by Jenny Shears-Teixeira
2020 was a year of adaptation, adjustment, invention. For many of us, we fast-forwarded part of our lives. From opening a takeout service to bringing the family back home to embrace multi-generational living, the year forced us to dive into doing the things we had been just considering. And it was no different for rustbeltZen founder, Brent Haas.
Originally from Toledo, Brent’s career had taken him to work in New York, Chicago, London, Paris, and finally to San Francisco where he opened SPACE, a hair salon/gallery/event space and home base for his product line, spaceprojekt. After many successful but hectic years running the businesses, and a few of his products being acquired by SF Museum of Modern Art and the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, Brent was ready and in need of a change. Shutting them both down in 2005, he began his path of sobriety and soon after, his training in Zen practice.
At the onset of the pandemic, Brent was nestled away in the mountains of Carmel Valley at the Tassajara Zen Monastery. Here in this remote and peaceful location for the winter 2020 ango, where he was to spend 90 days in zazen, study and work practice. He and many of his fellow monks left Tassajara just a few weeks before the end of the ango. On the day that California went into lockdown, Brent was on an almost empty plane heading to Toledo to join his family.
It was during his first month of the stay at home orders in April that Brent first started conducting meditations via Zoom from his hotel room in Ohio. Called ‘MindFULL Mondays’, they were a success from the start, with friends, clients and new acquaintances logging in to join as Brent led a guided meditation. “When MindFULL Mondays started we were still in the early stages of the pandemic. It was April and there was so much that was unknown,” he recalls. “I could see the fear in their faces.”
As the early spring rolled into early summer, Brent started adding outdoor activities. “I found Weirs Rapids, on the Maumee River. “Soon I invited a people from MindFULL Mondays to join me there for an active meditation session,” he says. “In this part of the river you have to really be careful with your footing. The ground is uneven and you have to walk carefully because all of a sudden you can hit a 2-foot drop,” he describes. “You really have to be in the moment.”
Meditative nature walks were soon added, with Brent again leading a small group as they practiced this activity in ‘active zen.’ Meditation talks at local drug and alcohol rehabs were next, all these activities allowing Brent to continue his Zen practice, and to continue to be active with the sober community. In mid-summer, Brent formalized his activities under the auspices of rustbeltZen, Inc. a 501c3 non-profit. “I’ve had the idea for rustbeltZen for a while,” he explains. “When I started practicing at the San Francisco Zen Center, there was so much that made sense for me, but I also realized that it can be scary or intimidating. The forms are very strong and it can be hard to sit in silence on a cushion. I want to bring the benefits of Zen to people who may not be ready for 40 minutes of sitting still, in silence.”
rustbeltZen’s stated charter is to
“Bring Zen to populations with little access, and to spread zen-based meditation, mindfulness and acceptance outside the temples to the streets and classrooms, offices & boardrooms, jails and prisons, rehabs and detoxes, neighborhoods and homes, in a spirit of openness and caring.”
For Brent, it’s not a ‘new’ way that he practices Zen, or shares it with others, it’s just a new part of his path. “I always enjoyed participating in the monthly brown bag events at the SFZC where we’d make 400 lunches and take them to the street,” he recounts. “I loved that there were no rules, no boundaries,” he describes. “Sometimes people ask for several lunches and you have to act based on your vows, intentions and heart-practice. I really liked that freedom and taking the teachings outside of the monastery. To me, that’s the ultimate work.” Brent would also venture out solo to take water and bananas to the homeless populations of San Francisco, sitting with them, just being with them. Brent has held his own brown bag lunch outreach in Ohio as part of rustbeltZen, as well as organizing environmental clean ups. “Caring for others and our earth is part of who I am, so of course it will be a major part of the non-profit,” he says.
Brent is once again following his heart and trusting that the path will become clear. “Part of the idea of rustbeltZen is to meet people, and the world, where it is,” he explains. “There is a saying, ‘Make plans and God smiles,’ so I try not to hold on too much to doing my work bound by a certain place or certain activities. rustbeltZen is not a place, it’s a state of mind. But I do know that my purpose is to share joy, and I’ll continue to see what paths open up to do that and follow them. And trust.”
A focus on sober communities and newly-sober individuals is also one of rustbeltZen’s core tenants, and something near and dear to founder Brent Haas. “I remember the first time I went to hear music without drinking and I went with others who were also sober. It’s important to learn to do sober activities, to learn to have fun and play while sober. Zen is so helpful for that because it’s about letting everything drop away and just be with yourself and with the play, the joy of the moment. I try to provide opportunities to learn that in organized events like nature walks, or a talk, or in a spontaneous event that I’ll pull together as they come up,” he explains. “I’d love to go sledding this winter as an active zen activity, but who knows if there will be snow,” he says. “But whatever comes, rustbeltZen will figure out how to meet it.”
To take part in MindFULL Mondays, Brown Bag Outreach Lunches (the next is scheduled for May 4), Environmental CleanUps (also taking place soon), PopUp MindFULL Activities, MiR Thursday’s or more about rustbeltZen and become part of the RBZ community, visit the newly completed rustbeltzen.org