counselling

The Hardship of Caring - MiniPost

I recently came across this quote by Normal Fischer:

We become numb and isolated because we want to avoid the suffering, but it’s the

numbness and isolation that feel the worst. When we break through the unnecessary

suffering and connect with others, it’s hard and it’s painful, but it’s also better. When we

open up to the real pain of caring for others, we do feel better

This speaks volumes about how I once dealt with close relationships. I had become quite proficient at distancing in order to maintain my own sense of “safety.” By avoiding the suffering of friendship and caring for others (particularly new people) I had learned how to be able to avoid the potential hurt of caring for others.

This has changed for me in the past few years, but it takes a lot of work (and is on-going). I find myself often overwhelmed (when I am not doing my own self-care) by the sheer pain/dissatisfaction/sadness of other people. This is a gentle reminder that it is through facing this vulnerability we build stronger connective tissue. Strong connections take work. They involve suffering, and they are not pleasant. It is, however, in moving through this unpleasantness that we can build the safety nets of true community participation that I think we all really crave.

Be well, friends

Jesse

***As an aside, “suffering” here denotes a personal uncomfortability and emotional turmoil/unpleasantness. If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship that is something to correct/leave/ find support for as soon as is safely possible. Look out for one another. ***

(Re) Discovering Connection

potatoes fall 2018.jpg

(Re) Discovering Connection

The Beginning of an Inquiry into Community

The potatoes pictured above came from the garden my wife and I planted earlier this spring. We are not “green thumbs” by any means, and potatoes have the reputation of being a little more resilient to our neglect than other vegetables. So, the season went on, and true to form we allowed the potatoes to (mostly) raise themselves in our little garden boxes in our yard. As we came and went over the season, we could see the green leaves climb towards the sky and marveled at just how little we had to be involved in order to see something grow so large. For me, potatoes are a neat little treasure: unlike the squash that balloons out in your face, barely hid by it’s own wide leaves, potatoes are hidden. They find their way to maturation out of sight, and so you can only mound and wait and hope they are going to be alright.

In both my counselling, my recent education (a Master’s of Education) and in the world at large, I have been drawn over and over to the sense that there is a massive disconnection. A community-sized void that people are trying to fill with all kinds of non-community things: TV, the internet, drugs, alcohol, outrage, denial, and lonliness. I am one of those people. I find it easier and easier to stay at home and comfortably watch TV or play video games than to go out to socialize and risk awkwardness, boredom, or uncertainty in the name of community building. I am also very lucky. I have found and managed to retain a few important friends that have become my family. I can rely on them when I am in trouble, and whine to them when I am sad, and just be nurtured by their presence when all is well. In some ways it reminds me of the potatoes - when you find a good community, you just kind of exist, mounding experience and time on to your friendships, hoping those pale-skinned nuggets of trust and connection are growing. Then, when you need them the most, you can plunge your hands into the soil, and hope they are going to be there for you, to nourish you or to simply brighten your day with their presence. If I am fortunate, some days I can provide the same thing back for those same people. We plant and tend and grow and rely on one another over and over again, season by season.

All that being said, I truly do think I am lucky. Lucky in that my particular community has slowly grown in ways that are working. As I said before, there is a theme in my work that is telling me this is not the case in most areas of many of our lives. We buy our potatoes, cleaned, semi-symmetrical, sterile, and trade them for money. This often mirrors our engagement with community - that it comes (usually in the form of syndicated comedy or drama) in clean, 30 to 60 min packages ready to be consumed and told how to laugh or cry or connect with characters we see in ourselves and in our struggles and we get the added bonus of shutting it off whenever it becomes too much. I would argue that in both cases, we are missing something. We are missing the dirty hands, the discovery of ants in the roots of the plants, the uncomfortability of not knowing how things will turn out, and the drawing together of people (or food, or both) when things do work out. The image of roots comes to mind, and how they draw their nourishment from everything around them, they don’t get to pick and choose, and together they help their common goal (to grow) come to fruition.

I think that some our communities (spiritual, regional, familial, occupational, and all others) have suffered the same fate of disconnection that I have with my store-bought potatoes. They can feel transactional and distant and not really grounded in substance. They lack the dirt, the care and the giving of yourself that makes them valuable. This may sound naive to the farmers out there, but I have a much harder time throwing out or wasting the things I grow than the stuff I buy. There is something of me in these potatoes, and I don’t want to do that a disservice. Our communities and friendships and home environments should model this, I think. They should be places where we have vested interest, we care for one another because we are in it together, period. We plant in the spring because we expect there to be a need for potatoes in fall, because one day, we might not be able to simply drive to the store and get them. What would happen if we treated our communities like this?

I will continue to write on this subject every few weeks for those that would like to follow along. I welcome your voice on anything that comes up during the journey.

J

90 Day Commit-to-Sit: Week 12 - Unpacking Our Own Stories

This is the twelfth in a series of blog posts aimed at capturing my experience following the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care’s 90 Day Commit-to-Sit challenge.  Each day, I have been sent an email that contains an excerpt from Maezumi’s Appreciate Your Life with a brief reflection afterwards.  My intention is to share my experience each week to foster discussion, illuminate the process of working on a practice, and reflecting on an excerpt that stuck with me from the week.

For another project I am working on, I have been writing a lot about the concept of contemplation.  While contemplation can take many forms, my own contemplative practice is meditation.  I use meditation to unpack the thoughts that are taking up space in my mind.  I do not clear my mind, instead I flit from one thought to another to my breath, then back off to another thought again.  While ultimately, I believe the goal of meditation is to flit less and less, this way of practicing has yielded some really great insights into my personal narrative.

What I mean by narrative is the story that I tell myself about the events in my life.  When I sit down, I have a view of my street, and as I see snow clouds rolling in, I am likely to think, “Can you believe it, snow again, what an inconvenience!”  This is a natural response.  Another way of approaching this thought, however, is to look for the way I am telling the story: These clouds are a problem for who?  For me.  Why? Because they don’t give me the weather that I want. I am inconvenienced, the injustice! So, I take it kind of personally.  If nothing else, I find my mood souring, or I begin thinking about all the things I am missing out on because of the selfishness of weather patterns. 

Either way, I am telling the story of disappointment.  I am let down.  I am not getting what I want. 

These sentiments are now going to affect the next thing I do, and the next.  Usually, this can go on for quite a while. Usually, there is a cascade of emotions depending on how I have written my own story.   What meditation has done, however, is allow me to engage in a contemplative way with my emotions.

By unpacking the narrative, the flavor of the story, I can become far aware of my own effect on my day.  I can instead choose a narrative that supports growth and happiness.  I can choose to say, “More rain clouds, I guess that means I work inside today!” or “That’s the weather for you, what can you do!”  The difference, though subtle, is noticeable if one is paying attention.

Spring arriving has me thinking about how we tell our stories.  It is a time of growth and renewal and, naturally, the end of winter.  In each season we see how the cycle keeps moving forward: growth, life, death, birth.  We often get stuck in our preferences - like a preference for personal/environmental and spiritual growth - or get preoccupied with our fears  - ones surrounding stagnation, change and death - and this flavors all the other aspects of our lives.  As Maezumi points out, each of these states serves as a teaching point.  None are intrinsically good or bad – they offer us a perspective through which to see events as they are presented to us:

“So what is life? What is sickness? Who is getting old? Who is dying? What are these different perspectives teaching us? 

It is not a matter of four kinds or two kinds of perspectives as such. Each one of us has a different life and yet the same life-the life of birth, illness, old age, and death. How do we best live this life…?”

For me, contemplation and meditation are about answering Maezumi’s question.  How do we best live this life?  Do we taint our experience with (often unconscious) obsessive insecurity and fear, or do we take the lessons, realize that we each have the same life and work to unpack our thoughts one day at a time?  My practice has allowed me glimpses of the stories I tell myself, and I look forward to learning many more.  This week, consider your own stories.  What are they tell you and what perspective does that bring?

Be well, friends.

J

90 Day Commit-to-Sit: Week 8 - Prioritizing this Moment

This is the eighth in a series of blog posts aimed at capturing my experience following the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care’s 90 Day Commit-to-Sit challenge.  Each day, I have been sent an email that contains an excerpt from Maezumi’s Appreciate Your Life with a brief reflection afterwards.  My intention is to share my experience each week to foster discussion, illuminate the process of working on a practice, and reflecting on an excerpt that stuck with me from the week.

Writing this blog has made meditation a big part of my life.  I read, I sit and I write.  It’s a sort of rhythm that runs in the background of my normal daily routines, a rhythm that pervades my interactions, my choices and my internal dialogue. It has made me more aware of the thinking me and is, slowly but surely, helping me prioritize my thoughts and time.

There is a common instruction for meditation:  If you choose to keep your eyes open during the practice, choose a spot just a little in front of you, on the floor and focus on that spot. Your gaze should not be too far, nor too near, when you are practicing.  This instruction is designed to place your focus on what is right in front of you, as you breathe and move with your breath. Too often, both our minds and our thoughts are so far ahead of us they are distorted by the curvature of the earth.  When we focus too much on the future, we stop living right now – we live in a distorted possible future instead of an experiential present.

My experience is no exception.  In the same way that I have found a meditation rhythm that gently plays in the background of my life, I have also found a future-focused rhythm that dominates my weeks.  I start Sunday nights thinking about all the work I must do the coming week.  I am focused on the classes I’m teaching and the clients I’m seeing, I think about my schedule and the work that needs to be done and all my deadlines.  I wonder if I’ve forgotten to schedule or plan for something the following week. I begin to plan my “free time” so as to not lose out on an opportunity for maximizing the space between work and sleep.  Even writing it all down is exhausting.

But then, every week, it all passes and I wonder where it went.  Sometimes on Friday afternoons, I step out of my office and I’m suddenly aware of the present moment.  I have the conscious thought that it is all done, that I have a brief reprieve from the things that I was so worried about.  There is a sense of relief, like a light switch being clicked off.   The difference now is that my meditation practice  has added another thought to this process: “Where was I during the last week?  How did it all go by so fast?  Why does it feel like I was just going through the motions while worrying about getting it all done the whole time?”

This same mindset can be applied to the practice itself.  We can sit down at our practice thinking: When am I going to get it? Am I doing this right?  Did I think too much?  What is enlightenment, anyways?  Maezumi states that this kind of far-gazing is really doing us no favors:

The awakening experience is important, but relatively speaking, it is rather minor. What is more important? This life that we are constantly living minute after minute is most important. Our practice is here! Now! How to do it? In fact, you are doing it.

 He reminds us not to completely abandon our “important” things, but rather see them as a part of a whole.  That the week to come is not to be ignored, but perhaps put into perspective.  The things we feel are of huge importance on Sunday night come and go in the same way as every other moment leading up to and following them comes and goes.

 It is easy, and natural, to get lost in the far-off horizon.  To look for what is to come in order to prepare, worry about, and try to get ahead of it.  However, being in the moment is also important, and you are right here right now.  This coming week, invite yourself to prioritize your moments, giving the present moment the top spot.  How does that change your week?  Is there something to be gained from letting go of the distant future?  What does this minute have to offer, and what are you doing with it?

 

Be well, friends.

 

J

90 Day Commit-to-Sit: Week 5 - Examining the Other Shore

This is the fifth in a series of blog posts aimed at capturing my experience following the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care’s 90 Day Commit-to-Sit challenge.  Each day, I have been sent an email that contains an excerpt from Maezumi’s Appreciate Your Life with a brief reflection afterwards.  My intention is to share my experience each week to foster discussion, illuminate the process of working on a practice, and reflecting on an excerpt that stuck with me from the week.

There was something redeeming about opening my email a couple of days ago and seeing that I had made it to Day 30.  One of the reasons that I decided to write these blog posts was to create some accountability for myself, and to semi-publicly proclaim that I was going to actually follow through on a 90-day commitment.  As I write this, I sit with 32 days (having missed a total of 2) of regular meditation under my belt.  As these blogs hopefully convey, it has been a learning experience.  Each week brings new insights, new obstacles, new perspectives on the way my mind works and has allowed me to connect and speak to a community of people who also have an interest in meditation.

One of the things I have been exploring through this process is the idea that meditation “solves” some of the problems that we have in life.  These can manifest as stress, anxiety, bills, loss, grudges, worries, fears and a whole host of other unpleasant emotions.  When you dive into the literature on Zen meditation, however, it becomes clear that this  is not the intent of developing a practice.  Meditation is not an escape, but a return.  A return from the thoughts listed above, back to the body, the breath, the presence of now.  As Meazumi puts it:

“We have a practice know as the paramitas. Paramita means "to have reached the other shore." Dogen Zenji says, "The other shore is already reached." In other words, the meaning of reaching the other shore is to realize that this shore is the other shore. This life is the unsurpassable, realized life. There is no gap.

So if there is purpose to our practice, it is to realize that this shore and the other shore are the same. The purpose is to close the gap, to realize that there is just one shore, there is just one life. To reach is extra. Until you realize that this shore where you stand, this life that you are living, and the other shore, the life of the buddhas, are the same shore, you cannot appreciate your life to the fullest.”

As I see it, Maezumi is reminding us that when we sit, that sometimes we can get caught reaching for a better version of us.  A version that doesn’t worry, or fear, or love too deeply, or have the aches and pains of living. 

A version detached from suffering. 

In this same excerpt, he brings our attention the idea that reaching for the other shore allows us to convince ourselves that there is another shore.  That there is something outside of us that we can get to that will solve our issues.  When I sit to solve the problem of interpersonal strife or work stress, I am reinforcing the idea that I am that stress, that thoughts are things to be solved.  That they can be escaped by receding into practice.

I have come to realise that this is not the case.  That as Maezumi points out, I was (and am) already that other version of me.  I am that version of me because there is no other shore, and as such no other me.  The grass isn’t greener on the other side because the other side is make-believe.  The stress we try to escape in practice is a pattern of thoughts that you can not get away from, because things that are not real can follow you anywhere.  Instead, we turn to those things and sit with them.  We look at them and try to internalize the thought there is no other shore, and in doing this, we sit with who we are here-and-now.

To be clear, I am not saying that there are not real problems and concerns that we face in our lives.  There can be many, and they may pose real risks and hardship.  However, the thinking portion of these problems exist only in the space between the neurons and atoms of our mind.  The anxiety of returning to work tomorrow steals from me the option of being here right now, fingers on keys, contemplating mindfulness and enjoying the view from my living room window.  There is no meditating practice that will banish my obligation from work.  There is, however, a practice that will “close the gap” between the ideal me, who doesn’t worry, and the experiencing me, who is here, enjoying my afternoon.

My goal moving into this next week is remind myself that there is no other shore. That this is the moment I exist in, and that it is my sitting practice that can bring me back to that.  I do not sit to be another version of me, I sit to actualize that I am (and that is all there is).

This week, I encourage you too take some time to look at where you might be reaching in your own life.  How much of your time is thinking about who you should be or could be.  What would happen if you looked around to realize that you have everything you need in this moment? That you were already standing on the other shore?

Be well, friends.

J

90 Day Commit-to-Sit: Week 4 - The Complexity of Peace and Learning to Live

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts aimed at capturing my experience following the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care’s 90 Day Commit-to-Sit challenge.  Each day, I have been sent an email that contains an excerpt from Maezumi’s Appreciate Your Life with a brief reflection afterwards.  My intention is to share my experience each week to foster discussion, illuminate the process of working on a practice, and reflecting on an excerpt that stuck with me from the week.

This was one of those weeks where everything just felt like it got away from me.  I sat and practiced -  though my partner was unable to join me a few times - but I went through bouts of feeling like sitting was an obligation instead of a privilege.  I kept feeling rushed to sit. Trying to eek out a little time to just breathe and contemplate the daily excerpts.  I kept thinking of the quote, “If you can’t find 5 minutes to sit, then sit for an hour” and silently beating myself up for not making the time to find space.   I found myself waiting for a majority of my sits to just be done, so I could move on to the next thing I was supposed to do.

I don’t have an answer for this, the truth is, I am still working on the process of finding that balance – I’ll keep you updated.

What I can tell you is that I was taught a lesson about finding peace this week, a lesson about how I was living.  I was taught this lesson from my old, needy dog, Edi.

 First, the excerpt from Maezumi:

"Remember the four steps of practice that we described in the beginning: listen to the teachings, reflect on them, practice them, and finally experience them in your life. Examine your practice. Refresh and encourage yourself. Realize your life as peace itself, your life as it is now. We do not need to expect anything; in a sense we do not need to try to do something about being peaceful. The reason is simple: peace is already here as your life. Isn't it fascinating? Realizing constant change and no fixed self, you yourself are peace. Then being peace, how are you living?"

How am I living? Is a pretty constant question for me.  So, after reading this excerpt, I chimed the bowl, adjusted my body and sat.  As I mostly failed to clear my mind, I thought about this question.  What does it mean to live peacefully, to live as though this moment was the only real thing that I was experiencing, that everything is in flux and change and that stability is an illusion?  Shouldn’t that allow me to just let go of the things that bother me?  The self-criticism, judgement, and go-go-going-ness of my life.  Is there a place in there for the peace that Maezumi talks about?

As I delve into these seemingly unanswerable questions, I hear the familiar tinkling of tag-on-collar.  Edi, our black lab-collie cross has decided to come join us for a sit.  Not just that but she has decided to come and nudge her nose into and under my partner’s arm, creating a force-petting situation.  I open my eyes and look over, and see that despite my partners’ resistance, Edi is winning. 

Her insistence on getting pets is one of her defining traits. 

And here is where I learn my lesson.  Instead of being peace and living my life in the way that I think encapsulates this ideal, I tell Edi to go lie down.  She doesn’t even acknowledge me.  I repeat the command and she responds by panting heavily but holding her ground.  So, in my quest to not be interrupted from finding peace, I lean over and nudge her back, repeat go lie down!  This time she acquiesces, backs up a foot and plops down onto the ground, looking at me, with very cloudy but loving eyes.

I turn back to my cushion, and think How am I living?

The irony of the moment then dawns on me, and I am rocked by it’s implications:  In sitting to contemplate peace, I just separated myself from an animal that has, as far as I can tell, unlimited and unconditional reserves of love.  I feel pretty dumb - my intensity of practice blinded me to the experiencing of which Maezumi speaks.  I sit with that a while longer.

So, this is my takeaway this week.  That we can get so wrapped up in our own stories about living in the now, that we forget that we are connected.  That we can be blinded by our own narratives so fully that the perspective and compassion and interconnectivity of everything is obscured.  That we can literally push love away while sitting and asking how to find it.

I have thought about this a lot since that day.  Edi has gotten a lot more attention, and a few apologies.  I have aimed to live my practice at the same time as I practice my practice. 

As you move through the coming week, I invite you to ask yourself: How can I invite peace into the moment to moment spaces in my day?  How can I move out of my head and into my life in a way that supports and pays tribute to the person I aim to be? How do I experience my practice – How am I living?

Be well, friends.

J