by Esther Freinkel Tishman, PhD, BCC (she/her)
Esther Freinkel Tishman, Ph.D, BCC is an ordained Zen teacher, a full-time interfaith chaplain, a scholar of archetypes and religion, and a certified mindfulness instructor. She is also a former dean, department head and professor, having given up her tenure at the University of Oregon in 2018. Under the name “Lisa Freinkel” she received her AB from Harvard, her MA and Ph.D. from Berkeley. In 2020 her book Mindful Tarot (Llewellyn) was nominated by the International Tarot Foundation as best tarot book of the year. She is founder of Calyx Contemplative Care, a mindfulness-based coaching business.
In the dream, I’m a little girl outside a dark and giant mansion. An enormous sward of green – an impossibly huge and perfectly landscaped lawn — rolls under my feet, sloping down into invisible dark. It’s dusk, and I see myself faintly reflected in the heavy, lead-paned windows of the mansion. I know, but I cannot see, the lion pacing inside. A sense of danger, and excitement.
I left academia four years ago, but I just had this dream last night. There’s something wild, impossibly fierce and alive, pacing inside me. I’m still afraid of it, but at least now it’s showing up in my dreams.
Ferocity rears its proverbial head in so many odd ways. For me, first of all, it was the Greeks – but it was also the Gospels.
At stake in my obsession with both, I might now say, was the unfettered yearning for truth and meaning. Why is it so hard, sometimes, to acknowledge what we want? At age 16, the great cat was already prowling. I longed for a life of fierce beauty – a life that bites through pretenses and drives to the very quick of this crazy, fragile, gorgeous human heart.
In my sweet-sixteen summer, I got my first bite of the liberal arts by reading Plato.
That was also my Jesus summer.
That summer, a new friend of mine told me that she was a “baby Christian” – recently born again in the Holy Spirit. Now mind you, I was a nice Jewish girl from Chicago’s North Shore: two steps from the shtetl and one step from the camps. Nothing was more exotic – or more subversive – than charismatic, evangelical Christianity.
I grilled my friend about her experiences. I listened to born-again Bob Dylan. “It may be the Devil, or it may be the Lord – but you gotta serve somebody.” I finally asked her to pray with me. One night, when our buddies were out drinking, she and I sat cross-legged on the floor in her bedroom. We prayed. I felt flooded with Spirit. I felt Presence. I started wearing a small silver cross under my blouse.
I’m sure it sounds tame, but it felt quite otherwise.
Socrates — and St Paul…. Evangelism — and humanism…. I was both the smart-ass daughter of German Jewish refugees – and a baby Christian praising the Lord. It made no sense, but somehow there was no contradiction. Everything felt wild, and alive, and free.
And then I told my mom about things. My mom who had fled Germany as a kid in the ‘30s; my mom whose grandfather had died by suicide rather than follow Nazi decree and change his name to Israel. Usually sensible and non-alarmist, Mom suddenly went all clenched jaw and white knuckles. “Your father will disown you – do you realize that? Your new Christian friends would condemn us to Hell! Is that what you want?”
Whatever fierce and vibrant longing had expressed itself that summer, its teeth were too sharp for me. That longing for truth – in all its audacity — was going to rip me, my family, my world to shreds. I remember the last prayer I made, during my teenage evangelical phase: “Dear Lord, if you really want me to ‘deny my family, pick up the Cross, and follow You’: Could you maybe manage a wee pillar of smoke, or a subtle hand-scratched message in the plaster of my bedroom wall?”
I spent the next twenty years in the Land o’ Deep Sublimation. I wrote heavily footnoted reams about religious conversion and numinous poetics. I made my spiritual home the archives and the stacks. There was love and integrity in that work. On a good day, I think I kept the cat purring.
But then one crisp winter evening, I stumbled into a small neighborhood Zendo just a mile from my house. Nondescript place. A ranch-style bungalow, with an attached garage that had been converted into a meditation hall. I folded up my legs, plunked down on a round cushion, and allowed my breath to come and go.
There were no miracles or epiphanies. Instead, there was just … me… learning to live with my body, my thoughts, my feelings.
What a stunning practice. A brand new, and deeply ancient impulse. In Zen meditation I re-encountered Socrates’ injunction to “know thyself” – and Jesus’ teaching that “the kingdom of heaven is within.”
I began teaching meditation at my Zendo. I started imagining a life that could accommodate it all: Shakespeare at the University; mindfulness in the community. For several years I tried to wrap my arms around a new book project: The Buddha and the Bard. I became a department head, and ultimately a vice provost and dean.
But, meanwhile, something in me was finding its way in the dark.
Sometimes the notion that you “can have it all” is just another temporizing tactic.
And so I bought time. I ordained as a lay Zen minister and entered an internship program for medical chaplaincy at a nearby hospital. For two years, every Wednesday, I snuck off campus like a guilty lover. In addition to my Wednesday chaplain coursework, on Saturdays I put in an eight-hour clinical shift and an overnight stint as chaplain “on call.” I graduated the program, and a job opened at the hospital. My clinical supervisor urged me to apply.
I did not apply.
What I told myself: “the University isn’t done with me yet.” What I really meant was: I’m not done with the University. I wasn’t ready for the separation, the divorce, the moving-on. A lifetime marriage with the liberal arts couldn’t be dismantled over night, or even over years. There was so much I still loved so deeply; so much I feared to lose.
I realize now, however, that I wasn’t scared to leave. I was scared, instead, of the great cat.
Here’s what I now think:
What terrifies is not so much – or not primarily – the loss of security, status, future dreams, past satisfactions. Those are the anxieties that, at the end of the day, we know how to manage. Those are the fears that aren’t so scary, actually, after all.
Instead: what terrifies is the ferocity inside. Will we survive the teeth and claws of our own yearning heart?