MF 38 – Nourishing Meditation Practice Remotely with Wild Mind Teacher and Founder Bodhipaksa

MF 38 – Nourishing Meditation Practice Remotely with Wild Mind Teacher and Founder Bodhipaksa

MF 38 – Nourishing Meditation Practice Remotely with Wild Mind Teacher and Founder Bodhipaksa

Biography: Bodhipaksa is an accomplished teacher, published author, and founder of the popular Wildmind web site. He recently (Oct 2012) gave a TEDx talk on compassion (“The Surprising Secret of Unlocking Compassion”).

He has been meditating and practicing Buddhism since 1982. He was ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order (former known as the Western Buddhist Order) in 1993. In addition to his work with Wildmind, he leads activities at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, New Hampshire, and for nine years he has taught a summer course to low income teens at the University of New Hampshire.

He was formerly the director of a retreat center in Scotland, and was center director at the Rocky Mountain Buddhist Center in Missoula, Montana. He completed a Master’s degree in Buddhist approaches to business at the university of Montana, and founded Wildmind in 2001.

He has published several books and audiobooks on aspects of meditation and Buddhist practice, and is well-known for his guided meditation recordings. As the director of Wildmind and the father of two young children, Bodhipaksa understands the challenges of balancing a meditation practice with a busy life. His online courses have been running since 2002, and he has received consistent praise for his practical, down-to-earth approach as well as his care for and commitment to each student.

What brought you to a meditation practice?

It was a confluence of things in his life. Bodhipaksa was young and in high school, 17 or 18 years old, when he got interested in finding some kind of religious path, to find meaning and purpose in his life.

He did some exploration of left-wing politics, in an era where the communist party was very strong at the time. It was idealistic, socialism that attracted him. He’d been an atheist since he was eleven years old, the concept of God didn’t make sense at all. He did go back to the New Testament, interested in the ethical teachings of the New Testament.

He did come across references of Buddhism. It was not well known in Scotland at that time. But Buddhism made sense to him. It was rational to him, and didn’t require any belief in a supernatural being, etc.

At that same time, he went through a personal crisis as well. His friends went off to do other things, and left the area. His friends were very important to him, and he experienced a lot suffering. He felt quite lonely, anxiety, and a feeling of not fitting in. He had a hard time getting on with the people remaining.

Bodhipaksa was looking for something that gave his life meaning and purpose.

The idea of meditation as being a way of finding happiness within oneself was attractive to him. Because the outside world didn’t seem at all reliable.

Unfortunately there was no way for him to get to a meditation class. The nearest town was about 30 miles away, and might as well be on the other side of the world, as he didn’t drive. So it wasn’t until Bodhipaksa went to Glasgow, to the university, and he saw posters around campus, until he started going to these classes.

Did your sense of what you were looking for change as you started going to these classes? Anything you wanted to delve more deeply into?

Bodhipaksa had some particular experiences fairly early on. On particular day, he was with some classmates, and they were sitting together in the car to go home. And he was in a terrible mood, he tended to be very irritable in those days. In some ways he was quiet sensitive, and irritation was his defense mechanism in those days. He was listening to this conversation these two girls were having, and getting annoyed at how trivial and trite it seemed. But he caught himself getting really annoyed.

“And I remembered this loving-kindness practice that he had learned.  And just started saying to myself, “May I be well…. may I be happy… may I be free from suffering”. And it completely stunned me, but after 3 or 4 minutes of this, I actually felt really happy! Nothing mystical, or anything like that, meditation just works.”

Yeah, it’s pretty radical..

It does actually work. Today, I’m getting into teaching very short meditations to people, just 3 or 4 minutes long. They very often, almost everyone reports they’ve experienced a change in their level of well-being.

The reason for teaching these short meditations is because he’s very interested in helping people to make meditation part of their life. The trouble is that we teach meditation, make them sit through 25, 35, or 45 minutes of meditation.

People can get the idea that meditation isn’t real meditation, no point in doing it, unless you sit for 45 minutes. And then they go home at the end of the meditation class, and the next day its like, OK, I suppose I should meditate. Do I have 30 or 40 spare minutes?

No of course they don’t, because their lives are already full, they’ve already got a bunch of habits and responsibilities. And because they have this idea that it has to be a full fledged long meditation, or it is not a real meditation. And they end up not doing it at all.

So Bodhipaksa tries to encourage people to just try tiny 3 or 4 minutes of meditation, this is what you can do. He gets them to do the meditation standing up, or sitting in a chair. Get the idea across that you don’t need special equipment, get all setup, or lighting all the candles.

Yes, in our daily life is where the real fruits of meditation are..

Yes, especially with regularity, consistency in practice.

Do you find that the folks who do the mini meditations repeat the meditations until it becomes part of their lives..that something kicks in that activates within the person that then practices automatically, where it might be really helpful to de-escalate the inner turmoil? 

Yes, I think it’s quite hard for people to start meditating on their own. This is maybe another reason to encourage people to do shorter meditations. Because what we’re asking people to do is to apply a certain mindset, things like being patient, and kind with yourself. Recognizing that it’s OK to be distracted. You’re not the worst meditator in the world because your mind is distracted and all over the place. 

People bring a lot of unhelpful attitudes into the practice, so it can be quite difficult to get a meditation practice established.

Did you find that as you as you bring these meditations online, that this influences the way you’re doing these meditations? Because some of the folks are like you were when you were young in a remote place far away from a meditation center. So maybe that is part of the reason why you decided you wanted to bring it online to make it accessible to people who are like you at an earlier time in your life?

That’s really interesting. I haven’t made that connection before but i think that’s quite possibly the case. Yeah I have a very strong sympathetic, empathetic response to people who are in isolated situations, and who find it difficult to get a meditation practice started, and there are a lot of them. 

How many are there, what is that like since you’ve been doing this since 2001?

Yeah, I’ve doing it for a long time. I mean when I said there’s a lot of them I was thinking there’s a lot of people in a similar situation and perhaps the entire state where there’s hardly any meditations centers. And you have to travel like a 120 miles to get to a meditation center.

But in terms of how many I managed to reach through online activities is quite difficult to count. We have a lot of traffic to our website. I have this website with structured guides to meditation, all free. There’s recorded guided meditations that you can listen to. The Wild Mind web site get something like a 150.ooo thousand visits per month. 

Wow, that’s a lot. 

Yeah, and they’re all over the world as well so when the last time I looked, there were visitors from every country in the world except for think Western Sahara. It’s a disputed area, government or maybe there’s not even the internet there. Quite possibly there’s no internet connection. 

You wrote a couple of books about diets. Did that change as a result of meditation in any way?

Yes, it did interestingly. To put this in context. I first got in touch with a practicing Buddhist since I’ve been meditating. I was going to the University of Glasgow and I was training to be a veterinarian which is something that I had wanted to be for a long long time. Since it was a long time, probably since I was about 14 years old. 

I was in contact with Buddhists and most of the Buddhists I knew where vegetarian. And I actually hung around with Buddhists a lot. I really enjoyed being with them. I was actually working with a Buddhist company during my summer vacation. We’d eat with each other, going to each other’s houses after working all day. So I was eating a lot of vegetarian food but I was almost militantly anti-vegetarian.

People would say you’re eating a  dead animal. I didn’t affect me at all at that time. It was completely normal and natural to me to eat meat. And then my entire veterinary class went to a slaughter house.

One of the things that you’re trained to do as a veterinarian is meat inspection.  Two aspects to it There’s the welfare of animals before they die, and there’s also inspecting carcasses to make sure they’re not diseased so that cancer and infections and things don’t get to the food supply. So we had to go and learn how to do these things. 

And the very first day I went into the slaughterhouse was quite horrifying. First of all those the smell of the place felt absolutely disgusting. Nobody else having this reaction I think it was possibly because I had just for several months not been eating much meat and been living a vegetarian diet. As I was hanging around with other vegetarians.

I had to have a scarf wrapped around my face to try to filter out some of the smell. And then we went through into the killing floor to have a look at the end of the day and they’d finished slaughtering animals for the day. There was a pig which had been spotted which had been quite badly injured. And the animal welfare rules say, that the animals to be killed as quickly as possible. So I saw my first pig being slaughtered, by being shot in the head and having its throat cut and bleeding on the floor.

And at that point the question or statement, “you do realize that that meat is a dead animal” is something that made sense. I didn’t actually make a conscious decision to become a vegetarian. I just went home and I couldn’t eat it anymore. We already had some meat that we bought for our meal. And I just looked at it and I realized I can’t eat this. And I think it was a combination of, as I mentioned not having it very much meat for a while, while hanging out with vegetarians. Their philosophical approach to vegetarianism had not really affected me on a conscious level. 

I think the meditation practice that I’ve been doing had perhaps woken me up. Because I was the only person out of like 40, 45 people.  The only one who had this kind of response. 

I don’t want to have anything to do with this.

Yeah so that it opened you up in in a sense to the the suffering of someone else. Kind of like an empathetic response.

I think so yeah. I’ve been doing a combination of mindfulness of breathing and loving-kindness practice for several months. And at that point I think it opened me up in an empathetic way.

I also noticed on your website you mentioned you see your children as your spiritual teachers. Maybe you can explain that a little bit what you mean.

Well , so you’re a meditation teacher and you go and teach your meditation class. You’re friendly and understanding to everybody, even when people can be quite difficult. And you’re patient with them. It is much more difficult to maintain that sense of, I’m in public, and I’m in charge of myself and I am emotionally non-reactive, kind and patient.

It’s much more difficult to maintain that kind of equanimity when you’ve got a child who’s screaming at you. Or having a temper tantrum or really upset about something. Doesn’t want to do what you want to do. Or even when they’re sick you know. When my kids were really young and I’d have to stay up half the night, holding them up right because they couldn’t sleep lying down, because of an earache, etc. 

It really tests you. Children push your buttons and they learn how to push your buttons . So it teaches you to practice patience and kindness in a much deeper level. Because when you’re doing it at the meditation class, it’s relatively easy to do.

When you’re in public and people are watching you, you’re on your best behavior. But you can also remember to be on your best behavior all the time when with your kids. And you don’t feel like anyone is watching you when you’re on your own with them. 

Yeah just like at the workplace, you know it’s easier to be nice there too because you’re you’re also getting getting paid to be there and so forth.

 I think sometimes the amount of time that people spend at work leads to that familiarity that breeds contempt. That’s also a very good practice place for sure. Especially at meetings, where people disagree with you, it’s very easy to get heated and to get stubborn. 

And in terms of your website, what inspired you to decide to do the Wild Mind web site about meditation full time? What what makes you realize this is something that you wanted to do full time right?

It is now. It was not full time at first, it was a very part time thing for a long time. The idea for the website came to me but I was doing a master’s degree at the University of Montana.  And I had this decision that I wanted to go and study Buddhism at University. I wanted to do a master’s in Buddhism.

And the reason for that was because being smart can be a bit of a problem sometimes, because it can seem quite easy to get your head around Buddhist teachings. And because you think you understand it, you don’t ask yourself the deeper questions, like do I really understand this?

On an experiential level. Does this even make sense. Are there contradictions. Because you can sometimes find yourself holding contradictory ideas in your head. And you can flip from one to the other without even realizing that you’re doing. It is very common to do that. So I wanted to be challenged to think more deeply about about the Dharma, about Buddhism.

And I was lucky enough to bump into professor of Buddhist Studies who is looking for a teaching assistant. And a teaching assistantship would pay for a masters degree.

However, and this was a real stroke of good luck. It wasn’t possible to do a pure masters in Buddhism at this particular University. There weren’t enough for credit courses available. So was gonna have to do some kind of interdisciplinary masters. And choose two different areas of Buddhism. And something else and focus on both of those areas but especially on the overlap between them and I considered various options. I was quite interested at one point in studying Zen Buddhism and so on studying Japanese. But my adviser pointed out that would take many many years to develop enough proficiency in Japanese and Chinese, which I’d also have to learn, classical Chinese, in order to be able to make any use of that.

And it occurred to me that one of the things I’d always really love doing was running businesses. Hadn’t really thought of myself as doing that. But when I was in Glasgow and involved in Dharma center there, I volunteered to run the book shop. I love the craft of taking something and making it work well. And making it appealing to people. Increasing the range of books there, expanding things, building things up

So I love that, and then moved into a Buddhist center for a number of years. A retreat center in the Highlands of Scotland when I arrived it was a very small scale operation then. Again I just love building it up and be able to reach more people and being the benefit more people. 

And so I thought well maybe I could study Buddhism and business. A really intreaging thing to do. Most people do what you’re doing right now and give a little nervous laugh. Buddhism, business? Aren’t they the complete opposite? (laughing)

But of course in the Buddhist teaching there’s the 8 fold path, which is the core teaching of Buddhism, and one of the aspects of the eight fold path, is right livelihood . So that’s Buddhism and business. It’s how to make your work into a practice.

So I was studying classes in the business school and I was studying Buddhism in the philosophy department. And I was trying to think what am I gonna do with this degree. Where is this going to go. I had friends who were Buddhists who were running businesses, and I got involved. And looked at whether I might be able to apply the principles I was learning to their particular businesses.

Lin Chi in trashHello dogs! (NOTE: Sorry, the dogs were barking for a few seconds at this point..As you can see, our dogs can be troublemakers. They want to apparently insert themselves not just in pots, pans, and trashcans, but also in the podcast!)

And then it just it just came to me one day, but it just came to me that the internet at that time (around 2000) was not a good place to go if you want to learn meditation. There were people who were advertising meditation classes there, but you can’t go onto the internet at a particular time and learn how to meditate.

And I thought well you know you can. People don’t think it’s unusual to learn meditation from a book to go out and buy tons of books about meditation. People don’t think it’s unusual to go out and buy a CD on meditation. And then you can do all of those things on the internet.

So I worked on putting together a structured program, and actually wrote a grant proposal to the Council of learned societies and managed to get some grant money. Which funded me for a summer to work on writing and recording some material and I tried to make in the University first of all of it was an online course. Just within the university and then I you know that started the website and that was 2001 November 2001.

And and then it started attracting people to come to it, and and how did you do change over time, to meet whatever needs they had. Did you just do it based on whatever feedback you got?

Well things just kind of evolved. My original idea was just have a website where people can come and we can learn something about meditation. And that was it. Trouble, I was a graduate student and I could barely scrape through a week and feed myself. Never mind set a website. I had a friend who was a Buddhist was fairly successful businessman and I told them about my idea for this website and I said I’d probably need a couple hundred dollars to get started. He said, no problem at all more like this one particular time. He asked if I thought about doing meditation classes online, because he knew I was a meditation teacher. And I thought, yeah I know how I could do that. I Immediately thought about how you could you could do that with discussion forum and readings and guided meditations.

And so after starting their website I moved into having online courses . And people liked the recordings I done. So tried to put some of  those CD and CD did very well. And things just gonna took off from there.

And then did the CD’s then turn into downloadable audio?

Yeah we’ve the website now has a an online store, where you can buy CDs. The online courses have changed quite dramatically. I used to work with a small number of people quite intensively. And have a daily correspondence with them about their practice. That limits you to a small number though. 

Now there’s a suggested donation, no fixed charges. If you got some more money use another level of donation. And so you know we’re getting in our most recent course there is like 227 people.

You also mentioned prison, do you the same way with them?

Yeah for several years I went along to the state prison for men in Concord, New Hampshire, where there was already a meditation group. They don’t have a lot of internet access in prison, for obvious reasons. So that was actually an incredibly fulfilling thing to do. This was quite frustrating in some ways not because of the inmates that the staff was often making it quite difficult. I would drive an hour there and discover that was something else planned at the chapel that day, and no one had bothered to call any of the volunteers. So you drive an hour home again. So sometimes it it was quite frustrating.

But the amazing thing was that these guys had an incredible depth of practice, as they were living in very difficult circumstances and the Dharma practice, their meditation practice was a lifesaver. But it was actually inspirational to be with a group of people who are so committed to the practice.

It was much more satisfying in many ways then teaching meditation class in my my local Dharma center just down the road. Where you know in some cases people would come along and meditate in the evening. But that was the only meditation that they did all week.

It’s almost like that image of your hair being on fire. I have a sense that if you’re in prison you’re more willing to make a full commitment. Then in the case that you’re not in prison where you got lots of distractions and other things. 

Yeah absolutely the problem became one of time and resources. My then wife and I adopted two children , and she wasn’t working anymore, because she was staying with them. Staying at home to look after the children. And a lot less money came in, and I just have to be more careful about how I spent my time. So unfortunately there was one of the things I had to withdraw.

Their group is still meeting by the other people who stepped. I also went down to a couple of prisons in Massachusetts as well to manage to get somebody else to take over.

And you also mentioned you worked with low-income teens have at one point.

That was the University of New Hampshire. There was a program there is actually a federally funded program called Upward Bound. And everyone thinks I’m saying outward bound, and think it’s about camping. It’s a federally funded program that started in the nineteen sixties. Back in the days when people had a consensus around helping people from low-income families to get into higher education, and when they saw it as a good thing. Because it would strengthen the nation, because you’re tapping into talent, that might otherwise go unrealized.

And so the program means to help teens from low-income families prepare for college. Very well actually none of their parents have ever been to college. Often their parents are quite impoverished. Sometimes now your mental health problems substance abuse problems etc. So they were great bunch of kids and I did that for ten years. I have very tentatively started doing some meditation with them. I was basically asked to come in and help teach them study skills and personal development skills.  And I was a little hesitant about it at first, because it’s something that really precious to me. And the thought of taking something very precious and offering up to a bunch of people who might not appreciate it, or think it was boring or dull or something like that that was that was scary.

But I took the risk and I started introducing to meditation to the low-income kids, and found out very quickly it was their favorite thing of everything that was being taught. And they wanted more of it. It became a regular thing, and we did it in every single class. And they found that very beneficial.

Did you notice it changed them as well?

It’s kinda hard to tell, whether meditation changes people. I mean I’m getting a bunch of people I don’t really know very well I’m teaching to meditate. By the time I’m getting to know them they had only been meditating for a few weeks. But a lot of them said that they find it helpful. I have to go on their reports, rather than mine. 

How do you explain Wild Mind in terms of working with habit patterns?

It was just a name. Well it’s become in a way just the name. I would explain it in terms of ecosystem for example. An ecosystem doesn’t have anyone in control of it. There was no one saying, okay we’ve got too many insects you know, let’s send in the birds. There’s no one saying, oh, there’s a clearing. Let’s plant seeds so that some trees drop. It just all you know works perfectly and beautifully.

So meditation can bring about something like that as well. First we feel compelled to meddle with our minds. Feeling like we always need to be doing something. And actually we do need to do something at first. You know we need to make some kind of an effort. But with practice you can get more of a sense that your meditation practice is just happening. It’s just something that’s just arising within you. And it can happen quite beautifully.

There can be no conscious intent to do anything. You’re just sitting there. It’s like sitting observing a forest and seeing all the life going about its business, doing whatever it does, staying, keeping in balance. And it can be like that with the mind well. You’re not doing anything but sitting there.

And sometimes even when you’re not watching you get the sense there’s things going on. I’ve had many times in my meditation practice, where I’ve become mildly distracted. And I’m thinking about something, and then I realized. Oh, I’m distracted, let’s go back to my experiences and notice what my experience is. And I find that my experience is very different from what it was before I got distracted.

Suddenly now I’m really happy. And it’s really easy to be calm. My mind feels bright and I feel energized And it’s like, while my attention was out of the way, some parts of me were collaborating to produce this beautiful experience for me to come back to.

And so, yeah there is there is a sense in which I’m using this word Wild Mind, to suggest something quite expansive. Also tend to use a lot of nature images.

I think all meditation teachers end up using a lot of nature imagery, as it is very evocative. So we talk about sitting like a mountain.

We talk about letting your mind be like water so the water. You stop stirring the water, and you just let it settle down and let it become clear and and calm. And able to reflect. You find but as water calms down, you can see into it. With your mind calming down, you can also see into that more easily.

So there’s a lot of nature imagery that tends to come into meditation practice. Again this idea, of the wild as being something spiritual.

But I don’t tend to think about why I called it, “Wild Mind” very much these days. 

But it’s really nice to let meditation help you become aware of the background (nature), instead what is often the foreground (our minds). The Background comes to the foreground.

You’re also an individual coach. Is that part of the website as well?

It’s something that’s available through the website. It is something that’s fairly new for me as well. As I mentioned I did quite a bit of coaching in my early days when I first saw online courses. I mean a lot.  I was doing a lot of coaching. But primarily through text. Corresponding with them pretty much on a daily basis. And that’s where I got the idea from being on the generation X dharma teachers conference this past summer. And there were a few people there who are coaching.

Folks listening to this might be thinking, maybe that’s a helpful way to have somebody like a coach, “see your back”. You’ve already mentioned your kids, and that’s wonderful. That folks folks like us who have families. They look at the back of our necks as well. They can see the parts of ourselves that we don’t necessarily notice or wanna notice as much. And as a coach you kind of do that as well, seeing patterns that someone else might not recognize as easily?

Yeah, I think that’s one of the big advantages of Kalyana Mitta (spiritual friends) or special friendship. It is interesting you look at the scriptures and you see that, “spiritual friendship is the whole of the spiritual life“. That is a very strong statement.

There’s actually very little in terms of teachings apart from that, spiritual friendship. I can think of a couple of suttas where either the Buddha either discusses spiritual friendship or praises spiritual friendship in a detailed way. But it’s not really developed very strongly. One of the advantages of spiritual friendship is it helps you to become conscious of things that you’re not so conscious of.

Is there anything else that you would like to tell people that would be listening now, who want to be free from suffering?

There are many things I could say. The first thing that springs to mind is to find some kind of balance in your meditation practice. A lot of people when we they go to learn meditation take up some kind of mindfulness practice. That’s the most common thing. So you’re sitting watching everything or paying attention to the body are you sitting watching thoughts passing through. And letting go of them.

That’s all great so wonderful very good thing to do. That’s an excellent practice. But there’s a whole other side of practice which involves working with heart. And developing more kindness and developing more compassion and developing more appreciation. And that is really important.

One of the things that I’m quite wary of in the modern Buddhist world is, there is this emphasis on the goal, as being having a particular kind of insight. And so people want to have this kind of insight.  They want to see you through the illusion of self. Which is a completely valid, and wonderful thing to do. And everyone should have that experience.

But the Buddha’s ideal of somebody who’s awakened was not just somebody who has that insight and seen through the illusion of a separate self. But the Buddha’s ideal was of somebody who is like an ideal human being. Somebody who is warm and compassionate and kind. Somebody who is patient and who is able to live in a very simple way. So some of those elements tend to get lost in people’s practice because they’re focusing on developing mindfulness and insight.

But if you’re doing that, you not really aiming at becoming the kind of person that the Buddha was encouraging us to be. So you’re not really aiming for the Buddha’s goal was. So I really encourage people to take up not just mindfulness practice, but also some kind of loving-kindness or compassion practices as well.

Great advice. I know my my teachers teacher put that, is he said, “I’m not interested in your enlightenment experience. I’m interested in the day after.” (laughing)

I really appreciate your time and and your kind words, and I hope that folks can check out your website. 

Thank you.

Resources

MF 37 – Awakening from the Illusion of Separation with Lama Surya Das

MF 37 – Awakening from the Illusion of Separation with Lama Surya Das

MF 37 – Awakening from the Illusion of Separation with Lama Surya Das

Lama Surya Das is one of the foremost Western Buddhist meditation teachers and scholars, one of the main interpreters of Tibetan Buddhism in the West, and a leading spokesperson for the emerging American Buddhism. The Dalai Lama affectionately calls him “The Western Lama.”

Lama Surya Das Surya has spent over forty five years studying Zen, vipassana, yoga, and Tibetan Buddhism with the great masters of Asia, including the Dalai Lama’s own teachers, and has twice completed the traditional three year meditation cloistered retreat at his teacher’s Tibetan monastery. He is an authorized lama and lineage holder in the Nyingmapa School of Tibetan Buddhism, and a close personal disciple of the leading grand lamas of that tradition. He is the founder of the Dzogchen Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and its branch centers around the country, including the retreat center Dzogchen Osel Ling outside Austin, Texas, where he conducts long training retreats and Advanced Dzogchen retreats. Over the years, Surya has brought many Tibetan lamas to this country to teach and start centers and retreats. As founder of the Western Buddhist Teachers Network with the Dalai Lama, he regularly helps organize its international Buddhist Teachers Conferences. He is also active in interfaith dialogue and charitable projects in the Third World. In recent years, Lama Surya has turned his efforts and focus towards youth and contemplative education initiatives, what he calls “True higher education and wisdom for life training.”

Lama Surya Das is a sought after speaker and lecturer, teaching and conducting meditation retreats and workshops around the world. He is a published author, translator, chant master (see Chants to Awaken the Buddhist Heart CD, with Stephen Halpern), and a regular blog contributor at The Huffington Post, as well as his own AskTheLama.com blog site where he shares his thoughts and answers questions from the public each week.

Surya Das has been featured in numerous publications and major media, including ABC, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Boston Herald, New York Post, Long Island Newsday, Long Island Business Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, The Jewish Free Press, New Age Journal, Tricycle Magazine, Yoga Journal, The Oregonian, Science of Mind, and has been the subject of a seven minute magazine story on CNN. One segment of the ABC-TV sitcom Dharma & Greg was based on his life (“Leonard’s Return”). Surya has appeared on Politically Correct with Bill Maher, and twice on The Colbert Report (see links below).

Surya is the author of thirteen books, the latest: Make Me One With Everything: Buddhist Meditations to Awaken from the Illusion of Separation (May 2015) See the rest of the book titles and links in the Resources section at the bottom of this page.

Lama Surya Das resides in Concord, Massachusetts.

Interview Transcript

(This is a summary transcript, please listen to the episode to enjoy the full conversation)

Maybe you could start us off with a guided mini-meditation? (I usually do a short mini-meditation before all interviews)

Maybe we’ll just keep silent for the whole 45 minutes! (laughing)

Yes, let’s have a little instant meditation, very American. Friends, Meditate as fast as you can (laughing)!

  1. Breathe in first, and say “Ahhhhhh” 3 times, the seed-syllable of Dzogchen, Tibetan Meditation. And enjoy a moment of mindfulness and contemplative sweetness, of just being. Getting of the threat-mill of events, and momentum of our conditioning and drivenness, and just breathing, just sitting, just being.

Present attentive. Lucidly aware.

Mindful, rather than mindlessly sleepwalking through life.

Just sitting, natural body is Buddha’s body.

Let it be, relaxed and at ease.

2. Just breathing, natural breath is letting go, letting if flow.

Awaring…Awareness is a verb.

Aware of physical sensations in the body.

Mindfulness of breathing,

3. Aware of awareness itself. Aware of thoughts, memories, moods, not trying to suppress them.

Mindfulness of thoughts is meditation. Not trying not to think.

Incandescent presence. Choice-less awareness. Nowness awareness is the true Buddha within.

Letting everything come and go, letting be, as it is.

Aware open, friendly accepting.

And enjoy the joy of natural meditation.

This breath as if the only breath, this moment as if the only moment. Enjoy the joy of naturalness, of genuine meditation.

Silence…

Tibetan chanting follows…

“May all beings be happy, peaceful, in harmony, fulfilled and serene.

Healed and whole again.

And may we all together fulfill the promise of this spiritual journey.

One family, one sangha community, One world.

All beings, love to one and all.

And I bow to the Buddha in your seat, don’t overlook her. “

I like that, as a substitute for God Bless America some times. 

Yes, that’s what I say, “God Bless Everyone”. Let’s be a blessing in the world, a light, rather than a blight on the landscape. The world needs it.

Thank you..

That was a little natural meditation. You can find these in my books, which are like work books full of practices you can do.

Like breathe, relax, center and smile. 4 steps to instant meditation. Not that complicated. There’s 2600 years of ethics, practices, wisdom, and meditations behind all that.

3 pillars of natural meditations behind it. Just sitting, just breathing, just being aware. These are great practices for today. Secular, non-sectarian, no beliefs or conversions needed.

How did you get on a a path of meditation?

I grew up in the 50’s and sixties, and went to college in New York at the university of New York, university of Buffalo. And his best high school friend, Allison Krause, was shot and killed in may of 1970, along with 3 other students, she was 19. It was a big tragedy. She was running away from the  part-time soldiers, the Ohio national guard. Who shot the students who were demonstrating the secret bombings of Cambodia and Vietnam by Nixon and Kissinger during the Vietnam war era.

That turned his head around about fighting for peace, and the radical anti-war movement. Lama Surya Das wanted to be for something positive. To make peace, become peace, be a peacemaker in the world. Rather than fighting for peace. Which became increasingly a contradiction in terms.

Like today we have suicide bombers, killing in the name of God. I don’t think that is exactly what God has in mind for us. Nothing new about this fanaticism, it’s been going for millennia and centuries. It’s part of our human society, we have to deal with it.

I went to India after graduation from college 1971, went to Zen retreats, meditation, encounter groups, legal and otherwise consciousness research. Hitchhiked across Europe, and middle East, Iran, Afghanistan, India, etc. Went to his first Vipassana course, insight meditation course.

That was in August 1971, with people like Sharon Salzberg, Daniel Coleman, and many of our current mindfulness teachers in America. Then met his first Tibetan teachers, Lamas. His first Hindu guru Neem Karoli Baba, who gave him his name Surya Das.

Surya Das was there throughout the 70’s and 80’s.  Became a Buddhist monk, went to tibetan buddhist training for lamas. Did that twice in the 80’s, learned Tibetan. Was then invited to teach by some of the Vipassana teachers in America. Taught these teachers Dzogchen. His lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, starting in 1989.

By the 90’s started to write books and teach in Europe and America, started Dzogchen centers in America. That’s what he does, teaching, writing, and social activism. Spiritual service, or activism. Make a positive difference in the world. Be a Bodhisattva, an edifier, an awakener. A light in this world.

Now as he gets older, a spiritual elder. A role we sorely need today. Young folks don’t necessarily want authorities, religious leaders. Or trust political leaders. And yet..

We’re all thirsty for for this timeless wisdom, self knowledge, inner teacher, inner peace, outer harmony. How to heal the planet and climate issues. Not very esoteric. Everyone is interested in this today.

I did read in your book, you read a line as a teen, that “the whole universe is my body, all beings are my mind”.  At that time you may not have realized it very deeply, but you were attracted to it right?

Of course, when I was in college, I was a Woodstock. Everyone he knew went to Woodstock. He read books like Aldous Huxley’s Perennial philosophy, Tibetan book of the Dead, Carlos Castaneda’s Yaqui way of knowledge, about his teacher Don Juan.

So he read that, but had no idea, was a kid, a jock, not interested in religion. Had no idea, just studied philosophy in college. He was into psychology, political science, creative writing. So now even now when I look at those notebooks from that day that I wrote down. Maybe I remember some of that. It’s amazing how much was there, and how little I understood about it when I was a kid.

Hormone driven, anti-counter-cultural, Vietnam era. But then it all starts to come back as you open your third eye. When he came back from India, even in the bible, of course humanism, of course Judaism and Christianity, there’s was plenty in there. But growing up, we weren’t that interested in it. Nobody taught us really how to meditate or pray to bring that into our bodies or into our lives.

It was more like oh on Sunday, where you listen to an old person give a boring sermon while reading a book in your lap about a totally different subject.

Right, I was the same way..

That’s what we did. I’m Jewish on my parents side, I was Bar Mitzvah, went to Hebrew school.  There was nothing of interest for me. When he asked all his millions of questions, they would say, “Sheket! “, translated quiet little monkey! Shhh, Shh. OK, I’ll try..

When he landed in India, he went to the meditation course, 10 day mindfulness course, silent for 10 days with S.N. Goenka. Not many questions. Teacher gave one hour talk everyday. Which the insight school is carrying on these days in America. Tara Brach, Jon Kabat Zinn is an offshoot of that. Terrific mindfulness training.

When he was with his first lama grand old masters of Tibet Kalu Rinpoche, he was Dalai Lama’s teacher of the 6 Tibetan Tantric Yogas. He used to pepper him a lot with questions, he had a lot more work and teaching, refuge camps, building schools and infirmaries.

So when Surya Das asked him, is it OK if I ask you all these questions? He said, “Ask me all of your questions, then one day you too will know.”

That was very empowering. Quite different then my, “religious upbringing”. He also gave me practices, self inquiry, ways of thinking, basic Buddhist philosophy and psychology. How to meditate and look into his mind, his feelings. Ways of looking into relationships, ethics and moral precepts. How to develop virtues, like generosity and patience.  Not just believe in them.

Oh Jesus could love the enemy, well I don’t know how? But he taught us how!

To exchange self for others, called Tibetan Tonglen practices. Put yourself in the other’s shoes, equalizing yourself and others. And mindfulness and awareness practices.

I encourage people to question, seek, inquire. Find out for yourself, don’t just belief everything on blind faith. Of course most of us won’t, since many of us are Americans.

Do you think we have to journey into separateness, into a sense of self and other, so we can fully appreciate non-separateness?

Yes. That’s really the universal pageant. It’s a little hard to talk about, so let me talk in English.

God created the world because he/she was lonely. Likes a good story. That is one amusing way of looking at it.

The whole journey back to the Garden of Eden, or oneness or God or beyond separation. First you have to be separate to experience Union, otherwise you have no perspective. 

Like the poet, mystic Saint Kabir of India said, “The fish doesn’t know the sea that there in. ”

“I laugh when I hear that the fish in the water is thirsty.

You don’t grasp the fact that what is most alive of all is inside your own house;
and you walk from one holy city to the next with a confused look!

Kabir will tell you the truth: go wherever you like, to Calcutta or Tibet;
if you can’t find where your soul is hidden,
for you the world will never be real!”
― Kabir

The bubble has to burst to return to the sea, but it has never been apart.

So we’re conceived and we cut the umbilical cord and become separate, and grow up and individuate and become independent. These are healthy stages of development. But then we also have to have a healthy ego, not be an egotistical bastard.

And then, start to recognize interdependence and interconnection. And have autonomy within interdependence, not just be independent like a teenager wants.

Find autonomy and freedom within interdependence. Recognize that we’re not separate, that we’re all interconnected.

As we see in the global level today, with the global economy, environment, ozone layer, rising seas. We’re all connected, we can’t just worry about what’s going on in our village in our own country anymore. And not worry about the bigger issues.

And also individually, nobody can do it alone today. It’s not the age of isolationism of specialists anymore.

Belief me, I’ve tried as a Tibetan monk in monasteries for 8 or 9 years.

We need each other, to develop compassion, empathy, loving-kindness Not just wisdom from the far head up.

The whole journey is about coming home to oneness or ourselves. The subtitle of my book, make me one with everything, is “Buddhist meditations to awaken from the illusion of separation”.

So we have to experience separation in order to come back, just like with love. You can’t know love unless we feel a little separate. Then we can experience the oneness and the union of being one and together, as we come together and apart in a healthy relationship dance.

When you became a monk for those 8 years when you still thought that it was a separate journey, was there a point that you realized that you perspective was shifting from that sense of separate individual journey to we’re part of a larger whole. 

Well it was very gradual in the sense that growing up I was always on sports teams, stayed in one neighborhood, being with my buddies. That was great, and then also in college, and later, a little bit more inner, with hallucinogens, started to write poetry, creatively, songs, develop my inner. That was a little more of the separate. Self growth, self development. Although still with friends, women.

My teachers in India, Nepal, Tibet, even in Japan where Lama Das studied Zen and teaching English. Mostly monks or monastic style, they wanted us to become monks and nuns. Like the Kalu Rinpoche started the first 3 year western training in the west. But I never believed I’d be a monk my own life. I wanted to come back to my own culture. And place and time  and make a difference. Not be an ex-pat in foreign country. It’s different if you’re part of the scene there, like you as a Dutch person married here in America.

But in India it was more separate, like sahibs and memsabs. Like the British invaders. I wanted to go back to my own time and culture, and starting teaching counseling, writing, and organizing, social activism.

As a monk that is very hard to imagine continuing to do that. I didn’t intend to stay a monk forever. As a monk, it gets really complicated. Not being able to do many things. It’s not my vocation anyway. I’m more of a people person, Bhakti, as they say in India. A lover of life, people and of God. God in people, God in nature, God in animals.

So when the 3 year retreats were over after 8/9 years, I gave up my robes.

My message is if I can do it, you can do it, everyone can do it. I’m not different, I’m not the Dalai Lama, I don’t want anyone to idealize me. Just a Jewish jock from Long Island. Like a player coach, let’s do these practices together. It’s a wonderful joyous spiritual path. 

I love this journey of kindred spirits together. I love the beloved community, the Sangha, the Satsang. So gradually I got used to this idea. Starting to see, this is not the time, it’s never the time for selfishness. But self-growth, isolationism, and closing my eyes, and going inward, and being silent for years.

This is the era for integration, collaboration, of the 99% occupying the spirit. Not just the 1% percent waiting for the Dalai Lama or Mother Theresa to do it. 

This is very important, so that is why I wrote this book about co-meditation, inter-meditation, awakening together.

I could tell by the way you wrote it, you want to take the “me” out of Meditation. So you created the new word, inter-meditation. 

Yes from Me-ditation to We-ditation. Not just with people, but with nature, with animals, with the lake, trees, the sun, the sky, with the sound of the waves. And let them do it for you, wash over you and through you. Relax a little, be open, not just close our eyes, and try to get away from it all.

Be with it, not trying to get away from it. Be with it, be open, not against it. Be with it!

Loving kindness means friendliness and openness. And also be friendly and open to what comes up within us. To our own inner phenomena and noumena, the mental stuff, bodily feeling. Healthily integrating it all into our open heart and Big Mind.

It’s the Big Mindfulness. Re-Mindfulness, remembering through member what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. Not just trying to getaway from it all or stop thinking.

To me the sense of integration, that you talk about, is we used to spend a lot of time developing or nurturing the little self, the ego, ignoring the big self. And now when the Big Self is in the foreground, and the little self is in service of the big self. At the same time we need to develop our own unique expression of the Big Self, which is non-repeatable, which has it’s own talents and skills that still need nurturing. Some might think they have to kill their ego, or toss it away. Because the world needs everyone to be there, authentic to show up. 

Authentic, effective, yes. Authentic is a hard word to define. But it’s so important. No need to kill anything or kill your ego. Anti-ego is just another crime. Egotism, “I’m the worst”, or “I’m worse than anybody else!”

I think Buddhist greatest teaching is the middle way. Not too much and not too little. Not ascetic and not indulgent. There’s a lot of room in between, it’s not a razor’s edge. There’s a lot of lanes in the great highway of authentic awakening.  And the awakened life. The mindful life. The beautiful loving true life that everyone deserves. Not in an entitled way, that everyone can have and participate in equally.

There’s a lot of lanes in this great highway of life, let’s just try to stay away from the ditches on either side. Nihilism, nothing matters. Vs Materialism, everything is as real as it seems. If we can’t weight it or see it, it’s not real. That’s materialism. Nihilism and materialism are extreme views, the ditches off the highway. Extreme views. Killing for God mentality.

There’s a lot of lanes in the great highway including the different religions, like humanism, and atheism. Atheists and Agnostics are some of the most spiritual people I know. There’s room for all.

Suicide bombings and genocide, not so much room in my mind for that. We have to deal with that for sure. It’s part of life. And the inequalities and injustices of life make the problem worse. So we have to make some systemic changes, not just change ourselves.

When I become clearer, everything becomes clearer. That’s Buddha’s basic premise. That’s why we meditate, concentrate, self-inquiry. But still we have to work on the outer level, as well as the inner level. 

It’s election year, an important time to step up, speak out, and vote. If you don’t vote, I don’t want to hear you complaining about what’s wrong with politics in Washington.

Being an informed citizen is a co-meditation in a way.

Participating. If you’re a parent you got to participate with the children, not just send them off to school, and hope someone else do the parenting. Stand up for them, going to the school, and being involved.

This is a time for integration, not getting away from it all.

Of course having said that, I got away from it all for a long time. I still lead silent meditation retreats year-round. You can see my schedule, see below in the resources. But I still talk a lot about integration and selfless service, seva.

Linking our hands, hearts and heads. We’re all in the same boat, we rise and fall, sink or swim together.

We got a lot more to do, with terrorism, school shootings, separation and alienation. 

Yes, it’s terrible. The education system in North America. But the gun problem is even more of a crisis than the education crisis. There’s some pretty entrenched lobbies around that issue. Maybe we need to implement more mindful anger management in law enforcement. So people can think before they respond. More mindful management amongst teachers and institutional leaders. And with children. But it’s coming.

Mindful anger management can go a long way to reducing the violence that is becoming so endemic to our society.

These school shootings and mass killings are becoming like a national characteristic. It’s infuriating. Doesn’t happen in Canada. In this country there’s more guns then people! Don’t know why.

Inner peace and outer peace and harmony have to go together. I’m all for it.

You mention in your book, there’s a massive movement towards mindfulness , but folks miss out on some of the spiritual benefits, if they only go for the more mindful this or that. Effectiveness training.

It’s probably always been this way, com-modifying. Different societies generalize the things they import, like Yoga, that came into the 50’s and 60’s. Now probably in the armed forces.

Yoga just for exercise and health is missing out on the real meaning of Yoga, which is Yoga as Union with the Oneness, God, the highness. Missing out on the spiritual dimensions. The 8 limb yoga. Not just physical yoga.

Similarly meditation and mindfulness. Mindfulness for effectiveness, mindfulness for relaxation, for stress relief is terrific. But mindfulness is also part of the Buddhist path of awakening. Brings enlightenment, brings other benefits. Brings wisdom development, less selfishness, more openness. Wouldn’t want us to lose out on those aspects.

If prayer would be only for what you want, like kids petitioning Santa. It would be a big loss.

If mindfulness becomes only about us getting what we want, like feeling a little better, getting a bigger high, reducing blood pressure and stress. It would be a loss from the point of view of wisdom cultivation and development.

Awareness, self-knowledge development, attitude transformation, and so on. Other aspects of mindfulness. When Surya Das teaches, he also teaches about 6 kinds of mindfulness. It’s a very rich subject.

It’s also about soulfulness and heartfulness. Not just about the mind. That’s very American, we love the mind and thoughts. We’re think-aholics! Addicted to thinking. 

But there’s life without thinking! Sometimes we’re having an experience and we’re still there, but not thinking. Like in the throws of ecstatic love making, or other situation, extreme exercise, or lucid dreaming.

Thoughts are a good servant, but a poor master. We’re too much under it’s power. Which is why I stress awareness.

I really appreciate my uncle who was a priest at the time. We were on a boat, about to go under a bridge, and I was standing on the boat about to get my head sliced off. He swore the most highest profanities at the time to get me to immediately bend down, or my head was about to get sliced off. That response was very appropriate!

Yes, you can’t legislate that. We call that wrathful compassion, not anger. He saved your life by cursing at the top of his lungs. If your children run into the street, you scream. You don’t just tiptoe, mindfully, silently toward the street to save them. That would be insane.

Spiritual life practice make us more sane, not insane. 

Meditation is a good friend with benefits.

I wouldn’t want it to be just mindfulness for effectiveness or yoga for health.

And that does require a balance between taking the practice seriously, but holding it lightly..another balance you gotta learn over time. 

Life aint much fun if we’re taking ourselves to seriously. That’s one of the downsides of religion today. It’s become so intimidating, so sectarian. I believe we need to really work to transform the atmosphere of spirituality. Apply it to daily life in many different ways, like mindful anger management, health and stress reduction is all good.

We need to lighten up, as well as enlighten up.

Joy is one of the four boundless virtues of Buddhist practice. Also joy in the good fortune of others, rejoicing. Joy is an important virtue to cultivate. Not just thinking this world sucks, waiting for the next world. 

And your book title, “Make me one with everything”, maybe you can mention this joke.

Here’s the joke! BTW, I’m proud that, “Serious Das” (his wife used to call him that when he got too serious about his practice) has the only book title that I know of, in which the title is the punch line of a joke.

So you probably don’t know what the Dalai said to the hot-dog vendor?

The Dalai Lama walked up to the hot dog vendor and said, “Make me One with Everything!”

But there’s more! So then the vendor starts making the hot-dog, the sweet relish, the crappy onions, bean sprouts, mustard, ketchup, etc.

Then the vendor hands over the hot-dog to the Dalai Lama, and then the Dalai Lama hands over the 10 dollar bill. Then there’s a pregnant pause, a silence, are they meditating? Staring contest? What’s going on? Misunderstanding?

The Dalai Lama then finally gives in, speaks first, “What no change?”

The hot dog vendor responds, “Change must come from within”….:-)

Lightening up, while enlightening up. Not taking ourselves too seriously, and also cultivating the joy. Life is a miracle, we didn’t create it. Everyday we get up is a good day, we’re not dead. We all know folks who are younger and have died or dread diagnosis. In parts of the world where people are in slavery, poverty, wars, famines all the time, or most of the time. etc.

The beautiful nature around us, the freedoms we have in this great country. Increasingly diverse.  Religious freedoms, freedom of speech and so on. Let me add, especially if you’re a white person.

I practice this kind of reverence and gratitude everyday. That makes my heart more joyful. I’m more resilient. Less brittle, less fearful, less cautious. More free and spontaneous. I can give and take. I can breathe in and out. Co-meditate with the difficulties, as well as with the people I like. Have much more resilience, forbearance and tolerance. Joyous, it’s a buoyant awakening.

And the meditation practice is what helps you with these benefits like resilience..

Yes, I’ve been meditating since 19791, when I did that first mindfulness course. Like that American expression, don’t leave home without it. I take it with me everyday, wherever I go.

Sometimes twice a day, sometimes in retreats all day. Sometimes I take part of the Sabbath off to take some time off to meditate. Meditate pray chant. Walking meditation, natural meditation, or sky gazing, lie down, dissolving into the sky, or co-meditation with water. Walk outside without earbuds. Co-meditation helps us integrate, inter-meditate with everything, every moment, even if we’re in a busy place. 

It seems like the lack of appreciation is one of the reasons why there’s so much depression, why people have problems with the world. 

It’s the difference between seeing the half of glass that’s empty and the half that’s full. Or, if things are never good enough for you, if you’re a perfectionist. Or worse insatiable craving or addiction. How those things cycle. It’s hard to get out of it by more of the same things that you’re stuck in. You have to make a quantum leap. Not just a little adjustment.

I’m  not an alcoholic, I’ll just drink less. Well good luck to you if that works. From my understanding, the 12 step program at stopping totally, is the best and almost the only solution for alcoholics. I’m for the middle way, but sometimes you have to be all or nothing with certain things.

With the bad habits, afflictions, things like depression, or other pathologies, maybe we need some psychiatric help, or chemical intervention. Maybe we need to change our diet, or lifestyle. If we can’t change our ways of thinking.

Back to what I believe in is experiential practices. Not just converting to another religion, or converting to another political party, they’re so much the same. But doing the inner work, on oneself, and together. And asking for help, getting help from others who have more experience can be very helpful.

So meditation, self inquiry, support groups, therapy, Tai chi, yoga, or your favorite hobby. Maybe kneeling in the sun in your garden is your way of being closest to the One, rather than kneeling in the church where you have all kinds of other associations. Maybe some creative art is it for you. Authenticity, we have to be honest with ourselves, or imitate someone else’s way. If we’re truth seekers. Not fool ourselves, learn and apply. With our youngers, with our elders, with other species etc.

As a teacher what issues do you see your students struggle the most with?

I shouldn’t tell on them (laughing) from their private consultations, etc. It’s no secret, that westerners mostly struggle with mental stuff. Less so with poverty and disease that you see in other parts of the world. Like genocide, being refugees, or having your family members disappeared, kidnapped.

A lost of his students struggle with relationships. The search for love and wholeness. The feelings of incompleteness, feelings of loneliness and isolation. Meaninglessness, what’s it all about in life. Why bad things happen to good people. People with various cancers, ill children, parents, to take care of. These are things that people struggling with, and have always struggled with.

That’s why I’m thinking about co-meditation. The difficulty or challenge. Being with it not trying to get away from it. The “enemy”, like a disease. To be with it, breathe with it, learn to tolerate it, be more patient less resistant.

See through the illusion of separation, is a great antidote to all this mental suffering. 

You don’t just mean intellectual..

Breathing with it, tolerating. Like befriend anxiety, if you have difficult feelings. Not fighting it, thinking it has to go away. Or over-medicating it away. Like sweeping crap under the rug. Where it festers. Throwing radioactive waste into the ocean. So we don’t have to deal with it. Of course our children would have to deal with it. Breathing through physical pain. Moving your attention can move your world in a positive direction.

Recognizing the inter-connectedness, putting yourself in others shoes. If your “enemy”, “bad” boss, (bad is subjective) employee, neighbors, if you have a problematic relationship. If you put yourself in their shoes, you might see yourself very differently.

We might have been the Hitler youth, if we’d been brought up in Nazi Germany. With the boy scouts, everyone was in the Hitler youth. You have to say that these extremists from the middle east. I don’t know that I’d be a terrorist. But they’re very loyal to their parents, their schools, just like we were. They’re not that different. They have the universal commonality of human beings, we love our land, our children, etc. We gotta find some common ground. Doesn’t mean we have to have the same religion.

Look at our gridlocked separateness in our nation’s capital. The partisan politics. Nobody can get anything done. It’s a real problem if we can’t find a third or fourth way, and see through the illusion of separateness. And get to the greater common good.

We have to take relational actional steps, learning, inquiring steps.

This Tibetan practice about riding the breath is very helpful and important today. Breathing in the difficulty, with Tibetan Tonglen practice is very important. Equalizing self and other.

You mention the shootings, it’s about what we’ve been talking about. Why do people do it, it’s about feeling separate, excluded, meaningless, victimized, pushed out, no one will listen to me. I’m gonna make a statement, extreme statement, because I’m not heard. We need to address these issues.

And the spiritual practice and path is a timeless and evergreen path to addressing these big life questions. 

What further encouragement would you give someone listening who’s not fully committed or sure why they’re practicing?

Nobody fully understands it, I don’t pretend to fully understand. Life is a mystery.  We have to live it. It’s like love, who fully understands love? But some are better than others, they become good lovers, good loving people. Like Buddha or Christ like love. Buddha said only go where invited, and when people ask. You can’t push people. So if people ask, then I share the best that I can.

In general I don’t need people to be different then they are. If they’re interested and looking where I’m looking, then we can start to “co-meditate” together. Discuss, and practice together. I’m not that square that I think everyone should meditate. There are people who should not meditate, like extreme introverts. They might do better with a relational spiritual practice.  Being involved with others, like sing and dance and chant.

Tai chi was a big one for me when I was young. A martial art, not an us/them martial art, an internal martial art. 

Yes, that’s more like contemplation in action, it’s a very good competitive sports. They train kids in ethics, character, self empowerment, courage, I advocate that for sure. Also, as my wife used to say it’s un-american to sit quietly and do nothing. Tai Chi, Chi gong, yoga. Especially with the younger people. It’s a little late when kids are already in college, their habits are already entrenched. It’s hard to change.

Since I was in college I’ve been working in this self-growth and transformation biz. And it’s still hard to change!

But a little acceptance goes a long way to transform your relations, which is the point. Self-acceptance, other acceptance. radical acceptance. I love Tara Brach’s, Radical Acceptance book. Much recommended.

So there’s definitely a discernment where you can’t just shove down each person’s throat to meditate.

Yes, that’s aggressive. Only teach where asked, not intervene. Maybe you don’t really know better than them. People used to say, how can I get my family to go to church, eat vegetarian, do this or that, etc. How can I get them to do what I want them to do. That’s not my situation. What we’re talking about is a journey where you can easily be their travel agent. Not for everyone, inner travel.

So it’s important for everyone today to take a breath, and slow down, breathe, relax, center and smile. Have a moment of prayer, connect with yourself. Not always thinking or looking down the road into the future. Sit in the car and feel the feelings in your bud cheeks and in your hands, not just thinking about where you’re going to arrive.

More fully inhabit your body and mind, and spirit, energy and soul. And then see about authenticity, inquiring into about what you’re deceiving yourself about. Or denying, or “bad habits” that you always wanted to change, but never can.

This is all part of working on ourselves, very doable. Just wise and sane, and the world needs that.

The head is the office, the heart is the home.

Try to live from the heart. Be kind and compassionate to others. 

And then the method doesn’t matter, as long as you’re moving towards the heart. 

And it’s an infinite journey, so there’s no hurry. Hasten slowly, and you shall soon arrive as the Chinese proverb says.

Life moves fast, you must move slowly. 

That’s what this podcast for me is about to, I like to interview folks from very differing backgrounds. I have a more Zen background, I do believe that everyone has to find what works for them. As long as it makes them more loving and move towards non-separation, then whatever works for them. 

Right as long as it doesn’t intrude on others. We all have the right to be as eccentric as we want to be, if it fits. If the Nazis want to march, but they’re not to genocide.

We have to live by that, and also for ourselves. We have to respect others, and respect ourselves. We don’t want to fit into someone else’s mold. That’s imitation. Not just sit there like ice cubes in a tray, like in a Zen monastery. Everyone on a cushion, same position, at the same time.

If you’re a single mom with 3 kids, that’s probably not going to be your practice for the next 20 years. There’s got to be another way. There’s a million ways to worship and to reverence and to be beautiful in this world. All different kinds of flowers in “God’s Garden”. Not just one kind, just roses, not just lotuses. 

And a lot of gardeners. 

If you have a ending poem that helps people feel less separate. 

Let me chant out my millennium prayer that I wrote and said on the radio of Y2K.

May all beings everywhere, with whom we are inseparably interconnected

And who want and need the same as we do

May all be awakened, liberated, healed, fulfilled, and free

May there peace and harmony in this world, and an end to war, violence, injustice, poverty, and oppression.

And may we all together fulfill the promise of the spiritual journey.

All together now, one family, one sangha, one beloved community, all one.

In love, the heart of the matter.

And I bow to the Buddha in your seat, don’t overlook her.. friends.

Thank you.

Resources

Lama Surya Das Books 

(PS, thanks for supporting the podcast by purchasing through the links above! Amazon will give the podcast a little bit of credit without affecting what you pay for the book!)

MF 36 – The Value of Community and Extended Meditation Retreats

MF 36 – The Value of Community and Extended Meditation Retreats

MF 36 – The Value of Community and Extended Meditation Retreats

Kristina and myself chat about what it is like to find community and giving yourself the gift of an extended meditation retreat.

A summary transcript will appear below for this episode this week.

sunset Mountains

MF 35 – Why Authenticity and Getting Real Matters – Mark Shapiro of the One & Only Podcast

MF 35 – Why Authenticity and Getting Real Matters – Mark Shapiro of the One & Only Podcast

MF 35 – Why Authenticity and Getting Real Matters – with Mark Shapiro of the One & Only Podcast

A former marketing director at Showtime Networks Inc., Mark left his six-figure corporate job and is on a mission to bring more authenticity to the world, with a goal to inspire and empower 100,000+ people to be true to themselves and “live an epic life they’re proud of.”  He is the Host of The One & Only Podcast on iTunes, creator of the Be You authenticity workshop, a heralded transformational trainer, coach speaker, and a vocal Alzheimer’s advocate.

(This is a summary transcript, please listen to the episode to enjoy the full conversation)

How did you get on a a path of meditation?

Mark Shapiro

Mark Shapiro

Mark was like many feeling he couldn’t’ meditate. But keep hearing it over and over how great it was to meditate. But he went to transformational workshops where meditation was used, and fell in love with it this meditation practice, and then learned to meditate and start practicing meditation.

He considers himself emotional and flexible and wants to be present for the people around him. Needs to check with himself, so he doesn’t give his power away. Meditation allows him to ground himself and his breath,  who he is, and check in with himself.  To be himself vs to be one with the changing winds.

Was there a particular moment where meditation clicked for you?

Yes, there was. He was doing a sound bath, and went deeply into a meditation state. He felt so light and clear and in touch with himself, his life, and at peace. He was able to see that from a different trajectory. He could watch these thoughts as they were moving down the street.

What is a sound bath for those who don’t know this?

It is different crystals, gongs, and even a little bit of guitar. That brought him into a deeper meditative state, easier then doing sitting himself. He could then tap into that space easier after this sound bath. The sounds help to quell his thoughts.

So the sounds help to mitigate the thoughts. Yes, I’ve also experienced these sound baths here in So Cal, and it is a beautiful experience. 

Yes, it’s easy to surrender to it. I find it healing and soothing. Easy to focus on, light, and to get lost in.

I like the chanting in our Zen retreats. It’s another way to let go of the trance of thoughts, and become part of a bigger body, the body of the group, community. Music is a wonderful way to get introduced to meditation.

What is your meditation practice like now?

Unregimented currently. At least 3-4 days of the week. It’s a priority for Mark though. He sits outside his house on the front deck. Close eyes, for 15-20 minutes. Listening to breath and birds, lawnmower, walking dogs. That’s just part of it. Continue to listen to it. Present to whatever sounds that come his way, he’s practicing being OK with all of that.

For example, in a public space, I also close my eyes and meditate and also drop into a meditative space. I couldn’t have done that a couple of years ago when he started meditating.

Do you also practice mindfulness or sense more presence in the rest of your day to day life?

Yes, usually when feeling anxiety it ‘s a reminder to take a few breaths. To be appreciate and re-ground himself. Whenever he feels anxiety, he’s either in the future or in the past. It’s just a reminder to see what’s around him. What’s around me that I can appreciate?

You also talk about the burning man, how this also helps you to be more and more present. 

Mark loves Burning Man. It’s so incredibly unique and magical. Learned so many lessons, a years’ worth of emotions in one week. So much stimuli, synchronicity. Open to all the possibilities that present themselves. He’s more likely to communicate with people at Burning Man than at a grocery store for example. He’s more open to the possibilities in the situations at Burning Man. He does do his best to apply what he learned at Burning man into his daily life.

What are some of the other interesting things you’ve learned as a result of Burning Man?

The following is from http://burningman.org/culture/philosophical-center/10-principles/

The 10 Principles of Burning Man

Burning Man co-founder Larry Harvey wrote the Ten Principles in 2004 as guidelines for the newly-formed Regional Network. They were crafted not as a dictate of how people should be and act, but as a reflection of the community’s ethos and culture as it had organically developed since the event’s inception.

Radical Inclusion
Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.

Gifting
Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.

Decommodification
In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.

Radical Self-reliance
Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.


Join the conversation in the 10 Principles blog series.

Radical Self-expression
Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.

Communal Effort
Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.

Civic Responsibility
We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.

Leaving No Trace
Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.

Participation
Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.

Immediacy
Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.

Interview continues…

Mark: Giving for the sake of giving. It’s a gifting economy. People are giving things, expecting nothing in return. Example getting water when you just need it. So with 70K people attending, it’s a powerful experience. It took a couple of years, to bring the principles of burning man back into his daily life.

He loves entertaining, giving out books in daily life, and giving parties.

The other one is creativity and contribution. Burning Man unlike other music festivals is that everyone is a participant, and contributor. VS a traditional festival, where you have the performers on the stage, and the people experiencing the performance.  But in Burning man everyone is a contributor, bringing gifts, artistic expressions, climbing walls, possibilities are endless.

There is also an element of creativity and self-expression. Encouragement of trying new things. Like talking in song is what Mark likes to do. Just being free to be himself.

Sounds like there’s a real sense of freedom that allows people to uncover their own innate creativity..

It’s way more than just a party. Lots of misconceptions about Burning Man. It’s a transformational experience. To grow in addition to having the best week of his year.

Yes, I wouldn’t want to disregard Burning Man. Some say it trashes the desert, others that it’s a freak show. We need to experiment as human beings, and occasionally let go of the personas, the rules we don’t even know where they came from etc. Authenticity is very important. To stop and pause and try something completely different.

Yes, that was my take-away this year at Burning Man. Applies to my life in general. To be real with myself and be real with others. I’ve found with all the masks that I wear that support me. In his 33 years on earth so far, he’s learned through experience what works and doesn’t work. The various masks, podcast host mask, friendly guy mask, professional mask etc.

He talks about his emotional experience with his best friend and ex. He tried to be detached, but it really did hurt. So it caused him to question himself. It had to do with older hurts, his divorce, his dad with Alzheimers. So when he went to that place and was truly real with himself, that is when he got to let go of a lot of pain and hurt that he didn’t even realize he was carrying around.

Being real with others, is about creating a safe space to dig below the surface with those that we love. Not to settle for one-word answers. Asking open-ended questions. Letting friends know that you are here for them, that you love them.

Yes, an authentic way of relating..

Yes, the stuff that isn’t going well in the world. In order to see what’s working and isn’t we need information. We need to see the entire picture. There’s so much happening under the surface, under our feelings. And if we’re not sharing our feelings, what we’re going through with each other, then how are we supposed to know. We’re then only seeing part of it.  I’m a big advocate for creating that space, so we can best support one another.

And you’re also sitting outside reflecting on it, looking back into your life. That’s part of what retreats are like. To take a temporary refuge in another safe place, to step outside of the river of life, and looking back in to see what’s going on. 

And also in relation to the school shootings,  a lot of these shootings are a reflection of deep alienation. Not connecting on a deeper level. 

Yes, by connecting with others, we give each other permission to be authentic and real. To share what’s really going on. I find that incredibly liberating. It feels so good to let it out.

Whether it’s the fear of this new career path. I left a 6 figure corporate job at Showtime networks to be in service of others full-time. It’s going really well, and very fulfilling. But also very challenging!

Continue to go through all the emotions. This morning, I felt some anxiety,  going to be on your podcast. But I meditated, brought myself in the present, and was good to go.

Yeah, and you get yourself out of your own way. 

Yeah, I use that doubt and fear as motivation to challenge myself how committed I am to my goals. When I get to that place where i’m hard on myself. I ask myself, what have you not tried yet? It unleashes creativity in me. I come up with 5-10 things I haven’t done yet, whether like reaching out to guests, or reaching to companies, or reaching out to increase my consulting business. It’s a motivation to get back in the game.

What made you decide to make a podcast about authenticity?

Mark was running away from his own authenticity for the first 30 years of his life, and didn’t even know it. I played it safe, got the corporate job, the marriage, and when that came to an end. I had to get back to the drawing board. Who am I? What’s next? What am I capable of doing. I’ve always had the desire to live an epic dream life. He knew he wanted to be his own boss, my own kind of company. Didn’t have an idea, didn’t know what value I could provide. Meanwhile doing very well in my corporate job.

Meanwhile when standing in front of a room, I was coming across as scripted and inauthentic. Lewis Howes (lewishowes.com), his mentor said, he was all professional, and monotone. This feedback hit him with a ton of bricks. That didn’t seem like part of him. He was so obsessed with getting it right, and looking good, that he didn’t let himself shine.

That example could be stretched across his entire life. He was playing it safe, focused on fitting in. Looking good, saying what he perceived to be the right thing to say, vs what he really felt. And other people could sense that he was inauthentic. That is what got him pursuing authenticity. That became a big part of his core values. Started practicing this a couple of years ago.

Learned so many valuable lessons.

  1. When he has the courage to say what he really feels, that it feels amazing. Feels so good when he says what he really feels. When I have the courage to be myself, it builds my confidence, and this helps me feel empowered. And then I can do anything. That’s the first big lesson.

2. Second, when I’m myself, I don’t need to try to fit in. I’m naturally going to belong. Brene Brown has been saying this for years.

3. If in every moment I’m choosing to be authentic, saying how I feel. Really checking in with myself. Then over time, my life is going to resemble the life I’ve always wanted. Now after a few years, that’s what’s the results show. I’m my own boss now. I’m heading in this direction because of the courage to be authentic, and in this moment.

You’re living into your question…

4. That when I’m being authentic, I create immense value for others. Whether creating a space for other people to be real with themselves and real with me. But also, if I express how I really feel to someone., that that could be exceptionally valuable., because maybe everyone else is just blowing smoke up their ass.

You’re giving permission to people to be more authentic..

Absolutely. Those are my big 4 takeaways from practicing authenticity.

With your podcast you ask other people what their sense of authenticity is, what have you learned that you didn’t know before you started your podcast?

I’ve learned so much.

  1. Pretty much every one has said. If there’s something you want go out there and get it. Don’t ask for permission.
  2. Just to have the courage, and take a risk.
  3. Failure is part of the game, part of the process. The fear of failure should not deter you. You learn from both what works, and what doesn’t.

Yes, we’ve stigmatized failure. Fear of failure, of looking bad. 

I have that all the time.

What are some of the practices to go into places that are uncomfortable. Its something you have to really lean into, if just once in a while, it’s much harder. You have to nurture it and tend it. 

Yes, I found myself changing my relationship with fear. But I realized from overcoming so many fears, what is available on the other side of fear. And that is tremendous celebration. New ground and opportunities.

Social anxieties and fears I used to have as well. After practicing authenticity, I realize we’re all in the same boat, we all have the same fears, insecurities. Now I find myself having deep conversations, and relationships in just a few minutes for example during social situations, and parties.

You also do workshops to help other folks draw out their authenticity, describe that?

It’s an experiential training, of about 2,5 hours of exercises. Where I primarily ask thought provoking questions. Such as, if people really knew me, they’d know this about me. Or these are my biggest fears about sharing how I really feel. How does my life look today, in relation to my biggest goals. In a scale of 1-10 how happy are you with the way you spend your time. If totally happy, they’d rate it a 10, but if 6, then what do you think a 10 is like?

Then the next question is what steps do you need to take in order to get this 10. Great way for people to check in with themselves. Also valuable for them to see how they measure themselves. They can see how hard they are on themselves, compared to other people.

Is the inner critic a big part of it?

Yes, inner critic is huge. In conjunction with going through this experiential workshop with many other people. Makes them realize we’re all in this together. We all have such similar private conversations with ourselves that may or may not serve us. When we get real with each other, and share those things. It makes me feel so much more comfortable and less alone.

It connects everyone under the surface. We’re very external focused society, not realizing what’s going underneath the persona’s. If we do realize underneath, the same fears and emotions. And connect, then it takes away a lot of the separation. 

Yes, that is the way I’ve found to create the deepest relationships, is to get Real with one another!

Easier said then done!

Yes, requires two to tango. I want to lead by example, lead with vulnerability, lead with authenticity. Aim to create a space where it’s reciprocated. Sometimes I get met with resistance.

There’s a difference between transparency vs authenticity as Brene Brown talks about. To me sharing absolutely everything is more transparency than so much authenticity.

Yes, everyone’s definition of authenticity is different. Some refer to it as being present, open, like a tiger in the jungle. Then others look at it as nothing is authentic, because we’re born into the world with so much conditioning. I think it’s important to have balance. I look at it more of a barometer. And as a practice.

In terms of transparency vs authenticity. Authenticity doesn’t mean I have to share every thought I have. When someone asks me a question, it’s my natural instinct to answer it exactly how I’m feeling. But I do sometimes say out of respect, I prefer to keep that quiet.

What about you?

For me as a teen, one of the first books that drew me into finding out who I was by Ramana Maharishi. I wanted to know who I was at bottom. Not just in relation to, but at bottom. The Self the true self. Not just us as individual expressions of that Self. But also the larger Self, where we’re all parts of. I consider myself a student of this great mystery that we’re all part of. 

To me that’s a lifetime practice. Both a spiritual journey, as well as individual. The individual part is also important. My teacher’s teacher says we’re all at the headwaters of our own unique streams. So it’s important to me to uncover my own self, and move from my own center. Instead of from a script or societal expectation. 

So two parts, the boundless mystery, and the individual sense, contribution, expression of it. There’s only one Mark, and only one Sicco. But we’re all connected in the deep, that’s our Big and boundless and formless Self (or whatever you want to call it). 

100%, yes, it’s our job to be ourselves. We’re irreplaceable. 

 

Resources

 

MF 34 – The Benefits of Self-Discipline in Cultivating a Meditation Practice

MF 34 – The Benefits of Self-Discipline in Cultivating a Meditation Practice

MF 34 – The Benefits (and Challenges!) of Self-Discipline in Cultivating a Meditation Practice

(This is a summary transcript, listen to the episode for the full conversation)

Kristina and I reflect on what it takes to cultivate self-discipline in our meditation practice. What are some of the challenges we have come across, and what are some of the benefits of doing a regular consistent practice. We start off with some quotes.

Self-Discipline is needed to get up out of bed early to enjoy the sunset!

Self-Discipline is needed to get up out of bed early enough to enjoy the sunset, to enjoy the world waking up!

“Like a beautiful flower full of color but without fragrance, even so, fruitless are the fair words of one who does not practice them.” Dhammapada

“With sustained effort and sincerity discipline and self-control the wise become like islands which no flood can overwhelm” Dhammapada

This type of effort of course requires commitment, consistency, patience, courage, determination, and enthusiasm.

In, When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chodron understands sila/discipline to be a “process that supports us in going against the grain of our painful habitual patterns.”

She notes that:

“Discipline provides the support to slow down enough and be present enough so that we can live our lives without making a big mess. It provides the encouragement to step further into groundlessness.

….What we discipline is not our “badness” or our “wrongness.”

What we discipline is any form of potential escape from reality. In other words, discipline allows us to be right here and connect with the richness of the moment. What makes this discipline free from severity is prajna (wisdom).”

Sunrises

Self Discipline, or self-control  has somewhat negative connotation in the west I think. But I wanted to talk about self-chosen discipline instead of externally imposed discipline.

Discipline is often associated with punishment. However, the latin root of the word means learning disciplina teaching, learning, from discipulus pupil. 

Sure, there is a dark side of discipline that is too serious, too restrictive and narrowing. I think too much of that can lead to a separation, where it could move away from intimacy, and turn into too much coldness and detachment from the world, and therefor another type of separation.

That is not what we want to talk about today. Perhaps, calling it cultivation, instead of discipline. For example, the cultivation of moment-to-moment mindfulness sounds nicer than calling it, the discipline of mindfulness. But really what it means to me is simply to practice something regularly and consistently in a structure that I chose on my own volition (or my community), and make it a priority, make time for it.

Spiritual Practice Community

For example, without discipline, we wouldn’t brush our teeth. But because we don’t like getting drilled, we decide to give some of our time to the discipline of brushing our teeth. (Kristina shares her thoughts) 

For me, when I was a teenager, I wanted the benefits of meditation, such as peace, and equanimity, but I did not have the discipline, or some might say, serious enough intent and humility to practice regularly.

I didn’t realize how serious I would need to take the practice in order to really start transforming my afflictions etc. Now I’m not saying meditation is a serious practice, simply saying that we do need to take our practice seriously, but then enjoy and take joy in the practice. You can have both serious and joy at the same time, recognizing these opposites can co-exist at the same time is part of maturity.

Back then, I’d sit whenever I felt like it, do it with eyes closed, try multiple meditations traditions and practices at once, didn’t seek out a mentor, read a lot, etc. (Kristina shares her thoughts)

As I got into meditation formally, and got feedback from a teacher and a community of practitioners. This formal at-home, as well as community practice helped me see the various gaps in mindfulness, the times where I lacked of composure. Some might call those gaps leaks. And the practice is about doing our best to create a gap-less practice. 

As I practiced more, I uncovered and became aware of more and deeper levels and areas where I was stuck, or clinging, or afflicted, or forgetful, etc. So that further provided the fuel and motivation to continue to practice. I’d become aware of the tendency to hold onto illusions of separateness, fear of change, desire to grasp onto illusions, “nostalgia for samsara”, clinging to solidity of image, etc. etc. 

Can I see and treat each and every “thing” as a manifestation of the “mystery” and realize non-separation? Can I see or exclaim, “not-two!” whenever I see a flower, or perhaps a rapist, or terrorist? If not, I’d have to look even deeper, and see behind the mask, behind the veil, behind outward appearances.

Anger issues when things don’t go the way I expect or prefer. Sloppiness, forgetfulness, like forgetting keys, or forgetting to close the gate, can all lead to a lot of suffering. Not cleaning up after myself, not maintaining relationships or the possessions, etc,.

Each of those instances, are reminders to get back to practicing (or polishing that jewel that we all have). It also takes discipline to remain fully engaged in each moment, even when tired, sick, physically injured, or fatigued. It is so easy to start sliding into complacency, or some type of lazyness.

Jim Rohn says discipline is the bridge between Goal and Accomplishment. Dreams get you started, discipline keeps you going.

A mentor or teacher, community helps push us deeper into understanding. I talk some more on what I think of as non-rigid discipline. Kristina laughs and we talk some more. 

 

What’s your sense of it, what do you make of self-discipline?

 

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