Why Didn’t They Say Anything?

I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.

My actions are the ground on which I stand

-attributed to the Buddha

What happens when someone’s actions are helpful and harmful at the same time? Looking at the life and work of Joshu Sasaki-roshi asks this question with others close behind. His death at age 107 on July 27, 2014 brought with it a coda of brilliance and accomplishment to a 93 year full engagement as a zen monk and teacher. It also left a wake of allegation, dispute, guilt and sleaze. Starting in Japanese temples in the early 1920s where he entered as a young teen novice and ending in a Los Angeles hospital bed, his vast teaching career, influence and benefaction has been overshadowed by a sadly tainted legacy. Sasaki was of the Rinzai tradition of zen, a strict and rigorous discipline of 16 hour practice days, koan study and work. His arrival in the US in 1962 met the first waves of young Americans seeking the wisdom of Eastern spiritual traditions utterly different from the ones they were raised with. American culture and mores were flipped upside down, assumed power positions were challenged; gender, sexual, class roles, all questioned. Into this vibrant, changing new atmosphere, American zen students dropped into the highly structured setting of Sasaki’s teachings with its Japanese cultural forms and practices, unchanged for centuries. Not for the faint of heart, his teachings demanded a lot from students. There’s estimates he touched the lives of a half million people. For some women students, Sasaki’s touch carried more than traditional zen study. Allegations had been rumored for years of his improprieties, of his telling women to expose their breasts to him during koan interviews, unasked for touching or demands for sex, refusal of which bringing threat of expulsion from the community. These allegations blew into the open in 2012, when Sasaki was 105. He never responded to them.

What are the teachings here?

Sasaki’s obit* highlights the trajectory of his life and follows the ark of his arrival in America, the establishment of teaching centers, the close presence to Sasaki of his most well known student, musician Leonard Cohen……….and allegations of sex predation. Does this obliterate, nullify his teachings with a ‘but’ or can it be expanded into an ‘and’? Sasaki, the alleged sex predator meets the acclaimed teacher of long duration held with great love, admiration and gratitude.

Sasaki rose from a strict hierarchal tradition of monastic life consistent in its forms for hundreds of years. There were no women there; he later married and it is with his wife that he arrived in the US. His wife survives him.Sasaki’s arrival came at a time of tectonic-shifting changes in America. The historian Arnold Toynbee said that ‘the coming of Buddhism to the West may well prove to be the most important event of the Twentieth Century.‘ When cultures heave with transition, new energies and forms reveal themselves and spiritual gaps are made visible. So it was with the introduction of Buddhism in the West. Buddhism has been shaped by every country and culture it has entered; extending from Toynbee’s perspective, maybe the West needed Buddhism as much as Buddhism needed the West. One major change coming with Buddhism’s arrival in the West was that men and women practiced together. That had not happened before. It was in this emerging atmosphere that Sasaki and his students met.

The teachings coming from the allegations against Sasaki must surely include the context in which Rinzai traditions met and shaped the teacher as the teacher met a new culture in new times. In their wake, Sasaki’s dharma heirs, his anointed students understandably were called to task. Will he be renounced? Will satellite meditation centers newly started as offshoots break away? And most of all: why didn’t anyone say anything? His senior students issued a letter of acknowledgement layered with guilt, remorse. “Our hearts were not firm enough, our minds were not clear enough,” the letter said. Clarity of mind is foundational in zen, but where in this statement is a teaching? Is one meant to be there? We on the outside ask as people always do when bad sexual behavior on the part of people in power is revealed, what were they thinking? An assumption there, that they were thinking. Disgust and dismissal folded into teaching isn’t the usual way we think in realms of spirit but that rises to the challenge now, one of inclusion.

Our ability to both know and not know simultaneously comes forth when our integrative functions fail us. We all carry a capacity for splitting off information that’s intolerable, that doesn’t fit with our encoded mind maps. The impressions, feelings, thoughts arising out of deep encounters with others, both familiar and new, push us to fit experience into narratives of what’s real and sometimes what’s right. When the regulating function of reality doesn’t hold and our moral compass spins, we dissociate what we can’t accept and segment it off somewhere. We see and know what we can, sometimes in bold stroke, and minimize or deny the rest. Dissociation is a default mode when we can’t hold the wildly conflicting contradictions we’re presented with in any given moment. Not knowing is a state of mind that zen teachings present as openness to what’s encountered, of no fixed view of real or unknown. Not seeing or being flooded with contradictions of what we’re experiencing is something quite different. Then, there is no ground to stand on. In the confines of a top-down spiritual community under the heat of sexual predation, this all took form in Sasaki’s community.

I find myself parachuting into the rooms and minds of Sasaki and his women students in the intimacy of teaching interviews. Just what would be seen there? What was Sasaki, his students thinking? Was coercion, power brokering and confusion subtle or overt? Sasaki in his teacher part met the sex hound dog part of him. Were these parts on speaking terms? And his students…..what parts of them went quiet, or into freeze? How did they feel – an assumption unto itself – and where did they place the contradictions of their experiences with him? How were teachings transmitted to men differently than to women?Allegations of his mis-conduct started to arise close to 25 years ago but were not taken seriously, blown out into the open until 2012. It took years for people to find their voices, their revelations of bad behavior spoken and for them to be listened to. Why did it take that long? Where did practitioners hold their doubt? Idealization and loyalty spiraling together with fear forges silence. Shame is the greatest of silencers.

A member of Sasaki’s Los Angeles group said, at the time of the 2012 allegations, ‘It seems to be the kind of thing that, you get the person as a whole, good and bad, just like you marry somebody and you get their strengths and wonderful qualities as well as their weaknesses.’ An inclusive perspective, but to be fully inclusive, there needs to be room for those influenced and shaped by Sasaki to have their own responses, the feelings arising for them, their confusion, isolation and broken trust. Inclusivity for a sangha of spiritual practitioners needs a big space. Common sense, that basic knowing of standards of behavior, what’s proper and permissible and drawing a line around it, may not be the best fall back in asking why didn’t community members en masse speak out. Traditional student roles of openness and submission to spiritual authority along with each practitioner’s knowing and not knowing coalesced together into collusion in Sasaki’s community. It became a closed system.

Sasaki’s influence spread over 50 years in the US, a time ripe for the dispersal of many zen teachings. The teachings stand on their own but come to life as a practice most fully through the direct influence of a teacher. Teacher, student and teachings all interpenetrate. When the teacher brings the fullness of him/herself to their role as teacher, boundaries drop and lines separating teacher and student take on deeper roles based on mutual trust. When this is missing, teachings become distorted, perverted and deeply confused. In the everyday realm of human relationships, this is where trouble begins. Zen teachings speak of ‘the indestructible body of the buddha’, that body of faith, of practice, of wisdom being bigger than any one person and certainly any one person’s bad behavior. In the end, are Sasaki’s students, those abused, those not, those who knew of sexual improprieties, those who did not…….in the end, are they glad they met him? In balance, are they happy their lives met his?

*San Francisco Chronicle, July 30, 2014


A Trip To The Post Office

India as full-on experience comes in extremes, spreading and splaying out with sensual overload and layers, like veils, revealing themselves in strange and exhilarating faces and forms. The cultural newness, the utter unfamiliarity with what a Western mind might call normal keeps you on your toes. Travel there is as much an encounter as an adventure. What are these people thinking? How does this place even operate? For me India’s been eye-poppin’, heart opening, stomach churning, nose wrinkling, confounding, joyous and fascinating. It’s with the latter that I’ve kept returning, not always sure why but pulled back by the utter contrasts of the land, its people, the gestalt of it like nowhere else. There’s the densely saturated colors, the silks and fabrics, finely wrought artwork, crenelated castles mounted atop rock outcroppings surrounded by endless desert……..the stuff of travel brochures, all there. There are holy sites, often located by tour buses crunched in front and surrounded by fetid pools of water where people bath, wash their clothes and brush their teeth. Spirituality is tangible, easily felt and interwoven with everyday life, nothing about it hidden. There’s a subtle, softly surprising interconnectedness between people, me included, the interpersonal boundaries Westerners take for granted utterly blown and distorted. That connectedness sometimes loud, pushy but seldom aggressive, often magical with a simple glance or smile, other times utterly maddening. One can surrender to what’s being presented or – alternately – find yourself fighting the chaos and commotion asking why can’t things just be normal when in fact they’re not. Nothing’s usual. I learned early on that when I needed things to be the way I needed them to be – which usually doesn’t happen in India – I didn’t have a very good time. When I stepped back into something like a OK, here we go sort of mind state, things turned out differently. That lesson has been ongoing. It’s one thing to drop into a state of acceptance when meditating with others in a crowded holy site, people talking, walking to and fro, brushing by. It’s another to sit for a hour or two on a train stopped in the middle of nowhere with no announcements and non-functioning AC because the electricity powering the train has cut out. And there are people everywhere, looking directly at you in ways that one might assume at home was either a sexual cruise, that you were being hit on for money or they were outrightly crazy. But they’re not. Just intensely curious. I’ve sometimes had the thought on having an Indian man look at me that I was his first earthling. That invitation for contact can be warm, humbling or strange. Or all three. But it’s not the way we do it back home.

So it was with all of this as backdrop that on one trip to India, I had come to the end of my visit and was preparing to leave. My traveling companions and I were in Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganges; congested, exotic, everything happening all at once. Easily the most compelling place I’ve ever been. On that last day I had one final task; finding a post office to mail the collection of cards I had gathered for friends back home. A friend and I approached the desk clerk at the hotel to direct us to a post office and we started walking. Since there are no street signs, there were a few wrong turns, some turnarounds, a couple more askings of directions, dodging rickshaws, tuk-tuks and gaggles of shoppers. Then we saw a red box in front of a building. It looked like a post box, no sign indicating anything but it looked enough like a post office to go in so we did. There was a counter of a usual size with people behind it and a sign: ‘Buy stamps here.’ OK, I thought, this must be it. Seemed straightforward. Then I looked around. It was a large room, sort of, more like a cave. Had these walls ever been painted? Varanasi has a power outage every day from about 11-3 so the only light inside was that coming in from the sunlit street. I couldn’t really see the back wall. Nothing much seemed to be on the walls, maybe an official poster, little more. There were desks in the back with men in spectacles bent over huge crinkled ledgers looking, looking. How could they even see anything? Off to the side several men stood. Were they doing anything in an official capacity? It seemed for a moment I had entered a Kafka novel. My mind was searching for some order that wasn’t readily coming.

And there was this: of the 5 or 8 staff people behind the counter, no one paid the least attention to us, the only 2 customers who had entered the building. I stood behind the plexiglass counter at the ‘buy stamps here’ position and waited. A clerk maybe eight feet away looked down at a piece of paper in his hands. I stood there. After a few minutes another clerk came along and elbowed him, thrusting his neck in our direction. No words exchanged. It was like they were all under water. The clerk approached us. ‘What does a stamp cost for a post card to the US?” He mumbled something that I couldn’t quite make out and I thrust rupee notes across the counter and held up fingers for ten stamps. He pushed stamps back……and many rupee notes in change. What I had thought was the need for a 20 rupee stamp was actually 2 rupees. Pleased. I had my stamps. I went over to a side counter to stick the stamps on my cards. There was a little glass bowl with a sponge to moisten stamp glue. The sponge was bone dry. It didn’t seem like a good idea to lick the back of Indian stamps so I asked and motioned to the clerk if there was water for the sponge. A blank mumble. But by then communication had been transmitted. I wasn’t getting any wet sponge. I went back to the side and phatuy-ed a little spit onto my finger, wet the stamps and thumbed them onto my cards.

OK, mission close to accomplished but something in me wanted to know it was complete. I did that super pantomime thing people do in frustration when they really want to communicate something that doesn’t seem to be making its way across the language divide. Standing tall, bugging my eyes at the clerk behind the counter, now sort of looking in my direction, in firm, clearly enunciated speech I said DO I (pointing index finger to my chest) TAKE THESE (pointing to the cards, raising them up in dramatic move) AND PUT THEM (holding cards between thumb and index finger, raising them up for good view) INTO (swivel body and pointing in direction of red post box) THE BOX (back to holding cards between finger and thumb, pinkie slightly extended and doing a half loop as in dropping them into a container) and for good measure ending my pantomime pivoting back with a raised eyebrow towards the clerk suggesting a question. He looked at me blankly, almost shook his head as in ‘no’ and mumbled flatly. He extended his arm towards me. That seemed like progress. I gave him my cards. He turned around and dropped them on the floor behind him. I looked at him and felt a little deflated. If there was anything to say now I didn’t know what it was. It seemed like some basic post office transaction that I thought should happen hadn’t happened. I wondered if my cards would ever arrive. I walked out on the street. It was like walking out of a surreal dark aquarium.

Twelve days later all my cards arrived at their American destinations.

Thinking About Philip Seymour Hoffman

Late Sunday morning, checking online news, coffee cup nearby. A usual routine. And there, just breaking, news of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s death from heroin, the lurid and highly visible image of his body having been found with the syringe still in his arm in nearly the second sentence of the news dispatch. How….why….shock….sadness….the utter waste….a loss of someone who so mattered….another one.

Hoffman, the journeyman actor, rare in America with his lack of flash, unpolished manner, his versatility and intelligence, his commitment to craft, now gone. I was a fan; followed him through scores of performances. I’m left wondering of the narrow dark hole of addiction he had sunk into, the utter aloneness of it and its scope unfathomable from the outside.

He is said to have had 22 years of sobriety, close to half of his 46 years of age at his death. When asked about his drug and alcohol usage in his 20s, he said he liked it all, tried everything. The sense that he needed to get high, that tug hard, intense, maybe wordless. He liked it all. But whatever addictive forces had gripped him, he grappled with himself and carried on. A recovery.

A couple of years ago something changed and he started using again. Last year he apparently went into rehab and stayed 12 days. Whatever fortified that grip held tight. He appeared at the Sundance Film Festival barely 2 weeks before his death to promote a couple of his new films. As was his wont, he was rumpled, unshaven, not fluffed, with a knit cap pulled over his head (Utah in January, it’s cold). A journalist reports he saw him, didn’t recognize him and thought for a moment that this was a homeless man who had wandered in. The journalist asked him who he was; Hoffman answered “I’m a heroin addict” and walked off. The journalist then saw who he was.

“I’m a heroin addict.” Such a spontaneous statement about oneself, the sheer truth telling in that gathering of industry blitz, light and show, that hole made visible. He had assumed a powerful role but it wasn’t the one he had come to Sundance to promote. My heart breaks for the rawness of his vulnerability. The night of his death he dined with friends in a casual eatery in New York. He then withdrew money – a large sum – from an ATM and what is known next is that his body was found with scores of bags of heroin in his apartment and five empty ones near his body. He really needed to get high.

The sadness and tragedy of his situation, the waste and loss, the devastating aftermath for his partner and children, the stupidity and arbitrariness of our drug laws, the shame so easily projected on his behavior; all pale compared with the forces of addiction that gripped him. Life was happening to him. We all have forces in our lives that can take us over, nameless shapeless delusions clouding perceptions, knowing what is real in our world. When lucky and with work we triumph over them, right ourselves and carry on. Sometimes we don’t and are pulled under by them.

In the days following his death, I followed the media stories, multiple angles, responses. One stands out: a tv interview, split screen with the commentator interviewing a social worker familiar with heroin use and potency in the mid-Atlantic states. The toxic cut of fentanyl, a powerful opiate, being the factor killing many unaware heroin users being a center of the interview. And what stood out was this: the interviewer, initially leading with exploratory questions gradually shifted to a tone of incredulity, one of how could this happen and then slowly her head began to shake back and forth, a new tone now of disgust, of those people, of the distance between us and them and what we know can happen to them. The starkness of projected shame. It can’t happen here.

I keep wondering what Mr. Hoffman was thinking, feeling that final night of his life. Of course we’ll never know that but what seems clear is this: the loosening of moorings, the fathomless pain he felt, the aloneness of it, and the intensity of his addiction overrode everything else. What happened to Mr. Hoffman was utterly personal and unique. The power of the downward pull of addiction was not.

a differing edition of this blog post appeared here on Feb 12.14

Your Relationship With Alcohol

ʻYou never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enoughʼ

-William Blake (from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell)


Alcohol use is everywhere in our society.  It’s socially sanctioned, easily available and a part of many social gatherings, particularly those starting after 5pm.  Many folks drink to wind down an edge of stress from their day or as a conversational lubricant when gathering with friends.  This is normal, it has wide societal support and people can and do continue their drinking patterns for years without adverse reactions.  For them, drinking is part of their world, seldom given much consideration, a routine part of life.  Good!  We might call that an unentangled relationship.


Relationships of any kind come in many shapes and forms and they change over time.  Drinking may have started for you as something you simply did, but over time become something of a silent partner. As time passes, this relationship develops and deepens but still may not feel like a relationship.  It’s not like a being you’re interacting with, of course, but it sure may be talking at you.  The question is: are you listening?


Alcohol may be a casual friend that you use to relax, unwind or ease into social situations.  It may be something you do consistently, maybe alone, to get to some desired emotional state or to avoid other ones. Your relationship may be one where you start drinking and before you know it, you’re either drunk, embarrassed or behaving badly.  You may start to lose confidence in yourself and your ability to make good choices for yourself.  When drinking has progressed to that state, people are presented with a whole realm of questions, many highly charged, with no easy answers.  Can they drink at all?  What would moderating their drinking mean?  ‘I don’t have a problem with my drinking but (fill in the blank) has a problem with it.’  For these people, alcohol is something they’re having a relationship with and that relationship is taking up a whole lot more space than they may think it’s taking.  Relationships with alcohol can be ones in which it seems habit alone starts the drinking and it continues until……….numbness or blackout keeps you from knowing anything more about it.


What parts of yourself are involved here?  Some addiction writers talk about The Addict as that part of the self making excuses, promising to do better, lying, being untrustworthy and either denying that there’s a problem or promising to make changes and then doesn’t.  The Addict can’t be trusted and can’t be reasoned with.  But I think it’s more complex than that.  For any person with a problematic relationship with alcohol, there’s at least 3 self-parts operating: a part that feels pain, awkwardness, or anxiety.  This part may drink to enhance positive states while avoiding others.   There is usually a second part that is adept at squelching pain, discomfort or avoiding it with the firefighting protection of alcohol.  Finally there’s the part that’s left confused, flummoxed, uneasy; how did we get here again?


Change doesn’t come all at once and it’s not linear…….it comes in forward steps, of fluster, falling down, renewed determination, consolidation.  Alcohol’s influence on us has 3 components: the chemical and biologic action of the substance itself (the drug), the external environmental conditions the drinker is in (the setting) and the unique psychological make-up of the user at the time of use (the set).  All 3 interact together to form the full response of alcohol use.  Blaming a drug for your problems is missing the point.  It’s in the combination of factors, conditions and their interactions together that fully show us our relationship with alcohol.  Blaming yourself also doesn’t help much since the guilt and shame involved in doing so blinds us from soberly seeing all the moving pieces at play and the choice points involved at every step of the way.


What’s the feeling you have about your alcohol use?  Is it a trust-worthy friend, a 5 o ‘clock de-escalator (they don’t call it happy hour for nothing), are you worried about it’s power over you or are you numb to it all?  Do you find yourself in a cycle (or cycles) of resolving to make something different, falling back into unhealthy drinking with behavior problems underlining the unhealthy part?  Do you feel your use is unhealthy or have other people told you something’s got to change.  Is the phraseget a handle on things’ relevant to you?


Relationships vary in terms of intensity, the values we place on them and the ways in which they consume us and so does a relationship with alcohol.  It isn’t marked by sharp demarkation lines (though that would sure make it easier) but rather run together, aren’t always clear and differ for each person.  What would happen if one – or more – of the conditions involved in your drinking patterns changed or was taken out of the picture?  Conditions may be internal states, of feeling, of memory or something external in our immediate environment impacting us to degrees we react to or avert ourselves from.


Asking whether you have a problematic relationship with alcohol takes courage; asking may elicit another part of yourself, a part that wants help.  That part doesn’t need to be big and it usually isn’t at first.  All that’s really needed is an element of focus and curiosity: what is this about for me and what’s really at play here? 


Relationships change; they can be molded and shaped when we bring our best efforts and focus to them.  What fits the best for us?  Are we running the relationship or is it running us?  With the latter, there’s less room to move, fewer clear options.   Left unexamined, alcohol mis-use stops being a relationship so much as it becomes a habit.  Then we’ve lost our power to choose and the relationship itself simply becomes a problem.


originally posted at psychedinsanfrancisco.blogspot.com


After Reading Whip Smart by Melissa Febos Whip Smart

After Reading Whip Smart by Melissa Febos


Whip Smart is the story of a bright young woman, raised in a middle class small town American life that she jettisoned by her mid-teens to fend for herself in work and independent life in Boston.  Waiting tables, the in, out and in again of myriad relationships, taking night classes at Harvard and eventually relocating to New York to pursue college, Melissa shows her scrapper self.  New York, for her, was the only real destination worth marking and it’s here that the story really begins.


Like college students past and present, she lives with other students in shared apartments, is short of cash and curious and adventurous enough to happen her way – via a short cryptic ad in an alternative weekly – into being a dominatrix in a BDSM dungeon in lower Manhattan.  Her arrival there is what the book blurbs on the front & back covers call ‘unsettling’, ‘exposing the darkest corners of uncharted territory of both her and her clients’ minds’.  And there the story turns onto a wider screen.  The BDSM world she charts of life in the dungeon is one marked for her by secrets, the exchange of power, the separation of desire and action and throwing off of any societal standards of appropriate sexual conduct or feelings.


What also comes through is the Febos’s use of dissociation to sustain herself, starting with what’s needed to do her job but spreads into other areas of her life.  She goes to work on her designated shifts like any working girl, has relationships with her co-workers and shares take-out and cigarettes in the lounge watching tv between sessions.  But as the story continues, her feelings get complicated, really complicated.  Febos is a marvelous writer and shows us through her experiences the rationalizations, identity shifts, and frustrated desire that get layered upon layer of her accumulated time there. It’s often very funny, as any drop into a parallel universe can be.   What’s missing is any shock, surprise or reaction to the new or unknown.  She’s just going to work.   It’s not that what she sees is familiar or known (it isn’t) but that her experience in sessions (or as she puts it, sessioning) isn’t felt beyond some certain level.  She doesn’t have access to parts of her own experience, which, is one working definition of dissociation.  I found myself re-reading sentences and paragraphs, dense with tangles of wobbly-linked experience to make sure I got it all (I probably didn’t).  She is working hard to keep segments of her life separated, shorn off and the effect for her is confused numbness.  Seamlessly her drug use, active since early teens, becomes an assumed daily activity for her.  Narcotics create distance, a distance she needs to keep this all going.  Her use of I.V. speedballs (heroin + cocaine) become a matter of course of her, never remarked upon by co-workers or clients until one of her clients in the afterglow of a session asks her directly:  Are you on heroin?  


We get to see the gritty glamour of life in the dungeon with the scenes she’s asked to orchestrate and co-create with clients, overtly and tacitly.  Sometimes this involves playing out scenes of childhood traumas, sometimes making the forbidden real.   She’s paid well for her work and takes it all in stride; the claustrophobia and darkness of her work (whoever heard of a light and airy dungeon anyway?) mirrors the tunnel vision needed to be either a submissive or domme in her world. The pageant of men that her clients are are written of respectfully, vividly and we as voyeurs get to see a lot of acting out of inner life in this transgressive little theater.  Febos wryly and with more than a wink observes that her work is one of the only high paying acting gigs in New York.  It is also a job that requires and creates altered states, the euphoria and disgust of dominating and submitting and the vertigo transiting through them.


As the story unfolds, Febos’s feelings about her work, the explanations, her folding of experience into identity slowly catches up with her.  Her having knowledge and a calling card of a unique style becomes a way she gauges acquaintances and dates to see their shock, silence or too-soon-to-believe acceptance.  Her own stance towards her drug use and work and the way the 2 intertwine are where her recovery from drug use starts.  As with many peoples’ step back from drug mis-use, there are missteps, slips, despair.  Finding a sponsor who sees her complicated life, her job, drug use and spiraling depression as one thing, addiction in action, is where her recovery begins.  It’s here that the book’s narrative opens up.  There’s a freer flow, a sense of air in the atmosphere.  Her visits to her therapist and the easily said but hard fought dialogue between them is almost infused with light.  Of course!  More space inside, more outside.  Febos charts this beautifully!


The world that the author paints in Whip Smart is about power, the power of transgressive action, of the gaps between our actions and what we know of our motivations for taking them.  Above all, what’s most evident is the power of secrets.  Dominance and submission are the foreground power stances exchanged in the scenes played out in the dungeon but also in the minds of the participants involved.  The need to give up control is as powerful as the need to assume it, and Febos’s skills as a writer show this two toned world and the desire threading through it all.




Working With Your Life

“They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself”

-Andy Warhol


Once, a few decades ago, a meditation teacher I knew talked of the importance of ‘working with your life’.  He said it casually, off-handedly, in the way that he said most everything.  This from a guy who had been thrown out of the Navy for being gay, later becoming a junkie and a performing drag queen before doing a 180 into full spiritual practice.  He knew about working with one’s life, like his own.


I heard it then, registered it as compelling but somehow didn’t make a lot of it at the time.  As happened with a lot of that teacher’s comments, they resonated with me years later.  What does working with your life mean?  This line or another of his will rise up for me now, for no particular reason.  I guess I’m listening now.


The operative word here seems to be with.  It suggests that we can work with the raw materials of what we’ve got and also that its work; its not about to happen by itself.  There’s effort involved.  We all have life material surfacing all the time from momentary stimuli, from worries, memories, relationship stuff, the swirl of emotions, conundrums.  There’s always material manifesting and always movement.  That’s as it should be; it shows we’re alive.  And here’s where it gets interesting: what do we work with it if we do it at all?


Working with your life as you find it probably doesn’t mean setting the bull’s eye on ‘he/she/fill-in-the-blank’ as the cause of your distress (though the heartless bastards involved probably have a hand in it…..there, I said it) but looking with intent, quietly and with attention to what’s foreground – now.  That tendency to project our problems and dilemmas outward onto others is a natural tendency, though one that’s good to catch ourselves in the act of.


As with projection, stepping back from full-on identification with life as a set of problems to be dealt with is a place to start.  Giving words to experience helps; that’s what psychotherapy is all about.  When we talk, we’re symbolizing bits of experience into the form of words and putting them out into the world.  This process of symbolization means that energy inside us is shaped and moved.  Maybe transformed.  Having a witness in another person’s presence be that therapist, friend, partner opens up resonance channels in the 2 brains involved.  When we feel heard, we feel connected.


To work with your life, internal space is needed, enough to feel the textures and grit and finely worked habits we have taken for granted, for bonafide reality.  And patience – another kind of space – to sense what’s present now.  For many it means giving meaning to experience, understanding and putting into context something of our own history but for others it’s more of a staying with what’s real and present now and doesn’t involve much thinking at all.  It can be a right sizing; allowing feelings to be felt, thoughts long sequestered coming forward, linking behaviors and their emotional drivers.  It might be knowing what’s ours, what’s not but that knowing of what is ours, that’s important.  The intimacy of staying with our unfolding experience can for many truly feel like work.  For others, it’s home.


This working with your life may come about by necessity, say, when alcohol or drug use gets out of control, when relationships hit the rocks or dissolve, when others tell us we have a problem and the confrontation lands.  Working with your life may be a spread sheet – hopefully a long one – of gains and loss.  Our life transit always includes elements of loss and saying good-bye; taking that in, feeling it, is necessary so we can move on and re-connect with life again.  Working with what’s here for us now, room can be found for our joys, unanswered questions, sorrows.  Working with, engaging, with our lives makes room for setbacks (with a sting), triumphs (probably easier), that whoosh of time passing.


originally posted on psychedinsanfrancisco.blogspot.com on May 8, 2013


Deconstructing Mindfulness

Mindfulness is everywhere nowadays.  Like so much else in American life, it’s become a commodity, a product.  Not long ago I was looking over the 2013 course listings for an East Coast conference center and saw 19 courses being offered with the word mindfulness in the title.  And that’s not counting the ones with mindfulness’s first cousin ‘consciousness’ appearing in the title.


A quick Internet search showed similar offerings elsewhere on Mindfulness in Capitalism and Conscious Horseback Riding.  If being mindfully capitalist helps someone gain a widened, less-adrenalized perspective on themselves (and maybe their cardiac health), their families and co-workers, then they’re working with themselves in a good way.  As for conscious horseback riding, I’m not so sure but if it helps to keep you from falling off the horse, well, that too is a good thing.


My skepticism here is certainly not about mindfulness, but the commodification of it, the making it a thing outside of ourselves to search for, a product to own.  Mindfulness is really about one of the most ordinary things in the world, that is, using our mind and focused intention to track, observe and follow what our experience is right now.  It’s available to us at any time and its basic nature belies its potential power and depth for simple transformation.  Even now.


Mindfulness taught and accessed as a skill set comes from meditation technique, particularly teachings from the Buddhist traditions.  Mindfulness as a skill or tool to be learned is a de-mystification of meditation.  Teachers of it – I’m thinking of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work with Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction – have stripped away much of the cultural and religious references to Buddhism, revealing a core of valuable life skills that offer us volumes in this speedy, rev-ed up and sometimes scary 21st century.  It’s an opportunity for our mind – and brain – to rest, gain horizontal space and perspective and to recuperate.


Mindfulness is not doing nothing but may involve a letting go; it doesn’t involve stopping all thoughts or emptying your mind (that’s a tall order) but is an active, watchful state of mental balance where tension can down regulate but you’re not falling sleeping either.


Mindfulness offers a structured way to step back from our thoughts, observe them unblended from emotionality and right size them as mental constructs vs. a felt full on reality we’re being confronted with.  As an antidote to the busyness and pressure of multi-task mind, mindfulness practice offers us an opportunity to reset the clock, to see the world, this life we’re living with the simple appreciation of the moment we’re in.


And mindfulness practice is just that: its a practice to engage with.  Part of that engagement is never fully perfecting it.  And the never perfecting it is part of the practice.  It can be as big as you make it.  Right now: at the end of that last sentence there was a period.  Stop.  Take a breath.  What did you notice?


One reason mindfulness works as a skill set is that it utilizes the frontal lobes of the brain to observe thoughts, emotions and the comings and goings of our mindstream.  These frontal cortical regions enable us to reason, think through, prioritize and give order to mental activity.  When online they balance and can override those emotionally reactive – and volatile – limbic regions of the brain with their jumpy monkey-mind ways seeming to have a life of their own.


That ability to access our frontal lobes can be the missing link for people with trauma and abuse histories.   These folks can stay locked in loops of reactivity, pained memory and split realities leaving little room to down regulate or self reflect without judgement.  That ability to press pause and right size trauma-triggered mental life is a key benefit of mindfulness.



Outcomes from bringing mindfulness into our lives can include a gentler relationship with ourselves, with increased self acceptance, not marked so by self criticism but by a sustained view of where we are now, the world inside and outside of ourselves and our place in both.

 originally published at psychedinsanfrancisco.blogspot.com on April 10, 2013