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Koshin Paley Ellison on Appreciating Life

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How do we create a society where we actually care for each other? That is the question that motivates Zen Buddhist teacher Koshin Paley Ellison. As the editor of Awake at the Bedside: Contemplative Teachings on Palliative and End-of-Life Care (Wisdom Publications, 2016), and the cofounder with his husband, Sensei Robert Chodo Campbell, of the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care in New York City, Paley Ellison is on a mission to offer a Zen approach to the way we care for the people in our lives, whether they're our patients or our grandparents.

At the Garrison Institute on January 11–14, Paley Ellison is teaming up with Chodo Campbell and Sensei Dorothy Dai En Friedman to offer the retreat "Winter Sesshin: Appreciate Your Life," based on the teachings of Taizan Maezumi Roshi, one of the first Zen masters to bring Zen to the West. I recently connected with Paley Ellison to explore his take on the teachings, the art of caregiving, and how the act of paying attention can be a path to recognizing our lives as treasure.

What does it mean to "appreciate your life"?

Koshin Paley Ellison: It's essentially to learn how to not take anything for granted—each moment, each breath, each person around us. It's easy in some ways to forget that the people who are around us are the people in our life. Every day, we're impacting people that we live with and care about. When we walk down the street or sit in a cafe, we're impacting people. The Buddha said that our actions are our true belongings, and how we function in the world is at the heart of what we can do in this world. Which is exciting, because we can really be there.

One of the reasons why meditation practice is so helpful is that we actually experience what we're experiencing while we're experiencing it. For some reason, that's unusual. If we want to practice being alive, which is also unusual, it is to really understand how to wake up. And to wake up is not just for us, but for the service of being with everybody.

That makes a lot of sense coming from you, since you work with people who are dying and those who care for them.

I work with dying people every day, but only some of the people know that they're dying. Most of the people I work with don't know that they're dying. When it comes to the people who know they are dying, many of them have regrets. They regret things around relationships and fear. Like how much they've allowed their lives to be run by fear and a kind of insecurity or tightness around the different things we all struggle with. But the amazing and encouraging thing about working with people who know that they're dying is that they know that this is it.

When my friend, the amazing poet Marie Howe, was with her dying brother, John, he said, “Marie, this is it.” And she said, "What do you mean?" He said, "What you've been waiting for." He gestured around as if to say, "Right where we are is what we have." It's amazing to me how often we are not participating in what is actually happening. We're waiting for something else to happen or for someone to do something.

At our center [the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care], we encourage people to actually walk down 23rd Street while they're walking down 23rd Street. And so there's this community of people who are actually here, while most of us are people in a dream. There's a wonderful Zen teaching that says most people see a peony as if it were in a dream. But really the teaching is that it's always right here. With all this waiting and busyness we're missing what's actually happening. I think that being lost in these dreams is a habit that we can learn to change.

How do we wake up from the dreams?

For me, three ingredients are essential to cultivate an awake mind: You can be aware of how you're functioning in your thoughts, words, and actions. Then you can learn how to be receptive to what each moment is bringing. These things are easy to say. But one of the things I've found is that community is essential. For example, having a teacher is really helpful for me. To have someone you can check in with and participate with makes all the difference.

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