Photo by Nicole Howe

AN INTERVIEW WITH
KOSHIN PALEY ELLISON

Sensei Koshin Paley Ellison is co-founder of the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, a Zen-based center offering contemplative approaches to care through education, direct service, and meditation practice located in the heart of Manhattan. In addition to holding a Doctorate of Ministry, he is a Licensed Master Social Worker and holds an MFA in Creative Writing. Ellison is the co-editor of Awake at the Bedside: Contemplative Teachings on Palliative and End of Life Care (Wisdom Publications, 2016), as well as faculty at New York Theological Seminary, the University of Arizona, the University of Texas, and the chaplaincy supervisor for the Pain and Palliative Care Department at Mount Sinai Beth Israel Medical Center. I sat down with him recently to discuss his unique path to contemplative practice, politics, and the space for rage in Zen Buddhism.

Interview By Chloe Walker
Chloe Walker is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, NY. Her work explores the aspects of human thought and feeling that we all share, amidst the increasingly wide spectrum of experiences, identities, and ideologies we might embody. Chloe believes that art, writing, and unlikely animal friendships play an immeasurable role in fostering empathy and kindness, and little could be more valuable in this modern world of complex ills.
Featuring Sensei Koshin Paley Ellison
An Interview with Koshin Paley Ellison

In addition to being a Zen Buddhist monk, you have an MFA, an LCSW, are a certified chaplain, and hold a Doctorate of Ministry. With such a varied path of study, it begs the question: What has led you to your current work at the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care?

Well, when I was 7—and we'll see how this goes—I was with my grandfather, who had retired at that point, and he used to save me National Geographic magazines, and we were looking at a National Geographic together, and there was an issue about Tokyo and there was a picture of a monk doing something called Takuhatsu, which is where they're begging, and they wear these big round hats and you can't really see their eyes but you can see their mouth. And he had this slight smile, and it was completely in focus and still, and everyone around him was blurred. And I remember reading the caption, ‘A Zen Buddhist monk,’ and I said, "I want to be that."

Wow! Talk about nascent clarity.

So there's that moment. I went home from my visit with my grandparents and told my mom, "I know what I want to be when I grow up. I want to be a Zen Buddhist monk."  My mom was like, "Cool."  Who knew that would actually come to be. In high school, my family had a lot of friends who were some of the first people diagnosed, or actually not even diagnosed in the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and so I spent much of my high school years watching these dear family friends disappearing. After school, I’d be spending time in the hospital and watching these people who I loved, Gerry, Michael and others, and how poorly they were treated by the healthcare people.

I think at that time people were just completely freaked out, and nobody knew what was happening to these very young men that were in their 30s, suddenly looking like skeletons with sarcoma, which you don't really see as much anymore. But in those times that was what many people with HIV/AIDS looked like, just skeletons covered in spots. It was very moving to me to be with them and how ordinary that was, you know, eating with them or telling stories or laughing or whatever it was. Just whatever it was and loving that, and also seeing the incredible discomfort around how they were treated.

I went home from my visit with my
grandparents and told my mom, ‘I know what
I want to be when I grow up. I want to be a
Zen Buddhist monk.’

I can imagine the enormous impact witnessing that would have on a young person.

Yeah, there were a lot of different things. I was also reading a lot of writers in high school and really interested in counter-culture. And then anything these writers would reference, I would start reading. So I'd started reading some books about Buddhism. Also, my stepmother was on the board of the local Zen center, so it was always kind of in the background. When I was 17, I went out to Naropa Institute—this was before it was a university. Because I heard that Allen Ginsberg was teaching there, and I couldn't believe that these people I was reading about in a book, that I could go and study with them. And I think that was also the first time when I realized the kind of education I had was with particular teachers, not just whoever. And when I went out to study with Allen was also when I met my first Zen teacher, who was a wonderful, loving Italian-American guy. It was the first day that I arrived on Arapahoe Avenue in Boulder and saw this guy walking down the street, looking how I'm dressed now. It kind of blew me away that someone could be an American person and dressed in that way and really living their vow to end suffering and to find stillness and quiet and dedicate their life to that. All of that happened all at the same time.

Koshin sitting in a room of a recently deceased patient.
Photo by Sean Kernan

That sounds significant—your teachers all brought very specific lineages and perspectives to your education.

Yes, and there was another significant thing that happened in that evolution. After undergraduate school, I traveled, I lived in Israel, and I lived in Spain and different places, and I'd been touring around. Then in my mid-20s, my grandfather died, my father's father, and my grandmother lived. I had moved back to Brooklyn, and my grandmother was living very close to me. She was 83 at that time, and my dad and his sister were pressuring her to move to Syracuse, where my dad was living, or Atlanta, where my aunt lives, and move into an assisted living home. But she was in a place that she had lived for more than 50 years. She had her beauty parlor, the local diner, all the things that she loved, and her people. And she also was still working fulltime as an office manager of a very high-end law firm and art dealer. You know, years before, when the stairs became too much, her boss started sending cars for her. So she actually had quite a nice situation, and she loved her work. She couldn't even wrap her mind around moving into assisted living and closing up her life because she felt like her life was very full. She had a really good network of friends and family locally. And I think in some ways it speaks to the larger issues around how we treat our elderly in this country. We just think, ‘Oh, she's old and alone.’ But actually, what is the quality of her life? The quality of her life was fantastic, like better than most peoples. I think it's like 85 percent of people wish they weren't doing what they are doing. So she and I made a little pact together to take care of each other and really be there for each other.

And to think about the pain that we cause
ourselves because we contract against things,
because we don't understand something. It's
very powerful, the pain we cause from
resisting what is.

That is a huge commitment to make at such a young age. What was that experience like?

In the beginning, it was like hanging out at the diner, King's Highway Diner with her, and going to doctors' visits. As aging progresses, as life does, it became ambulance rides and hospitalizations, and then the last six weeks of her life, moving in with her into the hospice.

She was one of those rare people that when you were with her, she was like, "How are you? What's actually going on?" She would remember every detail that you'd ever told her, and ask about the people who were important to you, and really lean in. So many of my friends, who were also involved with the Zen center where I had begun to study, started showing up at her house and spending time with her because she was a person who it just felt good to be around. People were showing up to take care of her, but it was because they also loved being taking care of. So when she moved into the hospice, they were there pretty regularly, all the time, which was amazing.

I was working at magazines at that time, at Vogue and Ms., and different places, and knew I wanted to go back to school and study with a woman named Marie Howe, who had co-edited a book of poets responding to the AIDS pandemic. I was writing, and read this book, and I found another book by Marie at that time and realized I had to go. The way she wrote, I just felt like I wanted to learn from her. So I applied to Sarah Lawrence to get my MFA during that time. So once I started kind of being more involved with my grandmother, I was also going back to school to study poetry with Marie, which also was its own kind of transformational experience of meeting this group of writers who were such incredible, life-giving people.

But I was having a hard time. I grew up Jewish, and I am Jewish, but my grandmother always had a lot of pain around the Buddhist thing or the Zen thing, and she felt even though she wasn't a religious person, I was some sort of betrayal because our family had died in the Holocaust, and it was not easy for her to accept my choice. One night she woke me up in the night and was crying, and she said, "I have to tell you something. I have to tell you something." So I was like, "What is it, Grandma?" And she said, "I realize now after 87 years that I didn't know what it means to love someone." I was like, "What do you mean?" She said, "You know, the whole Zen thing, I didn't understand, and I realize that part of my heart contracted from you, and it didn't love you fully, and I'm so sorry."

It was amazing. And to think about the pain that we cause ourselves because we contract against things, because we don't understand something. It's very powerful, the pain we cause from resisting what is. The next day she said to me and Choda, my husband, "You know, I never thought I'd say this, but there's something to the Zen thing and the caregiving thing that you and your friends do. There's something very different about you. You guys really know how to pay attention. You should start some kind of nonprofit organization, starting with the Zen thing and the care and teaching people how to do it." I always love thinking that my Grandma was the honorary founder of the New York Zen Center of Contemplative Care. It’s a great delight to me. So there's that. We ultimately thought that was a very good idea. So we started, both Choda and I—he had already been trained as a psychoanalyst, but we didn't have any real clinical training at the bedside, even though I had years of experience with my grandma... So we entered into a clinical chaplaincy training program.

Koshin visiting with a hospice patient.
Photo by Sean Kernan

What a meaningful tribute to your grandmother. And I can only imagine the reward of being recognized for your own gifts by someone so important to you.

I think what's also important is that after she died, my grief was so great. Curled into a fetal position on the kitchen floor kind of situation, and I just missed her so much that many days, I was just inconsolable, and I'm glad. I could barely walk down the block. Actually, I remember trying a few times, and it just didn't even make sense to me, which is not an uncommon experience in grief. It’s almost like you're in an altered state. I couldn't imagine how I would get down there, the block I'd walked down a million times.

So when I started chaplaincy training, it was the only thing that got me out of the house. Being with other people who were facing their own vulnerabilities around illness and aging and dying was the only thing that made sense to me. I couldn't imagine anything else to do. Serving in that way felt like it completely made sense. It was during that training that I was working with inpatient oncology folks, adults, and some of them would be released from the hospital once in a while. Most of them would not be released from the hospital, most of them would die. The ones who were released wanted to keep working with me outside, but I didn't have a degree for that. So I applied to NYU Social Work School.

I’ve done a lot of schooling, but for me, that's not the most important thing. It's really about how you are with the people you're with. I mean to me, you can have a million degrees and still be just a total asshole. It doesn't mean much. But we founded the Center in 2007, and to really address how we deal with old age, sickness, and death, and we do it through our caregiving program. We provide direct care at the bedside, or people come here for bereavement or where they are in that. We have all these education programs and Zen training.

So we really believe that contemplative care, we didn't know that expression before, but we felt like—this was 2006 when we came up with the idea, with the name, contemplative care was like someone who has a contemplative daily practice and sees their caregiving as a form of generosity of giving and receiving, so that they see it as a form of their contemplative practice. So it feels fantastic.

It's not just about being this mindful
cloud person. It's about being really present
and engaged.

What keeps crossing my mind in hearing your story is how much of it is a direct result of individuals that you crossed paths with or felt pulled to. You are obviously highly educated and credentialed, but it seems like it’s always been about the people, it’s always been about the relationships.

Yeah, I’ve done a lot of schooling, but for me, that's not the most important thing. It's really about how you are with the people you're with. I mean, you can have a million degrees and still be a total asshole. It doesn't mean much. I used to not even post my degrees, because I didn’t feel it was telling the right story. I feel like the healing actually happens in relationship, and whether it's how we deal with our pain and whether it moves into suffering or not, really depends on our relationship with it in our own mind and our own body and in the people that we can gather around us for support. Those are crucial—all of our relationships. Inner relationships and outer relationships.

That is a great lead into discussing contemplative care more in depth. Can you tell our readers, many of whom may not know, what contemplative care is? And how it’s employed at the NYZCCC?

Contemplative care is care that's given, but given and received by someone who has a daily contemplative practice—meditation or prayer or some kind of rigorous daily practice. Here we do it through Zen. The care is seen as a form of generosity, of giving and receiving. And we call the care practice “contemplative care” because it's firmly rooted in daily practice and is in itself an extension of that. That's why our name is the New York Zen Center of Contemplative Care. There are many Zen centers, but I was like, what's the Zen Center for? Is it for Zen? And we felt very strongly it was for care, for contemplative care.

This was 2006 when we came up with the idea, with the name, ‘contemplative care,’ which was someone who has a contemplative daily practice and sees caregiving as a form of generosity, as a form of their contemplative practice. We founded the Center in 2007 to really address how we deal with old age, sickness, and death, and we do that through our caregiving programs. We provide direct care at the bedside, or people come here for bereavement or wherever they are in that. We also have education programs and Zen training.

How might this be applied in aid to different groups or individuals?

So how does that work for different groups? The extension of our mission is to care for people through the span of life, and so we have meditation-based care groups, you could say, caring groups. One is for people who are in the 12-Step Program. So there's a period of meditation and discussion about what the teachings, the Zen teachings, have to do with one's path of sobriety. And then we also have some which are for people in the LGBTQ community. And it's also meditation-based and then also there's a sharing process that is practice of care.

Then we do a lot of medical education, so we're on the faculty of now three medical schools, one in Portland, Oregon, University of Texas in Houston, and University of Arizona in Tucson, and we're on the faculty of the fellowship of integrated medicine, So we're training physicians from all over the country about how to ground their practice into—you could call it contemplative medicine—to really develop and nurture their own contemplative practice so that when they're with their patients and their loved ones and themselves, it's really grounded in their own values, ethics, and practice.

Meditation instruction given by a Dojun O’Connor, one of Koshin’s Zen students, at NYZCCC's
annual Contemplative Care Retreat
Photo by CAITLIN STROM

It’s fascinating how these concepts can be applied to so many areas of life that can be challenging for individuals, and as a polemical tool for other caregivers as well. Expanding medical doctors’ training to incorporate contemplative daily practice sounds hugely impactful, as we constantly hear of overburdened doctors without the time to recognize their patients as individuals, let alone connect with them on an interpersonal level.

I have this amazing group of first and second-year medical students who are in a year-long training with me in Houston, and it’s all about grounding them in meditation training and ethics and communication skills. How to be with people and how to listen with a reflective mind, because actually the studies show that physicians speak about 85 percent of each patient visit. So actually learning more of a giving-receiving mind, and actually really allowing that to come forward. And it's mostly out of anxiety.

We just had this large symposium on palliative end of life care, and there were hundreds of physicians, nurses, social workers, and chaplains. One of the speakers said, "Raise your hand if you've ever taken—received or taken any communication training, never mind contemplative care training.” Only a handful of people had, and at least 75 percent of the work these people are doing is communication, and they don't even know how to do it. So people don't know how to be with the people that they're with, so at the heart of contemplative care is learning how to be with yourself and others in a contemplative, engaged, and lively way. It's not just about being this mindful cloud person. It's about being really present and engaged.

There's something very humbling about really
taking time every week to be at the bedside
and making it not about you.

What would you say is the most central need that contemplative care is aiming to respond to?

Well, I think to me, it's about resiliency connection. Because in order to really practice contemplative care, you have to be really interested in investigating your habits of thoughts, your habits of words and response, and your habits of actions. You have to be focused on those three things. So really working with your mind and how you think about it, how you speak about it, and how you act about it. Using reflection through those three processes, which I think is crucial for resiliency. And other things too, you know, things that we'll never get good at, like seeing that everything has something to teach us, everything. Nothing and no person is left out of that. And that you have to allow yourself to be nourished and to nourish a community. You have to belong somewhere, like your people. I don't really care what that looks like, but it’s becoming an epidemic in this country at this time. The number one fear of incoming college freshmen was talking to people.

Wow. It’s worrisome to think about the state of empathy in a generation that has the means to connect to more people than any other period in history, but is afraid to talk to one another.

Right, learning how to be with oneself in relationship feels like an epidemic need. Several of our physician friends who do primary care work—a few of them ask their new patients, "Who are the five people who would drop everything right now and come and be with us right now if we needed them to be here?" And what's happening more and more is that people don't have an answer. Some of these same friends are writing prescriptions for their patients to find some friends, like real friends, who would lay it down. That connection is shrinking in our society at this time, the ability to really belong to a group and the importance of that.

You know, the not so great thing about social media is that people think that that's actually connecting. But even the studies show that people who spend too much time on social media actually get depressed. The rates of depression are rising, rising, rising because the connection is going down, down, down, down. So to me, it's not anything bad about social media, just that people will spend five hours on social media, but not spend any time actually talking to someone. So I think in some ways contemplative care is really addressing that and giving people the actual community and teaching that that’s what matters most. We have a nine-month training called Foundations in Contemplative Care, and we're actually seeing more and more young people joining it, who actually want to learn how to connect. They really feel like they don't know how to connect. And they're doing it through service work. Part of the training is that they spend time with very sick people, and there's something very humbling about really taking time every week to be at the bedside and making it not about you. Learning to make it not about you.

That seems so vitally important at this moment in time, as the ‘Me Generation’ comes up in the world. There has been such a sharp rise of individualism and thinking about things in terms of only ourselves. While in some ways I see power in that, in losing groupism as a means of identity formation, the idea that younger individuals are simply unable to form groups or communities is terrifying. How are people going to care for one another if there isn’t an understanding that everyone else’s life is as complex, enriching, and as spectral as yours or mine?

It's stunning to hear from so many physicians conducting outpatient procedures how big this problem is. People don't have someone to pick them up from a procedure. People are actually having Uber drivers pick them up and come in the building and get them, because they don't have someone else. Chilling.

There were two studies done last year
and one concluded that isolation is more dangerous than smoking. So I feel like our
work is just beginning. It couldn't be
more timely.

It is.

And isolation, feelings of isolation, are an early morbidity indicator for early death. It’s dangerous. There were two studies done last year and one concluded that isolation is more dangerous than smoking. So I feel like our work is just beginning. It couldn't be more timely.

I’m fascinated by this notion of (aimed at teaching) Buddhism. In many ways what you’re doing feels like an aspect of social activism, which certainly makes sense as a part of your vow to alleviate suffering. It’s interesting, though, because through my own experiences around Buddhism, I’ve at times found the ideas to be an invitation to sequester oneself and leading a life of rituals, which provide individual comforts, but I don’t know, seem to lack social impetus

I'm sure every tradition does that in some way, because it's about our relationship to the tradition. And I'm sure across traditions you can find instances of suppression, just as you can find instances of dogmatism in every tradition. But to me it's that they also have teachings, all of them have teachings of liberation from suffering. That's what they're all going for. To me that's done by really being like the earth and really being like the universe, black holes and all, welcoming all of that like, yup, yup. Follow me.

Foundation’s students doing a partner exercise on intimacy.
Photo by CAITLIN STROM

Right, the acceptance of both the good and the bad and still moving forward. Do you feel there is a place for anger or rage in Zen Buddhism? I ask because those are two emotions that, I think, can be galvanizing to alleviate social ills and often beget the social change, but they feel very counter to any ‘Zen’ emotional state.

Well, I'm not interested in any tradition that suppresses anger. Period. I mean for myself, I'm not drawn to suppression. We have a precept around anger where it says don't hold onto anger, but it doesn't mean do not express it. It's like don't hold a grudge, actually work with it, investigate it. Yeah, take action. But through really investigating what it is, because usually under anger there's a lot of hurt and vulnerability. For me, that's essential, and I don't want to get rid of my anger because it's just like where does it go? I don't know if it goes anywhere.

And here, in our tradition, we vow to serve all beings, not leaving one out. That doesn't mean I can't be angry at you or like you completely piss me off, and we need to talk about it, or we need to shift something. But that serviced me. Because if I just hold it in and stuff it, then neither of us is going to learn anything. I think people have this false idea, a little like the ‘good caregiver person,’ you know, like love and light exclusively. It's not about loving. It is about love and light, but it's also about darkness and storms. It's like the whole world, you know? It has volcanoes and scary tidal waves, and it’s pretty looking. It has everything. So, whether it's in Zen training or direct care, our education is not about suppression of anything. It's about actually how do you begin to realize you can feel everything. And that it's the lack of acknowledgment of that and the darkness, that causes so much suffering, unneeded suffering.

I was just talking to a friend who is a writer, and he is often telling people that he's an asshole. And he is, to his own admittance. But he's like famous for admitting. But he says that because he's like I'm going to start there. It was like the Buddha saying there's suffering in life, as the first truth. Like let's start with that, but not as a nihilistic thing, but to say like I can cause pain. I do cause pain. I have. I'm sure I’m doing it right now. And at some point in the future, I probably will again. I create my own suffering. I have in the past. I probably am right now. I totally will in the future. But it's like that's the good news. Yeah, we do stuff. To me, it's so freeing to be able to think ‘Yes, I do that and I take responsibility for it. Yes, and its part of life. And also, there's a cause of it, and mostly it's because I'm afraid.’ The Buddha laid out this path, a path that addressed that, and it actually has to do with really understanding how you cause suffering, really paying attention to your actions, your words, your thoughts, your work, your vocation. It's like so cool and clear, and you don't have to be a Buddhist. I mean the Buddha wasn't a Buddhist.

I'm not interested in any tradition
that suppresses anger. Period. I mean
for myself, I'm not drawn to suppression.

But it’s significant that we have to think about all of this. So the suppression of anything, to me, really negates our humanity, and it certainly isn't my understanding of this practice. And yet the admittance of it all, and just the welcoming of it, welcoming everything and pushing away nothing, it’s only ‘this is what's happening.’ It's inspiring.

Do you have any daily practices or mantras that you use to embrace the good and the bad? I'm curious what you might recommend on an individual level. These are divisive times. I've been feeling down, worked up about politics, and I know I’m not alone. What can we do?

Find your people, you know, people who challenge you to think differently. I think we all need that so that we don't get stuck in even our own idealism or non-idealism or pessimism or depression. To me, that's why I love community, sangha. Our place was packed last night [the day after the election], full of people sitting quietly, walking quietly, meditating and really needing that. But how different the conversation was after we sat together. Letting it drop in, again not suppressing it, but just asking, ‘Alright, what are we feeling?’ We're feeling so sad. Some people are feeling inspired. Some people feel terrified. Some people are feeling like ‘Let's go and do something.’ But other people are feeling ‘Let's be quiet.’ I love the diversity, and I love being around the diversity, being connected to the diversity. And I feel like that's such a powerful teaching of this time, is the lack of connection to real diversity. It's like, ‘Wow, what a splash of ice water. Wow.’ These people are really into signs. And who knows each other? It seems like an amazing time to - talk about range - to really know the range of people out there. It makes me want to read more about the inequity of economics and education. And I feel like that's a really incredible ignorance on my part.

Koshin and Chodo visiting with a hospice patient.
Photo by Sean Kernan

I've never really thought about that. I'm like in my little Zen bubble of progressive politics. And meanwhile, tens of millions of people—like what hubris. To me it was the most painful part of it was realizing my own hubris. I was like, wow, I'm really isolated, even though I feel very connected to many wonderful people regularly, but still isolated. So how do we take the leap from our isolation? Because it's always something to reflect on. Like where are we not curious? My Grandma, she would talk to anybody. She would. And she really wanted to know how it was for them. She was fascinated.

Who are we not listening to? What our own biases and how are we causing suffering and pain. We're all responsible. To me, that—if we can take that on, that's the medicine. Like yup, I do that. I feel like we can begin a real, maybe, substantive conversation if we can accept that. Like, shit, I participated in that. It's a rude awakening, that apparently had to happen. The collective shock says it clearly had to happen because it wouldn't happen otherwise. 50 million people don't come out of nowhere. That's a lot of people. This is the people. These are the workers and the unemployed and the hurting, and of course, other people too.

Find your people, you know, people who
challenge you to think differently.

It feels like we have a lot to unpack, but it first and foremost with accepting are part and looking to the needs that have been illuminated. In that vein, I’m curious how you find it practicing Zen Buddhism in a bustling city like New York? I can imagine a few other, more Zen locations...

I love cities. I love the vibrancy of cities, and I started my practice in the city. In Zen, there's an expression that I love so much. It says, ‘The small retreat is off in the mountains, and the great retreat is disappearing in the capital.’ So like fully participating and fully taking responsibility in the capital, is the great retreat. I've spent many summers on retreat literally in the mountains, and it has been pretty and quiet and peaceful and wonderful. But the great retreat is in the capital, really being in the midst of things, being of use and being of service.

Zen is a part of the larger bodhisattva, or the enlightening being school of Buddhism. So our vow is to serve. It's vows of service. So what better place to do that than in the places of great suffering and vibrancy, life and death? I can't imagine doing it anywhere else.

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