When I started this newsletter, it was intended to focus solely on creativity, but as time passed, I noticed that creativity isn’t an isolated act nor an epic climax or anything that extraordinary; rather, it is a byproduct of how we exist in this world. What we create is our response to life. We, in effect, mirror our realities as conduits of everything that happens both there and here. Our creative spirit manifests in how we bring a spoon to our mouths, fidget under the table, or create our magnum opus.
And over the past three years or so that this newsletter has existed, I’ve concluded that creativity is not an act but a perpetual state. However, this perpetual state is quite easy to lose somewhere in the misty and foggy turbulence — and when this happens, maybe we freeze or contract or forget what it means to be or create or to live with purpose.
Maybe this refusal to be aware of the creative spirit transforms into cognitive, physical, and emotional blocks that drag us further down the stairs into existential crises. And, of course, some existential crises are much more acceptable than others. Some will manifest in the form of lucrative careers, while others might show up as self-deprecation — regardless, both are, to an effect, blinding and far from home.
I’m thrilled to announce that I will teach a series of classes alongside my teacher, Roshi Robert Joshin Althouse, a Zen Master and co-founder of the Zen Life & Meditation Center. I’ve been studying with him since 2018, and in 2020, I did my Jukai ceremony as his student. So as his student, I’ve developed an appreciation for secular and ancient teachings on mindfulness and wellness. There’s a vast repertoire of wisdom that goes back thousands of years — teachings explicitly relevant to modern times — and every year, contemporary thinkers, psychologists, and neuroscientists shed light and validate much of that wisdom.
We’ll teach four classes titled Overcoming Obstacles: Wellness in a Time of Darkness. We’ll cover anxiety, addiction, depression, trauma, loneliness, grief, and all the things that make us human and that we experience and are familiar with at some point or another. The classes will be online and at the Zen Life & Meditation Center in Oak Park, Illinois.
The course is described as follows: These four classes will address ways to transform our suffering into wisdom and will provide practical methods to help you turn toward wellness, healing, self-compassion, resilience, and awareness. The series will draw insights from Zen Buddhist teachings, neuroscience, and psychology.
I’d like to share an exchange we recently had regarding our course.
RJA: Roshi Joshin Althouse
CS: Roshi, I’m pleased to be teaching alongside you and believe what we’ll be covering will be relevant to many. What does the title of the class series, Wellness in a Time of Darkness, mean to you? It’s a bold title, and the word darkness can mean many things.
RJA: Yes, it's wonderful for me, too, to be teaching this with you, Christian. The word "darkness" has two implications for me. First, it just acknowledges the very high levels of suffering we are experiencing at this time. The pandemic has had a serious impact on the mental health of many, with rising levels of trauma, depression, loneliness, addiction, and anxiety. So these are troubling and dark times. The second implication is perhaps more serious, and that is the disconnect we are experiencing between what we see and hear and what is actually occurring. This double-bind is crazy-making because what has now become normal is actually not normal at all. I think this situation is confusing to many and makes it hard for them to trust their own intrinsic sanity and wisdom.
CS: Yes, I agree. I also think that for most, we've begun to consider this "darkness" as a normal state of being. We've become numb to what is happening — violence, injustice, climate catastrophes, toxic cultures, etc. In a society that provides us with a wide range of ways to be distracted and disconnected from reality, it can be easy to forget to tend to our core needs, such as safety, belonging, and mental health. How have the past few years changed how you cope or respond to stressful situations and the collective trauma we are all facing?
RJA: One thing I did at the beginning of the pandemic was a Feeding your Demon practice which really helped me get through the pandemic. I also painted a lot during the pandemic, which was helpful. Now that I have more administrative responsibilities in managing our Zen Center, I don't have so much time for personal creative activities, so I try to manage my stress levels with meditation, diet, and a good night's sleep. Meditation is probably the key way I manage my stress levels at this point.
CS: Can you talk a bit about the Feeding Your Demon practice?
RJA: I'll present this as a practice in the first class of our Overcoming Obstacles course. Our basic medical model for disease uses a lot of war metaphors - we're fighting cancer, we are attacking disease and killing the virus, and I'm sure you can think of others. But there is another way in the Buddhist tradition. Instead of defeating the illness, we approach it - we meet it - we get to know it by listening to what it needs, and then we give it what it wants. It's a very different approach and can bring completely new insights into how you are working with an illness.
CS: Yes, I agree. Often the wars we fight, both internally and externally, are rooted in some unresolved need within, so meeting those needs with compassion can help us overcome and reframe our relationship with, perhaps, what we might call, the not-so-pleasant part of ourselves. And in our classes, we will discuss some topics that I think don't get the recognition they deserve: loneliness, anxiety, isolation, addiction, anger, and you name it. Why do you think there is such an aversion to being still or turning into our suffering? Why do we run away from what isn't pleasant?
RJA: Yes. I think it helps to name things and call them out. The aversion to being still surely has something to do with avoiding what is uncomfortable - it could be boredom or fear, or sadness. So that seems to be very common and may seem counterintuitive to learn that approaching one's suffering is actually the beginning of the journey towards healing that suffering. That is definitely the approach of our Zen wisdom tradition.
CS: Yes, I agree with you. Culture also plays a big role. We are not encouraged to be bored or embrace sadness or fear. I remember, as a kid, being told that to be bored is to be boring, and nobody wants to be boring. There are also so many gadgets and ways to numb ourselves and remain distracted. Sometimes, turning away from our emotions is even rewarded and can be seen as some badge of honor. Sometimes the leaders we have in politics or at work demonstrate characteristics that are not very skillful. Yet, because they have status or power, we accept that as a standard, trickling down and influencing our behavior and perception of the world.
RJA: Yes, we've come full circle in our conversation. We are back to one of the central problems about living in a time of darkness, which is that many things the culture tells us are healthy or normal are not. So people experience that disconnect as deep, unsettled anxiety and angst.
CS: Well, thank you, Roshi. And as mentioned earlier, I look forward to exploring this further with our students and hearing what others have to add to our conversation.
Classes begin Saturday, February 11th, and will be once a week through March 4th.
You can learn more and register here.
I’m curious to learn what wellness means to you.
Beginner’s Mind | A Playlist
In this issue’s playlist, I include some favorite songs featured in Beginner’s Mind throughout the year.
Oh this is very interesting. I told myself I wasn’t signing up for any more classes until I spent more time practicing what I’ve already learned...but this is very tempting.