Meeting Heart-to-Heart

When it comes to difficult people, says Koshin Paley Ellison, the key is two people willing to let go of being right.

Koshin Paley Ellison
21 July 2023
Photo by Annie Spratt.

I am responsible. You are responsible. —Taizan Maezumi Roshi

A year ago, a rather unfavorable review appeared regarding me and my husband as the teachers and cofounders the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care. My first reaction was feeling vulnerable and hurt. I’d never met this person and, to my knowledge, he’d never been to our center.

I was curious about someone who was driven to write such things about us, personally and as teachers, without having ever met us. After reflecting on what he’d written to see if there was some underlying truth to the words, I felt confident that his thoughts and ideas were founded in something other than one truth.

How rare it is that we manifest our practice through direct communication.

I decided to write to the man, but just as I was about to do so, I received a message from him. He was inquiring about his concerns. How courageous, I thought. How rare it is that we manifest our practice through direct communication. It’s so easy to gossip and talk about others anonymously.

I thought about what my beloved teacher, Sensei Dorothy Dai-En Friedman, often says. “In order to practice fully, we have to be willing to surrender everything, and we have to realize there is no arrival and it is all an unfolding process. Easy to say, and takes everything to do.”

This instruction is what I return to throughout my days, and it was particularly pertinent with this new seemingly difficult situation and person. I myself have chosen to turn away from discomfort.

I felt tender toward this man for his willingness to engage in what could be a very difficult conversation. What is it that brings us to create and encourage gossip?

On the day we were to meet, I took some time beforehand to sit zazen and offer the merits of our meeting to all people who are harmed by rumors. When he arrived at the center, my feeling on seeing him was one of warmth and friendship. He was smiling; we shook hands and went into a private room to talk.

Immediately, he offered an apology for disparaging us and talking about things he had not himself experienced. I offered my appreciation for his willingness to even begin this face-to-face conversation.

I invited him to share his concerns with me. We spoke at length about how rare it is to actually engage in difficulty, whether it presents itself as a challenging conversation, or lies solely in our own thoughts. We are filled with ideas, preferences, and opinions and very often they’re not based on direct experience.

Together we explored his difficulties, and I shared mine. What unfolded was the hurt he had experienced himself with two past teachers who had grossly crossed boundaries. He shared his feelings of not being heard by them. This was what had activated him.

In this conversation, what I could see happening was that together, we were cocreating the intimacy of courage. Of course, there are circumstances when this is possible, and others when it is not. This was what made this encounter so moving. It took both of us surrendering our old stories and hurts, and meeting each other in the moment.

This is what I call true courage: two people practicing the total willingness to let go of being right and meeting each other in the receptive ground of the dharma.

Koshin Paley Ellison

Koshin Paley Ellison

Koshin Paley Ellison co-founded the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, the first Buddhist organization to offer fully accredited chaplaincy training in America. His newest book is Wholehearted: Slow Down, Help Out, Wake Up.