a sip of sake' a glance at the autumn moon this Fall, no mourning
Kuma Gracen was a truly remarkable person. To be in her presence was to be ushered into a state of radical wakefulness. You couldn't "hide" with Kuma Sensei, as I came to know her -- Kuma being the Japanese word for bear, sensei being the word for teacher.
You couldn't pull the wool over Kuma Sensei. Man or woman, Kuma Sensei would not allow you to run away from the truth of who you are. She was 'a lightning rod for change.'
Though she was working on a book before her death, Tracks of the Bear: The Transformative Power of Innerwork in the Wilderness, it was a book that never saw the light of day. A rabid dog called "cancer" took her in 2007.
Like an annual heavy cloud that suddenly blows in, I have mourned my late teacher each and every November since her passing -- the loss of connection, the bond, the laughter, the learning, the sense of standing on a shared path, the sense of occupying a living mandala of cosmology and practice with someone who held a similar vision; something I have not felt since.
Yet, her death has also been an enormous source of instruction. To a large degree, her path and teaching-inspiration was that of a nature-hermit. What greater teaching for a student of such a path than for the student to be turned back onto themselves?
With the writing of this reflection, I celebrate crossing a decade-long "night-sea journey" of loss and grief, and land on the Other Shore. From this vantage point, I look back.
When I first met Kuma Sensei it was under formal circumstances involving academia. She was both my Master's thesis advisor and my internship supervisor when I was training in counseling. Though these were the designated roles she was expected to play with regard to my graduate school journey, she ended up becoming so much more to me; an older sister figure, a friend, a confidant, eventually Zen teacher.
When you train to be a counselor at a place like Naropa University, unlike many counseling programs in the U.S., your educational activity is not quarantined to textbooks and psychological theories. These topics are covered in rigorous fashion, of course, because the degree is designed for compliance with eventual licensure, but education at Naropa is full-spectrum. This means you don't get out the door without delving deeply into one's own psyche and staying with and working through the authentic experience of what you find there in all its beauty and neurosis.
You are required to engage in your own psychotherapeutic process every step of the way. That's at least a minimum of a year-long psychotherapeutic mentorship (and often three or more years of individual counseling). That's three or more years of group Gestalt processwork that looks very deeply at one's family of origin and the family dynamics that shaped you. That's potentially three or more years of being exposed to somatic psychology, dreamwork, and training in mindfulness practice (meditation).
In my own journey at Naropa, at every turn, Kuma Sensei seemed to be there. Later on in time, after I graduated, we crossed paths again under a very different set of circumstances. She became my sensei (sifu in Chinese), a word that can generically mean teacher, but which I use here in a traditional Buddhist and Daoist sense. She was not confined to Daoist or Zen Buddhist tradition, however. I still think of her as a bit of a mage, wizard, renegade.
Kuma had a particular perspective about people.
"Every person has an inner landscape,
an inner ecology, a territory to explore,
though many people are largely unconscious of it,
and thus incapable of committing to the
vast inner resources that await within."
Her central role in life: Introduce people to this territory, then journey with them through it by teaching them how to journey through it themselves.
From her perspective, each individual is a coagulation of shaping energies and influences. Ancestors. Dreams. Personal traumas. The impact of societal, global and environmental catastrophic events. Cultural prejudices. Leanings and preferences. Things we didn't get in childhood that we've been trying to "make up for" and extract from somewhere or someone else ever since. We're made up of inspirations but also, at times, radical resistances that we allow to prevent us from full-bodied living and expression.
We have hopes and we have fears...and then...there is the ever present reality of...reality.
"The trouble is, you think you have time."
--Jack Kornfield, Dharma teacher,
author of A Lamp in the Darkness:
Illumination the Path Through Difficult Times
No less than the blending of forces in any other ecosystem in the natural world, each person is a blending of essences that play themselves out within the context of an individual life. Heavy. Light. Deep-feeling. Calloused. Mindful and compassionate, and utterly self-absorbed, self-conscious, unconscious. Profoundly giving, generous, altruistic, devotional, and, in contrast, impulse-driven, addicted, obsessed, awash with a sense of grasping self-importance.
Helping people learn about their inner landscape, its secret language, and assisting people in learning how to "tend a good rich garden within" was the focus of Kuma's life. Only now am I beginning to find my stride and rhythm with it.
It has been nearly ten years since Kuma passed. I have some quotes of hers from some of the "warrior circles" she would hold in the mountains. One day, those quotes will find their way into print. Until then, I leave you with a poem I sometimes ponder written by Kuma Sensei. She kept a journal religiously, and frequently wrote poetry, but this is the only poem of hers I have in my possession:
It isn't what you think.
It isn't anything to do
with what you think.
Two sides of the same coin.
You say you want freedom.
Look down at your own feet.
They're already standing in the Pure Land.
You say you want love.
That fortress you've been building
crumbled a long time ago.
The one who dies
with the fewest toys wins.
A great cosmic joke on the ego.
The you of this moment
is not the same you
in this moment.
The river never stops.
Stop defending the illusion
of a fixed "self" in space and time.
Enjoy the journey.
To learn more about the deep-earth ambient music of soundscape maestro Roy Mattson, and the recording called MESMER, visit his Bandcamp page.