Sunday, April 26, 2009

Zen Craziness

I'd missed this bit in last week's magazine...

...Sometimes he was the Zen master Mitsunen (the name meant “Now Mind”), who got up before dawn each morning to sit selflessly for hours in meditation. Mitsunen received dharma transmission, by which teachings are passed from master to disciple, in the Soto school of Zen and was ordained a Zen monk in the Soto and the Rinzai schools. He served as head monk at the International Dai Bosatsu Zendo Kongo-ji in upstate New York in the 1970s; for years he has led Zen retreats in Florida and North Carolina.

Other times he was Louis Nordstrom, a 63-year-old professor, poet and essayist with a round face, a shaved gray head and a shaky grip on whatever guise it was that people employed to navigate train stations and grocery stores. He earned a Ph.D. in philosophy at Columbia (his thesis was on Sartre’s theory of evil), and after giving up the monastic life he chose over tenure, he scraped by on teaching gigs at half a dozen schools, including Yale and N.Y.U. But the anxiety he was mired in in the summer of 2006 seemed deeper than what might be expected from financial or professional insecurity, or the infirmities of growing old, or even the aftermath of a busted marriage — his fourth. For two decades he lectured on the emergence of Western lay Zen, arguing against what he saw as the antiemotional bias of monastic Asian Zen in favor of an approach that integrated psychological experience into meditation practice. But as a pioneer of Zen in America, he had little success practicing what he preached. An antidepressant hadn’t helped much...

ith a wraithlike air, the Zen master accepted a seat on a black leather couch below the colored tumult of a de Kooning print and a photograph of a stone path vanishing around a bend in Kyoto. Lou Nordstrom later said he felt better almost the moment he met Jeffrey Rubin’s gaze. He had come as someone would to an emergency room for a therapeutic intervention.

“I left that first session with tears of joy on my face,” he told me one day last October as we sat with cups of coffee in the mica light of Bryant Park in Manhattan. “What Jeffrey did that first session saved my life. He listened empathetically and nonjudgmentally. He encouraged me to see my fears of acting out as symptoms of an unconscious desire to be seen.”

As the months went by, measured out in 50-minute sessions twice a week, the motifs of his history emerged. There was the surreal and horrific childhood of parental neglect, abuse and abandonment. There were those aspects of old trauma he was unwittingly reinflicting on himself, contriving to be abandoned by wives, disillusioned by mentors, seemingly incapable of taking basic care of himself. And there was the paradoxical role of Zen, which had enabled him to cope with the pain and alienation of his purgatorial youth but which he was now beginning to understand was implicated in his difficulties and may even have been making some of them worse...

Six months into therapy, the psychoanalyst and the Zen master had mapped the abandonment and neglect in Nordstrom’s past. They had explored how the themes were re-enacted in his professional and personal lives and how the same patterns began to surface even in the dynamics of the therapy itself. Nordstrom missed an appointment after a big snowstorm, then missed another because he wasn’t feeling well. Rubin held three sessions with his patient over the phone.

“Please don’t abandon me!” Nordstrom said during the third session.

“I’m staring at an empty couch,” the psychoanalyst said, trying to keep some velvet over the steel in his voice. “You are the one doing the abandoning. Are you abandoning yourself the way you have always been abandoned?”

Sitting on a cushion mindfully does not mean being absent. Studying a koan in a way that closes one off from human contact and experience isn't helping beings that well. You know, 80% of life is showing up, as Woody Allen said.

It is not surprising to me that someone can practice Zen for decades and not realize fundamental parts of one's life where they're stuck.

I myself experience a lot of stuckness, much of it the accretions of decades of mutual stupidity of myself and others.

But for some reason I don't experience not being without tools to become unstuck, because I have become unstuck in some ways.

But it is always time to get unstuck in as many ways as one can, using whatever means are available to do so that saves beings, including the one in your own skin bag, whether that means takes a shrink, a physician or whatever. And the justification of this as Buddhism makes sense if only because of the moral imperative of the famine rescue worker: if the rescue worker doesn't eat many more will starve.

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