Sansaku: Sixty-Four

Sansaku:  Looking For Omens


If I spill some tea, like I just did, I pay attention to what was on my mind.   I was planning.   So what was I planning and how was that connected to spilling my tea?

The psychology I’ve practiced often depends upon omens.   It’s not that I’m superstitious, but even science pays attention to when the unexpected happens. It’s given a little more attention, like when Trump won the election despite what all the pundits predicted.

If the Donald is ominous, which I believe he is, it’s time to ask, what were we thinking?   Why has this happened right now and what does it mean?

Last year the turbo in our Subaru went bad, and when I thought about all of the omens and signs I’d missed, I felt like a fool.   But I told Chyako, “There’s no use crying over spilled milk.” I wanted to put it behind me.

Chyako said, “That makes no sense whatsoever. It’s okay that you’re sad.” As soon as she said that, I heard the affirmation.   It’s good to feel and to trust in the omens, and to let my intuition guide me.

Jung said that modern man was every bit as religious as ever, only now the gods had turned into disorders, diseases and symptoms.   He went on to say that to worship a deity is honorable, but to serve a mania is detestable.   I was surprised he didn’t say money.

Wall Street watches for omens like no other.   And the market is a strange deity to worship. Jung often wrote about our choice of gods and who and what we served.

The ancients talked about the choices we make between the good, the beautiful, and the true. They understood that the good was the highest, since it was also most beautiful and true.   And so they argued over what was good.

It’s no longer about serving the good, but the buying and selling of goods.   But I’m digressing from the image.

The ancients looked to the stars and sky, and paid attention to the falling of a bird and especially a species.   We tend to look for omens in the paper these days, and miss the cloud that suddenly appears out of nowhere and turns the room dark.

Ecologists says, “Choosing wrongly can threaten a species.”  And looking at how we choose to treat the earth brings this home.   But it’s really a complex statement, since it would be wrong to choose never to spill the tea.   Our wisdom navigates by way of mistake and while free will is problematic, problems pave the way.

I think this why the ancients put such an emphasis on dreams and those omens Jung called synchronicity.   Each morning I write down my dreams before I start reading the old journals.   I can’t tell you how many times I’ve discovered a similar dream on the same day some thirty years ago.   I pay attention to that.

I recently explained sansaku as the way a philosopher walks, but you needed to imagine a person like Basho, the wandering haiku poet who would notice the sound of a frog, plopping into water.   It’s how he found the ancient pool.

When I spilled the tea this morning, I was thinking about what I wanted to write today. And while I try not to spill, when I do, I go looking for omens.



Sansaku: Sixty-Three

Sansaku: On Board the Titanic


I started my journal process with something Jung said, “Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.” Scott Peck quotes this in the first chapter of The Road Less Traveled, and says the fundamental cause of most mental illness is trying to avoid life’s necessary problems and the suffering inherent in them. Jung would also add, “And neurosis is an attempt at a cure.”

How do we take responsibility for the shit that happens?  It’s the shit we step in or falls on us, it doesn’t matter and stinks either way. And if you pretend not to notice, others will.   And if you think you have control, it’s another kind of neurosis.

I also discovered another Jungian saying I’d written in my journal, “The only reasonable way to deal with a fear of falling was to leap and learn how to dive.”   Like learning to jump, the way out of something is in and through.   Psychological growth is paradoxical.

I was writing this in 1991 when I was stuck in an existential cyclone and trying to stay in the center, but not sure it had one. It was headed somewhere and I decided to let it take me.   I thought about Jonah and the whale, and wondered where it would spit me out.

Five years later, I found out. Chyako and I had just bought a house on the less civilized side of town. The first improvement I made was a coyote fence out of driftwood.   The men in the neighborhood laughed at it, but the women said it was beautiful and they liked it.   It wasn’t built to keep coyotes out, but to let them know where to find me.

I’d never heard of buyer’s remorse until we bought that house.   But I’d never cared if my house didn’t have a foundation. It wasn’t my problem. Now I was invested and it mattered very much.

Earlier in the process, before I committed, the realtor told me I had serious issues with the physical world.   I asked him what he meant.   He said, “You’ve got trouble visualizing and executing your dreams in the outer world.”

To his way of thinking, I was afraid to jump and commit.   And it was true, I was just now, at forty-four, getting around to buying a house and choosing to marry.   It had taken us awhile to find each other.   She had to cross an ocean and I had to wait a few years.

I went to graduate school in economics long before I studied counseling. But economics is the science of choice, and it uses some sophisticated psychological measures. It wasn’t a waste of time.

It tracks our values by looking at the money trail.   Talk is cheap, as the saying goes, it takes money to buy whiskey. I’m remembering the professor who said that.   I think he drank good wine, not whiskey.

At the time, he bothered me, but I don’t know why.   I liked what he taught. He often used the Titanic in his examples. He made it clear he thought it an apt metaphor for the journey we were on.   “It doesn’t matter if you know how it ends.”

He had an accent like his name, Tor, and a playful way of teaching. He said, “When you’re on board, wouldn’t you want to go first class?” And then he’d turn his back and walk to the board. “How do you want to graph that?”

“Let’s assume the problem is how to stay happy when you know you’re going to die.   Shall we put time on the horizontal axis?   How about quality of life on the vertical?   And how about choices on the third?

Tor said the problem with modern economics was its neurotic obsession with deck chairs and how to arrange them.  But when you know you’re on board, it helps you to choose what really matters.

Sansaku: Sixty-Two

Sansaku:  Camelot


After the ceremony yesterday, I told one of Joel’s stepsons I was having a last picture show moment. He caught the allusion and said he had never seen the movie. I was thinking about the book.

I used to teach it at Timberline and it was one of the books the kids would finish.   I let them know, they’d understand the book better after they graduated and tried to return to see the school.   The people who really mattered will be gone.   The only show in town will have closed.

The place will seem dead compared to the myth we were living back then.   We were all coming of age together.

I found it a bit ironic that I walked from training the new RDs, who are entering this time of their life, and then attending the memorial service of the man I considered to be the King Arthur of my time in Camelot.

I even wrote a note for the basket.   The instructions were simple, Joel liked to write on 3X5 cards, feel free to write one.   I wrote, “The king is dead, long live the king.   He was the once and future king.”

Joel was a lot like Arthur and ruled by his passions, but he was also a very good man and did his best to be wise.   I played a funky role in this Camelot court, I didn’t belong to the lords and ladies crowd, and wasn’t a knight.   I lived in a cave on the edge of the forest, and had studied with Merlin.

Joel only sought me out at fairly predictable times. He could be hurt by love, and his response was always deep guilt and responsibility. He felt blame acutely.

Part of him was coyote, and he longed to be free of the trap he’d fallen into. I know he would have liked to wander in the forest, but he was the king and had to return.

I used to see him after the faculty meetings, surrounded by an adoring public, people who wanted his favor.   I was in the back of the room with the other coyote clowns, and he would always shoot us a glance, and we knew what it meant.

Now he’s gone, long live the king, and I’m retired mostly to my cave or studio.   Our Camelot period might seem over, like the last picture show, but it’s not.   A new one just opened down the road.

I liked meeting the new RDs and telling them stories.   I wanted them to know they are entering a very important time of their life.   This will become mythic territory in the years to come.   It will matter more than they realize.

I said that college is like an extended vision quest, or at least it’s the best this culture has to offer.   We don’t just take one trip, and sometimes we are chosen to be guides.

I used the metaphor of the great migration of the social herds across the African plain.   There are rivers the young must cross, and they are full of crocodiles.   To watch out for them and to lead, you must cross them, too.

But here’s the secret, the river’s where the life is running.   And the crocodiles are actually the elders who will teach us if we let them.

I heard one of the speakers at Joel’s celebration quote Hemingway.   “Life breaks all of us, but some of us are stronger at the broken places.” And another quoted Vonnegut.   “Damn it, kids, there is only one rule, you’ve got to be kind.”













Sansaku: Sixty-One

Sansaku: Pick Your Battles


I think we all learn to pick our battles and before we go to war to ask ourselves if this is the hill we want to die on. I do know, if you’re going to fight, there’s going to be casualties, and the losers don’t usually love and respect the winners.

One of the battles the counseling center fought with the administration had to do with kids getting caught smoking pot.   Back then, they were kicked out of the dorm, and there were no second chances.   In fact, you could be kicked out for even being in the same room.

This was probably ten years ago and over the next two years, the number of pot violations in the residence halls doubled or more. The VP for student affairs called us in, and we all thought it was proof of our improvement.   She wasn’t so sure.

I told her the RAs and RDs were no longer afraid to confront the issue, because they wouldn’t have to ruin someone’s freshman year by booting them out of housing.   Now they could actually confront and deal with the problem, which is always case by case.

It’s the same with sexual assaults.   Fewer reports is not necessarily better.   It probably means the students don’t feel safe in reporting them or worse still, they’ll be punished.   Too often, we punish disclosure and don’t even know what that means.

When I was the counselor at the boarding school, I was able to keep confidentiality according to the limits, and the kids knew I would.   They talked openly about sex, drugs, and other things that could get them busted.   They also knew I’d act if they told me someone was suicidal or hurting another.   It’s all about trust.

They could also trust me to bust for drugs and alcohol when I was on weekend or night duty.   I always warned them, yet I busted more kids at that school over the years than any other faculty by far.   It’s because I knew who used and had a nose.   And I did this, not because I wanted to, but because I cared. They were pissed, but usually thanked me.

I was also one of the harder teachers and had high expectations.   I wanted them to know I cared about that, too.   The word gets out.

Both boarding schools and residence halls are intense gossip fields, and it doesn’t take long to learn this.   You can make all kinds of rules about talking behind backs, but they’ll just talk behind your back if you do.

Because there were only forty or some students at the school and maybe a dozen staff including the cooks, we knew each other incredibly well or should have.   I was always surprised at how oblivious some of the faculty seemed to be.

I did have a secret weapon I rarely divulged.   For some reason, some of the wildest and most wicked of students, were the ones I called my angels.   They told me things I probably shouldn’t have known, but badly needed to know if the place was to be safe and sane.

It’s how I knew to pay a visit on students who were suicidal or contemplating. And because of what my angels told me, I could interpret dreams in ways that startled.   Again, the word got out and I didn’t try to correct it.

And because I knew what was going on, for the most part, I learned how to track and wasn’t afraid to follow the leads.   It’s the same technique I use when training housing staff.   We can all see foreshadowing, when something bad is about to happen.   We’re designed for it, and we need to care enough to engage.   These are the battles to fight.   Choose them.



Sansaku: Sixty

Sansaku:  The Job Will Undress You


I’m about to do a training for the new residence hall directors, the RDs. I’ve done these things for years and enjoy telling the same old stories.   The stories are like a magician’s hat; except, when I reach in, I don’t quite know what’s coming out.   It’s usually not a rabbit.   Just now a bat flew out, but I can’t count on that happening again.

The majority of what students learn and remember comes from outside the classroom.   It’s not even close.   I like what David Whyte says about his zoology degree.   “It turned out that the animals had not read the same textbooks as I had.”   It’s easy to guess what he really needed to study.

When I think about what they’re really learning, all I have to do is remember a check-in.   One time, the president, Joel Jones, made some comment about the 24 hour learning community, and I invited him to visit a residence hall with me.  I said, let me ask the question.  I did a check-in.   He was still talking about what they said at commencement.

I lived and worked at a boarding school for more than a dozen years.   I understand what 24/7 means. This kind of a job is more a marathon than sprint, although you’ll be expected to up the pace.   And it’s more about who you are than what you say or do, although that counts, too.

We used to joke that the reason we had so many rules at the school was because no one seemed to follow them.   And for that reason, we made more and more rules that no one followed.   I’m not joking, just watch.   We all make the same mistake.

The teenagers, who ruled the night, talked about the faculty with psychological precision. They knew who we were, even when we tried hard to hide it.   I’m thinking about one student, who would wait in ambush for a teacher he didn’t respect.   He called him Sgt. Fury, and there was nothing Sgt. Fury could do about it.  My sister says, if you don’t want someone to get your goat, don’t show them where it’s tied.

In counseling we say that the main instrument is your personality, who you really are, and the quality of your relationships.   It demands that we need to be the change and influence we want to see in the other.   If you’re trying to calm down a crowd, don’t stomp and shout.

One calm person in a raft can keep a whole boatload of panicked people calm.   Emotions are contagious, and just as a group can take them down, we can also lift them up.   It’s the concept of limbic resonance, attunement, entrainment, or the doctrine of affections.

Most definitions of mental health are not about an absence of problems.   No problems, no life.   It’s not what happens or is done to you, but how you respond, face and deal. And there are higher order problems, like choosing to be a residence director.

Implicit in that definition is needing to know yourself and your problems, and not turn your back and avoid, deny, or repress.   If we’re not careful we can turn neurotic in a heartbeat or look like the monkeys who see nothing, hear nothing, and say nothing.   We can even become the elephant in the room.

One reason for all of the team building each year is because it’s mostly about the team.   Last night, I heard a speaker at the convention say, “If you want to go fast, go alone.   If you want to go far, go together.”   Since you’ll be going alone for much of the time, you really need to value the time together.  That’s what I remember.

If there is any lesson we’ve learned as a team at the counseling center, it’s how to be a team.  That’s the open secret.  Training is all about this, and it’s how we learn about ourselves, which is how we’ll do the work.  The job will quickly undress you,











Sansaku: Fifty-Nine

Sansaku: Bach


I ran into an idea this morning: “If you don’t read Russian, every book in that language looks the same. You have no idea if it’s meaningful or not.” While I was applying this to dreams at the time, it came out of a book on chaos theory, which is something I’ve been studying for close to thirty years.

Last night, I went to a pre-concert lecture and Linda explained that Bach’s music on paper looks like a typewriter gone mad and has so many notes she feels like her brain might explode when she’s playing it.   But the order that emerges from this chaos is exquisite.

She said to watch the violins, the notes come so fast and furious the strings might smoke. And she felt sorry for the choir.

One of the innovations to playing Bach made was adding the two thumbs, before him they only played using the eight fingers.  It seemed highly unlikely to me, but why should I be surprised?

What did surprise me was a story she told about his blindness. I knew that Beethoven had gone deaf, but not that Bach was blind.  Apparently the same quack that blinded the composer Handel, botched Bach’s surgery.   One morning he suddenly regained his sight. He died of a stroke a few hours later.

Given that my eye doctor suggested surgery the other day, this story caught my attention.

Linda, who considers Bach the greatest of all composers, said he believed in the doctrine of affections, which meant that music communicated our deep seated emotions and passions.   The ancient Greeks believed that music could make you good or evil depending.

I was sitting next to Dene, the college president, and we both said at the same time, “That explains a lot.”

Getting back to chaos and complexity theory, my wife was singing last night and Daniel Siegel often uses a choir to illustrate these unbelievably complicated and yet simple principles.

He describes most disorders in the DSM as resulting from excessive rigidity or chaos, and invites a group of singers to demonstrate what this sounds like. Rigidity is when everyone tries to sing exactly the same note; and, it’s chaos and cacophony when everyone sings but doesn’t listen to the others.

Then he asks the group to sing together, and he says it’s surprising how often that song is “Amazing Grace.”   Now, everyone is singing different notes, but they are listening to each other.   It’s both differentiated and integrated, and sounds like perfect harmony.

During the concert last night, I did my best to listen to the individual instruments and voices – the soprano (one and two), alto, tenor and bass.   And out of the many came the one voice, the higher order.

Bach, who composed more music than seems humanly possible, dedicated every single piece, religious or secular, to the glory of god.

The choir sang the Magnificat in Latin, and while I couldn’t understand the words, it didn’t matter, there was that doctrine of affections.   If all books written in Russian look the same to those who don’t know the language, Bach wrote in the language of the head, the heart, and soul.

I liked how the program said the music was almost graphic, as it described Mary telling her cousin, Elizabeth, about a dream.   She’d just been told by the angel Gabriel, she was pregnant with god’s child.








Sansaku: Fifty-Eight

Sansaku: Woodpeckers


Earlier today, I watched a woodpecker flying like a drunk driver, with exceptional skill, through the apple trees and ash. He was incredibly reckless from my point of view, and I was also jealous.   “There’s no such thing as too much fun.”

He was definitely a show-off, and reminded me of a needle-point masterpiece my grandmother had sewn and I inherited. It’s called “Birds of a Feather.”

I asked about it when I was young and was told that birds of a feather flock together.   It represents our family tree, and there’s a tree in the center of the needle-point and all kinds of birds gathered two by two around it.

I’m sure grandma intended the male and female roots, but she probably spaced the symbolism when she chose two huge and colorful parrots to rule the roost.   I’ve always liked the woodpecker.   There’s only one of him and he’s out on the edge of things.

Birds are big in dream interpretation and mythology.   Not only do they have wings to fly, but also voices that sing.   They’ve been used for ages as a symbol for the spiritual side of life. I’m almost certain the hieroglyphic for the soul was a bird.

At the most fundamental of levels, there are three states of being: the solid, the liquid and the gas. I’ve read that there are three levels of truth.   There’s the literal truth that is written in stone, and there is the understanding that is closer to water.   Sometimes the highest truth is symbolized by light and love, and the water is turned into wine.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this, but I just thought about the concert I’m going to attend this afternoon.   Chyako sings in the choir and today they perform with the music in the mountains orchestra.

The other day she said she wished everyone could enjoy classical music the way she does.   But she has progressed through the levels. The written notes are meaningful to her and she can turn them into song.   But her love of music is harder to explain.

When I was writing about oil yesterday, I failed to mention that it’s been used by holy people and healers as a sacrament, to consecrate and anoint.   Oil has always been precious, and just as it’s pressed from grain, so is the juice that’s distilled into spirits, which is Latin for alcohol.

The aim is not to get us drunk, but to get us into a higher state of consciousness which is often called ecstatic and can look a lot like that woodpecker I watched this morning.

Both oil and alcohol are symbolic in the extreme. The alchemists understood that they were liquid solvents and could be used to distill the spirit and essence of a solid.

Our mascot at the college was a cavalry raider, which was shameful and wrong given our mission to promote education for Native Americans.   Joel Jones, the president, asked for suggestions to change it, and I immediately submitted two.

I thought about our essence and spirit, and our high country location, and came up with the Wildflowers.   It was bound to attract those we wanted and frighten off the rest.

But that’s not the one I hoped Joel would choose.   We were closer to Woodpeckers.   We flew, like our champion mountain biking team, with a reckless and joyful abandon.