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Sitting with Erik Storlie

Meditation and the Center for Spirituality and Healing

By Adam Overland

Erik Storlie and dog 165
Erik Storlie and his Golden Retriever, Lucy.

February 16, 2010

In a southern corner of the Mayo Memorial building on the east bank of the U's Minneapolis campus sits a domed structure not unlike a small chapel, with narrow, stained-glass windows stretching toward the high ceiling. Quiet light slips in, softly illuminating the room where many of the classes offered by the Center for Spirituality and Healing (CSpH) often meet and gather--for stress reduction, for quieting the mind, and for many other endeavors into well being. In the meditation classes held here, experiments do not involve chemical reactions like those taking place in chemistry labs, nor do they require the precise measurements of mass occurring in the Tate physics lab. Instead, one simply finds people sitting, cross-legged, on cushions and pillows, or in chairs if they prefer.

Erik Storlie has called this humble space his classroom for almost a decade. Before joining the Center for Spirituality and Healing in 2001, Storlie taught English, Composition, and Humanities at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC) for more than 30 years. He earned his M.A. in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and his B.A. in English and Ph.D. in American Studies from the U of M. Retiring from MCTC in 2000, Storlie contacted CSpH founder and director Mary Jo Kreitzer, and soon after began to live a goal he had set for himself in 1964--to master and eventually teach meditation.

From Japan to Lake Calhoun
Storlie's history with meditation parallel's the history of meditation itself in America, and particularly in Minnesota and the Midwest. He first studied with Shunryu Suzuki Roshi in San Francisco, and later was part of a small group (which included Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) that brought Dainin Katagiri Roshi to Minnesota in 1973 to found the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center (MZMC)—the first of its kind in the state. Today, there are a half-dozen or more meditation centers in the Twin Cities alone. Many of them, says Storlie, were founded by his colleagues--students of Katagiri, now in their 50's and 60s.

stacked stones 165Situated on the shore of Lake Calhoun, the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center looks like a residence, and were it not for the sign in front, one might pass by without thinking otherwise. My first experience with meditation (and I remain inexperienced) took place here, on a Saturday morning several years ago. I had brought with me that day my presuppositions about meditation—what it was and what kind of people practiced it. These were people who probably used the adjective "groovy" too often for my comfort, and who spoke of positive energy in vague terms that escaped me. Indeed, when I entered several minutes early for the beginner’s meditation session, the more experienced group just finishing were chanting something in unison. The sound and structure triggered the flight mechanism in me, and I nearly bolted out the way I came in.

Separate ways
Likewise, Storlie parted ways with MZMC in the 1980s, although he still lectures there on occasion, because his teaching and thinking about meditation were diverging from the direction of MZMC. "Given who Katagiri Roshi was--in a sense a conservative Japanese Zen Master--I realized that unless I converted to Buddhism and became a Zen priest, I would not really have a role at the Zen center other than as a community member who came to retreats," he says.

When asked if what the Center for Spirituality and Healing does could be considered advocating religion, he responds in much the same way. "Advocacy of any religion doesn't belong in a public, land-grant university. On the other hand, we can certainly teach yoga and meditation, just as we can teach tennis and dance. Yoga and meditation are valuable human activities. They can be practiced without reference to any particular belief system," says Storlie.

Evidence and experience
Storlie can only estimate that he has spent "many thousands of hours" sitting in meditation. He would argue that the practice allows us to deepen our connection with our basic human nature--the mind, the body, the breath—"the spirit, if you like…but of course that word is sometimes contested," he says.

That's why, he says, the center is always looking at what is evidenced based, asking, "is this efficacious?" "We have people like Richard Davidson at the U of Wisconsin who has looked at ways meditation reduces stress and even creates better immune functioning," says Storlie.

In fact, more than 120 meditation studies are currently listed on, investigating the effects of meditation in patients with conditions from cancer and heart disease to post-traumatic stress disorder and insomnia. The U has a study being conducted through CSpH that seeks to evaluate "Mindfulness Versus Pharmacotherapy for Chronic Insomnia."

Those who take his classes, says Storlie, often come with an interest in stress reduction. "I think most people connect meditation as a way they can calm their life down. Students in the higher level courses, however, often have some experience with yoga and meditation and just want to deepen and experiment and go further and see what happens with this practice," he says. Storlie encourages these students to develop a simple practice of sitting meditation.

He says, "I think of meditation as inquiry on many levels: intellectual, emotional and physical. Ultimately, it's direct experience of the incredible phenomenon of human consciousness." 

A class with no assignment
"I often call the meditation I teach, the meditation of "no-assignment," says Storlie. "When you pray, you're giving yourself an assignment to engage in a certain process or way of thinking, whereas meditation doesn't give an assignment to the mind other than to open up," he says. So can students expect no assignment when taking the class?

"Well, no…then we trick them," Storlie laughs. "It's all a trick, of course. It is both academic--we have readings, writings, papers--and home-practice. In that sense it's kind of like an art course--or tennis. You learn about the thinking behind the game, and the techniques, and then you practice the techniques," he says.

In my first experience on the shores of Lake Calhoun, I approached, with trepidation and anxiety, a new situation, with people and a practice I found unfamiliar and strange. And yet I left that day with a smile you wouldn't have been able to remove with a rake. Some days, I still wear it.

If you’re interested in learning more about meditation, Storlie suggests a short, beginner's retreat as a good introduction.

Instructors Carolyn Hedin and Erik Storlie will lead a meditation/yoga day in Red Wing, MN, on March 6, sponsored by the Inner Life Renewal Program at CSpH. All University students, faculty, and staff are welcome. The retreat will be tailored for newcomers. The registration deadline is Feb. 20.

Storlie, of course, also teaches regular classes at the center, including an Introduction to Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (2 credits), Meditation: Integrating Body and Mind (2 credits), and Advanced Meditation: Body, Brain, Mind, and Universe (1 credit). He also hosts "Stressbusters," a weekly meditation session on Tuesdays at noon in the Mayo space (3rd floor). Everyone is welcome. For more information on the various courses offered through the Center for Spirituality and Healing, email Carla Mantel or call 612-624-5166.

Storlie maintains a Web site at Beginner Zen.