Infinite Onion

When I was doing koan practice with Jishu, very briefly in the last year of her life, before she and Bernie left Yonkers for Santa Fe, it seems now that she was always telling me, “Go deeper.”

I didn’t know where she was pointing. Where is deeper?

Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to transform them.

When I first encountered the Four Great Bodhisattva Vows, the idea of inexhaustibility was itself exhausting. I thought of Sisyphus rolling his rock up the hill only to have it roll down again, again to be rolled up the hill. Again and again. Exhausting. And pointless.

When I traveled to La Honda to talk with Bernie about my opportunity for early retirement, I was feeling like Sisyphus. Public mental health service had been my mission for a long time. When early retirement came along, I had been rolling my stone up the hill for about two years at the Brooklyn Children’s Center, New York’s newest state psychiatric hospital, finally for the first time bringing long-term psychiatric treatment for children to the city’s largest borough, the last borough to have such a program. Most of my responsibility was for the day hospital. We were serving a predominantly black community, a very poor community.

I loved the project as I had loved my years at South Beach. I was deeply committed, a commitment which resonated conversations at my parent’s dinner table, — was socialism in one country possible? Could socialism work? Were high-quality, state-operated programs possible? Could state-operated programs produce the high-quality care available in New York’s elite medical centers? Was socialism in one state hospital possible? Was socialism in one state-operated program possible? I had a very good friend who taught at the NYU medical school, in the child psychiatry program. We argued this all the time. I wanted to prove that a public program could really achieve excellence. I wanted one case to prove that it could be done.

For short periods of time at South Beach, it had seemed that, Yes! I was twice able to bring together top mental health teams, first in adult service and then in the children’s service, only to fall backward. The weight of the bureaucracy was an overwhelming force, pressing downward toward average mediocrity. A top-notch team could not be held together. I could gather the talent, we could begin to do great things, but then the weight of the bureaucracy would impose itself. I could offer opportunities for creativity. I could offer titles. But I could not offer the civil service promotions which were linked to salary. My team, wonderfully talented people, would be sucked elsewhere in the hospital, homogenizing the talent pool. The rock would roll back to the bottom of the hill. Again and again.

We did it twice, but it was exhausting to see the rock again at the bottom of the hill.

At Brooklyn Children’s, it was worse, more discouraging. Every morning, the rock was at the bottom of the hill, waiting to be rolled up again.

When I flew to La Honda, I was exhausted. And I was terrified to step from the 100-foot pole which retirement from my secure salary represented. And it wasn’t just the salary. I was proud of the position I had achieved.

I was also terrified to step away from my rock. There is a lot of pride in being Sisyphus, a lot of attachment.

Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to transform them.

 That was Bernie’s later version of the Vow. At the time of the trip to La Honda, the bodhisattvas may still have been vowing “to put an end to them.”

Now the inexhaustibility of delusion is refreshing. Every day, every moment is an opportunity to plunge deeper. Now I appreciate the journey. Enlightenment is not the destination I had thought it, the place where I would finally arrive through the Zen practice, where I would finally find peace.

But the journey is not the repetition of Sisyphus. It is going deeper. And then going deeper still. Working with layer after layer of conditioning. Feeling my distress, looking inward, finding the conditioning that arises, that gives my world this distressful flavor. Seeing the conditioning, letting it go, letting it dissolve in the breathing.

There is something exhilarating as that latest way in which I have created my suffering, letting it go, the experience of liberation, turning frustration, anger, resentment, disappointment into freedom.

My Infinite Onion. It is exhilarating, not exhausting, to know that this will go on and on, the opportunity to go deeper into the joy of living.

Not Sisyphus.

But my world has changed too. This is no longer the State mental health system. Our charter school world is different. It is not the same challenge endlessly repeated day after day. It doesn’t really seem that the rock is rolling down the hill again every night.

Going deeper: It is not the same rock over and over again. It is not the same hill over and over again. Or maybe it is. And day after day, we are taking the rock higher. It’s exhilarating.

I am appreciating getting older. I don’t want to die. I don’t feel that I’m done. But I am discovering different perspectives on time, on the future.

When I look at new projects and I imagine the enormous potential, incredible futures, I no longer picture myself involved to the finale.

I am picturing projects going beyond me.

  I am enjoying the images.