A Lifetime of Lessons in Mindfulness: Zen Painter Jeff Seymour on Exhibit at Lovelight on Main

By MONIQUE M. DEMOPOULOS | Sep 25, 2019
Photo by: Monique M. Demopoulos

Forked River — The Forked River yoga studio Lovelight on Main got dressed up for an evening affair on Aug. 17 to celebrate Zen artist Jeff Seymour. Visitors donned sleek evening attire sans footwear, which was removed at the door to honor the sacred space. Hugs and storytelling dominated the social event. A tasteful refinement was elegant hors d’oeuvres, served by friendly Vesuvio counter girl Jenni McKenzie. Yogis remarked at the transformed energy of the space.

Yoga teacher Marissa Montefreddi founded Lovelight (with business partner Salvator DeSimone, of Vesuvio Pizza) to share the physical and spiritual teachings of yoga with others. Three years later, she continues to breathe new life into the space. Montefreddi knew bringing art into the mix would further cultivate a conscious and inspired community. As with Montefreddi, Seymour’s introduction into meditation and yoga began under renowned teacher Sri Dharma Mittra.

All four walls of the yoga space were adorned in a colorful array of original works – 17 paintings in total, acrylic on canvas. About a third of the exhibit was purchased during the reception. Every piece was painted by Seymour within the last two years, and the majority of the work is influenced by a decade of disciplined meditation practice at intensive Buddhist retreats. The work is, as Seymour describes, “an expression of the energies present while keeping the eyes down at 45 degrees.”

Seymour discovered a practice of mindfulness through small glimpses over years of adversity. He was even thrown, at birth, into a world of turbulence. Seymour was born in the middle of a snowstorm in a rustic, wood frame building in Elgin, Kansas. His parents were en route to California, where his father would be stationed in the Navy.

Seymour spent much of his childhood in Texas. His father was a brutish athlete who suffered from alcoholism. His parenting style was to train his children for survival, using such harsh tactics as to hold them underwater, or dangle them over a cliff, forcing them to face their fears. “It was a mindfulness of sorts,” said Seymour with a tinge of irony. “He enforced the idea that you can do more than you think. But not in a nurturing way, and usually against my will.”

Seymour described trying to find love and nurturing elsewhere. “As a little kid, I went with a friend to an evangelical Baptist church,” he said. He recalled being enraptured by the sensational sermon, and when they invited newcomers to be baptized, he decided to participate. “They dunked me in a kiddie pool, and then all these ladies were hugging and praising me, and feeding me cookies. So I tried it again the next week. I don’t know how many times I got baptized that month. At least a handful,” he said, chuckling.

As Seymour came into his own, he developed great resentment toward his father, who he said was his coach until he was able to escape. “He used psychological triggers to get me to perform out of shame and anger.” His father was often demanding, and often pushed him past the point of injury. Seymour’s mother was emotionally unavailable, likely due to their unstable family climate. “She was a hypochondriac who always felt ill. She slept a lot,” he recalled.

As his father’s alcoholism advanced, Seymour’s family began to fall apart during his teenage years. He explained, “I escaped to Houston with a friend. We had no car, so we walked, hitchhiked and biked. I let my hair grow for 3½ years out of rebellion towards my father and the Vietnam War.”

Not long after his escape, Seymour married and had three children. The latter half of his 12-year marriage took on the same tumult he had experienced in childhood. His wife suffered mental and physical illnesses, which affected their family. “She was manipulative and would act out,” he explained. Seymour worked the graveyard shift in an oil field, a physically demanding job. “Sometimes I would get home in the morning and my kids would be gone,” he said.

During his marital decline, Seymour suffered a work-related injury and had to have a rib removed. He temporarily lost the use of his right arm, and developed a dependency on painkillers. In a moment of reflection, he began to see history repeating in the lives of his own children, “So I just stopped,” he said. “I got a divorce, and cleared out.”

After moving to Colorado, he battled for full custody of his children, which proved challenging, until he experienced a prescient moment. “I was working construction, and I suddenly had a feeling, like a bucket of water dumped over my head. I stood up and said to my coworker, ‘I have to leave. Something’s wrong with my kids.’” As soon as he returned home, he received a call that his wife had died of an overdose.

In the following months, Seymour’s family life stabilized. “I went to work for a less labor-intensive company and joined a band,” he said. “I was performing with that band in a little bar when I met my wife, Karen.” He explained that both he and Karen were reclusive, attempting to rediscover a social life after suffering ugly divorces. Karen loved and accepted him despite obvious baggage. “And just like that,” he said, “I got a job, got married and rocked on.” Thirty-plus years later, they are still happily married.

Seymour’s mother had also remarried a loving man with a peaceful disposition. When that man died a few years later, Seymour had a revelation. He described being in the same bar where he had met his wife, celebrating the life of his stepfather. Looking around, he noticed mourners engaged in an exceptionally loving way. “My attention became focused in on the conversations happening, like a closeup camera lens. People were so moved by the death,” he explained. “I thought to myself, ‘Why can’t they be like that all the time?’ Then the camera lens turned on myself, and I thought, ‘Why can’t I be like that all the time?’ That was the second time in my life where I felt that heavy water dump over my head.”

Seymour did not want to forget this revelation, so he got a tattoo to symbolize the balance that can be found within, despite external chaos. “That question got me motoring on my quest, and that was 34 years ago.”

That quest began as an ongoing venture into bookstores, libraries and social circles to inquire about “Buddhism, Daoism and other -isms,” as Seymour put it. “Traditional religion never clicked for me. There seemed to always be an emphasis on ‘bad’ and ‘evil,’” he explained. He threw himself into extreme sports, such as rock climbing, big wave surfing and ultra running. This seemed to be a perfect marriage of his mindfulness practice and his militant upbringing. Eventually, Seymour decided to trade in his cushy corporate job for a simpler life on the Jersey Shore. “We had less material wealth, but our quality of life was healthier,” he said.

While in New Jersey, Seymour became a personal trainer, and in that field, he discovered yoga. He followed that practice to Dharma Mittra in New York City, who emphasized the importance of living a “yogic life.” Listening to a teaching that focused on mindfulness, pranayama (breathing), meditation and himsa (non-violence), he knew he was in the right place. He became a teacher of traditional Dharma yoga, and acquired the name Sozan (“totally integrated mountain”).

Several years later, Seymour visited the New York Zen Contemplative Care Center and sat with mentors Koshin and Chodo, who founded the center to provide compassionate care for terminal patients after Chodo saw how poorly his grandmother was treated at the end of her life. Seymour described how that experience expanded his original inquiry. “I became more aware of how I’m engaging in the world. Then the question became ‘How can I be of service?’”

He transitioned into intensive mindfulness training, part of which included volunteering to sit with hospital patients. Earning his clinical pastoral education through an internship at Beth Israel Hospital in NYC, he became a board certified Buddhist chaplain. “That was an experience in diversity, with a capital ‘D,’” he said, smiling.

Next, Seymour delved into tangaryo (all-day sitting). This is an ancient custom whereby aspiring Zen practitioners sit on the steps of a monastery, without instruction, for long periods of time in hopes of earning the opportunity to train. “If you make it to the end of the day, you have tea with the teacher and move on to the next step,” he explained. The next phase involves practice in a Zen monastery for an extended silent retreat, typically eight to 10 days. Seymour attended many silent retreats over the course of 10 years, and described it as “one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life.” During these retreats, Zen practitioners cannot speak or interact. They walk with their gaze down at 45 degrees and are constantly monitored. Although there is no interaction, each person is assigned a task, and all tasks are interconnected. “If my job was to ring the bell for lunch and I forgot, nothing moved. Everything stopped. I learned that I have to pay attention, or people suffer,” explained Seymour.

This process lent him strong insight into his conditioning and mindset. “I could see my expectations, resentments and disappointments with authority, including myself,” he explained. He cultivated his mission through many years of practicing different techniques. “I learned that to be of service is to embody wakefulness all of the time.”

Mindfulness tools helped Seymour and a friend complete a 500-mile race. “When you’re working through physical intensity and endurance, something usually arises. There’s something about being stripped of all pretense, and to remain kind through that is incredible.” He was able to interweave this practice into his personal training career and began to assist other ultra-runners. “I became a shepherd of sorts. I could get people going when they were close to quitting. Most of the time, they just needed some calories and someone to listen to their stories. That gave me happiness, to be with people and to bear witness.”

After years of being estranged from his father, Seymour finally reconnected with him at a family wedding. His father had recently suffered a stroke and did not remember him. “He introduced himself to me,” he explained, “and in that moment, I was able to let go of our baggage, and we started over.” Mindfulness allowed Seymour not only to reconnect with his father, but also to be present with him at the end of his life. “I was able to practice all the things I was doing with strangers: hold his hand, comb his hair, wash his face, and be with him when he died.”

Two years ago, Seymour took up painting as a less physical way to explore and express a total immersion into presence. “It was a way to watch my internal dialogue without getting down on myself,” he explained. “I treated myself the way I would treat a young child.” He was pleased to find others got something out of his paintings, which he now describes as “soliloquy on canvas.” Naturally, many of the works include enigmatic, robed figures. “The figures come from years back at retreats, having my eyes down at 45 degrees,” he explained. “It’s an expression of the peripheral energy of those retreats. Some are me, some are not.” As he patted his heart, he said, “It’s something that was coming from here. Heart infusions.”

Seymour’s work was a bold inauguration to Lovelight as an art space. The work hung at Lovelight for a week, and Montefreddi already looks forward to the next community event. Seymour’s work can be viewed on Instagram (@jeffseymourart). Follow @lovelightonmain to learn about upcoming art and yoga events.

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