Finding Your Passion: My Story – Part Two

My thirty-five year career in mental health administration began while I was still in the doctoral program. Through that process, I was mentored by many people, most notably Mike Marvald at Brookdale and Linda Breslin at South Beach, but the influences that remain most impactful were Owen, Bill, and Alan and of course my parents, whose commitment to social justice remained foundational.

The final ingredient would not appear until I was approaching 50, in the midst of a mid-life crisis. Recognizing that I was clueless about what she called “self-development”, my wife Diane introduced me to the I Ching, the ancient Chinese guide to divination. Working with the I Ching was my first toe in the water of spiritual practice. I gave sitting another try, only slightly more successfully than the sporadic attempts of the previous thirty years. On a long grassy slope overlooking a beach on the road to Maine to visit Jim and Linda, I asked the I Ching sage for sitting advice and threw the pennies.

“Just stop picking and choosing.”

I had been keeping a diary, carefully recording the length of each sitting, evaluating each day’s meditation effort. The Sage’s advice was thunderous. Suddenly my sitting time increased. I was ready to find others to sit with.

Looking for a meditation group, I found a number of Zen groups in the Manhattan phone book, much to my surprise. (Thirty years earlier, the first time I looked, there had been none). I chose the Soho Zendo because they sat on Tuesdays, an evening when I didn’t have private patients. I soon got my practice up to 30 minute periods of sitting still, what the Soho Zendo required for participation. I joined and started sitting with them in September. A couple of months later, I was told that Kyudo Roshi was coming from Japan to lead a session. I was terrified of the idea. Seven days of meditation practice, sitting 13 periods a day, maintaining silence. I was encouraged to try by senior members of the Zendo. Frightened, I tried. It was without a doubt, among the most transformative experience of my life. A door opened.

Over the next two years, I got to sit five sesshins with Kyudo Roshi. He taught me to sit. And he showed me an extraordinary presence. During this time, between his visits to New York, I sat every Tuesday with his other students at the Soho Zendo.

And then his visits to New York were interrupted, duties as Abbot of Ryutakuji came first. And just at this moment, beginning to get involved with the Staten Island clinical social work society, I was asked to help with their annual conference. Zen practitioner and psychoanalyst Diane Shainberg was to speak on Spirituality and Psychotherapy. Would I liaison with her? Although this was pushing me out of my “shy” comfort zone, I did. I spoke to her on the phone. She would take public transportation from her Manhattan town house to the court house at Historic Richmond Town. I shouldn’t worry, she would make it.

At the point, I had been living on Staten Island a couple of years. Absurd. By the time, she got to the Court House, the conference would be over. I would drive into Manhattan and bring her to the conference. No problem. We hit it off immediately on the drive. I told her about my practice. You should be teaching, she said, the first person to suggest the possibility. I told her about Kyudo. I should have a teacher I can work with regularly, I think. You should check out Bernie Glassman in Yonkers, she says. I didn’t know at the time that after years of studying with Bernie, she had left, stopped speaking to him. I would not see her in Yonkers for five years.

Fifth grader Javon Mitchel showcases his passions including video games, cooking, and football.

But I took her advice and made my first trip to Yonkers on a Saturday morning. Talked to someone sitting on a bench in the hall of the mansion on the grounds of the convent where the Zen Community of New York met. I didn’t know that it was Bernie.

“You should talk to Jishu,” Bernie said. Jishu was coming down the stairs.

I could skip the Introduction to Zen class, she told me. I had been sitting enough. I could start the Ox class she was teaching, it would start in a few months.

After that, I went to Yonkers on Saturday every week to sit and I began the Ox classes with Jishu every other week, with Bernie often sitting in. On Saturday mornings when he was not travelling, Bernie would give talks. Over the years, I have learned many things from him and in many different ways, but most transformational was the notion, exemplified in his practice, that social action and spiritual practice were not only not antithetical, that they could actually constitute a whole and embody the oneness of life. No separation, moment after moment.

I did do well enough while doing a lot of good, managing state mental health services. I had been studying with Bernie, and then Bernie and Jishu, and then Bernie again after Jishu passed, for almost ten years. Work was okay. I wasn’t loving my job. I was feeling a lot like Sisyphus, pushing my rock up the hill each day only to find that it had rolled back down overnight. Not the best feeling. Stil in search of my passion.

I was leading a little Zen meditation group on Staten  Island, I was a Buddhist priest and Bernie had made me a Dharma Holder (which I understood to mean that he would eventually give me dharma transmission, full empowerment as a teacher) when the opportunity for early retirement presented itself. In December, 1999, I flew out to La Honda, California, where Bernie and Eve were living to ask his advice. Should I take the early retirement?

It seemed to be an opportunity to embark on peacemaking in more than the frustrating way in which I had practiced, up until then as a householder with a wife and a two year old daughter and a full time job.

As I remember it now, when I asked Bernie for his advice, he told me that he didn’t think I had any choice but I don’t think he actually said that. In my mind, Bernie’s answer and Owen’s years earlier are entangled.  But I flew back from La Honda determined to take the early retirement. Not knowing what I was going to do next, where the path was leading, stepping from the 100-foot pole, Diane and Jamie with me.

It helped that Diane had a good job since my pension was small. I could be Mr. Mom, which I really enjoyed while watching for the path to appear.

My plan for additional income was consulting. I had a couple of gigs lined up, and Paco and I were actively working on building a joint consulting practice, and Paco did get us some work, but my anchor client turned out to be South Beach Psychiatric Center where I had worked for many years.

During one phase of my time there, I had played a leading role in turning a community advisory board into a not-for-profit corporation which became the conduit for funding which could not otherwise be accessed by a state hospital. My consulting assignment was to see if I could help the current chiefs of service do what I had done when I was a chief. That effort failed completely.

The current chiefs refused to do the extra work since it involved extra effort without any increased pay. (The culture of the 1960’s was apparently dead). Would I, the hospital asked, create a not-for-profit that could serve as a funding conduit for the whole hospital. I agreed. I put together a little board — one current hospital employee, two former colleagues, got the incorporation and the non-profit status so that we could get grants. We called our not-for-profit The Verrazano Foundation (the “The” with a bow of gratitude to Bernie’s Yonkers organization, The Greyston Foundation) with the mission of combatting stigma and discrimination against people living with mental illness. We sponsored some patient employment programs within the hospital, added board members including Paco, and got funding to launch a program which brought together and showcased the collaboration of artists in recovery with professional artists in the community.

This was an eye-opening experience for me. The process put me into a completely different relationship with people living with mental illnesses than I had previously experienced in more than 30 years in psychiatric social work. I saw this so clearly at 4th of July party within the community. One of the other guests was an artist-in-recovery who had participated in one of The Verrazano Foundation workshops. Rather than trying to avoid her throughout the evening for fear of embarrassing her, — (early in my career, I had run into a young psychotherapy patient with a friend of his on the subway platform and had greeted him warmly: he never came back to therapy), — I was happy to go over to her, to say hello, to find out how she was connected to the hosts of the party and to share my connection. Through the Verrazano practice, I was becoming a passionate advocate for equal rights for people with disabilities. Was this my path? It was at this time that Paco came to a board meeting to tell us about an opportunity. He was also on the board of a charter school in the Bronx. Maybe the charter school mechanism was something we could use to help level the playing field for people living with mental illnesses.

There were $50,000 planning grants available to develop charter school proposals. The Verrazano Foundation had never gotten a grant that large.

We could spend a couple of years and discover that it couldn’t be done and in the meantime the grant could help us maintain our arts initiatives. We would try. We didn’t get the grant, but something totally surprising happened. Community enthusiasm for the idea of a charter school for kids with emotional challenges dwarfed the support we had been getting for our other initiatives. Thus, the beginnings of Lavelle Prep were born.