Roshi Jishu Holmes was my teacher. It is hard to grasp that she has been gone for 25 years. And yet I hear her words as clearly as ever.
Sometimes you step from a 100-foot pole. Sometimes you fall. And sometimes you are pushed.
My job as chief of the children and youth service was, at the time I was fired, the best job of my life. I’ve told the story of that firing, but the story of the after firing is the more important story.
Although there is a prequel — that’s a story for another time — the story of my path to Zen really begins with that firing. There is also the big romance story of my life which begins with that firing, the story of how Dee and I ended up together with a wonderful daughter and are now about to be retired together. But that, too, is another story.
This part of the Zen story actually begins a year or so before the firing when Dee introduced me to the I Ching. Dee had taken on the leadership of the Children and Youth inpatient unit during a moment of crisis. Sometime during the year, she must have shared with me that when looking for guidance on dealing with one of the many unit challenges she was facing, she consulted the I Ching Sage.
I scoffed. The craziest thing I ever heard.
But then, suddenly pushed from my cherished perch atop my 100-foot pole, with a marriage having ended a month earlier, and feeling myself in rather desperate need of guidance, I found a copy of the I Ching in a Park Slope bookstore and bought it. Then, I had to call Dee to find out how to throw the pennies. She had shown me once, but I hadn’t paid attention. Too crazy. But that’s how you consult the Sage.
So, how do you throw the pennies?
I was hooked immediately. I had a morning routine. I would throw the pennies, consulting the Sage, first thing in the morning; and then I would journal, allowing to appear on paper what was arising. Every morning — first my question, then as I threw the pennies —I would inscribe the hexagram that was generated. Next, I would copy the Sage’s response, and finally I would allow the meaning of the response to arise. Only then would I sit on my pillow to meditate, a practice which had probably been suggested by the Sage. Later, Dee would buy me my first real zafu, the Zen cushion.
The Sage encouraged me to find a Zen group to sit with; and when the group required that all members be able to sit still for 30 minutes, the Sage showed me how to extend my sitting time. Eventually, the Sage led me to Bernie and Jishu in Yonkers.
Bruising happens when one is thrown from a 100-foot pole. My ego was badly hurt. I found comfort in the Journals of Thomas Merton. I found him still struggling with a bruised and angry ego even after he had been many years a Trappist monk and had achieved wide acclaim as an author. Chafing under an abbot who didn’t seem to sufficiently appreciate his gifts, Merton wrestled with the possibility of moving to another monastery, to a more appreciative abbot.
When an opportunity to move finally appeared, Merton prayed for guidance. The answer was clear: If it was right for him to leave Gethsemane for another monastery, it would be absolutely clear that this move was God’s Will and not merely Thomas’s ego. An epiphany for Merton and for me.
I appreciated Merton’s support. Pushed from my 100-foot pole, working in a kind of purgatory at the Staten Island Family Court, I was forced to look at how much my ego had been fed by the chief of service job which had been taken from me. It was a great teaching.
I needed to see my puffed-up self clearly. Jishu helped me put it into words. I was struggling to learn humility.
Jishu was the most humble person I have ever known, no Zen stink at all. People often mistook her humility for insecurity. Sometimes even Jishu worried that she had “too little confidence.” When I would chafe to get back to my career as a “mental health administrator”, I would ask Jishu in dokusan, “Have I learned enough humility yet?”
“Apparently not” was always the answer.
A New Opportunity
And then one day I got a phone call at my Family Court office. A new children’s psych center had opened in Brooklyn. They needed someone to head up their outpatient programs. Would I be interested? “You don’t have to take the job,” I was told, “but please talk to them. The choice though is yours.”
I went out to Brooklyn to meet the folks. They seemed nice enough. Back home, I pondered, “Have I learned enough humility?” Here was a chance to restart my management career, but I heard Merton saying, “When the time for the move is right, it will be absolutely clear that it is the Will of God.” Was it clear? Or was this ego and ambition leaping at an opportunity? Is this the Will of God?
Doubtful, I thought, “Apparently not.” I graciously declined.
And then I got another call. “I know we told you it was your choice, but we really need you to go to Brooklyn.” I had no choice. Managers in the State system pretty much go where they are sent within a region.
The Will of God? Don’t know, but certainly not my choice.
Thrown from a 100-foot pole in 1991, I had worked in exile for 6 years, 6 years in which my job at the Family Court demanded relatively little energy. I found myself for the first time in many years with the time to read and write fun stuff, fiction. I discovered Nadine Gordimer and Toni Morrison, wrote short stories, sat regularly, attended Street Retreats and the first Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz. Although I was bruised, I was seeing that sometimes one needs to be thrown from the perch atop the pole. It is too easy, sometimes, to comfortably cling.
I was feeling great gratitude for my good fortune, grateful to Dee and the Sage and all my teachers who had helped me turn a bruising into a gift. All this had come about because I had been fired.
I bowed in gratitude. But did I have to feel gratitude toward the Executive Director of South Beach who had pushed me off the pole? I could see that there was a koan for me here.
Some of the most powerful and important lessons can come out of these moments. How transformative it is to bow in gratitude rather than respond in anger. It is an amazing practice. No matter how much anger I have been feeling, when I gassho and thank-you, I cannot help but smile. The anger goes. It is a difficult practice. I can’t always do it, don’t always remember.
But did I have to bow and thank the South Beach director, even in my mind, in my heart, for pushing me off the 100-foot pole? I decided, “No.”
I am thankful for the push. It opened so much in my life.
But she fired me to hurt me, to punish me for real and imagined wrongs and disloyalties. I decided that I didn’t have to thank her, but I am not fully satisfied with my answer. The anger is long dissipated, such wonderful things have emerged as a result of that bruising push.
The anger is gone, Bernie is gone, Jishu is gone, but so many years later I still have my koan.
Have I learned enough humility yet?
I hear Jishu’s answer still so clearly, “Apparently not.”