MF 25 – Charlie Ambler from The Daily Zen Talks about his Meditation Journey
Note: This is a summary (not a full transcript) of the interview.
What brought you to a meditation practice?
Charlie describes himself growing up as a rather impulsive and anxious. His grandmother (a music historian) interviewed John Cage, the composer at one point. He gave her a copy of a book on Zen Buddhism. Charlie ran into the book, as a 13 year old kid, and was curious about it.
He got more and more interested in Buddhism, and started reading more about it online as well. He then started practicing it in his room, the various breathing meditation exercises. He settled on simple and direct method of Zazen Meditation breathing. He’s 22 at the time of this interview, so it’s been about 9 years since he first got interested in Buddhism and meditation.
Charlie finds that if he doesn’t meditate regularly, then he’s more prone to anxiety, destructive ways of thinking and harmful habits. He then feels generally less centered, and less creative.
And what specific practice are you using at this time?
Now he’s doing zazen meditation, or breath counting.
He remembers the old saying,
“Let your thoughts come and go,
but you don’t serve them tea.”
Have you noticed changes in your day to day life?
When he was younger, it was easier to meditate, there was less, a smaller bank of sensory information. Meditation was easier, despite the fact that he was a hyperactive kid. But now with all the reading he’s doing, and responsibilities and things and thoughts that come with adulthood, and the busy life in the big city (New York) he finds it more difficult to practice. But for that reason it is more challenging and rewarding as well. All the more reason why it is so important for him to do it each day.
He practices detaching himself from wanting to get anything out of it. Meditation becomes very difficult when you want to get something out of it.
You get into a chasing mind, which makes it all the harder.
Yeah you get into thinking about thinking, a circular cycle. Once you allow yourself to step back from your own thoughts, and get less stressed out. It helps, gives your problems less importance, let them come to pass.
Has your practice changed your outlook on life, you post on your web site how your thinking has changed?
When Charlie started he was reading about meditation he ran into more of a new age corporate way of viewing meditation practice. Like how a meditation practice would allow you to accomplish your goals, do your job really well, etc. But then as he dug deeper into the eastern writing behind meditation, he realized that the Zen school was more talking about divorcing yourself from attachment to expectations and outcomes.
He realized that this was part of this larger concept, well illustrated in Taoist writings, where you step back from something, you have this strange side-effect where you end up achieving it, by stepping back. He then quotes:
By letting it go it all gets done. The world is won by those who let it go. But when you try and try. The world is beyond the winning.
Charlie finds that when you practice meditation for a while, you don’t find yourself planning ahead 10 years ahead. He finds himself less trying to achieve things, instead to just do things. The funny contradiction in that is that when you stop caring so much about the results of what you’re doing, you end up doing a ton more.
Ever since Charlie has really implemented that philosophy, he finds himself far less anxious about starting things. Just throw yourself into things, just do them. The key is to just do things, not care about the results. Learn from them yes. Sometimes the results is just garbage, and sometimes it works out.
There is also a part of understanding how who you are changes, the attachment and creations of personas changes too..
Definitely, Charlie found himself confronting himself with the Zen idea of true self, and how you find your true self by looking inward.
There’s the true self, a healthy ego, who you really are, and the false self ego, which is a combination of the various personas, cultural and social influences.
Yes, the meditation practice has helped me at least partially shed ideas of who he thinks he’s supposed to be. Make him less prone to idolizing and trying to be like other people. To learn from people, but not to emulate them. Or imitate them. Take only what feels true to himself. That questioning yourself and your beliefs seems to come naturally to Charlie when he meditates. Try to do something that is more in alignment with who he really is. Move away from things that are not in alignment with his real self.
Would you say your project with the daily Zen is more in alignment with who you really are?
Yes, it is now. The greatest gift I got from working on this site, is figuring out who I am. It’s reflected his own internal struggles with writing. Like periods with lots of sappy quotes, that don’t really have much meaning. Or the derivative articles like, “10 things to help you do your job better” listicles, that I thought I was supposed to write about. He then decided recently, like a year ago, that he wants to do this for a while. He wants to do it in a way that reflects himself, and feels true to himself.
So he removed all ads, and simply do writing and pretty art like images. This writing blog practice helped him do something that gives him fulfillment. Even if no one read it, Charlie would feel grateful.
Yes, the Daily Zen now really expresses who I’m actually am. Charlie finally feels that it is real to him, because it expresses who he actually is. This makes the writing so much easier, because he’s writing from his own point of view, about concepts he encounters while he meditates. Instead of trying to emulate Thích Nhất Hạnh, or Allan Watts.
If he gets lazy, and stops meditating, the process becomes much more difficult.It encourages him to continue his practice. And the practice itself provides him with most of the content.
Do you practice with others?
No it’s always been a solitary pursuit. He’s gone through a few sessions, but trying to get to a point where he can lead meditation sessions.
So the Daily Zen website is one way that encourages you to continue to practice..
Definitely, the following has grown significantly, and that provides a social element that keeps me practicing. Everyday that gives a level of encouragement.
For the folks that don’t know about your web site, is it just the site, or also the Twitter and Facebook account.
It started exclusively as a twitter account. when Twitter was very young. That is where he feels the biggest sense of community with it. Most of the discussion is on Facebook and Twitter, but most of the social interaction is on Twitter. And it is fun, and zen in a way, because twitter’s 140 character limit. They have to be brief! Good forum for quotes and aphorisms.
What have you found that resonates the most with people on Twitter?
Short statements by himself or found in other places like quotes from books, that elucidates a certain idea about compassion, or meditation, or mindfulness. Sort of brief aphoristic statements do very well, sometimes way better than I anticipated. I share long posts, but most favorite and successful are quotes.
That resonate with you as well?
Yes, my own favorites, like little zen proverbs.
“After enlightenment, the laundry”.
“Let go or be dragged!”
Quotes by Tolle, Osho, Thay, Alan Watts, spiritual teachers, etc.
Others are little bits of wisdom that reveal ideas that is like zen in nature. Even Nietsche who hated Buddhism, who has similar ideas nevertheless.
“When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you.” Where your world is made up your thoughts. And what comprises your thoughts ends up coloring the way that you experience the world. That really ties close into what my experience of meditation is.
You mention on one of your posts,
“The world becomes amazing when we acknowledge mere existence as a miracle in and of itself, and when we appreciate what is and has always been, rather than what could be.”
How did that understanding occur to you at some point?
Yes, that is something a way of thinking that occurs during meditation at some point. Appreciating everything equally. Where there is no judging things as good or bad, just letting them wash over you. It comes for Charlie as a comedown from good things in relationships and things like achievements that happen. There is a return to reality once the euphoria washes away.
That state is pretty arbitrary, that sense of contentment, and that state of euphoria is available at any time… We’re taught that it needs a stimulus (like a great job, or getting some other reward) before you can feel this excitement about life. If you learn to discipline your mind , you can experience it just by looking at for example an animal, or the sky, doing anything, etc. That is the biggest take away from that type of non-judgement that occurs during meditation.
I think there is also an element of slowing down that helps with this appreciation of the miracle of life. You mention about humans fabricating needs, and things that keep us from experiencing the miracle that is life right in front of our noses. Quote from Charlie’s web site:
“A false sense of necessity is the mother of invention, and humans will never rid themselves of this need to fabricate new needs. We can learn from cats and other animals to relax, to love in a simple way, to eat when we’re eating and sit when we’re sitting. Humans always seem to be existing for something else, but animals exist for the here-and-now.”
It’s a weird thing and weird political idea. There is this, “the cult of progress”. Constantly building new things, going to the next level. That to him represents the the kind of societal craving that individuals have that makes them unhappy. He wonders if that is contributing to a mass unhappiness. People so obsessed with the future, because of technology and all these other things. And as a result forget the past and neglect the present.
Yeah, that’s where I’m at, its the kind of practice that makes it OK to change your mind. Change is OK, 6 months I might feel differently.
Any example of where you bring your meditation practice with you?
It is easy trap when you live in a major metropolitan area to be totally inundated by the chaos, sensory information overload in modern cities are really insane places. Sometimes it still jars me. Like when I go into an area, like times square, or Manhattan, with a lot of skyscrapers, it used to paralyze me, how artificial is, it used to give me anxiety.
But now I see myself as part of the whole thing, I’m a functioning part of this thing. Just like Alan Watts says you’re a functioning part of the universe. He has a great speech about New York City, where he teaches his audience to view the city, as akin to a human body, with all the organs, where it functions autonomously, thanks to all the individual cells. And the cells end up being individual people, animals, and machines.
Living in the city forces you to see yourself as not apart from the city, but as very much part of the fabric. That translates for me into everything. You’re part of everything, and someday you die, you don’t disappear, you just transform into a different thing. Its this concept of universality, recognizing that you are part of everything. It didn’t cause me anxiety or an inflated sense of ego. When you understand it in some way, it’s a humbling experience.
You don’t really feel forced to assert yourself.
But at the same time it doesn’t make you so small that you become non-existent, there is something that also comes forth that brings forth your unique individual contribution…
Yes, there is this Jiddish concept that my mother really likes, called the jadsahara. This idea that you are both a speck of dust, as well the universe. So folks either feel either on top of the world, or feel insignificant. The key, I think is instead you want to go beyond one side or the other, transcending both, realize that you are both. Both insignificant, and very significant. If you’re alive, you’re always going to exist in some form or another.
So does this also change your choices, and intentions, as a result of how they live on in some way or another..
Yes, that is how I view karma, the ripple effect of your actions.
Episode 22 – Solo episode about why I value meditation and mindfulness
This is a summary (not a full transcript) of the interview
Good morning, we just had a 4.1 earthquake out here in the Anza-Borrego desert, just as I was towards the end of my half hour meditation session. A reminder that we are not on solid ground, the ground can be pulled literally underneath us.
Since we’re moving, it is too difficult logistically for me to do interviews, so I will attempt to create a couple of episodes that are different from the usual interview format.
The next week after that, I’ll share an episode with a guided meditation from myself, and one that my wife, Kristina made for Youtube. After that we’ll resume interviews.
I believe there are a number of reasons we start meditating, in this episode I just want to look at one angle. Here is one of the reasons I started meditating, being less reckless.
So one of the things I was thinking to bring up on this episode, is by bringing up something that moved me towards a meditation/mindfulness practice as a teen. I already explored some of the reasons I wanted to learn to meditate in the introduction episode, so for this episode I’ll just explore another piece of this. As you may have noticed by listening to this podcast so far, the reasons people give, why they started a meditation practice are wide ranging, and some will admit that they don’t know for sure, or can pinpoint exactly what or how it all got started for them.
And for illustrative purposes, and since it will be most accurate if I recount my own experiences, I want to just focus on one of the reasons I likely felt compelled towards a meditation practice.
There were of course positive causes like, why am I here, how can I be a kinder person, but there were also other things that motivated me. While my curiosity for a lot of things is usually beneficial, I can look back and also see how curiosity combined with a tendency for distraction/ self-absorbtion/self-centeredness can also turn into a more destructive force like recklessness, or disregard for others or the environment.
So let’s look a little bit at some of the more destructive reasons that brought me to a mediation path.
I suppose I could be on occasion reckless like most children/teenager growing up. Now I don’t want to paint myself as a little shit, I also was sensitive and didn’t like what we were doing to each other, and animals, and the planet at a young age. I recall not liking it when fellow kids took apart living spiders, and similar things boys primarily seem to be attracted to doing.
I think it is important for me to not just show flattering things, but just to be real, and show that I certainly had good reasons for needing to take a look at my own actions and thoughts.
Some examples of my own recklessness in childhood
I liked adventure, exploring, and had curiosity for a lot of things (which hasn’t changed much by the way). To give you some sense of that, I used to row to this trash heap, and dig through it to find old electronics in particular, and see if I could fix them. And so it happened a couple of times, where I got very intense 220 Volts electrical shocks, because I was taking old defective radios and things apart and then trying to put new plugs in them. This type of curiosity coupled with ignorance and disregard for safety was a form of reckless endangerment to myself.
Another thing I liked was playing with fire literally, whether that was things like lighting an ashtray on fire in the house and running up to my parents upstairs, because I couldn’t completely extinguish it, or lighting trash cans in the park on fire to create interesting effects in the park. Or blowing up an old guitar with fireworks.
One of the things I remember was noticing how I almost always had a cut, or bruise, blister, or something else painful going on, because I was into something I probably shouldn’t or wasn’t paying attention.
Another reckless example. For a time I was riding a bike without breaks, so the only way to stop was ride it in the bushes, or use my feet as brake pads.
Another area in which i was reckless was while bicycling in traffic.I would not hesitate to run red lights, cut people off, and pass when ill advised. One time I paid for that by passing two slightly overweight folks, and then slipping on the ice, with them both falling on me and the bike.
The most dangerous time was when I had fallen in love in a summer camp in France with a Dutch girl, and as I mentioned before, when back home in Holland, I would listen to music while bicycling, and completely involved in the music, not caring about my bike. This is perhaps more likely behavior of young folks who might be tempted to think death, old age, and ill health is for other people or far off in the future.
This I paid for, because on one intersection, I did not have due diligence when looking both ways for traffic and so got hit hard (30-40 mph or more) and literally was thrown off my bike and experienced the event out of my body. Then landed hard, and have had back issues on and off ever since. While the experience was a fascinating experience of time slowing and the mind, and gave me a few days off school. What this did really bring home to me, was that I was reckless and had a problem being fully present and attentive to what was happening around me.
With all these injuries I realized I was clumsy in the attention department, and started realizing that a practice of attention was necessary for me to learn to reduce these accidents.
So as part of my spiritual reading, besides books about Hinduism, I got attracted to Zen. Now I think in part because I had a tendency to be distracted, I was at that time attracted to the simplicity and no-nonsense directness of Zen. The lack of clutter, it’s emphasis of simplicity, inner peace, wisdom and understanding, clarity and dignity, grace, and the deep appreciation and cultivation for each moment.
One book in particular got my attention and drew me a little closer to a Zen meditation practice. I don’t remember which book, sorry. But in the book there is a story of a monk who likes to get out of the monastery at night to hang out in the city, perhaps going out drinking sake and making friends in the bar.
What interested me, is not so much talking about the monk violating the monastic community by escaping the monastery. It’s about his mindfulness and attention. So perhaps some teachers or head monks would have just chastised the escaping monk, and told him to stop violating the monastic rules. But what’s interesting is that in this story the Zen teacher decides to follow the monk and observe him for a while.
So the next day, the teacher calls in the monk and wants to have a chat with him. He says, you know, I saw you getting out again last night, climbing over the fence, and so I followed you. When you got to the city street, you crossed the street not paying attention, and you bumped into a woman who was carrying a baby. This woman was already stressed (could see on her face), and you bumping in her, without paying attention, caused her to drop the bag and she was having to clean up. This also caused a car to have to stand on his brakes. More agitated, she then walked into the bakery to get bread and passed on her frustration to the baker who had just been dealing with his sick wife. His mood was not helped. And so on, and so on the teacher goes on to explain how each of these acts had a ripple effect, seen and unseen.
So what so impressed me with this story was how one’s own mind, attitude, and behavior can affect others in ways we have no idea about. They can have ripple effects that is just not measurable, except in this instance where a very perceptive teacher follows just one of the consequences of our own behaviors.
I’ll never forget this story, and how it impressed on me the importance of one’s own state of mind, and attentiveness to the present moment and all our encounters.
Perhaps you say, great, glad you figured this out, but I was a good child, I don’t make a mess of things around me, and have never had these issues. Is that really true?
My good friend David Bainbridge visited yesterday, and he wrote a big book that is a guide for Desert and Dryland restoration.
John practices in the Zen Buddhist tradition of Robert Aitken (Diamond Sangha)
This is a summary (not a full transcript) of the interview
John was attracted to fundamentalist Christianity as a teen for a few years. It did not work for John. He abandoned all religion in his 20’s living an agnostic/atheist life. He was accepting things that other people were saying, and he decided he was not going to do that again.
He stumbled on a book On Zen by Alan Watts. That caught his attention. Then started to figure out how to meditate, learned a bit from the TM movement.
Did you understand what parts of it?
He did not understand all of it, but he did get non-duality. This was a whole new understanding that opened up for John. He by then had his own meditation practice on and off. Year on, year off kind of practice. He would feel that he would need to get back into it.
Where you attracted to meditation as a way of insight, or as a way to experience something you were looking for?
Maybe more the insight. I got fairly involved in the lead-up to the presidential elections in 2004. When that was all done, and the dust settled, I realized I was full of anger and even hatred towards the chosen political enemies. Then I phoned the Zen Center after finding them online.
Have you found that joining a group is different than meditating alone?
Yes, definitely. Especially the first couple of years, John derived tremendous support from the regular weekly sits, and meditating and support from other people. That whole structure that keeps you on the cushion, and prevents you from a moment of restlessness coming along, and tricking you into jumping up, and doing something else. And the book studies have been very helpful.
So the structure is very helpful too?
Yes, extremely helpful. If you see structure as a means to an end, as a tool, then you wouldn’t see it as limiting or old-fashioned tradition that doesn’t fit the modern era. It’s there to help people.
How has your relationship with those perceived enemies changed at all?
I don’t think my political views have shifted much. My indulging in hatred is way less than it used to be (laughs). So that’s a good thing! The hatred thing, the target is no longer individual people. There are so many facets to a complex society, some not functioning well, sick, very poor design. So a person may get elected to congress.
For example the structure of congress is stacked against you. Very hard to be an awake and honest person, and not get corrupted by the money from the lobbyists and so forth, when you’re in that environment all the time.
So, I guess I’ve shifted from individuals to the system that I perceive as something that is bad.
Do you see that a system can be shifted by individuals or groups, or completely needs to be uprooted or re-designed?
Uprooting is a tempting fantasy, because it is quick. The ultimate expression of that is war. You perceive an enemy, and the best thing is just to eliminate your enemy.
But then you assume of enemy as outside?
Yes, the enemy is all outside, and things good is all in me, and all things bad in someone else.
But to truly have a culture evolving into something healthier, does require the individuals in that culture, become more aware, educated and enlightened. And developed in a balanced way, where not just our minds, but our hearts are also developed.
Has this way of long-term seeing changed the way you get attached to outcomes?
Perhaps, I understand how to be unattached to outcomes, but more focused on the nature on your actions, is perhaps a more spiritual way to be in the world.
When you practice there is a certain letting go of the desire of certain outcomes, not having strong attachments to certain outcomes, whether in your immediate area, or the larger geopolitical arena?
Yes, I’ve probably developed a little in that direction. As things play out from my actions, I’m not necessarily in control. I might do something in one particular thing in space and time, but the consequences of what I do in that spot, goes on without me. It’s better to focus on the nature of my act. Am I acting free of greed or, desire for revenge, hatred. What is my true motivation I think is more important, than banking on a particular outcome. Because it never comes out that way anyway, even driving to the store to get milk.
Yes, that reminds me of your example you mentioned of an instance of road rage?
Yes, I have an 2 examples of my own road rage. Both times I was really surprised I had this in me, I didn’t know it was there.
I was just getting on the freeway, it was fall, rainy and dark. I was careful to look for a space in traffic. and this guy comes zooming in. He roared by me, and it made me jump. It triggered this rage in me, it took me 2 miles on the freeway to get this under control. This whole time I sat with this rage. I realized if I had a much bigger vehicle, and it was banged up, I would have chased him down and bumped his car and driven him into the barrier. That’s how illogical and enraged I was. I just had a little car and couldn’t catch up.
So I started thinking….what does a Buddhist do in this situation I thought? I think you just be a bit detached, just watch it, instead of being it, but 2-3 miles, I did start to settle down.
Second time, similar incident, also someone roared by. And in this case not only was I powerless, but my wife also screamed at John to slow down. She reminded him to slow down, and he might escalate the situation. those are two instances, where I had to struggle to become detached from the rage I experience inside of me.
What was also important was the constraints that I have, I had a little bit of a rational mind, but also external constraints, the realities of traffic, not doing something that was even more dangerous. and my wife reminding me to get sane again.
But there are also other times, when there were no external constraints at all, and then there will be that moment of choice.
Sure, give us another example.
This involves you and Kristina! (laughs)
This was one of the very the first times I showed up for Zen, and we exchanged names, and one of you said something like, “Are you new to Spokane? Have you lived here long?”
And I asked you two, well how long have you been in this town?
And Kristina laughed at the way I said that. And somehow, and this is just me, not you or Kristina, I took that as a kind of a put-down. That i was using a phrase that was dated, or maybe she thought I was pompous. He felt judged. But as soon as she laughed, I could feel myself getting defensive.
And that moment, if you catch it right at the beginning, that’s when things are most fluid. I didn’t even have words behind this decision. I just made the decision, I wasn’t going to go there, just going to watch it happen.
There’s my feeling vulnerable, and insecure again, feeling judged again. That sort of thing. Because i was able to catch it in the very beginning, it just evaporated. It was an experience of freedom. I did not make a psychic cage around myself. I was free.
You didn’t take it personal?
Absolutely not, the laugh happened, my judgement happened, my reaction happened, I just watched it happen. And then I was fine, I was done with it.
Another example of a positive outcome. Many years ago, Mary and I had a disagreement. We were getting at each other a bit, and she said something that hooked me. I watched the whole thing happen. I watched the words go in, and there was a strong visual component to this experience. It was like I was looking inside myself. I could see this happening.
Inside myself, looking down through my spine, at the bottom there was this dark pool of liquid. Like mud. And I looked down, and I saw this shape starting to emerge, and as it came out, I saw it was this coiled snake. But it was really anger at what my wife said. It was halfway out, and I still had a choice. At that moment I still had a choice. I could say yes, or no to this thing, and so I said no . And it went back down. No anger at that point.
What about present-moment awareness, have you noticed that change over the years of practice?
I think so, I’m more aware when I’m not in the present. I can kind of pull myself away from all my head trips that takes me out of the present. When I’m going to beautiful scenery, like on a walk, I’m much more likely to actually notice it, like smells and sounds as well as the sights.
Is that something from practicing in that moment, or over time practice?
Yes, the second thing, it’s a cumulative effect of practicing over time.
Is there anything when you’re not on the cushion that is practice related?
Sometimes I’ll use the Tibetan mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum. When I feel a need to be more in my heart than my head, I use that, and I visualize my energy going from my head to my heart.
The jewel is in the lotus, that which I seek, I already am?
Yes, the jewel in the lotus, the lotus being the heart. The pearl of great price, The jewel that we’re all seeking. We don’t know that it is there, we have to put our attention there, to live from that spot.
When I’m really feeling really scattered, irritated, tired, bored, I will sometimes use that.
What is the role of a teacher in your practice?
I get to ask Jack (John’s teacher) some questions, that I don’t know who else to possibly ask those questions of that nature. He’s reassuring for me. Sometimes I don’t know where I am in this journey, even though I have some mental road maps. Like the 10 ox herding pictures. But I don’t know where I am on that road map. I need a second opinion on that (laughs). Am I more or less awakened than I think I am?
Any other tips, or inspirations that help you?
Your questions make me aware that I can do much more on a daily basis to remind myself to return to the present. I think I might make that a project to jot down some of those tools and use them more often. I just tend to notice more frequently where I am, where my attention, awareness, and energies are. Sometimes that’s all you need.
And you intend to keep on practicing?
Yes it’s been good for me. One of the aspects of Zen that is a good fit for me, is that in my youth I was so much in my head, and Zen is merciless at cutting down those head trips. Pushing you out of that comfort zone.
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!
Interview with “The One You Feed” Podcast host Eric Zimmer
Eric Zimmer is host and founder of the, “One You Feed” podcast, which he and Chris Forbes work on together. On the podcast, he talks about which wolf we chose to feed. Eric has also worked with start-ups, doing Management and Software Development, is CEO, Tipping Point Renewable Energy, and all around an Experienced entrepreneur. He’s also a Songwriter. You can tell tell he is a very curious person by listening to his podcast.
This is a summary (not a full transcript) of the interview
Eric got introduced in high school by a teacher, he was probably the only reason that he got through high school. The teacher introduced him with Zen books. Eric then got involved with Trancendental Meditation.
He took a class in TM. Eric had to bring 3 handkerchiefs as a prerequisite to TM meditation. He then shoplifted these handkerchiefs, and got caught. He practiced for a short period of time, and then stopped. Over the next 5-6 years, he’d think about it, but also struggled with an alcohol addiction, “a wasteland” as he calls it.
He’d have periods where he’d sit and start and stop his meditation practice, and occasionally read books by Jack Kornfield. What drew him to meditation was, how can he use meditation, so he can better manage his internal states.
Was there anything in particular irking him that gave him a “why”?
After he got sober, he no longer had the escape that he had always had. He was looking for some way to quiet his brain, at least turn the volume down to a manageable level. The promise of some degree of peace.
How did that motivation then evolve over the years?
He recommends chunks of why he’d come back to practice. Especially the difficult experience of things falling apart. When he and his wife split up, and his son was about 2.5 years old. A very painful experience.
Pema Chodron’s book, “When things fall apart” was life changing for Eric. It introduced him to the idea that he could sit there with these feelings, and examine them. That they weren’t going to kill him. Neither repress them, or indulge them.
He really got into meditation then, because he was in so much pain, and even did some retreats.
But then life got a little better, and then he would not practice as much. Then about 2 years ago, he started getting exposed to ideas of better building habits. He really wanted to do it every day, and start small. Instead of like he thought, do 45 minutes ever day, which was self-defeating. So he started with 2 minutes, and gradually built his meditation practice from there.
The “one you feed” podcast has been another helpful ally to Eric, in terms of support for maintaining a consistent meditation practice for as well.
Why start the “one you feed” podcast?
He got interest in building a business online, do something online that didn’t take any money, unlike his main solar business. One day he just had the idea for the show. It just came into his mind. His best friend Chris was into audio, and that would give him more time with his friend.
And secondly, it was important to keep ideas of living a spiritual or more awake life. Because if he doesn’t keep it at the front of his mind, it is very easy for Eric to go onto auto-pilot, because his life is so super busy, and he would forget his inward life, and just be outward focused.
What is the parable of the two wolves?
The podcast is called, “The One You Feed”, and it is based on the parable of the two wolves.
There is a grandfather who’s talking to his grandson. In life there are two wolves inside us, which are constantly in battle with each other.
One is a good wolf, representing kindness, bravery and love. The other wolf is the “bad” wolf, representing things like, greed hatred and fear.
And the grandson says, “Grandpa, which one of the two wolves wins?”
And the grandpa answers, “the one you feed”.
So Eric uses that parable to interview various authors, thought leaders, etc, and asks them what does it mean to you? And he then tries to explore their work, and how to create a life worth living. He’s known the parable, since this is a well known story in recovering alcoholic circles.
How have the audience responses you’ve gotten, changed your thinking about this parable?
It has evolved his thinking. He’s been exposed to a lot of ideas in his life. It is just becoming more about the importance of integrating those things into our lives. From knowing intellectually to living it out.
There’s a huge gap on what we belief, and how we practice that.
There are certainly themes in the show what he hears a lot of, and he’s trying to extract that. But he’s mainly interested in consistent focused effort, and keeping that into his awareness, seeing what that has done over time for his emotional and mental health.
You use apps to help you meditate, what Apps do you use for your meditation?
Eric uses several timer apps, so he can set little bells for a timer and guided meditations. And he uses a gratitude app so he can record what he’s grateful for. There’s another app (The app is called rewire) where it helps you notice when a sound goes away. A gamified interesting way to mix it up a bit. It buzzes you when you’re off in your thoughts somewhere.
What advice do you have for someone who struggles with meditation?
Start really small and connect the dots, start with just a few minutes. Better 5 minutes a day, every day, than an hour once a month or once a week.
It took a long time to understand his expectations, what was supposed to be happening. He’d hear people say they always felt peaceful etc. He thought he was supposed to feel good, he must not be the kind of person who can meditate. And so he finally got that he might not feel great while doing it, but it is the training of his mind, and ideally it will help, contribute to the other 23.5 hours of the day. So he started thinking about it as mental hygiene. Just do it everyday, because he knows it’s a good thing to do.
Give up any expectation of a particular state or experience. In Eric’s case, he stopped fighting it, or getting disappointed. Trying to stay away from how it should be or how it was. Some days he has some measure of peace, and other times, it just runs completely crazy. He had heard people talk about meditation in such glowing terms before, and his experience just did not verify that, so that he then thought there must be something wrong. He got away from the idea that his mind was “supposed” to be clear.
Eric uses the analogy of the waterfall. Imagine the space between the rock and the waterfall, and you imagine standing in between that little space and watching that water fall by. That water is your mind, just noticing what’s happening there. Just noticing, just paying attention to what is happening right now. That really clicked for Eric.
Also the thing that finally worked for him. Breath meditation didn’t work as well, he is using what he hears, and what he feels in his body as his method for getting in the present. Similar to open awareness meditation.
Eric does not currently have a teacher, but he does go to groups in Ohio. He’s just ecstatic that he’s finally consistently meditating.
Have you notice anything off the meditation pillow that changes the way you look at things, or in your relationships?
Yes, quotes Victor Frankl, “Between stimulus and response there’s a space. And in that space lies all our human freedoms.”
And the best way Eric can describe how meditation benefits him
It puts a little more space between stimulus and response. He finds himself more able to notice his reaction, there’s a stimulus and response. He tends to process inward, but there is still a reaction. More space to question what that habitual response is. That awareness to question his responses.
And the other thing he noticed, is an ability to appreciate for example, a pleasant experience a little longer. Ex, his attachment to watching the ocean at California, he’d get attached to it. I gotta live here, I need more time here, scheming how he can get more of it. He was not enjoying the moment any longer. Now he notices how now he’s able to more appreciate the moment and be more present and not clinging to it any longer.
The primary thing he’s noticed, is that he has a little more space within his thoughts. And he can examine them more regularly.
Some of your listeners struggle with depression, how has your show helped them?
He’s been taken by surprise how his audience felt helped by his episodes. He’s getting great responses.
Eric is doing meaningful things, like with solar and non-profit work, what is that like?
He’s now trying to sell his solar business, due to unfavorable circumstances. He’s always had a desire to do thing that are meaningful to him. He loved the work in software start-up companies, but didn’t get enough personal meaning out of it. With solar he just got interested in it, as a great business opportunity, and it is important to the world. So it was interesting to marry those two.
He really likes the idea of combining something that really matters with building things. Now doing the podcast and coaching work, that’s the next evolution for Eric. The podcast is more tightly integrating what he’s spending effort on from a work perspective, and a deep personal meaningfulness. He is seeing that the podcast is taking on a life of its own. He wants to do more of it.
He also does eCommerce consulting for a fortune 500 company. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t mean as much as something like the podcast. But he’s patient, he doesn’t want to rush it.
This is a guest post by Father Tom Connolly who worked with the Coeur d’Alene Tribe for 33 years as a Catholic priest and who now practices Zen Buddhism as well.
In an interview for, “Indian Country Today Media Network“, he said, “I’ve tried to find and emphasize integration between the older Indian spiritual ways and the more modern Catholic ways they have taken and show that these two worlds fit together in a comfortable way,” he said. “Much of my life has been trying to explore relationships between two different worldviews and how they can integrate and how both people can enjoy or expand themselves and find fulfillment in something of the views of other people.”
Why I meditate
As a catholic priest, the question of god’s reality, presence an activity has always been of great interest.
I feel that a source of great confusion has come from the stories of the Book of Genesis, that have been taken for granted and assumed to be historically true.
But the growing acceptance of “evolution” as a more accurate account of history today has opened up an entirely new field of questions about god’s presence an activity. This shift has called me to search for an entirely different set of images and modes of prayer.
Christian theology has always stated that God is both “transcendent” and “imminent”. But beginning with Hebrew old testament history, God has been described as a kind of heavenly “creator-king” and always “intervening” in their history to reward their fidelity and punish their infidelity.
Later Christian artistic descriptions have presented God as an elderly, bearded, white male, seated at high on a throne and surrounded by heavenly courtiers in a place called heaven high above the clouds. Traditionally, most Christians have imaginatively and prayerfully dealt with this God who is primarily “transcendent”.
This prayerful, transcendent imagery is not nearly as satisfying for me today. Psychologically, it seems necessary to have some kind of phantasm or verbal image for all our thoughts, and so it has been difficult to find and develop a meaningful relationship with a God who is also “imminent” and therefore less image-able.
We are familiar with scripture passages like Jesus’ prayer: “that you will know that I am in my father, and you in me, and I in you”, and Saint Paul’s: “I live now not I, but Christ lives in me”, and Saint Ignatius’ call to, “find God in all things”.
Yet it seems that these insights have not had the same impact in people’s devotional awareness as have references to a primarily “transcendent” God.
In the Zen and in Buddhism I have found two helpful means in my pursuit of an imminent God, who is at once present in himself, present in myself, present in others and present in all experienced beings.
Zen meditation has been helpful in following my breathing and being aware of breath and psychic energy present in mind lower abdomen. In time this awareness has translated into a kind of imminent “awareness of divinity” within.
It has also brought a great peacefulness of spirit. This type of meditation has gradually led me into an altered state of consciousness, slipping from Beta brain waves of normal alert thinking into calmer Alpha brain waves of an unthinking awareness and peacefulness. It has been difficult to calm the mind and remain in the state, but with practice, it seems to become more possible.
Another helpful means has been the Buddhist teaching of the “tathagata garba” – a “seed of the Buddha nature”, something somewhat comparable to Divinity, present in all sentient beings.
It seems possible to find, and not total identity who, but a lot of similarity between Christian teachings about the ” divine – nature” and Buddhist teachings about the “Buddha-nature” present in all beings.
They both indicate a kind of transcendent-yet-imminent reality drawing me towards a unity of myself with the One and the All of creation.
Meditating with some of these aspects of Zen and Buddhism has helped me enhance my catholic awareness of god has also “imminent”. This awareness is more spiritually meaningful to me today than previous images of a god who is primarily “transcendent” and “above”.