Showing Up for Life Means Showing Up for Others

Koshin Paley Ellison
February 13, 2019

I used to see myself as a rebel. I was into my identity as an outsider, and it was a place of safety for me for a long time. One year, however, my grandmother Mimi got sick. Her kids – my dad and his sister – wanted her to move from her home in Brooklyn to assisted living near where they lived, either in Syracuse or Atlanta. Neither option appealed to her, and so she asked if I would be willing to take care of her instead.

I remember it so clearly: we were sitting on a wooden bench on Ocean Parkway, and I was feeling these little inward contractions, like, “Oh my God, she’s asking me?” I was thinking about how taking on this responsibility might not necessarily be very convenient.

Many of us have this habit: making our lives as tight and small as possible, and cutting ourselves off from others. It’s heartbreaking, the isolation we are prone to falling into.

Fortunately, on that day, I was also feeling such enormous love for her that I was able to expand outward instead. And so I told her that of course I would take care of her. This whole response took a minute.

I would come to learn that “taking care of her” was actually incredibly ordinary. It was going to King’s Highway grocery store and picking up whole milk and half a dozen eggs. Sometimes it was accompanying her on doctor’s visits, but mainly so I could make sure that we could get in and out of the car easily, which just meant telling her to hang on and then going around to her side of the car and opening her car door.

It was totally simple, and totally loving.

There’s a probably apocryphal story that goes like this: Someone once asked the Dalai Lama for help. “I feel so bad,” they told him. “I don’t feel any kind of compassion for myself.” His advice? “Serve others.” I have also found this to be true.

And yet sometimes, meditation, like my ‘outsider’ pose, can be a little self-centered. For the first ten years of my meditation practice, I was so intensely self-preoccupied that there was no way I was really serving others. I was in it for me.

In some ways, that can be helpful in the beginning. We do have to take care of getting to know our own mind and our emotional patterns before we can start seeing how we project our angels and demons onto other people.

Yet at a certain point, there comes a time when we have to take the courageous leap into realizing, “Oh, you matter, too!” In fact, these aren’t even two different things. Showing up for others and showing up for one’s own life are actually the same.

For example, one of my favorite instructions I remember from kindergarten is “Stop, look, and listen.” For instance, if I’m talking to another person, and I really “stop, look, and listen,” suddenly I’m seeing the quality of the person’s face, the way their shoulders are placed, how they’re sitting in the chair. I’m getting curious, and now everything becomes more alive. Suddenly the other person matters.

And then—whoa—the kitchen chair matters, and the round wooden table matters, and the clay tile floor matters. To sit with things and really let them enter—to me, this is one of the most magnificent generosities. By showing up for others, we show up for life.

What changes when we simply pay attention and show up in this way is amazing. These days, I am the Co-Guiding Teacher at the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care in Manhattan. We train caregivers to be more present and more compassionate, especially with people who are dying. One student who trained with us was working at a nursing home when she encountered a female resident who had been living there for seven years. She sat down in the chair next to her and introduced herself, all the while making eye contact with this lady. The lady seemed puzzled and started to cry.

“You’re looking at me,” she said.

“I am,” the student said, “I’m looking at your beautiful blue eyes.”

The lady responded, “My family is all dead. My friends stopped coming years ago. People come in here all the time and do things to me, but no one actually sees me. No one has looked at me like that in seven years.”

The simple act of being present with another human being is so moving. What actually matters is showing up to what’s happening in front of you and all around you. Showing up for life means showing up for other people, and showing up for people helps us show up for life. This is how we are of service to others and ourselves.

Sensei Koshin Paley Ellison, MFA, LMSW, DMIN, is an author, Zen teacher, Jungian psychotherapist, and Certified Chaplaincy Educator. Koshin co-founded the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, which offers contemplative approaches to care through education, direct service, and Zen practice. He is the author of Wholehearted: Slow Down, Help Out, Wake Up..

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