An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

We see fantasy play out on social media a lot — we’re so busy curating how our life appears online that we forget to actually have a life. We create this second life, which is almost like a stand-in for our actual life. Who are we really?

I had the pleasure of interviewing Koshin Paley Ellison. Sensei Koshin Paley Ellison, MFA, LMSW, DMIN, is a best-selling author/editor and nationally recognized spiritual teacher and psychotherapist. Widely acclaimed for his guidance in helping people understand and apply time-tested Buddhist teachings as simple strategies for living in today’s chaotic world, Paley Ellison is a dynamic, original and visionary leader, teacher and speaker. He is a co-founder (with his husband, Sensei Robert Chodo Campbell) of the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, the first Zen-based organization to offer fully accredited ACPE (Association for Clinical Pastoral Education) clinical chaplaincy training in America. Through the Zen Center they have educated more than 800 physicians and their students have cared for more than 100,000 people facing the vulnerabilities of aging, illness and dying. Sensei Koshin Paley Ellison has been featured in The New York Times, on PBS, in Tricycle Magazine and other esteemed media outlets, and is a frequent speaker on subjects related to living a wholehearted life in contemporary times.

Thank you so much for doing this with us, Paley! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us? What was it that led you to your eventual career choice?

I don’t think I ever had a career “choice.” I moved organically from one thing to the next, following where my heart was leading. I’ve gone from working in magazines to being a waiter to picking avocados in Israel to teaching poetry in inner-city schools. I was studying as a chaplain and had ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk when I became my grandmother’s primary caregiver. After she died, I was inspired to go further in these fields. I did my clinical training as a chaplain and got my social work degree, which led me to six years of Jungian analytic training. So when my husband, Chodo, and I started the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, it was a natural outgrowth of all the things that had become so important to me, which are love, connection, and belonging. Here at the Center we teach people Zen and also show them how to care for themselves and others in times of illness, dying, and grief. We also train physicians, nurses, and lay people about how to be more intimate in their professions and lives. All of this feels like less of a choice and more of a wonderful unfolding. Perhaps it’s a choiceless choice.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

The most interesting thing that ever happened to me was my grandmother asking me to be her caregiver. At the time we were both living in Brooklyn, and we were walking back from a diner. (It must have been a Tuesday, because that’s when they had the white bean soup special, which she loved.) Her kids wanted her to move to Atlanta or Syracuse in order to be closer to them, but she didn’t want to leave New York. We sat down on a bench, and she turned to me and asked me to be with her through the end. It was late afternoon. I remember the light coming through the trees resting on her face.

For many years I identified myself as a lone wolf, and while I was engaged in psychology and Buddhist practice and bedside care, I was not fully committed in relationship. When she asked me to be her caregiver, I realized that she was asking me to make a commitment to her, and it was also clear that she was making a commitment to me. I was in my early twenties, and I remember the moment where I withdrew a little bit in my mind — there was a second that I felt fearful, and wanted to back away from the commitment. But at the same time I knew that I wanted to do it. I remember squeezing her hand, feeling her fingers interlaced with mine, and saying yes. For me it was the beginning of moving out of my own habits of isolation and identification as a lone wolf, which is a story I had been telling myself about myself for a long long time.

I’ve found that the most interesting things that have happened in my life, that have changed me profoundly, are ordinary moments like these. As one of my cousin’s liked to say, “enormous changes at the last minute.” It’s that quickening that happens, where suddenly you realize you’re standing in a completely new life.

Can you share a story about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting?

On my first day as a hospital chaplain, I had a total savior complex going on. I was telling myself all these stories about how helpful my great Zen wisdom was going to be for the patients. I walked into the first room high on my holy roller attitude, and the first thing heard I was “Hey, sexy. Come over here, Papi. You look so cute.” I froze.

The patient turned out to be an elderly Puerto Rican woman who had lost her legs. I sat down next to her, and she whispered, “Closer.” I scooted forward awkwardly. I had no idea what I was supposed to do. The whole thing was so far away from how I had imagined my patient visits. But as we began speaking, I started to understand how important it was to her that she still be able to flirt. Actually, it was simple: she missed the days where she’d hang at the beach in her bikini, and she wanted to feel vital again.

Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?

The takeaway is that sometimes when we think we’re being really helpful, we’re actually approaching an interaction trying to knock people over the head about how special and wonderful we are. We make it about us instead of them. Being ordinary, paying attention to what is happening as it is happening, and widening out to include the other person is the path of loving connection. And any time we have some fantasy about who we are, we’re creating a fantasy about who the other person is, too, which doesn’t allow for any authentic intimacy.

That interaction also forced me to get over my ideas of what was appropriate or correct — what offering that woman respect and dignity looked like in reality, and not in my head. Being a little sexy with the gay Zen monk: that’s what was healing to her in that moment.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I’m working on a new book that makes teachings from the historical Buddha — what’s called the four noble truths — fresh and relevant to our lives today. I translate the first noble truth as being “tangled.” We’re all tangled in our suffering in some way. How do we recognize, work with, and have compassion for that? We move from that to the second truth, which is exploring how we cling to the states of mind that make us feel isolated, alone, and depleted. The third stage is how to pivot into new patterns of behavior. And the fourth is the whole path of healing. How do we live an untangled life that is loving, intimate, and full of connection? What are the elements of such a life?

We’re also putting together an online training at the Zen Center. We teach at medical schools around the country on how clinicians can handle their isolation and burnout, and approach their work with resilience and compassion for both themselves and the people they serve. We get a lot of requests from Asia and Australia and different parts of Europe to make these teachings accessible. On average a physician touches 100,000 lives a year. So I’m excited about the exponential impact of an online training.

Can you share with our readers a bit why you are an authority about the topic of the Loneliness Epidemic?

I know loneliness. I grew up in an environment where I felt completely isolated, within a family who had fled from the Holocaust, which meant they lacked deep social connections as immigrants in a new country. And I know what it’s like to be singled out. I know what it’s like to feel heartbroken and not know who you can talk to.

Those struggles are what led me to a path that was about healing and wholeness, which eventually brought me to clinical training as a chaplain, social worker, and Jungian psychotherapist, plus 35 years of Zen Buddhist practice. So now I also know about physical, mental, and spiritual nourishment, and that they are hard-won. I know the struggle to maintain them, and I understand that we never arrive at the end of the work.

The practice of love and connection — which to me is the antidote to loneliness — is a practice that we can all learn and remember together, moment by moment.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. According to this story in Forbes, loneliness is becoming an increasing health threat not just in the US , but across the world. Can you articulate for our readers 3 reasons why being lonely and isolated can harm one’s health?

Yes, loneliness can harm your health and lead to early death. It’s more dangerous than smoking. The health risks include depression, suicide, cardiovascular disease and stroke, drug and alcohol abuse, early onset Alzheimer’s, and more.

That’s over the long term. One way people might be able to relate to loneliness’ risks on an everyday level is if they’ve ever gone through the grieving process. Of course, when a loved one dies, people experience immense grief. And yet often they’re given a day or two to grieve, and then they have to go back to work. When my grandmother died, I was inconsolable for six months. I couldn’t function. Having a network of people around me, supporting me, was really powerful — it was life-sustaining. Many people have a singular person who they depend on, and if that person dies, they are alone in their grief. There’s no one to show up for them. That can lead to further isolation and what’s called “complicated grief,” which damages your health.

Another way loneliness affects us in day-to-day life is in relation to our self-image. There’s a guy at my gym who is there every day, working on his body. I was chatting with him once and asked who he was going to see that weekend. He wasn’t seeing anyone. All he does is go to the gym. I asked him how he felt, and he said he always feels terrible, even though his body is so perfect. He had gotten caught in the trap of self-improvement, where we trick ourselves into thinking that if we can just fix that one thing — have a beautiful body or successful career — then we’ll feel better. That trap can exacerbate already low self-esteem and deepen feelings of a lack of connection.

On a broader societal level, in which way is loneliness harming our communities and society?

In our Zen Center’s neighborhood, there are 17,000 people over 60 years old living alone. There’s nothing wrong with living alone per se; the problem is that one of the challenges of society writ large is that habits are contagious, including loneliness. You hear people have conversations like, “How are you doing?” “Oh, I’m crazy busy.” “How are you doing?” “Busy too, totally busy.” Everyone is so busy and distracted that no one knows how to make connections with one another. Very often now in restaurants you see a sea of people at tables looking at their phones, and no one is talking. Sometimes there’s beautiful food in front of them and they’re not even aware of it. They’re shoveling it in their mouth or taking pictures of it and posting it on social media.

This snowballs. When people are afraid to talk to each other, they also forget to extend themselves and help each other, and we end up with a society in which people have forgotten how to care for one another at all. Eventually that culture ripples out into policy and lawmaking.

My friend, a family physician in Toronto, used to ask her new patients who the five people in their lives were who would show up for them no matter what. Over the last 20 years or so she’s noticed that people now can’t come up with a single name. We’re living in a time where Uber has a business driving people to health appointments, because many don’t have someone to accompany them. We are forgetting what it means to be a good neighbor or a good friend, and we don’t realize that we are our actions.

But we can change.

The irony of having a loneliness epidemic is glaring. We are living in a time where more people are connected to each other than ever before in history. Our technology has the power to connect billions of people in one network, in a way that was never possible. Yet despite this, so many people are lonely. Why is this? Can you share 3 of the main reasons why we are facing a loneliness epidemic today? Please give a story or an example for each.

Online interaction is not a substitute for interaction in real life. We can feel in our bodies and hearts the huge difference between the coldness of a glass screen and the warmth of being with someone in person. You can be “connected” to huge numbers of people online, but it’s like eating fast food instead of proper meals. Who do you truly care for, and allow to care for you? Do you share time and space together with those people in order to create a more loving life? It’s up to each of us to make a decision to do that.

I like to explain the three reasons why we’re facing a loneliness epidemic as the traditional three reasons for suffering in the Buddhism: greed, resentment, and fantasy.

Greed: we want what we want when we want it, and even when we get it, it’s never enough. We order our drink on our smartphone just how we like it and then lose our shit when we step into the coffee shop and it isn’t ready yet. Operating from this mindset, everything — including people — becomes an object. It’s all about the “gimme gimme gimme.” We don’t pause and consider the actual people who inhabit our life, from our friends to who made the fabric of our clothes. Greed can take over our whole lives and make us very lonely, because no one else exists in those “gimme gimme” moments. But it’s also possible to turn greed around, to feel the thirst as it arises but not give into it.

I understand resentment as entitlement and narcissism. It’s like the story of Narcissus. He was so obsessed with himself, and convinced that none of the nymphs were good enough for him to love, that he fell into the water while gazing at his own reflection and died. Our lives are never going to be just the way we want them to be. When we can’t work with that, it creates incredible loneliness and resentment. I was flying back from Houston recently and got into conversation with my seatmate. She was so angry that the people in her life weren’t appreciating her. I asked her how she wanted them to appreciate her. She said, “like how I appreciate myself!” We get so caught up wanting everyone to function how we want them to, and when they don’t, we get angry. Instead, we could learn how to move out of that stance and appreciate that others have a different expression than we do.

Last is fantasy. We see fantasy play out on social media a lot — we’re so busy curating how our life appears online that we forget to actually have a life. We create this second life, which is almost like a stand-in for our actual life. Who are we really?

Another way I see people living in fantasy is getting swept up in sex and drugs and alcohol, thinking that those things will bring happiness and connection. They have lots of sex thinking that it will bring them intimacy, or do drugs so that they can feel connected to something larger than themselves. Nothing is necessarily wrong with sex or drugs or alcohol. It’s about how we use them. Are we lost in the fantasy that our life can only be fun and pleasurable through their use? How do we instead connect to the intimacy that is always available to us, wherever we are and wherever we go?

Ok. it is not enough to talk about problems without offering possible solutions. In your experience, what are the 5 things each of us can do to help solve the Loneliness Epidemic. Please give a story or an example for each.

The first solution is to slow down. Make a life in which you have time for reflection, even if it’s for a few minutes a day. Think to yourself, how am I doing? Am I living according to my values — are my thoughts, words, and actions reflecting what I value most? These are questions I ask myself each day, and to me, it’s wonderful and sometimes challenging to receive the answer.

The second is to say hello and goodbye. Get to know your neighbors and the people in your neighborhood — the cashiers in the grocery store, the folks in the coffee shop, and so on. Learn their names. When you come into and leave your workplace, say hello and goodbye to your coworkers. Take these simple steps of basic civility to create a warmer culture in your life.

The third is to ask people how they are. Then actually pause to hear the answer! Learn how to receive people and be curious about who they are, what they are struggling with, and what’s helpful for them. Allow others to do the same for you.

The fourth is to serve your community. It could be the local food pantry or the library or school. Maybe you’re passionate about politics and want to register people to vote. Maybe you love the arts and want to serve in that way. Participate in making your community or neighborhood a more loving place, and experience how serving others is a way to connect with them.

The fifth is to cultivate your “five.” This is more of a longterm goal. Who are the five people in your life who would show up for you, no matter what? If you already have those people, how are you nourishing those relationships? If you don’t have even a single one, how do you begin — without shame or self-judgment — what’s required to manifest those kinds of relationships?

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Respect and dignity for all in an age of not only social isolation but also polarization. What would it be like if we all reflected on our thoughts, words, and actions and whether they were reflecting respect and dignity for everybody? Would we be able to make difference a place of inquiry, wonder, and compassion rather than a place of fear and isolation?

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Jonathan Van Ness from Queer Eye. Two years ago my friend told me that “you have to meet this guy,” because she felt we were spirit brothers. Maybe we are! There’s a realness to JVN. He knows suffering, and he also has a deep desire for compassion and joy and inspiration. Plus I think it would be so fun to have a meal with him.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

My Instagram is @koshinpaleyellison.

Thank you for all of these great insights!

Sensei Koshin Paley Ellison: “Here Are 5 Things We Can Each Do Help Solve The Loneliness Epidemic” was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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