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Cowardice and Courage

I have been slowly reading my friend Nancy Mujo Baker’s new book, Opening to Oneness.[1] I say slowly because it takes me two or three days or more to read each chapter, slowly digesting. The chapter on the 4th Grave Precept, “Non-lying,” fed this reflection.

I have always known that I am a coward. I was very little when I first heard my father’s stories of his Halifax boyhood, fighting his way home from school every day through what felt to me like waves of antisemitism. I absorbed his lessons about fighting back, but I knew I didn’t have his courage.

When I was older, I heard the story of Peekskill, Daddy standing arm-in-arm, a circle of courageous men creating a human barricade around a black, Baptist Church to protect a Paul Robeson concert from the Klan. I didn’t have that courage.

Years later, sitting with firefighters after 9/11, listening to their stories of the war zone devastation, of the loss, and of getting back to work, walking into a burning building again for the first time: “I finally felt relief,” they said. “Life had returned to normal.” I knew I didn’t have that courage. Unimaginable. Where does one find the courage to walk into a burning building? How does that become normal?

Once sitting with the firefighters, I wondered why they kept coming, week after week, to our group. “You must talk like this in the [fire] house all the time.”

Uniformly, “No, we never talk like this.”

At that moment, I caught a glimpse of something that I didn’t have a name for, that I’d never seen before. Apparently, there are different ways of being courageous. I may not have the courage to walk into a burning building, but I will walk into a difficult conversation.

It seems I have spent my whole life learning to be part of difficult conversations.

When I was very little when Mommy took me to her analyst for “play” therapy because I was having nightmares, Erika had a rule: we would play for the first half of the session which I enjoyed, but then we had to talk. The talking part was hard, but even at 7 years old, I knew that was the work that helped.

Years later, when Mommy tried a different therapist to help me make friends, he and I played basketball for the whole session. I enjoyed playing basketball, anytime, anyplace. But I knew this therapy wasn’t helping. I could feel that this guy didn’t really have the courage to talk with me.

Years later when I got to choose my own analyst, I went back to Erika.

I trained as a social worker and as a therapist to be present in conversations, particularly in groups. Those were the moments for many years when I was most alive. In my Adlerian analysis with Erika, group sessions were a critical element, weekly group sessions with Erika in addition to my individual sessions; and then when she felt we as a group had learned the ropes, additional weekly “alternate” sessions where we met without Erika in group members’ apartments. I looked forward to these group sessions as the high points of my week, the hours each week when I was really me.

In one crazy session, Charlie was goading me. “Please stop,” I repeated, but Charlie didn’t stop. He was sitting across the circle from me in Erika’s office. “Please stop.” I am not sure what happened, but the next thing I was conscious of was that Charlie was no long in his chair. He was lying on his back on the floor, and I was sitting on his chest. I heard Erika’s voice. “Now, I’ve really blown it,” I thought. This was not the first time my temper had gotten me into trouble. “I’m going to be thrown out of the group.” I didn’t know what I would do, only that I would be a losing something I couldn’t replace.

“Now, Charlie, do you see?” I heard Erika saying. “This is what happens when you tease people.” I wasn’t being thrown out of the group.

After 7 years, I completed my analysis. I was ready to move on because my life had changed. I had wanted to wait to “graduate” until all of us who had started in the group together could “graduate” together. But my life had changed, was continuing to change while others, for all that they seemed to grow in group, were still stuck in the same unhappinesses which had brought them to therapy.

I have spent the rest of my life in groups, encounter groups which were the rage in mental health circles in the late 60’s; criticism/self-criticism groups, the Maoist tool of cultural revolution, which the New Left embraced in the 70’s and which morphed into the consciousness-raising groups of Women’s Liberation a few years later. In those days, I was going to political meetings a couple of times a week, welfare rights and Native American solidarity, stuff like that. Often the business part of the meeting lasted less than 30 minutes. The criticism/self-criticism could go on for another hour and a half.

What was the hardest part? Learning to speak the truth? Learning to listen? It was all hard.

Sometime in the mid-90’s, Joan Halifax appeared at a Peacemaker gathering in Yonkers and introduced us to Council. It came into our Zen world like a fresh breeze, and Roshi Bernie was smitten. After that, everything became circles and councils. Bernie jumped in with both feet. He had managed to become the amazing Zen teacher that he was by “missing” 30 years of American evolution. When I pointed out to him one afternoon that all of our Peacemaker meetings ended on a man’s voice, all of the men (including Bernie) busy getting the last word, Bernie made sure for years after that all meetings ended with a woman’s voice.

Council at every Peacemaker gathering. Circles everywhere. I felt that Bernie was like a kid with a new toy. He kept finding new group gurus and new communications gurus. I had been studying and practicing with groups for 30 years, and I felt he was just picking-up on the pop flavor of the month. For a while, Bernie wanted everything to be circles. I did attend a few but mostly I distanced myself. Most of the circles seemed like watered-down group therapy of some sort. People were enjoying the highs of sharing but there wasn’t much that I could see in the way of real transformation going on.

There is temptation in Council to erect fantasies of courageous openness. I would see these being enacted at every Council meeting I attended. So many people had their shtick. When the talking piece came to them, they would do their bit. And the circle would emote back. Group love. Everyone getting confirmed as a “Council person”. “We are all speaking from the heart; we are all listening from the heart; aren’t we wonderful?”

But this is not courage. In the Zen tradition, teachers through the years have warned of “Zen stink,” the practitioners who walked around with a pretentious Zen aura. What I was witnessing was Circle stink, but I didn’t have the courage to call it out. It was what Bernie, in that moment, thought he wanted. I distanced myself.

Jishu had once asked me if I had the courage to be Bernie’s teacher. I didn’t.

When Bernie announced that he would no longer give transmission to individuals, only to groups, I wondered, “Where does this leave me?”

That was a good koan, and I worked with it for a couple of years. Eventually, Bernie’s infatuation with circles faded. Meanwhile, the challenge and promise of circles remains out there. It is still a great training practice, perhaps the best practice which we have for working with the precept of Non-lying. What is Non-lying if not listening and speaking from the heart?

But listening and speaking from the heart is more than people sitting together in a group and getting “high” together. Authentic Council is not another drug scene.

Council practice done right is a spiritual practice. Like Zen practice — I suspect this may be true for all spiritual practices — Council practice is subject to two major traps.

The first trap is to mistake the momentary high of group embrace for the authentic opening of the heart. On the pathway, we can all fall victim to this trap. To avoid it, we need the guidance of an authentic teacher who in Zen words, “will pull the rug out” from under individuals and most importantly from the group as a whole. Otherwise, we end up in the self-congratulatory trap. “We are the good people. We are not racists. Look how open we are.” That is the Council version of “Zen stink.”

The second trap is more difficult. Hakuin called it the “after kensho trap”. Even authentic realization rots if we cling to it. Generally, we need a teacher to push us beyond the joy of opening our hearts. Now what? Roshi Michel Dubois expressed it so well, “Genpo Roshi opened my heart,” he said. “Bernie Roshi put it to work.” After the Council, then what? As Bernie asked at the end of the first Auschwitz Retreat, “How is this experience going to change your life? What will be different when you get home?”

Who is the guide who can help us avoid these traps? The guide is the person who is still working on his own traps. It’s a never-ending journey. And the guide is the person who is willing to share this. No pointing a finger at “you people”. “What this is bringing up for me,” spoken from the heart, fresh, no canned shtick.

I used to say, “Say nothing in Council which you have ever said before. Say nothing in Council which you are not afraid to say.”

I have softened that now. Sometimes it is worth retelling a story but only if you, the storyteller, are open to learning something new from this telling which you have never seen before.

[1] Opening to Oneness: A Practical and Philosophical Guide to the Zen Precepts. Boulder, CO: Shambala Publications, 2022.

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