by Sensei Koshin Paley Ellison, Guiding Teacher of the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care
I am not what has happened to me. I am what I chose to become.—Carl Jung
I am a Zen Buddhist monk. I have a shaved head. I wear a lot of black, and I have a habit of talking about how awesome meditation is. Basically, I’m Mr. Miyagi—that’s what the deli guys downstairs from our Zen Center call me, anyway.
With my husband, Chodo, I cofounded a non- profit organization, the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care; it’s in the heart of Chelsea, New York City, if you ever want to visit. The Zen Center offers guidance for people in meditation, trains medical professionals and other folks in compassionate caregiving, supports people and their loved ones through serious illness and death, and assists family and friends during their grieving process. There’s no karate, though.
I actually wanted to be a Zen monk since I was a kid, which I admit is perhaps rather unusual. I saw a photograph of one in a magazine when I was eight years old. He was standing in the middle of Tokyo wearing his ajirogasa hat, which is this massive woven bamboo hat that looks like an overturned bowl, and his black monk’s robes. Blurred figures in suits were all scurrying to and fro around him; he stood in the center, the only one in focus. I remem- ber saying to my grandfather, “That’s what I want to be.” It was something about his stillness—or it might’ve been the amazing hat.
My family had been deeply affected by the Holocaust, and I grew up with relatives who were living with a lot of unprocessed trauma, which manifested itself as verbal, physical, and sexual violence. Being gay opened me up to my own suffering at the hands of my peers. On school mornings and at the end of the day, the school bully would be waiting for me at the bus stop, and once again I would have to run the gauntlet. In hindsight this is probably why I gravitated toward the calm energy of the monk.
When I eventually became a monk, I realized just how much healing I had to do. When I left my family home, I had great difficulty trusting others; I was living with a lot of hurt. I felt very sure that all the bad things that had happened to me gave me license to live my life with a certain entitlement. And because I was afraid of how I might be further hurt if I let people in, I built an elaborate wall around myself, which I would never allow anyone to climb over, because I didn’t want anyone to find out how sad I was. Even when I was introduced to Buddhism, I thought of myself as the consummate outsider, never to love or to be loved. I got into it, actually. It was my thing.
At age eighteen, I was on a bus in Colorado, and a warm-faced woman struck up a conversation with me. I had started practicing Buddhism by then, and she had too, so she asked me which community I was affiliated with. I responded, “I have a lot of teachers—Daido Loori Roshi, Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg . . . but I don’t practice with any one community in particular.”
“Oh,” she said. “So you’re a lone wolf.” “Yes!” I nodded and smiled. She went on, “You know what’s interesting about lone wolves? They’re sick. Wolves are pack animals, and they often mate for life. So if you see a wolf by itself, there’s actually something wrong with it.”
I will always remember being on that bus, its funky Greyhound smells all around me, and being totally struck dumb by her comment.
I share this with you because what I was suffering from—the “lone wolf phenomenon”—is a common characteristic in our society today. Our own personal, emotional habits of isolation have now become part of the culture itself. This is how bad it has gotten: a recent study surveyed incoming college freshmen about their greatest fear around entering college; the answer was interacting with other people—which is supposed to be one of the most basic human behaviors!
I’m sure a sociologist could give you a thorough and nuanced explanation of all the factors that have contributed to these cultural habits. (The pop-ularity of smartphones comes to my mind.) But regardless of the reasons, I see it often in my stu- dents as a Zen teacher and in my patients as a chap- lain. People are afraid of looking at and being with each other. They’re afraid of—and paradoxically long for—honest, loving, and ordinary conversa- tion. There’s an incredible amount of awkwardness and odds are, in the coming generations, it’s going to get worse. Odds are, too, if you’re reading this book, you’ve felt—acutely—the heavy weight of isolation yourself. It can be extraordinarily painful.
At the movies and streaming on our devices are images of robots and zombies taking over the world. We love a good apocalypse flick in which humanity is besieged by enormous AI machines or the walking dead. But look at the way people sit in restaurants or walk to their car or train: head down, face closed, walls up. The zombies are here, and they are us. Desperately hungry for con- nection, lost in the narratives we’ve constructed about the past and the future, we look to our phones and computers for a morsel of false com- fort, or we convince ourselves that someone else’s life will bring us contentment or authenticity. I see the zombies everywhere, even in my own mir- ror. How do we wake up from Zombieland?
Recently, at my gym, a guy I see all the time but had never spoken to was in the locker room at the same time as me. I had always thought him to be a little pretentious; he was never friendly to anyone—he never made eye contact or smiled or struck up conversation. He usually used a locker far away from mine, but that day he was adjacent to me, and he had his arm in a sling. “What happened?” I asked.
When he turned to answer me, he had tears in his eyes. He had suffered a compound fracture in his collarbone, he told me, and as we got to talking he shared that right after he hurt his collarbone, his mother had gone to the hospital and suddenly died. He was in so much physical and emotional pain, but he was also so surprised and happy that someone was talking to him about it. As for me, it made me reflect on how much distance I had cre- ated between myself and another human being just by making up a story in my head about who this person was. I’d done this for two years. When I finally spoke to him, he wasn’t pretentious at all. Just shy, tender, and sad.
This is what this book is about: reversing our isolation by coming to know the emotional patterns that keep us trapped in our own heads, and learning how to be in relationship again. Or, in other words, it’s about bringing connection and care into your life in a very real way. Not an easy task! But we’re in it together—all of us zombies and lone wolves.
You already know I’m a Zen monk, so it probably won’t surprise you that what I have to say about this comes mainly from the Zen tradition, although I’ve also been known to recap a favorite fairy tale or two. If you’re not a Buddhist, though, don’t worry; this is about getting in touch with your own values, whether those come from a spiritual tradition or another source that you hold close to your heart, so you can live energetically, authentically, and lovingly. The method I’m draw on to do this in Zen is called the sixteen precepts, but I’ll use that term “precept” sparingly. It often calls to mind a series of strict commandments that you must follow lest you be struck down by lightning. So for our purposes, it’s better to understand them as prompts for investigating your own life—how you’re causing yourself and others pain, and how you might mitigate that pain.
I want to share with you three of the most important. The first is paying attention. Zen people put a lot of stock in paying attention, which is actually pretty hard to do, especially when what you’re currently paying attention to kind of sucks (more on that later!). Their technique for building up the paying-attention muscle is meditation; this is the sitting, eyes gazing down, soft and upright pose you’ve likely seen before, although, if I’m being truthful, meditation isn’t all that chill. You can choose to try meditating if you’d like, but you can also practice paying attention while just going about your day-to-day routine. This is one of the ways we start to reestablish connections with others. It also provides a solid ground from which to investigate our own behavior, because you’re certainly not going to be able to enact meaningful change if you’re walking around unaware of what’s going on around you.
The second is service. I like to sum this one up as “your life isn’t (only) about you.” What a relief! Because, man, wouldn’t it be a struggle if it were? One of my favorite quotes ever is by this old Japanese teacher named Kobo Daishi. He was a radical who devoted his life to bringing Buddhism to the masses back when it had been reserved as an elitist activity for the clergy. He said that you can tell the depth of someone’s enlightenment by how they serve others. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. agreed: he said that what you do for others is life’s most persistent and urgent question. I’m not saying you need to go volunteer in a soup kitchen, although formally volunteering is certainly an activity worth considering. I’m pointing more to service on an ordinary level. How do you treat your neighbor, your sister, the person sitting next to you at the coffee shop? What would life be like if you were—even just a little—less interested in your own stories, problems, opinions, and so on and more interested in what’s going on with the people around you?
Recently I was reading that one of the most popular burial choices right now is to seal your grave so that no water can get inside to disturb your dead, rotting body. One funeral director I met told me, “That way, you’ll know your loved ones will be safe.” In many ways, we live like this: sealing ourselves off from each other. Sometimes we even die like that. But it’s a false sense of safety, living from inside a coffin. It might seem paradoxical, but instead of contracting inward, try expanding outward, and take the world around you into account. It’s far more freeing. This is how I understand service.
The third is nonseparation, or intimacy. There’s another old Japanese teacher who I like a lot: Dogen. He wrote in one of his many texts, “The wholehearted practice of the Way that I’m talking about allows all things to exist in enlightenment and enables us to practice one seamless reality in the path of emancipation. When we go beyond the barrier and drop off all limitations, we are no longer concerned with conceptual distinctions.” Sounds highfalutin, I know. Dogen tends to sound like that. You can think about that quote like this: You’re never going to get out of interacting with other people—and if you do, it’s most certainly a cause for concern—so you might as well learn how to do it. This inescapable connection is what Dogen means by “one seamless reality.” It’s an invitation to collapse the gaps we create between us—those many gaps we make in so many ways. For me, truly realizing that we’re all in it together, the only sensi- ble response is to live a life of generosity and love.
How to Read This Book
This essay is about how to live the life of an awakening being, sometimes called a bodhisattva or a mensch, someone who cares for others in all of the many ways that care can manifest. This person may serve by being engaged with an ethical livelihood, reconciling the divided, feeling joy for the celebrations of others, cultivating partnerships with the suffering, seeing occasions for showing gratitude to others who have helped them, treating all they encounter with respect, and sitting with frightened beings in the midst of fear.
Living in this way brings us out of isolation and into a relationship with the world and its inhabitants that is full and vibrant.
This precepts are organized traditionally, but these guidelines and this practice are for everybody. First are the three treasures, or refuges. These are essential aspects of a life of attention, care, and love. They are the oldest of the sixteen, as they were formed by the first people who studied with the historical Buddha, the guy who mapped this path and taught it to others. Traditionally, the ref- uges were meant to be deeply appreciated. They are comprised of the awakened mind, the teachings, and the community of practitioners; I work with them as a commitment to wakefulness, receptivity of life, and being in community. Only when these three are integrated can we truly support moving the needle of transformation. Next, the three pure precepts are built on the three treasures. Traditionally, they are ceasing from evil, doing good, and doing good for others. Sounds like a tall order! Yes, good and evil, and yet perhaps not how you usually think of them. Essentially, they are how to cultivate a mind open to possibility, how to remain open to everything the world holds, and how to act from love. The first six precepts give us a strong foundation to work with the final ten precepts, which examine carefully and specifically how to orient our lives.
Each precept is a chance to contemplate what that topic means for you in your own life. It’s like a navigational tool: what direction is my life going now, and where do I want it to be going? So feel free to flip to any reflection that grabs you, and work with it for however long it suits. That could mean for the next hour, the next week, the next year—or more. But don’t feel that you need to take them on all at once. They’re meant to be returned to, again and again, and their lessons overlap and reflect one another, like the many facets of a single jewel.
Questions are not to solve or answer. They are meant to be contemplated. In the old myth of Oedipus and the sphinx, Oedipus thought he had to solve the sphinx’s riddle, but when he did (and what a clever person he thought he was!), the sphinx died, and Oedipus’s life went to shit. What I mean to say is this: Keep the question in front of you. There’s no need to solve it. Just be in relationship with it.
There are a few things to keep in mind as you begin to work with the precepts. The first is that they’re not meant to be a destination. They’re more like the North Star—you travel toward it, but you never arrive. There’s no state of perfection to achieve, no perfect person to become. If there is a goal, it is to rest in being perfectly imperfect. So if some of the precepts are more difficult for you than others, it’s all right. Don’t beat yourself up, and remember that a life of love includes you in that love, too.
The second might be best illustrated by a story. I have a student named Claire who was involved in a biosphere project where scientists created their own miniature world. It was the size of three foot- ball fields, and they brought in forest and lakes and marsh and desert, 3,800 species of animals, and eight humans beings. One striking thing about this biosphere, Claire told me, was that the trees didn’t do well at all. They wouldn’t grow straight. The scientists found that it was because there was no resistance in the biosphere: no storms, no winds, no extremes of temperature, which are the things that strengthen the heartwood of the tree, that give it its resilience. We can practice developing heartwood through being fully alive in the winds of life.
There’s no use pretending that life isn’t hard sometimes. But it’s also wonderful and amazing and a million other things. This essay is about embracing those countless qualities. You don’t need to be happy about all the bad things life contains, and you don’t need to solely identify with them, either. Even the worst situations may have beneficial outcomes, if you wait long enough to see them arise. So much depends on our ability to hold both a wide and focused view together. The key thing to remember, especially when you encounter difficulties with enacting these precepts in your life, is this: keep going.
I want to close by telling you one more story. One of the most beloved figures in my life was my grandma, Mimi, who on her deathbed taught me how to love in the way I hope this book teaches you. I was one of her primary caregivers in the last five years of her life. I was staying with her in the hospice when she was actively dying, and one night she woke me up in the middle of the night shouting, “Wake up. Wake up.” I was immediately upright. She was crying when she said, “I’m so sorry.”
“For what?” I asked.
“I didn’t know until this moment what it meant to truly love you,” she responded. This was quite startling to me, because I had never felt so loved in my whole life. I felt adored by her—and adoring of her. But she had never quite gotten the Buddhist monk situation, and she told me that a part of her had contracted away from me because of it. “Only now as I’m dying,” she said, “do I understand what loving really means. It means to love all the things about someone, even the things that frighten you or that you don’t understand.” During her time in hospice, many of my Zen friends had visited with her, just to hang out—to sing a song or give her a pedicure or eat a sandwich or whatever. I wonder if that helped her warm up to my Zen path and bring her to this revelation.
And then she suggested that Chodo and I create a nonprofit organization that would train people how to take care of others and teach people about “the Zen.” So the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care—an integration of my whole life’s work (poetry, caregiving, Zen practice, teaching, and love)—was founded by Mimi Schwartz, this four-foot-nine Jewish immigrant woman from Brooklyn. It was her idea, which came out of her experience of being loved and loving in return.
This is the work we have ahead of us. The reward is life itself.
This is an except from Wholehearted: Slow Down, Help Out, Wake Up
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