Yes. Surviving through great adversity.
That may be the thing that has kept me on this path, kept me practicing the various mindfulness techniques and meditations that have come my way through the years.
Though I suppose my life is not really filled with “great adversity” as compared with much of what people go through in life, the emotional challenges that PTSD and daily life in family, school and community relationships sometimes threatened to overwhelm me. The therapy and associated practices I mentioned previously were a great help in working through the depression and anxiety that I faced.
I found journaling to be a great tool, especially combined with meditation and done in a meditative way. I had always done some kind of journaling since my college years, so it was natural. I took a very structured approach to it for a while, setting up several tracks and trying to follow each one on a near-daily basis, and that was helpful to clarify things. Eventually, I relaxed that approach and my journaling became sort of a loose, random approach. I’d write about whatever was going on in different areas of life in different notebooks, though that’s made it hard to go back and pull up a consistent narrative!
As a practice though, it seemed helpful to just write whatever came up as a means of getting it clear in my mind at the time. I didn’t do it with any intention of using it later, just working through things.
I also was engaged in a lot of discussion with my mother during those years of therapy and after. Though it was something I didn’t think of as practice at the time, in retrospect those discussion were, in fact, a deep and helpful process.
My mother was a deep and profoundly spiritual Christian, somewhat unconventional in much of her beliefs, but I think very true to the real meaning of Christ’s teachings as I understand them. She had long been skeptical of my Buddhist practices, and she never gave up on hoping that I’d “accept Jesus”— though I had been baptized at seven — but I think she eventually came to realize that my practices were good for me and made me the better person she hoped I would be. She told a friend later in life that she and I were the closest spiritually of the family.
Talking to her about all these spiritual things made me subject my ideas and practices to careful consideration and present them in non-dogmatic ways.
A poem that she shared with me in 1997, “Drench your soul,” seems to express her best response to our discussions. (I will share that poem in a separate Page here.)
Another practice, Grofian (holotropic) breath work, was also helpful to me as I worked through the deepest years of my depression. I went to a workshop in conjunction with training for hospice volunteering, and it was a powerful, slightly scary, deep opening kind of experience.
It is not something you can do on your own, but with an experienced guide, it’s a way to get through blockages and find release for pent up negative emotional energy. I suppose its a different experience for everyone, but in my notes following the session, I wrote, “Cycling through grief, release, understanding, deep gratitude, joy, laughter, bliss, ironic laughter and tears of happiness.”
The message from it all for me was, “I’m gonna make it! I can let go!”
Another parallel and amplifying practice for me during this time was also associated with the hospice training. We had several sessions over a few years of attentional skills training with Michael Lipson, whose approach to meditation comes from non-Buddhist sources, but it is very helpful.
During this same time, we began holding sesshin one weekend a year in Statesboro. Helping to organize and conduct these was also a practice in itself. We even held a few meditation sessions in the loft of my wife’s pottery workshop. Being responsible for others’ meditative practice is instructive and helped deepen my practice.
I began the Zen group in Statesboro with a few Sundays at the Unitarian Church, and a small group grew up around the meetings. Eventually, we began meeting monthly at a friend’s house outside of Stateboro, and it was a great group experience.
Somewhere in 2001, I began to do a phone dokosan — dharma teaching/mentorship by phone — with my teacher, Miki. He’s actually Roshi Michael Elliston, head of the Atlanta Soto Zen Center, but we always called him Miki. It was often profound and usually helped me get back on track when my practice would start to slide for one reason or another… I think it was most helpful in answering the questions that occasionally arose, like “Why am I doing this?” He was, and I imagine still is, very good at bringing those theoretical Zen questions to bear on the real life difficulties of maintaining a practice.
On March 28, 2001, Miki ordained me as his disciple. It was at one of the Statesboro sessions and was very emotional and inspiring for me. It was really my formal decision or declaration that I was planning to stick with this Zen path.
I showed my mother a photo of me as I bowed and Miki placed the little rakusu around my neck, and she shuddered slightly! I just laughed, and she was actually okay with it after a moment, but it showed me that she never really could accept the whole thing. It’s all just too foreign to her, I suppose.
My friend Claire and I conducted a sesshin at the Atlanta center, but I never did much more as an actual disciple. Things didn’t continue for many years at the Statesboro center. The illness of one of the people who hosted the sesshins made it difficult, so most of the formal things there ended.
Later, controversy in the Atlanta center, most of which I was not part of and don’t remember much about, caused them to split into two groups. I attended a few sesshins in North Georgia organized by Red Clay Sangha, and they have continued to expand their activities over the past several years.
Events and developments in my life have made it hard for me to attend sesshin in the past several years, but it was a very helpful element of my practice that I may at some time resume when my responsibilities at home allow it.
Another important vector in my Buddhist practice was developing what I called “School is Zen.” That’s the next chapter in this story.