Slowing Down and Waking Up at Irvington’s Buddhist Center

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by Abby Luby – 

How many minutes has it been since you last checked your iPhone? Your iPad? FitBit? We live in a constant state of sensory overload and distraction. While living in the fast lane, is it possible to slow down long enough to see our compulsive behavior?

Sen­sei Koshin Pa­ley El­li­son

Sensei Koshin Paley Ellison, a known Soto Zen Teacher and psychotherapist, gave a dharma talk to more than 60 people July 21 at the Westchester Buddhist Center at Eileen Fisher’s headquarters overlooking the Hudson River in Irvington. The Buddhist Center has been meeting at the spacious and well-lit Fisher Headquarters since 2011. In his hour-long talk, Ellison, an easy-going, jovial person, shared an overarching message: We are totally able to live a more wholehearted life. In fact, his latest best-selling book is entitled Wholehearted: Slow Down, Help Out, Wake Up and is written in his personal and down- to-earth style which makes for an easy and engrossing read.

“There are practical things we can do to slow down,” Ellison said. “We can listen to ourselves and to what we are saying and learn how to pay attention. If we drop into our breath and down to the softness below our belly we can connect with a place of health and wellness.”

Wellness for Ellison means both good mental and physical health. He’s known also as “Modern Monk” because he brings more to the table than just the Zen philosophy and meditation practice. Basically, he’s seen it all. He trained for six years at the Jungian Psychoanalytic Association where he was recognized as a Jungian psychotherapist. He also immersed himself in clinical contemplative training at both Mount Sinai Beth Israel Medical Center and New York Presbyterian Medical Center, earning him the roles of a Certified Educator and chaplain. He co-authored the book Awake at the Bedside with Matt Weingast about palliative and end-of life care.

He understands how difficult it is for us to let go of stories we habitually tell ourselves, stories that keep us locked into the same mental narrative that keeps us from being open to new ideas. “We have our sedimentary layers of conditioning. If I tend to not like angry people because anger makes me feel unsafe and something I can’t handle, I can ask myself if I really need to behave in the same way,” he explained. “I can say, ‘Can I do something new here?’” That mental ability to question our actions is what Ellison calls wakefulness, and he suggests that leads to be willing to participate differently in situations.

Engaging and freely connecting with the audience, Ellison often asked questions such as, “How many of you ever tried to act normal when you’re in a rage?” Many hands shot up. Or, “Have you ever waited for someone to change?” adding that change was up to us and happens when we awaken the mind and become fully intimate with ourselves.

Throughout the talk, Ellison read a few excerpts from his new book. The genesis of Wholehearted: Slow Down, Help Out, Wake Up came about when he examined issues of social isolation. “I’m getting a sense that people feel so disenfranchised,” he said in a phone interview before the dharma talk. He told of his friend, a primary care physician, who asked her patients to name five people they would be willing to drop everything for to go be with them. Most people had to pause, many had a hard time coming up with five names. “It’s not that people have lost the capacity to care, it’s just that collectively, we’ve gotten into a different pattern that’s not about caring,” he said. “The key thing is we can learn how to care and remember how to do it.”

Ellison made relevant some age-old Buddhist stories and also shared personal testimonies about every day predicaments one could easily relate to. “You have to be willing to put everything on the table, including all our weirdness, all our eccentricities and be more who you really are. Also, putting down our habitual stuff and seeing what else is there – we can all do that. It’s not a monk thing, it’s a people thing.”

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