Sansaku: Engagement


“Engagement is the therapeutic response to meaninglessness.” This comes from Yalom and I’ve been thinking about the last two stages in Erikson’s psychosocial development theory. While I’m a slow developer and have taken my sweet time, I’ve reached the age of sixty-five. It’s the turn-around time.

A quick trip to Google reminds me. The Seventh Stage, roughly from 40 to 64, is called Generativity Vs Stagnation. It’s all about established careers and relationships. Those two big questions, what will I do and with whom? I can answer both of them correctly.

Supposedly, we’re no longer children. We work at assuming responsibility and not playing the blame game. Ideally, it’s the time to give back and repay our many debts of love. But it can also be a time of disappointment and give-up. Erikson writes that success in this stage leads to the virtue of Care. It’s an interesting word.

Hope, Will, Purpose, Competency, Fidelity and Love are the first six tasks to achieve. At any point, we can regress and lose Hope. I’m guessing the older we grow, the steeper the hill.

The Eighth Stage, which statistically begins at 65, is called Ego Integrity Vs Despair. It’s the slow-down, retirement and time to reflect. We look at our life, does it look like us? What do we see, how do we feel?

Success in this stage leads to the virtue of Wisdom. I’ve had some good guides. Reece said, “Being diagnosed with terminal cancer during the happiest time of my life, you’d think I’d despair. But I’m grateful. I look back on my life and smile.” He had that sense of closure and completion Erikson describes, and his acceptance of death was profound. I still study him.

Being sixty-five and retired, I’m entering new territory. I’ve waited all my life for this. Now is the goal.

Recently, I ran into a song I wrote thirty-some years ago. I was traveling at the time and trying to figure out what kind of a life, what kind of a person, I would choose to live and be. The song’s called, “What the Hell is Wrong with Me?

The Sixth Stage, Intimacy Vs Isolation, the twenties and thirties, are all about Love. So much depends on this struggle for relationship. Not just with others, but with self. I was judging myself rather harshly during this time of life and wondering if I’d ever arrive at the next stage.

Now I’m at the gates to the final stage and asking a different set of questions. My life definitely looks like me and despite having been a teacher, I’m still a student. It’s a primary identification. One of the goals of therapy, according to Yalom, is being able to make a free choice. I choose love and learning.

I feel unstuck in time, like Vonnegut’s character, Billy Pilgrim. I look back and go forward. I have no idea where I’ll end up, although from an outer point of view, I’m going in ever-smaller circles close to home.

I agree with Yalom all the way, engagement matters. I don’t know how this stage will play out, but I plan on staying engaged. I was lucky with my career. I lived in highly engaging communities. I can’t imagine my life without Timberline and the college. These journals and Sansaku.

Marriage and home ownership caught me by surprise. I was slow to develop. I know why those stages give us time to grow. We need to feel both sides of the spectrum, intimacy and isolation, work and stagnation, integrity and despair. I think about despair.

I’m sure I’ll be engaged.


The Darkness Is Deep

Sansaku: The Darkness Is Deep


I read a sentence that bothered me. An alumni magazine arrived and leafing through it, I came to an interview. A popular professor was retiring. He wanted to write and publish. His teenage grandson said, “Make videos and put them on YouTube, nobody reads anymore.”

I read the paragraph twice. The words didn’t change. I’ve been carrying them around and asking myself, “Is it true?”

I do get most of my news from the computer’s browser page and television. And I know it’s not the same as reading. I hear the average teenager spends 6 to 8 hours each day with their heads in the screens. Has any culture been so aware of what’s going on in the last twenty-four hours and so blind to the wisdom of the ages?

There’s a spiritual exercise that advocates we walk when everyone drives and drive when everyone walks. I’ve been giving it some thought. I seem to read more than ever, mostly old journals.

I heard on the news last night that dementia is correlated with an absence of dreams. That’s good news for me. I write them down each morning, even when they seem trivial. Last night, I got a fifty-dollar parking ticket in my dream. I was pissed and told the cop, come on.

The poet, William Stafford, wrote a poem every day.   He was asked what he did, when he didn’t feel like writing. He said, “I just lower my standards.” According to Robert Bly, it’s really good advice for a beginning writer.

Bly wrote the introduction to a collection of Stafford poems, The Darkness Around Us Is Deep. Think of darkness as sleep. And the title comes from a poem, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other.” I realize there’s a synchronicity here. Nobody reads. Now here’s a ritual.

“For it is important that awake people be awake, or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep; the signals we give – yes or no, or maybe – should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.”

And what if we can’t read the signals? I like the way the poem starts off. “If you don’t know the kind of person I am and I don’t know the kind of person you are, a pattern that others made may prevail in the world, and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.”

I read the poem a few more times. It’s one I could learn by heart. He’s leading us out of the darkness. “And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy, a remote region in all who talk… lest our mutual life get lost in the dark.” What does he mean by our mutual life?

Bly says that Stafford is one of those poets who writes to the awake people. I’m sure it helped him be awake. The Leftist poets tend to write to the sleepers and try to wake them by shouting. The critics thought Stafford was simple, he didn’t like to shout.

What do you mean, nobody reads anymore?

We’ve been reading the clouds, the wind, and the weather for as long as we’ve had minds. We read the forest floor for tracks and flowers, the trees and traffic. We read each other’s eyes. The word opens up like a story. I’m partial to the thoughtful speed of the written word.

I’ve read that the great difficulty in education is to get experience out of ideas. In counseling, we say it takes more than insight. We need to have a corrective emotional experience. Slow down and reflect. It takes more than knowledge to know.

It needs to matter. That’s the difference that makes a difference.












Sansaku: Amazing


I’m an hour into sitting. The slow progression of the dawn. The blue-grey stage, light and shadow. I’ve watched every sunrise for a quite a few years. The exceptions are memorable.

A total eclipse of the sun. People were stunned to watch the sun disappear, the dusk descend, and the sun’s return in diamond ring glory. One of our most ancient rituals. The sun is swallowed. It’s ominous. Darkness falls. It’s the image for evil in some languages. But the light is reborn and now the symbol for good.

Our culture is far from nature and needs a powerful stimulus to go outside and stare at the sky and remember we live close to a star and the mysteries. We take so much for granted.

The rising sun. I married Japan. It’s all about the dawn. I write short poems.

I study my defensiveness. Why didn’t I make the pilgrimage? The question has no answer, but that doesn’t stop me from asking.

There was a time in my life, when I didn’t read the news or watch the television. I could have been camping in Wyoming. I would not have seen it coming. I try to imagine the ancestors.   The moment.

At the present moment, I have made a quiet vow to live an ordinary life. And because I did not travel north, I vow to watch the dawn as closely as if an eclipse. It’s at the ruby stage.

I’d heard about the diamond ring that comes when the sun returns. My brother, who watched from the Oregon coast, described how it’s formed. The light shines through deep valleys on the moon and the single points sparkle like jewels.

From the studio, the light shines through trees on the horizon line. It’s not a diamond light, it’s golden and glowing.

Because of the vow, I walked up the gulch and sat under a large and leaning fir. It was far enough from town that all I heard was wind and sounds of life.   I saw bear tracks in hardened mud.

I kept on walking and sat a second time. A small plunge pool with a little water left. All kinds of wasps were drinking. I’m the alien life-form. They pay me no attention. These dinosaurs amaze me.

I guarantee that the eclipse was more jaw-dropping than these colorful clouds that are burning with color and intensity, but my jaw’s down. The clouds have turned purple, opalescent, and pearly.

I’m grateful for words and language. Bibles often begin with the word. What word? Right now, it’s colors and the light. The way of consciousness. First names, then stories.

I listened to many describe the phenomenon yesterday and the word was “amazing.” Almost everyone said it. “You had to have been there.” It exceeded expectations. I believe this is true and the sunrise this morning continues. I’m amazed.

“Does this happen every day?” It’s been going on for about two hours, the time it takes the eclipse to make first, second, and third contact.

I’ve watched the progression. There’s no silver lining to the clouds, it’s yellow gold. The dawn slowly reveals herself. She’s not a tease, there’s more. The birds sing. It’s a song of life and love and freedom.

Both doors to the studio are open and sound comes in with the breeze. I’m remembering yesterday and living today. Since I didn’t have eclipse glasses, I used five pairs of sunglasses. It was somewhat clumsy, but worked. I was amazed.




Does Not Apply

Sansaku: Does Not Apply


“We can’t judge what we don’t understand.” She was pointing towards a group of children and said, “They come from the most chaotic part of the universe.” It’s the start of a dream I had in 1982.

Chyako is doing her seminar this month on Japanese spirituality and aesthetics. The two words are hard to separate in practice. Joseph Campbell tells the story of a scholar asking a Shinto priest about theology. The priest gave it some thought and said, “We don’t have a theology, we dance.”

I didn’t get church when I was a child and wondered what in the hell was going on. I could have been a tourist from a distant planet. What’s it for? They worship here. What’s worship?

Japanese exchange students are said to mark “Does Not Apply,” when asked about religion on personal data forms. It’s almost as good as, “we dance.” There needed to be a choice labeled “Nature.”

I used to joke that Chyako’s religion was food, but religion does not apply. Food is an art form in Japan and spirituality can be beautiful, tasty, pleasurable, and earthy.

The only churches I’ve seen in Japan are for wedding receptions and not for worship. They have temples for that. When we took some wild teenagers to Japan, they wouldn’t have tolerated a church service. But they surprised me at one of the Zen temples.

Ryoan-ji is not a cathedral. The altar piece is a rock garden that’s as enigmatic and spiritual as it gets. We had taken off our shoes and walked in socks across the polished wood floors. The day was overcast and drizzling. We were under a veranda.

I didn’t know the kids could sit that still, that long. When I asked, they lacked the language to say.

A friend of mine described a wedding he had just attended and said he hadn’t been to many. I’ve been to a bunch, but the one in Japan, when Chyako’s sister married, takes the cake and the sushi. It was held in a Shinto temple on the side of a volcano.

Rings aren’t exchanged, cups of sake are poured. The only music was a booming taiko drum. I could feel the ancestors gather. The place was outrageously beautiful. No wonder the ritual took.

At the moment, people all across America are looking to the sky. Most pay no attention, but the eclipse is waking us up for an hour or two. What makes an experience spiritual?

Chyako calls from the library. She had hoped to get us eclipse glasses, but the place is a zoo. There’s a long line and the supply has run out. I’m not in the least concerned.

Chyako wrote that the spirituality of Japan is expressed in many art forms, but you see no angels or cathedrals. Instead, there are rock gardens, tea bowls, and bonsai trees. It’s how the Japanese express their intuitive understanding of the universe.

Words like simplicity, ancientness, nature, asymmetry, stillness and surprise are used.

“A tea master once told his young son to rake the path, which he did to perfection. Not a leaf was left in sight. Seeing this, his father shook the tree to produce the effect and said it’s ready for the guests”

Another tea master said something that just might apply. “The full moon is most beautiful in a cloudy sky.” Looking out the window, the eclipse is about to begin and the clouds are standing by.













Spoiler Alert

Sansaku: Spoiler Alert


When I get to the spoiler alert in movie reviews, I read on. I don’t mind knowing how the story ends. The movie still surprises me, even though I know the Titanic sinks, we win the war, the lovers come together, or Christ gets crucified.

My old journals come with a spoiler alert, given I lived and wrote them. Knowing I’ll survive the catastrophes and changes, doesn’t make the memory any less poignant. I discovered my memory‘s alive and has a voice all its own. That surprised me.

Sometimes beginnings are better because we know the end. We tend to live in patterns and problems repeat wearing disguises. I find phrases repeated, like over and over. Not this again.

The other day I had a dream and wrote in my journal, “Look at the acorn, look at the oak.” In the dream, I knew exactly what it meant. I’d been thinking about it for a couple of hours when Chyako came out and said, “I’ve been thinking about acorns this morning.”

I was so shocked by the synchronicity I forgot to ask, “Did you have any insights?” I wanted to grab my journal and show her the first sentence I’d written that day. What is it about acorns and oaks?

I’m guessing my brother helped me connect the dots. He probably showed me an acorn and asked if I knew what it was. I’m not that stupid.   But then he pointed to a huge tree and said they’re the same. Get real. The mystery was true.

There’s a parable about a store where you can shop for dreams. Would you like to become this or that? Think about it and choose. Here’s the rub, you can only buy seeds.

I’m back to my dream. Not all acorns grow into trees. The bears eat a bunch and so do the squirrels. Acorns are food. Most never sprout and the few that do, that’s just the start of the journey. It’s a Biblical story.

James Hillman often writes about acorns and oaks, character and destiny, and whether the soul knows the code for what’s to come. He’s got some good arguments in favor.

I didn’t know I was intended to work as a counselor. I didn’t want to teach. Both job offers came as surprises. Would I have acted differently if I knew? There were no spoiler alerts that my kind of acorn turns into this kind of tree.

I’m just grateful I’ve grown old enough to bear a crop of seeds. Bears and squirrels are welcome. I believe in compost. Making soil. There’s another side to seeds, besides the soil, there’s the climate and conditions. I was planted in Boulder and sprouted in the sixties.

By the way, just because a story has reached an end, doesn’t mean it’s over. Not necessarily. Some keep growing and even bear fruit.

When I interviewed for my job at the college, there were a couple of problems. I hadn’t finished my degree in counseling; in fact, I’d just started. They couldn’t help but notice my alternative appearance, I looked like the high school where I worked. We were nonconventional.

It wasn’t by accident I got as far as the final interview. The search committee had a standard list of questions to ask, and I can still remember them. Here’s a spoiler alert, I get hired and fired almost the same day. I reapplied and was asked the same questions the next year.

I’d had a year to prepare and I’d done a practicum in the counseling center. Still an acorn, I knew I’d found my soil at the college. It’s what happened when Chyako and I came together. A seed started to grow.











What Is Counseling

Sansaku: What Is Counseling


If I had a theme in training, it was asking the question: What is counseling? And about this time of the year I did the suicide prevention program for the housing staff. I suggested they were in the business and practicing the same things we did.

I’m expected to teach the risk factors, how to recognize a sinking ship and what to do, the protocol. I have to use technical terms and statistics to give the talk face-validity, but it’s not the heart. What really matters? If we don’t give a damn and care enough to confront and relate, it doesn’t matter how much you know. Still, knowledge helps and I try to make it meaningful. Skills take time and practice.

Back to the question, what is counseling? Start with twenty explanations and see what it looks like then. Good questions are recursive and we ask them like a practice. What is counseling?

Counseling as a word lacks glitter compared to the more fashionable psychotherapy. There’s discrimination in the field.

Counseling works with problems, usually the kind that cook and throw us forward into life. How do we help? What to say, how to listen? Are we the magic mirrors that tell the truth, give accurate reflection, and provide the feedback needed to guide and to grow?

If we were selling services, how would we advertise? What’s the intention? One counselor said, “We help our clients have better narratives, and these narratives depend on better intentions.” What are they?

Counselors begin with themselves. As above, so below. We understand others by understanding ourselves. It’s one of the open secrets.

We work in the realm of suffering and belong to the spiritual and wisdom traditions. Since there’s no escape from trouble, no matter how clever or strong we deny or defend, we ultimately have to deal or it deals with us and gets worse. What is counseling?

Face fears and make them your agenda. Go to those places you’d like to avoid and learn from your problems. Relate with conflicts and see what they have to say. Can we learn to suffer better? What is meant by a better narrative?

I’ve written about right questions and they’ve led to right intentions. They’re not like goals or rules. We practice them for their own sake. I try to be kind and loving, no matter what. It’s not that easy.

Intentions are recursive questions. What matters the most? This educates the feeling function. We begin to perceive our intentions and the intentions of others. Learning to discern the Me from the Not-Me is a milestone in our psychological development.

We try to practice what we preach and share our struggles. I framed many of my intentions in the sayings I repeated. Point out the booger, don’t punish the disclosure, we’re all in the soup.

Problems don’t make us bad or wrong, but we generally feel better about ourselves when we own and deal with them. This is one of the first intentions in counseling: we grow and develop by confronting our problems and letting the other in on the secret. Confession.

If you can talk about the most dangerous things and safely touch the wound; and if you have the right intentions and ask the right questions, it forms the soil where the corrective emotional experience can grow. What comes out of these dark places is often what’s needed the most.

But I’m back to asking that question, what is counseling? It’s always a good place to start.


Sansaku: T-Group


I interviewed applicants for the training program in March. Five interns were coming back and we only had room for eight, maybe nine. Not everyone would be accepted. It was the last time I’d ever do this. I retired at the end of May.

I kept notes to remind myself when and what to do, how to do it. The interview process was the beginning of a new cycle. Beginnings are important. I wanted to set the intention. It’s a ritual.

I wrote in bullet points. The first impression. The unconscious does the perceiving and I planned how to listen, pay attention. It’s that thin-slice thinking Malcolm Gladwell calls “Blink,” and it’s extraordinarily pattern sensitive. I’m looking for omens and a good fit. Relationships can be like clothes and places.

The process is selective. This adds pressure to both sides. It’s not exactly a blind date, but it’s close. We check each other out. I use language like this while we’re talking. I want to see how they handle metaphor and intimacy.   These are tools of the trade.

I pay attention to small details. The way they respond to emails.   After a few iterations, I could almost predict the order they’d arrive. The tone and style. I shared my impressions and gave them feedback. “I’m surprised to find you so open and friendly. Your emails were terse and abrupt.”

“Did you expect me to be like this? How about the counseling center and the program?” I pay close attention to how they answer, not just what. I’m assessing for sensitivity and ability to process. “Can you guess what we have trouble with?” That’s a wide-open question.

One of the mistakes we make in the beginning of a relationship is managing impressions, selling ourselves, and misrepresentation.   To get a good fit, we can’t pretend. I have size thirteen feet, and it hurts to wear size twelve. The shoe needs to fit if we’re going to walk a hundred miles each week.

What made the T-Group special for me? I never phoned it in. I wanted to surprise myself by what I shared and had to give. It was sacred and not routine.   It’s the reason I’m still writing.

I tried to spend it all and emptied The Well each Thursday. I had the feeling The Well demanded this. Otherwise, it wouldn’t fill with fresh and living water if I tried to save the good stuff.

When I started the T-Group I did it for myself. I wanted it, I needed it, and thought it the medicine the counseling center needed to heal. We were having trouble at the time.

I chose the T-Group like some couples choose to have children. I knew it would make us serious about what we did. I wanted to commit ourselves to being the best we could.

The idea of a team was foreign at the time. We were a family that tried to act like a business. Who was productive, who deserved a raise? It caused all kinds of problems. Now when we scored a run, it counted for the team and not just the person. It changed the way we played the game.

The interns frankly saved us. It’s why I called them Beloved. I meant it and still do. I more than appreciated them. I depended on their presence for the work I longed and wanted.

Teachers are learners who want to go further than their education has taken them. This is how I did it.