MF 48 – Mindful communications with Gregory Heffron
Gregory Heffron MFA owns and manages Green Zone Conversations Retreats. He is the only certified teacher of Mindful Communication authorized by author and Buddhist teacher Susan Chapman MA.
He has been teaching Mindful Communication workshops with Susan since 2009, and has been a mindfulness meditation teacher in the Shambhala Lineage since 2005.
In 2005, he apprenticed with senior Mudra Space Awareness teacher Craig Smith, and became authorized to teach this unique mind-body meditation technique. In 2007, Smith and Heffron taught this practice in a workshop for fourth-year students in the Dance Division at The Juilliard School in New York City.
His background is in creative writing, having earned an MFA in Nonfiction Creative Writing from the University of Iowa in 2003. He is a student of Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and lives in Santa Monica, California.
What follows is a summary transcript of the interview. Listen to the episode for the full conversation)
How did your path to meditation start?
When I was in my 20’s and had just broken up with my girlfriend. It hit me in just that way that shook my world. For a variety of reasons, I didn’t have any tools to work with that, I was into art and literature, done therapy. I just couldn’t quite hold it all together. I came to meditation like many people through struggle and pain and challenge. Luckily I knew some people in meditation groups. Shambala Buddhist meditation group.
It struck me as being a sensible thing to experiment with. They were kind enough to bring me along. It’s been 17 years since then.
When you got attracted to that particular tradition and practice, was there anything in particular that stood out to you in that tradition that helped you with your breakup?
I found there was something about just resting with my emotional experience, without having to resolve it. Without having to come up with the big solution. I think that was the most powerful part of the practice for me, even though it was quite difficult. Quite challenging. At that time I was going through a tumultuous time.
The more I did it, I gradually gained confidence, that it could be done. That I could sit in chaos and confusion, complexity, and the richness of my emotional experience. And that it was OK to do that. Instead of finding it to be something that violated the rules of reality. It was reality, and it was OK to feel really tumultuous. There is something calming and soothing and sensible about that, that I could handle complexity and chaos and not freak out about it.
And I imagine with most meditation practices, that is a big part, to learn to be comfortable with uncertainty, not knowing, not having the answers and like you said to be OK with chaos. Not something that most of us can just learn in a few periods of meditation sitting.
Yeah, the length of practice, and repetition of practice is crucial. Otherwise it is sort of like picking up an exercise regiment and doing it for a couple of days, you just feel kind of sore. And you don’t get very far. But if you keep it up, something happens.
How did your practice evolve from there. Did you find it was helping you in other situations, or areas of life?
Sure..I found greater ease entering uncertain situations. Situations that were unclear, where I felt anxious. That was really encouraging.
I can think of particular situations, walking in somewhere, where I thought, “Oh boy, I’m really nervous”, and then feeling that bubbling energy, that anxiety. And then enter anyways, with a certain kind of equanimity. That was ground-braking for me. There was always that sense before that, of trying to stuff down my anxiety. Trying to suppress it, which of course only makes it worse.
Suddenly I had a different way to relate. That actually allowed me to at least feel a little bit calmer. So then I was inspired as I saw those results. So within a year I did a week retreat, and then as time went on, a month retreats, and longer and complex retreats as time went on. Until that whole process became more of a passion project. I was really interested to see where this would go. And I still feel that way now.
So your continued practice is in part led by curiosity about what else there is to learn about this practice?
Yeah, which is what else there is to learn about myself. To some degree there is more to learn about the practice itself, but really. In a way it is just applying what I’ve learned so far. Relaxing into the practice….and seeing what I can see.
Since you talking about bringing your meditation practice into your daily life. You got into mindfulness and mindful communications. Maybe you can elaborate on how you moved into that direction..
In 2009, I met Susan Gillis Chapman, who’s a senior teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition. She was teaching mindfulness communications. She conceived that type of teaching from being a marriage and family therapist, as well as a Buddhist teacher who in the Shambhala tradition was in charge of one of the longest and most sophisticated retreats in our tradition, the 3 year retreat at Gampo Abbey. Pema Chodron put her in charge of that retreat. I met her after that period.
I met her when she was starting to teach seminars on this materials. And she invited me in to teach a mind-body meditation that I have a background in, called Mudra Space Awareness that comes out of the Tibetan tradition. I was going to teach the mind-body component, and then she was going to teach mindful communications.
We did that for a few years, and in that process I began to learn what she was teaching. I wasn’t even sure at first. It was startling to me, the material she was teaching. It was based on the one hand on some of the highest Buddhist teachings, but it was also very pragmatic, very useful. You just felt like you had a way to understand very simple interactions and situations, that before had been completely confusion.
Maybe you can give a couple of examples, and elaborate on what you mean with Mudra Space Awareness….
It’s essentially an acute direct practice of experiencing your mind and body together. That comes out of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Rooted in Tibetan monastic dance training. That the monks would do in the monasteries in Tibet.
In terms of mindful communications. The easiest way to understand it is, that we’re already born with innate sensitivity to understand what is happening with our communication with others. That is the primary point of view. Not so much that mindful communication is building up a set of skills that you have to try to remember and get better. But actually in some ways it is the opposite process. That we are stripping down the kinds of habits that cover over our innate sensitivity to communication. That actually could allow us to steer very naturally, spontaneously, and accurately in our interactions with others.
So do you have examples of habits or habit patterns that cover up what we already innately have available to us.
One of the ones that causes the most trouble for most of us, is not recognizing certain primary states in communication. Like for example, failing to recognize when communication has shut down between ourselves and someone else. For whatever someone has broken off communication. They might still be in the room, or even speaking with us. But we can feel that something has broken down in the communications. Up until that point, there was a kind of natural interchange. We have this natural open kind of communications that we naturally carry out with others. Like over the counter in the post office or grocery line. Very simple, nothing elaborate.
And yet, there comes a moment where that can break down, and we feel it. We feel it almost immediately. We said one thing, someone thought we said something else, and they’re offended.
Or we said something, and someone didn’t hear it, so they don’t respond to us. There are a variety of ways that communication breaks down. Maybe they are overwhelmed. And whatever we said makes them even more overwhelmed. So they just tuned us out. That is a good fundamental example to go with.
You’ve spoken and someone is not responding, and there is that gap, where we don’t understand what is going on. Usually in that moment, we feel anxious. There is a subtle, a feeling of being socked in the gut. A vacuum in the room emerges, where that happens…”Now what should I do…not sure what’s going on.. is the sense. ”
What most of us do out of habit that causes trouble, is that we plow forward, as though it wasn’t happening. If what we said overwhelms that person, we might say it again, or saying it louder or elaborating more. Which of course makes this other person feel even more overwhelmed. So communication shuts down even further.
Or could be defense. Or we could cut it off. Because they didn’t respond, we feel like I’m not going to speak to this person again, now they’ve offended me. There is a variety of things, we could try to seduce them into being more friendly, or tune them out, or become angry.
All of this misses the point. The reality is very simple, there was a communication breakdown, and we felt it. No-one is telling us what is going on. We can actually feel it. It doesn’t mean we know what is going on at some deeper level per se. But we’re pretty good at knowing what is going on.
Just being willing to be mindful at such a moment is incredibly powerful. To stop the forward momentum, and just be curious. Just explore…like looking at this person’s face. If they are speaking, listening to the tone of their voice. Paying close attention to our self, to our own emotions that are rising up. Maybe we do start to feel anxious, and then feeling that. Being willing to let those feelings come through, because they are information. They are our own sensitivity.
In many ways, and in our many interactions with others, we have this sensitivity, that could allow us to slow down, and become a little more careful. And steer more accurately. But we have to remember to let go of our patterns, our habits that we build up over time.
I think it’s good you elaborated on the various things that can happen in those few moments. When you pause enough, those things can happen, but if you don’t know how to pause, that can bring problems. The ability to pause is a huge component of that.
It’s very radical to pause. In our retreats we do a pause practice. Where randomly we ring a chime. When people are in small groups, and talking, and the instruction is to just stop for 3 breaths….nothing. Getting used to being interrupted by something unexpected..and then you resume. It’s just life interrupts us. Instead of that being a bad thing, often the idea of being interrupted in communications is upsetting. Instead, if we can reverse that tendency.
And feel that being interrupted could allow us to restart fresh. And tune in a little bit more.
And a big part is too that a lot of us forget to breathe deeply. Just that mindfulness bell is a wonderful opportunity to get back to your breath, the here and now, your body, everything….
Absolutely, I think it’s originally adapted from Thich Nhat Hanh. Susan calls that a positive interruption. In communication we could have positive interruptions.
Interestingly enough, when we get really fixated, stuck and trapped in our habits, sometimes the best thing possible is a positive interruption.
Suddenly a hummingbird flies by your head..You’re in the midst of something, like being shut down, angry or whatever, and suddenly something just breaks you out of it. It’s not something you can organize or plan for, but you can go with it when it happens. It could just be the taste of your coffee. While you’re upset or trying to be upset, and you get interrupted. You realize suddenly your coffee just tastes so good! For an instant you forget to be furious. We can take these opportunities and go with them. Start fresh.
In terms of mindful communication. You’ve already mentioned curiosity, listening with full attention, giving full attention. Which is also a good skill to learn. A lot of people have a hard time listening to someone else, without having agendas, maybe preparing a counter argument at the same time while the other person is speaking.
Right..The fundamental material that is in The Five Keys to Mindful Communication, covers this somewhat systematically. But essentially, just being present is one whole set of skills. And then listening is one whole set of skills.
There’s 2 ways of listening. There’s listening at a level of accuracy and information, the content of the conversation. And then there is listening at a heart level, to the emotional truth of the conversation. Which includes things that are maybe not spoken, but that you can feel them as they change.
And then there is skills around speaking, and being able to be truthful, without neither exaggerating, nor suppressing. How can we say true things without being either harsh or coy about them. So there is training around all these different elements.
Is this training that someone would do over the course of a period of time, or.. what does that look like?
We offer courses, from just a talk, or for that matter reading the book on your own, to longer retreats, like weekend retreats, or 5 day retreats. These are all on our web site Green Zone Talk.
But they do need to be worked with, and trained with. It’s easy to think about all this stuff, but much harder to get it down into your bones so to speak. So that when you’re in a challenging situation, you can apply them.
Making it part of a natural response or muscle memory that you’ve trained yourself in..
And I’ll add that one of our fundamental trainings is mindfulness meditation. If we can’t connect with the present moment, and what is arising in our senses, in our emotional faculties, what’s arising in terms of our thoughts. Then there is nothing to work with. We have to connect first and foremost with the present moment.
Anyone of us who’s done mindfulness training knows, we have to train! If you don’t train, you lose the acuity. You lose the richness of that connection, that has tremendous potential if we develop it. And then if we do develop that, then we can aim that awareness in various directions, including towards communication.
Since we’ve had such a contentious election. Maybe you can walk the listener through this example. You’ve got two groups, one on the right, and one on the political left, and they start discussing politics. And within no time at all, people part ways in anger. Walk us through how someone might approach this using your mindfulness communication techniques.
That’s a great topic right now. So many people are deeply distraught over the level of discord in this election, and it’s historic. I think we’re living through a historic event. A lot of us are really challenged by that.
First and foremost is to just acknowledge that we are living through this unusual historic moment that is pushing these buttons even more than usual. But I would use one of our fundamental metaphors in mindful communication, which is the traffic light. We use the traffic light because it is so simple, very basic, easy, and helpful. You can teach this to children. The traffic light is good, because when we get upset, we get a bit simplistic. The more upset we get, the more childlike we actually are, not necessarily in a positive direction. We lose our intelligence and sophistication. I bring this up because it is so useful and simple.
What happens in say talking about this election, if you run into people who have different views than oneself. We already carry around with us anxiety about the state of the world, the state of the nation, and our place in that, our future security, our freedom, and sense of connected-ness to the culture in the US say. So there is already a bit of anxiety.
Which in the traffic light metaphor, when we’re open and connected with ourselves, which automatically connects us with others. As soon as we’re really connected with ourselves, we’re already in the room. We already realize that we are interacting with our environment. Even when we’re alone. Not to mention that when we’re with others.
But as our anxiety level rises, it takes us out of the green light state of openness, into the yellow light state. The yellow light state is very much connected to fear, uncertainty and confusion. Like I don’t know what’s happening, what is going on, I don’t understand! That kind of feeling.
And when we enter the yellow light state, we’re suddenly living in a different world, than we were just a minute before. When we were feeling very connected. We’ve entered a situation where we can’t handle as much as we could just a few minutes ago. A different state. We become in some ways weakened. And our sophistication, and all of our big theories about the world, the way we want to be as a human being in the world, they get scaled way back. We get into a kind of fight or flight sensibility.
We need to recognize this when this happens. Politics triggers this in us. Because the stakes are high, and we have these big concerns. There are moral issues, that really touch us at a deep heart level. Maybe they have a different morality that we don’t understand, that we don’t share. So we’re in the yellow light. Usually already, just to find out that someone has a different view from us is already threatening to a lot of us.
Now when we’re in the yellow light, we’re already feeling quite overwhelmed. We don’t want to absorb far more information than we already have. Since we’re already overwhelmed, we don’t want to take on an even bigger task at that moment. Because we already got disconnected a bit from our self, we start to lose touch with our heart, lose touch with our senses. It’s when we go into our head, and stop paying attention to the room and the feeling in our body. Basic truths. We stop seeing what our eyes are actually seeing in the room, because we’re in our minds. We’re starting to worry and go off into the future. What if this political situation happens, that could be tragic, etc…
So because we’re disconnected, due to our anxiety, we have to realize we’re a little limited on that moment. Our top priority at that moment is to reconnect. Our top priority is not at that point to continue the discussion or get an opinion down someone else’s throat. Or to sit through a discussion that for whatever reason we don’t feel like we can tolerate at that moment.
We need to protect our-self a little bit at that point. It’s nobody’s fault, it’s not the fault of the other person, or the other political party. We have become disconnected from our own mind and heart a little bit. Not even our fault, it just is.
So the question is what do we do?.. And what we need to do is get a little protective, and perhaps get ourselves to a safer space. Whatever that means. This may mean literally opting out. “Please continue without me!” or it could mean, just saying, “I’m not doing very well with this, and I don’t know if I can continue talking about this at this time.” Whatever it is, we need to reconnect.
Once we can get or are able to get back to the present moment, reconnect to our senses, to our heart, to the intelligence that we carry as human beings…Then we can have any kind of sophisticated political conversation.
We need to recognize that we go in and out of this. Anxiety may bring us to a certain state were we are not going to make a lot of progress..Until we soothe our-self, and calm down, and reconnect. That is the important part. And that others are going through this as well. Driving someone into a state of anxiety, while maybe no-one’s fault. But if they are in a higher and higher state of anxiety, the conversation is not going to be that fruitful.
Yeah, it’s only going to escalate, get more reactive and reactionary…
What we don’t want, is for the situation to progress to what we call the, “red light”. The red light is when we fully shut down. The yellow light we’re sort of in-between, we’re fearful, getting disconnected, but we haven’t really gone for it. But the red light is where we tip into fully shut down. That’s when we lash out, or go silent. Give someone the silent treatment. Or could take different forms. Could be arrogance, or hyper competitiveness. I don’t care what is true anymore, I just want to win, no matter what. That kind of thing.
These are habits, no-one’s fault, but we carry them out because we’re afraid essentially. And we’ve run away from our own fear, into this shut down state. That is where more harm can happen. Both to ourselves and others. And we don’t want to do that. We want to find our way back out. Instead of pushing ourselves so hard to where we shut down, we just need to naturally recognize our limits. And pull back a bit. We might even be able to continue the conversation if we pull back a little bit. Maybe a few minutes break, get some more snacks for example at a holiday party. Allows us to reconnect a little bit, and we can actually say what we really mean, instead of having things come out of our mouth that we don’t mean.
And continuing to see each other’s humanity, seeing a common ground. Some of these conversations, people end up completely alienated from each other. That’s sad!
Absolutely. The worst part about that, from my point of view, is that we then don’t understand what is going on with this other person. If we’d been able to slow down, step back a bit, and allow the conversation to progress on a more human level, instead of trying to win, or trying to prove that this person is morally bankrupt, or something. We could then ask them to, “tell me more about your world, what do you believe.”
That’s how we do break down those barriers. Instead of the world progressing into a kind of red light state, where suddenly there’s whole groups of people who are considered as inhuman. “Those people” on the other side. “I don’t even think of them as human beings anymore. ” Instead we realize that shared humanity, like you were saying.
And then we go, OK, well I don’t really agree with them, but I understand what they’re thinking. I talk to this person, and they told me their view of the world. Even if you think they are wrong. Even if you want your candidate to win, and theirs to lose, That’s fine. But even then you need to understand who you’re up against, and what they’re into. How they see things.
So it’s effective, it’s not just ideological, not just being compassionate in a moral way. If you want to get things done, you need to know the world in which you are trying to get things done in.
Even in congress, the complete failure of communication across the isles and how it’s turned into a stand still. In a lot of different situations, to learn to be more mindful and communicate better would have a lot of fruit and benefit.
I saw an article recently on that, that charted it across decades, and how fractured it has become now. That is in terms of the democrats and republicans, no longer being able to work with each other. You look back 50 years, and it was a different world.
That is where you see that our own troubles and habits around communication breaking down, they turn into world history. It’s exactly the same as what is going on within us, but it is a bunch of people who happen to be in congress, or whatever other government body, or military body for that matter in the world, that they have the same trouble that we do.
And that when they shut down into the red light, suddenly if that is the wrong person shutting down, you’ve got a war, and a 100.000 people die. Because of that one moment of shut-down. It’s that simple in a way. It comes down to one moment where someone said, I’m not going to connect with my experience. I’m going to turn this other person into an object, I’m going to objectify this other country, or another. And now we can attack them. But it’s now different than our own experience.
Yeah it’s an important practice. I imagine you also work with marriages in your practice..
That’s an interesting one, because here’s someone we’re so close to in intimate relationships to. We’re so close is that the irony is that we feel every grain of disagreement. As if there were little bits of sand, that if you weren’t absolutely pressed up against each other, you wouldn’t feel a little grain of sand. But because you are, every little bit can become some huge drama. Some huge disagreement. It’s only because we’re so invested, and we’re so close, that that’s the case. Which is a bit unfair way to judge our relationships. We’re doing our best, they are doing their best. And yet we’re judging it by this very extreme standard.
Do your retreats emphasize couples, or do you have a variety of emphasize different aspects of life, different situations?
Yeah, we have a number of retreats. The one that is focused on relationships is called, “the four seasons of relationship”. This looks at the cycles that relationships go through. In terms of every relationship is like a year. In the sense that, we start out alone, and then we go through a kind of spring time, where a courtship that happens. You meet someone, and you start to assess whether there is a connection. And if there is a connection, you continue into the summer. And summer is this sense of deepening the connection, and committing to the connection. And even to the point of making vows to each other, in whatever sense. Whether literal or coming to understandings, of what the nature of the connection is.
And then at some point, even if it is just over the course of a human life, where of course we’re going to die at the end of our lives. There is a coming apart. Or could be breakup. There is a natural point where the connection has to come apart, and this is true even for ongoing relationships. That we could recognize that even walking into a room with someone in the morning we go through these seasons. We were alone, and we walk in to have breakfast or something, and there is that meeting point where we come together, and begin a conversation, or whatever that is. And then there is the full breakfast time, where we’re really deeply engaging. And then we split of into different directions for the day.
So this 4 season cycle happens in a lot of different ways. Not just in romantic relationships. It could be someone you meet on the bus and have a conversation with.. So that retreat covers that material.
We have a whole retreat about conflict, and the 4 stages of escalation into conflict, and how to undo each of those 4 those stages. We have a whole retreat on the chemistry of emotions. How the emotions manifest in the 3 different traffic lights. Open emotions (green), the yellow light emotions of fear and anxiety, and then finally the shut down emotions of the red light.
And we have a retreat (called the stories of our lives) that is all about looking back at our life story, and re-configuring our life story. Telling it in different ways, in order to cut through the complaint a lot of us have about our lives. “My life should have gone a certain way, instead it went a different way.” And to actually look at our lives, and say, “ah, this is a hero’s journey.” In which there are tragic moments, and disappointments.
It’s a bit like an opera, but it’s a spiritual journey in some sense. We’re going through a lot of experiences, some of which are quite painful. In order to live a heroic life.
So the retreat helps you to learn to appreciate things that you formally didn’t really appreciate about your life.
Yes, that’s it, recognizing that our lives are rich. They’re not necessarily a vacation. They’re not for sissies so to speak! Life can be quite intense, and yet we could really view it as a powerful experience. Including all the troubles that we’ve had. Those could all be crucial parts of the story.
Could you mention the book one more time, so folks who are interested can follow up and learn more about this practice.
Yeah, it’s,The Five Keys to Mindful Communication from Shambhala publications by Susan Gillis Chapman. And there is going to be another book, a workbook, hopefully in the next year.
Great..so people can do some homework, and implement it.
Exactly, because a lot of people are interested in doing that, and this will make that more explicit and give you more of a path to travel through the material.
That’s great, that’s what we’re all about, applied meditation.
In 1975 he wrote the book The Magical Child Within You which was the first book written on trusting and nurturing the inner child. A couple years later he coauthored another best selling book Hugs & Kisses about loving life, which has been a theme of his work ever since.
While a graduate student, Bruce met and became an apprentice to a remarkable Shaman who had the gift of entering into and teaching people in their dreams. For four years, Bruce was introduced to many realms and worlds outside normal western thought. These years were to be the beginning of Bruce’s quest to understand the potential of psychology and spirituality.
Since 1983 he has led interfaith spiritual retreats in many parts of Europe, Asia, United States. Taking people to sacred places like Assisi, Italy, participants discover the sacred place within themselves. For twelve years Bruce and Ruth lived in Assisi, founding the Assisi Retreat Center where people of all backgrounds are welcome to enjoy the simple peace and spirit of St. Francis of Assisi. He returned home to California in 2012 and established, Silent Stay. It is Bruce’s wish to provide a sanctuary for everyone who yearns for real peace and quiet towards finding their own inner joy, spirituality, and purpose.
Through the years, Bruce has studied and lived with spiritual teachers in India, Philippines, Germany and Bali, Indonesia. In 1992 Bruce & Ruth established a free food program for the homeless in San Francisco that continues till this day. High schoolers from some of America’s wealthiest communities are traveling each weekend, into the poorest neighborhoods, serving food to people living in the streets. At Silent Stay, Bruce has a great interest in supporting people who have had a Near Death Experience or spiritual awakening. His primary intention is helping others to develop a meaningful spiritual life including a daily life of joy.
Interview with Bruce Davis
(What follows is a summary transcript of the interview. Listen to the episode for the full conversation)
What brought you to a contemplative practice?
Began when Bruce was in grad school, in psychology. He was looking at his serious teachers, uptight, not happy, all grown up. So he wrote a book, The Magical Child Within You in 1975. It was the first book on the inner child.
That there’s more to life than being serious and dull, grown up and responsible. We each have an inner child to trust and enjoy. Ever since he’s been exploring the place of the heart. Then I gradually became more interested in meditation. Because meditation is a doorway to the really big part inside the heart.
And when you saw all those “grown-ups” and serious people around you, did you ever go through that stage of being lost, and finding your inner child again?
My wife says I never grew up. (laughs). She says, “Bruce you’ve never really had a job”. You’ve never really worked. That’s true, I’ve been leading retreats for almost 40 years, all over Europe, and US, and now going to Bali and other places. I’ve always been living from my heart, sharing from my heart. And it’s worked. Trusting. Not an easy path, but it was the only true path I could do.
Since you already found your inner child, was there anything that you did struggle with, where meditation practice was beneficial?
Those days you didn’t really know much about meditation, or India, or Buddhism, and all these new feeling therapies were out. I started a clinic in Denver, where people would come and we’d ask them how old they felt. And the ones that would say 15, we’d send these teenagers upstairs, the 5-7 year olds to another room, babies to another room. They would explore these different ages inside of them. This was the Denver feeling center. We thought this was a new frontier. We were adults, we were grad students, all different ages, but remembering the inner child.
Meanwhile I was at a seminar in grad school, with a shaman. I didn’t know at the time what that meant. One night I fell asleep and she came into my dream to my bed. The next day I went over to her, she said, “do you remember me coming to you last night?”. So for 4 years, I was her student. And she’d come into my dreams, and take me to the other side, teach me in my dreams. She said I was the most stubborn student she had ever had. So mental. I was raised in a non-spiritual, non-religious family. I didn’t really believe in any of these things. I thought finding my inner child and feelings, and thought that was a breakthrough. I didn’t know that there was something even more. So she slowly taught me more. Even though I had all these direct experiences, I was resistant. Because it wasn’t in my background, my culture.
Once in Germany, she again came into my dream, she came into my dream, and I said this is not real. She said, “oh yeah?” And she pushed me, and I woke up on the floor. So slowly I began to realize there is much more to this world, then what we normally think in western culture.
I spend some months with Philippine healers. These people were very poor, had no medicine, but they were using their hands to heal. And I saw and experienced incredible things. And then again I realized there is more to this world. These shamans and teachers all told me to think less and be more present. That I needed to learn how to meditate. Get out of your mental mind, and just to be present.
So that was your main struggle, and stubborness, that you were not being present at the time?
We’re caught up in our heads, we don’t realize that our mental life is only a very small part of a much bigger picture. In the west, we think our mental life is everything.
Right, we let it dominate, even though it should be a support…
We should think when there’s something to think about. My wife tells me, Bruce you don’t think too much ..(laughs) It’s nice to just be present and enjoy life. And there’s so much presents to receive.
And appropriate action come out of non-thinking as well. Even though it is common to think that you have to think a lot before acting. Sometimes that is necessary, but often times, appropriate action comes about due to being fully present, available, and attentive to the present.
Exactly, now 40 years later, we live mostly in silence, we run a silent retreat. People discover the silence of their heart. And as you discover the silence of your heart, our intuition is more available. Creativity is more available. But more importantly, this borderless, this vastness inside that’s usually covered up with all of our thinking and busyness we have to do.
So we enjoy living mostly in silence, and having people absorb the deep joy that was inside of us.
A joy that they didn’t think they had, but was covered up by the thinking, conditioning, etc.
Exactly, most people are so busy with their mental lives. They don’t know underneath it is this vastness. Even people who’ve been meditating for many years, watching their thoughts, thinking about non-thinking. They haven’t really gone in and absorbed this deep heart inside of us, which I call our heart-essence.
So in the west, even those on a meditative path, a lot of them have not experienced this space, this lightfulness.
And some would want results that the meditation would have quick results, but that is not always the case…
Well, in our case it is the case..My wife takes beginners, particularly beginners, they’re the easiest, into this space within their hearts, within 5-10 minutes. And they find this big space, and their innocence is right there.
Now people who’ve been meditating for many years, its’ more complicated for them. Because they already have a system to of going inside. Generally more mental, more challenging for them to let go, and go deep into their heart. And then we ask what do you find, and they find this space that has no borders. And then we ask what do you feel in that space, what’s your experience? Everyone has their own experience. Some people will say, they feel at home here. Or I feel this gentleness inside with no end, or they feel this deep joy.
And then we ask them where are your thoughts? And they say, what do you mean? There are no thoughts there. There is just this big space. And I think in all traditions, more and more of us are discovering this, as we learn to get creative with our mental role. And really not just watch what’s in our hearts, but go deep inside our hearts and receive.
When you mention that just anyone can walk up to your retreat, and have this opening experience? Do you find it’s easier for this opening experience to take place for younger folks, than folks who are more set in their ways? I’m thinking of for example a very divisive politician for example, how easy would it be for them to turn around and become this joy and openness?
Most folks who come in, they stay mostly in silence, and they feel the silence of the heart, and from that place we ask them what do they find. And they find this beautiful space. But if they’re in the middle of emotional trauma or drama, they just broke up with their boyfriend, or they’re sick, or they lost their job. You can’t just push through those feelings, and go underneath to this big space.
So if they’re in the midst of a big emotional drama, we just have them embrace that place and be with it. Maybe they go underneath it and find that big space. Maybe their retreat is just being loving and being with what is going on with their lives.
We don’t get to many politicians to our retreats, but we do live near Silicon valley and get people from Apple, Google, Twitter, and Yahoo. They love it, just to put their mind aside, and feel this deep valley of non-thinking. So for them it’s not difficult to find.
I write for the Huffington post and once wrote this article, “Can you be a republican and still meditate?” I was making fun, but I’m not sure if you can be republican and meditate. If you go into your peaceful heart, you’re going to find compassion for yourself and others. But how can you have compassion and do some of the things that are going on this world? I don’t know.
I’m finding on the liberal side, there too can be a lot of mocking of the other side, that could be mean spirited and also isn’t all that compassionate either. I’ve seen mean spiritedness on both sides of the political spectrum that could turn into something more destructive harmful…you know what I mean?
Yeah, I don’t think it’s related to politics. We all have a personality and ego, and just by nature we want to be comfortable. After 40 years of meditation, I’m finding that that personality has not gone away. I still have an ego, still uncomfortable. But it’s not so intense, it’s a bit thinner. I’m a little bit more understanding, a bit more patient, and open, and happy. But that structure, our ego, our personality, all this deep patterns. I think it stays with us, we’re just a little less reactive. Hopefully a little less aggressive. We’re just a little more giving and caring.
And that space that you mentioned, the ability to pause to respond, rather than have a reflex and reaction. Having that space alone would make a huge difference in the de-escalation of violence and all those things that spiral out of control.
Exactly, we tell people that once they find that space, and we help them find that. Then their intention is to receive that space, to absorb that space in our awareness.
Going back to the inner child. When we were kids, we were naturally open, trusting, receiving, spontaneous. That awareness was just here…But as we filled our awareness with all that stuff, all kinds of drama, feelings, and intellectual stuff, we become separate from source of trusting, and just be.
So we tell people coming to retreats, to really drink from that source as much as you can. And so we have no media, no cell phones, no everything, and it’s pretty quiet, beautiful nature. So people have a few days to really practice drinking from that place inside.
And then when they get home, that’s their spiritual practice. To continue absorbing our deep self of no-self. This deep being-ness.
And then when that becomes our source, our personality, and our mental life, it becomes less busy, hopefully more open, less automatic, more choices.
I was just talking to our daughter, who works with us. And she says she feels so much more freedom. She has two kids, yoga center, very busy with lots of responsibility. But doing this big heartfulness meditation, she just feels so much more free, so many more choices, feels better and more relaxed.
Do you have some examples in your own life, where you felt more freedom as a result of your contemplative meditation practice?
I’ve been on this path for a long time, so it’s hard to say…I’ve always been close to the near-death community, with folks having near-death experiences. I found folks there that could understand what I’ve gone through better.
We just finished living in Assisi, Italy for 12 years. Mostly in silence, just ouside of town. Then when I came back, there was things like Youtube, and books, and other internet experiences, where I had never anyone to talk about these experiences, like my experience with the Shaman. It’s a big thing where we all have begun to talk about these things. Whereas it wasn’t in my culture at the time, it wasn’t normal. Where it was normal in those cultures.
So I’ve been going through a process of discovering community. Just hearing their stories. It’s been a big hug to I am. I’ve been to retreats for all these years, and leading and sharing retreats for myself, not for others so much. But for my own health and well being. Enjoyed sharing it with others, wasn’t exactly planned. I just live this way as a contemplative in a non-contemplative world.
Are you seeing people move away or towards silence and stillness, because they have less of it. What kind of frictions do you see with that?
A little of both. A lot of people at Google for example are now meditating, they have a silence room. But most of the meditation in California is mindfulness. Which is OK, because mindfulness helps people to be present, that’s a big gift just to learn to be present. But just watching our thoughts and watching our experience, we’re still separate from our hearts.
And I think that the whole Silicon Valley technology world has to reconnect with the heart, and realize that technology for it’s own sake in my opinion is not that great. It just keeps the kids busy. The important thing is to get connected to our heart, to have purpose, to have service.
I love all the opportunity to reach out and touch each other, it’s amazing what you can do with the smart phone these days. But on another level, if you’re not grounded in our own hearts, there’s no meaning, there’s no purpose. We’re just playing with technology all the time.
Just endless distraction. One thing after another…
Exactly, an endless distraction. And it’s very seductive. Very hard, we have grand-kids. In our days it was only television, and we could get off the television. But these days, it’s very hard for kids to be away from it for more than a few minutes. That’s sad..
It has a bullying effect to it, they are constantly tethered to it.. they can’t leave it, fear of missing out.
We have this beautiful place in nature, 25 acres on top of a hill. I think the kids would like to come out here, see the animals, turkeys, etc. And they’re more or less tethered to their machines.
What do you advice folks to help them ground themselves once they go to your retreats, and go back home, and its very tempting to come back on full distraction mode?
That’s the challenge. In a non-contemplative world, it’s very hard to embrace meditation, to embrace spirituality. We tell them to find a local group. Whatever it is that you can resonate with. To sit and meditate with a group. There’s something very beautiful about sitting with a group.
If not a group, make a regular time, morning and/or evening where you sit. And some days are wonderful, and some days your mind is very busy and will not stop. That’s OK, just do it, discipline is very healthy.
And then there’s the nurturing yourself, I’m still into the inner child. People have to find their joy, practice receiving your joy. You can’t go deep into your heart if it’s closed, angry, or uptight or frustrated. It’s not just a meditation practice. We have to live our joy, and enjoy life.
Sometimes that means you might have to go to a therapist. If the knot around their heart is too strong, and they can’t loosen it up through their own practice?
I’m trained as a psychologist, and folks always ask what is the best therapy? What do you suggest. I always tell them, doesn’t matter what kind of therapy, just find someone with a good heart. Someone with a good heart whatever their training is, they’re going to help you get more deeply open up your heart.
You mentioned the monastery without walls, maybe you can elaborate on that..
I wrote the book with that title in 1986. It’s this idea that we each of us have an inner monk or nun, but we’re not about to join an order. But we still need to learn to listen, and create a space in our lives to receive this monk/nun inside of us. So this whole book is how do we live in the world, and make our own monastery but without walls.
The first step is to recognize is that there is a part of us, in everyone of us, that is a monk or a nun. That needs that solitude, we need some time just to listen…to be, and to receive the presence.
Through the years, I’ve met many monks and nuns, living cloistered lives, in monasteries, and they have the same challenges as we do, living in the world. There’s no easy answer. It’s not a question of whether or not to join a monastery. It’s a questions of creating a monastery without walls. Creating your own monastery and making it work for you.
You also talk about brother body, brother death, sister rain, etc. You talk about the change in relationship with the world around you is no longer an it. Where it’s no longer me vs it, or me vs them relationship. When you dissolve that too, then the world becomes the monastery without walls too….
Yeah, the world becomes your family..I got that teaching, I become a bit of a Franciscan monk in Assisi. An incredible place. I started going in 1983, and eventually lived there for many years. But this whole path of St Francis. Brother body, brother death, brother tree, sister rock, and sister moon. It’s another way of being, that we’re all one family, living in harmony, receiving each other.
The big thing about St Francis that most people don’t understand, is this idea of poverty. It wasn’t outside poverty so much, but this great sense of emptiness. In Buddhism you know this emptiness. But in the west, in the Judaeo-Christian world, there is no talk about emptiness. So emptiness was a big part of my path of becoming free of the mental world. This profound emptiness that’s where you begin to see brother moon, and sister sound, all the animals in nature, because it’s very present. Very intimate on some level.
Besides Italy, we spent a lot of time in Bali, with the Shamans, which is Buddhist, Hindu, but also shamanic in some ways. With emptiness they’re making offerings. They’re offering everything in their heart. That’s another thing that is missing most Western spirituality. We don’t have an understanding what offering is.
We’re missing devotion, offering, and emptiness. These three elements are key to opening profoundly to the space of no-thought. This border-less space.
We talk about “intimacy”, everything is family. These fictitious boundaries, you take away these boundaries between you and everything else, and you become more intimate. And so that practice helps you become more intimate, you realize yourself more intimate with everything.
So for St Francis it was through nakedness. That we’re all profoundly human, profoundly naked. In our nakedness, we see each other, nature, trees, flowers, we see it differently.
We started a little order in Italy, called the “little flowers”. The community of little flowers. Were were all just little flowers, where we shine the best we can for a few moments, with a few petals, and then we disappear.. And that’s how life is. So we have a community of little flowers in 17 countries now. All kinds of people, from priests to Buddhist monks, all kinds of normal people. We just support each other in the nakedness of being a little flower in this world.
Wonderful…In your book about St Clare and St Frances, you talk about pope Francis, being inspired by these two saints right?
Right, as soon as we came back to California, from living in Italy for 12 years, we started to learn about pope Francis. We never imagined a pope Francis, it’s the first one. So I started wondering, I wonder what St Francis and St Clare would think…
So I started writing these love letters between Frances and Clare. Could a pope be a real brother of ours, could he raise the poor, hug nature, is this really real? So I wrote the book in about 3 weeks, had a great time. All these love letters back and forth. And now, a few years later, I think pope Francis is real brother. And I think the church is a muzzle. (32:05) I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s a big opportunity for the church.
Yeah, you talk about a living church vs a dead church. My sense of what your’e saying here, is that you’re looking at a dead church. That the pope, and a ton of brothers and sisters who have allegiance to the church are trying to make alive again. Living rather than a dead institution that is just hoards money and isn’t really practicing what they preach.
Exactly, the church is a very complicated place. We’ve met a lot of beautiful people, monks and nuns in Assisi living there a number of years. But we’ve also met a lot of, I feel like used cars salesmen. What are you doing??? So there’s both extremes. And the pope created a year of Mercy. Sort of like a year of devotion. Asking everyone in the church, to just practice mercy for a year, despite of what your head is telling you. Try to show mercy. He’s doing the best he can, but it is impossible. But the good part about it, is there really is a God, Mary, Jesus and angels, all these things are not just fabricated by the church.
The problem with the New Age, and people who’ve left religion altogether. They have no connection to these deities, the deities are part of us. So it’s too bad. So it’s either a dead church or no connection to everything. The Pope, Dalai Lama, and others, etc, are really a big opportunity for all of us “normal” folks.
But do you sense that because it’s so hard to relate to the institution of the church at this point. That this hierarchical structure in the end is too vulnerable to getting the wrong person floating to the top. Alienating a lot of people from this practice? Do you think this will work for future generations?
Yeah, but any organization has a little hierarchy. The problem right now, I was a teacher out here at a university. And generally the kids have no respect for teachers. They don’t understand that they are our teachers. And so it’s gone from one extreme to another. There are teachers, and the Western world, there really aren’t priests. They’ve gone to school, and learned some things, but we’ve had priests come to our retreats in Italy, ask us how do you pray, what is prayer. They were like beginners, and they were priests!
And so, that’s the problem. The western church is missing real priests. In Bali, the priests are priests. They are amazing beings, been through initiation, been through the inner path. They stick to that inner path.
So that’s part of the problem why people have trusts in most religions. Because most of the leaders are not real priests. I don’t know what their training is, but it’s not the same.
So it’s a form of corruption that crept into these institutions. And they’re no longer trustworthy, the wrong people have come into positions of power..
Well the church in general is in my opinion no different than the culture in general.Our culture is only mental, and is missing heart. So whatever religion we’re talking about. Most of them in the west are mental, and missing a deep connection to the heart. When there’s a deep connection with the heart, then there is a religion going on. Doesn’t matter which religion it is.
Religions are pointing to that which is beyond words and thoughts, they are not IT itself, but they’re pointing to it.
Yeah and it’s important that people have a place to go to, to find their inner sanctuary. But most religions talk about it, thinking about it, reading about it, but not actually going there and experiencing it. And even if you’re experiencing it, that’s just the beginning. One experience doesn’t change you. You have to live out of that experience and drink it everyday. Absorb it through your whole being. And that’s a life practice. That’s a path.
What would you say to someone who wants to go back into say a Christian church, but don’t want to go to a dead church. Who would you point them to?
We’re ecumenical, we don’t really ever discuss religion, because we live mostly in silence. But with regards to churches, I would say the same as I say with finding a therapist. Find the church with the biggest heart. Find a monk, priest, or nun, and if they have a heart, then they can lead you to the heart of that religion.
And if they’re more intellectual or doctrinaire, or more into rules, then that is where they are going to lead you. Just find the one with the biggest heart.
And also other signs of wisdom and compassion, like trust, vulnerability, joy, etc.
Yeah, they don’t get upset with rules, or controlling. I wasn’t raised Catholic, but what’s nice about the Catholic church is their devotion. Very deep with the Catholic church. Devotion is missing from a lot of other Christian churches. The Eucharist, presence of Mary, most of the Christian churches are also missing the divine feminine, Mary. So there’s rituals in the Catholic church that are very deep. And in Europe there’s places that are very powerful, that embody these rituals. Embody these deities.
I spend time in Holland as well, and the people are very beautiful, but all the churches are social clubs. There’s no presence, very little spirituality in most churches there. That’s too bad. A lot of Europe lost the fruit of real deep religion, spirituality. It’s deep rooted there. Whereas in America there is very few what I would call, “sacred places”. Where you can really feel that presence. There’s no Assisi in America that I’ve found. Where if you walk into town, and even normal people begin crying, because there is so much presence there.
And a church that has a heartfelt teacher or priest will create that sanctuary for people, so that you can feel it. You can’t feel it inside unless you have some support, or some place to feel it.
And you have to cultivate some stillness so you can actually be open to it…
Right, a sanctuary actually is stillness. So you walk into it, and you breathe into it, and you don’t know what is going on. And before you know it, you find yourself crying. There is something more than stillness here, there’s something special that’s here.
Coming back to Pope Francis, do you think he’ll be able to loosen the tight grip that the institution of the church has?
I have no idea, because the church is so conservative. A lot of people are spiritual, not religious. So they left the church. Just the other day, the pope was talking about having women deacons. But for many of us, that’s a non-starter. We should be having women priests, deacons, women everything..etc. So we’re starting back in the last century. And I’m living next to Google, Yahoo, Twitter…
That’s not even the real issue. The real issue is, you want women involved in the church, because women are closer to their hearts generally. And we need more heart in the church. So there is less masculine, mental energy, and more feminine heart-full, giving, caring energy of the mother. That is called, “Mother Church”. But we need more women and women leadership in the church. Women deacons is just a small step.
So your’e saying it’s still generations away at that rate…
Yeah, and on the other hand, it could happen in the next few years. It’s not like the president of the US. The pope can do almost everything. But if he does something, then the conservatives may break away from the church and start another church. So it’s not an easy place where he is.
I think the biggest thing he does, is set an example for his own life. Which he’s doing. Like the feet washing of Muslim prisoners, women, and more..every Easter. That is totally revolutionary. It used to be just washing the feet of 12 male Catholic priests. That was it for centuries. But now it’s this whole idea, to wash the feet of the sick and the poor, people in jail, and of other religions. It’s revolutionary and beautiful.
Yes, he’s setting a powerful example.
Yeah, I think it started a lot with Mother Theresa. She was the first person who went to the poor of the poor, and hugged them, and was with them. Nobody was talking about that before her. It really brought the poor out of the background, making us feel some responsibility. And it’s a very Franciscan idea, Francis did this when he was with the lepers. Mother Theresa was the modern Francis. Now we have pope Francis. So as a Franciscan, I think this is very beautiful.
Some folks in religions see being in the present moment, or say worshiping all creation, is idolatry. Even though creation is the very manifestation of God, or whatever word you want to use. How do you see that? That all of creation is sacred, and deserves to be fully attended to? Rather than waiting or looking forward to something in the hereafter.
Throughout the years, we’ve had many ministers come to our retreats, and they’re almost always the most difficult people at the retreat. Because they have such a mindset, and the mind can be a real enemy of being with a simple heart, and simple peace. People who’ve been meditating forever, if they haven’t connected to their heart, they can be the most difficult people coming into silence. Both ministers and priests through the years have been the most difficult, because they make life so complicated.
I really having these intellectual conversations is without meaning. I’d rather hug the guy, and ask what are you feeling, why are you in so much pain, what’s this all about? Have you seen the sunrise this morning? It was incredible! That’s God presence. Just the beauty that we can sit here together, talking through the internet, that’s life, that’s God’s presence, beautiful. That I can meet a Zen brother like yourself. Why make life complicated? That’s just avoiding being present. Here is life, and here is God.
Great way to explain that, if people spend too much time in their thinking, they really do miss what’s right before them, whether that’s a sunrise or their partner.
Thinking is one of the little closets in the universe. It’s terrible to spend your life in a closet. We get so impressed with out thoughts, they’re just thoughts, but there’s much more.
You also deal with not-knowing a lot right?
The main thing we’re trying to share with people is that there is a definite presence in our hearts. Meditation is does not have to be complicated. You just need to spend some time in silence, nature, and your own sanctuary. And to really receive deeply, not just think or not think about it, or observe it, but to really receive the heart inside our heart. And that is we find that the other side is totally present on this side. God is so present inside of us. But we got this filter of our thinking world on top of it.
So when we receive this silence of our heart, we feel this vast gentleness, and absorb it into our awareness, and take a bath in it. I tell people who come to our retreat, you want to bathe in the silence so deeply, that after a few days, your skin is all wrinkled up with silence. Wet through and through. Absorb it, and enjoy it. Because silence is actually full of everything.
Not just outward silence, but inward silence. The silence of the heart is really our mystical journey. And I tell you, it’s normal that we’re not always open like a flower. A flower is also closed, it releases it’s petals. We spend so much time judging ourselves, judging each other.
If we can rid of one thing, I tell people to get rid of our judgments. Just to be as much as you can.
A retreat is not about always being open, and being blissful. It can have just the opposite. That’s OK. Our judgments are really heavy doors, we’re intense about each other, and ourselves. If we just lighten up on that one door, life would get a lot easier and a lot more fun.
And it’s OK that sometimes a door is closed, and you come back on another retreat, and the door can be opened a bit more.
Sometimes the door is closed, but still you see deeply anyway. In my life I’ve had any issue like we all do. And that’s part of being a human being..
It makes us more equal, as human beings, and understand each other better..
We’re all completely human. What’s amazing is that in our awareness is a place of incredible love. That we’re not observing, reaching for it, thinking about it. It’s just an incredible presence of love. Nothing else is really that important. That presence of love is who we are. And eventually we’re going to give up that human story, and we will be presence, we’ll be this love. We are this presence of this love that expands out forever.
That’s part of this problem of people who have spiritual experiences. And it’s a challenge to be so human at this same time. And all of us are experiencing that now, living both, knowing how divine we are.
That’s a great way to end it. It’s like you say, that thinning of the hard sense of separate self, and becoming much more transparent to that much bigger Self that we are all part of.
Yeah, we all are it, and we all are. It is who we are. Great meeting you!
MF 44 – The Role of Mindfulness, Gratitude, & Peace Practice in Islam – Interview with Rose Hamid
Rose Hamid is a Muslim American of Palestinian and Latin descent. She was born in Buffalo NY, grew up in Cleveland OH, and has been living in Charlotte since 1987. She grew up in the Catholic tradition but chose to follow Islam when she started her family. She has been married for 33 years, has three children; Suzanne, 28, Omar, 26, Samir 24.
She has been a flight attendant since April 1985. She is the Co-Founder and President of the Muslim Women of the Carolinas; a local organization whose mission is to bring the diverse Muslim women of Charlotte and the surrounding area together in order to get to know one another and to do good works. She is a frequent speaker about topics such as Islam and the role of women in Islam and is a guest columnist for the Charlotte Observer, writing monthly columns.
After the attacks in Paris, Donald Trump proposed the establishment of a database of all Muslims in the country. Later, Trump called for a “complete shutdown of all Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” The First Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of religion.
Hamid told CNN before the Trump rally that she only wanted to give Trump fans “an opportunity to meet” a Muslim. “I figured that most Trump supporters probably never met a Muslim so I figured that I’d give them the opportunity to meet one” she said.
Interview with Rose Hamid. How did you get to a spiritual practice?
My mother is from Columbia, South America. And her father is Palestinian. He went to South America in 1938, when his country was in turmoil. And the economic development had a downfall. Where he met Rose’s mom, and they got married.
We grew up in the Catholic religion/tradition. Where she had a lot of questions. I remember asking nuns these questions. My biggest question was this concept of original sin. And when I grew up, this was they way it was taught, or at least the way I absorbed it. I recall that Eve in particular had tempted Adam, and they had eaten the forbidden fruit. And they had sinned against God. And that was the break between God and humanity.
Therefor people couldn’t have a direct connection with god. That’s how I understood it. Therefor I would have to talk to a priest, who would talk to Jesus, who would then talk to God. Because I was not worthy of this connection to God.
So a lot of middlemen, intermediators?
I felt at an early age that that was not fair. So we plotted along, with going to church, until right before confirmation. When she was about 12, or 13. By that time, her father started to learn about his own faith, he was a Muslim, but wasn’t practicing it growing up.
So we started to realize how the church was very different compared to what he was used to growing up in Palestine. Where Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived among each other and were all considered people of the book (adherents of Abrahamic religions that predate Islam) from the Muslim perspective.
I don’t think he realized how different the teachings were, until he came to America. And until he really started to learn his own faith. So he was trying to teach us more about Islam, but we really didn’t have much interest in it, at 13 years of age. And he wanted us to wait until we were older to become confirmed.
So I really didn’t practice anything. I believed in a higher power, God. But not much else. So it wasn’t hard for her to leave the Catholic church at that time. It seemed to me that religion was being used to divide people in her experience. So I didn’t have much desire to join any particular religion.
Until after my husband and I got married and we started a family. My husband didn’t talk much about religion, he is Palestinian. There was an assumption there was some Muslimness going on. But we didn’t talk much about it. But I was going to have to teach my kids something. I started to learn about Islam, and it answered a lot of questions I had growing up.
The biggest Aha moment, was the idea in the Islamic tradition of the story of Adam and Eve. In this tradition, the two of them. God here doesn’t make Eve more culpable than Adam. The two of them disobey God. Then when the two of them, realize what they’ve done, they ask for forgiveness. And God forgave them. So there was never a break between God and humanity.
There was always a connection.They suffered the consequences of their actions, but they were still connected to God. That to me was monumental, to have this ability to connect to God.
Interesting..Where there other questions as well that were answered for you in Islam?
This is just what I remember, I don’t want to make the Catholic faith sound bad. I’m just telling my personal experience. I remember it seemed like God was always angry.
Yeah, the old testament God for sure…
Even in the Catholic tradition, I just feel like it’s from that concept of original sin. You just feel like you’re not worthy if you don’t do that kind of thing.
I remember a couple of things in Islamic teachings that drew me. And one of them is this idea that God is not just your judge. He’s your attorney, your character witness, your supporting friend, who’s going to be there to help you during the judgement. Seeing God in that perspective was very comforting.
Also, the concept of there’s a saying, that if you turn towards God, he comes running towards you. That idea, of a God who wants us to come to him, that felt more like the connection that I had been searching for.
And also from my own reading from the Koran, as compared to reading from the old testament, it seems like God is described as much more compassionate and forgiving.
Right, most merciful, most kind. That’s repeated time and time again. As Muslims pray, 5 times a day. We repeat it 5 times a day 3 or 4 times within each prayer. We’re constantly saying, “In the name of God, the most merciful, the most kind…Praise is due to God, the cherisher and sustainer of the universe, most gracious, most merciful. Master of the day of judgement..Guide us along the straight path – the path of those whom You favored, not of those who earned Your anger or went astray. ”
So is something we say in Arabic. Those words, are things that, contrary what people think, that is how we see God.
Was there a particular transformative moment of grace in your journey as well?
I wound’t call it a moment of grace, the understanding of the story of Adam and Eve was my Aha moment. Realizing, if God was willing to forgive Adam and Eve, then how should we as humans treat other people as well, as far as being forgiving beings.
My shift in the way that I saw God, and the relationship I had with God. That was really the most transformative thing.
You mentioned the 5 times a day of prayer, which I see as a very beneficial practice. I practice Zen Buddhism, and there too is a strong emphasis on constant practice, not just once a week, but constantly. This is much more likely to help you give you a more intimate spiritual connection.
Yes, and I know that with any faith tradition there’s a big range. There’s people who pray daily, Christians who are more spiritual daily, and try to make more connections with God throughout the day. And then there’s folks who go just once a week, and then there’s what a friend of mine calls the, “Creasters”, the folks who just show up at Christmas and Easter. So there’s a range.
The same is true with Islamic faith. People who are very diligent about prayer, and then some who not so much.
Same thing in Buddhism as well, a lot of people who paying lip service to this practice, or those who wear the clothes, but don’t practice it. And I was going to talk about that later. But to me to some extent the people who are hijacking the narrative of Islam, the actual terrorists…
…they didn’t read the whole Koran book at all.
They’re not doing anything that’s being said, and they’re very judgmental. They kill and chop people’s heads of, etc. They’re being the judge and executioner. That shouldn’t be their job at all. Based on what I’ve been read in the Koran (In the Koran God instructs the prophet and Muslims not to judge or harm disbelievers, that this is his job to deal with them).
You probably read more than they have (laughing).
I think these folks who are in power in many places in the so-called Muslim world, are not following Islamic doctrine. When I hear about things that people have done, I can’t fathom that these people have read the Koran, or whole Koran. They might have read snippets that somebody handed them, and told them this is what it says.
Unfortunately I think that humanity is like that. If you get a new cell phone, and you get all these instructions on how to use it, but you tend to just usually go to a 12 year old, and ask them how to use it. Just show me the basics so I know how to get along. That’s what people do…they just want the quick, get it to work, work for me in whichever way I want it to work. Without really understanding the depth of what it can do…
So I take that analogy into how people understand their faith. It’s just easier to listen to whoever has the microphone, and then go, “Ok, I’ve done my studying”. And people don’t get into the depths of it.
Yeah, that’s very expedient…not doing the work themselves, kind of outsourcing it to whomever has the loudest horn.
And another big part I noticed, I see it a lot in the old testament as well. It required me to have fresh eyes in reading it. Is the gratitude part, and how important that is. As humans we have such a tendency to take things for granted so quickly. One of the advantages…Spiritual and religious practices get such a bad rap, but there are so many good things as part of it, that would make humanity as a whole be in a much healthier state of mind. Like for example, the gratitude emphasis.
What’s your take, or what role does gratitude play in your practice?
Part of the daily 5 prayers, there’s some parts are structured, where there are certain things you can say and do. And other parts, you can read different parts or verses of the Koran. And some people have memorized certain verses that they’ve connected to, depending on how they feel. And a lot of them have to do with gratitude.
When you’re in submission, you’re praying, and your forehead is on the floor,you’re in a state of gratitude. Thanking God for what he has provided. It’s difficult to pray 5 times a day without having an element of gratitude in it. So there’s constant gratitude.
There’s an expression, “Al-ḥamdu lillāh”, which means, all praise is due to God. Like if someone says, “you did a great job, or other compliments, you respond with Al-ḥamdu lillāh. All praise is due to God, that to me is this gratefulness that God has bestowed on us.
There’s even a sense of, if something bad happens, it’s an expiation for past sins. So there’s even a gratitude for that. Thank you for providing me an opportunity to expunge a sin. So they’re a constant sense of gratitude for what has been given, even if it’s a bad thing. For having the opportunity to get through that.
Do you find that since you converted to a religion after evaluation rather than being born into it, and I’ve seen that with other religious traditions, that you are not taking it as much for granted, compared to folks who’ve been born into their religion/tradition?
Definitely, I think that when people learn their faith through osmosis, they learn it, because that’s what everyone else is doing. And people don’t have the sense then to go in depth and learn it. Karen Armstrong is a writer of religious books. She can’t find a big market for these books in England where she’s from, but can find much more of a market in America. Maybe I’m talking about Diane Eck, A New Religious America.
In this book, she talks about because in America have competing religions, they almost have to step up their game, like they almost have to advertise to bring people in. So there’s more talking, conversing about it. Whereas if you’re in a country where there is a State religion, and everyone has more or less the same religion, then there is less discourse (Rose thinks a lot of European countries have that). Then there is less opportunity to investigate, to question or search, or to question ourselves. Where in America there is more opportunity because there is more competition amongst religions. At least that is what she wrote in her book.
…Interesting. It’s like it has a fresh chance to be seen again…
It also goes deeper. In America we go deeper into our faith. A lot of Muslims who come from so-called Muslim countries, who come to America. Once they realize they’re in a minority religion, they find themselves to becoming more adherent to their faith here in America, than they did at home. Because back home everyone is just following along, and learning through osmosis. But here in America, you have to really learn it, absorb it, in order to live it. Because it is not all around you.
I heard a Jewish woman say the same thing, she’d grown up in Israel. She didn’t keep kosher, she didn’t read the Torah, didn’t adhere to her faith. Until she came to America, and became a minority. She realized that she had to be the one who knew how to be Jewish. So she learned more about Judaism in America, then she did in Israel.
I think most people come from a place, where the majority of folks come from the same faith.
I’ve seen the same with Buddhism as well, it kind of languishes and goes into auto-pilot in some of the older countries. But here in America it is much stronger, and like you said, much more seeking, questioning, and being inquisitive about it.
What about fasting, what does that teach in your view? We had a friend who did that, and he talked about how humbling gratitude type practice that is. What’s your relationship to that?
Ramadan, I have so much will-power (to abstain from eating) when I’m on Ramadan, when I’m on a diet…not so much. I gotta have this peace of pie, not as much will-power. But when fasting, so much will-power.
My kids are young, they look forward to Ramadan, part of it is the social experience. I think it also has to do with what your environment is. We’ve been blessed with a large Muslim community, and we get together a lot during Ramadan. So we look forward to it and the concept of fasting. They all started when they were in second grade. My daughter did, because she had a Muslim classmate. They’d go to the library instead of the lunch room. My boys, not so much. They stayed in the cafeteria, because they didn’t have to waste time standing in line. They could just start talking to their friends. To them it was like a badge of honor to tell people they were fasting. There’s a sense of community at that time.
That’s the outside part. The inside part is this deep desire to connect with God. I usually end up taking vacation days during Ramadan. I try to connect more, read more, be introspective. And just try to take all of it in as much as I can.
Sounds like a retreat to me…
Yeah, people spend a whole lot of time cooking during Ramadan, making everyone’s favorite foods. It’s like having Thanksgiving every night for a month (laughing). The battle is to not allow yourself to do that, to find a balance. You want to make it festive, you want to make it a tradition that people, in particular kids look forward to. Trying to make it festive as well as spiritual.
So it’s not too serious…
And do you think part of it is easier because you’re doing it with a whole group together? Because if you were doing this fasting alone, it would be a lot harder..
If you’re menstruating, you’re not required to fast. But you make up those days. Making up those days after Ramadan by yourself is really hard! Or there’s a recommendation of fasting 6 days the month after Ramadan. Even though you just finished a whole month of fasting, it’s really hard. So definitely there’s this whole sense of community and connectivity the month of Ramadan brings with it.
The other thing I wanted to ask you…The Koran talks a lot about being mindful (of God). How do you see mindfulness of God. How do you practice that?
When I see a tree, I’m just enamored by trees. And I think about what goes into a tree. And God has provided us with this thing that we could benefit from in so many different ways. Just being mindful of the things that God has created, the sunset, sky, stars, moon. All of that is like mindfulness. All of that God created for us to help us.
And so there’s many verses in the Koran that talk about what God has created for us. So we have to be constantly mindful of living things. Even the things I have. If I get in my car, I’m mindful, and feeling blessed that I have a car. There’s people who don’t have a car, so I feel blessed that have a car that works.
But then my kids are now the ones taking the bus (laughing).
When I think about everything I have, I have water, power, etc. So there’s constant mindfulness, and there’s the prayers that bring me back to it.
So the prayers help you with being more mindful then…
Oh definitely. That goes without saying. I’m doing this, because we’ve asked him to. God didn’t ask us to do this because he needs our prayers, he asked us to do this, because we need our prayers.
What’s your take on this life, vs the hereafter. How does it affect your life today, to look forward to the life hereafter? Is that affecting how you live your life today?
Muslims believe in the concept of heaven and hell. We know that life is a test. How faithful we are, how we behave, how we adhere to the guidance that God has provided us. Is going to determine our afterlife. This life is very short, unlike the hereafter.
So it’s also a constant, that you should always be thinking about the actions taken today are going to affect the hereafter. There’s a belief that every bug that you killed unjustly will speak against you on the day of judgement. Everything that you’ve done will be a witness to what you’ve done. Your hands, will testify against you on the day of judgement if you struck people. “This hand was used to strike or beat people.”
So we’re very mindful (or we should be) about how we live our lives. Knowing we will be held accountable for how we treat each other.
So being aware of the consequences of one’s actions…
Definitely. We have the concept of free will. We are making choices in everything we do everyday.
Making conscious choices….
Sometimes not so conscious (laughing). It’s what we aspire to I should say. To realize that everything we do has consequences.
The Koran talks about disbelievers a lot. And that is something that some people in America has latched on to. My interpretation of that is that they’re afraid that Muslims see disbelievers as something bad, or trouble (and even needs killing). But from my reading of the Koran, that is not up to Muslims to decide, as that is something that is only God’s business. In other words, it’s not up to Muslims to judge disbelievers. What’s your understanding of it?
That’s exactly right. There’s a group of people in America, Islamophobic network of specific groups/people, and specific groups that are funding these people. They are working hard at presenting misinformation about Muslims and Islam.
Muslims themselves in other countries are not doing themselves any favors either, because they’re doing some stupid stuff also.
But the fact that there is this group in the US, that’s constantly churning out this misinformation. Presenting it in a way that people believe it, especially people in power. These groups have the ear of people in power.
It is quite frightening to hear some of what they say. For example, they say things like how Muslims are, “required to kill non-Muslims.” That’s not anywhere in the Koran.
Yeah, I did not read that anywhere in the Koran either…
If you look at the history how Islam spread. Not the abridged or tainted history that some present. Islam is not spread by the sword. There was different reasons why people became Muslim around the world. It was not a forced conversion.
They didn’t kill people who were not Muslims. They were battles that were had, but is wasn’t in the doctrine to kill people who are not Muslim. There is this concept of the People of the Book, which are the people who received the messages before (Islam). This includes Christians and Jews and some other traditions that I can’t think of right now. They are given respect to the People of the Book. And there is constant reminders and guidance on how to treat and speak with people who are not Muslim. How to treat your neighbor, the believer and disbeliever.
Even in the life of Muhammad, you could see the way that he treated non-Muslims. When he migrated from Mecca to Medina, there was a treaty that he signed. That outlined how to treat people who are not Muslim. It said pretty much says that non-Muslims can administer their laws according to their faith tradition. There was rights and responsibilities for Muslims and non-Muslims. So there was a framework set right in the beginning on how to interact with non-Muslims. In a certain context then as a defense they had to kill, but that story has been perpetuated by the Islamophobic network.
And so in a way, and part of what this interview is about is as taking back that narrative. That they’ve almost hijacked narrative for terrorist propaganda for less peaceful reasons.
Yes, whenever people hear about religious wars around the world, it’s not about religion. Every single religious conflict. It’s always about the haves against the have-nots. The people in power wanting to maintain their power. The people wanting wealth, resources, wanting to take ownership of a place, or an oil field, whatever it is. Religious battles are not based on religion, it’s based on political socio-economic struggles that people are having. It just happens that those folks have this religion, and the others have another religion. Like in Ireland, it wasn’t really about religion at all.
Right, it’s just easier to pit people against each other, if you use religion.
Yes, it’s a great baiting hook, demonizing the “other”.
Yeah, and creating an “other”.
And that brings me to your Trump experience, because I found that a very creative way, that you showed your face, and showed you as a human being.Because this rhetoric, this constant repetition, and mis-characterization. It just takes the human face out of it. And that is when I think it becomes dangerous, when they take the human face out of it, and they’re creating something that is not really true.
I have to say, that it was not my idea to do this particular protest. There was this man next to me in the audience (in the pictures, his name is Marty Rosenbluth, (who happens to be Jewish and practices as an immigration attorney). He’s a friend of a friend of mine who I had gone with that night.
They do work around social justice, immigration rights, black lives matter, voting rights, anti-hate, anti-Islamophobia. These folks do a lot of diligent work on the ground, trying to educate people. My other friend, works with Amnesty International, they do a lot of that kind of work. And it was their idea to do this campaign, called, “Go Yellow Against Hate”.
And Marty, when Trump said that Muslims should have special ID’s, and they should tracked through a database. For him as a Jewish man, that really struck a chord with him, that was very disturbing to him. So when he had seen this yellow star, somewhere in England, and he purposely made it with 8 points. And not the start of David, because he didn’t want to…
Bring up the holocaust?
He wanted people to be reminded of what happened to the Jews, he just didn’t want to use it inappropriately. That means so much for so many people, but it was painful for him, to see how things are starting to go down that slippery slope. That he recognizes that this thing started that way for the Jewish people back in Germany.
So it was also their idea to stand silently, they’d done that before.
But you were the only Muslim standing?
The group of people there were various different faith traditions. There was Marty who was Jewish, there were Christians, non-Christians. Gabril was the man shouting off to the other side, he shouted when Trump started saying, “we’ve got a problem, we’ve got a problem”. Then Gabril yelled, “Islam is not the problem.” We talked about this in advance, this was his way of protesting.
We decided it was not a good idea for Rose to stand near him, because in Akron, the crowd attacked him when he yelled. I didn’t plan to say anything, so I can’t take credit for it. I just wanted to stand silently.
It could have been a problem if you had stood with the wrong crowd though…
The other thing I read you said somewhere, that “If we all said hello with a smile, just start an encounter that way, that gesture alone can change the world.” And I think it spoke volumes by the way you stood silent, and smiled. Did you find that people saw you as more human, as a result of those actions?
Definitely. When I was standing in line, we purposely split up, so we ended up in different parts of the line. I was worried they wouldn’t let me into the rally, so I was trying to keep low-profile.
But in line ahead of me, there was a woman who caught my eye, and as we got closer to the front. She came to me, she said, “I’m so glad to see you here”. And there was another woman, who said to Rose, “I didn’t look scary, that I looked nice”. I was wearing the shirt, “Salaam, I come in peace”. I imagined I might get my picture taken, but did not anticipate at all the amount of media attention this turned into. But I wanted my shirt to say something in case my picture was taken.
My son owns a T-shirt printing online business, coolmuslimshirts.com That’s one of his designs, so that is what I wore. And I happened to have a matching headpiece at home, so that went well together. People thought I chose that on purpose, but that just happened to be the color of his design.
After this media frenzy, did you notice anything that surprised you as well. With the social media, etc?
My son was sending me stuff. We were out of the door, and they led all the other folks with yellow stars out as well. They were pretty aggressive with that. So my son was telling me, you are all over social media. There was a reporter from CNN, he came over to talk to me, before the rally started. He came over and talk to me where I was sitting. I purposefully sat behind Trump, because of the camera.
People were kind of criticizing me for sitting there, and I’m like, “well yeah, I’m protesting!” So he spoke to me, so as we’re escorted out, he asked me what had happened. So before we even got to the restaurant where the protesters met up again, Anderson Cooper had tweeted about me being escorted out of the Trump tower, (laughing) I mean the Trump rally for no apparent reason.
And them my niece, she’s a social media wiz, and a makeup artist (her Instagram page was taken down when she posted about it). She was sending me stuff that people were saying, mostly positive, but also…people
Yeah, behind the computer creates this invincibility, separation, which makes it easier to be verbally abusive..
Same as mob mentality. I’ve a friend who studies the genocide, and how a society can allow that, what is that makes society permit that? Behind the computer mentality is very similar to the crowd, mob mentality. Where you’re not taking personal responsibility, creating an other entity.
A mob mentality, individual gets dissolved of that, and absolved of individual responsibility.
Exactly, when I was going upstairs, and people were yelling at me. I wasn’t mad at them, I just couldn’t believe you’re behaving that way, you’re a human. But I tried to make connections, and snapping them out of their trance they were in. But they were pretty stuck in their trance.
One of the negative things that has happened, and it’s all tied to this Islamophobic group of folks, who have labeled any valid group of Muslims as a terrorist organization. So they’ve labeled an organization as terrorist supporting organization. So anyone with a connection is then also labeled as supporting terrorist organizations, or unindited co-conspirator.
That’s a dangerous thing, for people to make these ridiculous claims. At first I was like, no one is going to believe that. But the other day a friend of mine who I work with, told me that there’s people who I know, and have known for years, that are starting to believe some of that stuff. That is the scary stuff, you’ve known me for 30 years, and you think I’m a secret terrorist? Really? It’s actually painful, because I’m thinking, what can you do about that?
Other than being a decent person you’re whole life, and then for someone to claim you’re a terrorist supporter. Now people believe it, it’s disheartening.
Like the 2nd Bush, when he said, “If you’re not for us, you’re against us”, that kind of black and white thinking that Trump appears to be doing and promoting as well.
There’s a report called Fear, Inc that outlines who those people are, who are behind that Islamophobic campaign. But as negative as that is, I’ve also got overwhelming support, like this gift certificate I got for 100 dollars from a restaurant! So that, and people send flowers and cards, and people who say they were inspired. It’s so heartwarming, and overshadows the negative. It’s amazing support. Someone who said I was a bad-ass (laughing) rock-star. I don’t want to be seen or portrayed as a victim..
I expected to get walked out, but did not expect the crowd to turn so quickly. In retrospect I should have expected, because I saw how others had been treated.
There’s a German reporter, who’s been following Trump around for a year. And he said there is a written statement, at every rally, they say the same thing. Mr Trump supports the first amendment, almost as much as he supports the 2nd amendment.
Then they say, “This is a peaceful rally, if you want to exercise your first amendment, freedom of speech, you’re free to do so outside the door.” And if there’s anyone who disturbs this rally, the supporters were told to stand up and chant/shout, “Trump, Trump, Trump…”, and point to the person whomever is causing the disturbance, and security will escort them out.
Oh, so they’re actually being instructed, all the people that come in there?
Yes, and this reporter said that they say that every rally. But I did find out that they took away the “almost” from the first instruction. Because they must have realized how wrong it is that Mr Trump almost supports the first amendment “almost” as much as the second amendment.
What I discovered is that media has been interviewing me, like Al Jazeera, and they said, “So Americans really hate Muslims now?”. And I said, “No, no, that’s not how America is!” It’s just a few people like that, it’s not all of America.
It’s still a minority..
And I found myself having to explain to these foreign press. That’s not how America is, and having to explain the concept of the first Amendment. So this one interviewer then asked her to explain for our audience what this first Amendment is. And then I realized how significant it is, what the first amendment is, because other countries don’t have freedom of speech, and freedom of religion.
So if we’re going to export anything, THAT’s the thing we could export! But us Americans often don’t realize how fortunate we are. People have said, why don’t you go protest in Muslim countries against the Muslim terrorists. And they don’t realize that who protest in these countries end up dead! People who are trying to fight these regimes who’ve taken power, they end up dead. They don’t have these protections we have here. It’s not as easy to just object to it, it’s a battle, like the Arab spring, but it’s just not as easy, then you end up not knowing who are the good guys and the bad guys.
And were you contacted by any conservative media after this Trump event?
Not really, I’ve had about 30 interviews. And they’ve been very supportive. There were a few things that they inaccurately. So some misinformation, but it’s all been positive. There were people who interviewed me, and then there were people who didn’t interview me and just took information and quotes from the main interview that was posted right after the rally.
And then the negative stuff, I don’t know where they got that from, or what they were looking at. I’ve created a web site to archive all those things.
I write a monthly column for a local newspaper that addresses a lot of questions that a lot of people have, like why do women cover, what the Muslim holidays are like, how Muslims celebrate those. Basically, what it’s like to live in America.
A know a lot of folks have the question about the hijab, and you mentioned you find the head covering liberating, freeing, could you share your thinking about that?
For me the hijab is an act of worship. That’s one aspect of it, I”m doing something that God has asked me to do.
It also sends a message, that my value and my worth to society doesn’t come from my physical attributes. That who I am as a person, is how I behave, and how well I follow the dictates of my faith, and how well I do my job, or whatever it is I do, and how I treat people. Those are the things I should be measured by, not by my physical attributes.
In that regard it is very liberating, because I can pretty much put together whatever outfit I want, I have scarfs that match every outfit. I feel like I don’t have to adhere to whatever the latest fashion trends are, and I can pretty much wear whatever I want.
And it also feels like protection to me. And I also feel protected. We only have to cover in front of men who are not family. For example, a neighbor comes over, I have to cover. But not with my kids, dad, uncles and family. And I also don’t have to cover in front of other women.
However, I would not feel comfortable to uncover with someone whom I don’t trust. So even though it’s permissible to uncover among other women, especially other Muslim women. But I’m more careful about uncovering with non-Muslim women. I’d have to evaluate. Because I feel more protected.
You also mention you’re still do your job as an airline attendant, this continues without problems?
Yes, I’ve never had a single passenger do or say anything negative to me. If anything, people have been extra nice, is what I’ve noticed. I might get a funny look, like, “look at that!”. Not in a bad way. And I see hundreds of people everyday, never seen anything threatening to me.
That’s really good to know..
Last question…What is your deepest wish for the future?
I wish people would follow their faith, whatever their faith is. Because if you look at the guidance the creator, God has sent. Whatever faith tradition there is, if people followed their faith tradition, and not the leaders necessarily…who they think are their leaders. But actually learn what their faith tradition says. And follow those guidelines, we would have a much better world.
There’s nothing in these teachings that permits the way that we’re treating each other in so many ways. Like the ways that we treat people who are “different”, whatever that difference is, in a negative way.
There isn’t a faith tradition out there that promotes that kind of mentality.
I agree, that’s my wish too…a wonderful way to end it.
Fear, Inc. 2.0 Behind the network to manufacture Hate in America “These two reports reveal how a well-funded, well-organized fringe movement can push discriminatory policies against a segment of American society by intentionally spreading lies while taking advantage of moments of public anxiety and fear. We are seeing this dynamic play out yet again in the aftermath of the attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, as former elected officials and certain media commentators have used the terror attack as an opportunity to call for increased profiling of the American Muslim community……
A number of these misinformation experts are still able to disproportionately influence public policy in America. From hate-group leader David Yerushalmi’s impact on anti-Sharia legislation across the country to Islamophobe William Gawthrop’s influence on the FBI’s training manuals, it is clear that the well-funded and well-connected individuals within the Islamophobia network still have the ability to promote bad public policies that ultimately affect all Americans.”…”Islamophobia in the United States takes many shapes and forms. It takes the form of a general climate of fear and anger toward American Muslims, as seen in the “civilization jihad” narrative, the religious right’s rhetoric, and the biased media coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing. It comes out in cynical political efforts to capitalize on this climate of fear, as seen in state-level anti-Sharia bills introduced across the country and in far-right politicians’ grandstanding…..And perhaps most dangerously, it manifests itself in institutional policies that view American Muslims as a threat, as seen in the FBI training manuals that profile Islam as a religion of violence.””Although the American public largely dismisses such prejudiced views, the Islamophobia network’s efforts to target American Muslim communities remain significant and continue to erode America’s core values of religious pluralism, civil rights, and social inclusion. The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, offers the Islamophobia network a new opportunity to leverage unrelated geopolitical events in order to create a caricature of Islam, foment public anxiety, and push discriminatory policies against American Muslims. The Islamophobia network’s new effort to equate mainstream American Muslims with the perverted brand of Islam promoted by ISIS is a reminder of the ongoing vigilance needed to push back against the anti-Muslim fringe.”
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.
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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