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.











Right Questions

Sansaku: Right Questions


We’re an odd species. We ask questions and tell stories.   Asking better questions and telling better stories is what science, art and life is all about. What really matters? What’s most important? How do I find the answer? Rilke says live the question.

There’s crappy questions too. How can I screw you before you screw me? Are we predators or prey? And what do those better angels of our nature have to say?

David Whyte says there’s a conversational nature to reality. That works for me. He also says the dialogue is the relationship. It’s why, “Didn’t we have that discussion already?” is such a painful question.

I don’t know why “right questions” isn’t one of Buddha’s noble eight right ways to find the path? I’m going to assume it’s how we answer all of them. What’s right view, aspiration, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration?

Do we ask in the here and now? How about reflecting on the past?

I thought Irma had good manners and didn’t talk badly about others behind their backs. That was my level of development, not hers. Others thought she lacked shadow and was caught in the web of denial. That was theirs. I understand her better now.

I asked questions. Do you have much shame? She thought long and hard and when she didn’t answer, I asked a different question. How about guilt? She quickly said, “Not really. I don’t tend to do things that cause for guilt.” When told she was idealistic, Irma didn’t argue, but would say, “I’m also practical and realistic.” I had to ask. She said love was its own reward. She meant it. “Just because George doesn’t know, doesn’t mean I should be any less loving, does it?”

She asked questions too, but mostly of herself.

Because she held to her ideals, she didn’t feel victimized, traumatized or betrayed. She should have been massively wounded by life, but wasn’t. Even as a very old woman she had those same ideals.

Of course, I’m idealizing her and want to. I know the real woman and don’t deny her. Her extremes hold together.

When Dian Fossey was asked how she could get so close and learn so much about gorillas, she had an easy answer. “I don’t carry a gun.” Neither predator nor prey, the better angels of our nature.

Most of us need greatness, which is what Mandela said South Africa needed if they as a nation were to heal from generations of trauma, violence, and shame. He was idealistic, just like Irma, and showed just how practical and real it could be.

He asked those better questions and answered by living them.

The source of our various delusions is symbolized by the samsara cycle. We’re caught on the wheel of trying to get what we want and avoid what we don’t. Call it delusional, it makes sense to me. But I’m what the Buddhist psychologists call a delusional type, a confused lover. It’s my nature.

I read a passage this morning in a journal I wrote forty years ago. I knew back then I had a utopian bent to my character, and it could make me a moody pain-in-the-ass when things were more real than ideal. I struggled like hell with the problem.

How can the ideal be the real and the real the ideal? It’s like a Zen riddle. How do you go straight to the heart of a nonlinear question?









Sansaku: Discernment


When he came to the border, he had to cross a dark and misty pool of water. A lady lived there, in a grove both near and far. He’d been wandering and wondering, and wanted to know his fate. Maybe she would know.

At first, he didn’t see her. She announced her presence with a voice like breeze. He worded his question, “What do the gods want of me?” It began to rain. The ash trees gave them shelter.

She said, “If you would hear the message from the ancient ones, look for that which repeats and repeats, again and again. These are the life lessons you will need to learn, and they will come again and again until you make them a part of your soul and your enduring spirit.”

The seeker wants to know exactly what he’s looking for and the answer doesn’t please him. “What do you mean, what repeats and comes again?” She looked at him and smiled.

The sound of rain was everywhere, but they stayed dry. The lady said, “Just listen.” He waited for her to speak. That’s not what she intended.

The forest was deep in spell and he began to remember what he needed. He heard himself complain, over and over again, the same old stuff. He wanted things to change, be different than they were, and half-despaired they ever would. The lady seemed to know.

“That’s not the way,” she said. “Look at the forest, look at the sky.”

The clouds began to break and light filtered through wet leaves. Drops of water mirrored the world and looked like crystal jewels. The beauty was extreme. Nowhere to go and nothing to do. She said, “It’s always like this when you’re here.”

He had the feeling of a dreamer who was waking in his sleep. His inner eyes were open. He could see what he usually missed. “It’s time to return,” she said. And she was gone like the breeze that brought her.

He woke to the same bed in the same room, back on dry land. It hadn’t felt like a dream. Outside the clouds were darkening, there’d be rain today. He remembered water-drops on leaves, mirroring the world for one eternal moment, then gracefully falling to earth.

I sometimes wonder what the lessons will be when we come to the end and look back. It’s the question I asked my mother. I recorded the answers, and they repeated, again and again.

She talked about a friend of hers. She’d tried to help and couldn’t. Vivian was depressed and had that mantra going in her head, “Nothing will make a difference. Why even try?” Irma didn’t argue but suggested, “You can change the way you respond.”

She told me stories about her mother. “She had the most clear and certain feelings of anyone I’ve ever known. She was far from passive, although many thought her so. She knew her happiness did not depend on what happened, but on what she did and how she responded.”

She seemed to imply, like those ancient ones, “There is always a choice. Some blame and complain, some give up, and some respond with love and kindness. It becomes a creative act, and never doubt, the happiest people make remarkably similar choices.”

I was a bit surprised when I learned dreams didn’t discern big and small, rich and poor, young and old. In that reality, the small is big, the poor are rich, and the old is forever fresh. It doesn’t depend on that.

What did the lady say? Be a creator.