Welcoming Everything You Experience: A Path of Joy, Compassion, and Service

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Rabbi Jay Michaelson, author of the new book The Gate of Tears: Sadness and the Spiritual Path, and Zen teacher Koshin Paley Ellison, co-director of the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, are hosting a dialogue on the subject of "loss, compassion and service" on Wednesday, March 2, at the Zen Center in midtown Manhattan. In preparation for the event, they talked about the different ways in which they approach the nexus of contemplative practice and social activism.

Jay Michaelson: I feel like people might assume a dialogue about loss must be depressing, but for me it is actually joyful to be able to talk about deep stuff. I'd certainly rather do that than debate Bernie versus Hillary.

Koshin Paley Ellison: Life is precious. Recently, someone asked me, "You do all this work with dying people. Isn't that depressing?" I was touched by the sincerity of the question. I paused for a moment and responded, "Well, some of the time I work with people who know they are dying. They know their diagnosis. Yet, all the time I am teaching and in relationship with people who are dying and don't know tht they are dying--like all of us." We have such limited time in this life, and to wake up to this inspires me to live fully--how I look at people in my life, appreciate the quality of light in the room i am in, and the treasure of realizing this. So, the people who know they are dying soon remind me of the great possibility of appreciating life right now. For example, that you and I are having this conversation about sorrow and joy.

JM: Do you want to briefly explain what the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care does, for readers who might not be aware?

KPE: The Zen Center is based in engaging your life. We do this through our three pillars of practice, study, and meditation. We are people engaged in being of service to those experiencing old age, sickness and death. So all our study, meditation and direct care flow from our beginner's mind, bearing witness and loving action. Of course, this is easy to say. We practice allowing the ten thousand joys and sorrows to teach us what it means to live. Which is also what your book, The Gate of Tears, is about. Tell me what continues to inspire you about the book?

JM: With my previous books, and with any "spiritual" teaching, there's always a subtle power relationship, a claim of knowing something that the student doesn't. That's okay, as far as it goes, but I love that with this book I'm teaching from a place of vulnerability, of not having answers, of remaining with unanswered questions. It feels authentic and refreshing. I also tried, with this book, to present the one dharma teaching that has impacted my life the most, in real terms: how being present with sadness -- not pushing it away, not wallowing in it, just acknowledging and making space for it -- tends to open us up to ourselves, to other people, and to the call to pursue justice and be of service. It strikes me that all three of these might be essential and intertwined in the work that you do, right?

KPE: Absolutely. Welcoming everything that is being experienced, examining how our old fears block us from connection, and then softening to our vulnerability. This is essential spiritual practice. It is easy to push it away and hide, and maybe we need to go under the covers for a bit. The, come out and explore. How do we work with our fears, and struggles? How do we wrestle to become free of our conditoned habit responses. My vow is to work with this for at least this lifetime. What vows do you have Jay?

JM: That's a hard one! Interestingly, in my other career, I write about law, religion, and politics for The Daily Beast and other newspapers, and I just finished a piece about Senators breaking their oaths of office by not considering a Supreme Court nominee. I wrote about the seriousness vows are meant to have in religious and civil-religious contexts. So now I'm reluctant to state one out loud! I think, for me, it's a matter of first principles. At least in my working life, what do I take on as a commitment? For me, one of those has to do with suffering. You know, the first noble truth: here's this thing, suffering. Maybe everything is illusion, empty, whatever, but inside that experience is suffering, and it would be better to have less of it. I like that Richard Rorty, the 20th century philosopher, said that that's all you really need to get going on creating a moral life: just knowing that cruelty is bad, that we should minimize it. And yet you've got to feel the truth of suffering, I think, to really want to alleviate it in others. You've got to be able to be present with (and not freak out about) people in pain, in grief, in fear, in order to be effective. And finally, to me at least, a good companion, chaplain, caregiver is also aware of what's going on in themselves. Does that make sense?

KPE: There is such isolation in every sphere of life. In our Zen practice there are three jewels: our awakened mind, the teachings of the moment, and community. I never quiet understood why they were called jewels until a few years ago. They are precious and we need all three. We need to cultivate our and the awakened mind in a nourishing and tender way. Each moment is the perfect teacher. How do we open to the moment and not believe all our old stories and opinions? For me it is all about community and receptivity. Without my community and teacher, I would be adrift in the world. My teacher, my partner Chodo and community are a refuge. We care for each other and learnng to ask for help and support is essential. I did not used to ask for help, and I found myself depleted and feeling the world on my shoulders. And then, receptivity and vulnerability. How do we become receptive to allow ourselves to fully participate in a spiritual community? How can we be receptive and vulnerable to allow a teacher(s) into our life? These are ongoing questions for a life time of practice. The moment, I think I figured it out, I am far away from the authenticity of the fresh moment. How about you Jay?

JM: For me, I'm working a lot lately with the question of "how much is enough." Not in terms of sense-experiences -- as I get older, I'm less thirsty for those, plus I've been blessed to have drunk from the well quite a lot. But in terms of, how much do I have to do -- how many books, projects, students, media hits, friends, fans, fame is "enough" to feel complete? For me the answer is to let go of the feeling of "complete" and feel complete in being incomplete. That's what the book is about -- the beauty of the broken vase, the joy in sadness. I've often felt there's a beauty in sadness that feels like the beauty of silence. It's beyond my power to articulate, yet I find it profound.

KPE: I agree. In our work training doctors, nurses, social workers and chaplains in contemplative care we have found there are a secret community of people who deeply value this beauty. Much of our work has been about bringing people together around this shared value. We do this through our sangha, retreats, our national symposium, and through our new book, Awake at the Bedside. My question for you Jay, is how do you create community around this beauty of sadness and silence?

JM: I think this may be one place where our paths diverge somewhat. As an introvert, I am nourished by times of solitude, spaciousness, and quiet even more than by a formal spiritual community. I'm also married to my partner, who I love, and I'm blessed both with friends and with a subcultural 'tribe' that I'm part of which meets me in heart and body. I don't feel a lack of support or of community in my life. But it's true that I also flit between several worlds -- Jewish, Buddhist, pagan; journalistic, spiritual, academic. It's been the shape of my life for thirty years, so I've made my peace with it, joys and challenges together. Actually, I think one of the (many!) things that draws me to you and your work is how you, too, integrate different kinds of work, in this case contemplative practice and engaged work in the world. There's a myth out there that you can't have both spirituality and justice/compassion work, even though every tradition I know of says the exact opposite: that the two enrich one another.

KPE: For me, the natural process is to serve others. Clearly, this is one expression, and there are many kinds of service and care. I think of the barista I see everyday, and the care she offers in the way she engages me with her eyes and conversation. I am more and more interested in the multiplicity of caring relationships.

JM: That is a lovely place to close.