looking at teachers who were closer. I started sitting with Joy Sharp and Sharon. It’s been a blessing. I still love to sit with Adya and listen to him but I really feel like I’m closer to home this way with my brilliant teachers that I sit with in this region. It was about 2011 or 2012 when I first sat with Sharon so for six years I’ve been doing the Zen Center Retreat in Crestone. Plus, a bunch of little intensives and things with Sharon over the years, as well.”
CLS: “Do you do Dokusans with Sharon?”
DI: “Only when she was doing it as part of the Zen Retreat. You know, I live on my own in rural Southwest Colorado. At the times that I might really enjoy having a Dokusan, that insight passes me before I even notice. And so, it’s pretty much a solo practice except for the guidance I get when I go to sit with my teachers.”
CLS: “It sounds peaceful.”
DI: “It is. It has a lot of other aspects to it as well. You remember that old Eagles line, “Don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy.” Ha ha! I’m a fairly introspective, introverted guy so I’ve learned to adapt to being alone a lot. I get swamped by loneliness and other things sometimes. Most of the time, I do not. As my practice deepens, I just kind of enjoy the quiet. It balances out all the other madness that I have to deal with.”
CLS: “What has Sharon’s impact been on you? I heard you say it’s slow and not like ‘big bangs’ for you.”
DI: “Yeah, for me it’s a slow and evolving process. You know, Sharon is just such a brilliant, compassionate, loving teacher. One of the things I love is how she shares her own experience. And the Sangha as well. It’s just so valuable and amazing to me to be able to hear what gets shared with Sharon. It doesn’t always strike a chord because everyone is so different in their experience but a lot of times it does. I hear out of somebody else’s mouth the things I go through and it’s very reassuring and supportive. Sharon, herself, has been a good listener, of course, but she’s also offered many good insights and things in terms of my own practice. You know, I’ve truly seen… how do I say this… I’ve truly seen the feminine in Sharon and I’ve seen an amazing amount of love coming through that is just getting stronger and clearer every time I sit with her. The appreciation is just so huge and every time I go into the Zen Center and visit and sit with everybody it just seems like I go through a period of amazing openness afterwards. Eventually, life beats on me enough to have my little ego jump back in. Ha ha
Actually, my life has gotten much more complicated in the past year with all the stuff going on with this presidential monument proclamation and politics going on. Like I said, it’s interesting for a little archeo-hermit farmer to deal with national-level events. What’s happening is there’s a whole lot less of a ‘me’ reacting and a whole lot more response. And yet, the ball keeps bouncing. Whatever’s going on this spiritual unfolding and realization appears to continue.
It’s interesting because my strong seeking energy kind of dried out and I’ve got a much looser sort of practice now. And when I can be, I’m quiet. I don’t sit as much as I used to. I used to sit hours each day.
Even within my spiritual practice and my introverted nature there seems to be more response than some outward movement going on. I’ve been pretty inwardly turned for a long time. I do have the sense right now that I am being called forth. It’s tough because my inner hermit just doesn’t even want to do it. There’s lots of scratch marks on the floor with that one. Ha ha ha”
CLS: “Do you have a creative outlet, as such?”
DI: “My creativity gets poured into my home, building things and caring for animals and growing gardens and stuff. Much of my energy goes there. Since I raise Navajo Churro Sheep, I do try to spin and I play with soap but I haven’t had much time to do such things lately. Are used to like drawing but I don’t do that. I’ve been reading quite a bit. Most of my creative energy still gets poured into the property.
What other silly things can I tell you? I thought this was an interesting Sharon teaching in and of itself: having us take a direct look at our own stories. I was the person who was facing it with fear and anxiety. Mulling over, ‘What is my story anyway?’ Ha ha”
CLS: “Ha ha, of course! Well, Don, doing interviews was totally my idea. You can’t blame it on Sharon. But the teaching is everywhere, right?”
DI: “It moves mysteriously! I’m not interested so much in my story. I’m interested in deconstructing it. Ha!”
CLS: “You said you were in Nepal and Thailand about 5 years ago. What other traveling have you done?”
DI: “When I first started getting back into spiritual stuff during that Wayne Dyer and Yogananda phase, I was sitting here in my living room and I said, “you know I’m pretty damn lonely and I can sit around here and wait for the damn phone to ring to go do something with somebody or I can just go do it myself. I immediately booked a trip to the Mayan Yucatán and played in ruins, with eclipses, took up scuba diving, sailing and saying to myself, ‘OK life is back!’ Ha ha This just happens to me. All of a sudden something moves.
I guess the thing that’s moving for me right now, aside from all this big national monument stuff, is that I may have an opportunity to go back down to Africa to help out with some things. I’m in an interesting time in my life when it’s like, ‘OK, here comes that energy again. I wonder what the opportunities are going to be.’ Scares the hell out of me but I like it.
You know when I look at it all, it’s just been amazing. At some point in my life I realized that any dreams I’ve ever had have all come true. The amount of abundance and stuff that’s been conveyed in this life lifetime - it’s just been amazing! Truly! I almost feel bad thinking about it ha ha Ha but I don’t.”