Sunday, April 19, 2015

What would I do with 37 days?

August 5, 2008

About two weeks ago I was looking out over the Welsh countryside at this vista of the rolling hills, dotted with sheep and little lambies. I painted it in my journal to remember the view from my window. If I knew I had only 37 days to live I think that I would keep on painting and recording my wonder. I’d look at moths as well as roses, at our queen -sized bed with all its pillows and puffy quilts. And, I’d look more slowly at everything in my house and yard.

I don’t want to go anywhere other than where am I now. I love this house, this room where I am typing looking out on a picture window that is engulfed by the pine tree we planted twelve years ago. It is one of the happiest trees I’ve ever seen.

Everyday life is my miracle, my magic, my dream come true. So, I would savor it, including whatever aches and pains or potboilers I’ll run into over these fine gifted days.

The one thing I would add is to write a letter every day for the next 37.  Each letter would be a thank you and love note to someone who has made my life what it is: a blessing beyond measure. I am in the process of making the list of the 37 people who will receive the letters.  I’ll start with my husband, Ronald Whitney Madson as #1 and then on day 37 I’ll write him another letter, so he’ll get "the last words" of Petrushka.  In between I’ll look for and identify those folks living or dead to whom I need to give my thanks and/or apologies. It’s pretty clear that 37 days isn’t exactly enough time to do this completely. So, heck I really do have to start this now so that if for any reason I get lucky and get to hang around beyond the day XXXVII, then well, I’ll be able to keep on going and maybe catch up on the full list.
So, a letter a day . . . and a bit of time to paint or draw something. And, all the rest, I’ll just improvise my ordinary life. I will taste the warmth of Earl Grey tea, the salty sweetness of tomato soup with Gorgonzola cheese, the savory delight of pasta with pesto and peas, and I’ll pull that homemade cherry pie out of the freezer. I will hold hands with Ron a lot. I’ll keep an eye out for things I own that I know friends would love and write little notes saying, "this scarf is for Dalla" and "this book of poetry for Trudy," and "these silk paints for my sister, Kathleen."

There is nothing lacking in my life. There is nothing lacking in my life. I have had joy beyond joy and a field of blessings. So, 37 more days of this paradise will be a lot, thank you.

-Patricia Ryan Madson
August 5, 2008

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Reality's Work

Reality's Work

Patricia Ryan Madson
                                                     Effort is good fortune. Shoma Morita

                  Masatake (Shoma) Morita was a very bright, extremely sensitive but sickly youth prone to insomnia and gastroenteric disturbances. He was studying psychiatry at the university and was accustomed to receiving a regular stipend for tuition, medical, and living expenses from his father. At one point the regular checks stopped arriving. His father had come upon financial difficulties and was forced to cut off his subsidy. Morita was extremely upset and felt betrayed by his family.
                  He decided to get back at his father for this treatment. To show off his "miserable state" he would cut off all medication (since he now couldn't afford it) and overexert himself. Or, as the story goes, he decided to "study himself to death." This would surely teach his parents the error of their ways in abandoning him financially.
                  But instead of dying the young Morita thrived. In fact, his physical symptoms all but disappeared as he applied himself to study full time. Not only did he appear to "get well" but his efforts produced spectacular academic marks! His own effort had inadvertently led to the relief of his suffering and the discovery of what he would come to describe as "the healing power of work." It laid the foundation for Morita's understanding of the relation of effort to mental health and became the basis of Morita Psychotherapy.
                  Morita Psychotherapy in combination with another Japanese form, Naikan "Reflection," are the foundations for an American Buddhist-based practice known as Constructive Living. Both Morita and Naikan have their origins in Buddhist thought.
                  The term "Constructive Living" was coined and developed by the American psychologist and anthropologist, Dr. David K. Reynolds. Reynolds creation of this paradigm was a result of decades of direct experience in Japan and a lifetime of study in Eastern thought and practice. He has written prolifically in English and Japanese on these themes in both the popular and scholarly presses. He is the acknowledged authority on Japanese Psychotherapies in the United States. But his creative work in developing the clear language of the Constructive Living model is perhaps his most valuable contribution. By taking the essential teachings of the Zen inspired Morita model and the Jodo Shinshu inspired Naikan model, Reynolds has developed a simple prescription for living. The language is straightforward and secular. Its advice easy to understand and humbling to practice.
                  1. Pay attention to reality.
                  2. Notice what you are receiving and what you are giving.
                  3. Know your purpose.
                  4. Accept your feelings.
                  5. Do what needs to be done.

Pay attention to reality.

                  I begin by noticing reality, things as they are. This is the practical exercise of paying attention. I notice that the screen of my computer is blue. The letters are pink. There is a hum from the printer and the computer itself. This hum is the sound of this machine working to support my efforts now. Attention for me now includes noticing the time, 9:35 a.m., as well as my thoughts (currently doubting if this paragraph could possibly be of use to anyone--and while doubting, continuing to type). Remembering Natalie Goldberg's wise advice to writers: "keep your hands moving".

Notice what you are receiving and what you are giving.
                  The second principle informs my attention. It creates a particular lens through which I look. I am asked to notice what supports me, what I am receiving in this moment or have been receiving at other points in time. This lens cultivates the notion of interdependence, of noticing all the efforts that sustain me. Now I am receiving light from the sun, light from a desk lamp (which I observe is being used unnecessarily and so I turn it off). I am receiving help from the computer which records my thoughts, allows me to rearrange sentences, checks my spelling and finally permits me to make a copy to send to my editor. The printer receives this information and creates pieces of paper which hold these words and permit their passage to you the reader. In literally hundreds of thousands of specific ways I am being supported at this very moment. The clock functions--ticking--giving me information about time

Know your purpose.
                  Observing reality, noting all I am receiving, my purpose emerges. As I write this now, I reflect on that purpose. I have an immediate purpose: to write for one hour this morning. To this end I "keep my hands moving." My purpose in writing is to spread information about Constructive Living in the hope that this practical advice may serve to relieve unnecessary suffering. This purpose seems to spring from an inner sense or desire I have to give something back to the world.

Accept your feelings.

                  So, knowing my purpose, I accept my feelings. Right now I am feeling antsy, wanting to get out of the house, wanting to jump up and make a cup of tea, wanting to be doing something physical other than sitting here with my hands moving over the keys. I am feeling insecure about this essay, doubting the form I am using now to write these personal immediate illustrations of how I use Constructive Living. There is no need to "fix" these feelings. I do not need to gain confidence as a writer in order to write. I do not "need" to jump up and make a cup of tea (although sometimes that is exactly what does need doing). I don't need to do anything at all with these sensations. I feel them, of course. They are my feelings. I accept them as part of me now. I do need to write, however.

Do what needs to be done.

                  And so I act. Now, this means the action of writing. I sit at the computer. I keep my hands moving. Writing happens; through me. For me this is right livelihood: Doing what needs to be done. "What needs to be done" and "What I want to do" may coincide. However, my personal desires are not driving the inquiry. My personal needs are a subset of what needs to be done overall. Sometimes "my" needs lead, sometimes they follow. In reality there is no distinction. I return my attention again and again to reality to learn what needs to be done. And then I do it. In most cases "what needs to be done" is crystal clear, right in front of me. It is simply that I am not yet doing it. Constructive Living reminds me that I do not need to "get motivated," "gain confidence," "get psyched," or "get ready." I do need to act. It is in the doing itself that meaning is often revealed.
                  Both right livelihood and Constructive Living imply a principled standard. Everything we do has a consequence. No matter how small, there is no action that does not impact others in very practical ways. In Constructive Living the lens of Naikan (noticing what I receive and give) helps to replace the customary ego-centered perspective with a broader more holistic view. This may discourage self-interest as the sole motivating factor. What needs to be done is never an abstraction, never theoretical. It is always specific, concrete. My awareness of interdependence can clarify and inform my actions. What needs to be done is always a more inclusive question than simply what I need to do now.
                  Constructive Living would view the question of right livelihood from the vantage point of purpose. Right livelihood occurs when work is purposeful. So if my purpose in life is "to benefit others and not to injure" then anything and everything I do which serves that end can be considered as right livelihood. My work as a Drama teacher, my work on neighborhood committees, sweeping the street, volunteer work, making lunches for my husband, composing this article, washing dishes--indeed, whatever reality brings me that my mind tells me needs to be done qualifies.
                  If I accept that right livelihood is "doing what needs to be done," then the question arises: "How do I know what is right for me to be doing?" This question assumes that there may be some work that is not> right for me to be doing. Further, it assumes that there may be some particular work that is right for me.            
                  Reynolds has a quotation neatly typed and posted near the computer in his home office in Coos Bay, Oregon. It reads: "There is Reality's work that only you can do." If you ponder this for a few moments, it will be clear that this phrase contains at least two perspectives. From one perspective, everything I do derives from and returns to Reality. It's inescapable. The other perspective implies "specialness." Only I can do certain jobs. Another way of putting this is that there are some jobs, some kinds of jobs, which seem uniquely suited to my aptitude, abilities, and interests. How do I find them?
                  Constructive Living suggests two strategies: 1) Examine your purpose(s) and 2) Pay attention to what Reality has placed in front of you.
                  The question of purpose is best studied in the clear light of Naikan reflection. To practice Naikan means to examine the self in relation to others by asking three questions: What did I receive from them? What did I return to them? What trouble and bother did I cause them? I begin the inquiry by recalling my earliest memories of my mother and father. As I sincerely reflect on these questions, I begin to discover the details of the thousands of meals that I was fed, the specific clothing bought for me, the rides I was given, the lessons, the times my mother sat by my bedside when I was sick. The specific answers to these questions provide me with a ledger. Naikan examination shows me that, even by my own standards, I have been receiving more than I have given back to others. These findings often bring about a personal realization of my debt to the world. I cannot find right livelihood by thinking only of myself.
                  The person in search of his purpose who is asking the question, "What would I really like to do?" isn't yet asking the instructive question. Starting with such a feeling based question is missing the mark. The question implies a loop between the questioner, the specific job, and that job's "ability" to please the doer. Further, it appears to promise that if I get the "right job," it will make me happy and I will after that be doing "work that I like." While this may appear reasonable, it makes my "happiness" the measure of my success.
                  Realistically, I know that I cannot "be happy" all the time. My feelings come and go, changing often like the weather. If I go in search of work that "excites me" I am likely to be disappointed at least some of the time. Even the most stimulating work contains tasks that must be done whatever my motivation. Reality doesn't bring work that is always pleasant to do. While it is unrealistic to seek work that will always make me happy, it is possible to seek and find work that consistently supports some purpose of mine.
                  For example, my purpose may be to make the world a more beautiful place. To that end, I may choose any number of jobs that focus my time and talents on creating aesthetic environments. I can serve that purpose, not only when I go to work as a graphic designer, but also in the way I set the breakfast table for my children. I can serve that purpose by picking up trash in the park or in my neighborhood. I may serve that purpose as well, when I refrain from rough language or gossip. Or my purpose may be to help relieve unnecessary suffering in the world. To that end, my choice to refrain from an unkind word to a colleague forwards that purpose no less than my job as a nurse or social worker. So the answer to the question of purpose precedes and informs all that follows in the search for my true work.
                  When Morita saw a patient who complained about his job, wishing to quit, he had a stock response. Before counseling or allowing the patient to quit Morita asked him to examine his purpose. If, indeed, his purpose could not be served in this particular job then that was considered a sufficient reason to change. If it was possible to serve his purpose within the current job setting then Morita would insist the client remain in the job and apply himself with greater attention and diligence. Morita saw that satisfaction in work came not so much from finding the "perfect job," but rather from "doing the job in front of you perfectly"--that is, with full attention.
                  As I grow to appreciate all that I have been given in my life a natural desire to return something emerges. Out of this desire comes my purpose and from this my work. It is clear also that right livelihood comes both from my own purpose and from Reality's purpose, achieved through my hands.

Reprinted from MINDFULNESS AND MEANINGFUL WORK, Parallax Press, 1994, edited by Claude Whitmyyer

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Meaning of Life

Excellence Reporter essay on the meaning of life

Patricia Ryan Madson: Joining the Chain of Givers

I can never repay all of those who create the conditions of life, but I can do a small part in giving something back to the world.
Trinka's Nice SmileWhat is the Meaning of Life?
Meaning is a concept that humans have created. We give meaning to behavior or events. Do plants or animals have “meaning?’ However the question is a worthy one. Allow me to revise it: “What is the purpose of life?”
The purpose of life is to uncover and execute the purpose of life. For me that purpose has been to learn that life is an unfathomable gift. Each of us is the recipient of countless gifts moment by moment. And, one of the ways to understand these countless gifts is to count them. I first encountered this through a Japanese practice called Naikan.
Take a breath, look around and begin to innumerate what you are receiving at this moment. The wind cools me as I sit on the porch on a comfortable chair designed and fabricated by people I’ve never met. This computer assists me in gathering and storing these words compliments of a word processor that corrects my spelling and saves these thoughts. Someone spent great effort to create and execute this technology. Right now an electric oven is cooking potatoes to nourish me for lunch. Farmers planted and harvested these potatoes. In the distance I hear a foghorn that signals location for fisherman and boaters on the ocean nearby. A fleece blouse keeps me warm and fashionable. This blouse has a chain of makers and movers who brought it to me in the mail. People working in the Social Security Administration who sent me a check this month have allowed me to pay for this blouse.
I believe that the purpose of life is to come to know the myth of the “self made person.” No one has ever ‘done it on her own.’ Every human continues to live thanks to the efforts of others who make things and do things that support life.
Once I began to see this realistically I was moved to join this chain of givers in contributing something back that is useful or helpful. I can never repay all of those who create the conditions of life, but I can do a small part in giving something back to the world. I can use my daily calories to either contribute to the solution, or if I am mindless to the problem.
The Dalai Lama wrote: The True Meaning of Life: “We are visitors on this planet. We are here for ninety or one hundred years at the very most. During this period, we must try to do something good, something useful, with our lives. If you contribute to other people’s happiness, you will find the true goal, the true meaning of life.”
~Patricia Ryan Madson, author, professor Emerita from Stanford University
Copyright © 2015 Excellence Reporter

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

After the Ham's Gone

After the Ham’s Gone

You might not know on first meeting that Gregory was gay, but if you hung out with him over a weekend it would not be long before his wry sense of humor and ability to see the joke in anything would be a tip off.  Not that his gayness was an obstacle in his life, save for it barring him from the Lutheran ministry.

In some ways he found a better calling as a psychotherapist.  His hazel eyes and strawberry hair gave him a boyish look.  During the last year of his life he became focused on preparing a book titled “Reflections on the Ox Herding Pictures.” It was a commentary on the famous Zen paintings depicting a boy and an ox.  The sequence is a parable about the struggle with the self on the path to enlightenment.  Unable to actually tame the bull, the boy learns to coexist with the ego.  Realization comes from reflection on Reality, in particular understanding how much we are receiving and how little one typically gives back.

Late in the spring of 1993 Gregory Willms died of complications from the AIDS virus.  His soul slipped away as the morning star rose over the Santa Rosa hospital where his body lay.  So many of Gregory’s friends had been lost to this blind sighted and unforgiving disease.  He talked of the countless wakes and parties attempting to “make a celebration” out of the grim reality that scores of men had been snatched in their prime from lives of utility or artistry.

It was impossible to live in the Bay Area without being touched (often continually) by this plague.  Gregory once remarked that his whole life outside of his therapy practice seemed to revolve around attending funerals and tribute parties.  Everyone seemed to know what to do, what to say and what to bring to the party.  Wine, elegant booze, homemade lasagna or other rich casseroles were safe bets.  And the highly adaptable ham was always a good choice since it could be fried to pair with eggs, sliced to throw on a pumpernickel sandwich for lunch or julienned to add to a salad or macaroni casserole for dinner.  The good ole Honey Baked Ham (which would set you back around $50) showed a level of respect that would be noted.

But the thing was, according to Gregory, the true issue or problem for friends, and friends of friends of those lost and those left behind, was “what to do after the ham’s gone.”  One of these 12 lb puppies could easily last three to four weeks before the bone got tossed into a pea or lentil soup pot.  If you recycled the best of the leftovers into the soup this could sustain a body for nearly another week before all remnants of the pig’s carcass was anywhere to be found in the kitchen.  So, for the sake of poetry lets agree that “after the ham’s gone” is likely a month from the time of the “celebration” (so oddly named, it strikes me) until the ham bone hits the compost.

Now the question before us is:  “What does one do, or what should one do for the bereaved after the ham’s gone?”

Gregory pointed out that most people had forgotten about the loss by then.  Most of us have moved on.  But the former lover may not have.  What can you do to help?  Another ham?  No.

I think “After the ham’s gone” represents that opportunity we all have not to forget or lose track of someone who has gone through a trauma, shock or loss.  It may be that “after the ham’s gone” is precisely when you need support, friendship, ideas, and invitations.

Is there someone in your life who may be hanging out A. T. H. G.  right now?  Think about it.

El Granada, CA

First published on this blog June 28, 2010

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Vigil

  Reflections on “The Vigil”
Patricia Ryan Madson 

The year was 1980.  I was a young faculty member in Drama teaching acting at Stanford.  One day I saw an ad in the San Francisco Bay Guardian which read something like this:   "Come join members of Jerzy Growtowski's Company for an event called "The Vigil".  This four hour workshop will take place on Haight Street in San Francisco in a Studio Space  (normally used for dance classes ) on Saturday. (date I can’t remember). The cost is $25 to attend and participate.  Please come wearing clothing you would wear for a dance or movement class and be prepared to do vigorous movement.   The fee will be taken at the door and instructions for the class given at that time. No experience is necessary. All levels of interest are welcome."

To the best of my memory this is all that was advertised.  I was drawn to whatever they were doing because The Polish Lab Theatre, led by Jerzy Growtowski was the hottest experimental theatre training happening in the world at the time.  Check out Growtowski's famous book, TOWARDS A POOR THEATRE, 1968, if you can find a copy or look for him on Wikipedia.

He was attempting to train actors in very fundamental ways and return to the primacy of the physical body.  Some of his early workshops, I understand, had actors literally running for hours. He believed in no props, no net, nothing but the human body and spirit at work.  It was raw, physical work that was the basis for his training.

I decided to show up in my leotard and tights on that Saturday morning and see what this workshop was all about.  Growtowski himself was not present, but I gather the leader of the day was a women who was a primary trainer of his.  A dozen or so strangers assembled on the sidewalk outside the dance studio, most of us looking excited and a bit apprehensive.  It was somewhere near Haight and Ashbury Streets. 

Our money was taken and the leader explained the “rules of the Vigil.” They were simple, but absolute, she declared.

1.      Maintain silence at all times.
2.      Keep your body moving continually.
3.      Be mindful of your safety and that of others.
4.      No “set movement routines”  (e. g. tai chi, yoga or drills)                                    

This was all we had to go on.  We knew also that the experience was to last for four hours.  We were not allowed to take anything personal into the space, so backpacks and jackets were left in a pile in the anteroom to the large dance space.  After various questions had been asked and answered the leader reached out a firm hand and extended it toward one of men standing closest to her.  She walked purposefully toward the door of the room holding hands and escorted the student into the space.  Moments later she came back to us and extended a hand looking directly at me.  I eagerly accepted her strong lead and the two of us walked into the empty space.  I think we got to the middle of the room and she stopped, looked at me directly, smiled briefly and then let go my hand.  She walked carefully back into the lobby to escort another student.  Her thoughtful lead continued until all of those registered were finally brought into the room. 

As soon as she left me standing in the center of the room I remembered the instruction: “Keep moving at all times.”  So, I began just walking around the space, observing.  The large room featured a well-polished wooden dance floor bereft of any chairs or equipment or decoration.  One of the walls had the obligatory full-length mirror prized by dancers.  I noticed that others in the room were also moving around randomly.   I suppose most of us were slightly nervous wondering what we were “supposed to be doing” and imagining that someone might lead us in something after a while.

But no “set pieces” ever happened . . . that is, the leader never did offer any instruction or lead.  What happened was an amazing, random, physical event.   I found myself alternately running and skipping, flailing around, sitting on the floor doing stretches and movements to loosen every part of my body.  I’m no dancer but at 38 I was reasonably healthy and fit and moving for a few hours was possible, albeit a stretch as the hours wore on.  Certainly I had never stayed “in motion” for four hours continually up until this moment.

I don’t have a lot of detailed memories of those four hours with the exception of one “riff” that is permanently etched in my mind.  It is about a relationship.  Sometime into the third hour or so I remember making a connection with another young women, she was young and appeared to be a dancer and very agile and graceful.  At some point we began a kind of pas de duex.  We started swaying together and doing a kind of “mirror exercise” which evolved into movement and response, coming together and then going apart.  Some kind of story seemed to be evolving at a subliminal level and we held hands and began moving in a soft, close way, like deep friends.  The word that has stuck with me after nearly forty years is “intimate.”    I still remember the feeling of being human together with her, of being two sweaty women, playfully having fun and being kind to each other.  We explored so many ways of relating physically, although there was never anything sexual, it was very personal.  I can even today remember the scent of her body.  Of course no words were ever spoken, and after the event ended I never saw her again, and have no idea what her name is.  But I do remember that I thought I learned something about human intimacy (or was it a form of love?) by the half hour of physical play we shared wordlessly. 

I don’t have much memory of what the other dozen plus participants were doing.  I can say that there was much in the four hours that was trance like.  After the first hour we got over the novelty of being on silence and in motion and simply began to explore what was possible.   It was a day rich with discovery . . . much of which can’t really be translated into words in an essay. 

In the years since that vigorous day of being a body alive I have adopted Growtowski’s “Vigil” idea and led students at Stanford in my Improvisation class for a two hour version of this event.  I have witnessed a wide range of things happening, and I’ve learned a few important things about setting up the event.  During one Vigil I had left blocks, tables and chairs stacked on the side of the room (normally used in acting classes).  Almost the first thing that happened during that Vigil was that the students began arranging and rearranging those pieces endlessly.  There wasn’t that much physical movement beyond the life sized “building blocks” game that evolved.  I didn’t want to prohibit expression so I didn’t stop this while it was happening.  But I learned clearly that anything, any item that can be moved, will be moved if it is in the space.  I began to understand the primacy of an empty space as a crucible for discovery.  Peter Brook understood this, and his famous book, The Empty Space is a testament to this point. We are all fond of playing with our toys whenever we have any.  The purpose of the Vigil is not to circumvent the restrictions by substituting activity for pure movement.  Also, some groups have begun to make noises or percussion as diversion.  When the first rule is given as “No talking” (instead of Silence) students have been known to begin lively gibberish interactions.  And while drumming and humming and gibberish-making are fine things themselves I’ve come to believe that they can be distractions to the initial prompt to “MOVE CONTINUALLY”.  I’m guessing that Growtowski wanted his actors to become fully exhausted and invigorated with what happens to the body during prolonged physical use.   Oh, yes, and one of the instructions given during the question period before the Vigil that I attended was:  “If you need to rest, do so only briefly, and even then, keep some part of your body moving.  Do not just lie down or stop moving altogether.  Even rest should be with the awareness of keeping moving, ” she said.

In a world where the biggest stretch most of us get daily is with our thumbs, texting, something like the Vigil is a rare opportunity. 

October 16, 2014