Dharma Talk by Patty Underbrink
Are You Listening?
Presented in American Sign Language (ASL)
Zen Meditation, a Deaf Perspective
Breath of Life
Click here for more Dharma Talks
(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.
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
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,
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
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
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.
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
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?
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.
Are there any questions for Patty?
I would like to know how she learned to speak so… like
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.
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
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
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
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…
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.
Thank you Patty.
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
So, thank you so much, again… to both of you.
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