MF 27 – Amanda Gilbert – Meditation and Mindfulness Researcher at UCSF

MF 27 – Amanda Gilbert – Meditation and Mindfulness Researcher at UCSF

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.

Resources

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MF 20 – Ed Earl Mindfulness Sustainable Design and Collaborative Construction

MF 20 – Ed Earl Mindfulness Sustainable Design and Collaborative Construction

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 w Thich Nhat Hanh

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.

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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

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

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

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

Straw Bale Community Building

Collaborative construction is based on the mindfulness training of open communications:

  • Trust
  • Cooperation
  • Open communication

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.

Resources

 

MF 19 – Melli O’Brien Mindfulness Teacher in Australia

MF 19 – Melli O’Brien Mindfulness Teacher in Australia

Interview with Melli O’Brien – Mindfulness Teacher in Australia

Melli O’Brien is an internationally-accredited meditation and Satyananda yoga teacher and an MTIA-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!

Resources

 

MF 11 – Which Wolf is the One You Feed? With Eric Zimmer of the oneyoufeed Podcast

MF 11 – Which Wolf is the One You Feed? With Eric Zimmer of the oneyoufeed Podcast

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 one you feed logoThe 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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Resources

 

MF 10 – Dori Langevin – Vipassana Meditation Teacher Interview

MF 10 – Dori Langevin – Vipassana Meditation Teacher Interview

Interview with Dori Langevin, practitioner and teacher of Vipassana Buddhism. Dori works with groups and individuals using experiential mind-body-spirit approaches for healing and creating ceremonies for life passages including mindfulness, loving-kindness and compassion practices; guided imagery; artwork; ritual; psychodrama; emotional release work; and Holotropic Breathwork™. One special interest is the interface between mindfulness practice, addiction recovery and emotional healing. Dori has been in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction since August 1980. She serves as an Advisory Council Member for Buddhist Recovery Network.

This is a summary (not a full transcript) of the interview

What brought you to a meditation practice?

Dori is a recovering alcoholic, so spiritual practice started with the 12 steps as her baseline for practice. It was a very “in vivo” (practice in the marketplace in daily life instead of “in vitro” (in the lab, in the formal practice, the inward focus). There are endless ways in which life creates opportunities for practice.

In 1985 she attended a month long retreat at Esalen called “The Mystical Path – Attachment and Addiction with Stan and Christina Grof and many other teachers including Jack Kornfield. Jack’s description of the Four Noble Truths (in Buddhism) completely resonated with her personal and professional experience with addiction and recovery from addiction. It made sense: addiction and recovery; suffering and freedom from suffering. It was an embodied frame of reference for her. Jack taught Vipassana and Loving-kindness or Metta meditations.

Although the 12 step recovery program included guidance in prayer there was little specific instruction for meditation. She started to practice without a teacher or community, so she was winging it and it took many years for her to find a formal community in which to study and practice Buddhadharma. In 1997, As “luck” would have it, she found that Tara Brach was teaching in near her in Maryland. She immediately resonated with Tara and her style of teaching the dharma and became very involved in the budding development of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington along with her husband, Ted. It is quite fortunate to have a partner that also practices.

What do folks do who don’t have a local meditation community?

Dori talks about how for some people there is no physical practice community available. The virtual reality of webinars and other on-line teaching and meditation are now viable options for support and to ask questions. But she still prefers the “embodied presence” of sitting together physically with a teacher and a sangha.

Was this a practice for life?

She can’t imagine this not being part of her life. Dori thinks of it as a tapestry. Those practices that weave in and feel alive for her stay—feeling enlivened by them and the sense of being at home. Practice is a guiding presence, a shepherding, so that when those moments of difficulty arise, she will be able to stay present and learn from life.

So in a way you’re priming yourself for those moments, so that when a difficult moment comes up, you have this practice that automatically kicks into gear.

Do you have an example of something like that?

Yes. Dori was riding with her husband on their Harley Davidson motorcycle on a long cross-country trip in the summer of 2013. Just west of Albuquerque the back end of the bike started fish-tailing and the only thought that arose in her mind was “We’re going down, because there is no other way out of this.” No panic, just a sense of “this is how it is right now.” They thought they were on their way to Canyon de Chelly to hike that morning, but the plan changed!

She was very grateful that in those few seconds she had the grace of clarity of mind and an absence of fear as she “went down” (thrown off the bike on to I-40). In the months of recovery, the practices helped her stay connected to her body, to notice pain (unpleasant physical sensation) and know that mental anguish was optional. First and second noble truths, pain is going to happen, but suffering is optional. Although she couldn’t do sitting practice because of broken bones, she practiced as she walked (very slowly!) and while laying down, and relied heavily on metta and gratitude practice. She was very aware of all the support and love they received from the people at the roadside scene, the EMT’s and medical staff, friends in Albuquerque, but also through social media. When back home friends brought food and goodwill everyday, and cleaned the house, drove them to medical appointments, etc.

So you still had the pain, but not all the mental baggage, the mental weather?

Yes, the whole ‘adding on,’ “Why did this happen? This shouldn’t have happened,” etc., all the ways you can fight with reality. That would just add extra mental anguish. Cultivating the attitude, “It’s like this now.” Her overarching questions are, What is happening? and What is needed now? Rather than this is not how is it supposed to be; that is Dukkha. By cultivating the mental capacity to see clearly one can choose freedom. As soon as I notice I’m on that dukkha train, I can get off.

So there is an element of accepting that everything is uncertain, and not being attached to outcomes, do you have an example?

The practice of setting intention. Dori can set her intention to contemplate what she may need, what the day will need from here, and then to realize there is a letting go into what is actually going to happen. And activate the inner qualities needed to be with reality. You don’t know what the next thing is that will break. Getting comfortable with uncertainty.

It’s coming back again and again to, “How do I recognize when I’m not in alignment with that truth?” Because then I just get frustrated.The attunement with the 3 characteristics, or three marks of existence.

1. Impermanence (anicca)

2. Dukkha (suffering, unsatisfactoryness, dissatisfaction, because everything changes If I’m trying to hold on,bI can remember to let go in any moment. I may not like it, but that is just a preference

3. Non-self (anatta – not creating an “I” or “mine” story)

Have you noticed that your relationship with the world changed from when you were an addict to now?

In a broad way, everyone has the desire to be of service, to be happy, to be able to give, and yet so many things get in the way. She admits she still has the capacity to “otherize.” And other people have this too.

How can I serve, and also savor this world? She looks at other people to link herself, looking at how they enjoy the world, and how they suffer.

She’s trying to link herself to the whole human condition, knowing that we all have our measure of sorrow, our measure of suffering, and we all have gifts to bring to the world.

You are now a teacher right?

In 2001 she finished her doctoral degree in clinical psychology and Tara Brach asked if she had any interest in teaching? At the time she had no inclination to teach, but about a year later she did accept Tara’s invitation and began teaching with Tara and other IMCW teachers. In 2006 she was accepted into the Spirit Rock/ Insight Meditation Society4-year teacher training with Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein and other teachers.

What struggles do you see with your students in their meditation practice?

She teaches locally in Spokane, as well as at IMS, Spirit Rock, Cloud Mountain, and iBme Teen Retreats. In Spokane she works with Experienced Practitioner Groups –these students she sees regularly, so there is deepening of practice, dharma and sangha. And some she sees remotely for shorter periods of time on retreat.

Many people are struggling to one degree or another is with “what is practice? or what is their relationship with practice. She encourages students to practice, and see for themselves if their efforts lead to well-being and harmlessness or to discontent and harm. And if it leads to harm, don’t do it! “Come see for yourself.”

Dori asks them, What you really want? What is your north star? What is your motivation?” She can then suggest various forms of practice to activate that

within themselves. And to discover the obstacles. She asks challenging questions of her students as well as offering support and encouragement.

Does it help the students to stick to their practice to be in touch with their why?

Reflecting on “What is true happiness for you?” Maybe the student is not resonating with the word “happiness,” maybe contentment is the word for them. So then she asks the student how these practices support the wholesome mind-states they want to cultivate.

So it’s about what’s happening today, and what is needed now? Start again now. Initially, keep it simple.

In time, you will be able to select the right skillful practice appropriate to the moment. It is letting the students articulate their own questions and what they are seeking through their own words.

If she’s worried about something that is going to happen that day, she may use a particular practice that works well for that particular mindstate. Like turning a “demon” into an ally. Lama Tsultrim’s Demon Feeding Practice frees up the unwholesome energy by understanding and meeting its needs.

Do you have tips for meditation practitioners to bring their mindfulness into their day?

Yes, this is what she calls “in-vivo” practice. Inviting people to select a particular activity of daily living as a focus for mindfulness practice. For example, driving their car. One could start the practice with mindfully walking to the car, entering, and starting, and then attention to the physicality of driving (without the radio or other distractions). Notice when you leave mentally, when you’re already at work, and then use the physical sensations of driving to call you back to the present experience of driving.

This is practice is about strengthening the muscle of presence.

Keep in mind that you’re driving as you are driving. Bring the ardency and alertness that is necessary, the wakefulness and stick-to-it-ness required for mindful presence.

Driving is great, because we habitually get so lost in thoughts. But It could be anything, just pick something—doing the dishes, brushing your teeth as a way of knowing what you’re doing “right now.” And then notice the transitions between activities, thoughts. How do I feel in my body now? As well as when something big erupts internally.

She also encourages On the Spot Tonglen practice (Pema Chodron). So that you can let the vicissitudes of the day be something that connects you to the web of life as opposed to shutting you down. Or needing to hoard what is pleasant, or to push away, or personalizing some arising of unpleasantness.

Embodied presence does not come easy for some folks. Coming into the body does not come easy for everyone. Do it in steps. Being aware of the body and the breath wherever you are. What is my body feeling now, checking back in. For others, notice your moods.

For example if you’re trying to work with the loss of someone. Notice what sorrow feels like. Notice when it arises, and then can you offer what is needed, perhaps hand on yourheart. Can you realize what is happening, pause and see if you can sit with that.

What is happening, and what is needed right now?

How can we be in this life, with open-heartedness, compassion, wisdom within our circumstances.? Even when someone has done something to hurt us.

Using the practices under all kinds of circumstances. Dori then talks about her various retreats and web sites and other ways she works with.

Dori talks about coming out of a patriarchal age, female equality in Buddhist monastic life is being addressed, but is an ongoing challenge. She talks about the Sacred Feminine that honors a variance of vision, inclusivity, and reverence fo rall life. The Sila (wholehearted commitment to non-harming) is paramount, and although we may not be as brilliant as we can be, we can cultivate a wholesome energy with which we bring ourselves to relationships. There is no barrier to who can be enlightened, which was radical then, 2500 years ago, and still is today!

She hopes we are all willing to be radically responsive to what is needed.

Dori Langevin Resources

 

MF 9 Carol Grever – When Your Spouse Comes Out – How Meditation Helped Heal

MF 9 Carol Grever – When Your Spouse Comes Out – How Meditation Helped Heal

Interview with Carol Grever, author of My Husband Is Gay: A Woman’s Guide to Surviving the Crisis, Glimpses: A Memoir in Poetry, When Your Spouse Comes Out: A Straight Mate’s Recovery Manual, Memory Quilt: A Family Narrative. Carol is a straight spouse recovery expert, as well as a practitioner and teacher of Buddhism.

This is a summary (not a full transcript) of the interview

What brought you to a meditation practice?

It was chaos in her personal life that brought Carol to a meditation practice. She says that her former husband came out after 30 years of marriage, so the rug was pulled out. He was in a relationship with another man, unbeknownst to her for most of the marriage. He led a double life for almost all of those years. He said to her that he had, “homosexual tendencies”. But he had acted on them for a long, long time.

She was also looking for meaning in her life.

Meditation became her refuge. It was a way to let go, to be in the moment, not to go back to the “what ifs”, and “how stupid I am”. She could get into the present moment.

This transition didn’t just go from one day to the next right?

They put their personal life on the back-burner. They had a business, and it took about 4 years, before they lived apart. In the beginning of that, they tried to make their marriage work. They decided then to separate, being unable to make it work.

She was taking Shambala weekend retreat training in a retreat setting during those 4 years of struggle. It’s typically 8 hours of meditation training. That is how she kept her sanity through meditation practice.

What were some of the breakthroughs during these meditation intensives?

Staying in the present moment is very important. And not trying to go back and second-guess everything.

Learned to follow the breath, “If you can stay and follow your breath, whatever is happening, will pass.”

The concept of impermanence became real. Whatever it is, will pass.

She was learning about the depth of her own spirit. She was feeling mostly sadness. She was in deep grief, felt betrayed, angry at times.  As if someone dear had died. In a way that had happened, because the man she thought she knew was not the same man.

Was this one of the reasons you were drawn to Pema Chodron as a teacher, she often talks about these things, having the rug pulled under from you, impermanence, groundlessness, the certainty of uncertainty, everything falling apart, and so on.

Yes, she went through a similar experience before she became a nun. Her husband also ran away with another woman. That gave her a depth of understanding for situations like Carol’s.

Pema told Carol the first time they met, that, “having the rug pulled out could be very good news”. Carol was in the depth of her sorrow, so thought it was crazy at first. Pema also said, this is an opportunity to grow. So she started looking at the event that way from now on.

She also started studying meditation with meditation teacher, Dale Asrael of Naropa University. She is a wonderful teacher, that is how she began. She then went to the Rocky mountain dharma center, and got connected with Pema Chodron. She further did the Shambala training.

Carol also leads a Dharma reading discussion group, a small Sangha, or community. That is also very important to her, along with lojang practice, and meditation. She does work with straight spouses, and interviewed hundreds of straight spouses, which is how her books came about.

What insights did she get after she started seeing the events as an opportunity?

Carol learned how strong she can be, she felt devalued at first, unworthy, there must be something wrong with her. She was blaming herself at the beginning.

She learned through these quiet times, that this had nothing to do with her (that her husband is gay). It had to do with her husband needing to become more authentic in his own life. She came to appreciate that, that was one of the real benefits of a meditation practice. She could sit with it, and begin to understand it.

This doesn’t have to remain a crisis. She came to see that they could both come through it.

So you developed compassion then for this struggle for authenticity? We all struggle to with being authentic due to society’s, parents, etc expectations. 

Yes, you learn to forgive, forgive what came before. And understand that the other person was doing what they thought they had to do. Her husband is now free, authentic, and married to his male partner. They both now have a wonderful life.

“We had to free each other”.

And understand the motivations in order to pass through it and heal. And forgiveness is a big part of that.

How do you see your practice now?

She has learned that service is the real reward, and is the real path.  She took up the Mahayana Bodhisattva vow as a Buddhist. The gist of that is that to exchange self for other. To put yourself in the other person’s place. It’s about service.

Since then she has devoted her time to service working through the blog, and doing peer counseling, and working with straight spouses.  The books are also part of that. She writes and teaches in this dharma group. She feels she has a sort of perfect circle of activities to act out the Bodhisatva’s vow.

You’ve written a book of poetry as well, where you talk about how your sense of self changed, could you read a couple of poems?

She realized she had a kind of record of turning points through her lifetime. Some are through her experience as a straight spouse, and some as a Buddhist.

She reads from, “Glimpses: a memoir in poetry”.

This first poem is about looking back (a record of turning points):

Retrospection 

(some sentences from this poem)

..What was certain wasn’t..
..Tree ornaments lovingly hung.. radiate moving memories..
..Time passed, prior life with it.
..Lives transformed..
..What was certain..wasn’t..
..It happens this way…another year, another begins.
…We pack away the past..
…out of sight, but always present.
…Ornaments and delusions, keen reminders of all we were, when we thought we knew.

It kind of captures the movement of this life. Everything changes. It’s not bad.. it’s how we grow, it’s how we learn..cannot escape impermanence, it’s not all bad, and these reminders are really precious.

She just read Thich Nhat Hanh’s, “No death, no fear”. She talks about photographs of yourself, how they are the same, yet totally different. It demonstrates the movement of life.

She also reads the poem, “On Separation”. 

..Root bound no more..
..Total change required..
..circling inner walls..
..Confinement slashed..
..Wounded but vital..
..Timid new roots push tenderly past outgrown patterns..
..Boundaries fall, rawness feeds renewal…

Renewal is a daily recurrence. Clinging to non-movement. Friction and clinging cause so much pain, trying to stop the movement.

Granny Hiphop

My hair is graying..
My mind is straying..
It’s not too late to contemplate..
To heal all hate…and mend my faith
My days are free..to just be me..

It’s truthful, it’s authenticity. She sees that in her own life, how in business how she was trying to Be who she was not. She kept the front up, and it was exhausting. When she was done with the business, and she sold it. Her first thoughts were after this business, “Who am I”? She didn’t even really know.

Now she is beginning to get a feel for something greater than what she thought she was at that time. She now sees her as part of a bigger whole, the ultimate.

She really wants and is becoming more real now, authentic.

Resources

Books Authored by Carol Grever (Click on the images below to purchase)

What do people in a situation where they discover that their spouse is not straight. A combination of therapy, spouse recovery, and spiritual practice?

Yes.

When you’re sick of hearing the stories, which is a sign of growth. Then you can move into a longer term therapy, you can do a long-term recovery.

Is this still as much an issue?

Yes, social pressure, career pressure, religious pressure is still very much an issue keeping gays and lesbians from coming out. Still a lot of prejudice in the work force, difficulty in advancing.  Carol knows this, because her books and offerings still help many people.

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