Showing Up for Life Means Showing Up for Others
by Sensei Koshin Paley Ellison
I used to see myself as a rebel. I was into my identity as an outsider, and it was a place of safety for me for a long time. One year, however, my grandmother Mimi got sick. Her kids – my dad and his sister – wanted her to move from her home in Brooklyn to assisted living near where they lived, either in Syracuse or Atlanta. Neither option appealed to her, and so she asked if I would be willing to take care of her instead.
I remember it so clearly: we were sitting on a wooden bench on Ocean Parkway, and I was feeling these little inward contractions, like, “Oh my God, she’s asking me?” I was thinking about how taking on this responsibility might not necessarily be very convenient.
Many of us have this habit: making our lives as tight and small as possible, and cutting ourselves off from others. It’s heartbreaking, the isolation we are prone to falling into.
Fortunately, on that day, I was also feeling such enormous love for her that I was able to expand outward instead. And so I told her that of course I would take care of her. This whole response took a minute.
I would come to learn that “taking care of her” was actually incredibly ordinary. It was going to King’s Highway grocery store and picking up whole milk and half a dozen eggs. Sometimes it was accompanying her on doctor’s visits, but mainly so I could make sure that we could get in and out of the car easily, which just meant telling her to hang on and then going around to her side of the car and opening her car door.
It was totally simple, and totally loving.
There’s a probably apocryphal story that goes like this: Someone once asked the Dalai Lama for help. “I feel so bad,” they told him. “I don’t feel any kind of compassion for myself.” His advice? “Serve others.” I have also found this to be true.
And yet sometimes, meditation, like my ‘outsider’ pose, can be a little self-centered. For the first ten years of my meditation practice, I was so intensely self-preoccupied that there was no way I was really serving others. I was in it for me.
In some ways, that can be helpful in the beginning. We do have to take care of getting to know our own mind and our emotional patterns before we can start seeing how we project our angels and demons onto other people.