The Iron Man of Meditation

Written by Gerry Kopelow
(Winnipeg Free Press, Feb 1, 2003)

Most of us think meditation is about relaxation and peace of mind. But for Lama Lodro (a.k.a. Jeffery Alvin Olson), this was not the case. “Sometimes it was all radiant and blissful,” the master meditator recalled during a telephone interview from his home in Whitehorse. “And sometimes it was a real experience of hell.”

Lama Lodro was speaking of his fourteen years of solitary contemplative work in Thailand, Malaysia, Burma, India, and the Yukon wilderness. In Eastern spiritual systems meditation is the main developmental tool, but for committed practitioners in a hurry, meditational experiences are not always just sweetness and light. Lama Lodro’s route to inner development was so arduous that some refer to him as `The Iron Man of Meditation.’

Jeff Olson was born to a wealthy east-coast American family. Due to severe but undiagnosed dyslexia, he was sent to schools for the mentally challenged. “I didn’t learn the alphabet until I was 22 years old,” Olson says. “ And out of terrible frustration I became a destructive juvenile delinquent. At the time, it was exhilarating.”

Eventually he left home, and despite his illiteracy he was able to get well-paid employment as a member of the Teamsters Union. Once he realized that he in fact had a strong mind, he attended an alternate university where Beat Poets Alan Ginsberg and Gary Snyder were teaching American History and Literature. According to Olson, “Ginsberg was a very weird man who demanded a lot of attention, but he was an extremely interesting teacher.”

A university excursion to Hong Kong was the beginning of the transformation of Jeff Olson, troublemaker, into Lama Lodro, respected monk. When he found himself in the Orient, Olson remembered how, as a child, he had been fascinated by a black and white travelogue depicting the exotic temples and long haired yogis of India. “I was seven years old, and I knew immediately I wanted to be like them.” He split off from the group and began a two year pilgrimage on foot to ancient spiritual sites in China, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Sikkim.

Terrifically impressed by a Buddhist teacher he encountered in Thailand – “This man radiated compassion and kindness, people lined up every morning just to sit in his presence” – Olson took the traditional vows of a monk, and formally began his spiritual journey.

“From the moment the fertilized cell begins dividing, we start building our neurotic conditioning,” says Lama Lodro, “The process of liberation requires a concentrated effort to untangle the accumulated negativity of many lifetimes.” For some, this untangling of past and current Karma is a gentle, slow unfolding. And under the tutelage of several different meditation masters all over Asia, Olson did experience some sublime states. But these were interspersed with periods of fearful intensity.

“For one two-year period, my body felt like a bag of broken glass that was constantly being agitated by electrical discharges,” Olson recounted. “During another extended session everything, including my own body, seemed to be on fire.” Olson spent so much time in the traditional cross-legged posture that his knees swelled and locked up, preventing him from walking for a number of months.

One of his Asian teachers told him that he would eventually find his ultimate teacher in Canada. So Olson left the East, and after meeting the Venerable Namgyal Rinpoche (one of the first Westerners to be recognized by Tibetan Buddhist leaders as a fully awakened being) became a Canadian citizen. He continued his studies with Rinpoche – Rinpoche is a Tibetan honorific meaning ‘Precious One’ – and eventually insight, peace, and physical health returned.

Today Lama Lodro is an eloquent speaker and an engaging teacher in his own right. He tells many fascinating, sometimes funny stories about his time in Asia and about his meditational experiences. Presently he is working on his first book, a meditation manual for Westerners.