Interview with a Zafu Maker: Patrick Clark, Carolina Mornings

The following is an interview I did with Patrick Clark, a maker of meditation cushions, at Carolina Mornings Designs. I ran across their work when I was looking for well made, ecologically sensative, ergonomic meditation seating, and was really impresed. (I’m sitting on one of their zafu’s as we speak!) He has some really interesting things to say about sitting, furniture, lifestyle, and earning a meaningful living in these fascinating times. I think you will enjoy it!

meditiation cushion zafu sitting

CHRIS MOFFETT: There seems to be such a huge need for this. I think in the meditation community, more and more people are turning to meditation, but I see more and more people really suffering and struggling with getting started.

PATRICK CLARK: I do too. I see a lot of people who have no idea how to sit, and honestly, I don’t know how they can have a good meditation experience.

CM: Oftentimes I think there’s an idea that that’s just part of it. You just have to push through. And even the pain becomes part of the meditation: can you detach from your own discomfort?

PC: To me, that can be very detrimental. In fact, I think there’s this stereotype that you have to make some kind of effort that, in my opinion, is totally unnecessary. I think that deters most people from starting it because they picture meditation as this thing that you’ve got to really struggle through. I don’t know, maybe it’s just hard for people to get the idea that it’s not that hard.

CM: It’s almost as if there’s sort of a split image. On the one hand, it seems so serene and peaceful; on the other hand, it’s this superhuman achievement.

PC: Yeah.

CM: But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s start properly. Hi, this is Chris Moffett, and I’m here with Patrick Clark of Carolina Mornings Designs, makers of zafu’s and meditation seating. Maybe you can get us rolling by telling us how you got started. I noticed on your website you have a fascinating article called “The Birth of a Meditation Cushion Salesman.” I wonder if you could just walk us through exactly how one is born into meditation cushion salesmanship.

PC: I’d be happy to. Well, it was kind of a strange event, because I didn’t know–I really didn’t believe in–I had sort of an obstacle with accepting zafus when I first heard about them. Linsi Deyo, who founded Carolina Morning Designs, and I met, and a few years later we fell in love and got married and lived happily ever after.

CM: That’s always a good start.

PC: But when we first met, I had this thing where “That’s ridiculous, that thing you’re sitting on,” and I thought that when you meditated, you shouldn’t have to support your body because if you had to support your body, in my opinion, you were using some effort that would detract from the meditation experience.

CM: Interesting.

PC: Very interesting, because I found out that I had it all wrong! But it took me awhile, like a few years of research and inquiring and experimenting to actually figure out that the Zafu was really, really the way to go, and I had never, ever done that in my life, never sat without back support.

I wasn’t sure why it worked or why people did it when they meditated.

CM: What was it exactly that changed your opinion?

PC: First I experimented with it, just to try to accept Linsi’s point of view, and I still had resistance. It just didn’t feel right; I was using all this physical effort, and I was used to just totally letting the chair support me when I was meditating. Let’s see, I think what happened was that I sort of started to like doing that, but I wasn’t sure why it worked or why people did it when they meditated. I thought maybe it was just a cultural thing where some people in the world use them and then that caught on culturally.

But I did research—this is before the internet, so it wasn’t that easy to find information like this, and then sort of the beginning of the internet maybe, and I found a little bit online, and some in the university library. I eventually found documentations that when you sat without a back support it really did enhance your meditation experience. It kind of integrated the mind-body.

CM: What is the benefit, then, of using a Zafu or some other cushion versus just sitting on the floor?

it has to do with body mechanics and aligning the body so that it’s not needing to struggle to stay upright.

PC: It’s a big difference. In fact, I think that’s why people think that meditation is difficult physically: because they think that sitting on the floor is difficult, like I did. I thought that, and so I thought, “Okay, this isn’t going to work. This is too hard.” It’s hard when you sit on the flat floor, but when you sit on an elevated surface like a meditation cushion, it becomes easy. I don’t know, maybe like 90% easier than sitting on the flat floor. And the reason why, it has to do with body mechanics and aligning the body so that it’s not needing to struggle to stay upright.

CM: So you became a believer, then.

PC: Yeah.

CM: And then you became more involved in the business?

PC: Yeah. Actually, that’s an interesting thing too. At the time Linsi and I met she had started Carolina Morning Designs and had it going for a few years, and I was the publisher and editor of a magazine on transportation for a greener planet, and it was about walking and biking as a lifestyle and as an ecological thing to do. The magazine was a four-year project, and I did a lot of research during that time.

The human body is not designed to stay in one position; it’s designed to keep moving into the next position, next position, next position.

The research I did for the magazine actually segued me into working for Carolina Morning Designs because I found out information about the body mechanics involved in locomotion. The human body is not designed to stay in one position; it’s designed to keep moving into the next position, next position, next position. You know, locomotion, walking. We came from a hunter-gatherer background. People just didn’t sit there all day, or even for too long. And when they did sit, they didn’t have chairs.

CM: I was actually wondering about that, because Carolina Morning Designs seems to offer more than the usual meditation seating. You seems to take a larger view of seating and movement, of lifestyle. So this was a conscious decision on your part to incorporate the whole of ourselves?

PC: Yeah, actually, it was a part of my quest trying to understand: why do this? Why do meditators do this? If meditators do this, to me, that sort of begged the question, why don’t we just do this all the time, not just during meditation? I tell you, it’s been a fascinating journey, and it’s taken me 15 years to really, really get a good perspective on it, but really what I’ve come to is the fact that it’s the way to live. We should always live this way, and if you meditate, you should really live this way because if you just sit this way during meditation, then the rest of your life is working against your meditation practice.


CM: I think a lot of people turn to meditation precisely because they do want it to influence the rest of their lives, and we do want to live more consistently.

PC: Exactly. Also, the most fascinating thing is that finally, okay, I figured out: I don’t know the exact era, but there’s actually a recorded date in our epoch in China where they have some form of history, because it’s the oldest living civilization. So there’s a record of a time when civilization actually had low furniture on the floor, low tables, everything was done from the floor, and it was basically a Daoist culture, and this had a very significant meaning for spirituality because it allowed people to be grounded with their breath. Before they would actually get up or do something, they would be really, really connected or in the flow.

At the time when the furniture was raised up higher, there was a huge confusion and a lot of chaos, and the Daoist values and practices and principles that were throughout the whole culture were confused and disregarded and became more of a kind of outside culture thing.

CM: So it’s not just a question of how you sit or getting the right furniture or something like that, but it has larger spiritual and social implications.

PC: Yeah. It can have that.

CM: Looking back from our chair-sitting, Western perspective, it can oftentimes seem a little difficult to figure out how to get back to the floor. So I wonder if that’s one of the real challenges of learning to incorporate meditation into our lives.

PC: Yeah, it is, it is. It can be. I wouldn’t not meditate just because you can’t get to the floor. But yeah, if you haven’t been doing this your whole life, there’s two things: there’s the cultural and physical. The physical is that your body just isn’t used to it, and it is a form of exercise; and then the second thing is that culturally, it’s just not what people do, and people don’t really like to stick out and be different. And the facilities aren’t there to do it. Anywhere you go, you’re sitting, you’re waiting, you’re sitting in the car, you’re sitting at the office, you’re sitting at the couch, and it’s a challenge just to figure out, even in your own home, how can I get away from this kind of living?

CM: Again, I mentioned before, you offer a lot of different kinds of sitting, and I wonder if part of that is about offering people various options to help them find something that does work for them?

PC: Yes, we’ve been really experimenting with different meditation devices. I call it furniture because basically it’s furniture, but it’s just small. What happened was, in the early days, we’d get a call and they’d say “Okay, I’m 6’3” and I like this and that,” and then it’d be like “Well, let’s see, our Zafu isn’t going to fit you. It’s just too little, it’s not high enough.” So then we developed a larger Zafu because of that. Then at one point, we got the idea to make a crescent Zafu, which is wider and it makes more sense ergonomically for big people or little people. Then there’s little people who need something even different than that, and then there’s different body types, and then there’s people with injuries. So there’s a wide range of body types and different meditation sitting styles and things like that. Little by little, we really fine-tuned our product so that it would meet just about anyone’s needs.

CM: I’d like to talk to you a little bit more about exactly how all these different options work and how people can sort through all the different options for themselves, but before I do that, I actually just wanted to come back briefly to your story of getting in the business in the first place. I noticed that your subtitle of the article I found online, on “The Birth of a Meditation Cushion Salesman,” is called “Finding the Bridge between Buddhism and Capitalism.”

Your story in that article is very appropriate for these chaotic economic times that we’re going through, where more and more people are looking for something simple, making smarter choices and being a little bit dissatisfied with the options that have been given to them. Can you could speak a little bit about just your own experience, building a small rural business, making the decision to live a relatively simple lifestyle and how that’s influenced your thinking?

PC: I appreciate your comment. It looks like an accident in some ways, but when I look back, I can see a path that was very defined and seems obvious now, how it evolved, how my life evolved and our business evolved. We had this idea to have a rural lifestyle and have a little cottage industry, and it was before the internet, so we did that and it was a very meager income. There weren’t a whole lot of ways to get the word out, because we couldn’t afford an advertisement, because we didn’t have the size of business to even pay for the first ad.

But when the internet–well, I won’t tell you all about the internet. I’ll just say we figured out ways through trial and error. We started the business and it was barely anything for many, many years, like I don’t know, 10 years. It hardly could support anyone, and we had a business consultant tell us that there was no way, it was just not going to get big. Or it was just that kind of business, that you just had to get other things out of other than a good income and other virtues.

There was a point where we were asking ourselves over and over, “Is this really worth it? Are we going to really look back and say that this was a good thing to do, or are we going to be completely burned out, worn out, and be kind of bitter that we even started this? We spent so much sweat and tears trying to make this happen and then it doesn’t happen, what’s that all about? Where did we go wrong?” Well, as it turns out, what happened was we could’ve just done the traditional thing: get a career, and get a job and follow the path of trying to save up money, buy a house and have a family and this and that.

We wanted to really create something new in the world, something that had at its core a resonance that was towards coherence and towards helping something

But that just didn’t appeal to us. We wanted to really create something new in the world, something that had at its core a resonance that was towards coherence and towards helping something, some little way of making a statement that there’s a different way to do things other than just finding the cheapest way to make it, the most exploitive and cheapest way to make it so that you can sell it the cheapest way and keep that cycle going, this vicious cycle that our culture has gotten caught up in. But we really didn’t want to get into that thing, so we kept at the business, and eventually…

Actually, let me tell you, in that story, we built a 10’ by 10’ house–or actually a shelter, because it was kitchen, bed, everything was in that little house. But then the business was in a nearby building. For awhile it was in a barn and it was in a shed that leaked rain. It was all kinds of stuff.

And now it’s actually a model of what probably the future is going to hold for businesses.

So we lived in the house for a total of about six years. We lived in just a little 10’ by 10’ house. During that time, we weren’t paying rent. We were living on the land of a friend who was the leader of our Dharma group. We built this little house and lived in it and were able to save up enough money to invest in the business. Over that period of time, there was several thousand dollars in rent that we saved because we were living simply. So it was through really going deeper than ourselves and sacrificing on the physical plane and working really hard that we were able to bring our business through to the point it is at today. And now it’s actually a model of what probably the future is going to hold for businesses.

CM: Its seems like initially there does seem to be a large gap between the philosophical approach of Buddhism and environmental concern on the one hand, and then capitalism and earning a living on the other. But it sounds like in many ways you did find the bridge—a way to bring those needs and philosophies together.

PC: Yeah, I actually do think that I feel pretty good about it. The Buddhist practice has allowed it to happen. It is a real struggle to detach yourself from your income flow and to sacrifice and struggle. It’s a real challenge to do that, and there was a very Buddhist practice that we were promoting that gave us the strength and the perseverance to go through it.

I feel like there’s another thing where the other side helped, not the Buddhist side, but the capitalist side. It helped us in a funny way. Because I see a big hindrance in a lot of Buddhists who really have this thing that money is bad. I mean, they just can’t shake this conviction that money is bad, and I don’t think money is bad at all. I think it’s just a form of life energy and it’s a tool you can use for good things or bad things depending on how you use it. But if you don’t have it, then you have to be careful not to be attached to wanting it, and if you do have it, you have to be careful not to be attached to losing it, and you have to be careful not to be bitter or have feelings that people are less worthy because they don’t have it and things like that.

So it’s a tricky kind of a tightrope to walk, and both things can help, but I think a healthy view towards money can really help a Buddhist practice.

CM: It sounds like in a way what you’re talking about is a much more encompassing notion of investment: how we use our energy, our money, our resources, our spiritual interests, how we can invest those in creating a world that works for us.

PC: That’s a good point. There are various forms of wealth, and just being in the present moment and enjoying what you have and feeling like what you have is complete in itself—that’s a form of wealth. And being able to see the clouds or the grass or the birds and actually be there and appreciate that. Looking at all your different assets, your relationships, and the things that you have that aren’t in the form of money or capital, but your health or your peace of mind. Things like that.

CM: That brings us back to some of the questions I have around meditation seating, and in particular, your interest in making smart environmental choices that may be a little bit less smart short-term investments, but maybe very smart long-term investments in our planet and how our lives go. Could you talk a little bit about how you incorporated your environmental concerns and interests into your seating options?

“We’re going to stop doing business with you if you don’t stop sending those.”

PC: Sure, that’s great. We try to source the materials in our products as close to home as possible—the wood and fabric and stuffing materials and things like that. We try to work with companies that are American and have similar values to ours to promote the network of people working towards these goals. We’re real open and verbal about companies that are violating our sense of ethics, like one company that would send us a catalog every single quarter. We ended up with 30 catalogs every year, just stupid things. We kept telling them “We’re going to stop doing business with you if you don’t stop sending those,” and eventually we stopped doing business with them.

Also, we try to get the message out. There’s all the typical little things we do, recycling and all that, but if we can communicate our message to everyone, our customers and vendors and everything, then that also helps. Also, our products: they help you live a simple life, so that you can really live comfortably without a huge house, and that also allows you to often live closer into the city so you don’t have to drive as much, and things like that.

CM: I notice you also have incorporated this into some of your material choices, for example your kneeling bench.

PC: Oh yeah, we have recycled material. We made a few breakthroughs. Cotton in particular. Cotton is really, really hard on the environment. 25% of pesticides in the world are sprayed on cotton. Lots and lots of water is used. It totally depletes the soil. Organic cotton is way, way too expensive, and even it is kind of hard on the environment. So we got away from cotton batting in our mats—our Zabutons and futons—and we figured out a way to just use kapok, which is unfortunately from the rainforest, but it is a sustainable rainforest product even though it has to be shipped. So you have to make a few discernments, like deciding “what’s the trade off?” I mean, there isn’t any one perfect thing. But kapok in general lasts longer. So we started using that, and that was our first step into stepping out of what other people are doing. We tried to do something different.

And it’s a little hard, because at first, “Ooh, that’s different. I don’t know if that works.” And a lot of people are really traditional, and they want stuff that they’re used to and it’s the same old thing they’ve seen before. I think at first we took a sacrifice financially, but then I think later maybe it helped us, and it probably ended up helping us way more than it hurt us in the beginning.

And the same thing with our meditation benches. We went with a recycled composite material, which some people associate with “cheap,” and they think that’s not real wood, so if it’s not real wood it’s just really not going to work because meditation is all about authenticity. That was a little stepping out on a limb, because we wanted to go a little more environmental and make them a statement, in a way, about how things could change—things could be different and still be good and virtuous and beautiful.

CM: I think it challenges a lot of our assumptions about what is natural. People look at wood as being a natural product, and they want to be able to see the grain and all these things, but I think what you’re saying is that by using some of these recycled wood materials, you wind up not only with a good product, but something that actually is more beneficial to the environment in the long run.

This is just a step in that direction. I think we’re just pioneers. In a few years, everyone’s going to be doing it, it’s going to be accepted.

PC: Yeah, I think so. I mean, wood isn’t really too bad anyway in most cases, but you know, it cuts a big tree that took many years to grow and it increases the carbon. The more trees you cut, the more carbon is in the atmosphere. This is just a step in that direction. I think we’re just pioneers. In a few years, everyone’s going to be doing it, it’s going to be accepted. But we actually innovated a way to make it look beautiful with a natural finish that has no petroleum products or synthetic products in it.

I mean, it’s work. it would’ve been easier to just keep selling what everyone else was selling, but we spent years trying to figure out how to get around that, and make something that had a beeswax finish and just something different to offer.

CM: Earlier you mentioned the stuffing you were using, kapok. One of the perennial questions I always get about seating is the difference between buckwheat filling and kapok. Can you speak to that a little bit? Why choose one over the other?

PC: That’s a really good question. Originally, in Japan–or actually China probably is where everything started and then went to Japan–but the zafu was stuffed with cattails, it appears, from all the history that I can dig up. The funny thing about that is, when I first started working in Carolina Morning Designs, I went and stuffed a zafu with cattail to see if we could actually get a local material. And I didn’t know that that was actually the way they were stuffed in the beginning! I mean, we still have the Zafu, but it weighs a ton and it’s rock hard. So it can be used, but kapok is better than cattails as far as practicality goes.

But Japan and China also have pillows that were stuffed with buckwheat, so it’s kind of funny because no one can quite figure out exactly what happened, but buckwheat makes a really nice filling for zafus, and so maybe there was crossover in ancient history with what they stuffed in them, and they probably put whatever they had in them. Wheat chaff, or maybe sand, or whatever they could find. But somehow in America, it was all kapok in the beginning, and then later somebody started putting buckwheat in the zafu, and then it was buckwheat and kapok, and then some companies had buckwheat, some had kapok and some had both. We just had both because we started with kapok and buckwheat seemed like the way to go later on.

It’s like the yin and the yang, and the differences are basically just preferential. They’re both very environmentally friendly, although the buckwheat is definitely far more environmentally friendly than kapok. Because of where we live, we don’t have to import the buckwheat; it’s grown domestically. So I personally prefer buckwheat. You can actually stuff a futon or a zabuton with buckwheat, and it works pretty well, except not for carrying around. So you can go buckwheat the whole way. But some people just don’t like it. Some people like one, some people like the other.

CM: Maybe people just need to try them out and see which their own personal preference…

PC: Yeah, that’s the only way. I like the buckwheat. I’m a real buckwheat person. That’s just me. I think it’s like 50/50, where some people like one and some people like the other.

CM: In lots of ways, meditation seating really is a very simple affair, like you were saying. Maybe you just grab whatever is available and put it under you, and so it’s not meant to be a convoluted endeavor. On the other hand, it seems like there’s a lot to sort out and a lot of think about when it comes to simplicity. So I’m wondering, what are some simple things people can think about when they’re looking for good meditation support? How can they make sure they’re getting something that’s going to have a large influence on the quality of their meditation?

To me, it actually makes a big difference if I don’t have enough filling in my zafu.

PC: That’s a good question. To me, it actually makes a big difference if I don’t have enough filling in my zafu. I go to a meditation somewhere and it’s harder for me to sit. I really like what works for me, the way I normally sit. So when a person is first getting into it and trying things out, I would recommend that they might want to read my article where I talk about some of the different products and how they fit for different body types and different styles of sitting. It’s called “Which Cushion Is for You?”
I can say a couple of quick things. I would say that a tall person probably needs a little extra height. If they’re sitting on a cushion, they may need a support cushion to go with their zafu or Smile Cushion. Or if they want to go with a bench, then we have a Sky Bench that’s a very wide and high seat. And there are other companies that have some similar things, but just look for a higher and a wider seat if you’re tall. That means if you’re 6 foot or over. But the in-between range is such a complex thing, you pretty much have to read the article. I’ll be talking for like an hour!

CM: Maybe we can end, then, with a question about the value of making time in general, whether it’s making time to make sure you get the right seating or just making smart choices in our lives. For you, what has been the reward of following through on the choices you have made, even if that’s meant struggling sometimes?

it actually energizes me and it makes me feel like I’m not constantly searching for some future day when I’ll finally be happy.

PC: It has been kind of a peace of spirit where what I did really, really resonates with me, and it actually energizes me and it makes me feel like I’m not constantly searching for some future day when I’ll finally be happy. Also there’s financial reward. I can’t say that that would always happen, because that’s all related to karma and all kinds of circumstances, but I mean, we built a solid business without financing, and little by little have gotten a lucrative business through a lot of hard work and creativity. Also, we chose a place to live where we love to live, and we built a home and a community here, and so we have that. And just enjoying our work, where we love doing what we do.

CM: Excellent! Thanks so much for taking the time to share with us.

PC: I’m glad you’re doing this, and thanks for offering to interview me.

If you would like to read more, or to see their line of ergonomic furniture for meditation and living, go to Carolina Morning Designs.


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