By Tova Green
Zenshin Florence Caplow is intimately familiar with “the fierce teachers of chronic illness and pain,” the focus of her four-part SFZC online class, Dancing in the Dark Fields, which begins on September 10. She is a Soto Zen priest in our lineage, a writer, editor, and teacher. In our recent conversation about the class, she said she was pleased to be able to offer this class, as practicing with chronic pain and illness is not widely taught in Zen practice, though there are Buddhist teachings on sickness, old age, and death. Also, she reminded me, “Chronic illness and pain can keep people from being able to practice formally.”
Florence looks forward to sharing what she has learned through her own journey with chronic illness, as well as hearing from the wisdom of others in the class. Each of the four classes will have different teachings, practices, and guided meditations. The classes will explore not only the physical experience of chronic pain and illness, but also the emotional, spiritual, personal, and societal aspects of living a life shaped by illness or pain. The title of the class, she told me, could also be “dancing with limitations.”
Darlene Cohen – Surei Kenpo (Great Spirit, Manifesting Dharma), who died in 2011, has been an important influence on Florence’s approach to teaching on this topic. Darlene was a San Francisco Zen Center teacher and the author of several books on chronic pain, including Turning Suffering Inside Out, based on her experience with inflammatory Rheumatoid Arthritis. Florence attended a Suffering and Delight workshop with Darlene at San Francisco Zen Center in 1999, “a few days before I got hit with my first auto-immune illness. I appreciate her teaching and her life. Her life was her teaching, although the real teacher is illness and pain itself—a fierce teacher. It can teach us a lot about who we are.”
Darlene’s approach to working with pain included opening to our senses, to everything that is not pain, to be “a connoisseur of pleasure.” Florence finds this a radical and powerful approach. Florence will also draw from the work of Les Fehmi in Dissolving Pain, which explores finding spaciousness in the body when experiencing pain.
Florence describes the onset of chronic pain in her own life in an essay published by Inquiring Mind in 2009, which she titled, “Dancing in the Dark Fields.” She wrote, “I have a chronic, painful illness … It’s an event in the body, an event of the body. It’s my dancing partner, my teacher, my enemy, my friend, my curse, my blessing. It constantly surprises me, sometimes shocks me, and continues to shape my life like a river shapes the land.”
Her illness was later diagnosed as an auto-immune disease, and was in remission for ten years, until 2021, when she developed Rheumatoid Arthritis. Fatigue is a primary symptom for her, despite the medications that are now available.
Over these many years, Florence has continued to write, teach, and lead workshops. She is the co-editor with Susan Moon of The Hidden Lamp, Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women, available through the Zen Center Online Store. The book has been translated into Italian, German, Dutch, and is being translated into Portuguese.
Florence is both a Soto Zen priest and a Unitarian Universalist minister. She practiced with Zoketsu Norman Fischer at Everyday Zen Foundation for more than 20 years and was given the dharma name Zenshin Rinsho/Zen Renewal, Forest Lake when she was priest-ordained. For the last ten years she has been studying with Bruce Fortin, guiding teacher of Occidental Laguna sangha in Sebastopol, CA.
Her Dharma talk on August 17 at City Center addressed this topic.