Therapist finds serenity through ancient traditions and individual moments.

Zen and the art of everyday life

Today’s profile on John Seniff concludes our yearlong, monthly series, Extraordinary People, about Twin Tiers residents who appear ordinary to most of us but have done extraordinary things.

In 2008, the Star-Gazette will launch a new monthly series in Twin Tiers Life. Stay tuned for details and for your opportunity to nominate subjects to be profiled in the series.

When John Seniff first visited Mount Saviour Monastery about 30 years ago, he never imagined that he’d eventually be living nearby.

At the time, Seniff, who was studying comparative religions and exploring monastic lifestyles, was visiting the monastery on a spiritual retreat, one of several he took there. He says he was drawn to the place, the serenity and the sense of self that he discovered there.

Since that first visit, Seniff has lived in Europe, Asia and across the United States — and has become an ordained Zen priest. Today, Seniff lives in Horseheads and works as a therapist at Elmira Free Academy.

While it might seem difficult to merge the ancient traditions of Zen with modern principles of psychology, Seniff explains that’s not the case at all.

“In Zen, you are in your everyday life, whether it be eating or working or walking the dog, and you are having an intuitive sense of what the universal life is. You are bringing the universal into the everyday; it’s not separate,” he explains.

In Seniff’s everyday life, he works with students who have “acute difficulties: some are emotional or mental difficulties; others have high levels of anxiety,” he explains. He counsels teens through individual and family therapy at the high school. In his spare time, he studies Zen, enjoys nature and writes. Seniff has written two books: “Beyond Religion,” a dialogue book, and “Awakening Mind: Travels with my Self,” an autobiography.

Buddhist tendencies
Seniff was born in Ohio in 1954 but spent several of his childhood years in rural Quincy, Fla., where his mother ran a boarding house. When he was 8 years old, his stepfather was offered a State Department job in India, so the family made the cross- continental move. Between ages 8 and 18, Seniff lived overseas — not only in India, but also in the Philippines, Thailand and England, where he graduated from high school.

“It was in India where life took on a whole new meaning for me,” Seniff says. “I really took to Buddhism, Hinduism, the temples, the statues and the art. It all drew me as a kid. … And my mom was very open to my experiences. She’s Episcopalian but never restricted me from learning about other religions or other cultures.”

After leaving England, Seniff returned to this country, where he lived in many areas, including Nebraska, Wisconsin and Annapolis, Md. While attending Wesleyan University in Nebraska, he heard a lecture given by Brother David of Mount Saviour Monastery, who invited Seniff to visit Elmira.

In the meantime, Seniff had begun studying with a Zen master named Seikan Hasegawa, with whom he still keeps in touch. His Zen master is the person who recommended that Seniff become an ordained Zen priest in 1997. Seniff explains that in the Zen tradition, a master must make such a recommendation, and the master is the one who can see whether his student is living by Zen principles.

“Being ordained is an expression of dedication to living a universal life,” Seniff says.

Zen helps Seniff make sense of his life, he explains, and helps to keep him grounded.

“When there’s a bad day and I look up in the sky and see clouds floating by, that moment has a calming effect. … Seeing something in the silence of the moment, when I can perceive it without distraction, it brings happiness, calmness, groundedness.”

Therapeutic leanings
Seniff first became interested in therapy and counseling at the age of 17, when he worked at a halfway house in England as part of a six-month independent study.

“At the time, shock treatment was a standard course of treatment for many people. I witnessed patients right after they’d had the treatments, and even then, it seemed invasive. … My experience at the halfway house definitely fueled an interest in therapy,” he says.

He pursued this interest years later while living in New Mexico, where, after holding a variety of jobs and managing his own freelance graphic arts business, he earned a master’s degree in psychotherapy, specializing in the treatment of people with multiple personality disorder. In his book, he discusses his work with a specific patient, “Mary” (a pseudonym), who was diagnosed with more than 30 personalities. Seniff met 18 of them:

“Once a week, I would stay overnight as on-site therapist (at the treatment center where he worked). … Mary would sometimes show up at my cottage at one or two in the morning in completely different personalities. Occasionally, I would have extended conversations with them. Some were friendly and talkative, others seductive, and others childlike. … Working with Mary was a 24-hour affair, so sometimes I would find myself completely exhausted after being there,” he says.

In New Mexico, Seniff also worked with troubled adolescents, which he says served as perfect preparation for his position at Elmira Free Academy. After being asked whether he feels as if the Twin Tiers is his home, or whether he has many homes after living in so many places, he smiles and explains:

“Home is a nebulous thing,” Seniff says. “I feel at home here, and in India, and I feel a special kinship in the South. But I can blend in like a chameleon anyplace and can adapt to it. … Home is where I am.”

Therapist finds serenity through ancient traditions and individual moments.
December 16, 2007
Star-Gazette