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.”
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.”
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).
(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)!
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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 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).”
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.
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?
Mindfulness in Schools and Education with Alan Brown
Alan Brown is a Dean at Grace Church School in New York City, where he also leads the 9th-12th grade mindfulness program as well as the parent mindfulness program. Alan has taught in both public and private settings as a humanities instructor, and has worked with many other schools andp districts as a trainer for GLSEN (the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network). In addition to his academic degrees in the humanities from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Chicago and a Fulbright Fellowship to Italy, Alan holds additional certifications in teaching mindfulness, positive psychology, and yoga. He works with schools as well as with families to help bring mindfulness into the lives of youth and their caregivers.
What follows is a summarized transcript. Listen to the audio to get the full conversation.
Interview with Alan Brown
How did you get started with a meditation practice (Mindfulness Schools recommended I talk with you)
Alan got started by way of his Yoga practice and Yoga teacher training, in which he started to get more familiar with meditation through a sitting component. He got more familiar then with the contemplative practice.
At the time he was working in high schools, he was then teaching in a particular high-anxiety, high stress high achieving school population. He realized this makes so much sense, both in terms of how he was feeling, he found himself craving a lot more stillness. And of course with the kids spinning their wheels and going nuts and feeling this would be helpful practice for them too.
It wasn’t really until he wanted to share this practice with his students that he felt he had to learn to deepen his own practice first.
Just out of curiosity, what type of yoga were you practicing?
Vinyasa Yoga (also called flow or “breath-synchronized movement”)
So you were already doing an already more deep type of yoga practice then say power yoga.
Yes, in his practice although 100% movement based, it was already contemplative, and exploring the inner landscape.
Were there aha moments, or particular experiences that you had that convinced you what direction to go next with this?
In terms of what he’s doing now, for Alan who loves teaching. With mindful schools he did their yearlong training program. And their yearlong program really emphasizes the teacher’s personal practice as an intervention in the school.
The notion that your presence, your ability to be non-reactive, to find calm, and show up in that way for your colleagues, peers, the people you work with, talking to, is already something of importance already. That was huge for Alan.
So his first Aha moment in his first retreat, they weren’t allowed to talk about the kids. When they came out of silence. The premise was, let’s just talk about our personal practice. As caregivers and educators, they’re really in a rush to talk about how this will work in a classroom, or how you can do this with other people. You can’t poor from an empty cup.
That was a big moment for him, and continues to resonate as his sort of philosophical alignment to what he’s doing. You bring a calm and steady presence first. Then I can also share our practice with you. But that comes from a place of trying to create a certain energy in my own person, in the room, and work from there.
Yes, like Ghandi said, you have to “Be that change” first if you want to affect others .
So then when you got to this meditation practice, how did you end up utilizing “Mindful Schools”?
His interest at the time was with stress specifically. Working with a population with 11-12th graders that he teaches and works with, getting ready to go to college. All this cultural baggage associated with this stage, the amount of uncertainty and anxiety. The heaviness of judgement and expectation that they’re feeling. Wanting to help these folks out. Dragging themselves to the ground at what cost?
So in his own life, this is something that was very powerful, how does he share that.
How could he as an educator create some sense of perspective, some sense of space, a greater sense of ease with what is going on (for these stressed kids about to go to college)?
That was the motivation. Ironically that was what deepened Alan’s own practice. Luckily. It was motivated out of the interest to teach them, but he had a lot more to learn more himself.
In terms those stress and expectation, what do you see as the biggest stressors?
When he first began this work, both public and private settings, urban and suburban settings. At that time I would have said that it was the actual pressure of applying to college. As far as his interactions in the school and classroom setting.
Nowadays the trend towards the smart phone has become a bigger stressor. The anxiety of missing out, the FOMO, fear of missing out. Kids are not alone in this, adults too. The extend of this, like texting while showering, or sleeping next to your head. The ability to have not any moment to yourself, to not have any moment of stillness. Those maybe extremes. But the norm is that their attention, our attention is pulled in so many different directions, without the ability to recover. To have stillness, the ability to be able to hear yourself think, or even hear yourself not think. That is the bigger and more pressing issue as he sees it now.
The fragmented attention, the attention span keeps getting shorter and shorter.
Yeah, it’s very hard. When you create the conditions to not have those pressures on them. Like in a classroom where you even collect the mobile devices where you let them rest for a while. The first time he became an administrator, started doing detentions. Surprisingly, the number of kids that actually thanked him for an hour (of detention) without their device, it was like Wow!
This detention is not the thing that you want to come to! But they actually got a lot done, so they wanted to come back the next week voluntarily for an hour of detention!
That was very telling for Alan. That this (space, not being connected to your devices and distractions) is something that you are actually seeking. Its something that you have a hard time creating for yourself. But when the adults around you impose this on to you, you have to go away from your device, so you can’t respond to your friends AND parents texting is also a common occurrence throughout the day.
It keeps the brain in kind of that stress mode, it needs to be constantly at the ready, constantly ready for stimulus. This stimulus which is constant.
Which makes it really hard to delve into something, to concentrate for a chunk of time.. Yes.
So the kids have to get permission to un-tether, they have to learn to give themselves permission to unplug for a while?
Yes, that’s exactly right. It’s really hard for teens in particular. They’re developmentally where the social world matter so much, that’s appropriate, that’s how it goes in those years. Figuring out who they are, and how they are in terms of their peers, families, individuating from their parents and families, and come into their own. Not a negative, but that makes it that much harder for them to be away from this thing that connects them at all moments to the social network, that is so powerful and so all-important.
So yeah, when there is that permission to put the always-connected devices away, it is for many folks a sigh of relief, there is this nice exhale. I can just be here, I don’t have to be anywhere else.
How do you implement this mindfulness practice in the classroom?
For starters for some classes actually need their devices, otherwise they go away. You remember your notes better when you write them by hand. Let’s put everything away so we can be right here. Then yes, we do begin with something that is contemplative. Usually it is silence, it depends also on the time of day. Right after lunch movement is much more helpful, or they’ll fall asleep. They don’t get much sleep to begin with.
Alan usually invites a student to lead us into the practice. For example:
The “5 finger meditation”
Which is to meet one finger to your palm of the opposite hand. And as you breathe in, you trace up the pinkie, breathe out, and come back down. And then as you breathe in, you come up the forefinger, and back down. And so on and so forth, and then we switch hands. There’s something really nice and tactile about this practice, you just follow the finger along the palm. There’s movement involved without being too much of a big deal, no extra noise or anything special involved. By the time you’re finished you’ve taken 10 nice slow breaths, you’re likely to have arrived!
Also have a bell, it’s an easy and fun one for kids to lead. We just listen to the bell for 1-3 times. Even an 18 year old feels great leading with the bell. We have a schedule who gets to ring the bell.
So that way you’re helping them invest take ownership of this ritual.
Yes, right, and every class has a slightly different personality. And every room is different, it’s a little bit of trial and error. Usually the group responds to something. They feel, how can I get the teacher off topic, to not teach us. This is something students love to do, getting the teacher off track, off topic. They’re feeling like awesome, I got the teacher to not teach! What they don’t realize that those 3 minutes spent doing a meditation, makes them better at the things we’re going to do. We’re now able to do more, rather than less.
It’s a worthwhile investment in the actual stuff of teaching.
What are you finding to be the most effective with the teens in terms of their minds going off wandering. you already mentioned tactile meditations, and using sounds, like the bell.
In Alan’s own teaching, humanities classes, English, History and Philosophy. And also teach specifically to the 9th and 10th grade, he teaches specifically mindfulness. So they’re already familiar with these practices. In terms what is most effective in mindfulness practice, it’s not just one thing that is most useful.
At the beginning of class or just for a quick calm down activity, for Alan the finger to palm meditation works best for him. It’s not for everyone, but has the widest appeal as he has practiced it.
At the beginning when I talk to kids, about mindfulness. I tell them, you can see it as a buffet, he as the teacher provides lots of exercises. Try them all, so you can you know how they feel and taste, and hopefully one or two of these sticks out the most for you. And that will be different to everyone. Even how you breathe, where do you pay attention when you’re breathing. Do you feel it in your nose, mouth, belly, etc. That sensation is going to be different for everyone of us.
We all have different ways of learning. Just as you have different learning styles, we all have different things that will hold our attention, different things to be mindful off, or to use as an anchor, use as a practice. None is more right than anything else.
Do you find some of the students taking these mindfulness/meditation techniques, and taking them for example home, where there might be a stressful situation?
Yes, that’s the most gratifying. To hear when, where, and how these kids are using this in their lives. For example, a kid uses mindful breathing before a test put down their pen, and took a couple deep breaths, and then they were able to come back to the test, and on track again, and do better on their tests. Or a student had a swim meet, and beforehand closed their eyes, visualized what they were going to do, and took some breaths before their test.
So they are actually applying this. And he talks about this in class. But if you’re able to use this in your life, like one student the other day struggled with acting out in school, as a symptom of conflict at home. This was upsetting the family, but the student could do this in family when arguing. The student realized their feelings and behavior or how he chose to react about it, are two different things. And this is better for me, as I was getting myself into trouble. So Alan was blown away by that, that the students had these insights and were able to make those connections.
Very trans formative…
Yes, in teaching social and emotional learning, we want students to name their experience, but then what do you do with that? In the world of social-emotional education, we spent a lot of time talking about emotional intelligence. Being able to identify your inner landscape, which is a huge first step. But then what do I do about that. If I then able to create a behavioral change, something that I do differently. That is where mindfulness is a often a very helpful tool for kids. It’s a great addition to the social emotional toolbox for teachers.
Like education is not the filling of a pail, but the lightening of a fire, and Aristotle’s quote about education without educating the heart is no education at all..The approach your school and yourself are doing, is much more about integration, instead of compartmentalization.
That’s right. And something that I try to emphasize, when he works with teachers. It’s great that we have our classrooms and this content that we want to deliver. The students are not just content receivers. They show up as a whole person, they bring their whole person to class. If that’s an argument from lunch time carrying over, or nerves about the game afterwards. All of that is sitting at that desk, trying to learn history or trying to learn physics. The more we can provide the space and the tools to deal with one aspect of their lives, and be successful. It does carry over. It is one integrated whole at the end of the day, or at least better integrated, if we help them.
You’re also helping them see learning as a joy, rather than as a means to get to the next level, or piece of paper, etc.
I would hope so, that’s I think what all teachers aim for. The real gold, the way you know you’re successful is you’ve created a lifelong learner. I don’t delude myself into thinking student remember even a minority of what was taught in a semester. If there are skills that you learned with us, that to me is a much more important gift. Because you’ll go on to learn in much greater depth the things you’ll need in your career. Have we provided you the capacity to learn them. There are certain academic skills, other skills, but then there are the life skills you need to learn to just be a human being. To show up in a room of people.
One of the things his head of school said, “I’ll be able to measure the success of this project by whether or not there is Joy in our students”.
Wow, very different by measuring success only by scores!
Yes, measuring by scores is not bad, we need those numbers, they’re helpful for understanding. But when you reduce a person to just test scores or transcript, it ignores so much of their experience, most of it.
It’s very limited. What are some of the other benefits, for example conflict resolution. Some of the other things you’ve noticed, since you’ve implemented this mindfulness life skill.
Yes, another hat Alan wears is great Dean, which means being the primary administrator. Which includes discipline. Teaching mindfulness doesn’t automatically make difficult moments go away, it’s a toolbox to navigate or deal with problems differently.
Teens who are already particularly impulsive. He tells the teens, you’ve got another 10 years before your pre-frontal cortex is fully grown. They need some more time before their good judgment kicks in, compared to those of us adults. But yes, the ability after the fact, when they realize the decision they made wasn’t the greatest.
The ability for them after the fact even, after they’ve realized they made a decision that wasn’t the greatest. The ability to stop, slow down, and figure out, how did that happen. To see what just happened, what did they feel about that, what do I do about that. So often , that impulsivity comes at the cost of any self-knowledge.
I’ll watch kids get into an argument or scuffle, and it’s so it’s over, so they could say, here is what led me to that. And I realize that is the moment I should have probably made a different decision. The truth is, these same kids, without this practice, may not even been able to name that, which just happened. So they would not have been able to do it differently next time.
Part of this is just becoming aware of our triggers, our habits, and all of the ways we’re used to doing things impulsively, without thinking, doing them mindlessly.
When you have an awareness, of , “Oh, this is what got me to this behavior, that I definitely don’t want to repeat, or this poor behavior”. Here’s what I’m going to do next time, being able to figure out, next time I have this trigger, I notice this habit, here’s what I can do. So it doesn’t go down this same road.
Yes, that road can lead to some totally different direction 50 years from now, if the teen didn’t have this consciousness, awareness and attention.
Yes, very powerful to watch kids. And as an administrator, watching them through 3-4 grades, I remember how this went in 9th grade, and 10th grade, and seeing how they’re making different choices.
Where do you see this practice going, inserting it from kindergarten all the way into higher education, so it is not easily cast aside?
Alan does see some of his pre-school colleagues doing this as well. There have been some attempts and interest at researching how this is being incorporated in pre- K through 12 schools. It’s a difficult thing.
His sense is that more elementary school classrooms are already doing it, because those schools are already charged with social-emotional learning. One of the things you learn in kindergarten is how to sit still. It’s not unique to kindergartners to need to learn to sit still.
We don’t teach those things (how to sit still) in high school, although we probably should! It turns out that even though they live in different bodies, we make assumptions that they can do that. It’s an easier map onto the elementary classroom. So folks who teach in a mode of responsive classroom, which allows for classroom meeting time, using a bell etc. I happen to think it is an easy in for middle and high school as well for all the reasons talked about above. If anything just for learning outcomes. The productivity aspect to it.
Which of course isn’t the only reason to do it. There is significant debate and conversation around using mindfulness for those kinds of outcomes. And if that is the doorway that this comes through, then great.
To the larger question about where we’re going with this as an education system with this. Because the undeniable increase in distractions, all the devices, stimuli, increased pace of all those things.
I do think we’re seeing a movement a larger trend towards needing to teach attention, provide stillness, and quiet. It wouldn’t surprise Alan, if this 10 years from now, this become just the standard. There is a tremendous interest in it. And most teachers really are thinking along these lines. I wish I know how to …and it’s a lot of those things that mindfulness provides for those kids.
There is one caveat about this, there is some concern of mindfulness as a tool for classroom management, and compliance. I want to teach you this thing, so that you’ll shut up, and do what I say. And I would see that as a mis-use of mindfulness.
But it hasn’t been Alan’s experience in working with teachers, that this has been the approach.
Yeah, that’s the kind of thing that would happen if the teacher doesn’t really understand what it’s about, and so use it only as an external tool.
Yeah, and folks in this community who are trying to bring this work forward, are sensitive to that. The very clear philosophical orientation is towards teacher practice first, even if no one got any farther than learning mindfulness for themselves, that would be a tremendous victory I think in education.
To get into any mindful schools class, you must have first pass through the gateway either already have a mindfulness practice of your own, know what this is in your body, or of going through a mindfulness fundamentals course first. We’d never stick someone into a classroom to teach the cello, who know how to play the cello first.
Yeah, you got to practice what you preach..
Was there any issue you see with folks from Judeo-Christian traditions, like the parents being concerned about inserting mindfulness (with it’s Buddhist influence) into the curriculum?
In different settings, different approaches makes sense. Usually in schools with a faith background, usually, there is already more space for this. Because the topic of spirituality is already on the table, we’re not necessarily afraid of contemplative time, contemplative practice. Schools that have prayer or silence as part of their day, are more likely to be open to this practice.
For us we are affiliated with the episcopal church, we’re a school for children of all faiths, or no faith. We don’t specifically teach in the same way as other faith schools, that said, in terms of religious influence.
My strong belief, is that mindfulness is not a religious practice perse. Mindfulness specifically involves a set of human practices. What it means to exist in a human body, and this human mind and brain. And the space and stillness that we really need to find. In the way that science is starting to back up, with some conclusiveness.
It’s really pointing us in a direction that says, we really do need to provide ourselves space and stillness. Here’s what happens when we do. That is an innate human quality, an innate capacity to have self knowledge. To see one’s own thoughts and experience. To feel the sensations in one’s body.
There can be a spiritual layer to that, that is quite profound. But that has or should necessarily be taught in a school setting.
I’m teaching stillness, silence, self knowledge, the ability to be aware of what is going on in your own immediate experience. What comes out of that, is totally up to the student. I don’t use the Tibetan singing bowl for example, which has a more cultural reference. We teach all religions, but yes, it is not his personal goal to teach Buddhism.
You explain it really well, it’s space and having room to breath, self knowledge, that’s the human experience, not any religious domain.
And all religions have some aspect of contemplative practice. So really what we’re doing it’s not religious. For those who are concerned about religion at all, what we’re doing is not religious. For those concerned about their own religious tradition, I think this is found in most all of them.
One of his colleagues is an orthodox Jew, and was cautious at first, concerned about how this would work with her religion. How does this work with her own faith practices. She had some trepidation. But she found a number of Jewish organizations, like the JCC in Manhattan is teaching MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction). Including with a faith bend, if that is what you’re looking for.
Its back to that idea, whatever door you come in through, or go through and into. This is a practice that is there for folks.
If any parent or teacher would like to see mindfulness practice implemented in their own schools, how can they go about this?
His affiliation is with Mindful Schools, mindfulschools.org. This is a great starting place, but there are many good organizations bringing this into schools. Just even raising the question in your school, “why are we not doing/teaching this?” It’s helpful to my child. Is there an opportunity for my child to learn and get exposed to this.
Is there an opportunity for mindful parenting? Mindfulness in parenting is a for sure a great companion skill. If your child is learning this at school, then you can speak the same language if you as a parent do it as well.
For teachers same thing, talk to the department chair, administrator, principal, professional development person. See if there is some openness to this. The benefits that this might provide are so many.
Lead with the benefits, and the intention of doing good for the kids, faculty, parents, whatever the population is.
People are certainly more open to hearing this, investigating this. Folks want solutions for some of the real challenges we’re seeing with our children.
Jason Garner – From a Life of Matter to a Life that Matters. From Rags to Riches to Opening the Heart
Jason Garner spent the first 37 years of his life, “running through life holding his breath”. Raised by a single mom, moving from house to house, working really hard in school and later in business, he believed, “that to be loved I had to be the best. I scrapped my way from a weekend job at a flea market to owning my own concert company and all the way to becoming an executive at a Fortune 500 company (CEO of Global Music at Live Nation), producing over 20.000 concerts a year, and hanging out with rock and sports stars. Jason was twice named to Fortune magazine’s list of the top 20 highest-paid executives under 40. He was married twice, divorced twice, raised two children largely as a single dad. He made a bunch of money and then … a series of events centered around the sudden death of his mom brought, “my life to a halt and my ego to its knees.”
Jason took a break from the endless treadmill of his life and got to know himself by learning from various teachers. Through studying his health and spirituality and the inner-workings of his mind, and a meditation practice, he for the first time in his life … really breathed.
He is now integrating this insight into daily life and shares his treasure in his own unique way. Jason has a great blog, and has also published his first book through his writing, through him sharing himself.
Note: This is an almost full, but not complete transcript of the interview.
What brought you to a practice of meditation. Joseph Campbell talks about the 3 stages of the Hero’s journey, Separation, Initiation, Return. Tell us a little bit about that first leg of your journey, the rise to the top, from rags to riches.
Jason was born and raised by a single mom, lived in a trailer park. No money and no involvement from his father. There was a sense of loneliness, and poverty. What Jason took from that as a little boy, was that if they had more money everything would be OK. This was his narrative that he took with him. So making money would solve that. And that is what he did up to 35 years old.
He started selling gum on the school yard, and getting more and more entrepreneurial, then up to flea markets, and then starting a concert company. All the way up to CEO of Global Music, managing concerts globally. This non-stop sprint to get as much power and money as he could.
At the time it was a very sub-conscious thing. He was just doing what the American dream was telling him what he was supposed to do. He reached this place where he was very successful in his career.
He kept achieving more, but then he also kept wanting more. Everything was then tied up into his identity as “Jason the achiever”. And he was in the middle of his second divorce, and his mom had stage 4 stomach cancer, with 6 months to live. His mom had that same kind of work ethic as Jason, she was driven to save the world. Where his ethic was to get as much money. She’d spend her live giving and giving of herself.
Jason saw the similarities with him and his mom, and began to realize he had to make some changes. That hero’s journey’s moment where you realize that there is maybe a different path, this realization came to him as his mom took her last breaths in his arms. There was this realization that there has got to be more than endlessly seeking money, or seeking perfection, or seeking to save everybody. There has to be more than this endless seeking.
Not too long after that, he exited his job. And he went on a journey, a physical, emotional, and spiritual journey. He studied with wonderful teachers including the Chan (Zen) monks and Shaolin master Wang Bo at the Shaolin temple in China, studying with Bruce Lipton, Guru Singh, Sharon Salzberg, David Wolfe and others.
Jason really wanted to dissect his life and put back together a life that he thought was more conducive to happiness.
For Jason it all comes down to self-love. A hard thing for men to say, and a hard thing for men to hear.
We’re either aware of our need for love, or we have a unloved little boy inside of us, subconsciously driving all of our decisions. Either way we need love, and we’re seeking to find that love.
And whether we believe we find that in business, or we can stop and be honest with ourselves. And figure out ways through our lifestyle to deliver the love to us. We are seeking that love, and we are in need of that love.
And now 5-6 years from my mother’s death, I realize for me it all begins and ends with self-love. I’ve tried to build a life that fosters that self-love, and create platforms to share that self love with others.
It’s interesting to me in society it’s pushing us to more separation rather than towards more open heart and oneness.
Yes, the whole American dream culture is set up that we are separate, that we are in competition. That we are only loved when we do something. Usually that something that is good when tied to the system. If you get everything in line, make your money, then go out and spend your money. Constantly buying what’s lacking. When you’re constantly trying to buy what is lacking, then that is how the system is set up. It’s wonderful that more and more folks are jumping in the water to swim upstream. All of this is swimming upstream. It’s not quit as lonely to be swimming upstream.
We’re seeing more companies and business leaders and engaging in a more compassionate form of business. Employees matter, peoples feelings matter, customer’s needs matter, just as much as profits.
For Jason that is very inspiring. His former Live Nation boss and mentor Michael Rufino, Arianna Huffington. People who are open about the fact that compassion is part of their business plan.
After you depart from your job, you’re in this naked state where you no longer could hide behind an identity. Describe that experience when the dolphin was following you while you were on the beach.
Jason was in a depressed state that day, that day must have been an anniversary of his mom’s passing. He was just kind of feeling sorry for himself, looking down as he walked. He looked up and saw this dolphin right in pace with his stride, gently swimming with him along (his mother’s favorite animal). He took this as a reminder that sometimes we’re alone, there are other people walking with us. But sometimes we just have to look up, look around, and realize that we’re not really alone.
We’re taught that compassion is finding ourselves in others. But sometimes we have to look at it from an opposite place too. Its not just being nice to others that we can find compassion. We can give others a chance to be compassionate with us, by allowing our pain to be not so unique.
That day as I was walking along the beach, there were probably millions of people feeling sad about having lost a loved one. There were probably millions of people feeling a little bit lost and alone in their lives. We find compassion towards others, and there is this opportunity for us to open our hearts and experience a bit of that oneness that you were discussing. Sometimes we jump to fast to oneness, we just have to be nice to each other.
In this case can we start with, my pain is not that unique. I can find a place of commonality with others by understanding that they’re in pain as well.
When I first read that I thought the dolphin was your first meditation teacher, as it taught you about right here is where life is, in the present moment. (laughs) So how did you go into a meditation practice from here?
When Jason left work, and starting a spiritual journey, he went to a Christian church. He had trouble with some of what is being taught, but he was OK with it. Until the gay marriage issue came up. His mother later in life had married a woman. That was a very moving experience for him, watching his mom’s courage, as she married with protesters picketing her. The Christian church didn’t flow for him anymore.
Then he found a man who became his father, Guru Singh. He met his yogi, and knew he was home. He just knew that he was supposed to be there. He asked why Jason was there, and he said he wanted to know who he was, and know God. His meditation felt like forever that day.
He’s meditated every day since then. And been blessed to be studying with great meditation teachers since. Like Sharon Salzberg, her loving kindness meditation really touched his heart. So many wonderful meditation teachers, who gave him a toolbox of meditation techniques to sit down and be on that journey of getting to know himself and getting to know the greater We.
You talk about breathing a lot in your book, “And I breathed…” Have you noticed the quality of your breath change throughout your life?
I’m pretty sure I didn’t breathe before (laughing)!
I say that somewhat facetiously, but not really. I think that when I reflect back on my life, and talk to people still in that day-to-day grind of their lives. There is a real distinction between the breathing that I do now and the lack of breathing that happens. Because you’re in fight or flight mode. You have to remember when you look at people who are desperately striving, that they’re own self-worth, and their love is tied up in that striving. So how can you breathe? When you’re literally fighting for your life.
Definitely, it’s not safe to send that message to your body that all is well, when you belief that all is not well. All is well…only when you get this next deal done.
Also I think if you don’t feel good enough. As I think a lot of us feel, that we’re also not feeling good enough to take a deep breath..
That’s right I think we find that carried along into our spiritual practice. Jason gives example of meditation class, and someone was having trouble breathing, but was nevertheless gutting through the meditation. Here we are in this environment of oneness, and we’re not OK enough to cough or get up and excuse ourselves. Probably because we think we’re not good enough.
This experience is not limited to business. It’s part of the western experience, its part of Original Sin, part of my goodness comes out there. It’s part of a daily journey, which is why we refer to meditation as practice. And for me, I believe that what we’re practicing is loving ourselves, and giving ourselves that permission to breathe, to sit and be OK.
Did you have any other practices that helped you befriend yourself? It’s a journey to go from not feeling deserving of love, or until you do x, y, z. To the point where’r you’re OK, and you’re at home with yourself and the world.
The moment that the concept that we’re practicing self-love really clicked for me, was when I went to Maui to go to Ram Dass. Sharon Salzberg was teaching there as well, so I sat down to the first meditation class with Sharon, a guided meditation. She said something that is now his mantra, “and during this meditation, you will probably get lost. And when you catch yourself spinning out, catch yourself getting lost in thoughts.
That point is the whole point in this meditation. She said not because you caught yourself, but because you have a new opportunity to begin a new relationship with yourself. So you welcome yourself back with a gentle with a gentle, “I love you”. This made him cry. Up until you then, there was still a striving part of him in meditation. He wanted to be a good meditator. He’d been a good business man, now he wanted to be the best meditator in the world.
And part of it wasn’t jiving before, but after what she said, everything clicked from that point forward. From then on his daily practice of Yoga, meditation, and nutrition is all about 100% about loving my emotional, spiritual, and physical body. And welcoming himself back again and again, by telling himself that he’s loved. And sometimes it comes in the form of words, and sometimes in the form of stretching, or a smoothie. But all these ways a ways to reinforce to himself that he matters, that it’s ok to sit, that it’s ok to breathe, and that he’s loved.
Wonderful. In terms of your relationships, how did that change as a result with your family, extended circles, job.
It was in the midst of his second divorce, and after he began his meditation journey, he met his wonderful wife Christy Garner. Now the two of them, and their kids have a daily meditation routine, and they all do their own type of meditation. It’s a wonderful family time for them. Everyone shows up in a way that’s authentic for them. It’s really beautiful, because the practices become not just self love, but the practices of family love.
So in that sense when you change yourself, it ripples out.
Yes, with the kids it’s not one more have-to-do, but more allowing your life to be an example, and let the kids come along. Jason’s kids have their own teachers, and they’ll join them for retreats. But they really allow their kids to have their own exploration of life together, vs everyone has to meditate for this long. They’ll rebel. We don’t want to be the people they rebel against. It’s been a validation of what conscious parenting can be, because the relationship is just so fulfilling.
If you were going back to your old work today. What would you tell them that is a different way of being? What would you tell yourself and other leaders if you could give them some insight.
First of all that company (Live Nation) has someone with a high level of consciousness, a vegan with compassionate leadership. What I would tell myself if I could go back in time, and what I do say to other business leaders, who maybe were feeling similar feelings as I was feeling in his job. It begins with a deep breath, if we can give ourselves permission to take a few deep breaths. Then we can meet in a place in the heart.
The real message I like to share, is “Hey you matter!” Your feelings, and your health matters as much as the health of the business. And when we can get in touch with that place where we matter, then we can go on an exploration of what’s going on. We can then talk about the inner child, our need for love, and maybe how we can pursue love through business. Giving ourselves permission.
One of the reasons why we don’t explore these things because we don’t have space in our lives.
The power of the breath is that it creates space on so many realms for us to begin this exploration. A deep breath, and then an I love you.
What would you say especially to entrepreneurs in particular who feel like they’ll lose their edge, if they take pauses, breaths. They won’t be able to compete and come out on top any longer?
I have a lot of friends who say that to me. They’ll say, “I don’t want to meditate, because I’m worried I’ll become a monk!” And I’ll say to them, “You are sooo far from being a monk. (laughing) we’re not talking about you going off into the monastery or an ashram.”
We’re just talking about you taking a few breaths and 10 minutes of meditation a day. Sometimes we tend to be extremists in these areas. You can go as far as you want into yoga and meditation. But you can also build up a nice daily practice of a few minutes of Yoga and meditation, and taking care of yourself through nutrition. That can really fit into a lifestyle. It’s not like everyone needs to get off into the mountains. The message is not, everyone needs to become a monk.
Its just, can you embrace that part of yourself that is a monk, and give it a little bit of love each day?
We don’t go out and shoot baskets in the weekend, and think we’ll become LeBron James. If you sit down today on the cushion, and become the Dalai Lama.
Also in a sense that if you can open your heart a little bit more by taking care of yourself, then the work that you produce, will benefit yourselves and others….
Yes, that’s right, and as entrepreneurs, we already know so many of these “life laws” already. If we abuse the business, if we abuse your employees, we know it will fall apart. And the same is true if we look at our personal lives. These same questions that we ask to ascertain the health of our business, we have to ask the same questions in our personal lives.
And when we find deficiencies, we can treat them the same way as an entrepreneur would treat them in our business, apply the same intelligence bring that to ourselves.What changes is the tactic.
Where an employee meeting might be necessary at work, meditation might be necessary in our personal lives. And where a review of the compensation plan might be necessary at work, a review of our diet might be necessary in our personal lives.
We possess these skills, its just a matter of creating a little space in our lives. And taking the extra step of understanding that YOU MATTER. Just as much as your business, your bank account, etc, that your feelings matter too.
Then you take the skills that you already possess, and you can build a life where you’re both successful and fulfilled. And I think that’s what we’re all looking for in life.
You mentioned in your book about intuitive eating, and about how eating less sugar and caffeine is one way you can settle your monkey mind right there, tell us a little more.
Jason’s friend and teacher, Ron Teeguarden, the master of Chinese herbs says two things. You’re either in the benevolent cycle (treating yourself and body with love and care), or the viscous cycle. The way out of the vicious cycle, is to take three benevolent steps towards yourself.
We are creatures of habit and so all that happens is that we begin to eat certain foods, like addictive foods, refined sugars, perhaps too much coffee everyday, and before long it just becomes a habit. So to get out of that habit is to take 3 steps into the direction that you want to go. Perhaps it is tea instead of coffee, or a green smoothie.
And before long, you build a new habit for yourself. There’s a moment of pain..
Jason has a diet that tries not to harm other beings with their diet. Fill ourselves with as much nutrients as possible. But I don’t feel I’m missing out on anything. I’ve just built this habit and allowed my tastes buds to feel good, not to martyr ourselves.
When we find ourselves into a habit that doesn’t work for ourselves anymore. This is another entrepreneurial trait. When it doesn’t work for you anymore, your mind’s racing, your health isn’t good, your weight is not what you want it to be, you just replace it with a new habit. And we make our new habits, steps in the right direction, into the direction, something that’s benevolent, compassionate towards ourselves.
And your body eventually signals, “I like that, I like how you’re treating me.”..
Yes, but that’s the hard part, you can’t hear that when it’s racing with caffeine, sugar etc. But there does come this point, my first teacher David Wolfe. He told me “listen to your body”, I had no idea what he was talking. And now a few years later, that really is how I run my diet, I listen to my body, trust what it is telling me. And I feed it something compassionate.
On your new journey, what can you say where you’re heading now, in terms of reinventing yourself, and finding your authentic voice.
Jason is having a lot of fun being a student, and fun writing. And this is a lot of what fulfills me, learning with teachers and with himself. And then sharing how that shows up for him in his daily life. He wrote his book, and I breathe…Which is kind of the story up until a few years ago.
And also weekly essays on my web site, Jasongarner.com. And I’m just sitting down to start working on a second book, and intermixed are beautiful interactions with teachers, friends, and great people. A bit of a Thoreau moment for me in my life. Going away for bit and recharging. In Chinese medicine we’d call it, in the middle of a Yin cycle. Replenishing, loving myself, and bringing new sources of wisdom, and then the Yang part is then, sharing with others.
Your next book , when are you thinking that will be ready?
Laughs, the last book was a story that wanted to tell itself. This next story is more working on me, then me working on it.
Maybe some final thoughts especially for men, that you could tell them that you wish you had heard sooner?
I just think its’ OK to take care of ourselves.
It’s OK to admit you’re scared sometimes.
Sometimes you have to admit that to yourself before admitting it to others.
It’s OK to admit that you need to be loved.
This idea that our feelings really matter.
The job is great, and part of a life well lived is a creative expression that often comes through our jobs.
But there is another side to us, an internal side that has to be cared for just the same.
Too many us, know people who are working themselves to death. It’s so sad to see these great men, who have accomplished so much in their lives, leaving this planet at age 50 and 60. So sad to see people, who’s only way out of this endless treadmill is a heart attack. Jason would see his friends at the hospital, great business leaders leaving.
All that is an invitation for us to look a little beyond the bravado, a little bit beyond the story that men are just warriors.
And to embrace the fact that we’re both warriors and monks. We haven’t been caring for the monk side very well. Today is the day that we can start that.
That we really matter, and we deserve that kind of care from ourselves!
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Ven. Dr. Pannavati, a former Christian pastor, is co-founder and co-Abbot of Embracing-Simplicity Hermitage in Hendersonville, NC. A black, female Buddhist monk ordained in the Theravada and Mahayana traditions with Vajrayana empowerments and transmission from Roshi Bernie Glassman of Zen Peacemakers, she is both contemplative and empowered for compassionate service.
An international teacher, she advocates on behalf of disempowered women and youth globally, and insists on equality and respect in Buddhist life for both female monastics and lay sangha. She was a 2008 recipient of the Outstanding Buddhist Women’s Award.
In 2009, she received a special commendation from the Princess of Thailand for Humanitarian Acts and she ordained Thai Bhikkhunis, on Thai soil with Thai monks as witnesses.
In May 2010 she convened a platform of Bhikkhunis to ordain the first 10 Cambodian Samaneris in a Cambodian temple, witnessed by Cambodian abbots including Maha Thera Ven. Dhammathero Sao Khon, President of the Community of Khmer Buddhist Monks of the USA.
Ven. Pannavati continues to visit Thailand each year, ordaining, training, offering support for the nuns and assisting in their projects. In 2013 she arranged for 500 books to be sent to both elementary and secondary schools in Rayong. She is also raising funds to improve security at the compounds, as this is an utmost concern in some areas of Thailand.
Pannavati is a founding circle director of Sisters of Compassionate Wisdom, a 21st century trans-lineage Buddhist Order and Sisterhood formed by Ani Drubgyuma in 2006.
In 2011, Venerable adopted 10 “untouchable” villages in India, vowing to help them establish an egalitarian community based on Buddhist principles of conduct and livelihood, providing wells, books, teachers and micro-loans for women. Approximately 30,000 people live in these villages. She has sent funds to complete their first educational center.
Ven. Pannavati founded My Place, Inc. in Hendersonville, NC, which has housed more than 75 homeless youth between the ages of 17 and 23 over the past 4 years. That effort has evolved into a separate 501(c)(3) which has its own academic platform, jobs training program, residential program and social enterprise, My Gluten Free Bread Company.
She remains committed to advocacy for the homeless, sick and disenfranchised, those who are marginalized, abused, neglected and unloved. She loves the Dhamma, lives the Dhamma and teaches the Dhamma internationally.
Note: Following is a transcript (not word for word) of the podcast interview.
Interview with Ven. Pannavati
What brought you to where you are today?
She’s asked that question a lot since she used to be a Christian pastor. There didn’t used to be much meditation in Christian practice, but now there is some contemplative time in the Christian diaspora. She didn’t have a problem with God or Jesus, but she did have a problem with you.
She found a disconnect between the heart and her mind.
There were modes of being that she wanted to abandon.
The short version is that she began to pray and ask for guidance on what she needed to do. And the answer she got, was that she needed to look outside of Christianity. That there was another way to find or come into a place that she was seeking.
It took her some 15 years, before she found the Dharma. She loved the reading.
She needed to rely on herself to come into the fullness of who she is. If she did this work, then she could transform and do what she wanted to do. Learning meditation was easy for Pannavati. But she used to sit in silence waiting for an answer from the Lord, but now she could become aware in silence of pure presence.
With presence she found a certain wisdom comes with that. She learned that she could enter into a space where everything becomes clear. There is a settledness and clarity of heart. She could just simply see. And in that seeing she’s informed, what’s happening, and what her role is in it, and what’s required.
So its’ in the doing of meditation that it becomes clear and it becomes apparent. There’s a settling down that occurs, there’s a stilling of thought. And in that stillness there is a certain vastness of consciousness. An expansion of insight, understanding, and awareness.
And if you immerse yourself in it, you come out with a different view.
It’s like the scientists who are trying to find a solution to a problem, and after laying down, and wake up, and they get it. Meditation is like that for wisdom.
Tuition is information coming from the outside, but there is also intuition, that which rises from the inside. But we have to go there to tap and access that faculty to be better and more present.
What do you think of the difference between waiting and being present?
I think of waiting more of waiting for an answer or to empower. But the waiting I speak of with meditation is different, it’s like a waiter standing not too close, not too far. He’s very present. He’s just waiting for the glass to move. There is something very pregnant in that presence. Right there, seeing deeply. Meditation is not relaxing, it’s an active type of engagement, investigating the structure of appearances.
I like the word attending to the present and paying attention to what is going on in our minds, hearts.
Yes, she likes that word too. Being a mother, she knows what it is like to attend. The connection with a baby goes beyond the gross level. Even if you’re in another room, you can sense that on an energetic level. Where do you really end? Do I end here at the end of my skin? Once you become attuned to another person, you can know how another person is thinking and feeling. Because don’t just end with our skin.
Yes, we’re so trained to think we end with the boundary of our skin bag..
And if we stop right there, then of course there is the automatic setup for me, mine, and everybody else. But if we can tap experientially into the interconnectedness that we have, it will change the focus of our thoughts, the way we think about things, and think about others. We’ll start to be able to consider others as yourself.
Just because we have such a rigid dividing line between others and myself, that we have so many problems. I don’t want to be separate from others. When I put myself in their place, then I come away with a different idea of what’s required in the way I interact and engage.
How has this progression been from prayer to meditation, and then from Mahayana to Theravada?
Pannavati actually went from Mahayana Buddhism to Theravada Buddhism. She loves the devotion aspect of Mahayana Buddhism, it allowed her to open her heart. Being vulnerable, in it we find our true strength, as human beings. But then she got a copy of the Therevada’s Majjhima Nikaya the middle length discourses.
When she read it is was so clear. She didn’t have a heart problem, but her mind/understanding was not fruitful. Her mind couldn’t always live in the field of the heart. She needed something to train/tune the mind. And she found it there in the Buddhist teachings, this wonderful mind training. Learning to look inside. Learning to be an island onto herself.
While she can’t control what happens in the external world, but she can control her response to it.
And therein lies the freedom. Therein lies the liberation from the mental suffering, how I see and respond to the present moment.
And of course talk is cheap (laughs). We can talk all day long, but in the moment when I really need it to rescue me, is it there? And that is where practice of course comes in.
So we practice. Practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.
We don’t know that we have it, until the moment arises where we have to live it. Then we can know that there might be more work to do in that area. No harm no fowl. No guilt associated with that, just clear seeing. Then that eliminates that whole area around falling short, missing the mark, guilt, shame, sin, etc. It has no place, it is about seeing clearly, understanding the causes and conditions. Whether I was skillful or unskillful. Volitional or not. Whether able to apply restraint, living with integrity and responding. So it’s interesting and wonderful, and so full you don’t have any time to focus on anybody else.
How has your practice evolved over time. You’re able to let go of some of those old ingrained patterns. It’s very liberating to let that go. Do you still find some of those old habit patterns peaking through?
Oh yes, everyday I find some old habit pattern that comes up. This is the work, you just keep looking. In the beginning I didn’t expect to see that many, but I used to think whatever is wrong it’s out there. (laughs). I have now accepted that maybe there is some wrong view in here. And if I adjust how I see something, than I can also adjust my response to it.
Here’s the thing, if we become OK with ourselves. But this practice also helps to not blame and shame others. Your whole life shifts into an ease dimension, where were you can go for days and weeks without a sense of crossness, getting upset, not feeling depressed, or in sorrow, anger etc. Just seeing what today brings, and handling it to the best of your ability. And then you can just reflect, I can improve on that. And endeavor to improve it.
The capacity for improvement increases in direct proportion to the eradication of guilt and shame.
There’s a certain acceptance that takes place, which I think frees up resources. instead of the barrage of self-criticism.
Yes, it’s harder because we’re such an individualistic oriented society. Achievement, being the greatest, the best, having the most. Compelling us to this neurosis. Whereas in other countries there is a more communal way of living. We’re just coming to terms with that in this young society, we’re still adolescents!
We’re having to learn this kind of coming together, that’s all this diversity conversation. I like to talk about unification of mind. A lot can be accomplished the more we see our commonalities. And engage one another. Being able to hold someone else’s view the same I hold mine. I respect my view, can I respect yours?
And if I think it is un-beneficial view, then have I developed any skillfulness to lay out an alternative way of thinking and looking at something. But if I come at you fighting.
Yeah it just escalates. I like inner disarmament.
You’ve talked about meditation, and how it affected your life, at some point you brought it out into the world as well. Maybe we can talk about how you bring your practice into your daily life. You started ordaining women in other countries that don’t allow ordination of women, how did that work out?
When did you leave Christianity and become this. For me I just kept going on the path. If I’d been a catholic I would have been a missionary, fundraising to pay off the church. I wanted to engage more with people, and found a heart for people, being a Pentecostal and charismatic. So when I became a Buddhist 15 years later. There was great understanding, but I was looking for something that became dynamic and alive, heart in it. So I started doing what I did as a Christian.
In the beginning she’d get messages that monastics don’t do this, monastics don’t do that. People are my forest. Just made herself available. You send out a beacon, and it makes that sound, and it’s the drawing from that sound. So I just made the “I’m available sound”. She got a call from Thailand from a nun. She had someone connect with her who needed someone strong, who wasn’t timid or faint of heart, of making a change to the tradition.
Ok, so she came and helped. Pannavati serves a purpose, employing skillful means to do something useful and beneficial. Being African-american, Pannavati has a view about some things. She learned that, “If you see an opportunity for your freedom, don’t bother to ask your master, just seize it”.
She didn’t really subscribe to the notion of asking so much for the monks to accept to set in a lineage again. If the council says no, she’d use another door. They were able to use our wonderful sisters in the Mahayana tradition. Both of their lineages are Dharmagupta. She’s there to represent the Therevada. We were able to ordain them. Now we have full platforms with the the Therevadins. It has now been established, as of 2014, we have 35 nuns, or female monks. She doesn’t like the way nuns/women get diminished so she prefers to be called monk.
Males are called Bhante, which means revered teacher. Women are called Anne, which means Ante, or sister. So right there that sets an idea in motion amongst all of the people of the society in terms of worthiness. So I refer to myself as a female monk. Not from prideful thinking, just being clear and validating. Otherwise they take on that role, but they still act like ante and sister.
It seems like somehow that crept in a long time ago, based on a over-emphasis on appearances?
Yes, it is. And that’s why the Buddha cautions us to set a watch, the first part of our practice to draw our gaze in. To be careful to avoid we say sexual misconduct (3rd precept), but it really means sensual misconduct. Which means, don’t take everything you see, hear as gospel truth.
Example, of someone taking something out of context, because they only heard the tail-end of a conversation. She reminded them to not take too much stock in what you hear. You have to be careful of the assumptions that we draw, from the limited information that we got.
If we get in the habit of not doing that, we’ll have more happy peaceful minds, won’t be busybodies. We can then even overlook a slight!
These are the ways we suffer, like when you made to be feel invisible. Now it’s not that important to me, I can leave it at that, let it go. It’s not just meditation, but mindfulness as well.
We talk about mindfulness. We’re already mindful, it’s always attached to something. If we forget that, we run off on tangents, we won’t have the whole picture. A sociopath is extremely mindful. But where is his attention? And what other factors form that intention. And his developmental cultivation of compassion and care.
So there’s this 8 fold path of which mindfulness is just one aspect of that. But there’s these other 7 that we have to tend to, starting with “right view”. If I’m still suffering, there is some wisdom I can tap into to become better. So you seek out one who is wise. Hear what they have to say. And don’t just accept it, put it in the cauldron of your own experience. Investigate and see.
Yes, always verify with your own experience and practice.
In terms of mindfulness, what do you think about the new mindfulness craze and it’s de-coupling from the rest of the wisdom tradition?
Yes, absolutely. Don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful that mindfulness has become popular. But, if you take something out of it’s container, some of the efficacy is lost. And some of the benefit is lost… Yet, there has been some exposure. So i’m happy that mindfulness perhaps has moved mainstream, but we still have work to do.
Happy to see that there are other teachers, are trying to point to the complementary practices, and the deeper teachings of the sages. So that we can be all-around better, not just better with our themes. One of the reasons why we’re opening up the Balsam mountain refuge. To make sure that a more complete teaching is introduced into mainstream society, without using a Buddhist label. Or being able to tap into this universal wisdom that come out of another spiritual tradition. Being to be with one another, and discuss things, instead of coming and going with all silence, and you come and go just with your thoughts, or empty mind back into the same environment.
Good friends in the Dharma is the whole of spiritual life. The only time that we have a time to connect is when we come together at retreats. Ex. rural areas, or just coming and going to dharma centers without real connections taking place. So we think this Dharma center will bring us more back to a middle road place.
Here we all come together in silence, and not be in communion with each other. Buddha was the exact opposite, he talked about the 10 conversations we can have together.
The other thing I wanted to ask was how you’re helping the “untouchables”, the Dalit. The caste system, where people take a teaching and twist it around, and corrupt from the understanding of equality. It looks like you’ve been helping level that playing field.
I didn’t realize that this was still going on after the anti-atrocity law (the Anti-Atrocity Act) was passed to put that to rest. But people are still in that long held custom. So the Dalits have renamed themselves to “the broken people”. And we do go there, and even though they say untouchability doesn’t exist, it still does. Like when a Brahma gets the shadow from a Dalit that he is considered polluted. Buddha tried to change that erroneous understanding back when he lived. It’s not by your virtue of birth that your status as a human is known, but by what you do in your life. So even in that day, he was working in his own way against the understanding one person being more worthy than the other just based on birth. And of course we have similar views including our own country.
Laws are for people, people are not for laws. The only way you can change that is how you relate to one another through the heart. So I get more from them than they get from me. They’re so kind and gentle, it’s a pleasure to work with them, on what they are working on.
So I take a team once or twice a year, and we do what we call “bearing witness” retreats, just showing up. Not telling what they need or teaching Dharma, but coming in solidarity with them, asking them to tell us what they need. Before we can teach anything they need water! So we’d do a well project, and then a sewer project, health program. So we have doctors that come and train on how to deal with sanitation, toilets, health and books. So one thing leads to another, but just from people touching people.
So it’s teaching dharma outside of words, in the way you’re being and in your actions…
Yes, it’s just living it (living the teaching, as opposed to just talking about it). Yes, I was in a school, and this person was suspicious of us being there (based on a disappointing experience with a group coming in to “help” years earlier). But when we came in there were 68 children, leaky roofs, and no toilets. So we started repairing, doing different things.
She wanted our help, and yet there was still that wall (based on her expectation from the past experience). And then finally last year, she said, “I just wanted to say, that the last group thought us about God, but now I see God”. What she was saying it wasn’t just talk, just doing something.
There was a heart-to-heart engagement that went beyond any physical thing we were doing, but really being One. And I think that is what we are longing for.
We don’t know it, but we try to satisfy that longing with things, from degrees to cars. When there is really something else that the heart is yearning for, that is that interconnection with all other beings.
And the sense of belonging?
Knowing who we really are. If I think I’m less than what I am, then I don’t function fully. But if I know who I truly am, I function fully. Then there is no sense of deficiency. A happiness and confidence comes with that. That life has meaning. I can seize the essence of a human, I can see the essence, and the preciousness of a human life.
And then everything becomes precious then…
Yes…And this world that is a hell realm becomes a Buddha land.
That’s another trap then. We want to get out of this world, there might be a better one after.
Yeah. The Buddha said, that whatever the seeds you plant that is the tree that’s gonna grow. So you don’t have to be striving and praying to get to heaven. Yeah, you plant good seeds and there’s going to be a good destination. That’s all you have to do. You don’t have to ask anyone can you get in, just plant the seeds and then water.
Do you have one or two more tips you want to tell people listening for the listener who would like to be more at peace with themselves and connected to the world.
Yes, you just said it….listen. If we just open ourselves up to listen to others, without crafting our response while they’re speaking. without thinking they don’t know I’m ,the one who knows. Without tearing apart how they said it, manufacturing in our minds why we think they said it, etc. If we can just learn to develop the practice of listening. Being able to hold our tongue and our thoughts for a few minutes, then our understanding can grow, and we can be better at how we respond.
That is part of what meditation teaches us. It teaches us to take that pause, have that down time, instead of that knee jerk reaction. We’ll become happier, our hearts become healthier. And we’ll be friendlier.
In this episode I offer some thoughts on what it means to me to meditate and how it brings about a stillness and settling of mind. I also mention this imprint (Guidepost; Inscription) of Silent Illumination (Shikantaza or Just Sitting) which is recited in some Zen meditation practice centers.
The Imprint of Silent illumination
Silent and serene, one forgets all words:
Clear and vivid, it appears before you.
When one realizes, time has no limits.
When felt deeply, life becomes vibrant.
Singularly illuminating is this bright awareness;
Full of wonder is the pure illumination:
Dew in the moonlight, a river of stars,
Snow-covered pines, clouds hovering on mountain peaks.
In darkness, it glows with brightness;
In shadows, it shines with a splendid light.
Like the dream of a crane flying in the frosty mist,
Like the clear water reaching the autumn sky,
Endless eons dissolve into nothingness,
Each indistinguishable from the other.
In this brightness all striving is forgotten.
What is this wonder? Alertly seeing through confusion
Is the way of silent illumination and the origin of subtle radiance.
Vision penetrating into radiance is weaving gold on a jade loom.
Subject and object influence each other.
Light and darkness are mutually dependent.
(In the audio Youtube clip below you can hear what happens when gigantic cumulonimbus clouds start to build up that will have thunder and lightening as well. Normally we think of thunder sounds after lightening, but in this case, out here in the desert, this rumbling thunder sound can come just from the friction of cloud building) The episode ending has a shorter clip of this sound. Below you can listen to the sound for 8 hours!)
There is neither mind nor world to rely on,
Yet the two mutually interact.
Drink the medicine of correct views,
Beat the poison-smeared drum.
When they interact silence and illumination are complete;
Killing and bringing to life is a choice to make.
At last, through the gate, one emerges.
The fruit has ripened on the branch.
Only this Silence is the ultimate teaching;
Only this Illumination, the universal response.
The teaching, not heard with the ears,
And the response is without effort.
Throughout the universe all things glisten,
And each expounds the Dharma.
They attest to each other,
And accord in dialog responding in perfect harmony.
But when illumination is without stillness,
Then distinctions will be seen and harshness will arrive.
If within stillness brightness is lost,
All will become wasteful and dull.
When Silent Illumination is complete,
The lotus will blossom, the dreamer will awaken.
The hundred streams flow to the ocean,
The thousand mountains face the highest peak.
Like geese preferring milk to water,
Like bees gathering the choicest pollen,
When Silent Illumination reaches the ultimate,
It penetrates from the most subtle to the greatest.
I embody the original tradition of my lineage:
The body, sunyata and the arms, mudra.
From the beginningless to endless, only one task,
though expressed in 10,000 shapes and forms.
The basic matter of our line
hits the mark straight and true.
Pass this on in all directions
without a wish for gain.
This is the practice called Silent Illumination.
By Hongzhi Zhengjue; translated by Sheng Yen; adapted by Mountain Lamp
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