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.
MF 47 – Contemplating torture in solitary confinement with Johnny Perez
Johnny Perez is a non-attorney advocate at the Urban Justice Center Mental Health Project (MHP), a civil legal services firm that provides legal and social work services to people with serious mental illness. At the Urban Justice Center, he is assigned to MHP’s Safe Re-entry Project, where he works with people with mental illness and histories of incarceration, to connect them to the services in the community that will assist them to attain better measures of recovery and gain the stability necessary to avoid further contact with the criminal justice system.
Mr. Perez also works to change unjust policies and practices in the criminal justice system through his participation in the Jails Action Coalition, the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC), and the New York Reentry Education Network. Johnny is also a member of the New York City Bar Association’s Correction and Reentry Committee.
Drawing on the wisdom of thirteen years of direct involvement with the criminal justice system, Johnny has testified at the NY Advisory Committee to The US Civil Rights Commission about the inhumane treatment of teenagers in solitary confinement in state prisons and city jails. He is a sought after speaker having been invited to speak at Cornell Law, Fordham University, Amnesty International, and at the American Justice Summit where he discussed the cycle of incarceration with Nightline News anchor Ju Ju Chang.
Johnny is currently completing his Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice at St. Francis College while also completing his first nonfiction book: Prison: The Upside Down Kingdom.
(What follows is a summary transcript of the interview. Listen to the episode for the full conversation)
What were some of the events that led up to you spending 3 years in solitary out of a 15 year prison sentence?
The first time I landed in solitary I was 16 years old, and ended detained in Rikers island here in New York City for gun possession. Ended up incarcerated for 8 months for having a gun on me. While I was in Rikers Island, I got into a fight with an individual over the phone. If you don’t belong to a gang, you can’t use simple entitlements that every person that’s detained can use, like using the phone. Johnny got into a fight over the phone and as a result was given 60 days of solitary confinement.
One of the things that made the situation worse, was that the person that brought the food, breakfast and lunch, belonged to the same gang of the person I fought over the phone with. So for the first two weeks, I didn’t eat breakfast and lunch as a result. As a 16 year old it was challenging, lot of psychological and physical adversity as a result.
As an adult when I was 21 years old I was sentenced to 15 years of prison for robbery in the first degree in which I served 13 years of that, with a total of 3 years in solitary confinement.
My reaction as an adult was a whole lot different as an adult in solitary then as a teen. Now, years later, I’m a re-entry advocate at a non-profit law-firm at the early justice center. I’ve dedicated my voice, past experiences to creating alternative solutions to solitary confinement.
Can you tell me what that was like to be in solitary confinement?
The cell is very small, very quiet, maybe about the size of a small parking space. I’m 6 feet tall, and can stretch my arms out horizontally and touch both walls in a lot of the cells I’ve been in. During the summer, the walls start to sweat it’s so hot. During the winter, it gets so cold you have to keep your head under the covers. Except you can’t do that, because every hour an officer walks by your cell, to make sure you’re alive and according to protocol, they have to see your skin. They leave all the lights on during the night and day too for security purposes, so it’s hard to sleep with the light on.
It disrupts your circadian rhythm…
Yes, greatly, to the point where you lose track of time and even the dates. I’d try to keep a calendar to keep track of the days. Because one of my fears was that I would be there in prison for longer than I needed to be.
As a teen, 16 years old, still creating my identity, figuring out who I am. And to be placed in isolation, you begin to absorb some of the oppression in the sense that your self-esteem is damaged, you tell yourself, maybe I am a criminal, maybe I do belong here. You get thoughts of suicide and these kind of things, you think to yourself maybe people won’t miss me if I’m gone.
I felt my self as a teenager very overwhelmed with anger. Anger against authority figures, anger against the circumstances, anger against myself. I punched the wall a lot, I cried a lot, did a lot of push-ups, punched the wall a lot, screamed a lot. I sang.
And at the same time, you could hear everyone around you as well going through something similar?
Yeah, although it is very isolated, everyone in every other cell is doing the same exact thing I just mentioned. So when you put all these sounds together, the sounds itself is enough to to frustrate a person. You hear correctional officers who can’t even stand the noise from even working there, with the people kicking and screaming, and kicking the doors simultaneously.
Other times it gets very quiet also, so quiet I could hear my own heartbeat. Your last meal is at 4:30 in the afternoon, next meal at 7:30 in the morning. A lot of times you can get a misbehavior report if your’e caught saving food. If you get this misbehavior report during solitary, you will get more solitary time. So it’s not uncommon to find someone who’s been sentenced to 90 days for testing positive for marijuana, and then end up 5,6,10 years, or decades even from receiving these back to back misbehavior reports.
So for holding a little bit of food, that is somehow a crime, even though in real life outside of prison that would never be considered a crime?
Absolutely, it’s considered contraband..So if I save 4 slices of bread and my milk, and then they come on a cell search, not only are they taking it, but I’ll receive a misbehavior report for holding contraband in my cell. It’s up to the officer’s discretion. But in their rationale is that if this food goes bad, then I’m harming my health. So they’re protecting me and doing something to prevent harm to myself.
As an adult I didn’t internalize a lot of the oppression that I faced. I became more extroverted and outspoken about the injustices, and began to think critically, to question the system. I began to think critically about exactly why we live in a country where it is OK to do this to people.
I remember the only person I’d have contact with was the officer that brought me food everyday. I did a combined 3 years for a number of infractions. Most of them was testing positive for marijuana. I think the most time I did at one time was one year, for testing positive for marijuana.
I asked myself, why we live in a country where it is OK to do this (putting someone in solitary for a year for testing positive for weed). Why are people not more concerned about this. It wasn’t until I was released, and started doing this work, I realized that people just don’t know.
Part of my job is to raise awareness about these issues, using my personal experience, to educate, and to compel people into action. This is an issue that is affecting about 100.000 people across the nation. 5000 alone in New York. We hear about a lot of the successes, but they’re just incremental change. When Obama says, we’re banning solitary for juveniles. Later to find out that there are only 27 juveniles in solitary on the federal level. You start to ask yourself how much change is actually happening on this issue.
So Obama changed the rules for juveniles and solitary confinement on the federal level, not the state level right..
Yes, so I always warn against incrementalism, where we change a small piece of the puzzle, but the entire picture still remains the same. So while no juveniles in the future won’t be placed on solitary on a federal level, that piece of legislation won’t do a whole lot as it relates to solitary reform. I will say that some states have followed suit, and placed their own limits on solitary on the state level. We’re very happy about that of course.
Virginia recently banned juveniles with mental illness from solitary. Here in New York we some progress as it relates to how much time spent in these cells. But the United Nations Juan Mendez, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Juan Mendez deems anything above 15 days of solitary confinement amounts to torture (which is prohibited by the Geneva Conventions). And here in the US we hold people in solitary a lot of times indefinitely.
The US signed the Geneva Conventions where torture is prohibited…
Absolutely. But our prison system is not reflective of that. When you have a person like Albert Woodfox who was recently released after 42 years of solitary confinement. 42 years! I still have personal friends who are in solitary confinement still from when I was with them in these human cages.
At what point is our system going to reflect our human values?
Some of the reactions that people can get when put in solitary confinement that they’ve found from the statement titled “Harmful Effects of Solitary Confinement.” Just seven days in isolation can cause a host of negative physiological and psychological reactions, including hypersensitivity to stimuli, hallucinations, increased anxiety, rage, irrational anger, fears of persecution, severe and chronic depression, problems sleeping, self-mutilation and lower levels of brain function, including a decline in electrical activity in the brain. ” Do you see that happening with most people?
Yeah, it happens to a lot of people. A lot of times, people are placed in solitary for completely minor offences. 4 out of 5 offences where people are placed in solitary are for minor offences. It could be testing positive for drug use, having contraband in their cell. Could be tobacco, frying pan, cell phone, cash… And then they are place in solitary. There are people placed in solitary for violent acts. But those instances are far and few in between. While they are there, because we place very vulnerable people in solitary. Such as people with mental illness, or kids (like in New York one of two states). Women who are expecting children. Or elderly people, people who are developmentally disabled.
While they are there they suffer the psychological ramifications of being alone for extended periods of time.
Are they following a protocol for putting someone in solitary, or is this totally up to the discretion of the warden or prison officer?
Both. A lot of the times, the facility has already outlined infractions or behaviors that would land one in solitary in the first place. We’re also fighting that on that front. People should not go to solitary for testing positive for marijuana. They need drug treatment instead.
So the prisons have these guidelines. But then the hearing officer, or officer that writes this report in the first place, they have unwieldy discretion on who they send, how long they send them for, and even which type of solitary they send them to.
So there’s no third party that reviews the rationale, or decision used to send someone to solitary?
No, except that you can repeal a decision…but in practice an appeal doesn’t work like it works on paper. For example, when you get sentence a year in the box for testing positive for marijuana. Then when you get there, they say OK, here is your year, and you can appeal for 30 days. Except when you get to your cell, there is no writing paper, there’s no pen. The supplies only come by once a week. And you have to have it in within 30 days. A lot of times the men and women going to jail feel so defeated that they don’t just don’t even put in an appeal in the first place.
For those that are fortunate enough to have the stars aligned where they can actually submit an appeal, they find a lot of times are often denied at the facility level, and they have to appeal to the court. And the problem with that is that a lot of people in prison haven’t necessarily taken the bar exam to represent themselves in court. They don’t know how to file these court motions, like article 78, etc.
Additionally here in New York state, for you to access the law library, you have to ask for whatever documents you need 24 hours in advance. Then when you get a book, like the jailhouse lawyers manual, which outlines different court motions in laymen’s terms, you might find the book missing, or a chapter missing, or the officer doesn’t feel like giving out law library materials that day, or that week. So that makes it very difficult to appeal the decision, and to bring that decision in front of outside eyes, outside of prison.
And you have no outside representation that can help out, you basically have to represent yourself?
You definitely have no representation at the hearing stage, and even on the appeal stage. Which is another issue we try to fight as the campaign for alternatives to long-term isolated confinement. Due process is not suspended. You can’t isolate someone without due process. We do it in our court system. Except that in prison due process is really non existent. We have people who can’t speak English being sentenced at hearings that are completely in English! That’s a huge problem. People should be alarmed and concerned about what is going on in these prisons.
And this brings back to what you spoke about earlier, that you are not treated as a citizen in prison. This message of you’re less worthy than a citizen, is not just literal in your face, but also in terms of trying to find representation or recourse…
Yes, unfortunately we send people to prison (it’s supposed to be) as punishment, but nor for punishment.
Except that once people are placed in prison, people are faced with all these different kinds of adversity, injustices. And it’s justified by saying that if you don’t like it, they say, you shouldn’t have come to prison in the first place. But there is a problem with this ideology. I’ll give you a case study to show you what is wrong with this ideology..Mister Kalief Browder, who passed away. This was a young man who was 16 years old, who was literally picked up from the streets of New York, accused of stealing a backpack. He was sent to Rikers Island, one of the worst jails in the nation, spends 3 years in prison, two years in solitary.
Later on, footage was revealed that he was routinely pulled out of his cell and beaten by correctional officers, put back. Beaten up by gang members, while officers just stood by watched and laughed. He attempted to commit suicide a number of times, yet never received any mental health treatment or psychological attention as a result of these suicide attempts.
Then one day, they dropped the charges. They said, we’re sorry we got the wrong person, three years later. 6 months after Mr Browder was released, he committed suicide.
He was permanently damaged in there…
Yes, permanently damaged.. So I want to say, that when we say, hey if you don’t like it you shouldn’t have gone to jail. People should know that not everyone who goes to jail, A, goes to jail for something they actually did, or B, for something that warrants the punishment that they received. A lot of time the punishment is not proportionate to what it is that they’re even being accused of.
And in those cases where it is justified to remove this person from society, people need to understand that prison IS the punishment. They’re not sent for additional punishment at the hands of people who have sworn to protect them. Which is what’s happening right now.
So getting back to when you were in solitary, how did you cope? You mentioned someone who committed suicide. But you came out with a different maybe attitude or resilience that you had…What was it that you had in prison that kept you going?
I want to say hope…I looked around my environment and said, people are dying here…I don’t want to die inside of a cell. My mother didn’t give birth to me to spend my days locked inside of a human cage. And a lot of times people believe in you more than you believe in yourself. For me, my source of strength was my daughter who was born 2 days before I was arrested and sentenced for 15 years. And my mother, who has loved me unconditionally, even when I behaved in ways that I didn’t deserve to be loved.
While in the cell, not only saying I need to survive for them, but also saying, I’m not going to succumb to this environment. I dreamt a lot, slept a lot, fantasized a lot, thought about winning the power-ball, and how I would fire every single correctional officer in the nation (laughing) and hire new people who really care about people. I exercised a lot, and wrote a lot as well. In the back of my bible, the back of the books from the library, on toilet paper. And then all of these writings, once I got back to the general population, I added them back to my journal.
This hope that I am more than just another person who’s inside of a cell. And have so much potential, and I’m not going to succumb to this. And today I am who I am, not because of solitary but despite solitary..
In solitary the writing is kind of a reflective practice, did you have any other reflective practices, or did you struggle with a lot of thinking…
Yeah, in prison your memory fades. That’s why in prison people like pictures because it reminds us. There were a lot of times where I thought back to an event that happened, but I didn’t’ remember correctly the way it actually happened. And it wasn’t until maybe I wrote to my mother, and she’d say that’s not how it happened. What are you talking about? It happened more times than I care to admit. Part of it was thinking, am I losing my mind here, am I creating these alternate realities and fantasies?
Which later I found out that is exactly what I was doing. For me to survive the environment, I had to get out of the environment, even if it was just psychologically closing my eyes. So the way I survived solitary was by using my imagination. There was an article written on that process, by Nautilus Magazine. How we use our imagination to detach or escape from an environment, so we don’t succumb to the environment. People who’ve gone through war and experiences like that, use similar visual exercises to cope with an environment. I didn’t know that I was doing that at that time.
A lot of us do meditation practices to get beyond the walls of our thinking, the walls of our minds as my teacher puts it. So it sounds like your imagination allowed you to get past these walls that were limiting your thinking. And in many cases people they think very little of themselves. It sounds like you were able to break through that constant messaging that puts you down…or as they might say, “put you in your place”, but really isn’t.
Yes, and unfortunately, a lot of people that are placed there, don’t have the capacity. They succumb to their environment. I’ve heard correction officers tell a detainee after they say, “I feel like hurting myself”. And the correction officer says, “come back to me when you actually hurt yourself…”.
Another case that happened, mister Bradley Ballard, this individual needed constant insulin shots, and the correction officers completely ignored his pleas to receive his medication. At one point one correction officer was kind enough to go to his commanding officer and say, “Hey, this guy, really might need some attention, we should take a look at that. ” The Sargent tells the correction officer, “is he dead yet?”. The reporting officer said, “No…he’s not dead, this is why I’m coming to you…”. The supervising officer then said, “Come back to me when you have a body, don’t come back here until you have a body.” Two days later, Bradley Ballard was found dead in his cell.
That’s real mean spirited management, is this taught somehow in the culture, is it systemic?
You’re right, it’s not in the training, how to not have failings. It’s more like, a lot of well-intentioned officers, a lot of whom I’ve met through my incarceration. I’ve met a lot of good officers. Except that, they would rather not rattle the cage. They wouldn’t stand by and watch injustices happen, but because they value their job, or don’t want to get fired, they just don’t get in the way.
Officers are taught that we’re criminals, we shouldn’t be trusted, we are criminals, we shouldn’t be spoken to, shouldn’t be said hi to. So it’s definitely deeply embedded in the culture. Except not every officer subscribes to this culture. At least not proactively, but sometimes by allowing things to happen, I would argue that it’s also just as detrimental and bad.
Yes, Silence is also a choice…
Yeah…I like that..
You mentioned treating people like people earlier.. and this culture of you can put them down, because they’re not people develops in a prison culture..
And it reflects itself in the language a lot. You might hear officers say things like, “how many heads, how many bodies do you have?” Completely dehumanizing language. The problem with this dehumanizing language is that there are things I can do to a “criminal”, that I wouldn’t do to a, “father”. There are things I can do to an inmate, that I couldn’t do to a, “son”.
Once a person is viewed in such a dehumanizing way, then an officer feels justified and OK with for example, not giving you toilet paper for a few days, or not unclogging your toilet for a week. Or, “Here’s a cold tray of food, so what that it’s 3:30 in the afternoon, I’ll see you tomorrow at 7:30….Oh you want to hurt yourself? Well, you’ll figure it out..Don’t come back until you actually did.”
Then justify it, by saying, “these people committed horrific acts, they should not be given any pity or compassion.” Being compassionate or compassion is not something that you do, it’s something that you are…
I’m not sure if the department of correction can measure that on the way in. (laughing).
Have you seen any prison examples where that is taught or instituted, where there is emphasis on the humanness rather than making people less human?
Yeah, there are prisons that I’ve been exposed to who, “treat people like people”. What that means, is that they make sure that they have contact visits, educational resources, adequate mental treatment if and when they need it. Where they uncuff people during therapy sessions. This goes a long way, to be uncuffed when having therapy.
Really protecting and upholding the person’s dignity and worth…Something as simple as asking someone how they’re doing today…goes a long way. And really acknowledging a person’s humanity and presence. In prison, “how are you doing?” is not a phrase that’s heard often.
I want to say here in New York we’ve been moving towards that, a lot of restorative justice. A lot of step-down programs from solitary. Giving people the opportunity to get these treatments and educational resources while they’re in solitary. Except that it takes legislation to move towards that goal, and not just the sheer will of the people.
Basically prison used to be just punitive, what do you see happening towards a prison system that is instead of just punitive towards one that is rehabilitative?
Yeah, right now across the nation, criminal justice is very sexy so to speak. States are really taken a look at their systems, and saying, you know what, is our system as humane as possible. And if not, how can we make this better?
I’m just glad and honored to be alive during a period where it feels like people don’t want to be on the wrong side of history.
So we’re seeing a lot more progressive changes in states moving towards not only rehabilitating people, but also equipping people with the tools, knowledge and information to make them productive citizens once they return to society. In addition to correcting a lot of the systemic parts that also people face once they’re released. Because it is not just the person, but also the systems that this person has to interact with that determines whether that person will recidivists (becomes a repeat offender) or not.
And so this rate of recidivism…A successful prison would be a model where the rate of recidivism is way lower, and prisoners correctly reintegrate back into society and become productive, there are models worth following right?
I’m not sure how I feel about the term “successful prison”. I even ask myself, do correctional facilities “correct” anything? When speaking to different journalists, they’ll say, “Johnny, prison was good to you…You are educated, eloquent, you work at a law firm, you advocate for people, you all of this, and you did 13 years in prison.”
I always say that we need to find a way to invest in people, not prisons.
For the people that are impressed with my journey, I’m only an example of what happens when you invest in people, not prisons. I discovered the power of education while incarcerated. I took college courses while incarcerated. Now kudos to Obama for the recent pilot program affecting about 12 thousand people across the country who will be exposed to higher education in the form of Pell Grants.
But a lot of that came despite the adversity, not because the adversity.
When I think of a successful prison and what that would look like, it would be prison in which the prison invests in the people inside the prison. Not in security, cameras, or fancier handcuffs. And more educational programs, drug treatment, mental health treatment. How can we empower this person. How can we make sure this person has housing and employment upon their release. Let’s help this person make more responsible decisions….
Would part of the solution be to take the profit out of the prison industrial complex? That’s a big part of the problem right?
Yeah, definitely. I think about my daughter who is 15 years old, and my future son. Do I want to bring my future son into a country where people profit from incarceration, oppression, profit from injustice. And if I’m up for parole and I come in front of a warden whose receiving money to keep me inside of a cell. What is least likely to happen? What’s most likely to happen? And what is actually going to happen?
What would you do to take profit out of the equation?
I would definitely not allow the privatization of prisons. I don’t think that any person should be able to make prison a business. Even though state run correctional facilities also have a piece of corporate America in them. People who are incarcerated work for pennies on the dollar. I worked for 15 cents an hour for over 10 years. Doing work that had I been doing it out in the world, it would have paid $20 dollars an hour.
And yet, how much does it cost to warehouse people, 170 thousand dollars a year?
Yeah, Rikers Island cost 170 thousand dollars a year to warehouse (chuckles), or hold someone in his/her cell. And these same people work for 15 cents an hour. If you give me a young kid who has made irresponsible decisions, and a 170 thousand dollars. Not only would I give this person Ivy league education, buy him or her a nice home and car, and still give you back a 100 thousand dollars left over.
So in the end, society would be way better off just investing in that person, instead of investing in this prison industrial complex…
Yes, huge, huge. And I ask myself why we’re not already doing that.
You’d think that especially the bean counters, the people who are saying money matters, they’d be saying, why wouldn’t we invest money in these persons, thus save society money, rather than giving prisons more money to keep the person longer in prison, thus costing the tax payers more….
Part of the problem is plain old corruption…Every now and then the veil is lifted. You might hear about a judge who is receiving kickbacks from a private for-profit prison for sending juveniles there. And we’re shocked when we hear these stories. Advocates and people in the prisons would say hey, you’re just now finding out about it. I’m just really glad criminal justice reform is on people’s radar, and people are finally getting tired and don’t want to be on the wrong side of history.
When you have the pope and the president saying, we need a better system, we need to reform our criminal justice system. It makes people perk up, and say wow, maybe we are over incarcerating people.
2.1 million people locked up in our nation’s prison. 65 million have a criminal record on file. (80,000-100,000 people are in solitary confinement in the US where they spend 22-24 hours a day in their cells, with little to no human contact for days or even decades.) Most of these people are disproportionately people of color…who come from low-income neighborhoods, who have little to no educational or financial resources. Or opportunities, and ending up finding themselves warehoused in a cell for days, weeks, years, decades at a time.
People of different races are singled out, vs, for example on a college campus where someone does the same thing, and receive no punishment. Whereas someone in a poor neighborhood does the same thing, and can end up in solitary…
Yeah, absolutely, I think about drug possession and drug use. I think about in my neighborhood for example, there are 24 hour porn shops, and 24 hour liquor stores. As if people from my neighborhood have gold laying around to pawn at 3 am in the morning. I think about the countless people who’ve gone to prison for drug possession and have gone to solitary for drug use. I’ve been to plenty of college campuses where drug use is rampant, except that there no one ends up going to jail. But in other places people do end up going to jail. It’s not necessarily that certain people get singled out, it’s that the system favors white people over people of color.
Unfortunately this is what goes on. Think of the recent case of the young man from Stanford who was sentenced to 6 months in jail for sexual assault. And I think about, if he was a person of color, would he have received 6 months of jail? Of course I would never know, I would argue he’d have received a much different sentence than 6 months.
I believe it…so what challenges do you face as re-entry advocate?
There are challenges that I face right now in the work that I do. And that is that I’m always trying to humanize the people in prison. But the systemic change has to come from these different systems that people have to interact with once they return to society. Specifically parole, or HRA, which we call Human Resources Administration, where people receive food stamps and different benefits and entitlements. Medicaid, social security. These systems really work against the people that return to society.
I have people who have been released who are given addresses to buildings that don’t even exist anymore. I have clients who parole says, I don’t want you to work, to go to school. I want you to only take anger management, and once you are done with that, then we talk about you getting a job. And that’s a huge problem.
The other part of the challenge is changing the culture enough to where the policy changes.
A lot of times these policies are created by people who have no experience with the prison system, have never been in the system, or have even come in contact with the people in this system. And yet they are allowed to create policy for these people. So part of my challenge is making people aware of the value of having the voices of people who are directly impacted in the work that they’re doing, when they’re having these policy discussions.
Because between theory and practice there is a huge space. And in order to close that space you need the voices of the people who are directly affected by the issue, who have lived through it. Who can say, hey, that policy doesn’t look like that in real life, that’s never going to work. But here is how we can make it work.
And a lot of times we’re excluded from these conversations, because again, we’re not seen as qualified, we’re not seen as believable in a lot of senses. And just not really brought into the conversation.
So how would you be able to get into the conversations?
Just invite me (laughing)…
Legislators know that there are advocates who are pushing for different reform. We constantly contact legislators, we contact government officials. We contact people in different spaces who are either engaged in new initiatives, or who are exploring ideas about whether alternative incarcerations, sentencing, bail reform, things of that nature. And we say, hey this is what should happen. So instead of saying, thank you for your opinion, why not say, why don’t you come and join us for this meeting that we’re having on how to actually formulate this.
I will say it has happened in some spaces, specifically Rikers Island. I’m on an adolescent advisory board here in NYC. I’m part of the bar association, on the community and re-entry committee, one of the people who’s not a lawyer. But they see the value in having us (the people who are directly affected) part of the conversation as it relates to reform.
They’ve really come to terms, and see that hey, we’re not going to get this right, until we make sure that the people in this cell also have a say-so into how this is going to turn out. And some spaces this is successful, and other spaces you’re invited, but not listened to.
Its just for lip service, just for show….
Yeah, to say, we had Johnny Perez there, formerly incarcerated, and he was part of the discussion. But every suggestion I made was shut down.
Another thing I wanted to ask, you mentioned if you hand someone a paintbrush, they will paint…expand on that a little bit.
This is the idea that criminals in prison are incorrigible individuals, criminals are born criminals, not made. And because of that, you have whether correctional services, or legislators, or even government officials, who believe that people can’t change. I would argue that people can change, they can change as long as they’re alive. Regardless of age. But because of this ideology, the idea is that we should educate people in prison. Because if you teach this guy who’s in prison for burglary, if you teach him computer skills, he’ll just become a computer hacker…
Just a better burglar….right..
Yeah..instead we should not teach them…because if you know there’s no change in this person. Where the reality is that if you teach me computer skills, I’m more likely to become a computer engineer, software engineer, or IT specialist. I won’t become a computer hacker. I’m not innately born a criminal.
That is one, then two, a lot of times, we stamp people with one label based on one chapter, or one act in their life. And for a lot of people, the difference between a lot of people in prison, and people in society is that the people in prison where arrested, and a lot of people in society have YET to be arrested.
I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve met who are either doctors, lawyers, etc. who’ve put their hand in a cookie jar at some point in their childhood, or early teens. except that they had the resources to not succumb to the criminal justice system. And have this lifelong blemish, or scarlet letter behind them.
Or they simply were not found out…
Yeah, exactly… or it never came to the light of day.
Or maybe because they grew up in a higher crime neighborhood where there is a lot of police presence already watching….You’re more likely to be found out with your hands in the cookie jar if you grow up in certain places.
Yeah, we know street crime is prosecuted at a higher degree than corporate crime. I don’t have to remind people about Enron and Mr Madoff. But those are far and few in between.
But the paintbrush is..I was at a board of corrections meeting, and one person proposed an art program, art therapy in prison. Who knew, let people paint! But a official said we can’t have this program, because we can’t have people take paintbrushes and create weapons out of them and kill each other. My eyebrows went up, wait a minute, people don’t automatically see a paintbrush and see a weapon!
Anything can be a weapon when you think about it. The person has to decide to do so. So saying we can’t have paintbrushes, because they will create weapons out of it, is to say these people are incorrigible and can’t be changed and are born criminals. No..criminals are made due to a number of different environmental and psychological factors. A lot of different variables go into that. Not just born…
And we also have a habit of telling someone, “You are a criminal” instead of, “you had criminal behavior” at one time. That alone is coming back to where words can be very powerful if you say, your identity from now on is just that. Because then they might start believing that, which also doesn’t help…
Exactly, and I think that was true for me as a teenager. The environment was sending me messages. Solitary was sending me a message of worthlessness. Of this is who you are, this is how you should be treated. And then after a while, I said well, if I am a criminal, then you know what, then I’m going to be one.
And real quickly when you go into prison, you learn it’s a completely different world, it’s an upside down kingdom. Where everything that you believed was true, is backwards. People do not value respect, people don’t value diplomacy, people do not value walking away from a conversation. People do not value just being able to talk things out. Violence is really the law of the land. Both for people doing time, as well as the correctional officers. They don’t talk things out, they talk with their batons.
You learn that for me to communicate, you have to communicate with violence. This is the language of the land here. When someone is constantly exposed to that for 10, 15, to 20 years. Then when they return back into society, they still operate by those norms. And that is how this cycle continues, this labeling theory cycle.
In prison, did you also find a lot of people turn towards religion as a way to cope?
Yeah, I found that people turn to religion for a number of reasons. In addition to coping with the environment, and this unbearable reality. The kind of let go, and let God take care of it so to speak of. Part of doing time is to come to terms with hopelessness. I know I mentioned hope before in solitary before. But also hopelessness in the fact that there is nothing I can do about this situation. Like absolutely nothing that I can do about it. All I can do it, is accept the situation.
So your’e not struggling against it the whole time…
Yes, that’s self talk. When I first went to prison, I had to tell myself, “Johnny, you’re not going home for the next 15 years.” This is your home for the next 15 years. Stop thinking that someone is going to open your cell someday, and say we’re going to let you go. It’s not going to happen. And I had to reprogram myself. And a lot of time, it’s saying, hey, God there’s nothing I can do about it, please take care of it. God if you give me another chance, I won’t do it again. That kind of thing.
So people turn to religion to help cope with the environment. And then people also turn to religion for feelings of warmth, to feel inclusive, and feel loved in a lot of senses. To feel they’re not alone, even though they’re in a crowded room.
Do you find that that they still maintain that relationship once they come out of prison into society?
A lot of times yes. I’ve met a lot of people who’ve found faith in prison, and then once released, they stay with their faith and their religion.
In terms of addressing the root problem, why do some turn towards a life of crime..how can we address this?
There are a number of different issues. I think policing is part of the issue. The way that some neighborhoods are policed and others are not. In my neighborhood, I get mobile police towers, other neighborhoods, they get community gardens. Again I have 24 hour porn shops, and these poverty pimps who pray on people needing things.
I definitely think that the resources that are allowed into the communities, except that it is not. When I was 16 years old, I wasn’t trying to decide to if I should go to band camp or karate school. I was trying to decide which gang to join, how I’m going to run from the cops. How I’m going to walk to school and keep myself from being bullied.
And then when I was in school, the messages I received from my own teachers weren’t positive. I cut school as a teen constantly, except that every year I found myself being passed to the next grade. I don’t know how I passed this, I never did any homework. I probably showed up about two weeks out of the school year, and here I am going from the 8th to the 9th, and then into the 10th, and 11th grade. How is this possible?
And then as an adult you realize that teachers were just passing the problem along. I found myself in the 11th grade with an 8th grade reading level. Where the teacher says, oh you didn’t do your homework, well it’s OK, you’ll probably end up in prison anyway…
So they’d already given up on you in high school…
Oh yeah, without a doubt. So let’s talk about the school-to-prison-pipeline. When you go in school, and our schools resemble prisons. You have to go through a metal detector, the’re are armed guards there. I can be arrested inside of school, if the teacher deems I’m being disruptive in class. How I’m suspended constantly for behaviors that other students might not be suspended for.
Next thing you know here I am, I have a criminal record from engaging in school. Then once I get in front of a judge for another infraction, I already have psychologically been exposed to these restrictive environments in a sense.
I think the policing, the education, and I bring it back to the resources that are afforded in these communities. There is nothing to do for people inside a lot of these impoverished communities.
I wonder what would happen if we were to infuse these communities with the resources, financial resources, human resources, opportunities. For people to take advantage of them. Instead of feeling like, I have to sell drugs to help my mother feed my three brothers. Which is the reason the first time I went to jail.
I hope something like that happens. It is very complicated in reality to implement that.
And then we can talk about alternatives to incarceration. When people are arrested for a certain crime, you should not go to prison. You should not go to jail for using drugs. You should not go to jail because your behavior was a direct result of your mental illness. You should not go to jail, because you’re sleeping on a park bench, because your homeless. You should not go to jail for hopping a turnstile on a train, because you can’t afford to pay $3 dollars to get on the subway. Except that you get arrested, fined $100 dollars and run through the system.
And I ask myself, have we criminalized poverty? Have we criminalized mental illness? And people are going to jail not because of what they’ve done, but because of who they are.. .in a lot of different cases.
Yeah, lot of things to solve, a lot more problems to solve. I would envision an island instead of filled with boxes, have an island with gardens, wood-shop, every kind of possible skill that could be taught there. And then I imagine people coming off that island very different than an island with boxes on it.
Yeah, places like this jail in Sweden. People there are so humanized, they don’t even have fences there. And people are not running away, because there is no fence. Places in India where the officers don’t use handcuffs. Where people willingly go to the precinct with the police officer, and are held accountable for their actions!
We can rethink our entire system beyond where it is now, in a way that empowers people. And protects and upholds their human dignity and worth. and is very directly reflective of our human and American values.
And this cycle keeps on going unless you have some advantages right now, like you could self-educate your way out of the cycle…
Yeah, and to have the support of people who say, we’re going to invest in this person. This person has potential.
I told a reporter from the times the other day, the entire time I was in prison, for 13 years straight, day in and day out…Not once did I meet a person who was incorrigible, who could not be changed, who was deep down a criminal. I met people who had so much unrealized potential. I’m talking about so creative, so smart. I know scholars who don’t have PhD. Who have studied subjects for the last 10-15 years because there is nothing else for them to do. And they’re so smart, but they would never see the light of day.
And I ask myself…Imagine…if the cure to cancer was stuck inside of the head of a person who is sitting inside of a cell, who is not being allowed the education to bring the cure into fruition. There is so much unrealized potential inside of our prisons.
If we were to invest in these people….our society as a whole, not only the moral fabric of our society would be upheld, but our society would be furthered by the accomplishments these people would make.
Yeah, I totally agree (laughing)
Anything else that I missed that you would like to get off your chest that you think people should know about incarceration?
I think I said it all, but I would emphasize for listeners who have never been exposed to the system or come in contact anyone who has been affected…People should know that a lot of people are in prison just because they haven’t given the opportunity to do better. And they can’t do better, unless they know how to do better.
So definitely education is part of the conversation. And the other part of the conversation is that there are no bad people. There are people who may commit bad acts or irresponsible acts. But we can’t subject one person to relegate one person to one chapter of their life. We’ve all made mistakes, whether we’ve been caught for that or not. Whether we’ve been held accountable for them or not. This could be your reality. You can also be subjected to this system.
And the reason people should care because 95% of the people who are in prison right now, are going to be released one day. Tomorrow, next week, next year. And they are going right into our communities. There is people in your community who may have criminal records who you may even be surprised that have a record, but have never mentioned or told you about their record.
Until we see people as people, we will not treat people as people.
Thanks for bringing light to this issues. For giving me a voice, to help me amplify my voice and reach a wider audience about these issues. I’m always available to answer any questions, and am available to do presentations in person, across the country to talk about these issues.
MF 46 – Reconnecting with Nature through Eco-Therapy with Laurel Vogel
Laurel Vogel, M.A. received her degree in contemplative ecopsychology (A Psychology of Writing) in 2006, and is an ecotherapist, writer, Zen practitioner, and Nature Immersion group facilitator. She founded and runs the Holding Earth Sangha on Whidbey Island, and conducts Nature Immersion camps on the West Coast. Her writing is anthologized in Rebearths: Conversations with a World Ensouled (ed. C. Chalquist), and her articles have appeared in Ecotherapy News, and Restoration Earth Journal.
Interview with Laurel Vogel
(What follows is a summary transcript of the interview. Listen to the episode for the full conversation)
What brought you to a contemplative practice?
I’ve been a spiritual seeker for a long time, from a young age. Vacation bible school busses would haul us off to church, and this opened up my seeking personality. I had a seeking personality, but couldn’t find a home in the traditional traditions. I couldn’t reconcile myself in those traditions. There was this God father that would punish people into eternal damnation. So I left that kind of church, and continued seeking. As a young adult, I went through many things.
In my 30’s I started Yoga, and had a strong Yoga practice for a long time. And in my 40’s I started meditating with Vipassana. Eventually came to Zen practice 11 years ago. I found that Zen was the one place where I could have all my doubts, and be exactly who I am, but still have a really strong containing kind of a practice.
Even though I came with all of my questions, and my sometimes contentious relationship with spirituality, it can hold that, and it can stand up to that. I find the non-exclusive nature of that, to be as close to a home in a practice as I could find.
Interesting that you mention the judgement of the old testament religion, and then the non-judgement and inclusivity of Zen.
Yeah, I don’t really belief anymore that all Christian religions are like that, but I’ve come to find that, maybe even not all Buddhist sects aren’t as inclusive as I would like. But for the most part, the one that I found seems to really embrace… it doesn’t tell me what to think, what to feel, and how to be.
So I had to go away from practices that were too prescriptive..
And the preconceived notions, and conditioning that they come with..
And of course there are precepts which we follow, but nothing like you have to believe, and have to think this way.
But there’s also a faith element in Zen as well. How do you relate to that as opposed to accepting something on blind faith?
The faith is to keep practicing. To keep going, to keep sitting, to keep doing the meditation practice I think. That’s really where the faith comes in. The process will take us toward wherever it is that we’re going. I see that as different than being told what I need to have faith in.
Through the culture, certain churches, not all of them, have really come to try to tell people a lot on how to live, and what to do. The particular church I was in for a while, they got into your life, from telling what length the sleeves of your shirt should be, to whether or not you should go bowling or swimming. It’s that kind of a context that I was reacting to when I was looking for a spirituality that was more open and inclusive.
Would you say you’re still seeking, or is some of that now dropping away, now that you’re feeling more at home in your practice?
In a way I think I feel at home seeking. I do feel like, no matter what I do, I’ll find a way to be seeking. Not sure if that’s a good/bad thing. I think it’s just part of my nature, and i’m finally coming to a place where I’m accepting that more. That I just maybe one of those people who needs to question everything. Maybe that’s just part of my path.
..You’re accepting it, whatever state of mind you are, you’re accepting that. That’s a very liberating feeling right?
Yes, it is, it’s very liberating to realize that no matter where i’m at, i’m accepted in this practice..As I am with all my questions and doubts. It doesn’t mean that I’m not practicing right, or doing the right thing.
Yeah, I think it was Shunryu Suzuki who said (Correction: Suzuki was actually quoting Dogen), life’s one big mistake…that meditation and the whole process of finding your own true nature are one continuous mistake.
..One continuous mistake, that’s right (laughing). That would describe my experience of practice.
How does this practice affected your relationship with the world. We’re going into Eco-therapy, which seems very similar to changing your view or relationship with everything.
Yes, the more I go into Zen practice, and the more I go into Eco-therapy, the more they seem to dovetail with each other. Especially with the ways I practice Eco-therapy. I actually defined what I was doing during my degree, as contemplative Eco-therapy. Which was very much about bringing people in a contemplative open state in their practices out in nature.
Has the sense of self/other changed over your practice?
Definitely..explain more what you mean by solid self and other?
I guess our culture and conditioning is about believing in a separate identity, I’m here, and that person is out there. I end at the ends of my skin..or skin bag.
Yes, that’s a good point to bring up. Both Zen and Eco-therapy are really congruent in a way. They give me a sense that I am interconnected and not separate from the natural world. There really is a mutuality, and inter-relatedness. The more that i practice contemplative practice, the more that I dissolve in my sense of nature and the natural world. And that happens when I walk in the woods. If I’m engaging my senses, pretty soon it feels like…I am my senses. And I’m not only sensing the world, the world is also sensing me. So there’s an inter-being.
When you started your Zen meditation practice, was there a moment that you can remember that you realize that you wanted to deepen your practice?
Probably…It’s been a sort of slow dissolving into practice, that I’ve gotten into. I’m doing a combination of Soto and now started studying the Aitken tradition, the Diamond Sangha. And I was doing Vipassana meditation, with a group sangha, but there was no teacher, no guidance. But I needed someone who i could ask questions of, and explore things more deeply with in terms of my practice. I just needed help basically to understand some things.
I happen to see a flyer at the local Dharma hall, in Bellingham, and Norman Fisher was coming to town. I remember attending my first Zen weekend retreat with him. I got a very strong sense that, here’s this person who didn’t have big charisma, which would scare me away. I felt like I could connect with him. And I pretty much jumped in at that point, became his student, and have practiced with him almost 11 years now.
How do you practice with him?
He’s in Marin County, Ca, but at the time he was coming up to Bellingham and Vancouver, BC about 6 times a year, so I would catch those retreats. I would go to those retreats, and sometimes I would go down to Ca as well. He has decreased the retreats up here, so that was part of the reason I started looking around for other Zen practice places.
Could you elaborate on what retreats do or give you, that you wouldn’t get from just joining a group and/or sitting on your own?
The experience of Sesshin, the extended 6-8 day retreats, are really immersions in the practice where you come together with different members of the Sangha/community. You live with them, cook with them, you do everything together, as one body. For me, it increases my sense of belonging, and the sense of being supported. And supporting others, because there are always many, many opportunities for service in those practices.
Some of those people I’ve barely spoken a sentence to, but I feel very close to them. So that’s part of it, why it’s important. But it’s also the structure of the schedule. Having all of the constraints of your life removed for a time. Or all of the things that are calling you, or pulling you out of yourself, and really just getting a chance to not have to make decisions and not have to have to do the usual life that you do. You just get to be contemplative. That in itself is a real possibility for opening.
Do you recall getting an example of getting an insight that you would likely not have gotten if you hadn’t gone to an immersive retreat?
I would say almost every retreat i have something like that. There’s just something about being away from my life, that is just really conducive towards that kind of thing. At one point I went to a practice period at Green Gulch down in Marin County, and that was really conducive to some openings, because not only are you relating to yourself in a practice place, but a lot of other people, a lot of different personalities. So there’s a lot of opportunity to look at your habits and patterns.
For me one of my biggest patterns is resistance. And so I almost always get a chance I can look at the ways that I’m resisting, like following a schedule, or whether I like people wearing robes, and things like that.
Do you have a funny example of that?
I don’t know if it’s funny…It’s just part of my contentious nature.
There’s times when it’s really serious and annoying, like you say, and then there are other times when it almost becomes comical.
Yeah, I guess that is pretty much it. It became funny to me, that I do spend so much time resisting and not just allowing myself to just follow the schedule. Obviously I’m there for a reason, and I’m putting myself in that position for a reason. Putting myself in that pressure cooker of a Sesshin for a reason. So it’s funny that I come up against this part of my personality…I have authoritarian issues, so I’m going to map authority onto everybody. So it could be funny sometimes, if we know how to laugh at ourselves.
Robert Aitken, who is our teacher’s teacher, has a story where his entire Sesshin retreats revolved around as he called it, “his damn mother”. Some issues that he had with his mother in the past was just brewing and dominating during his retreat. It can happen like that, a whole retreat where you have one issue that is taking the dominant form.
Yeah, I’ve had many Sesshin like that. It can happen even as you walk into a retreat. That I decide I need to obsess about something for a while. Now after 11 years of doing these, I’ve just started to get much better about dropping these stories. Where I can go, “OK there’s another one, I can let that go now.”
I think most of us, have some habits that are easy to let go, slide of, and some that are much harder to let go of. And we may look at another and see us struggle with a habit that for us would be very easy to let go of, but then they might look at us and see something we struggle with that they could let go off very easily.
All depending on our inheritance from our particular upbringing or culture that we were brought up in.
Then when you come back into the busyness of life, how does a retreat then affect the way you attend to your regular life? How does that affect your regular life?
At first I used to be bothered, because regardless of how many perceived openings I may have had, I was disappointed in myself. Because I was “supposed to be all peace and love now right?” years ago I would think that. Eventually that wore off, and I stopped trying to be something…once I left retreat.
Particularly work practice, and certain moving mindfulness practices, are helpful with this. All of a sudden, you find yourself becoming mindful, coming back to your mindfulness when washing dishes, getting to your car and driving to work, or walking through the woods, etc. It’s not something that I was able to bring consciously from Sesshin, into my daily life. It’s just something that happened as a result from consistently going.
We keep doing the practice, and at some point the practice does us. And carries you wherever you go.
That sounds right yeah..
Do you have an example where you notice that in your daily life, maybe in traffic, or cooking, or.. How do you become aware of that?
I’m not sure how it happens, maybe it was Jack (her teacher) who said using those experiences as mindfulness bells. Like when something difficult or alarming happens, like my neighbor’s leaf blower. That’s one of my favorite ones. I can use that experience as a mindfulness bell, and bring myself back, when I remember. And I do think as a result of pretty intense practice, I’ve come to where I can do that more often, and remember to do that more often.
And when you come back, that changes your relationship to the leaf blower?
Sometimes (laughing), sometimes I can drop the story that I have about that. I guess it does, because if I don’t do that, I can be agitated for a long time. And if I do that, I go can go somewhere else and focus on something different.
That’s nice, I bet a lot of people want to understand how that works better (laughing).
I wish I understood it better, but i really do think practice makes that happen. I don’t know how else to explain that, I don’t think we can try. It’s like you said, the practice practices us eventually.
That’s great, something de-escalates, becomes less tight, constricted, it sounds like from what you’re saying.
Yeah, and the heart opens up a little more to the other person. This happens all the time in human relationships. You get this email with a tone that you’re uncertain about, and at first you feel like, oh, that person is saying such and such. And instead of reacting, you take a break, there’s another mindfulness bell. And then come back to it, you can kind of let go of the story that you have about that person. Maybe it’s someone you’ve had conflict in the past. And maybe you, or I can see it as my trigger. That was my own personal psychology at work there, I can now let go of that. And deal with this person who has their own particular way of seeing the world also.
That’s great, and that then has the ability to create a new opening in that relationship too. And the de-escalation, and then maybe a new appreciation.
Yeah, so often we encounter others except through the lens of our own stories. The more we can discern between what is my story, and what is your story, the more potential there is for an authentic meeting.
How did you come about to explore Eco-Therapy?
I grew up as a barefoot kid, running around, and climbing trees. At some point that got closed of, and shut down, probably age 13-14-15. Whenever that happens. And I kind of moved indoors, probably a lot of stuff going on in my personal, and family life. Then when I was about 24/25, and married at that time, and he decided we needed to go to the Grand Canyon. And I didn’t want to go. I had pulled away from nature in a way that I was unaware of. But we went..
So we went down into this canyon, and I’d been afraid of everything in nature. Like some young women are. I was fragile around it. I was taken into the Grand Canyon, and it was this process of stripping away culture for me.
We entered in at Lees Ferry (part of Glen Canyon), as most people do..and we had these oarsmen who were wild men. It was cold and rainy, I hated it, and thought it was the worst thing in the world. We had to hike out of Bright Angel, due to half of a trip pass. And by the time we hiked out, I was begging to stay and go on with the rest of the guides. Something happened to me in that canyon.
I think it was just the awakening of the senses. I was touching rock, seeing wildlife, feeling the river, the sky, the sun. We were open and in nature. I had not seen or felt what I had been missing. And so that experience stayed with me. I started camping much more. We continued to go back to the canyon. I became much more the person I was supposed to be.
Eventually that relationship ended, I went back to school, where I got a degree in Eco-Psychology. I was interested in the field of psychology, but not so much interested in working in a confined room/office. Which I tried to do for 3 years, but eventually taking my practice back to eco-therapy and eco-psychology. Practicing in context with the world.
So what is the main difference between eco-therapy and eco-psychology?
Eco-psychology is the academic field that i’m in, and Eco-therapy is the way that it’s practiced. Applied eco-psychology. There are some other nuanced difference, but I like the term Eco-therapy because it’s readily understandable and gets away from the world psychology.
(Below a short video from the Eco Belonging web site)
How does that work in practice, do people have some eco or nature deficiency, and then get referred to you, how does that work?
I do have some referrals with therapists in the area, who think it would be beneficial for their clients. A lot of work is coming out in hospitals now, that this is a good adjunct to certain illnesses that people have. You know that is one of the biggest challenges in this field is, how to help people see the difference between doing eco-therapy, or going to a therapists office.
We have found that working with other groups, or with other types of things is the best way to go. One of the things I do, is write a lot about the topic. I used to write to eco-therapy news and I’ve written for restoration earth journal and an anthology for the topic. And so that’s one area where it’s a big educational piece, to try to join it to other things.
The other thing i started doing is when I started our Zen practice group here, we are moving it towards becoming a green Sangha. Introducing a little bit of Thich Naht Hahn’s materials, he has the “holding earth” idea.
We’re also taking people camping. My husband is a psychotherapist, he works with couples. So one of the things we’ll do is taking couples out. This is a great way to work with couples, combining his marriage counseling with the eco-therapy. It gives it a context, and gives them something to hang what they know about therapy, and yet we can do it outside in nature. And so they like that piece of that. They’re getting something that they know about, and they also get to go kayaking, or whatever it is that we’ve concocted to help them experience nature.
You mentioned taking folks outside. What else do you do with your clients to change their relationship with themselves, those around them, and nature?
Sure, I have a 6 part series that I do with people. So there are 6 sessions. I’ve extracted some Buddhist ideas, which has to do with the senses. And I’ve also combined it with Shinrin-Yoku. A Japanese forest immersion practice or forest bathing”. It is a way of using the sense roots, in Buddhism, which is part of the Abhidharma. So the sense roots would be the eye and sight, ear and sound, nose and smell, taste, touch, and mind.
I’ve taken each of these senses, and made a practice that they can do out while we’re outside, partly when we’re together, and part at home on their own. So they can do their own micro quest with that particular practice. And really help themselves open that particular sense up.
And then these build on each other. And eventually we get to the 6th, which is the mind. It’s domain is thinking. So mind and thinking. That would culminate this initial series with.
The mind in the west is pretty much the primary organ that is paid attention to. Which is why it’s so dominant, so how do you treat that in your eco-therapy session?
First of all we distract from the mind, by taking people out. One good way is getting people out of their shoes. Just getting them sensing, touching, and feeling. And in that process dropping stories. Just coming to direct visceral contact.
And eventually when you get to seeing the mind as yet another sense-root, you can also see thinking as something that is like a sense, you can drop it.
What are seeing people reaction to that, do you see people have reactions to that? Do they resist?
Some people are resistant to that, just like me. And very often..can’t talk about individuals, but I can talk about folks I’ve paid attention to outside my practice. I find that they experience a sense of joy in the connection. When they have a contact with something wild, or something that’s not in their normal domain. And when they feel their mutuality/relationship with that other being, that more than human being. And this really sparks in us both what’s missing from our lives, and our need to reconnect.
It instills a desire hopefully to continue these re-connection practices.
Do you give them assignments to go out every day to reconnect with those senses?
Ideally that’s how it works. One person I can talk about, she passed up her porch swing everyday for the last 3 years. They put in this beautiful porch swing. And after this retreat she was adamant, she was no longer going to do that. She was going to enjoy her porch swing.
Other people have different experiences. We had a couple kayaking, and it brought up their relationship difficulties. And they were able to sort through some of those things. One person needs to steer on the rudder in the back, and another needs to paddle. They need to paddle in unison with each other for it to work! They’re metaphors that can happen in the process of taking people out on adventures.
So it gives them insight where they’re stuck in their relationship…
Yes, it did. Actually my own husband and I we got some insight into our relationship on that trip too (laughing).
What kinds of mental illnesses are particularly benefited by taking part in eco-therapy?
There is a lot of research coming out, for those who are inclined to the western way of thinking. Mostly from England, Scotland, Ireland, and Finland. And they are showing actual quantifiable effects. Decreases in anxiety and depression, increased immune function. They’re finding that people who exercise outdoors, what they call Green Exercise. It helps people to have better stamina, when they’re outside, working out. they found a reduction in ADD symptoms, that focus is improved from increased contact with nature. And even improvements in self-esteem.
That’s great, you can’t go wrong with that. I saw one (2007 study from the University of Essex in the U.K), which found that a walk in the country reduces depression in 71% of participants. (The researchers found that as little as five minutes in a natural setting, whether walking in a park or gardening in the backyard, improves mood, self-esteem, and motivation.)
So the challenge is that not everyone is aware that this is solution they can use right now, they can go outside…
Yeah, it’s a challenge because I think people can get kind of bored after a while, if they don’t really understand how to connect outside..Because we’re of of practice, and we’ve also been conditioned by a culture that needs us to be dependent on what it gives us. A constant stream of entertainment, media, maybe sugar…. (laughing)..I struggle with that…things like that.
So I think this dependence on this culture detracts from our ability to go out and fully experience the subtleties that nature has to offer. Also I don’t think we understand how much reciprocity there is in nature. That it’s actually giving to us, as well as us giving to it, her/him…There’s so much to this.
Like you said, I don’t see Facebook anytime soon asking people to go outdoors. They do not want people to leave their platform, and their sugar, and whatever else..
Right, and that is where I think mindfulness helps. And having a little bit of stamina to sit and stay with something..You know there’s a good story by Eve Ensler. She wrote the vagina monologues, and in her more recent book, In the Body of the World, she talks about her experience with cancer.
The only salvation is kindness.
Eve Ensler ended up in a hospital being treated for her cancer. And after treatment was so debilitated. She didn’t have the strength to watch TV, or check her text messages, or do any of the things that we’d ordinarily do to distract ourselves from the pain that we’re in. And in her hospital room out her window, she could see a tree. And this is a person who left a rural area for New York City, and said she hated trees. She wasn’t going back. So here she is, stuck in her own situation with no other outlet, and here is this tree.
There’s a beautiful distillation of this story on brainpickings about what happens to her as she interacts from her hospital room with this tree. Staring at the bark day after day, and getting to know the bark. Then staring at the shiny leaves. Then near the end of her stay the tree blooms. It had a profound impact on her. She found a lot of healing both emotionally and metaphorically she was able to understand her relationship to the tree and all that had happened. And also as she was fighting cancer to her own body. So it’s a great story and example.
You see these stories in the literature. Like Derrick Jensen’s book, A Language Older than Words. His own story of childhood sexual abuse by his father. And the ways that his relationship to his father, and a mirror of what we’re doing to the culture plays out in the book and his own personal healing.
And a more recent book, H is for Hawk, by Helen McDonald, about grieving, the death of her father. Beautiful stories about the ways people interact with nature, and find the deep spiritual, emotional, and physical healing.
Ideally we’d teach this ability to recognize this at an earlier age then when someone gets cancer right? How do you think that’s going to happen in the future?
Little kids already have this, and humans in general already have this knowledge. To me it seems that what we’re doing is we’re training them out of it. And so it’s a good question. I do believe that we’re seeing more, my ears are attuned to hearing stories about nature. And I was at a writing retreat last weekend. And many of the stories that people were compelled to tell each other, had to do with like, “well there was a squirrel dragging a giant mushroom around.” This is at a retreat center in the woods, so there was a lot of nature around there. They were able to go around and walk.
Another story i heard was, “Well a deer chasing a coyote!” And you know one story after another about their interactions with nature. So it gave me some hope that people are interested in nature. When you hear people tell stories like that, and you’re listen to them, you’re hearing something about their longing for what is wild. And what is not so domesticated.
So I think if somehow we can speak to this longing that they have, we can help turn people toward…yes.. this is our desire to be back in relationship with the natural world. I’m trying to do this on all the fronts that I can think of to do. I think people know it, they don’t really know how to do it. If I can get someone in the door, then we can work from there. But we have to write, blog, and talk about it. I love taking people out, and immersing them in it. And that’s what happened for me, and I think that is a really good way to support somebody to sort of peel off those layers that they’ve gathered from the culture.
And the wall that’s build up between them and nature. To take down that wall.
Yeah, take it down or play with it. There are many things we can do to interact with it, in a way to help it come down.
Do you have any remaining thoughts on how someone can benefit from nature. Maybe some remaining ideas they can explore to reconnect…
Pay attention to those moments when you encounter wildness and pay attention to what that feels like.
I was walking around the arboretum in Seattle the other day, and encountered a young couple who had just got really close to a great blue heron. They didn’t even know what it was. They came out of it, and had this delight on their faces. And I questioned them a little bit about this. It was clear that they didn’t have a lot of contact with nature, but they were sooo happy! That they got to see this bird up close.
I would say, really attend to and pay attention to those moments. It’s really important that we all recover and bring rich non-human environments into our lives. To learn as much as we can about it. Whether this is gardening, or photography…This is an activity, that gets you to put your shoes on, and get out the door. And we need something like that in our lives. That not only gets us out into the woods and enjoying it, but go out and do something that will really motivate you, whether it’s gardening or kayaking, something that makes you want to do it.
Because that is going to give you the long sustained contact with nature that will get you thinking in a different way. And to experience your own wild nature, and to also experience the domesticity. How domesticity is affecting your life. Because if you do that, you won’t tolerate animals that are caged or in factory farms. It’s going to wake up the heart. Because there’s a lot in the natural world, that wants to speak to us. If we can develop these ears to hear.
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 43 – Guided Meditations to Help Develop a Regular Meditation Habit with OMG I can Meditate! co-founder Lynne Goldberg
Lynne was stressed-out, sleep-deprived, type-A businesswoman, and ended up a renowned meditation coach. As she talks about in the interview, when she started meditating, no one would have labeled Lynne Goldberg “a natural”.
Lynne had a series of devastating life blows, including the loss of twin baby girls, her mother, her marriage, and her job, coupled with years of infertility treatment and multiple failed adoptions, she counted on overworking and wine to help her survive.
But in the quiet moments she was forced to face the fact that, ultimately, she was still alone, unhappy, unfulfilled, and disconnected. Something—in fact, everything—was missing. Dragged kicking and screaming by a friend to a yoga retreat, Lynne reluctantly abided by the meat-free, alcohol-free diet and sat through the meditations simply because there was nowhere else to go.
But as she found her stress and anxiety slowly dissipating, the reluctance transformed into acceptance, and acceptance into appreciation and outright enjoyment. There was no denying the transformative effects this balanced, healthy approach was having on her life. She felt calm, capable, and in control.
Lynne course-corrected her life onto a path to understanding and embraced a new healthy and balanced lifestyle, studying along the way with Deepak Chopra, Sri Dharma Mittra and Tony Robbins.
Today she is a certified meditation coach, yoga instructor, strategic interventionist, and author of the book “Get Balanced. Get Blissed.”
Her passion and life mission lie in helping others transform their lives and discover true happiness, peace of mind and fulfillment through meditation and personal growth. Her ability to compassionately connect with others, and her accessible, everyday approach to teaching meditation, have led her to copach people from all walks of life, from celebrities, athletes, and business executives to 80-year-old cancer patients and five-year-old children.
Lynne’s meditation programs and curriculum have been implemented in elementary and high schools, special needs schools, and hospitals.
Lynne Goldberg is also co-founder of OMG. I Can Meditate!, a mobile and web meditation app that can teach anybody how to meditate in just 10 minutes a day. Lynne’s simple and clear teaching style has brought the joy of meditation to stressed-out business executives, soccer moms, eighty year olds, kindergarten kids, and everyone in between. She is the author of the book Get Balanced. Get Blissed.
When Lynne is not helping people find their bliss, she is living her own doing the things she loves most: being in nature, hiking or biking, traveling the world, cooking, or enjoying time with her husband and kids.
(What follows is a summary transcript of the interview. Listen to the episode for the full conversation)
(Above: Guided Meditation video by OMG I can Meditate! Lynn Goldberg)
What was your life like before you started a meditation practice?
Lynne was not a natural meditator at all (stresses this point). So many folks are intimidated by meditation, and look at other meditators and think, “oh, I could never do that”. She came to meditation by accident. Her mother was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. At the time when Lynn’s mother went through all her cancer treatments, her doctor recommended she try meditation.
And simultaneously, Lynne was going through infertility treatments. She thought, while her mother was having difficulties with her treatments, if it can help her mother, maybe it can help her as well. And when you’re pregnant, people like to tell you, just relax, and you’ll get pregnant. So she looked at meditation as a way to help her relax, as well as deal with this stuff that was going on as well.
And over time, meditation with practice became easier.
And you mentioned that you had a lot of other dramas in your life as well, with your business as well. Were you attracted to meditation because you could see another way of dealing with these issues?
She didn’t have any plan. What she noticed was that she wasn’t coping as well as she’d like to cope. Lynne noticed that she was waking up at 3 am having panic attacks. Sleep was difficult for her. Her self-worth was very low. Lost her job, her marriage started to fall apart. She did not feel very good about herself.
And one of the things that really made a difference was meditation. It started to give her another sense of self-worth. As she started meditating more, those feelings of self-doubt, those inner voices that you tend to hear all the time, started to diminish. So it really helped.
Thich Nhat Hahn talks about the radio stations in our minds, how with time and more meditation, you can turn the channels to a less anxious channel/frequency.
Yes…I call it my automatic thought machine, my ATM, which unfortunately doesn’t dispense a lot of cash. (laughing) Rather it dispenses self-criticism. Over time, the self-talk can become a bit more realistic, little less self-critical.
So the story about yourself is less one-way, less rigid, less negative. It begins to open up…
What kind of meditations did you start with and how did it evolve?
Lynne’s first experience with meditation, she was going through infertility treatments. And she used a cassette tape guided meditation recording. That was more like body scan, that type of meditations. She wasn’t physically capable of doing silent meditations, of doing anything but guided meditations. Over time it didn’t really change, she’d have moments of peace and tranquility. But it wasn’t immediate.
Further down the road, as she started to develop that attention muscle, she could get more silence in those gaps. So she could develop that practice more. But, she admits, her mantra for a long time was, “When will this be over, when will this be over!”
So during your meditation practice, it was still future oriented..it was still about getting to another place..
Absolutely, yes, and there was an emphasis on the future, and also there was an emphasis on, I was not doing it right. A strong feeling that other people probably had more tranquility, silence, space in their thoughts than I. A lot of comparison, not feeling good enough in the meditation. And a sense that this was something that only I was failing at.
Which was really important to us, as we developed our app. We really tried to address those concerns, that most people have when they meditate. And then give up, because they think that they’re not doing it properly. We wanted to reassure people, that this is it.
There’s thought, thought, thought, thought, thought…And then you go back to the object of your attention, and you have some more thoughts. And as you continue to do that, eventually it becomes a bit more accessible. A little bit less though, and a little bit more space.
And it sounds like you’re putting components of self-acceptance in your app’s guided meditations. So that people aren’t as hard on themselves, as you were on your former self.
Did you also have teachers along the way?
My first experience, was a meditation retreat. It was a funny situation, my girlfriend dragged me kicking and screaming. Reluctant to go with her. I found out there was no alcohol there. And it was basically Vegan. (laughing) I was hoping to stay in a nearby hotel. So I was stuck there for a whole week.
But I submerged myself, and thankfully so. Because that was the beginning of a love affair.
Did you see it differently at the end of the retreat than at the beginning of the retreat?
I’d love to say that I did..What I did notice, was that I had been craving, hoping to achieve a certain state. Peace and quiet type of state. I noticed that that peace that was so elusive, was accessible for periods of time. And I could access this state of mind, more when I was allowing myself to be still and quiet than when I was not.
And so I counter-intuitively I always thought I had to work really really hard to achieve a certain state. If I do this, then maybe I can get there, or have that. But what I recognized, is the less I did, the more peaceful I actually felt. So that was that shift in me. I wouldn’t say that it, boom all changed all at once, but that realization was really helpful and important.
Yeah I think that is the case with many people, it doesn’t just go from one day to the next. But they may read a story that says it should happen a certain way, so pretty quick it turns to self-doubt, and then it turns into thinking there’s something wrong with oneself.
Did you end up going to more retreats in the future?
Yeah. I’m a retreat junkie. They’re fun, I like them. But it’s also very important to develop my own practice. But it was over time that it became a love affair that became consistent. That consistency was difficult for me.
That’s another thing we try to help people with. Even though I knew that some of my behaviors were not necessarily beneficial for myself, I still did that. Example, I know clearly, if I had a drink when I came home from work. It might be better if I meditate for 20 minutes after work.
Strong habit patterns…
Yes, old habit patterns. But hard to shift. So those habits, and getting to the place where I wanted to change the habits was also a long process, didn’t just happen. Still I’d come home, and still reach for a drink after a hard day.
I find it helpful to make a daily meditation practice habit. From habits that are not self nourishing, to habits that are self-nourishing. Getting myself in that regular habitual practice, that over time, did become a habit. Now I can’t imagine a time where I don’t meditate.
It’s a healthy habit, rather than a destructive habit. Did you also find that your attitude towards certain events would also change as a result of meditation? Like your response or how you deal with a very negative event for example?
Absolutely. That story that I tell my kids all the time. My favorite kid story. This farmer comes into his backyard, and his whole backyard is completely destroyed, how horrible! And his response is, “maybe good, maybe bad.” That is sort of how my own practice has helped me as well. Lynne’s dad had been diagnosed with lung cancer, a tumor in his lung. And there was that moment of understanding that this is something that is potentially life-threatening. But then after surgery, they find out that, Oh, it’s actually not cancer. And then he found out after that while he had internal bleeding, that developed into Pneumonia. And now he’s recuperating. And it’s those waves, and recognizing that it’s temporary, it’s what it it is.
Rather than getting caught up in the moment to moment events. Just being present with whatever is happening. And just enjoying the time, being able to be with my father. And have truly alone time with this man, where he’s truly lucid, and able to communicate and able to share feelings. And probably very poignant, and wouldn’t be said under any other circumstances.
Truly a gift. And being able to see the gift in whatever is happening at the moment, was a huge shift for me.
I see how if your mind thought it was too real, and you get caught up in these situations, then you wouldn’t have as much time to be fully present for the person who is actually undergoing through this pain. There’s a huge advantage for the people around you, when you’re able to be more present for them, and not caught up or swallowed up by the stories. And at the same time you’re still able to grieve, but it doesn’t have the added mental stuff to it.
How does this meditation practice affect you as a parent?
My oldest son is 20 something, and my daughter is about 11 at this time. Different parenting rules and regulations at this point. I’m certainly grateful to my older son, for letting me practice on him (laughing). One of the things that was very important to me, was making sure that my kids had a contemplative practice of their own. The ability to step back.
Because my kids were not interested in learning from me, (laughing) as a parent, we really did our best to get the schools to put in meditation as part of the curriculum.
A very creative way as a parent to get your kids to do something you want them to do! (laughing) And at the same time, you’re helping the schools too.
Yes, it was a win-win for everyone. And I did this at different schools, because Lynn’s kids were at different schools. Her oldest son as ADHD, with learning disabilities. That’s all about your executive functioning, and the inability to concentrate. Making rash decisions, and not necessarily thinking things through.
Having meditation not only helped the teachers, as well as him, and myself. I’ve certainly relied on it as a parent. One of the stories was when her son was at school a few years back, and they called Lynne, telling her that he was on the way to the emergency. When they call like that, usually it means something bad has happened. It ended up that he had blown up the science lab, and part of his arm was injured as part of that experiment gone wrong.
But that practice for me, being able to step back, not getting caught up in the whole drama of the situation. Have a bit of calm and clarity with the situation. This has really helped me get out of that habit of the shame and blame that a lot of parents get into. Like, “why did he do that, how could he do that to me!” And then it becomes all about me, my ego, I’m so worried and I’m so upset. As opposed to just recognizing this is a kid who’s just being a kid, experimenting.
Have you noticed any changes in him as a result of his meditation?
It’s a work in progress (laughing). So he’s 20, and it’ll be interesting, because no one necessarily wants to do what their parents want them to do. He now has some meditation skills that he’s learned, and whether he chooses to use them, and when he will use them is up to him. When he’s ready, he’ll know how..he can make a choice.
Yeah, it has to come from within..
How did the guided meditations from going to schools, to fine-tuning them, making them better, and then taking them out into the world (through the OMG I can Meditate meditation app)?
We had things people would say repeatedly, like a common theme a lot of people complained about was, “I don’t have enough time”. So when we were developing the app, we wanted to give people an alarm, so they could just wake up with the app, and start meditating right away. So there were certain comments, which allowed us to put together a wishlist. If I could have everything in the world, what would it be to help people to have no more excuses to meditate. That would make it simple, and completely accessible and available. We were lucky that we have lots of people gave us lots of information.
Another thing besides the alarm, was the fact that it was daily and progressive. Also, we noticed that if we gave too much information up front, there wasn’t necessarily the sense of continuity. They wanted bite-size pieces, that they could have on a daily basis. This was more important. Consistency and continuity were very important. As opposed to how I did it, going to a full week meditation retreat, one week on, and then not consistent. It was a work in progress.
Was it like a year later that you decided to create the app?
Yes, it took a year of writing, and also making sure on the technology side getting it all put together.
Was it then at the kitchen table, where you decided to, your husband had already done all kinds of things like apps or ringtones right?
His claim to fame was (as he put it), developer of the Fart Ringtone (laughing). He wanted to do something in this chapter of his life that had a little more meaning than that! Yes, he had several technology companies and he had developed web content and content for mobile phones and mobile apps, prior to Apple. So he had been at this for a long time.
So he just thought, I can just take these meditations, and add the technologies with the bell and timer etc..
Yes, he knew how to make something that was consumer friendly..
And also now in airplanes, Air Canada, and Delta…how did that come about?
That’s his doing as well. We’d fly together, and the first 20 minutes you can’t really do anything anyway. And it was just like this, “we should be meditating right now, wouldn’t it be cool if….”. So he was the one to make that happen as well.
Seeing your app in the plane was amazing to me. When I took an international flight recently, I saw so many video screens on all night. Because now you can watch shows and movies all you want. So unlike the past, where folks slept during these international flights, now many people just watch one show after another, and get even less rest. There’s so much more distraction and things then in the past. So your app in a way helps counter-act that, and gives folks permission to rest and meditate.
Do you find the guided meditations from the store app, have different popular guided meditations, vs the meditation app in the planes?
We also wanted to make sure that we could address, each of the meditations on the app are situation specific. Anywhere from the, “my boss is a jerk” guided meditation, which teaches self, and other compassion. To standing in line at the grocery store. Like a 2 minute meditation. Very specific to whatever you need at the moment.
On a plane, if you have fears, or you’re worried about flying, concerns. Or if it’s just for rest and relaxation that would be another one. We have different ones that are specific to what you’d be going through when you’re flying.
That’s great, because in the past you might have to read through a whole book, or take a whole class before you get to the point that is relevant to a particular situation. And everyone has a different situation, and a different thing you might need at that moment. That’s a really wonderful thing about these apps, just-in-time learning, just in time needed, something that’s needed at that moment.
Any other surprises, or things you’ll be doing in the future, as a result of seeing the usage of your app?
It’s just been truly the most gratifying process I could ever imagine. We’ve met some wonderful people, like you..It’s just incredible to have met a community who share our interests and passions. But we’ve also seen the changes and differences that meditation can make in people’s lives. We’ve received some very gratifying letters from people, who’s lives have been improved and have been touched, by their own words. That’s the most special thing I can imagine.
Yes, very gratifying, makes your life meaningful too…
That’s why I get up in the morning, very meaningful. Makes it feel like there’s a sense of purpose. Very special.
Do you have any other plans, or keep building on what you have?
Right now the intention is to develop this further, we’re constantly releasing new content. We’re working with people who help us develop things that are important to them and giving us insight into what issues they have. So we’re very interested in continuing to grow that. We’re interested in developing our distribution network. That’s really the goal right now, making it useful.
You’re definitely succeeding at that. Any final tips for folks just beginning with practice, or struggling with practice?
The most important thing I can think of is consistency. Permitting, even if it’s just 10 minutes a day, as opposed setting a lofty goal of an hour. Better off, biting of 10 minutes at a time, and committing to that, and doing it consistently over time. That’s what the research shows, helps develop the attention muscle. You get your practice underway. Baby steps, be gentle with yourself. This is a practice that takes time. Not having expectations, that might be unrealistic. Just committing to it.
Also recognizing what your intention for starting the practice is in the first place.
Yes very good tip..
Recognizing this is why I’m doing that. And honoring that. Coming back to that, whenever there’s a moment when you feel, “Ugh…do I really want to do this!”
Yeah…rain or shine..
Do you see a community component coming up in the future?
Yes, so that’s our ultimate goal. But that’s secret (laughing). That’s an exiting possibility.
Thanks so much for sharing!
The popular guided meditation, “Blanket of Love Meditation” is played at the end of the interview to finish the episode.
MF 42 – A Lifelong Zen Meditation Practice with Sandy Haskin
(This is a summary transcript, listen to the episode for the full conversation)
Sandy Haskin practices Zen meditation with the Three Treasures Sangha of the Northwest. She currently lives and works in Spokane, Washington. She works as a Nurse Aide at a home for mentally ill adults, and also sells books, DVD’s, CD’s on Amazon with her sister. She has worked at the former for 10 years and the latter for 5 years.
What was your life like before taking on a meditation practice?
Sandy remembers how she began to meditate and when, she had just left the town she grew up in, Spokane, WA. And she moved to Olympia. And found out because of her family history, she could get some help via friends through the 12 step program, so she joined (ACoA) Adult Children of Alcoholics and began to work the 12 steps. This was in 1986. And she thought moving away from her hometown would help her take care of her problems and her dissatisfaction with her life and herself.
What she had done was move to Olympia, and create yet another dysfunctional relationship, like she had had in Spokane. So she was disappointed that it repeated itself and where her life was headed at that point.
And you mean by relationship, with another?
Yes, with another man. So she was confounded what to do with her life, and how to make her life work. So she read a book called, Women Who Love Too Much, by Robin Norwood. And she said, if there’s any alcoholism in your family, look up a 12 step group. And I said, well, I qualify! (laughing) It was just an afterthought, last chapter in the book. So Sandy went to ACoA, and found her home.
12 steps is all about finding a spiritual answer to your life, to your problems. And it is not an option, that’s the whole basis of the 12 step program. But they don’t tell you what it is going to look like, that is your job to find the answer.
So Sandy began to meditate at home, watching a candle flame. That particular meditation just so happens to be the one she began with. She then ran into a friend, Pamela Lee who invited her to meditate with her in Seattle. So she began sitting with a group, which was fundamental for Sandy. To start a practice, and be connected with a group, a schedule, a teacher, and a community. That was back in late ’86. And she’s been meditating ever since, off for about 5.
Was meditation part of the ACoA, or is it all find it on your own?
I called myself not an alcoholic, but ACoA, I was in 4 different 12 step programs. But yes, the 2nd step is coming to believe that a power greater than myself could restore me to sanity. And the 11th step is through prayer and meditation seek to improve your conscious contact with God as I understood God to mean. Praying only for knowledge of God’s will, for me to carry that out. So yes, prayer and meditation are very basic, I made them basic to my program. But it is not necessary, but it is part a path you could learn. Other folks go to church and don’t meditate, and yet others do go to church and meditate. You gotta find your own way, finding your own spiritual path.
And you were in 4 different 12 step programs?
I was, I was quite the addict! (laughing) In fact I was ordered to go, my best friends were there, it was so much fun. I was going to treatment for my alcoholism, which I love, I love the attention to myself. And the counselor said, when we’re finished with your treatment, you will go to AA. And I said , I will not, I’m already in another 12 step group, I love it, and I’m getting it. So she couldn’t finish her treatment there. She started out in one group and ended up in quite a few others.
So what kind of meditation group did you end up in?
Her friend had sat extensively with the Three Treasures Sangha, a Zen meditation group in Seattle, Washington. They’re under the umbrella of Robert Aitken’s Diamond Sangha in Hawaii. And she has been with them ever since.
What did you find in particular very helpful about a Zen group like the one you’re going to?
I guess the focus is totally on meditation, and not so much what you do or don’t believe. In fact, the people that introduced her to this practice, are Catholics, and don’t even want to be called Buddhists. So the focus is on the practice. Doing the practice, and committing to it. Sandy liked what she saw in these people, they were adults, her age. She seemed to really settle into just meditating. Not too much of read this, follow that person, there wasn’t so much asked. Then when there was a teacher, you could listen. It wasn’t like sermons in church. More focus on meditation, which fit her personality more.
Where there insights during this journey, maybe early on that made you realize you wanted to keep coming back to it. In other words, that kept you motivated to keep coming back to it?
Yeah, one thing about meditation that is hard for our culture, is I don’t believe that there are typically not instant results. There are subtle results, like over time, her personality started to calm down. From the outside, for example, you wouldn’t guess that I have a lot of anxiety. But I did, I was tongue tied, I was very self conscious, worried about things I would say, etc. And meditation seemed to calm things down, but it took a long time.
I remember a strange story. I was sober and looking for God, looking for a program for a few years. And I wasn’t getting it…Like where is God, or the spirit, whatever. I was miserable.
When you go into meetings, Jamborees, retreats, etc. With all these people that seem so happy, and I wasn’t so happy. So I was asking God for a sign. I was desperate. I was like, there is nothing happening, there’s nothing here, I just wasn’t getting it.
And..I was, maybe I need this, maybe some people don’t need to get what I got. So I asked for a sign, but I did, I was up in the middle of the night. I had been sober for a year, religiously doing the steps. And I was on the toilet crying in the middle of the morning. Sometimes you have those nights! About a half hour after that, I started to smell smoke. I lived in an apartment, and I opened the door, there was smoke coming down the hallway, and one of my neighbors apartments was on fire.
So I went back to my apartment, and we ran to get everyone out of the place. I went back and locked my door. It was a mess, my place was a mess, they smashed my door, so don’t lock your door if you’re ever in a fire!
So anyway, I was at a friends house that night. And I was just thinking about everything that happened that evening. And I realized that the day before the fire, I had done this motherpeace Tarot card game. And the I had gotten this card of a person, a woman sitting in meditation, and she was surrounded by flames. I know this is new agey, its weird, but the moment I remembered getting that card, I felt the presence of God. I felt a peace about my life, that this was supposed to happen to me. I don’t know why, I don’t understand. But I gained something through understanding that in spiritual terms this was the way my life was supposed to go.
And her friends would say, aren’t you going to cry? Your stuff is trashed! But she would just say Wow!
So anyway she gained a tremendous amount of peace. I just believe that when we sincerely want answers, that when we sincerely seek, that we do get answers. That we do find guidance, on the spiritual path. Even if it is not what we expected. So yeah, I’ve had ups and downs. But you just have to follow through. I think anyone on any spiritual path, is going to find it is not going to be easy. But the alternative, I don’t want to go back to my old life, and how I used to feel, it was pretty ugly.
Yeah, you get your answers along the way, I guess if you ask in all sincerity.
I’m sure you’ve had more moments along the way..and it just continues to unfold…
Yeah, in the Zen tradition, it’s liked by some people, because it’s not heavily promoted that you have to believe the ancestors. Or that you memorize books. But the longer I meditate, the more I see the world the way they see the world. That it is very satisfying. I know this is because of my meditation, not because of my intellect. They’re talking about a spiritual plane, and it is not something you can intellectualize.
Yes, and I’ve had some whoppers of experiences, that helps one to keep going. But I also think human beings, human contact, having a teacher, are so so important to having a meditation practice. If I had not met that woman, who meditated and who connected me to a meditation group, it would have just been on my list. Oh yeah, some time I’ll meditate….
To be in a group with a schedule, and needs your help, volunteer, do service work, getting involved, it’s crucial. Because I’m self-centered, just want to live my own life, and I still just want to be left alone! (laughing). So involvement in a group is crucial for the long haul of sticking to meditation practice.
At some point you also started to attend retreats, can you highlight some of the benefits of retreats, as opposed to just group gatherings?
Yes, I would go on these 7 day retreats a year, which really solidified my in practice. The experiences in Sesshin (long retreat intensives) are that one is very much supported in turning around your attention to look inwards and do your practice. And it’s really rare to have that opportunity in our culture, because even if we’re home alone, we feel compelled to be productive.
So to have some place to go, where you have permission. It’s set up to not have to thinking, talking, planning, or writing. It’s very helpful. So that year when I started retreats fixed me into practice. The benefits I would say.
When you’re in retreat, you’re with the same people sitting, eating, snoring for 24 hours a day. And it’s easy to get critical or judgmental with people. But going with other people, really opens you up to accepting other people, and being able to help them in their practice. I’m often judgmental with others, but when you’re on retreat, you communicate on a level that is not intellectual, it’s not verbal.
You almost get to experience what I would call love, a unity, and a co-traveler type thing with all of these people, maybe half of whom you’ve never met before. So it’s an experience that speaks for itself. Just having value in the quit time and doing that with a group of people.
Maybe you have an example of an experience that you had during a retreat that stood out for you..
I’ve been over to Mountain Lamp retreat center in the past few years, where her teacher Jack Duffy and partner Eileen Kierra teach retreats there. The weather can be very chaotic, raining, storming, sunshine, hailing etc all in the same day.
So this one day it was storming around around us, and we’re sitting in this zendo (meditation hall), and I was like 5 days in a 7 day retreat. And towards the end of the evening, I’d been listening to the storm, letting it flow in and out of me. And after a while I realized that I was no longer sitting there on the cushion in my body. I was raining. That is just the reality, I was no longer a person, I was rain!
Yeah that’s great. (laughing)
It was fabulous. Yeah, you’re talking about the boundaries that we’re conditioned to think of ourselves as, were dissolving, you no longer ended at the edge of your skin.
And we don’t meditate to “get experiences”, but certain experiences come along. But when they do, you know that you’re really settled. And that was wonderful.
And I think it’s good to see what’s possible during retreats, rather than reading from a book. It’s nice to hear examples of what can happen during a retreat.
I’m always surprised at how much energy we take, to do social greetings, to smile at people, to always have the right composure, etc. All of that takes energy. And when you’re in a group, that the focus is taken care of, and not expected, so you can turn inward. That is a huge freedom.
And it’s very difficult to do alone. When you meditate with a group, there’s a power, a strength to keep going, because everyone else is. So you can do more with a group than you can do alone. It’s just what I found to be true over the years.
It turns into a way of life, which is so wonderful. I set my life up more now on retreats, than on vacations. It’s a lifelong practice. It’s very wonderful to have as I grow older.
When you come out of retreats, do you get the sense of wanting to mingle or integrate that into the rest of your life?
I think in retreats I think you can become rather naive and you’re feeling a certain way, a certain zone of vulnerability. I tend to fall for it every time, I tend to think it’s going to last forever. But it doesn’t. I guess what I take with me, I re-integrate is slowly, have a peaceful the day after a retreat. And I recognize how my judging people stops. I appreciate the work of everyone who’s made the retreat happen. Those are the things I take into my life hopefully. The ability to watch my mind, and lessen the judgement of others.
It’s just a habitual way to separate. It’s not even true. It’s about my ego, having one-up over yours.
That sense of peace is there for a while, but I can’t keep it for a long time. But I think of it later, let that person alone! Don’t hassle him in my own head!
It’s a gift to have a practice.
What would you say to someone who struggles to have and keep a meditation practice?
I strongly urge people to get together with a group. (If you’re into Buddhist meditation practice), check out the web site called Buddhanet. If people are trying to sit alone, it can backslide. It’s very difficult to do that. But if you try a group, like on the web site above, you’d be amazed how many groups there are in the US. So my first idea is don’t sit alone, do that, but also connect with other folks, and talk about your practice.
The motivation I’ve had, was that I was emotionally miserable. The more miserable you are, the more you may want to seek out a spiritual path. It is very difficult. It may not be obvious that you’re growing, or that you’re getting it. And that’s just the way it goes.
Yeah, like a crock-pot slowly cooking….
Yeah, right, but in the end it’s worth it. And it’s good to reflect back. That’s the 4th part of the 12 steps, “Make a searching and fearless written moral inventory of yourself.” It’s good to look back, and look at why you are where you are. I don’t owe it to myself, I owe it to AA and 12 step groups.