A Conversation with Doralee Grindler Katonah, Psy.D., M.Div.
By Jocelyn Jacks Kahn
“It’s all in service of our liberation, our being freed up to have the fullness of our life.” – Doralee Grindler Katonah, Psy.D., M.Div.
Doralee was recently ordained as a Soto Zen Buddhist priest. I spoke with her about her intertwined journeys in Focusing and Buddhism, which I find profoundly inspiring.
I know you’ve been deeply involved in Focusing for over 35 years and were, in fact, the first Director of The International Focusing Institute. I would love to know what originally drew you to Focusing.
At 22 years old, I was very much involved in the anti-war movement and living in a commune in the urban center of Chicago. But at the same time, I was sort of lost – I was very young and didn’t have a real goal for my life, other than to be politically active.
Somehow, I learned about the Changes group at the University of Chicago that Gendlin was leading, and I started going there. To have this experience of somebody listening to me proved to be extremely powerful. When I got a little deeper and learned more about the felt sense, I realized, “This is how I’ve been seeing the world my whole life!”
So something clicked for me – like something you know and you don’t know at the same time – and it brought a lot together for me. I became an active member of Changes, began teaching Focusing, lived in a commune with other Focusing people, and helped to start a Women’s Group and a Dream Group. Mary Hendricks and I would get together and read the New York Times and then find a felt sense of what interested each of us in the news. We were living a counterculture that changed our lives.
That’s kind of how I came to Focusing. Then, Gene’s book Focusing was published. Because I was already connecting with him in many ways, including sitting in on some of his philosophy classes, he asked me to help start an institute in relation to his book.
But the book wasn’t selling at first!
So somehow I got online, and I figured out how the whole book distributing thing worked – that you have to have your books stocked with a book distributor before they can get to a bookstore. The problem was, the book was not with a distributor! So, Gene and I contacted Focusing people all over the country to go to book distributors and order books. This is how the book got on the market. Successfully disseminating the book led to starting the first Focusing Weeklong and Training programs.
In terms of my own personal direction, I went more into the mind-body-spirit aspects of Focusing. I did my dissertation in the field of mind-body medicine and investigated teaching people with cancer to practice Clearing a Space. I obtained statistically significant results from this small pilot study.
But to back up a little: Prior to my dissertation, there was a lot that Gene had not yet discovered about Focusing when we first began working together. At one point, he was beginning to notice that Clearing a Space was a different process than regular Focusing.
And so he would say, “Go inside and find a place where you’re all okay.” I was working in his office, and I’d walk home and ask myself, “Where inside am I all okay?” And it felt like, “There’s no place like that! I have all these problems!”
But one day I was walking home, and I looked up at the sky. The sun was setting, and the stars were coming out. Suddenly, I knew: “I’m not my problems.” And a space opened up inside me, and I discovered a deep sense of well-being, or “okay-ness,” as Gene would say.
By that time, I was at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, and I’d been reading books on mysticism by contemplative Christians. Suddenly, I realized, “Oh! This is a contemplative place; our potential to find our essential nature, a space within all of us that connects us to God, or Love, or Yahweh, or Allah, or the Life Force – there are infinite names for this – and to find our capacity to always be more than whatever our situation is.”
Now it all made sense. That was the beginning of everything for me.
I learned that the issues could be placed at a distance and still be out there (not getting rid of them) – and there was an inner space of simply a capacity to be open. This shifts how you relate to your problems. You have a little different perspective on them because they’re in relation to all this space that just opened up. Now, something really new, outside one’s usual patterns, can emerge. There is a sense of being connected to a larger life force, and one’s sense of purpose now connects with being a part of something larger.
The Focusing process started to have a deeper quality to it for me.
Reva Bernstein and I started doing some training with counseling centers. When we went to Indiana and did a training session with a group of clinicians who worked in a crisis intervention program, they were all burned out from this difficult work. We spent two days teaching them Focusing on problems. On the third day, we taught Clearing a Space – and what opened up for them had nothing to do with all the problems they had been talking about!
For example, what opened up was: “Oh, it feels so good when I work in my garden!” Or, “I wish I could listen to music more often.” A whole dimension, which I would call the spiritual dimension, would naturally arise just through Clearing a Space.
And it had all these implications for my work in terms of working with people who suffer from physical illnesses. But it also had implications for my interest in bringing spirituality into the Focusing process and into my psychotherapy work.
The more I discovered about Focusing and Clearing a Space, the more it became clear that the body has a knowing, and from this bodily attention to the Cleared Space the spirit would arise and offer wisdom. There would be another dimension that would enter into people’s lives.
When I studied Kierkegaard in the Divinity School, there was this one point – I think I was reading Sickness Unto Death – where he said, “We swoon in the face of our own freedom.” Shortly after birth, on some level, we see our freedom. But it’s overwhelming, it’s scary, so we sort of faint! We zone out a little bit and our defenses build, but deep down there is a knowing that we are free. That insight touched something very deep in me – this yearning for freedom.
This was one of the threads that drew me to Buddhism: that it was a path towards freedom.
Back to Focusing: I was very drawn to the cross-cultural interest in Focusing because so many people from around the world traveled to Chicago to study with Gendlin (and, of course, Focusing is truly international now). I learned there is this capacity to get underneath culture through Focusing to experience this universal connection to the felt sense. So even with language barriers, people of different cultures could connect and resonate through the felt sense. I knew Akira Ikemi when he was in graduate school at The University of Chicago. I felt very connected to him and sensed something deep in his lived experience within the Japanese culture.
Then I met other Focusers from Japan, which continued to resonate with this growing “spiritual sense” within me. I used to say: “I have to go all the way over to Japan to find my spiritual home within me.” So the seed of learning about Buddhism was planted here too.
But also, traumatic events in my life turned me towards Buddhism.
In my 30s, I got married and 12 months later gave birth to my daughter. At the same time, within a two-year period, four people in my family died. Here I have this beautiful baby, and then my father was one of the people who died. After four deaths within my original family, my 16-year-old nephew died a year later.
So, my married life started out as this joyful, “I’m married and I have this daughter and two more beautiful daughters from my husband’s former marriage!” And then I was completely overwhelmed by so many deaths. I didn’t even know how overwhelmed I was – I was just sort of coping.
And I knew I wasn’t OK.
But nothing touched that level of suffering in me – therapists or Focusing partners – I just didn’t know what to do.
At that point, I discovered that there was a Zen Buddhist temple near where I lived.
I’d done some studying with John Kabat-Zinn, and that had opened me up to the Buddhist philosophy. However, it wasn’t until I started sitting zazen that something began to be able to touch that suffering.
It was imperceptible at first. But my teacher would say, “You’re sitting in the wellspring of life, just sitting on the cushion – and doing nothing.” There was no agenda, no “Here’s the perfect way to do it.” It was just the sitting. I started doing that. And I felt, very slowly, that my own life force just started to come back.
There was grief. But, deeper, I felt I had lost my own life because the deaths were so devastating, and so many, and so close together. I couldn’t really deal with any of them very well. As I sat zazen I began to understand that there’s a larger mind that we are not always aware of, but that is present.
That’s the message from Buddhism: that there’s a different mind that’s always there at work in service of our liberation, our freedom, or our healing.
I learned this in different ways. There is a book called the Secret of the Golden Flower, a Chinese meditation text that was written around 600 A.D. and eventually introduced into the West through Carl Jung. I started reading it. I could just feel something in me deeply drawn to what I was reading. It felt powerful.
But then the next day, I couldn’t remember anything I’d read! That really struck me. Here I am, an academic; I’m in graduate school, I read all the time, and I couldn’t remember anything from that book.
I finally began to realize that this text was speaking to a different mind in me – a mind that’s there, that’s listening – but that I wasn’t fully connected to. I began to understand that that’s what meditation practice gives you. It starts to show you the way of being more connected to that larger mind in a way that words are not capable of.
That got me on this Buddhist path. This was about 18 years ago, when I first met my teacher.
Do you feel that there is a relationship between that “Mind” and the Clearing of Space?
Well, I think the Clearing of Space tapped into that – yes, Clearing a Space brings you into connection with that larger something that’s so big we can’t really name or comprehend it.
But through my study of Buddhism, I began to learn more about that larger mind. It took me a long time to realize that what Buddhism says is this: The larger mind that has this wisdom is not something that our individual minds construct.
Whatever we think it might be, that’s not it. Because we are always trying to put our experience into language, or into some kind of theory or form or construct; and this Mind is beyond all formulation. It’s actually the ground of infinite possibility that’s always there arising, if we pay attention.
So that’s been very freeing and very powerful because things start to happen as you’re meditating in this way. That larger mind starts to turn and show you things and move you in certain directions.
I began to trust that, and I would get these messages, and I didn’t really know what they meant. As an example:
I went to Japan to teach for the Focusing community, and I ended up going to Mt. Koya. On this mountain are 125 living temples (not museums)! Anyway, I went there and had some time to meditate. I got this strong message: Go back to the United States and go on a silent retreat.
That was all I got.
I had learned that I had to follow through with this, even though I didn’t know where it was taking me. So I went home. And I actually found this incredible silent retreat that filled up in days. There was a 50-person waiting list – so I had found it just in time to go.
This kind of synchronicity – the universe meeting me when I listen to this inner guidance – is part of this journey. I learned to trust that I couldn’t know ahead of time why or where I would be led, or what the next steps would be. I just kept going. It was actually a body experience – there would be a bodily sense of YES – so the knowing did resonate at a bodily level, similar to Focusing.
It sounds similar to the way Gendlin talks about the big change project as a series of small steps – one breath of fresh air at a time.
Yes, it is like that. In Focusing, if you stay with the specificity, or the exactness, even though you don’t know all that’s in there, something will happen. In fact, at one point, when I was working on this Clearing a Space stuff, Gendlin would say, “OK, go inside and find a sense of well-being.” And so, at one point I did go inside, and I found that sense of well-being. I inquired: “OK, so what wants to come from here?”
What came was: “Join the Y and swim!” And I was like, “What?! I can’t do that! I can’t afford a membership at a Y,” and blah, blah, blah. But then I said, OK, I’m going to go check back with this felt sense: “Is that really right? Join the Y and swim?” And I got that bodily sense of, “Yes!” So then I thought, “OK, well – I have to figure out how I can do this…”
So, I found a Y, and I figured out that I could just pay per swim; I didn’t have to buy a big membership, which I couldn’t afford at the time as a graduate student. So I started going to this Y to swim laps. And it turned out that John, the person who became my husband, also was swimming there at the same time. It became part of our dating. We would go swim and then go out to dinner.
And I’d had no idea of any of that. I just joined the Y because that’s what came out of that clear space.
Another instance of this in my Zen practice:
I once lived for a three-week period in a Zen monastery on a farm. And I didn’t know anybody. There were maybe 100 people there. And at one point, everyone was outside in this field. I was a very shy, introverted person, and I just shut down. I felt, “Where do I even begin to talk to anybody?”
But somehow my body noticed that there was this man sitting by himself over on this rock. I thought, “Why don’t you just go sit next to him?” And so I went over there and said, “I’m an introvert. Is it ok if I sit next to you?” And he said, “Sure.” And we didn’t talk, we just sat. And all of a sudden, my body just got up, and I walked back in the crowd, and I started talking to somebody. And I wasn’t even thinking about it.
So, it’s just like that sense of being guided and not knowing. And I’ve learned that it’s all in service of our liberation, our being freed up to have the fullness of our life.
I know you became a priest just recently. Can you say more about that?
Well, I’m two months old as a priest! I was ordained on October 19, 2019.
My ordination process actually began six years ago when my Zen teacher invited me to enter into priest training.
Part of the training involves sewing your own robe. That in itself is a meditation practice. The robe has seven panels with three sections per panel and maybe ten different subsections – it’s a very intricate process to sew this robe, and I had a sewing teacher who worked with me. I was working on that for the last 2-1/2 years.
The understanding is that the truth of the dharma lives in us. It’s very embodied. And so when you sew your robe, you’re sewing the dharma into your bones, so to speak. It included a whole chanting process. I would chant with each stitch.
Actually, up until around a year ago, I wasn’t sure that I could fully say yes to being a priest.
I’ve gone back and tried to remember what happened to change that, and I can’t. But something happened where I felt, “Yes. This is it.” And I could feel that everything in me wanted to go all the way.
That claiming has been very powerful for me because I feel whole in a new way, like I’m going to finally live from the center of my spiritual capacities and bring this to other people and their spiritual journeys. So it’s been really wonderful!
The ordination process itself is hard for me to describe. Shaving my head was part of it. So that was a ritual. I don’t know what to say yet about actually being a priest, though.
But something’s different.
I feel like some kind of energy has been freed up to live more fully from this open place. And I’m meeting each moment with a sort of anticipation of something wanting to happen without yet knowing what that is – and it seems like that’s been happening more. So then I just feel a lot of joy inside – and at the same time I have a lot to learn.
From training to become a priest and now living as a priest – that’s a journey itself. I can feel it. I feel very embraced by my community here in Sacramento. There was a big celebration for me. I think the women, especially, were very moved that now we have a woman priest in our sangha. There are many women Zen priests all over the country but in my sangha, I’m the first.
And once you take your vows to be a Bodhisattva, which means that you’ve committed yourself to live for the liberation of all beings, that frees up a powerful assertion of compassion and the awareness of the interconnectedness of us all.
There’s an image within Buddhism of the dragon, and it’s something that I keep thinking about. Because sometimes I’m much bolder than I ever thought I could be! Bolder with how I am or what I say… But this is still very new. It’s hard to have the words yet.
You mentioned that the original spark of intention to be a Zen priest was simply that your teacher asked you to do this. Was there anything in your earlier background that fueled this desire?
Yes. Way back in my 20s, I had started on a path to become ordained as a Christian minister. And some difficult events happened around that, so I didn’t go down that path.
But I felt like I had abandoned part of myself that really wanted to be more of a spiritual leader.
The practice of zazen has helped me reclaim that. So that was all going on while I was with my teacher. But she was the one that decided that maybe I’m ready now. Some people go to their teacher and say, “I want to be ordained.” But my teacher’s approach is more like, “When you’re ready, I’ll let you know.”
Knowing of your initial thwarted attraction toward Christian ordination gives me more of a sense of what you mean when you say it feels like there’s “some kind of energy that has been freed up to live more fully.” I can hear that it has really been a lifelong journey toward your ordination.
Yes. When I was 13, my best friend converted to Catholicism. I was raised in a Congregational (Protestant) church. My best friend had been raised in the same church as I was, and I had been taught to be prejudiced against Catholics. But now here’s my best friend becoming a Catholic.
So I thought, “Catholicism can’t be all that bad – she’s my best friend!” Because of that, I became really curious.
I started going to the Catholic church to understand their religion, and then I went back to my minister and tried to understand more of what my church believed. In that whole process, I decided that there isn’t one answer – that we’re all on a journey, and it’s about asking the questions and being open.
So I think it was that experience when I was 13 that sent me down this road.
I’m very moved to hear the depth of this, and how long it’s been simmering inside you.
That’s true – it’s been simmering there a long time.
I often think of each of us as having a thread that we’re consciously or unconsciously following. I love to hear people telling the story of the path on which their particular thread has taken them.
So, have you found that Focusing and spirituality and Buddhism have just been really woven together all along? Or is it that sometimes one is more to the fore, sometimes the other is more to the fore?
I don’t think about that so much now.
Maybe because they are like one thing now?
Yes and no. Because one of the things I’ve come to understand is that we can live in what Buddhism would call a “nest of being.” There can be worlds of meaning that we create that are really profound. And we can live within that our whole life.
With Buddhism, though, I began to realize, “Oh – that’s just one context of being.” So what happens if you just step outside of that and wonder?
I began to realize that Focusing is one nest of being. It does create deep meaning, and it has a whole world that’s part of it. There is a whole subculture. But if I can just stay on that edge and step back, then that’s when something else opens up that has felt bigger to me, or like… It’s hard to find the words again. Buddhism would say, “The mind is ungraspable, illimitable, incalculable, incomprehensible…”
These are huge words with which to say something so big and so intricate that we can’t ever understand – to just contemplate that, to me, has been very important, or very humbling.
In Buddhism (in my tradition, at least) we do a lot of bowing down and letting go of all the ways in which we “know,” or want to control, or think we’ve got it. And that’s an ongoing thing because there’s always this tendency to create a self. I will discover something about myself and I will go, “Oh, yeah, that’s me!” It’s like I want to hold onto it as, “Now I’ve got it – this is me now.”
And Buddhism will always say, “No – let go, let go, let go – there’s always more – and don’t hold on.” That practice is not easy. It’s scary. And sometimes I still want to hold on.
So, as far as whether my paths of Buddhism and spirituality and Focusing have melded into one thing, it’s a yes and no.
Gendlin talks a lot about that. There is the “me” that is no content – I think that’s a Gendlin phrase. He says that the more you practice Focusing, the more you realize that it’s the “me” that isn’t this or that, that’s participating in the process. And that’s the kind of presence that we bring to whatever we’re living in a sort of content-oriented way. So I like the never-endingness of it.
I realize you’re at this very beginning point of being a priest and exactly what that will look like for you has not yet clarified. But I’m wondering, since there are other priests in your sangha – do the priests in your Zen community all express that role in very different ways?
Yes, how each of us manifests the teachings through living as a priest is uniquely developed from each person’s practice life. For me, this journey of openings, and not knowing where I am going, is what will lead me into the manifestations of my priest life. And it is already happening in each unfolding moment of unexpected surprises!
In addition, there are many different strands of Zen Buddhism, but Zen practice tends to be very formal. How we enter the temple, how we walk, how we sit on our cushion – there’s a lot of form.
And all this form is there for a certain reason. It helps you actually come to know form. As a Zen priest, you’re helping to conduct some of the forms. A priest, or someone in a similar role, will come to the altar and offer flower petals. We have an offering and lead the ceremonial parts after we sit. We have bowing and chanting and things like that.
So that’s a formal role for the priest, and I’m looking forward to doing more of that because it’s powerful.
There are different ceremonies, too – for example, there’s a full moon ceremony. We just went through Rohatsu, a three-day, silent retreat to celebrate Buddha’s enlightenment. So we have different forms in that respect. There’s a ritual meal we have. All of those things would not be particular to what I’m doing, but just what any priest does. And I like that!
In addition, what I’m personally interested in – and I’ve already done some of this – is giving talks about white privilege and the concept of “othering” because, especially in Buddhism, any way that we make the other an object is really not what the practice is about. And yet, because those issues are so unconsciously ingrained in those of us who are white, we have to work on it. And so I have some interest in making that a focus of my priesthood. And women’s issues as well.
There is something else for which I sought special training – Jizo ceremonies – that I would like to bring to my Zen community.
If you go to Japan you’ll see these statues – they look like children, and they have red hats and bibs on. They are in graveyards and in gardens and on street corners. They are Jizo statues.
Jizo is the Boddhisattva of fragile states – Jizo carries you across. Jizo is there for unborn babies, for mothers who are pregnant, for transitions we’re going through. The Jizo Boddisattva gives you the courage to go through something. Jizo is there at the point of death to carry you across the threshold of life and death.
And so there are some psychologists who have developed a ceremony. It’s like a grief ceremony for people who have lost a loved one or suffered some other kind of loss. The understanding is that when somebody dies or you lose that person somehow, the ways in which we express our love are body ways – we touch, or we cook, or we comfort, or we hold. All the ways that we love are really through our bodies.
The ceremony is all in silence; nobody talks.
We have a big cloth on the floor, and it’s full of all kinds of craft materials, like sticks and cloth and flowers and thread. People are invited to use these materials to create an offering for the person who has died. And people get really involved in making something really special while they’re feeling their grief.
This making, I think, comes from a felt sense. You do not decide what to create. You allow the silent pouring out of your grief through your hands, and something creative is made as an offering. And then we have a ceremony where you bring the offering to the Jizo altar and offer words to your loved one.
A sense develops of a transmutation of your relationship with the person who died from a physical relationship to a spiritual one.
I want to bring the Jizo ceremony to my Zen community once a year.
Is there anything else that you’re particularly looking forward to as a Zen priest?
When you become a priest, you are able to offer what are called “practice interviews.” In Buddhism it is understood that the truth, or "the dharma," is transmitted through the student/teacher relationship – that the “truth” is living and arises within intimacy, especially the intimacy of the student/teacher relationship.
When people are called to go deeper into their practice, they often seek a relationship with a teacher as a guide to whom they can bring their experiences and questions. This is what is especially of interest to me – to be able to offer this kind of relationship to others who seek the “Way.”
And I feel that practicing Focusing-oriented therapy for over 35 years has given me the gift of developing a special way of being present and listening.