The Flower Couch

Sansaku: The Flower Couch


I don’t often dream of the Counseling Center, but I did last night. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed be up there, and asked Judy to look at the schedule.   She pulled out the old black notebook we used before the computer took over.

It was a simple and convenient grid, with our names across the top and 8 to 5 in half hour lines down the side. It made for a lot of appointment slots, and we’d scribble in the names. One time I filled up my column and kept on going. I double-booked an entire day.   Susan was delighted.

There was an old flower couch back in the group room. It was slowly becoming unstuffed. The students didn’t notice, but certain stories had them stabbing the fabric with pens and picking it apart. The couch sat uncomplaining.

Whenever I needed a cup of coffee, I could always count on that couch to cough up the change. I’ve rifled the cushions dozens of times. And it’s where I got my pens.

The flower couch was replaced in 2000, when I took a year’s leave. They had to wait for me to be gone to get rid of it.   I understood, there comes a time. They didn’t see that wonderfully shabby couch with the same symbolic eyes.

When Chyako finished reading my sansaku draft yesterday, she asked me a question about those “holes in the street” issues I’d come to call my friends. “How’d that happen?” I flashed on the couch and could see Ram Dass sitting there.

He was visiting campus in the late nineties, and a group of us had gone out to dinner at Grandma Chung’s. The student who arranged the visit was in one of my dream groups.   We still had a half hour or so before the lecture began, so we sat in the group room and talked.   He was on the couch.

When I pointed out this psychoanalytic situation, Ram Dass told a story.   It’s probably in one of his books or tapes. It’s too good not to be. He said, “I’ve spent countless hours on the couch and at least a hundred grand on therapy.”

“Do you know what? It didn’t work. I’m as neurotic as ever.” And I have to confess I was glad to hear him say this.

He asked if I had ever read the cartoon strip Li’l Abner. “Oh, yeah.” And I described how our Mom dressed up as Daisy Mae one Halloween and scandalized us. “Then you’ll remember the shmoos.”   I was the only one who did.

But sitting there on the flower couch, he explained how he slowly made peace with his personality problems. They’d become like shmoos, not only harmless, but kind of goofy. Whenever his old neuroses showed up, and they did, he said he’d invite them in for tea. They’d become good company.

I realize I’ll have to continue this, but in Greek drama the tormenting Furies can turn into the benevolent Eumenides, and the devils who whisper bad thoughts can also turn into angels.




I Call Them Friends

Sansaku: I Call Them Friends


Portia Nelson’s poem, “Autobiography in Five Chapters,” is better known as “There’s a hole in the sidewalk.” Most of us have heard it in one form or another. The image and idea don’t take long to develop.

It’s not a five-act play Shakespeare would’ve written.

The first scene is kind of interesting. She’s the victim of a deep hole in the sidewalk. We all know the feeling.   It takes a long time for her to get out.   She feels very hopeless and despairs of ever getting out. I have some questions to ask her.

The second scene is similar to the first, except she gets out a little sooner, and now we know there’s a neurotic pattern here. She hasn’t connected the dots and still feels innocent and not to blame. I don’t think she’s come in for counseling yet. But her friends are getting tired of the story.   She’s obviously traumatized.

In most five part dramas, the third scene or act is called the climax.   It’s the turning point, where the conflict is at its peak.   She still falls into the hole, but this time does it out of habit. That’s interesting. Now her eyes are open and she knows how to get out. The poem implies she doesn’t take it very personally. I’m not so sure I believe her. If only it were so.

The final two acts in this play resolve the problem.   At first she walks around it, and then she chooses a different street. We assume there are no more holes to fall in. The final chapter is one line long and it appears that all’s well that ends well, except as we all know, nothing ever ends.

Most autobiographies don’t read like this.   Mine doesn’t.   Samsara is sneaky.

The last time I heard someone tell this story, it was in a training group. One of the interns said she hoped she was at the point where she had fallen in with eyes wide open. It was time to stop.

I think she felt pleased with herself, and it made sense to me, at least until one of the other interns spoke up.   A good drama has twists to the plot, and she added one. “I think it’s time you climb down into that hole. There’s something down there you need to learn.”

As soon as she said that, we all knew it was true.   I thought about Pema’s famous “go to the places that scare you” suggestion.   It takes an act of courage to own the fact the pitfall belongs to us, mirrors us, and we keep digging it deeper. What are we looking for?

One of the sayings I return to, over and over again, is this one: “The problem is the path, the obstacle is the way.”   And I often started out dream groups with this idea from the Arabian Nights, “Where you stumble and fall, the treasure is hidden.”

It’s the way many fairy tales begin.   Sometimes the stumble slows them down and they see something they might otherwise have missed.   I remember when I fell into a hole back in college, I decided to write about it and bought a journal. It was the first of many.

Now, before I write my sansaku, I’m reading these old journals. It takes ten of them, at five year intervals, to get to the present day.   I watch myself flounder through all of the stages in this sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, human drama that cycles and repeats.

I don’t call them holes any longer. They look like me, this life I’m living.  We’ve become pretty good friends.


Sansaku:  Surago


After I wrote yesterday’s sansaku, I went looking through my notes for evidence of that shared dreamscape. It turns out I didn’t transcribe dreams back then.   I just listened to them.   So, I have no proof. You’ll have to take me at my word.

There’s a qualitative difference between research and clinical experience.   I’ve always intuited this, but it was brought home recently when my sister visited Durango.   Her friend had been doing research on the best places to eat.

I have an old student who is now the chef at one of the better restaurants in town, but it’s hard to argue with the experts. Needless to say, we ate at the recommended place. Oh, well.

When I taught that first dream class, and it was a class not a group, I had to use research.   I didn’t have the clinical experience.   When I heard dreams, I resorted to what I’d read and did the equivalent of diagnosing them.   I suppose I needed a sense of control.

But by their very nature, dreams don’t conform. They’re like certain individuals and resent being treated impersonally. They’re like feelings and want to be respected and related to. I think it’s why most academics won’t come near them.

That class was a landmark tipping point, which I called a conversion experience yesterday, because it changed me and marked the way I decided to go. It wasn’t just the shared dreamscape that caught my fancy and attention, it was the group. We used to have secret societies that sat around fires and told stories. How did we lose that?

I’d been in groups before, but not like this one.  And while I started it off by teaching a class about dreams, the group taught me what I really wanted and needed to learn. I heard myself telling them, “We’re going to study ourselves.”

It’s a bit shifty, but a good way to know ourselves, especially our shadow side, is to study others. They act as stand-ins for us. And if we want to understand others, we need to study ourselves. Consciousness depends upon projection.

About this time, I had a dream. I think it’s the first dream I ever titled and named. I was playing pinball with my brother in an underground bar and asked the waitress for a glass of Surago.

When I woke, I remembered the drink was wildly expensive, didn’t taste very good, and reminded me of my life in Durango at the time. That bothered me, since the word surrogate was implied.   It wasn’t the real thing.   And that’s what I craved.

My girlfriend worked at a bar, The Solid Muldoon, and we even joked and called it The Slightly Mundane. They might have served spirits, but they didn’t serve the Spirit. There was nothing sacred about it.

But sitting together in my front room, which is where that first dream class group was held, I felt the serendipity. This was the good stuff, the liquor I was looking for. It wasn’t cheap, thank god; it was real and tasted like I hoped it would.

A Conversion Experience

Sansaku:  A Conversion Experience


It was my first dream group ever and one of the women had a vivid, almost lucid dream about being in a garden and looking back into a house. There was someone in there, but he was hiding in the shadows and wouldn’t come out. She called, but he didn’t respond.

I was running everything I knew about Jungian and Gestalt dream theory through my mind, trying to figure out what to do with the dream, when one of the men spoke out. “You won’t believe this.”

He opened his journal and read: “I’m in a house and looking out the back door. The light is too bright; I can’t see.  I think it’s a garden.  That’s when I hear a woman calling to me. I won’t go out because I’m naked.”

He stopped there and looked over at the woman, who was smiling.  I loved what she said. “All the more reason to come.”

I think all of us in that group went around telling the story for days if not weeks. It was one of those synchronicities that became a conversion experience, especially for me.



A Simple Twist and Tangled Up

Sansaku:  A Simple Twist and Tangled Up


When Chyako bought a car that had a CD player, I immediately went out and bought Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks.”   It was the first CD I owned, and it’s the only CD I have out here in the studio.   I’m listening to “A Simple Twist of Fate” as I type.

Ever since I learned Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, I’ve been listening to him and Joan Baez on Youtube.   I can stream concerts and albums and take full advantage.

I’m of the opinion he deserves the prize and even more so because he doesn’t really want it. I don’t think he’s even responded to the committee. I couldn’t help but smile when I heard.

He came to Ft. Collins with Joan Baez when I was still at CSU. Joan introduced him by singing “Diamonds and Rust,” and when she sang those first lines, “Well I’ll be damned, here comes your ghost again,” Dylan walked onto the stage.

I wasn’t there, but my roommate was and he’s the one who really turned me on to Dylan. I had just graduated from college and immediately re-enlisted in grad school when the album came out. We played it almost nonstop.

An earlier album, “Blond on Blond,” was Ken’s favorite. He could lecture like the history professor he later became. I was a good student and let him teach me all he wanted.

Ken influenced my life in ways I couldn’t appreciate back then.   A slight change in direction, just a degree or two, will make a huge difference magnified over time and space. He shifted my course big time.

First of all, he introduced me to the people I needed to know. I wouldn’t have gone to grad school in economics without him. I doubt I’d be in Durango. His old girlfriend had become my new girlfriend, and she’s the one who lured me here.

His dad was also an economics professor at the university, and so Ken knew more about the department than I did, even though I’d majored in the subject. Ken was the one who suggested I go talk to Seckler, who was soon to become my mentor.

I haven’t talked to either of them in years, because that change in direction they set in motion took me far afield. I’m extremely grateful for their interference, but they have no way of knowing.

It was almost forty years ago I moved to Durango and taught my first dream psychology class.   None of us saw that coming. “Blame it on a simple twist of fate.”

I didn’t listen to “Blood on the Tracks” for a number of years, and I don’t know why. But I remembered when I bought the cassette. It was 1990, and I was going through a number of fall-outs with both friends and a lover.

Dylan was slightly younger than I was, when he recorded that album, but I felt as if he’d written it about a similar journey. I’ve never researched it, but I have no doubts. It was just like that book of poems he describes in the song.

“And every one of them words rang true/ And burned like glowin’ coal/ Pourin’ off of every page/ Like it was written in my soul/ From me to you/ Tangled up in blue.”

I tried to explain to a friend.  He said, “If I were you, I’d be looking for a place to land.” But when I looked down, all I could see was water. I told him, “I don’t think so.”   He didn’t understand.





He’s Helped a Lot of People

Sansaku: He’s Helped A Lot of People


John was taking a test and came over to where I was sitting and said, “Damn, I’m writing as if Narnia really did exist. Don’t show this to anyone.” It’s a light and tender moment in my memory.

This was thirty years ago and I was teaching a fantasy literature class at Timberline. It was my first year back from the wandering years, and I was now the counselor. John was my most challenging student.

He’d been adopted and had all kinds of attachment issues. He’d put his quite loving parents through hell. When he graduated they donated a large sum to the school. They knew and they let me know.

Donald Kalsched wrote a Jungian analysis of the inner life of trauma and said, “Only as affect tolerance grows can the light and dark sides of the self be integrated.   It’s the process of humanization.” John had precious little affect tolerance and ended up going to the dark side.   I don’t know how he died, but he spent considerable time in prison.

He loved the Doors and played their music at full volume late at night. He even looked like Jim Morrison, and the students voted him “Most Attractive.” He gave me a copy of No One Gets Out of Here Alive, which is Morrison’s biography. “You’ll understand me better after reading it.”

It’s been years since I read the book and I long ago gave my copy away, but I have the feeling it reads like a case study in bipolar disorder. John had the most intense mood swings of anyone I have ever met. When he was manic he could fly like Icarus and plunge just as fast. He had rocket fuel for blood during those flights.

The faculty universally disliked having him in class.   Luckily, he usually stayed up all night creating drug and alcohol induced chaos on campus, so he slept during class and didn’t cause disruption. They were not about to wake the sleeping dragon.

He was in love with a beautiful girl from Texas, and if they had a fight, which didn’t take much, he’d go into a rage. I’ve seen him pound a chest of drawers into splinters. He liked to break things and since he knew fighting would get him kicked out, took his anger out on property.

At first he’d say he couldn’t control himself, but I pointed out he never broke his Doors albums. This would bring him back, a little, and he’d shyly smile and say, “I’m not that out of control.”   I kept him from being expelled, which probably wasn’t the best thing for the school.

I was talking about emotional resonance yesterday and thought about John. On bad nights he knew enough to knock on my cabin door. He’d be cranked and then some. I wouldn’t let him talk.

I had a purple rug in the middle of my cabin and he’d sprawl down on it and wail. I’ve never seen a tough guy cry like he could. I’d give him a hard back massage and slowly start suggesting he could tolerate the feelings, like he could tolerate touch.

I was studying hypnosis at the time, and we’d developed considerable rapport. He was attuned to my voice and could feel me. It usually took twenty minutes, maybe a half hour, and then he’d stop crying and say something like, “I’m okay now. I should probably go back to my cabin and sleep.”

I thought he was slowly getting better, because together we could hold the light and dark, but he needed so much more. I had no training and didn’t prepare him for life outside of Timberline. Cocaine was plentiful back then and the shit was pure poison for him.

Whenever my unconscious brought up John in a session at the college, I knew why and what I had to do.   He’s helped a lot of people.


Into the Medicine Bag

Sansaku: Into the Medicine Bag


“If you don’t read Russian, every book in that language looks the same.” This came from a book on chaos theory, but it reminds me of how I feel about people sometimes.

I got stopped by a homeless guy the other day, and then he surprised me. “I remember you from the counseling center. They said I had mental problems.” He was laughing as he said this.

I asked him what happened, and since I wasn’t wearing my glasses, I stood very close to him.   He smelled good and not as I might have expected.   I’m like a dog.

I react to the quality of voice in the same way. I liked his. There were smiles and sly glances in the words he used, and he was playful without being disrespectful.   I had to confess, I didn’t remember him and felt some shame about that.

We were on the bridge by the skate park. I’d passed him without so much as a glance in his direction. I heard that inner voice saying, “Don’t look him in the eyes.” He was on an old ten-speed bike and stopped.

I knew he was talking to me. “Do you still work at the college?”

At first, I considered ignoring the intrusion. But it wasn’t the typical crap I hear, “Hey, John Lennon. Where’s Yoko today?”

I don’t read Russian, but this wasn’t Russian. I spoke the same language he did, and now I was listening. It had been more than twenty-five years ago, and I’ve seen too many students. I didn’t ask for his name, and that bothers me now.

He told me the story of what happened and why he dropped out of school.   There was a bill he couldn’t pay, and they wouldn’t let him register for classes. That debt has doubled and tripled since then. “Maybe I’ll file for bankruptcy,” he said. “But I guess that takes money.” Talk came easy now.

I wanted to ask him about our time together, and I’m disappointed I forgot.  I was on my way to meet a friend and wanted to escape. As I walked away, I thought about a dream I’d had years ago.   It was close to the time when our car had been stolen and we were stranded in Mexico.

In the dream, I’m on a bridge and can’t avoid encountering a dark man who is looking at me in a knowing way. I’m scared of him, but pretend that I’m not.   He can feel me and I decide to be honest.

The energy changes in the dream, and now I’m in my grandmother’s back yard. There are twin owls standing on the garden walk. I watch them dismember a rabbit.

The dream was in one of the journals I lost in Mexico, so I can’t go back and read it. I do remember my association to the dark man on the bridge. In fact, I told the story to someone just the other day.

He had pissed me off and I wanted to get back at him. My boss at the time said something unforgettable.   I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before. “He does bad much better than you. Become his friend.”

That’s what I did. I first befriended his young son by giving him a powerful squirt gun I’d found at Timberline.   It didn’t take long after that. Where I had felt threatened, now I felt defended.

The owls in the second part of the dream reminded me of a talon I have in my medicine bag. I took it from a dead owl I found. It represents fear turned into power. I didn’t see that one coming until now.