Interview with Amanda Gilbert – Meditation and Mindfulness Research
Amanda Gilbert is the Executive Director for the Sugar Stress Environment and Weight Center and a Clinical Research Coordinator for the Aging Metabolism and Emotions Center at the University California, San Francisco. Her work focuses on conducting and implementing clinical research in meditation, mindfulness and mindfulness-based stress reduction, as well as examining how these restorative health behaviors affect our minds and biology.
As a long-term meditation practitioner, she draws on years of personal meditation experience and training to advocate for the life-changing effects of a daily meditation practice.
In addition to conducting clinical research on meditation, she is a meditation teacher to those looking to learn and start a daily meditation practice through one-on-one individualized sessions where she connects contemplative science to daily practice. Her mission is to support as many people as possible in experiencing optimum daily well-being through meditation and mindfulness.
Note: This is a summary (not a full transcript) of the interview. Listen to the audio above to get the full interview.
How did you get started with meditation?
Many start a meditation practice for health reasons, or dealing with stress, or getting curious. And some start to meditate from a religious point of view. And also it is for some about cultivating meaning.
For Amanda it was about healing, physically, mentally, and spiritually from challenges she went through as a young adult. She’s been in the health and wellness field for a long time.
Perhaps there is something more. She wants to connect with herself, her intuition, her inner knowledge, her heart, and higher self. The path for Amanda has been cultivating a meditation and mindfulness practice.
Was there something, an event or moment that triggered this?
Amanda has had her moments to that were beautiful opportunities to shift, to have a breakthrough. To set yourself on a different path. For her it was more of a life path. Many books on self growth, meditation and self development. And really all the information was pointing her to meditation path.
Also, Amanda was exposed to great teachers in the medical world. One of her first teachers was Deepak Chopra. He has a book called, “Quantum Healing”. She was given that book during a breakdown leading to breakthrough period in her life.
When you approach it through biology, it really speaks to the effects and power, and outcomes of a meditation practice. So she started reading a lot of literature on what a meditation practice can do for us physically, mentally, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. All this reading led her down a path of a meditation practice.
What particular practice did you start with?
Amanda started with mantra based practice in 2009. Earlier she was exposed to many other meditation and mindfulness practices, her undergraduate degree was in holistic health and wellness. But she got serious about doing a daily practice. That is when it clicked for her.
The mantra practice is powerful practice for a novice. Reason is that the mantra is a way for our minds to focus on. Translates as mind-vehicle. It’s a word, similar to in and out, in breathing techniques. By combining with Sanskrit it can be meaningful.
The mantra based practices are a way for beginners to develop a strong practice. She can see that through her research and teaching meditation position.
Would you say that the mantra practice is an attention practice just like paying attention to your breath practice?
Yes, we are focusing on an object of attention. So that object of attention is the breath, or the mantra. It is intentionally placing the focus on that object.
Saying from the Buddha: You can place your attention on the object of focus, just like you focus your attention gently on a flower.
In meditation we are growing our attention/focus muscles. We are cultivating those muscles.
Did you notice any particular benefit that stood out from this mantra practice that was trans-formative, and encouraged you to continue practicing after that?
It allowed my mind to focus on something, something for it to chew on during her 30 minute morning and evening meditation. It allowed me to meditate. All of the fruits of meditation happen in those moments between the thoughts. In that space, that stillness, silence between thoughts. Between the ego having it’s way, having it’s ability to be behind the wheel, running the show.
So the benefits and outcomes are in the moments between our thoughts.
She have a tendency of an overactive mind, which was one her first barriers, or obstacles in a meditation practice. I’m just thinking, thinking. A huge string of thoughts, huge mind wanderings.
Having a mantra to focus on having my mind focus on, was the key to allowing her the freedom to move beyond thought. To move in the space and stillness of meditation.
And a way to anchor you into the present..A lot of us have mind-wanderings, like 50% of the day the average person is mentally wandering.
Yes, very much so. One of the top outcomes that we’re seeing through the lens of research, is a decrease in rumination and decrease mind wandering. And an increase in focus and attention. This can be seen through measuring the participants subjective, psychological experience of a meditation training, as well as seeing this in the areas of the brain.
We’re seeing areas of the brain light up, that are more focused on attention, and executive functioning. We’re seeing better neuroplasticity in the brain due to meditation and mindfulness practice.
Explain neuroplasticity a little bit more.
Yes, that is the ability for your brain to change, and to start new behaviors, patterns, new ways of decision making. Cultivating new neural network pathways in your brain in order to have different behaviors and different experiences in your life.
This can be really helpful with destructive mind and habit patterns, such as depression or other destructive thought patterns right?
Very much so. That’s really what we’re seeing. The beauty of mindfulness research is that it allows you to see the changes in the brain and in the body. Past research has been focused on the brain. Those who are in the diagnosis of depression or PTSD, or any neurologically and psychologically based depression oriented diagnosis. We are able to see a shift in the brain and cognitive functioning. Also we’re seeing in the last 5 or 10 years or so a big change in the body. More recent research is focused on the body and biology.
What that looks like is:
The effects of mindfulness and meditation on inflammation, gene expression, heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol, sleeping, eating habits. And of course your cell health, and cell aging. which is getting down into the minutiae of the mitochondria in the cells of your bodies.
What particular aspect of that research excites you the most right now?
Amanda’s favorite study was conducted by the center for investigating healthy minds with Richard Davidson in Madison, Wisconsin. Did anything change from an inflammatory marker standpoint, from just 8 hours of mindfulness training. They found that yes! You have a decreased expression of pro-inflammatory genes from just one day of meditation and mindfulness.
Amanda and colleagues at UCSF, have just published and presenting a study of theirs. They found that a highly stressed population of maternal caregivers mothers of autistic children who went through 12 weeks of mindfulness training, increased their total sleep time by 34 minutes by the end of the 12 week mindfulness based intervention.
And as we all know, sleep is one of the top pillars of health and resilience. Your days will be substantially better with sleep. So mindfulness and meditation do affect our biological circadian rhythms as well. Very exiting findings.
Can you measure quality of sleep as well?
Sleep disruption is how we measure quality of sleep. But it was really the total amount of sleep time. This group actually started to go to bed earlier as well. And how often do we tell ourselves we’re going to bed earlier, but then we don’t follow through it. But this group was able to shift their bed time to earlier, thus benefiting their sleep as well. What we’re able to say then, is that having a meditation or mindfulness practice is able to encourage better health behaviors.
Any meditation tips for those listening who have sleep problems?
Yes, part of our population we’re able to see through our mindfulness mobile app, were doing some practices, body scans, loving kindness meditations and mindfulness practices. Ranging from 3-20 minutes. What we can think about is how can we reduce our stress before going to sleep? Is that sitting and breathing for 3 minutes, or guided meditation for 20 minutes. Or just having a moment of consciousness around how am I able reduce my stress, to turn off the executive functioning. That drive for the day. How am I able to settle the body?
My own practice is actually able to slow down. Amanda loves breathing meditations in the evening. Primarily morning meditation practice. But at night it is great to just slow down, or switch it up, like with a guided meditation. Whatever it takes to get a more restful and de-stressing experience.
You mention morning meditation and the importance of it. This affects the evenings as well. So this sets the pace for the rest of the day right?
Yes, when she goes to sleep at night, Amanda looks forward to the next morning practice. Meditation has changed her life, since she started meditating in 2009. Now the practice is second nature for me in the morning. I get up, have a sip of tea, or lemon water. Then she’s goes into practice minimally for 20 minutes, and more on other days. And then again in the evenings I actually look forward to this morning routine. It’s another sign that a consistent meditation practice can affect all other areas of life.
Has there been research to explore what the optimal times are for the most fruits of meditation?
That is Amanda’s own personal research interest. In the Vedanta ancient text they recommend at least 20 minutes each morning. And in primordial sound meditation they recommend 30 minutes, because it takes the body 15 minutes to biologically and physically settle down. Then you are actually able to meditate, once your body is in a rhythm of the breath. So these ancient practices figured it out a long time ago, without the hard nosed sciences.
TM also recommends a twice a day practice of 20 minutes as well. There was also studies where they found it through heart rate after 25 minutes. This is where the meditation research field is going. Her hope is to see the field honing in on the types of practice, the amounts of minutes of practice to see the shift in well-being. And to have individual tailoring to see what works best for each individual. We all have our own stories on what brought us to meditation. So there is that individual tailoring that scientists can hone in and take a look at.
And what about the benefits to mini-meditation?
Yes, that is mindfulness. Amanda likes to differentiate between formal practice (20 or 30 minutes of sitting), and moments of mindfulness. Being able to connect to our breaths, those are to her moments of mindfulness. And also outcomes of our formal meditation practice. You can actually cultivate a stronger connection to these mindful moments. During our meditation practice, we hone in on our home energy. That’s the feeling of our hearts, essentially we’re going home to our Self. You getting to know yourself so much better during those moments of contemplative reflection.
That shows up in moments during the day, where you have choice of how you respond to situations. You end up avoiding stress reactions.
So it benefits each other, and mutually reinforces each other then.
You also a study about vacation vs retreat. Because a retreat is really going home, settling even deeper than a 25 minute meditation.
Yes, I love this study. That study showed us a number of things, which can be applied to our own practices. 2 out of 3 of the study groups were new meditators, with zero meditation practice. We randomized half the group in a vacation group, and the other half as a meditation retreat at the Chopra center of well-being.
What we found was that novice meditators who went through the meditation retreat, 10 months later showed greater psychological well-being. Decrease of negative affect, decrease in overall negative experiences during that day.
Instead of just going on vacation, but if you go in and learn the life affirming tools of a meditation practice, then you see more long-term effects in your life. The vacation effect wears off. It’s just like buying a new car, within 2 months the joy has worn off.
The second finding was that we had a 3rd group who already had 6 months or more experience with meditation. This group was already more healthy psychologically and physically, so what we find is that the power is in the practice. We see that with experienced long-term meditators, that you will be able to see the effects and outcomes of a daily meditation practice.
So you could say a retreat is more trans-formative, as compared to a vacation, which is more of a recharge.
Yes, exactly. That is one of my favorite studies to reference.
Amanda’s hope is to get as many people as possible to meditate as possible. Her mission is to support as many people as possible in experiencing optimum daily well-being through meditation and mindfulness.
MF 25 – Charlie Ambler from The Daily Zen Talks about his Meditation Journey
Note: This is a summary (not a full transcript) of the interview.
What brought you to a meditation practice?
Charlie describes himself growing up as a rather impulsive and anxious. His grandmother (a music historian) interviewed John Cage, the composer at one point. He gave her a copy of a book on Zen Buddhism. Charlie ran into the book, as a 13 year old kid, and was curious about it.
He got more and more interested in Buddhism, and started reading more about it online as well. He then started practicing it in his room, the various breathing meditation exercises. He settled on simple and direct method of Zazen Meditation breathing. He’s 22 at the time of this interview, so it’s been about 9 years since he first got interested in Buddhism and meditation.
Charlie finds that if he doesn’t meditate regularly, then he’s more prone to anxiety, destructive ways of thinking and harmful habits. He then feels generally less centered, and less creative.
And what specific practice are you using at this time?
Now he’s doing zazen meditation, or breath counting.
He remembers the old saying,
“Let your thoughts come and go,
but you don’t serve them tea.”
Have you noticed changes in your day to day life?
When he was younger, it was easier to meditate, there was less, a smaller bank of sensory information. Meditation was easier, despite the fact that he was a hyperactive kid. But now with all the reading he’s doing, and responsibilities and things and thoughts that come with adulthood, and the busy life in the big city (New York) he finds it more difficult to practice. But for that reason it is more challenging and rewarding as well. All the more reason why it is so important for him to do it each day.
He practices detaching himself from wanting to get anything out of it. Meditation becomes very difficult when you want to get something out of it.
You get into a chasing mind, which makes it all the harder.
Yeah you get into thinking about thinking, a circular cycle. Once you allow yourself to step back from your own thoughts, and get less stressed out. It helps, gives your problems less importance, let them come to pass.
Has your practice changed your outlook on life, you post on your web site how your thinking has changed?
When Charlie started he was reading about meditation he ran into more of a new age corporate way of viewing meditation practice. Like how a meditation practice would allow you to accomplish your goals, do your job really well, etc. But then as he dug deeper into the eastern writing behind meditation, he realized that the Zen school was more talking about divorcing yourself from attachment to expectations and outcomes.
He realized that this was part of this larger concept, well illustrated in Taoist writings, where you step back from something, you have this strange side-effect where you end up achieving it, by stepping back. He then quotes:
By letting it go it all gets done. The world is won by those who let it go. But when you try and try. The world is beyond the winning.
Charlie finds that when you practice meditation for a while, you don’t find yourself planning ahead 10 years ahead. He finds himself less trying to achieve things, instead to just do things. The funny contradiction in that is that when you stop caring so much about the results of what you’re doing, you end up doing a ton more.
Ever since Charlie has really implemented that philosophy, he finds himself far less anxious about starting things. Just throw yourself into things, just do them. The key is to just do things, not care about the results. Learn from them yes. Sometimes the results is just garbage, and sometimes it works out.
There is also a part of understanding how who you are changes, the attachment and creations of personas changes too..
Definitely, Charlie found himself confronting himself with the Zen idea of true self, and how you find your true self by looking inward.
There’s the true self, a healthy ego, who you really are, and the false self ego, which is a combination of the various personas, cultural and social influences.
Yes, the meditation practice has helped me at least partially shed ideas of who he thinks he’s supposed to be. Make him less prone to idolizing and trying to be like other people. To learn from people, but not to emulate them. Or imitate them. Take only what feels true to himself. That questioning yourself and your beliefs seems to come naturally to Charlie when he meditates. Try to do something that is more in alignment with who he really is. Move away from things that are not in alignment with his real self.
Would you say your project with the daily Zen is more in alignment with who you really are?
Yes, it is now. The greatest gift I got from working on this site, is figuring out who I am. It’s reflected his own internal struggles with writing. Like periods with lots of sappy quotes, that don’t really have much meaning. Or the derivative articles like, “10 things to help you do your job better” listicles, that I thought I was supposed to write about. He then decided recently, like a year ago, that he wants to do this for a while. He wants to do it in a way that reflects himself, and feels true to himself.
So he removed all ads, and simply do writing and pretty art like images. This writing blog practice helped him do something that gives him fulfillment. Even if no one read it, Charlie would feel grateful.
Yes, the Daily Zen now really expresses who I’m actually am. Charlie finally feels that it is real to him, because it expresses who he actually is. This makes the writing so much easier, because he’s writing from his own point of view, about concepts he encounters while he meditates. Instead of trying to emulate Thích Nhất Hạnh, or Allan Watts.
If he gets lazy, and stops meditating, the process becomes much more difficult.It encourages him to continue his practice. And the practice itself provides him with most of the content.
Do you practice with others?
No it’s always been a solitary pursuit. He’s gone through a few sessions, but trying to get to a point where he can lead meditation sessions.
So the Daily Zen website is one way that encourages you to continue to practice..
Definitely, the following has grown significantly, and that provides a social element that keeps me practicing. Everyday that gives a level of encouragement.
For the folks that don’t know about your web site, is it just the site, or also the Twitter and Facebook account.
It started exclusively as a twitter account. when Twitter was very young. That is where he feels the biggest sense of community with it. Most of the discussion is on Facebook and Twitter, but most of the social interaction is on Twitter. And it is fun, and zen in a way, because twitter’s 140 character limit. They have to be brief! Good forum for quotes and aphorisms.
What have you found that resonates the most with people on Twitter?
Short statements by himself or found in other places like quotes from books, that elucidates a certain idea about compassion, or meditation, or mindfulness. Sort of brief aphoristic statements do very well, sometimes way better than I anticipated. I share long posts, but most favorite and successful are quotes.
That resonate with you as well?
Yes, my own favorites, like little zen proverbs.
“After enlightenment, the laundry”.
“Let go or be dragged!”
Quotes by Tolle, Osho, Thay, Alan Watts, spiritual teachers, etc.
Others are little bits of wisdom that reveal ideas that is like zen in nature. Even Nietsche who hated Buddhism, who has similar ideas nevertheless.
“When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you.” Where your world is made up your thoughts. And what comprises your thoughts ends up coloring the way that you experience the world. That really ties close into what my experience of meditation is.
You mention on one of your posts,
“The world becomes amazing when we acknowledge mere existence as a miracle in and of itself, and when we appreciate what is and has always been, rather than what could be.”
How did that understanding occur to you at some point?
Yes, that is something a way of thinking that occurs during meditation at some point. Appreciating everything equally. Where there is no judging things as good or bad, just letting them wash over you. It comes for Charlie as a comedown from good things in relationships and things like achievements that happen. There is a return to reality once the euphoria washes away.
That state is pretty arbitrary, that sense of contentment, and that state of euphoria is available at any time… We’re taught that it needs a stimulus (like a great job, or getting some other reward) before you can feel this excitement about life. If you learn to discipline your mind , you can experience it just by looking at for example an animal, or the sky, doing anything, etc. That is the biggest take away from that type of non-judgement that occurs during meditation.
I think there is also an element of slowing down that helps with this appreciation of the miracle of life. You mention about humans fabricating needs, and things that keep us from experiencing the miracle that is life right in front of our noses. Quote from Charlie’s web site:
“A false sense of necessity is the mother of invention, and humans will never rid themselves of this need to fabricate new needs. We can learn from cats and other animals to relax, to love in a simple way, to eat when we’re eating and sit when we’re sitting. Humans always seem to be existing for something else, but animals exist for the here-and-now.”
It’s a weird thing and weird political idea. There is this, “the cult of progress”. Constantly building new things, going to the next level. That to him represents the the kind of societal craving that individuals have that makes them unhappy. He wonders if that is contributing to a mass unhappiness. People so obsessed with the future, because of technology and all these other things. And as a result forget the past and neglect the present.
Yeah, that’s where I’m at, its the kind of practice that makes it OK to change your mind. Change is OK, 6 months I might feel differently.
Any example of where you bring your meditation practice with you?
It is easy trap when you live in a major metropolitan area to be totally inundated by the chaos, sensory information overload in modern cities are really insane places. Sometimes it still jars me. Like when I go into an area, like times square, or Manhattan, with a lot of skyscrapers, it used to paralyze me, how artificial is, it used to give me anxiety.
But now I see myself as part of the whole thing, I’m a functioning part of this thing. Just like Alan Watts says you’re a functioning part of the universe. He has a great speech about New York City, where he teaches his audience to view the city, as akin to a human body, with all the organs, where it functions autonomously, thanks to all the individual cells. And the cells end up being individual people, animals, and machines.
Living in the city forces you to see yourself as not apart from the city, but as very much part of the fabric. That translates for me into everything. You’re part of everything, and someday you die, you don’t disappear, you just transform into a different thing. Its this concept of universality, recognizing that you are part of everything. It didn’t cause me anxiety or an inflated sense of ego. When you understand it in some way, it’s a humbling experience.
You don’t really feel forced to assert yourself.
But at the same time it doesn’t make you so small that you become non-existent, there is something that also comes forth that brings forth your unique individual contribution…
Yes, there is this Jiddish concept that my mother really likes, called the jadsahara. This idea that you are both a speck of dust, as well the universe. So folks either feel either on top of the world, or feel insignificant. The key, I think is instead you want to go beyond one side or the other, transcending both, realize that you are both. Both insignificant, and very significant. If you’re alive, you’re always going to exist in some form or another.
So does this also change your choices, and intentions, as a result of how they live on in some way or another..
Yes, that is how I view karma, the ripple effect of your actions.
Ep 24 – Guided Meditation with Kristina Rood and Ocean Wave Sounds
Kristina used to do diet counseling, and has practiced Zen and TM meditation for a long time. She will be interviewed on this show one of these days, so she can expand on her meditation journey. Please use the comments area below to share your thoughts on this meditation.
She would be happy to create another guided meditation, like a specific meditation for dieting if there is interest.
See also below the Youtube version of her ocean meditation.
Guided Meditation for Present Moment to Moment Attention and Awareness Cultivation with Sicco
This episode deviates from the usual interview episode.
Kristina and myself are in a time of transition. We’re moving to another state, hence I thought this would be a bit easier to do than arranging an interview. This is also based on request from several listeners. They wanted a guided meditation to listen to from my perspective, so here it is above (click on the link above to download or play directly in the web page).
Kristina and me trucking past Mt Hood
Please let me know what you think of this episode in the comments below!
Episode 22 – Solo episode about why I value meditation and mindfulness
This is a summary (not a full transcript) of the interview
Good morning, we just had a 4.1 earthquake out here in the Anza-Borrego desert, just as I was towards the end of my half hour meditation session. A reminder that we are not on solid ground, the ground can be pulled literally underneath us.
Since we’re moving, it is too difficult logistically for me to do interviews, so I will attempt to create a couple of episodes that are different from the usual interview format.
The next week after that, I’ll share an episode with a guided meditation from myself, and one that my wife, Kristina made for Youtube. After that we’ll resume interviews.
I believe there are a number of reasons we start meditating, in this episode I just want to look at one angle. Here is one of the reasons I started meditating, being less reckless.
So one of the things I was thinking to bring up on this episode, is by bringing up something that moved me towards a meditation/mindfulness practice as a teen. I already explored some of the reasons I wanted to learn to meditate in the introduction episode, so for this episode I’ll just explore another piece of this. As you may have noticed by listening to this podcast so far, the reasons people give, why they started a meditation practice are wide ranging, and some will admit that they don’t know for sure, or can pinpoint exactly what or how it all got started for them.
And for illustrative purposes, and since it will be most accurate if I recount my own experiences, I want to just focus on one of the reasons I likely felt compelled towards a meditation practice.
There were of course positive causes like, why am I here, how can I be a kinder person, but there were also other things that motivated me. While my curiosity for a lot of things is usually beneficial, I can look back and also see how curiosity combined with a tendency for distraction/ self-absorbtion/self-centeredness can also turn into a more destructive force like recklessness, or disregard for others or the environment.
So let’s look a little bit at some of the more destructive reasons that brought me to a mediation path.
I suppose I could be on occasion reckless like most children/teenager growing up. Now I don’t want to paint myself as a little shit, I also was sensitive and didn’t like what we were doing to each other, and animals, and the planet at a young age. I recall not liking it when fellow kids took apart living spiders, and similar things boys primarily seem to be attracted to doing.
I think it is important for me to not just show flattering things, but just to be real, and show that I certainly had good reasons for needing to take a look at my own actions and thoughts.
Some examples of my own recklessness in childhood
I liked adventure, exploring, and had curiosity for a lot of things (which hasn’t changed much by the way). To give you some sense of that, I used to row to this trash heap, and dig through it to find old electronics in particular, and see if I could fix them. And so it happened a couple of times, where I got very intense 220 Volts electrical shocks, because I was taking old defective radios and things apart and then trying to put new plugs in them. This type of curiosity coupled with ignorance and disregard for safety was a form of reckless endangerment to myself.
Another thing I liked was playing with fire literally, whether that was things like lighting an ashtray on fire in the house and running up to my parents upstairs, because I couldn’t completely extinguish it, or lighting trash cans in the park on fire to create interesting effects in the park. Or blowing up an old guitar with fireworks.
One of the things I remember was noticing how I almost always had a cut, or bruise, blister, or something else painful going on, because I was into something I probably shouldn’t or wasn’t paying attention.
Another reckless example. For a time I was riding a bike without breaks, so the only way to stop was ride it in the bushes, or use my feet as brake pads.
Another area in which i was reckless was while bicycling in traffic.I would not hesitate to run red lights, cut people off, and pass when ill advised. One time I paid for that by passing two slightly overweight folks, and then slipping on the ice, with them both falling on me and the bike.
The most dangerous time was when I had fallen in love in a summer camp in France with a Dutch girl, and as I mentioned before, when back home in Holland, I would listen to music while bicycling, and completely involved in the music, not caring about my bike. This is perhaps more likely behavior of young folks who might be tempted to think death, old age, and ill health is for other people or far off in the future.
This I paid for, because on one intersection, I did not have due diligence when looking both ways for traffic and so got hit hard (30-40 mph or more) and literally was thrown off my bike and experienced the event out of my body. Then landed hard, and have had back issues on and off ever since. While the experience was a fascinating experience of time slowing and the mind, and gave me a few days off school. What this did really bring home to me, was that I was reckless and had a problem being fully present and attentive to what was happening around me.
With all these injuries I realized I was clumsy in the attention department, and started realizing that a practice of attention was necessary for me to learn to reduce these accidents.
So as part of my spiritual reading, besides books about Hinduism, I got attracted to Zen. Now I think in part because I had a tendency to be distracted, I was at that time attracted to the simplicity and no-nonsense directness of Zen. The lack of clutter, it’s emphasis of simplicity, inner peace, wisdom and understanding, clarity and dignity, grace, and the deep appreciation and cultivation for each moment.
One book in particular got my attention and drew me a little closer to a Zen meditation practice. I don’t remember which book, sorry. But in the book there is a story of a monk who likes to get out of the monastery at night to hang out in the city, perhaps going out drinking sake and making friends in the bar.
What interested me, is not so much talking about the monk violating the monastic community by escaping the monastery. It’s about his mindfulness and attention. So perhaps some teachers or head monks would have just chastised the escaping monk, and told him to stop violating the monastic rules. But what’s interesting is that in this story the Zen teacher decides to follow the monk and observe him for a while.
So the next day, the teacher calls in the monk and wants to have a chat with him. He says, you know, I saw you getting out again last night, climbing over the fence, and so I followed you. When you got to the city street, you crossed the street not paying attention, and you bumped into a woman who was carrying a baby. This woman was already stressed (could see on her face), and you bumping in her, without paying attention, caused her to drop the bag and she was having to clean up. This also caused a car to have to stand on his brakes. More agitated, she then walked into the bakery to get bread and passed on her frustration to the baker who had just been dealing with his sick wife. His mood was not helped. And so on, and so on the teacher goes on to explain how each of these acts had a ripple effect, seen and unseen.
So what so impressed me with this story was how one’s own mind, attitude, and behavior can affect others in ways we have no idea about. They can have ripple effects that is just not measurable, except in this instance where a very perceptive teacher follows just one of the consequences of our own behaviors.
I’ll never forget this story, and how it impressed on me the importance of one’s own state of mind, and attentiveness to the present moment and all our encounters.
Perhaps you say, great, glad you figured this out, but I was a good child, I don’t make a mess of things around me, and have never had these issues. Is that really true?
My good friend David Bainbridge visited yesterday, and he wrote a big book that is a guide for Desert and Dryland restoration.
John practices in the Zen Buddhist tradition of Robert Aitken (Diamond Sangha)
This is a summary (not a full transcript) of the interview
John was attracted to fundamentalist Christianity as a teen for a few years. It did not work for John. He abandoned all religion in his 20’s living an agnostic/atheist life. He was accepting things that other people were saying, and he decided he was not going to do that again.
He stumbled on a book On Zen by Alan Watts. That caught his attention. Then started to figure out how to meditate, learned a bit from the TM movement.
Did you understand what parts of it?
He did not understand all of it, but he did get non-duality. This was a whole new understanding that opened up for John. He by then had his own meditation practice on and off. Year on, year off kind of practice. He would feel that he would need to get back into it.
Where you attracted to meditation as a way of insight, or as a way to experience something you were looking for?
Maybe more the insight. I got fairly involved in the lead-up to the presidential elections in 2004. When that was all done, and the dust settled, I realized I was full of anger and even hatred towards the chosen political enemies. Then I phoned the Zen Center after finding them online.
Have you found that joining a group is different than meditating alone?
Yes, definitely. Especially the first couple of years, John derived tremendous support from the regular weekly sits, and meditating and support from other people. That whole structure that keeps you on the cushion, and prevents you from a moment of restlessness coming along, and tricking you into jumping up, and doing something else. And the book studies have been very helpful.
So the structure is very helpful too?
Yes, extremely helpful. If you see structure as a means to an end, as a tool, then you wouldn’t see it as limiting or old-fashioned tradition that doesn’t fit the modern era. It’s there to help people.
How has your relationship with those perceived enemies changed at all?
I don’t think my political views have shifted much. My indulging in hatred is way less than it used to be (laughs). So that’s a good thing! The hatred thing, the target is no longer individual people. There are so many facets to a complex society, some not functioning well, sick, very poor design. So a person may get elected to congress.
For example the structure of congress is stacked against you. Very hard to be an awake and honest person, and not get corrupted by the money from the lobbyists and so forth, when you’re in that environment all the time.
So, I guess I’ve shifted from individuals to the system that I perceive as something that is bad.
Do you see that a system can be shifted by individuals or groups, or completely needs to be uprooted or re-designed?
Uprooting is a tempting fantasy, because it is quick. The ultimate expression of that is war. You perceive an enemy, and the best thing is just to eliminate your enemy.
But then you assume of enemy as outside?
Yes, the enemy is all outside, and things good is all in me, and all things bad in someone else.
But to truly have a culture evolving into something healthier, does require the individuals in that culture, become more aware, educated and enlightened. And developed in a balanced way, where not just our minds, but our hearts are also developed.
Has this way of long-term seeing changed the way you get attached to outcomes?
Perhaps, I understand how to be unattached to outcomes, but more focused on the nature on your actions, is perhaps a more spiritual way to be in the world.
When you practice there is a certain letting go of the desire of certain outcomes, not having strong attachments to certain outcomes, whether in your immediate area, or the larger geopolitical arena?
Yes, I’ve probably developed a little in that direction. As things play out from my actions, I’m not necessarily in control. I might do something in one particular thing in space and time, but the consequences of what I do in that spot, goes on without me. It’s better to focus on the nature of my act. Am I acting free of greed or, desire for revenge, hatred. What is my true motivation I think is more important, than banking on a particular outcome. Because it never comes out that way anyway, even driving to the store to get milk.
Yes, that reminds me of your example you mentioned of an instance of road rage?
Yes, I have an 2 examples of my own road rage. Both times I was really surprised I had this in me, I didn’t know it was there.
I was just getting on the freeway, it was fall, rainy and dark. I was careful to look for a space in traffic. and this guy comes zooming in. He roared by me, and it made me jump. It triggered this rage in me, it took me 2 miles on the freeway to get this under control. This whole time I sat with this rage. I realized if I had a much bigger vehicle, and it was banged up, I would have chased him down and bumped his car and driven him into the barrier. That’s how illogical and enraged I was. I just had a little car and couldn’t catch up.
So I started thinking….what does a Buddhist do in this situation I thought? I think you just be a bit detached, just watch it, instead of being it, but 2-3 miles, I did start to settle down.
Second time, similar incident, also someone roared by. And in this case not only was I powerless, but my wife also screamed at John to slow down. She reminded him to slow down, and he might escalate the situation. those are two instances, where I had to struggle to become detached from the rage I experience inside of me.
What was also important was the constraints that I have, I had a little bit of a rational mind, but also external constraints, the realities of traffic, not doing something that was even more dangerous. and my wife reminding me to get sane again.
But there are also other times, when there were no external constraints at all, and then there will be that moment of choice.
Sure, give us another example.
This involves you and Kristina! (laughs)
This was one of the very the first times I showed up for Zen, and we exchanged names, and one of you said something like, “Are you new to Spokane? Have you lived here long?”
And I asked you two, well how long have you been in this town?
And Kristina laughed at the way I said that. And somehow, and this is just me, not you or Kristina, I took that as a kind of a put-down. That i was using a phrase that was dated, or maybe she thought I was pompous. He felt judged. But as soon as she laughed, I could feel myself getting defensive.
And that moment, if you catch it right at the beginning, that’s when things are most fluid. I didn’t even have words behind this decision. I just made the decision, I wasn’t going to go there, just going to watch it happen.
There’s my feeling vulnerable, and insecure again, feeling judged again. That sort of thing. Because i was able to catch it in the very beginning, it just evaporated. It was an experience of freedom. I did not make a psychic cage around myself. I was free.
You didn’t take it personal?
Absolutely not, the laugh happened, my judgement happened, my reaction happened, I just watched it happen. And then I was fine, I was done with it.
Another example of a positive outcome. Many years ago, Mary and I had a disagreement. We were getting at each other a bit, and she said something that hooked me. I watched the whole thing happen. I watched the words go in, and there was a strong visual component to this experience. It was like I was looking inside myself. I could see this happening.
Inside myself, looking down through my spine, at the bottom there was this dark pool of liquid. Like mud. And I looked down, and I saw this shape starting to emerge, and as it came out, I saw it was this coiled snake. But it was really anger at what my wife said. It was halfway out, and I still had a choice. At that moment I still had a choice. I could say yes, or no to this thing, and so I said no . And it went back down. No anger at that point.
What about present-moment awareness, have you noticed that change over the years of practice?
I think so, I’m more aware when I’m not in the present. I can kind of pull myself away from all my head trips that takes me out of the present. When I’m going to beautiful scenery, like on a walk, I’m much more likely to actually notice it, like smells and sounds as well as the sights.
Is that something from practicing in that moment, or over time practice?
Yes, the second thing, it’s a cumulative effect of practicing over time.
Is there anything when you’re not on the cushion that is practice related?
Sometimes I’ll use the Tibetan mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum. When I feel a need to be more in my heart than my head, I use that, and I visualize my energy going from my head to my heart.
The jewel is in the lotus, that which I seek, I already am?
Yes, the jewel in the lotus, the lotus being the heart. The pearl of great price, The jewel that we’re all seeking. We don’t know that it is there, we have to put our attention there, to live from that spot.
When I’m really feeling really scattered, irritated, tired, bored, I will sometimes use that.
What is the role of a teacher in your practice?
I get to ask Jack (John’s teacher) some questions, that I don’t know who else to possibly ask those questions of that nature. He’s reassuring for me. Sometimes I don’t know where I am in this journey, even though I have some mental road maps. Like the 10 ox herding pictures. But I don’t know where I am on that road map. I need a second opinion on that (laughs). Am I more or less awakened than I think I am?
Any other tips, or inspirations that help you?
Your questions make me aware that I can do much more on a daily basis to remind myself to return to the present. I think I might make that a project to jot down some of those tools and use them more often. I just tend to notice more frequently where I am, where my attention, awareness, and energies are. Sometimes that’s all you need.
And you intend to keep on practicing?
Yes it’s been good for me. One of the aspects of Zen that is a good fit for me, is that in my youth I was so much in my head, and Zen is merciless at cutting down those head trips. Pushing you out of that comfort zone.