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Koshin Paley Ellison on Appreciating Life


Last Updated: 12/22/2017 2:12 pm

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.

One of the things I've been talking about a lot these days is isolation, which is becoming a health pandemic in our culture. It has early death indicators, higher than smoking. We're acculturated to not really allow others in; we feel shyer and more autonomous. Yet we think we're connecting to people—for example, on social media. Social media is good, but it depends on how it's used. People who use social media a lot tend to have higher rates of depression and isolation.

So how do we learn how to extend out beyond what's comfortable? Learning how to connect to other people is profoundly important but not easy. Be willing to try new things, be willing to feel a little uncomfortable. The poet Hafiz says, "Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I would like to see you living in better conditions." You can't know the unknown through the known. We can't do something new by using our old way of being. One of the things I love about living is that we have the opportunity to do something new all the time. The invitation is always present. We can participate fully with others and know that everything matters.

So, appreciating your life is actually realizing that it's not about you.

Exactly, and that's part of the freedom. It's not about me—what a relief! Maybe I'm experiencing sadness or awkwardness, but humans have experienced those things throughout time, and I'm just having my experience of it. We get a chance to look at what we do with that, and learn to do something new.

And what do we mean when we say, "your life"? Often, we think it's what we can touch and taste and smell. But who made your clothes? Who grew your food? There are all these people whose names we will never know whose lives touch ours. We can recognize the mystery of all these beings and people, animals and plants, that allow us to live our lives. If you really take that view, how can you not be more joyful?

At a Zen retreat we all do things at the same time. We sit together at the same time, walk together, eat together, chant together, keep silence together. But we're doing it that way so we can see our habits of how we take ourselves out of relationship. And yet we can practice bringing ourselves back into relationship.

Is meditation or Buddhist practice necessary to achieve this?

I was just talking to a dear friend who's also a Buddhist teacher, and we found that neither of us care whether people become Buddhists or not. Yet we need some discipline, some way to practice, whether that's qi gong or yoga or whatever it is. I have a friend who does it through gardening. It's about finding a way to connect to other people and having a discipline that helps us realize that in many ways we're completely dependent on, or as we say, interdependent with all things. Albert Einstein said our life is about widening out the circles of compassion. The work that we need to do is to expand out. So many of us are deeply empathetic beings, meaning that we can feel other people's feelings. Even just walking down the street, we can sense if someone is angry or sad, and it affects us.

One of the reasons why we created our center was to learn how to widen the circle of compassion. We do it through a community Zen practice and through direct care at the bedside. In the last 10 years, we've offered care and support to over 100,000 people. We train physicians, family members, caregivers. We also have education programs, including a certificate program and a master's program, because I think we all need to learn how to care for people.

How can we get better at caring for each other?

To actually really listen to someone and really participate with them is what's healing. It's something we all know, because we know when someone is paying attention to us. You can feel it. Think about the people in your life who make you feel cared for and listened to. They're really there. In some ways, it's kind of ordinary. We all know how to do it, but we forget.

These ideas, and in fact the whole creation of the center, were inspired by my grandmother. I was her primary caregiver at the end of her life, and she felt that people didn't know how to pay attention to each other. She made this really interesting distinction between being a well-meaning person and knowing how to pay attention. I think this is a really beautiful distinction, because they are very different things. What she saw is that many family members and clinicians were well-meaning people but didn't know how to really attend to her. And it wasn't a judgment, but a sense of, "Wow, we could really do this differently. And how do we do it differently?"

When my grandmother was in hospice, I moved in with her. And it was her idea for me and [Sensei Robert] Chodo [Campbell] to open a center and start training people in Zen and caregiving. She was the one who thought we should really pay attention to people. She felt like that was actually the healing agent.

So here I was thinking you were going to talk about nirvana and recognizing our lives as treasure, which Taizan Maezumi talked about in his teachings.

Well, if you think about it, it's actually all about that. One of the definitions of nirvana is "the place where the wind does not move." It's about finding the place in yourself, and in the world, that is unmoving. In other words, you can just stay in the discomfort, or stay in the relationship when it feels awkward. You can have the courage to stay and not run away.

It's also nirvana from the point of view that paying attention is the healing agent. You can feel who is distracted and who's really with you. You can feel who's touching that place that we call nirvana. Offering that kind of attention is a blessing. For anyone who's going through a struggle or having any kind of difficulty, what could be better than that?

Paley Ellison will co-lead the retreat "Winter Sesshin: Appreciate Your Life" at The Garrison Institute on January 11–14. Held mainly in silence, with dharma talks, meditation practice, walking meditation, and one-on-one meetings with the teachers, the retreat is open to all.

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