This is a Hard One…


At this moment this has nothing to do with Christmas, Channukah, Kwaanza or any other holiday.  It has to do with a painful event followed by another painful event which continues to cause pain.  It’s not at all appropriate to the season, and, given the usually light or musing nature of this blog, not even appropriate to what I’ve been writing.  Let me stop explaining and just start writing.

*     *     *

Back on the 31st of October I began a period of intensified Zen meditation, study and practice lasting through the 6th of December.  During that period I participated in a group study of the writings of a  8th century Chinese Zen master, Ma-tsu (which I didn’t understand) and understanding of the Ten Essential Precepts (which I didn’t do well with either), extended my daily meditation period from 35 to 40 minutes (which did nothing to increase the depth of my meditation),  focused on maintaining two of those Ten Essential Precepts (#7: not elevating oneself or blaming others–to own one’s limitations, and #9, not being angry–to see things as they are and not as they should be (which may prove to be the saving grace in all this.) On December 6th this formal period, called Ango, ended with a meditation beginning at 8 in the morning and lasting until after 9 in the evening.

It was during this extended meditation  period that the first painful event occurred.  It happened at about 3:30 in the afternoon.  I was sitting in meditation when suddenly, with nothing I can recall to provoke  it,   my mind and body were taken over by feelings I’d never before experienced.  Intense helplessness, pain, isolation, terror, bewilderment, betrayal, despondency–I was experiencing feelings often described to me over the last 15 years by clients I’ve treated for addictions: the feelings that accompany being sexually abused as children by a trusted family member.  For all the years my clients did their best to describe their feelings, this was the first time their reports had moved from my cautious and distancing brain right into the center of my living.  I was sweating.  My belly was flipping.  Tears tried to come out, but I was too terrified to let that happen.  It was as if all that I had held certain and dear in life was simply no more.  I felt utterly alone and defenseless in this universe.  Utterly at the mercy of any and all evil.  Without losing consciousness everything went black.

Blessedly, when the gong sounded ending the meditation period I was scheduled to meet with one our teachers, our senseis, to discuss my progress and receive counseling.  I all but ran to the daisan area, the private space where we were to meet, my muscles tight to aching and my nausea just under control.  I rushed the polite introductories and spilled out as best I could the feelings which still ran through me.  I knew that compassion, one of Buddhism’s fundamentals was involved, but that empathy, a similar but much more visceral response, was overwhelming all else. Sensei would bring me back to balance.

Sensei looked at me calmly, and said that his job was to help me with Dharma, the Buddhist term which can mean either reality or the Buddha’s teachings, which are also reality.  When I continued my blurting, he noted that he had many more students to see and could not spend a lot of time with me.  When I continued–undoubtedly repeating what I’d already said, he asked me if I wanted to study koans, Japanese/zen mind-releasing puzzles, in January.  I responded that I was too tied up in this moment to think a month ahead.

At this point there was a pause, then I heard Sensei say, “Where there is self-hatred there can be no progress.”

What???  I was certainly jolted out of my terror and nausea.  What the fuck did that mean?  Who was self-hating?  I’d very carefully explained that I was feeling feelings my clients had described, that I’d never been molested nor had I molested anyone, that my life, ups, downs and the rest, had left me feeling blessed.  I had no idea of what he meant by his sentence.  I knew that Zen could be cryptic, but this was beyond my ability to understand, beyond my ability to even see the suggestion of a path to explore.  Still I was too upset to even ask what was meant, too chaotic to do anything but fall back on my habitual insecurities and assume that sooner or later I’d understand what my teacher was telling me.  Not all that deep down I felt that somehow it was being implied that I was an abuser.

Bowing meekly I left the room and returned to my mat.  For the next 5 hours I was useless. There was no meditation.  Motionless and silent, the agony of my clients had been joined by my own.  I, too, felt abandoned.

That was on Saturday.  Sunday, Monday and Tuesday I remained preoccupied, embedded in turmoil.  Tuesday night I returned to the zendo for regularly scheduled meditation.  Before even taking off my jacket I signed up for daisan with Sensei.  I had to know what had been meant by, “Where there is self-hatred there can be no progress.”  Walking to the interview area I alternated between rehearsing my words and urging myself not to turn and run.  Arriving in the daisan space, my voice at the edge of tears, I explained how I did not understand his comment, that I remained upset and without direction, that I had to know the meaning of his comment.

He replied directly and without hesitation, “I never said such a thing,” and asked for the context of this alleged remark.  I repeated all that I described above to you, all of which he acknowledged, all but the devastating sentence, “Where there is self-hatred there can be no progress.”  Again I flashed back to the stories from my clients.  Now, however, I wasn’t just hearing them.  I had become one of them.  Like them my perception, my reality was being denied.  The one whom I saw as my help, my rescuer, was denying what I knew to be true.

“You must understand,” Sensei continued, his voice firm and words precise.  “You must understand: I have no memory of ever having said those words.”  I looked into my lap, my shoulders dropping, my belly heaving, eyes wet.  A second, a minute, an eternity passed, then I heard a weak, infantile version of my own voice:  “I understand that you have no memory of ever having said those words.”  I rose and returned to the meditation room.

*     *     *

Zen and Ma-tsu talk of an all-containing universe, a universe so grand that it knows no contradictions because it holds all.  Truth and not-truth, full and not-full, raped and not raped.  Leaving my meeting with Sensei I focused on the universe holding memory-of-this and n0-memory of-this.  My truth and Sensei’s truth.  A universe big enough for both.

Intellectually I see no problem in this–now.  Sensei remembers one thing.  I remember another.  Reporting on our memories, we are both accurate.  Be clear, other than what we remember there is no trace of what transpired in that daisan on December 6, 2008 at around 3:45 in the afternoon.  The events of that moment are no longer part of here and now reality.  They are only of the past.

Reality, that which exists right now, is another story.  Right now Sensei may well believe that my memory is broken and, indeed, it has its problems.  I believe that  Sensei’s memory–if only in this instance–is simply not as good as my own.  I’d like to leave all this in the past, but there is the matter of pain, pain which is now and is real.

That pain which I  feel now is not that of my clients.  Nor is it that of not being comforted in those moments coming off the meditation mat. It is not even the pain in the accusation I inferred from the words, “Where there is self-hatred there can be no progress.”   No, it comes from my inability to leave the past behind, and as such it becomes my teacher, pointing up unmistakably my now-and-then tendency to become stuck in products of my mind.

Here I become grateful.

The work with my clients is to help them dislodge from the suffering brought on by clinging to the horrors and beliefs arising from their pasts.  Having it thus handed to me that such is not the clean and easy task I’ve always envisioned bolsters my compassion and my patience.  It makes me better at what I do.


Published in: on December 18, 2008 at 10:59 pm  Comments (13)  

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13 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Dick,
    I enjoy reading your site. I think I have read everything you have posted. Being a person who does not look often at his inner self, it’s interesting to read how hard you work at revealing yours.
    Keep on.


  2. Hi! I always read your posts, even if I don’t leave a comment. The absence of evidence of my visits is not evidence of my absence 🙂

    I look forward to discussing this most recent posting next week. I’m sure I don’t understand what you experienced, but I’d be fascinated to talk with you.


  3. I read what you write and for sme time I have failed you. I should have said this before – but I have had a feeling for some time that you would come to the situation – or type of situation – that you decribed vis a vis the sensei’s memory and your memory. Now, as your friend, and one who loves you – are you certain that you are following the right path? Are you using this path to escape reality? Is there something in your life that you do not want to face squarely, and so use this path as a means of escape?

    I will shut up now – but remember – I am your friend and I love you!


  4. Your story is disturbing. I have a few thoughts about it that I would rather not share in public, if at all.


  5. Hi Rich – I always read your post. This sounds so intense – it reminds me of one meeting i had with a client at Highbridge…lol – except this is so much more! and that meeting I had was really intense…I had supervision with…can’t remember his name..afterwards. Thank you for sharing your experiences with me.


  6. Richard,

    A few thoughts from here:Your blog is always (most times anyway) fun to read. Not this time.
    So to my thoughts:
    1. life sucks and than you die.
    2. I have a good shrink in Brooklyn who would take you on.
    3. life sucks but it gets shorter.
    4. Isn’t pain wonderful-it-the pain, lets you know you’re alive.
    5. You should be able to bend a spoon with your mind.
    6. I’m on my way to my BPH study.
    7. A good holiday season to all of us.



  7. hating myself

    loving myself

    hating myself

    loving myself

    hating myself

    loving myself



    my truth,
    sensie’s truth



  8. Hi RSG: I always read your posts even though I can’t relate to the spirituality in them.

    Peace and love,


  9. Dick,

    This is a very complicated (or simple depending on your perception) post. I believe that you, as a person, have often rode the edge of what humans, as people, can believe about themselves and all concepts of the reality surrounding them. I respect you greatly for your patience with yourself, which is the greatest patience of all. While you wander through your being, which has nothing to do with the neural firings and collection of organs which make you alive, you are bound to stumble upon things which don’t make sense. You will find paths which are undocumented, yet those paths do exist, so someone must have been there before. You will sometimes cross over those paths briefly while wandering your own path through the unmapped world of your being. You will know that there is something familiar there, but the familiarity fades when you try to think of why it’s familiar. Could it be that your immense empathy for your clients has become part of who you are? Do they not go through a period of self-hate? I’m not talking about transference here, I’m talking about connections with these people that you have helped. You are one being, but how much of that being is made up of mere connections? One being is made up of infinite connections with other beings, any one of which can vastly change either being involved, due to the nature of the connection itself regardless of the nature of either of the destinations of that connection.

    If you truly hated yourself, you would have kept this experience a secret, to covet your own pain. I think those words that you remember hearing have given you cause to progress, as opposed to proving that you are incapable of progress. Does this mean that your sensei is immeasurably wise for NOT remembering this, and therefore accentuating the feelings that arose from it?



  10. The end of day-lite draws near. Brooklyn is glazing over with a coating of ice-crusted snow.

    You have moved a lot of people and have an answer to your e-mail query. Good for you and us.
    Thank you.



  11. Three notes:

    1) I read most of your postings – you may recall that on occassion I’ve left comments, 2) I’m no expert but it sounds to me like you had a bout of depression coupled with an anxiety attack – meditation and the concomittant introspection can do that to some people (I’m talking about myself, natch), and 3) I’m reminded of Thomas Mann’s “Mysterious Mountain” – the protagonist spends years in the sanitorium seeking some sort of enlightenment, never being cured (of TB or whatever it was), only to suddenly run off to join the army at the declaration of WW I. The point I suppose was that we should stop contemplating life and just live it. You seem to be rather good at that, most of the time. Is that a fourth point?


  12. As I have already told you in person, your ability to articulate such events and feelings into something so cohesive and demanding of attention delights me. If this truly is secondary PTSD, then you are taking a wonderful step in reducing its effects on you by bringing it into awake reality. You could have had the same feelings come out of a prayer session; it happened to be meditation. The good news is, of course, that you ARE awake, aware, and there for your clients. As we are for you.


  13. I am seeing so much pyschobabble and gibberish in the above comments that I can’t resist the temptation to jump in with some bullshit of my own.

    It’s not you’re fault that you’re in pain, and it’s not simply your inability to “let go” of the past. To me, the bottom line of your narrative is that what happened in the daisan room is disturbing, it is not ok, it needs to be settled and that’s why the pain persists.

    I credit your version of events. Might it be that your Zen teacher is having real difficulty with his memory? Or he is fucking with your mind? Or some combination of both? It is said that ego inflation is among the perils of becoming a teacher and having 20 people sitting on the floor in silence hanging on your every word. Might he have tossed off the self-hatred remark so casually that for him it wasn’t worth remembering?

    These are serious and troubling questions that have to be confronted.


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