Recently Kristina and myself were packing and readying to move to our new house some 1500 miles south, and I recall doing an errant down the hill to the grocery store. It was spring in the Northwest, and the light was streaming through the beautiful green translucent leaves. There was luscious green grass all around, plenty to eat for a rabbit. As I waited to turn on a side street, I briefly stopped to enjoy watching a small rabbit hopping across the street I was turning into.
Then shortly after a sports car appeared quite suddenly from the opposite direction, and a man in it was smiling and chatting on his mobile phone.
He drove over the rabbit, and I could clearly see the rabbit was being torn up and mangled. The man and his car moved on without stopping a beat, and the rabbit was now laying motionless on the street. The man was so involved in his conversation that he barely noticed. He kept on driving and chatting, moving on with his life.
I immediately felt sadness, and went over to the rabbit to at least get him off the street. That way, even if already dead, the rabbits body would not sustain additional damage.
As I approached he body, I could see the legs were broken and twisted, and all of it’s abdomen, stomach, and intestines were hanging out. Even it’s heart was visible, and it was still beating. It was sad and emotional for me to watch this precious little heart beating, but the rabbit was likely no longer there, or unconscious and dying.
I stroked it’s ears and head and talked with it some soothing words. And then told the rabbit I was moving it to the side of the street, so it could die more peacefully.
After having moved it slowly, as everything was hanging out, a few minutes passed. Slowly the heartbeat became less pronounced until finally it ceased. I tried closing the rabbit’s eyes, but they stayed open.
I wished the rabbit peace and got back in the car. I reflected on how all of us, not just the guy on the phone can get so distracted from the present.
As you can see by this example, we really cause harm when not paying attention to what is right beneath or in front of us.
At the same time, I also reflected on my own journey, and could clearly see that this move out of state, while hectic, and with a few minor moments of forgetfulness, was overall so much more stable and less messy, than the move we did 16 years earlier. I could see how years of practicing meditation and mindfulness and mingling this into every day life allowed me to be able to be so much more present for this big life transition than the earlier move was.
However, what the rabbit in it’s death was showing, that we, all of us have a tendency to get caught up in a small bubble with so many distractions that fragment our attention.
Increasingly in recent years, our attention has become fragmented, and our focus shortened. With internet and mobile device use, the rise of social media, advertisements and infinite choices competing for our attention, and so many other demands in our lives.
To me this increasing fragmented attention is highly likely causing harm to something, or someone, somewhere.
We have to keep practicing, keep refining our practice, so we can be awake, and present for this moment, where all life flows.
The more present and awake we are, the less harm we cause.
Please verify this with your own experience. What happens to your encounters in the now when you become more present? Alternatively, what happens to your immediate family, the human family, and the rest of our planetary family when you’re less present?
Guided Meditation for Present Moment to Moment Attention and Awareness Cultivation with Sicco
This episode deviates from the usual interview episode.
Kristina and myself are in a time of transition. We’re moving to another state, hence I thought this would be a bit easier to do than arranging an interview. This is also based on request from several listeners. They wanted a guided meditation to listen to from my perspective, so here it is above (click on the link above to download or play directly in the web page).
Kristina and me trucking past Mt Hood
Please let me know what you think of this episode in the comments below!
John practices in the Zen Buddhist tradition of Robert Aitken (Diamond Sangha)
This is a summary (not a full transcript) of the interview
John was attracted to fundamentalist Christianity as a teen for a few years. It did not work for John. He abandoned all religion in his 20’s living an agnostic/atheist life. He was accepting things that other people were saying, and he decided he was not going to do that again.
He stumbled on a book On Zen by Alan Watts. That caught his attention. Then started to figure out how to meditate, learned a bit from the TM movement.
Did you understand what parts of it?
He did not understand all of it, but he did get non-duality. This was a whole new understanding that opened up for John. He by then had his own meditation practice on and off. Year on, year off kind of practice. He would feel that he would need to get back into it.
Where you attracted to meditation as a way of insight, or as a way to experience something you were looking for?
Maybe more the insight. I got fairly involved in the lead-up to the presidential elections in 2004. When that was all done, and the dust settled, I realized I was full of anger and even hatred towards the chosen political enemies. Then I phoned the Zen Center after finding them online.
Have you found that joining a group is different than meditating alone?
Yes, definitely. Especially the first couple of years, John derived tremendous support from the regular weekly sits, and meditating and support from other people. That whole structure that keeps you on the cushion, and prevents you from a moment of restlessness coming along, and tricking you into jumping up, and doing something else. And the book studies have been very helpful.
So the structure is very helpful too?
Yes, extremely helpful. If you see structure as a means to an end, as a tool, then you wouldn’t see it as limiting or old-fashioned tradition that doesn’t fit the modern era. It’s there to help people.
How has your relationship with those perceived enemies changed at all?
I don’t think my political views have shifted much. My indulging in hatred is way less than it used to be (laughs). So that’s a good thing! The hatred thing, the target is no longer individual people. There are so many facets to a complex society, some not functioning well, sick, very poor design. So a person may get elected to congress.
For example the structure of congress is stacked against you. Very hard to be an awake and honest person, and not get corrupted by the money from the lobbyists and so forth, when you’re in that environment all the time.
So, I guess I’ve shifted from individuals to the system that I perceive as something that is bad.
Do you see that a system can be shifted by individuals or groups, or completely needs to be uprooted or re-designed?
Uprooting is a tempting fantasy, because it is quick. The ultimate expression of that is war. You perceive an enemy, and the best thing is just to eliminate your enemy.
But then you assume of enemy as outside?
Yes, the enemy is all outside, and things good is all in me, and all things bad in someone else.
But to truly have a culture evolving into something healthier, does require the individuals in that culture, become more aware, educated and enlightened. And developed in a balanced way, where not just our minds, but our hearts are also developed.
Has this way of long-term seeing changed the way you get attached to outcomes?
Perhaps, I understand how to be unattached to outcomes, but more focused on the nature on your actions, is perhaps a more spiritual way to be in the world.
When you practice there is a certain letting go of the desire of certain outcomes, not having strong attachments to certain outcomes, whether in your immediate area, or the larger geopolitical arena?
Yes, I’ve probably developed a little in that direction. As things play out from my actions, I’m not necessarily in control. I might do something in one particular thing in space and time, but the consequences of what I do in that spot, goes on without me. It’s better to focus on the nature of my act. Am I acting free of greed or, desire for revenge, hatred. What is my true motivation I think is more important, than banking on a particular outcome. Because it never comes out that way anyway, even driving to the store to get milk.
Yes, that reminds me of your example you mentioned of an instance of road rage?
Yes, I have an 2 examples of my own road rage. Both times I was really surprised I had this in me, I didn’t know it was there.
I was just getting on the freeway, it was fall, rainy and dark. I was careful to look for a space in traffic. and this guy comes zooming in. He roared by me, and it made me jump. It triggered this rage in me, it took me 2 miles on the freeway to get this under control. This whole time I sat with this rage. I realized if I had a much bigger vehicle, and it was banged up, I would have chased him down and bumped his car and driven him into the barrier. That’s how illogical and enraged I was. I just had a little car and couldn’t catch up.
So I started thinking….what does a Buddhist do in this situation I thought? I think you just be a bit detached, just watch it, instead of being it, but 2-3 miles, I did start to settle down.
Second time, similar incident, also someone roared by. And in this case not only was I powerless, but my wife also screamed at John to slow down. She reminded him to slow down, and he might escalate the situation. those are two instances, where I had to struggle to become detached from the rage I experience inside of me.
What was also important was the constraints that I have, I had a little bit of a rational mind, but also external constraints, the realities of traffic, not doing something that was even more dangerous. and my wife reminding me to get sane again.
But there are also other times, when there were no external constraints at all, and then there will be that moment of choice.
Sure, give us another example.
This involves you and Kristina! (laughs)
This was one of the very the first times I showed up for Zen, and we exchanged names, and one of you said something like, “Are you new to Spokane? Have you lived here long?”
And I asked you two, well how long have you been in this town?
And Kristina laughed at the way I said that. And somehow, and this is just me, not you or Kristina, I took that as a kind of a put-down. That i was using a phrase that was dated, or maybe she thought I was pompous. He felt judged. But as soon as she laughed, I could feel myself getting defensive.
And that moment, if you catch it right at the beginning, that’s when things are most fluid. I didn’t even have words behind this decision. I just made the decision, I wasn’t going to go there, just going to watch it happen.
There’s my feeling vulnerable, and insecure again, feeling judged again. That sort of thing. Because i was able to catch it in the very beginning, it just evaporated. It was an experience of freedom. I did not make a psychic cage around myself. I was free.
You didn’t take it personal?
Absolutely not, the laugh happened, my judgement happened, my reaction happened, I just watched it happen. And then I was fine, I was done with it.
Another example of a positive outcome. Many years ago, Mary and I had a disagreement. We were getting at each other a bit, and she said something that hooked me. I watched the whole thing happen. I watched the words go in, and there was a strong visual component to this experience. It was like I was looking inside myself. I could see this happening.
Inside myself, looking down through my spine, at the bottom there was this dark pool of liquid. Like mud. And I looked down, and I saw this shape starting to emerge, and as it came out, I saw it was this coiled snake. But it was really anger at what my wife said. It was halfway out, and I still had a choice. At that moment I still had a choice. I could say yes, or no to this thing, and so I said no . And it went back down. No anger at that point.
What about present-moment awareness, have you noticed that change over the years of practice?
I think so, I’m more aware when I’m not in the present. I can kind of pull myself away from all my head trips that takes me out of the present. When I’m going to beautiful scenery, like on a walk, I’m much more likely to actually notice it, like smells and sounds as well as the sights.
Is that something from practicing in that moment, or over time practice?
Yes, the second thing, it’s a cumulative effect of practicing over time.
Is there anything when you’re not on the cushion that is practice related?
Sometimes I’ll use the Tibetan mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum. When I feel a need to be more in my heart than my head, I use that, and I visualize my energy going from my head to my heart.
The jewel is in the lotus, that which I seek, I already am?
Yes, the jewel in the lotus, the lotus being the heart. The pearl of great price, The jewel that we’re all seeking. We don’t know that it is there, we have to put our attention there, to live from that spot.
When I’m really feeling really scattered, irritated, tired, bored, I will sometimes use that.
What is the role of a teacher in your practice?
I get to ask Jack (John’s teacher) some questions, that I don’t know who else to possibly ask those questions of that nature. He’s reassuring for me. Sometimes I don’t know where I am in this journey, even though I have some mental road maps. Like the 10 ox herding pictures. But I don’t know where I am on that road map. I need a second opinion on that (laughs). Am I more or less awakened than I think I am?
Any other tips, or inspirations that help you?
Your questions make me aware that I can do much more on a daily basis to remind myself to return to the present. I think I might make that a project to jot down some of those tools and use them more often. I just tend to notice more frequently where I am, where my attention, awareness, and energies are. Sometimes that’s all you need.
And you intend to keep on practicing?
Yes it’s been good for me. One of the aspects of Zen that is a good fit for me, is that in my youth I was so much in my head, and Zen is merciless at cutting down those head trips. Pushing you out of that comfort zone.
Interview with Ed Earl – Mindfulness and Sustainable Design
Ed Earl is the principal of Priority 1 Projects, a construction project management firm. Ed has 25 years of construction experience and an MBA from Stanford university. He is pioneering a new approach to construction project management he terms “collaborative construction” which is based on open communication, trust and shared objectives – aspects that are often absent in the construction industry. Ed has been a regular meditator for over 20 years and has been attending meditation retreats with Thich Nhat Hanh since 1997. Ed is currently the project manager for the construction of a new nunnery complex at Deer Park Monastery in San Diego which incorporates sustainable design and green building techniques including straw bale construction.
What brought you to a meditation practice?
About 20 years ago in his 30’s Ed went through a period of exploration. He was raised as a catholic. Ed was looking for meaning, and exploring spiritual traditions, in particular Eastern religions. His wife and him spend time in Nepal taking meditation and Yoga classes.
He found a book by Thich Nhat Hanh on walking meditation before his trip to Nepal. Thich Nhat Hanh was having a retreat in Santa Barbara in 1997. That was his first retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh, and Ed has since gone on a lot of retreats with Thich Nhat Hanh or in the Plum Village tradition. So most of Ed’s practice is in this tradition/lineage.
Drew & James Hubbell with Thich Nhat Hanh
Was there anything in this new spiritual practice that you didn’t get from your wisdom tradition that you were brought up in?
He read a book by Thich Nhat Hanh , Living Buddha, Living Christ, which gave him a much deeper understanding of Christianity and Catholicism, that he didn’t get from 12 years of education. Thich Nhat Hanh does a great job of explaining Christ consciousness, putting Christianity and Catholicism in a context that was much more meaningful to Ed.
It’s more about becoming more deeply grounded and connected and strengthened to your root religion or faith.
So at some point in your practice you wanted to apply these mindfulness trainings into your daily life, your career, and this “right livelihood” was a bit of a struggle to integrate right?
Ed took the 5 mindfulness trainings in 1999, they’re guidelines, not commandments that you try to live by. No one can commit to them 100%.
Right livelihood was always a struggle for Ed. He was in construction for 20 years. He was not necessarily in a career that was harmful, or completely out of alignment. Just not necessarily incorporating his mindfulness practices in his profession.
So let that dissonance sit there, and not resolve it as much. It wasn’t until about 2014, where he was asked to help and get involved in a construction project at Deer park monastery in Escondido, a monastery that was created and directed by Thich Nhat Hanh. That was able to show him a way to bring and incorporate right livelihood into his daily life, and his professional career.
Maybe you can explain this a bit more, how you bring mindfulness into your construction job?
One of the mindfulness training is about mindful communications. It’s about deep listening, and loving speech, or mindful communication. And much of construction is not necessarily about deep speech and listening (laughs).
With this project, Ed felt he had the freedom to practice these concepts, since the clients are the monastics who follow the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, so this was a good opportunity for me to practice deep communications.
Normally, when you have a bid meeting, you meet with each of the candidates privately, and then have them prepare a proposal.
Strawbale House Raising
This time they wanted a more collaborative and cooperative meeting, so they invited all the contractors together, not privately or competitively. So they invited 5 or so of them and arranged them in a circle, and began the meeting with a mindfulness bell in the center of the room, and rang the bell. Ed explained to the contractors how we use this bell to go back to our breath, and re-center yourselves. Don’t need to do anything, when you hear the bell, just close your eyes, follow your breath in and out a few times. Any time that a bell rings, we invited them to bring their mindfulness back to their breath.
And bells go off in the monastery, and they invited them to stop and go back to their breaths.
This was interesting with burly contractors with boots, and a bit skeptical. Some of them really took to it, and went inward, and saw this as a useful tool for them. Especially for contractors, where there is a lot of pressure, working against deadlines, stress, unanticipated circumstances, etc.
We all wanted to have everyone work together, incorporate more than one contractor in the same project. Each of them had their own special strengths to contribute. If anything and they didn’t want to go through it, they’d have a new method of stress reduction out of it.
One of the contractors invited was a high-end custom home contractor, and he didn’t think his bid would work. Because his level of quality would not result in a low cost bid.
Ed told him that the perspective of Thich Nhat Hanh and the nuns and monks, they don’t look at things in terms of expedience, months and years, and how cheap can we do it. They are looking at the project in terms of generations from now, 50 years from now. What’s in the best interest of the monastery as a whole. They’re looking at the longer-term perspective, looking at the cost of the environment, the surrounding areas, and really the impact on the entire word. That’s looking through the lens of interdependence, and inter-being.
So they’re not looking for cheap, they want it to last, and craftsmanship. So Ed encouraged him to bid on it, with his approach. So the contractor submitted his bid, and he ended up with the job. This was the first introduction to incorporating mindfulness concepts, not just in the way the meeting was structured, but in the way the bid proposals were invited and evaluated.
Collaborative Strawbale House Raising
You also mention mindful consumption, how would someone understand that in terms of building a house with corner cutting vs a house that sustainable designed with health and long-term well being in mind?
The sisters wanted a straw-bale structure (part of 4 structures). Which means it is using straw-bale for insulation. Straw Bale is an environmentally sensitive and in tune material. First of in the materials it uses. The walls inside are made of straw which is different from hay. It wheat or rice farming by-product.
First aspect of a straw bale building:
These are the dead stalks, baled and stacked up, and that is what is used inside the walls. Straw is an agricultural waste product, and you’re just re-purposing it, as well as recycled wood and other green building materials.
The second aspect of a straw bale building.
If designed properly and in a sustainable way, you can minimize your energy consumption. Because you now have this super-insulated structure. Hubble and Hubble is the architect, using sustainable design, very well known in Southern California. Sustainable design looks at building structures in a different way.
I’ve build very high end homes, and typically when you build a fancy custom home, you clear a piece of ground, and just place the building where you want it to be. Then you make the surrounding serve the building.
Whereas with green sustainable building, you look at it completely differently. Looking at the way the sun comes across the land, the way the prevailing breezes come and go. The structure is laid down in a way that is compatible with the structure and it’s surroundings. That is the way a straw bale building is build.
Using passive solar design techniques, you build it with large overhanging eves roofs, to prevent the heat from building up, and the sun from getting in during the summer. Whereas in the winter the sun helps heat the structure, using south facing windows. The winter sun comes in through, and warms the building. The super insulated straw bale walls then help to keep the warmth in, using a lot less heating and cooling costs.
Strawbale Construction Team
Heating and cooling cost way down right?
Yes, lot of less energy usage. And there’s also lots of natural lighting, so not as much need for electrical lighting. You’re causing a much smaller foot print for the building. Lots of solar tubes, and sunroofs. Then there is a solar array on the property as well, so that the electricity that is used, is being generated from the sun.
How does inter-being fit into this construction work?
Thich Nhat Hanh coined the term inter-being that everything in the world, and in life is interconnected. TNH tells, when you drink a cup of tea, you’re connected to the clouds and the sky. Because the water in your cup came from the water in the sky. So when you’re drinking tea, you’re in a sense drinking your cloud. Everything is inter-related.
In sustainable design and architecture, you also see that everything is also inter-related as well. You realize that your building structure isn’t just sitting on an island by itself, but it inter-relates with all of the natural conditions that are around it. And is designed accordingly.
Another example, we’re using rainwater catchment system and gray water system that re-uses the waste water. Everything is designed currently to drain off into storm drains into the ocean, to prevent flooding, as though water is the enemy. But the fact is that water is precious. Water is a commodity that we want to respect, and utilize.
Especially here in Southern California where we have a big drought going on. We want to capture and reuse the water, and recycle as much as we can. Because we realize it’s connected to our environment, connected to our land, something we need to realize. To inter-be with that water. Not just to treat it as this foreign substance, and get rid of the water as quickly as possible.
For the residents there must be a great benefit in terms of well being and comfort, and health that you get from this natural building?
Yes, you have this symptoms of sick home syndromes due to these man-made materials that we have in our homes today. Whether it’s the off gassing from VOC paints with lots of aromas, fiberglass isolation, sealants etc. All of that is sending fumes into our homes. And we’re indoors spending a lot of our life, breathing all these pollutants.
With building straw bale homes, you eliminate so many of these man made materials. You don’t put gypsum Sheetrock and Portland cement stucco on your inside and outside walls for example. Instead you use earth and clay plaster, that allows the moisture to escape, which allows the walls to breathe.
The walls are colored with different earth and clay plaster, with different color clay’s, so there’s no paint on the walls either. No, stucco, no sheet-rock, no fiberglass insulation, that causes indoor poor air quality.
Think about what it takes to manufacture all those materials! The carbon footprint you create by manufacturing these materials. Now you’ve eliminated all that.
We’ve gone back to building like we did 2000 years ago, where homes were also built out of mud and straw. At the end of the day, you can easily take it down, without big consequences, it will just be re-absorbed by the earth.
What about it being washed away by rain?
Yes you have to design the buildings in a way to protect it with large overhangs. And you can easily patch it with earth and clay. It’s actually easier than re-patching drywall holes. You just sponge it back into it, it’s a self-healing plaster.
Another benefit of straw bale homes. These walls are 18 inches thick with solid dense straw. These are not just amazingly insulated well from a thermal standpoint, but also acoustically from a sound standpoint as well. There’s a stillness and quiet that is created by these structures.
At some primordial level, when we walk in such a room, I also believe that our body senses that our bodies are surrounded by natural materials. And so our body subconsciously relaxes. It just really puts itself at a calmness.
Hubble and Hubble have developed and designed this as well, using organic proportions. Because nature designed this way as well, with straight walls and 90 degree angles, no, nature designs with curves. Not only are these natural materials, but the form is natural as well. So your body naturally relaxes in these places, and feels more calm and centered. I can’t imagine building a more supportive structure for these monastics.
And also in a way you’re combining 21st century technology with primitive building techniques? By for example still keeping it up to date with latest building requirements, such as earthquake protection?
Yes, it is. Here in So Cal, because we have such seismic activity, most buildings are build on post and beam construction. So you don’t have wood studs every 16 inches on center like you typically would. In this case we do have to add some steel reinforcements to make the structure seismic (even though they are single story structures). But in other parts of the world where there is not so much seismic activity, you can build them without the steel reinforcement.
Please explain collaborative vs competitive construction?
My focus is on the entire process of building the home, or project that we’re working on. Typically this is a very competitive process in traditional construction. There are sealed multiple bids, everyone is secretive. The owner doesn’t feel like he can trust the contractor so he/she has to get multiple bids.
It is basically designed in a way that is lacking trust. It’s build to minimize conflict. Then there is the blame game, who’s responsible, so when something goes wrong, “we know who to sue!”
Because of my practice with mindfulness and meditation, I felt like I should walk the talk. I wanted to incorporate those into construction. Is there a different way that we can approach construction? In the process of working and managing I developed this new approach, which I call collaborative construction. In stark contrast to competitive construction.
Straw Bale Community Building
Collaborative construction is based on the mindfulness training of open communications:
In order for people to develop an open relationship, it really requires really good communication. Where people can feel they can really express themselves in an open way. Like that conversation I had with that contractor who didn’t think his bid would work. That brings us back to our mindful practice, really listening when the other person is speaking. Processing that, and responding in a mindful way. It all comes to trust. That we are all working together on the same team, taking joint responsibility. So when things go wrong, we minimize finger-pointing and blame. Instead, let’s figure out how we can best work out, and solve the situation.
So making it a win-win for everyone.
Really really good communication is very important. He discovered while on the project, a cloud-based construction management system. All the information related to the project is stored in the cloud and accessible by the entire team all the time. Blueprints, plans, budgets, or correspondence regarding finish selections, and changes along the way etc. Everyone can access it. Myself, as the construction project manager, the architect, the clients, the monastics, the general contractors, the sub-contractors, etc. So that when there is an issue or question, it comes up on this cloud based solution, and everyone can bring this up and contribute, and find the most mindful solution to this issue.
That sounds better than having all that separated out.
Yes, it is a high-tech, low-tech approach. Mindfulness and meditation have been around for thousands of years but with the combination of the technology and mindful concepts, we can use both these technologies, to achieve these deep communications, deep listening, and open communication goals that we’re trying to achieve.
Is this going to be difficult to bring this mainstream, since the current construction and client demand is not necessarily in alignment with what your’e talking about?
It’s not for every client. It depends on the client’s preferences and values. It’s particularly interesting for folks interested in green building and sustainable design. Because these clients have a much broader perspective on their project anyway.
These are people who want to be mindful of their own impact on the environment, and society and how much energy I consume, and afterwards. They also want to be concerned about the building process itself, and the impact that that will have on all the people and environment involved in this. So in the same way they want to minimize the harmful impact and foot print. By taking a collaborative approach, they can also minimize the negative effect of the construction process itself.
And at the end of the day, you will feel much better when your home was build in a collaborative cooperative way. And when it was done, everyone feels that they all contributed together as part of a team, and it wasn’t this divisive competitive process. Where some lost, and others gained.
Would you have any advice for someone who is struggling in their job, in another line of work, what tips or advice would you have for that person who wants to bring mindfulness into their livelihood?
I used to think I would have to quit my job in construction, change careers, and join a non-profit, to make a meaningful difference.
Instead, I had to just look at the same things differently, not get a new job, but look at things that I did day in and day out, and find a way to do them in a different way. To incorporate my mindful practices into my construction management.
Once I realized, how can I communicate in a more mindful way, how can I create in a more collaborative way. Then all these things showed up, like the cloud based collaborative solution, and other new ways to communicate in ways that are more open and trusting. I was able to communicate with other contractors in a more mindful way.
So I would encourage those listening to look at what you’re doing currently, on a day to day basis, in a new way. Find small ways to incorporate your mindfulness and meditation practices in your regular daily life, and your profession.
Once you start to look at things in different ways, what you look at changes as well.
And different doors open then before..
Yes, exactly, because your’e looking at things in a different way, and so different opportunities are going to come your way. You’ll see doors that you never saw before.
Interview with Melli O’Brien – Mindfulness Teacher in Australia
Melli O’Brien is an internationally-accredited meditation and Satyananda yoga teacher and anMTIA-trained mindfulness teacher. Ms. O’Brien was selected by the Satyananda Mangrove Mountain Ashram(the largest ashram in the southern hemisphere) to teach their mindfulness retreats. She also blogs about mindful living at www.mrsmindfulness.com
Below Melli explains what is mindfulness in her own words on a Youtube video
This is a summary (not a full transcript) of the interview
How did you get started with meditation practice?
Melli looks back and reflects on the pivotal moments in her childhood for forming the beginnings of her interest in meditation. As children we’re good at being in the present moment. She spend a lot of time in alone in nature. Time in nature, contemplating in nature.
When she was about 8 years old, she watched the news, of the Gulf war at that time. And she realized that the adults that she looked up to, that she was going to become like, were really insane, not functioning harmoniously at all. That hit home for her.
Something hit her deeply, it created an existential crisis for her. Coming to terms with her place in the world. It became a slippery slope into depression, and even despair.
As Melli got older, she wondered if it was possible that there are people out there who live in harmony with each other and the planet, who have some wisdom and are not with despair and distress.
She started looking for an answer to see if it was possible to be happy and harmonious. That led her to reading books about comparative religion, self-improvement, to look for answers.
She found answers, and her curiosity was fed.
So you were a teenager at this point right, a few years down the road?
Yes, the depression and despair was getting deeper, and at the same time, I was opening up to the wisdom traditions.
How did that develop into a meditation practice?
She did a course on meditation with her friend in her late teens, and started doing yoga. And she started reading eastern wisdom traditions. She started to get it, that she could investigate her mind, and free herself from the patterns that were causing depression and distress.
Was there a particular meditation practice?
Melli was doing simple breath meditation back then, it has evolved since then, but it is still mostly breath meditation. So it is not so much the technique, but the way that the practice, and the orientation, and attitude of herself, has changed, the ability to simply be. The quality of her practice has evolved a lot, rather than any particular technique.
Did you start noticing the depression de-escalating or dissolving?
It made a huge difference really quickly, because what happened I realized.
That I am not my mind
That was unbelievably liberating.
I am separate from those things that I had been so entangled and so identified with, things that caused her so much suffering.
She was really enthusiastic about utilizing that realization to the best of her ability. She put a lot of effort watching her mind, watching the current of her mind go by, seeing how it worked.
Even simple insights like noticing that when I have bad thoughts, it makes me feel bad. And then choosing to drop it, when I found that it wasn’t serving me.
This was absolutely life-changing, absolutely incredible.
Two things happened there,
1. You have this incredible opportunity for liberation. Seeing the way you get caught up when you’re no longer the witness, you’ve falling in the river of thoughts and emotions. Again and again you can chose to have more and more liberation.
2. The noticing of the fact when I’m not caught up, witnessing, I felt so at home. So in a natural state of contentedness, deep sense of being connected with life. Not the things that that my culture said would make me happy, white picket fence, achievements, etc, but what would make me happy is being the witness. Sitting in my own being-ness. That was a wonderful realization to have at a fairly young age. This avoided me from getting caught up, that I probably would have gotten caught up into.
So it sounds like you got started investigating why we’re unhappy really early..
When Melli was 19, she worked in a nursing home, with people coming to the end of their lives. They would share their wisdom with her, what makes a wonderful life, and what doesn’t. This was a huge catalyst in Melli’s life.
To focus on embodying the present moment, living the moments of my life, so that when I got to the end of my life, I wouldn’t have regrets.
The message that they would tell her, was that the things that are supposed to make you happy, don’t do it. It’s about being alive to the moments of your life. Melli heard that over and over again.
It sounds also that the more awareness you have of death, the more important it is to be aware of your choices in each moment your attitude, and how you live your life.
Yes, it’s great to really see how the avoidance of death, the simple fact that we’re mere mortals. Life is always changing. There’s quite a bit of uncertainty in life. This body doesn’t last forever. It’s confronting and really freeing at the same time. Living with that in mind puts everything into perspective.
Have you seen any other changes results or benefits from this practice that you didn’t see when you started this practice?
Yes, one really wonderful thing that happened to me, is taking things less seriously. I’m more kind and gentle to myself now then when I was younger. I laugh a lot more. I make plenty of mistakes, I mess up all the time. I’m human. I get caught up, and I catch myself. In the past I might have been self-critical about that. Especially if you’re a mindfulness teachers.
These days I’ve lightened up, treating myself more kindly. I have a so much deeper and kinder connection with others. Willing to see the ways in which I do get caught up all the time. That has been a delightful unfolding.
You mention being more human, and being able to connect, and not taking the dogma parts of religion. Could you elaborate?
Yes, for my path, and partly due to my personality. I enjoyed seeing all these religions, and was curious about all religions. I noticed the similarities. I saw that they were one perennial philosophy, universal teaching, but using different words. This mindfulness is not just a Buddhist thing. It’s a Buddhist word, and roots in Buddhism.
But the actual practice of mindfulness, which is stepping out of auto-pilot mode. And consciously switching attention, and being fully embodied in the present moment, and dis-identified from the mind. That is in every single wisdom tradition around the world. Different words, but same teaching.
What I love about this approach. You can draw from the essential teachings. All of these wisdom traditions, and not get dogmatic, saying you’re doing it wrong. It’s open, spacious, kind and accommodating. We’re all kind of doing the same thing, but go a different way with it.
When I teach courses, I quote from different traditions and time periods. I don’t have an agenda to promote one tradition. It’s just essentially the wisdom traditions can be broken down into two core teachings about how to end suffering.
1. Humans have a tendency to create suffering for themselves in normal consciousness. When the mind is untrained.
2. There is a way to wake up from that dysfunction, and come back to clarity, harmony.
The essential way to do that is through practicing mindfulness. Melli has boiled her teaching down to mindfulness.
Because mindfulness is the means by which we come home to ourselves.
Also the way to dis-identify from the mind. Which is the key to ending suffering.
And the mind can also can run astray from the feeling of separateness.
Yes, exactly. When you’re identified with the mind, it creates a sense of separateness from the world. A strong sense of me, I am, I need, and I want.
When you embody the present moment fully and deeply, and there’s a dis-identification from the mind, and there’s the mind. And here you are as a witness. That sense of separation, of being a separate self with complex wants and needs, fades into the background completely.
The sense of warmth and gentleness and compassion towards myself is part of what’s unfolded with long-term practice. It makes me feel more warmth and connection to everybody, also with folks who may feel differently with those who may feel differently as to what is the right way to get home.
The heart of teaching can get kind of obscured, with agendas, etc, when a religion/wisdom tradition gets institutionalized, has that influenced you?
Yeah, there was a resistance with me to hunkering down with a particular religion. Perhaps it is me, but I’ve seen it over and over again, we all have a tendency that our way, and that we can get a little bit rigid.
I love Buddhism, mystical Christianity, Sufism, they all have so much beauty and wisdom to offer. There’s been wonderful teachers who have embodied the teachings. They have so much to share. How can I hunker down with one, when there is so much beauty in all of them to draw from.
Once you can get past the clothes, ceremonies, and the forms of religions, you’re naked as brothers and sisters. Some people get disillusioned because a religion’s outer form may have been put them off?
Yeah, it feels like there’s these surface differences. Essentially there’s these 3 elements, practices, teachings, and stories in wisdom traditions. Like parables and stories, and certain practices and ethics.
The ethics of all the world’s religions and wisdom teachings. These are the foundations of ethical behavior, if you live your life like this, it will be much easier for you to be aware and awake, and to feel what is there at the depth of your being. When you are able to feel that, you can live from a place of harmony, of being a part of an evolving dance of evolution in this universe. Part of something really wonderful.
If there’re not an ethical component, and just want to practice mindfulness while having affairs, or stealing, people after you, etc, it will be very hard and difficult.
Let your life be simple,
Give yourself spaciousness
Be around nature.
Keep things simple, not get too complex.
Don’t believe they were meant to be rules. Melli doesn’t believe these dogmatic rigid things that if you don’t do them you are a bad person. If you want to get in touch with the essence of who you are, then these things will help you.
And the mindfulness will help people get more conscious and see how behavior helps or harms.
Buddhists have a very nuanced description of what mindfulness is, it can be very simple or very nuanced. It creates insights with regards to what you can get caught up in, by watching your mind. Which will help you create intelligent wise actions as a response that alleviates suffering.
For example, when I criticize myself hardly, it doesn’t help. It is futile to beat myself up mentally, doesn’t make me a better person. Compassion and treating myself with kindness is a much more intelligent approach. Works much better, better result.
As a teacher have you noticed what people come to you with? What particular struggles do students come with? And how do they overcome or work with those struggles?
I think one of the things that we all struggle with, is noticing that the mind has wandered. That you slipped into auto-pilot again, we have a tendency to be self-critical in that moment. In that moment when self criticism comes in the door,
“I’m so hopeless, I can’t do this, I can’t even be awake for 2 seconds, I’ve got the most unruly mind” etc.
That is the voice coming straight in the back door again, allures us again. Can be quite seductive of the mind to seduce us into that.
What I tell my students, that the moment when you wake up to really congratulate yourself for waking up.Noticing how does it feel to be awake?
Coming out of the mind wandering. Notice it’s a joy to be awake. And then with a warm gentle and kind attitude drawing the mind back to the present.
I’ve been practicing for a long time, and it still will be crazy at times. Especially, our minds can be so wild. In the beginning this can be difficult. This can be frustrating, and your practice can get tension and tightness in it.
That act of congratulating yourself when you wake up from mind wandering really can be useful, makes it more rejuvenating.
The other thing for all of us, encountering difficult, and negative emotions, can have a gravitational pull. The way we tend to react, is wanting to avoid or suppress, wanting it to go away. Not realizing that makes it worse perpetuates it.
Like that saying,
“Whatever you fight, you strengthen. What you resist, persists.”
With mindfulness, you do something courageous and really wise. You stop the running, and kindly, gently turn towards exactly what it is that you’re feeling in that moment.
For example, agitation, boredom, anxiety, you can leave the breath for a moment, and focus on feeling what you’re feeling. in the case you can break the loop of avoidance. It might just boil down to strange feeling in the tummy, little bit of labored breathing, some tension.
It’s not as big and scary anymore. I find it helpful to say, Ah, there’s anxiety in me, or embarrassment in me, etc. Accepting that it’s there, and knowing that all emotions come and go, being with it, and noticing it’s changing qualities, as part of a meditation practice.
It’s wonderful, because it immediately dis-identifies you. Here you are as the awareness, and there’s the emotion. If needed, you can investigate what’s going on in there, and chose some wise action. It’s mostly just being with it, not fighting it, allowing it to come and go as it does. That’s quite liberating.
What is your sense as to how people who get discouraged as you mentioned earlier feeling like they are not good at meditating, on how they can be encouraged by meditating in a group with the encouragement and guidance from a teacher?
Yes, that includes myself. That is why I also go on retreats at least twice a year with teachers that I respect. You benefit a lot from someone who’s walked the path before. As you would with any other skill like golf, learning from someone who’s a bit more experienced. Someone you can ask questions to, you have the support there.
And then it helps you when you do practice on your own as well.
There’s not substitute for practicing. I used to think you can just embody the present moment in every day life, and not practice. I tried that for a couple of months, and wanted to get back to practice.
I realized that it’s like fitness, like a muscle, you have to take some time every day to just tune into just BEING. In a world that is so obsessed with doing, taking some time to just be, is like an oasis. Such a precious thing. I really think there’s no substitute for practicing every single day. Mornings are great. That energy carries you through the rest of the day.
That makes it easier to be fully present through the rest of the day. Yes, that is Melli’s experience as well. But we’re all different, with different personality types, and inclinations, so I don’t believe there’s one right way.
Any final thoughts or inspiration?
There’s so many different, beautiful teachers and wisdom traditions that helped me become more present. If someone were to ask me if you have a teacher, I’d say looking out my window. My greatest teacher has always been nature, and we’re part of it. We’re part of this evolving mysterious universe. Nature is my greatest teacher. The close observation of nature, natural wildlife, being in trees, or even cloud watching, is a wonderful teacher. Watching how things come and go with such grace and ease.
Same for me as well, for feeling at home.
Any questions? Comments? Please use the feedback form below!
How did you get started with a meditation/mindfulness practice?
I started out in the Himalayan institute in 2003, and then fell out of the practice for a couple of years. But the seed was planted in terms of cultivating a meditation practice.
But then about 6 years ago, she did notice she had social anxiety (headaches, backaches, stomach aches, etc). Jeena self-medicated.
She was starting to loose hair when she was getting closer to her wedding. The doctor said there was nothing wrong, all in her head. Same with the psychiatrist. The diagnosed her with social anxiety. Again they prescribed more drugs and anti-depressant. But Jeena didn’t want to go down that path again.
It’s just medication, it’s not a cure, its’ a symptom blocker at best.
She had a friend who told her to go to a treatment program at Stanford.
She had two options:
Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT)
Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction MBSR
She didn’t think CBT would work for, and it did work effectively. She recommends this treatment if you suffer from anxiety.
She signed up for an MBSR course as well, and it was life changing for her. Hard to describe. She’s been a daily meditator since.
What is social anxiety?
Jeena had it in small groups, like self-introductions would cause cold sweats, even talking on the phone. They have you list all the things that cause anxiety. For example with phone anxiety, the therapist does role-play with you on the phone.
As a lawyer don’t you also have to do public speaking type of things? Did being in court cause anxiety?
No, not as much in the court. There is always some anxiety though. Anxiety isn’t all bad. But it can be interpreted in a positive way as well. If you just notice the physical sensation, and being with what is.
So Jeena used it as a front, as a way to sharpen your attention, instead of letting it debilitate you.
Explain MBSR Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction a bit more, what is it like?
Was started by John Kabat-Zinn, who is a researcher at U-Mass. He was noticing that people had a terminal or chronic pain condition. He found the treatment options limited (like pain killers). So he brought this program from Eastern culture, and secularized it, and started using it with patients, who changed their relationship with pain, and coming to terms with the knowledge that you’re going to die. Of course we all have to come to terms with that. So mindfulness can be used as a tool to accept and learn to enjoy more of the days and moments you have left.
With MBSR, Jeena says you’ll learn:
Being in the present moment, accepting it as it is
Weekly homework exercise
Noticing body sensations, body scan
Yoga movements are also brought in
Is there a daily component?
Yes, meditate for 45 minutes every single day, but started out with a body scan slowly moved to that over the weeks.
As a lawyer have you found it helpful in your practice?
Yes, so many ways. The biggest way is learning to be less critical of myself and others. The script of not being good enough, not smart enough etc. I learned to be my own best friend. Regardless of how the day gets messed up, I’m not going to abandon myself.
Before I started practicing mindfulness, I treated my opponent as my enemy. I’m out to destroy you, and you me. Now I have a very different understanding, we both have different roles to play. We’re not enemies. I have to respect the opposing party. And accepting and letting go of the things I have no control over. Clients expect a certain outcome. Rarely is the outcome dependent solely to me, it’s up to multiple factors.
Just showing up, and doing the best that I can in the arena that I do have control over, which is ultimately only myself.
Has this effected the outcome in your work?
Yes, I’m more able to pivot. Ex, in a hearing, I have all the facts, and go in with a script on how the argument is going to unfold. And of course it rarely goes that way,
Now I can listen more fully to the opposing and (instead of only listening 30%)
Fully engage and then take a breath and then come up with a response.
No longer get off center, because it isn’t not going the way I expected it should.
Being more comfortable with uncertainty and yeah, practicing law is all about being with uncertainty.
How did you decide to call your new book, “The Anxious Lawyer”?
I used to be an anxious lawyer, I like to think I’m no longer one. When I look back at my life, and connect the dots, all the different things have prepared me to do this work in the legal profession. It’s my life’s work and calling, to help lawyers live a more healthier, more balanced life, with a focus on and wellness and self-care. The key is through self-awareness, through mindfulness and meditation practice.
About 2 years ago, her co-host got her meeting with his editor. They met, and he asked her if she had a book proposal. She certainly did, and had a title ready. He loved the title, and said it would sell well at the ABA.
They need a better way to live, instead of with a sword and a hammer in each hand.
There’s some really depressing statistics for lawyers right?
Yes, 3.5 times more likely to suffer from depression, higher rate of substance, and alcohol abuse, as well as high incidence of suicide rates. This shouldn’t be part of law practice, it doesn’t serve us well, and our clients.
What is causing that high degree of distress?
A lot of different reasons. Lawyers tend to be type A. Top of class,and all of a sudden you’re not so smart. The Socratic way of education within lecture halls of 150-200 other kids and being grilled is pretty traumatic. This constant push to become excellent, lots of pressure. We’re not given any tools for self-care, how to process these experiences. And clients don’t come to us with happy news, we’re exposed to all this trauma from our clients. We suffer from vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue. Similar to folks in the mental health professions, but we don’t get the tools. And people are angry with us, the opposing council, the judge, the clients, and we’re just given a hammer to give precise results, and asked to do brain surgery.
Have you found some of your colleagues appealed by your book?
I think so, but of course there is a healthy dose of skepticism. I don’t want lawyers to take my worth for it, they need to find out for themselves, and see.
What inspired you to become a lawyer?
As an immigrant from Korea when I was 10 years old. None of us spoke English. And as immigrants you get taken advantage. My dad owned a laundromat, and my mother a nail salon. And customers would come in and threaten to sue, or call the police on them for unwarranted things. Jeena thinks because they knew that her parents didn’t know the legal system and didn’t know the language, didn’t know the justice system. People took advantage of us. They lived in this constant stage of fear.
Jeena was inspired by watching Law and Order as a little girl. I thought I’m going to be a lawyer to correct the injustices in the world. Put the bad guys in jail, and all the wrongs would be righted. This I can now look back on as a somewhat naive point of view, but that is what motivated me to become a lawyer.
Do you still get in touch with that initial inspiration you got as a child?
Yeah, I do. She now does bankruptcy work, bad guy and good guy is not as clear anymore. The sum of who they are is not the worst thing that have ever done. Like a heinous crime. That’s not the totality of who they are as a human being. With the mindfulness practice it gave me a whole different perspective.
Most of us are probably a few paychecks away from needing a bankruptcy lawyer. It exists for a reason, it is a right that we all have. I get to help people like me. I can relate to these people.
Do you have some tips specifically have for lawyers?
The most important thing is to cultivate kindness to yourselves. Not be critical and harsh. That we’re all human, and only humans, not perfect. And then take that attitude towards others. Every person is trying their best. The truth is that we are all trying our best. See if from that perspective.
Approach situations with curiosity. Assume that this is a reasonable human being, and why is he acting that way, instead of assuming he/she is a jerk. And will always be a jerk. The golden rule.
For those who say, yeah I’ve heard that. Would you recommend regular consistent practice to allow someone to befriend themselves more?
Loving kindness meditation has been a life saver for me. And life changer to me. Wishing yourself well, and wishing people you love well, people you have difficulty with well, and then finally humanity as a whole. It’s a beautiful practice. This helps you see people in a different light, with more compassion and empathy. Approach people with kindness instead of with a hammer. Because if you have a hammer, all you see is nails.
Yeah, I have to practice it like a muscle, and rewire my brain, not just happen in one day, has to be done regularly.
Yeah, we have different lenses we walk around life with. And that lens may be flawed, it may be obscuring, or distorting reality. If you can’t have stillness and reflection, you can’t see that your lens that you see the world through, is distorted.
I used to think people were intentionally cruel or unkind. And if you approach everyone with that lens, then seeing them that way, they end up living to that expectation. It may be the energy you’re putting out, approaching them with.
Now I try to be friendly, say hello, and lead with kindness. That’s a practice, you have do it for yourself, before you can do it for others. You have to offer compassion for yourself, before you can offer it for others.
Like the flight attendant, with the mask instructions, put them on yourself first.
Yeah, that’s what I use in my presentations. A lot of lawyers think self-care is not for me, tough through it, I have to be strong, if I do that I’m being selfish. Nothing could be further from the truth. Self-care and selfish are two different ends of the spectrum.