In this episode I offer some thoughts on what it means to me to meditate and how it brings about a stillness and settling of mind. I also mention this imprint (Guidepost; Inscription) of Silent Illumination (Shikantaza or Just Sitting) which is recited in some Zen meditation practice centers.
The Imprint of Silent illumination
Silent and serene, one forgets all words:
Clear and vivid, it appears before you.
When one realizes, time has no limits.
When felt deeply, life becomes vibrant.
Singularly illuminating is this bright awareness;
Full of wonder is the pure illumination:
Dew in the moonlight, a river of stars,
Snow-covered pines, clouds hovering on mountain peaks.
In darkness, it glows with brightness;
In shadows, it shines with a splendid light.
Like the dream of a crane flying in the frosty mist,
Like the clear water reaching the autumn sky,
Endless eons dissolve into nothingness,
Each indistinguishable from the other.
In this brightness all striving is forgotten.
What is this wonder? Alertly seeing through confusion
Is the way of silent illumination and the origin of subtle radiance.
Vision penetrating into radiance is weaving gold on a jade loom.
Subject and object influence each other.
Light and darkness are mutually dependent.
(In the audio Youtube clip below you can hear what happens when gigantic cumulonimbus clouds start to build up that will have thunder and lightening as well. Normally we think of thunder sounds after lightening, but in this case, out here in the desert, this rumbling thunder sound can come just from the friction of cloud building) The episode ending has a shorter clip of this sound. Below you can listen to the sound for 8 hours!)
There is neither mind nor world to rely on,
Yet the two mutually interact.
Drink the medicine of correct views,
Beat the poison-smeared drum.
When they interact silence and illumination are complete;
Killing and bringing to life is a choice to make.
At last, through the gate, one emerges.
The fruit has ripened on the branch.
Only this Silence is the ultimate teaching;
Only this Illumination, the universal response.
The teaching, not heard with the ears,
And the response is without effort.
Throughout the universe all things glisten,
And each expounds the Dharma.
They attest to each other,
And accord in dialog responding in perfect harmony.
But when illumination is without stillness,
Then distinctions will be seen and harshness will arrive.
If within stillness brightness is lost,
All will become wasteful and dull.
When Silent Illumination is complete,
The lotus will blossom, the dreamer will awaken.
The hundred streams flow to the ocean,
The thousand mountains face the highest peak.
Like geese preferring milk to water,
Like bees gathering the choicest pollen,
When Silent Illumination reaches the ultimate,
It penetrates from the most subtle to the greatest.
I embody the original tradition of my lineage:
The body, sunyata and the arms, mudra.
From the beginningless to endless, only one task,
though expressed in 10,000 shapes and forms.
The basic matter of our line
hits the mark straight and true.
Pass this on in all directions
without a wish for gain.
This is the practice called Silent Illumination.
By Hongzhi Zhengjue; translated by Sheng Yen; adapted by Mountain Lamp
Interview with Amanda Gilbert – Meditation and Mindfulness Research
Amanda Gilbert is the Executive Director for the Sugar Stress Environment and Weight Center and a Clinical Research Coordinator for the Aging Metabolism and Emotions Center at the University California, San Francisco. Her work focuses on conducting and implementing clinical research in meditation, mindfulness and mindfulness-based stress reduction, as well as examining how these restorative health behaviors affect our minds and biology.
As a long-term meditation practitioner, she draws on years of personal meditation experience and training to advocate for the life-changing effects of a daily meditation practice.
In addition to conducting clinical research on meditation, she is a meditation teacher to those looking to learn and start a daily meditation practice through one-on-one individualized sessions where she connects contemplative science to daily practice. Her mission is to support as many people as possible in experiencing optimum daily well-being through meditation and mindfulness.
Note: This is a summary (not a full transcript) of the interview. Listen to the audio above to get the full interview.
How did you get started with meditation?
Many start a meditation practice for health reasons, or dealing with stress, or getting curious. And some start to meditate from a religious point of view. And also it is for some about cultivating meaning.
For Amanda it was about healing, physically, mentally, and spiritually from challenges she went through as a young adult. She’s been in the health and wellness field for a long time.
Perhaps there is something more. She wants to connect with herself, her intuition, her inner knowledge, her heart, and higher self. The path for Amanda has been cultivating a meditation and mindfulness practice.
Was there something, an event or moment that triggered this?
Amanda has had her moments to that were beautiful opportunities to shift, to have a breakthrough. To set yourself on a different path. For her it was more of a life path. Many books on self growth, meditation and self development. And really all the information was pointing her to meditation path.
Also, Amanda was exposed to great teachers in the medical world. One of her first teachers was Deepak Chopra. He has a book called, “Quantum Healing”. She was given that book during a breakdown leading to breakthrough period in her life.
When you approach it through biology, it really speaks to the effects and power, and outcomes of a meditation practice. So she started reading a lot of literature on what a meditation practice can do for us physically, mentally, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. All this reading led her down a path of a meditation practice.
What particular practice did you start with?
Amanda started with mantra based practice in 2009. Earlier she was exposed to many other meditation and mindfulness practices, her undergraduate degree was in holistic health and wellness. But she got serious about doing a daily practice. That is when it clicked for her.
The mantra practice is powerful practice for a novice. Reason is that the mantra is a way for our minds to focus on. Translates as mind-vehicle. It’s a word, similar to in and out, in breathing techniques. By combining with Sanskrit it can be meaningful.
The mantra based practices are a way for beginners to develop a strong practice. She can see that through her research and teaching meditation position.
Would you say that the mantra practice is an attention practice just like paying attention to your breath practice?
Yes, we are focusing on an object of attention. So that object of attention is the breath, or the mantra. It is intentionally placing the focus on that object.
Saying from the Buddha: You can place your attention on the object of focus, just like you focus your attention gently on a flower.
In meditation we are growing our attention/focus muscles. We are cultivating those muscles.
Did you notice any particular benefit that stood out from this mantra practice that was trans-formative, and encouraged you to continue practicing after that?
It allowed my mind to focus on something, something for it to chew on during her 30 minute morning and evening meditation. It allowed me to meditate. All of the fruits of meditation happen in those moments between the thoughts. In that space, that stillness, silence between thoughts. Between the ego having it’s way, having it’s ability to be behind the wheel, running the show.
So the benefits and outcomes are in the moments between our thoughts.
She have a tendency of an overactive mind, which was one her first barriers, or obstacles in a meditation practice. I’m just thinking, thinking. A huge string of thoughts, huge mind wanderings.
Having a mantra to focus on having my mind focus on, was the key to allowing her the freedom to move beyond thought. To move in the space and stillness of meditation.
And a way to anchor you into the present..A lot of us have mind-wanderings, like 50% of the day the average person is mentally wandering.
Yes, very much so. One of the top outcomes that we’re seeing through the lens of research, is a decrease in rumination and decrease mind wandering. And an increase in focus and attention. This can be seen through measuring the participants subjective, psychological experience of a meditation training, as well as seeing this in the areas of the brain.
We’re seeing areas of the brain light up, that are more focused on attention, and executive functioning. We’re seeing better neuroplasticity in the brain due to meditation and mindfulness practice.
Explain neuroplasticity a little bit more.
Yes, that is the ability for your brain to change, and to start new behaviors, patterns, new ways of decision making. Cultivating new neural network pathways in your brain in order to have different behaviors and different experiences in your life.
This can be really helpful with destructive mind and habit patterns, such as depression or other destructive thought patterns right?
Very much so. That’s really what we’re seeing. The beauty of mindfulness research is that it allows you to see the changes in the brain and in the body. Past research has been focused on the brain. Those who are in the diagnosis of depression or PTSD, or any neurologically and psychologically based depression oriented diagnosis. We are able to see a shift in the brain and cognitive functioning. Also we’re seeing in the last 5 or 10 years or so a big change in the body. More recent research is focused on the body and biology.
What that looks like is:
The effects of mindfulness and meditation on inflammation, gene expression, heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol, sleeping, eating habits. And of course your cell health, and cell aging. which is getting down into the minutiae of the mitochondria in the cells of your bodies.
What particular aspect of that research excites you the most right now?
Amanda’s favorite study was conducted by the center for investigating healthy minds with Richard Davidson in Madison, Wisconsin. Did anything change from an inflammatory marker standpoint, from just 8 hours of mindfulness training. They found that yes! You have a decreased expression of pro-inflammatory genes from just one day of meditation and mindfulness.
Amanda and colleagues at UCSF, have just published and presenting a study of theirs. They found that a highly stressed population of maternal caregivers mothers of autistic children who went through 12 weeks of mindfulness training, increased their total sleep time by 34 minutes by the end of the 12 week mindfulness based intervention.
And as we all know, sleep is one of the top pillars of health and resilience. Your days will be substantially better with sleep. So mindfulness and meditation do affect our biological circadian rhythms as well. Very exiting findings.
Can you measure quality of sleep as well?
Sleep disruption is how we measure quality of sleep. But it was really the total amount of sleep time. This group actually started to go to bed earlier as well. And how often do we tell ourselves we’re going to bed earlier, but then we don’t follow through it. But this group was able to shift their bed time to earlier, thus benefiting their sleep as well. What we’re able to say then, is that having a meditation or mindfulness practice is able to encourage better health behaviors.
Any meditation tips for those listening who have sleep problems?
Yes, part of our population we’re able to see through our mindfulness mobile app, were doing some practices, body scans, loving kindness meditations and mindfulness practices. Ranging from 3-20 minutes. What we can think about is how can we reduce our stress before going to sleep? Is that sitting and breathing for 3 minutes, or guided meditation for 20 minutes. Or just having a moment of consciousness around how am I able reduce my stress, to turn off the executive functioning. That drive for the day. How am I able to settle the body?
My own practice is actually able to slow down. Amanda loves breathing meditations in the evening. Primarily morning meditation practice. But at night it is great to just slow down, or switch it up, like with a guided meditation. Whatever it takes to get a more restful and de-stressing experience.
You mention morning meditation and the importance of it. This affects the evenings as well. So this sets the pace for the rest of the day right?
Yes, when she goes to sleep at night, Amanda looks forward to the next morning practice. Meditation has changed her life, since she started meditating in 2009. Now the practice is second nature for me in the morning. I get up, have a sip of tea, or lemon water. Then she’s goes into practice minimally for 20 minutes, and more on other days. And then again in the evenings I actually look forward to this morning routine. It’s another sign that a consistent meditation practice can affect all other areas of life.
Has there been research to explore what the optimal times are for the most fruits of meditation?
That is Amanda’s own personal research interest. In the Vedanta ancient text they recommend at least 20 minutes each morning. And in primordial sound meditation they recommend 30 minutes, because it takes the body 15 minutes to biologically and physically settle down. Then you are actually able to meditate, once your body is in a rhythm of the breath. So these ancient practices figured it out a long time ago, without the hard nosed sciences.
TM also recommends a twice a day practice of 20 minutes as well. There was also studies where they found it through heart rate after 25 minutes. This is where the meditation research field is going. Her hope is to see the field honing in on the types of practice, the amounts of minutes of practice to see the shift in well-being. And to have individual tailoring to see what works best for each individual. We all have our own stories on what brought us to meditation. So there is that individual tailoring that scientists can hone in and take a look at.
And what about the benefits to mini-meditation?
Yes, that is mindfulness. Amanda likes to differentiate between formal practice (20 or 30 minutes of sitting), and moments of mindfulness. Being able to connect to our breaths, those are to her moments of mindfulness. And also outcomes of our formal meditation practice. You can actually cultivate a stronger connection to these mindful moments. During our meditation practice, we hone in on our home energy. That’s the feeling of our hearts, essentially we’re going home to our Self. You getting to know yourself so much better during those moments of contemplative reflection.
That shows up in moments during the day, where you have choice of how you respond to situations. You end up avoiding stress reactions.
So it benefits each other, and mutually reinforces each other then.
You also a study about vacation vs retreat. Because a retreat is really going home, settling even deeper than a 25 minute meditation.
Yes, I love this study. That study showed us a number of things, which can be applied to our own practices. 2 out of 3 of the study groups were new meditators, with zero meditation practice. We randomized half the group in a vacation group, and the other half as a meditation retreat at the Chopra center of well-being.
What we found was that novice meditators who went through the meditation retreat, 10 months later showed greater psychological well-being. Decrease of negative affect, decrease in overall negative experiences during that day.
Instead of just going on vacation, but if you go in and learn the life affirming tools of a meditation practice, then you see more long-term effects in your life. The vacation effect wears off. It’s just like buying a new car, within 2 months the joy has worn off.
The second finding was that we had a 3rd group who already had 6 months or more experience with meditation. This group was already more healthy psychologically and physically, so what we find is that the power is in the practice. We see that with experienced long-term meditators, that you will be able to see the effects and outcomes of a daily meditation practice.
So you could say a retreat is more trans-formative, as compared to a vacation, which is more of a recharge.
Yes, exactly. That is one of my favorite studies to reference.
Amanda’s hope is to get as many people as possible to meditate as possible. Her mission is to support as many people as possible in experiencing optimum daily well-being through meditation and mindfulness.
Ep 24 – Guided Meditation with Kristina Rood and Ocean Wave Sounds
Kristina used to do diet counseling, and has practiced Zen and TM meditation for a long time. She will be interviewed on this show one of these days, so she can expand on her meditation journey. Please use the comments area below to share your thoughts on this meditation.
She would be happy to create another guided meditation, like a specific meditation for dieting if there is interest.
See also below the Youtube version of her ocean meditation.
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?
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.
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