MF 46 – Reconnecting with Nature through Eco-Therapy with Laurel Vogel

MF 46 – Reconnecting with Nature through Eco-Therapy with Laurel Vogel

MF 46 – Reconnecting with Nature through Eco-Therapy with Laurel Vogel

Laurel Vogel, M.A. received her degree in contemplative ecopsychology (A Psychology of Writing) in 2006, and is an ecotherapist, writer, Zen practitioner, and Nature Immersion group facilitator. She founded and runs the Holding Earth Sangha on Whidbey Island, and conducts Nature Immersion camps on the West Coast. Her writing is anthologized in Rebearths: Conversations with a World Ensouled (ed. C. Chalquist), and her articles have appeared in Ecotherapy News, and Restoration Earth Journal.

Interview with Laurel Vogel

(What follows is a summary transcript of the interview. Listen to the episode for the full conversation)

What brought you to a contemplative practice?

I’ve been a spiritual seeker for a long time, from a young age. Vacation bible school busses would haul us off to church, and this opened up my seeking personality. I had a seeking personality, but couldn’t find a home in the traditional traditions. I couldn’t reconcile myself in those traditions. There was this God father that would punish people into eternal damnation. So I left that kind of church, and continued seeking. As a young adult, I went through many things.

In my 30’s I started Yoga, and had a strong Yoga practice for a long time. And in my 40’s I started meditating with Vipassana. Eventually came to Zen practice 11 years ago. I found that Zen was the one place where I could have all my doubts, and be exactly who I am, but still have a really strong containing kind of a practice.

Even though I came with all of my questions, and my sometimes contentious relationship with spirituality, it can hold that, and it can stand up to that. I find the non-exclusive nature of that, to be as close to a home in a practice as I could find.

Interesting that you mention the judgement of the old testament religion, and then the non-judgement and inclusivity of Zen.

Yeah, I don’t really belief anymore that all Christian religions are like that, but I’ve come to find that, maybe even not all Buddhist sects aren’t as inclusive as I would like. But for the most part, the one that I found seems to really embrace… it doesn’t tell me what to think, what to feel, and how to be.

So I had to go away from practices that were too prescriptive..

And the preconceived notions, and conditioning that they come with..

And of course there are precepts which we follow, but nothing like you have to believe, and have to think this way.

But there’s also a faith element in Zen as well. How do you relate to that as opposed to accepting something on blind faith?

The faith is to keep practicing. To keep going, to keep sitting, to keep doing the meditation practice I think. That’s really where the faith comes in. The process will take us toward wherever it is that we’re going. I see that as different than being told what I need to have faith in.

Through the culture, certain churches, not all of them, have really come to try to tell people a lot on how to live, and what to do. The particular church I was in for a while, they got into your life, from telling what length the sleeves of your shirt should be, to whether or not you should go bowling or swimming. It’s that kind of a context that I was reacting to when I was looking for a spirituality that was more open and inclusive.

Would you say you’re still seeking, or is some of that now dropping away, now that you’re feeling more at home in your practice?

In a way I think I feel at home seeking. I do feel like, no matter what I do, I’ll find a way to be seeking. Not sure if that’s a good/bad thing. I think it’s just part of my nature, and i’m finally coming to a place where I’m accepting that more. That I just maybe one of those people who needs to question everything. Maybe that’s just part of my path.

..You’re accepting it, whatever state of mind you are, you’re accepting that. That’s a very liberating feeling right?

Yes, it is, it’s very liberating to realize that no matter where i’m at, i’m accepted in this practice..As I am with all my questions and doubts. It doesn’t mean that I’m not practicing right, or doing the right thing.

Yeah, I think it was Shunryu Suzuki who said (Correction: Suzuki was actually quoting Dogen), life’s one big mistake…that meditation and the whole process of finding your own true nature are one continuous mistake. 

..One continuous mistake, that’s right (laughing). That would describe my experience of practice.

How does this practice affected your relationship with the world. We’re going into Eco-therapy, which seems very similar to changing your view or relationship with everything.

Yes, the more I go into Zen practice, and the more I go into Eco-therapy, the more they seem to dovetail with each other. Especially with the ways I practice Eco-therapy. I actually defined what I was doing during my degree, as contemplative Eco-therapy. Which was very much about bringing people in a contemplative open state in their practices out in nature.

Has the sense of self/other changed over your practice?

Definitely..explain more what you mean by solid self and other?

I guess our culture and conditioning is about believing in a separate identity, I’m here, and that person is out there. I end at the ends of my skin..or skin bag.

Yes, that’s a good point to bring up. Both Zen and Eco-therapy are really congruent in a way. They give me a sense that I am interconnected and not separate from the natural world. There really is a mutuality, and inter-relatedness. The more that i practice contemplative practice, the more that I dissolve in my sense of nature and the natural world. And that happens when I walk in the woods. If I’m engaging my senses, pretty soon it feels like…I am my senses. And I’m not only sensing the world, the world is also sensing me. So there’s an inter-being.

When you started your Zen meditation practice, was there a moment that you can remember that you realize that you wanted to deepen your practice?

Probably…It’s been a sort of slow dissolving into practice, that I’ve gotten into. I’m doing a combination of Soto and now started studying the Aitken tradition, the Diamond Sangha. And I was doing Vipassana meditation, with a group sangha, but there was no teacher, no guidance. But I needed someone who i could ask questions of, and explore things more deeply with in terms of my practice.  I just needed help basically to understand some things.

I happen to see a flyer at the local Dharma hall, in Bellingham, and Norman Fisher was coming to town. I remember attending my first Zen weekend retreat with him. I got a very strong sense that, here’s this person who didn’t have big charisma, which would scare me away. I felt like I could connect with him. And I pretty much jumped in at that point, became his student, and have practiced with him almost 11 years now.

How do you practice with him?

He’s in Marin County, Ca, but at the time he was coming up to Bellingham and Vancouver, BC about 6 times a year, so I would catch those retreats. I would go to those retreats, and sometimes I would go down to Ca as well. He has decreased the retreats up here, so that was part of the reason I started looking around for other Zen practice places.

Could you elaborate on what retreats do or give you, that you wouldn’t get from just joining a group and/or sitting on your own?

The experience of Sesshin, the extended 6-8 day retreats, are really immersions in the practice where you come together with different members of the Sangha/community. You live with them, cook with them, you do everything together, as one body. For me, it increases my sense of belonging, and the sense of being supported. And supporting others, because there are always many, many opportunities for service in those practices.

Some of those people I’ve barely spoken a sentence to, but I feel very close to them. So that’s part of it, why it’s important. But it’s also the structure of the schedule. Having all of the constraints of your life removed for a time. Or all of the things that are calling you, or pulling you out of yourself, and really just getting a chance to not have to make decisions and not have to have to do the usual life that you do. You just get to be contemplative. That in itself is a real possibility for opening.

Do you recall getting an example of getting an insight that you would likely not have gotten if you hadn’t gone to an immersive retreat?

I would say almost every retreat i have something like that. There’s just something about being away from my life, that is just really conducive towards that kind of thing. At one point I went to a practice period at Green Gulch down in Marin County, and that was really conducive to some openings, because not only are you relating to yourself in a practice place, but a lot of other people, a lot of different personalities. So there’s a lot of opportunity to look at your habits and patterns.

For me one of my biggest patterns is resistance. And so I almost always get a chance I can look at the ways that I’m resisting, like following a schedule, or whether I like people wearing robes, and things like that.

Do you have a funny example of that?

I don’t know if it’s funny…It’s just part of my contentious nature.

There’s times when it’s really serious and annoying, like you say, and then there are other times when it almost becomes comical. 

Yeah, I guess that is pretty much it. It became funny to me, that I do spend so much time resisting and not just allowing myself to just follow the schedule. Obviously I’m there for a reason, and I’m putting myself in that position for a reason. Putting myself in that pressure cooker of a Sesshin for a reason. So it’s funny that I come up against this part of my personality…I have authoritarian issues, so I’m going to map authority onto everybody. So it could be funny sometimes, if we know how to laugh at ourselves.

Robert Aitken, who is our teacher’s teacher, has a story where his entire Sesshin retreats revolved around as he called it, “his damn mother”. Some issues that he had with his mother in the past was just brewing and dominating during his retreat. It can happen like that, a whole retreat where you have one issue that is taking the dominant form. 

Yeah, I’ve had many Sesshin like that. It can happen even as you walk into a retreat. That I decide I need to obsess about something for a while. Now after 11 years of doing these, I’ve just started to get much better about dropping these stories. Where I can go, “OK there’s another one, I can let that go now.”

I think most of us, have some habits that are easy to let go, slide of, and some that are much harder to let go of. And we may look at another and see us struggle with a habit that for us would be very easy to let go of, but then they might look at us and see something we struggle with that they could let go off very easily. 

All depending on our inheritance from our particular upbringing or culture that we were brought up in.

Then when you come back into the busyness of life, how does a retreat then affect the way you attend to your regular life? How does that affect your regular life?

At first I used to be bothered, because regardless of how many perceived openings I may have had, I was disappointed in myself. Because I was “supposed to be all peace and love now right?” years ago I would think that. Eventually that wore off, and I stopped trying to be something…once I left retreat.

Particularly work practice, and certain moving mindfulness practices, are helpful with this. All of a sudden, you find yourself becoming mindful, coming back to your mindfulness when washing dishes, getting to your car and driving to work, or walking through the woods, etc. It’s not something that I was able to bring consciously from Sesshin, into my daily life. It’s just something that happened as a result from consistently going.

We keep doing the practice, and at some point the practice does us. And carries you wherever you go.  

That sounds right yeah..

Do you have an example where you notice that in your daily life, maybe in traffic, or cooking, or.. How do you become aware of that?

I’m not sure how it happens, maybe it was Jack (her teacher) who said using those experiences as mindfulness bells. Like when something difficult or alarming happens, like my neighbor’s leaf blower. That’s one of my favorite ones. I can use that experience as a mindfulness bell, and bring myself back, when I remember. And I do think as a result of pretty intense practice, I’ve come to where I can do that more often, and remember to do that more often.

And when you come back, that changes your relationship to the leaf blower?

Sometimes (laughing), sometimes I can drop the story that I have about that. I guess it does, because if I don’t do that, I can be agitated for a long time. And if I do that, I go can go somewhere else and focus on something different.

That’s nice, I bet a lot of people want to understand how that works better (laughing). 

I wish I understood it better, but i really do think practice makes that happen. I don’t know how else to explain that, I don’t think we can try. It’s like you said, the practice practices us eventually.

That’s great, something de-escalates, becomes less tight, constricted, it sounds like from what you’re saying. 

Yeah, and the heart opens up a little more to the other person. This happens all the time in human relationships. You get this email with a tone that you’re uncertain about, and at first you feel like, oh, that person is saying such and such. And instead of reacting, you take a break, there’s another mindfulness bell. And then come back to it, you can kind of let go of the story that you have about that person. Maybe it’s someone you’ve had conflict in the past. And maybe you, or I can see it as my trigger. That was my own personal psychology at work there, I can now let go of that. And deal with this person who has their own particular way of seeing the world also.

That’s great, and that then has the ability to create a new opening in that relationship too. And the de-escalation, and then maybe a new appreciation.

Yeah, so often we encounter others except through the lens of our own stories. The more we can discern between what is my story, and what is your story, the more potential there is for an authentic meeting. 

How did you come about to explore Eco-Therapy?

I grew up as a barefoot kid, running around, and climbing trees. At some point that got closed of, and shut down, probably age 13-14-15. Whenever that happens. And I kind of moved indoors, probably a lot of stuff going on in my personal, and family life. Then when I was about 24/25, and married at that time, and he decided we needed to go to the Grand Canyon. And I didn’t want to go. I had pulled away from nature in a way that I was unaware of. But we went..

So we went down into this canyon, and I’d been afraid of everything in nature. Like some young women are. I was fragile around it. I was taken into the Grand Canyon, and it was this process of stripping away culture for me.

We entered in at Lees Ferry (part of Glen Canyon), as most people do..and we had these oarsmen who were wild men. It was cold and rainy, I hated it, and thought it was the worst thing in the world. We had to hike out of Bright Angel, due to half of a trip pass. And by the time we hiked out, I was begging to stay and go on with the rest of the guides. Something happened to me in that canyon.

I think it was just the awakening of the senses. I was touching rock, seeing wildlife, feeling the river, the sky, the sun. We were open and in nature. I had not seen or felt what I had been missing. And so that experience stayed with me. I started camping much more. We continued to go back to the canyon. I became much more the person I was supposed to be.

Eventually that relationship ended, I went back to school, where I got a degree in Eco-Psychology. I was interested in the field of psychology, but not so much interested in working in a confined room/office. Which I tried to do for 3 years, but eventually taking my practice back to eco-therapy and eco-psychology. Practicing in context with the world.

So what is the main difference between eco-therapy and eco-psychology?

Eco-psychology is the academic field that i’m in, and Eco-therapy is the way that it’s practiced. Applied eco-psychology. There are some other nuanced difference, but I like the term Eco-therapy because it’s readily understandable and gets away from the world psychology.

(Below a short video from the Eco Belonging web site)

How does that work in practice, do people have some eco or nature deficiency, and then get referred to you, how does that work?

I do have some referrals with therapists in the area, who think it would be beneficial for their clients. A lot of work is coming out in hospitals now, that this is a good adjunct to certain illnesses that people have. You know that is one of the biggest challenges in this field is, how to help people see the difference between doing eco-therapy, or going to a therapists office.

We have found that working with other groups, or with other types of things is the best way to go. One of the things I do, is write a lot about the topic. I used to write to eco-therapy news and I’ve written for restoration earth journal and an anthology for the topic. And so that’s one area where it’s a big educational piece, to try to join it to other things.

The other thing i started doing is when I started our Zen practice group here, we are moving it towards becoming a green Sangha. Introducing a little bit of Thich Naht Hahn’s materials, he has the “holding earth” idea.

We’re also taking people camping. My husband is a psychotherapist, he works with couples. So one of the things we’ll do is taking couples out. This is a great way to work with couples, combining his marriage counseling with the eco-therapy. It gives it a context, and gives them something to hang what they know about therapy, and yet we can do it outside in nature. And so they like that piece of that. They’re getting something that they know about, and they also get to go kayaking, or whatever it is that we’ve concocted to help them experience nature.

You mentioned taking folks outside. What else do you do with your clients to change their relationship with themselves, those around them, and nature?

Sure, I have a 6 part series that I do with people. So there are 6 sessions. I’ve extracted some Buddhist ideas, which has to do with the senses. And I’ve also combined it with Shinrin-Yoku. A Japanese forest immersion practice or forest bathing”. It is a way of using the sense roots, in Buddhism, which is part of the Abhidharma. So the sense roots would be the eye and sight, ear and sound, nose and smell, taste, touch, and mind.

I’ve taken each of these senses, and made a practice that they can do out while we’re outside, partly when we’re together, and part at home on their own. So they can do their own micro quest with that particular practice. And really help themselves open that particular sense up.

And then these build on each other. And eventually we get to the 6th, which is the mind. It’s domain is thinking. So mind and thinking. That would culminate this initial series with.

The mind in the west is pretty much the primary organ that is paid attention to. Which is why it’s so dominant, so how do you treat that in your eco-therapy session?

First of all we distract from the mind, by taking people out. One good way is getting people out of their shoes. Just getting them sensing, touching, and feeling. And in that process dropping stories. Just coming to direct visceral contact.

And eventually when you get to seeing the mind as yet another sense-root, you can also see thinking as something that is like a sense, you can drop it.

What are seeing people reaction to that, do you see people have reactions to that? Do they resist?

Some people are resistant to that, just like me. And very often..can’t talk about individuals, but I can talk about folks I’ve paid attention to outside my practice. I find that they experience a sense of joy in the connection. When they have a contact with something wild, or something that’s not in their normal domain. And when they feel their mutuality/relationship with that other being, that more than human being. And this really sparks in us both what’s missing from our lives, and our need to reconnect.

It instills a desire hopefully to continue these re-connection practices.

Do you give them assignments to go out every day to reconnect with those senses? 

Ideally that’s how it works. One person I can talk about, she passed up her porch swing everyday for the last 3 years. They put in this beautiful porch swing. And after this retreat she was adamant, she was no longer going to do that. She was going to enjoy her porch swing.

Other people have different experiences. We had a couple kayaking, and it brought up their relationship difficulties. And they were able to sort through some of those things. One person needs to steer on the rudder in the back, and another needs to paddle. They need to paddle in unison with each other for it to work! They’re metaphors that can happen in the process of taking people out on adventures.

So it gives them insight where they’re stuck in their relationship…

Yes, it did. Actually my own husband and I we got some insight into our relationship on that trip too (laughing).

What kinds of mental illnesses are particularly benefited by taking part in eco-therapy?

There is a lot of research coming out, for those who are inclined to the western way of thinking. Mostly from England, Scotland, Ireland, and Finland. And they are showing actual quantifiable effects. Decreases in anxiety and depression, increased immune function. They’re finding that people who exercise outdoors, what they call Green Exercise. It helps people to have better stamina, when they’re outside, working out. they found a reduction in ADD symptoms, that focus is improved from increased contact with nature. And even improvements in self-esteem.

That’s great, you can’t go wrong with that. I saw one (2007 study from the University of Essex in the U.K), which found that a walk in the country reduces depression in 71% of participants. (The researchers found that as little as five minutes in a natural setting, whether walking in a park or gardening in the backyard, improves mood, self-esteem, and motivation.)

So the challenge is that not everyone is aware that this is solution they can use right now, they can go outside…

Yeah, it’s a challenge because I think people can get kind of bored after a while, if they don’t really understand how to connect outside..Because we’re of of practice, and we’ve also been conditioned by a culture that needs us to be dependent on what it gives us. A constant stream of entertainment, media, maybe sugar…. (laughing)..I struggle with that…things like that.

So I think this dependence on this culture detracts from our ability to go out and fully experience the subtleties that nature has to offer. Also I don’t think we understand how much reciprocity there is in nature. That it’s actually giving to us, as well as us giving to it, her/him…There’s so much to this.

Like you said, I don’t see Facebook anytime soon asking people to go outdoors. They do not want people to leave their platform, and their sugar, and whatever else..

Right, and that is where I think mindfulness helps. And having a little bit of stamina to sit and stay with something..You know there’s a good story by Eve Ensler. She wrote the vagina monologues, and in her more recent book, In the Body of the World, she talks about her experience with cancer.

The only salvation is kindness.

Eve Ensler

Eve Ensler ended up in a hospital being treated for her cancer. And after treatment was so debilitated. She didn’t have the strength to watch TV, or check her text messages, or do any of the things that we’d ordinarily do to distract ourselves from the pain that we’re in. And in her hospital room out her window, she could see a tree. And this is a person who left a rural area for New York City, and said she hated trees. She wasn’t going back. So here she is, stuck in her own situation with no other outlet, and here is this tree.

There’s a beautiful distillation of this story on brainpickings about what happens to her as she interacts from her hospital room with this tree. Staring at the bark day after day, and getting to know the bark. Then staring at the shiny leaves. Then near the end of her stay the tree blooms. It had a profound impact on her. She found a lot of healing both emotionally and metaphorically she was able to understand her relationship to the tree and all that had happened. And also as she was fighting cancer to her own body. So it’s a great story and example.

You see these stories in the literature. Like Derrick Jensen’s book,  A Language Older than Words. His own story of childhood sexual abuse by his father. And the ways that his relationship to his father, and a mirror of what we’re doing to the culture plays out in the book and his own personal healing.

And a more recent book, H is for Hawk, by Helen McDonald, about grieving, the death of her father. Beautiful stories about the ways people interact with nature, and find the deep spiritual, emotional, and physical healing.

Ideally we’d teach this ability to recognize this at an earlier age then when someone gets cancer right? How do you think that’s going to happen in the future?

Little kids already have this, and humans in general already have this knowledge. To me it seems that what we’re doing is we’re training them out of it. And so it’s a good question. I do believe that we’re seeing more, my ears are attuned to hearing stories about nature. And I was at a writing retreat last weekend. And many of the stories that people were compelled to tell each other, had to do with like, “well there was a squirrel dragging a giant mushroom around.” This is at a retreat center in the woods, so there was a lot of nature around there. They were able to go around and walk.

Another story i heard was, “Well a deer chasing a coyote!” And you know one story after another about their interactions with nature. So it gave me some hope that people are interested in nature. When you hear people tell stories like that, and you’re listen to them, you’re hearing something about their longing for what is wild. And what is not so domesticated.

So I think if somehow we can speak to this longing that they have, we can help turn people toward…yes.. this is our desire to be back in relationship with the natural world. I’m trying to do this on all the fronts that I can think of to do. I think people know it, they don’t really know how to do it. If I can get someone in the door, then we can work from there. But we have to write, blog, and talk about it. I love taking people out, and immersing them in it. And that’s what happened for me, and I think that is a really good way to support somebody to sort of peel off those layers that they’ve gathered from the culture.

And the wall that’s build up between them and nature. To take down that wall. 

Yeah, take it down or play with it. There are many things we can do to interact with it,  in a way to help it come down.

Do you have any remaining thoughts on how someone can benefit from nature. Maybe some remaining ideas they can explore to reconnect…

Pay attention to those moments when you encounter wildness and pay attention to what that feels like.

I was walking around the arboretum in Seattle the other day, and encountered a young couple who had just got really close to a great blue heron. They didn’t even know what it was. They came out of it, and had this delight on their faces. And I questioned them a little bit about this. It was clear that they didn’t have a lot of contact with nature, but they were sooo happy! That they got to see this bird up close.

I would say, really attend to and pay attention to those moments. It’s really important that we all recover and bring rich non-human environments into our lives. To learn as much as we can about it. Whether this is gardening, or photography…This is an activity, that gets you to put your shoes on, and get out the door. And we need something like that in our lives. That not only gets us out into the woods and enjoying it, but go out and do something that will really motivate you, whether it’s gardening or kayaking, something that makes you want to do it.

Because that is going to give you the long sustained contact with nature that will get you thinking in a different way. And to experience your own wild nature, and to also experience the domesticity. How domesticity is affecting your life. Because if you do that, you won’t tolerate animals that are caged or in factory farms. It’s going to wake up the heart. Because there’s a lot in the natural world, that wants to speak to us. If we can develop these ears to hear. 

Thanks so much!



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 005 Mary Webster Vipassana Meditation Teacher Interview

MF 005 Mary Webster Vipassana Meditation Teacher Interview

Mary Webster Vipassana Meditation Teacher Interview

This is a summary of the interview with Vipassana teacher and practitioner Mary Webster

Mary Webster talks about growing up as an introspective and day dreaming child. Later in life she picked a career in mental health nursing. She noticed her mind was in an either/or right/wrong mind set. And this black/white thinking bothered her, and h ow it affected her and raising kids. This is how she got into meditation, went into her first 3 day meditation retreat in 1995.

She joined a Vipassana tradition, called re-collective awareness, which is a form of Vipassana meditation.   It is based on the 4 foundations of mindfulness. She talks about how it is an unstructured tradition, so a lot of thoughts come in. But then they look at it afterwards to examine conditioning. They look at the way the mind works in terms of habitual thinking, making assumptions, like “this or that” thinking.

She’s learned to be more open and nuanced in her thinking, and is better able to examine her thinking habit patterns.

She learned that it was a beautiful how not being so sure of one’s position allows you to open up and hear other people’s thinking. Which helps tremendously when communicating and dialog with others, such as your kids. It allows for a different relationship to develop.

It’s really an exploration what is going on in our minds.

Mary talks about some of the personal benefits of her meditation. For example being a lot less self-critical. Letting go of perfectionism, she could see how this is just a construction, this illusory goal of perfection. She could see through the delusion, that there is no such thing or state of perfection.

Her meditation practice opened her up to her humanness and her own suffering, which is part of being human. We each have our own, and meditation practice helps us deal and incorporate. She felt OK and learned compassion for herself to be a human being. Which in turn allowed her to be more compassion for those around her, to be more friendly, and more open to ideas.

She then talks about her role as teacher, and what she sees her students struggle. But she also sees how we all suffer in a similar way.

Holding on to something so tightly, a sense of our-self, a sense of how things are supposed to be.  That we somehow solidify our experience, and don’t allow for an exploration of the movement that is around that solidity. We tend to hold fast in a certain way.” (11 min)

The work with students is around what is held solid?  So then they explore what the mind was doing with the student. What was exactly happening? A lot of this work is breaking down words. Like breaking down the word “perfect”. How does this example of a word show up in one’s life, how does it “hook” you. Breaking down the experience in less defined way, and more full of the experience, not to shortcut our life so much.

She talks about the stories, the narratives, we have made up about our lives (or life-sentences we give ourselves).

She says Buddhism is one huge investigation, a way of examining our lives. It calls into question everything. Meditation allows you to examine life at a gentler pace.

She talks about how our set ways we have, set us apart. This sense of separateness is setting up ourselves into a position, so everything becomes positional. In the flowing river of life, that would be the log that gets stuck in the middle, and then everything has to adjust around it. She talks about shifting that, working with the knowledge of conditionality, so we can take up and promote more wholesome conditions.

She also asks what conditions help us, what conditions do we put in our lives? What conditions help us continue our practice? Watching what we put into our minds and then noticing how this influences and affects us afterwards.

She talks about the importance of taking some time out every day for self-reflection and meditation. Retreats are even better.

What is production, is it only “work put out”? Or is it more than that? We get caught in thinking, “if I’m not producing something that shows, then it’s not worthwhile.” She uses the example of Einstein taking naps and end up more productive.

Mary Webster’s tips for starting a home meditation practice.

  • Being gentle with yourself
  • Trying various times to practice
  • Try to meditate like when most upset.
  • Read a little bit of Dharma (wisdom) every day if possible, just let the words enter in even if you don’t necessarily understand.
  • “Conditions are the companions you have along the way”
  • She talks about how it helps to discuss with fellow practitioners, to have a supportive group if possible.
  • If you can’t find companions, “be your own companion”, do journaling after your meditation, write down what you can remember, which also helps your memory. So we can be our own friend. The journals can also be shared with a teacher through phone, skype or other means online these days.



MF 003 Author Gail Storey on the Spiritual Journey of the Pacific Crest Trail Hike

MF 003 Author Gail Storey on the Spiritual Journey of the Pacific Crest Trail Hike

Author and meditator Gail Storey hiked the Pacific Crest Trail with her husband Porter Storey

(Note: below is a summary, not the entire transcript of the interview)

Gail Storey has meditated since the seventies, and has also authored 3 books.  The Lord’s Motel, was praised by the New York Times Book Review as, “a tale of unwise judgments and wise humor.” Her second novel, God’s Country Club, was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection. She has won numerous awards, and her fiction, poetry, and essays have been widely published.

The book that is relevant to the Meditation Freedom podcast, and in which she talks about her experiences with meditation, mindfulness as well as perhaps the most awesome trails in the US, called the pacific crest trail, is a memoir called, I Promise Not to Suffer: A Fool for Love Hikes the Pacific Crest Trail. The book won a number of awards, the National Outdoor Book Award, Colorado Book Award, Nautilus Silver Award, and Barbara Savage Award from Mountaineers Books. It was praised by Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, as “Witty, wise and full of heart.”

I Promise Not to Suffer: A Fool for Love Hikes the Pacific Crest Trail is the hilariously harrowing story of Gail and Porter’s hike of the 2,663-mile trail from Mexico to Canada over the highest mountains of California, Oregon, and Washington. In their fifties, they carried Porter’s homemade ultralight gear to climb and descend twenty miles a day, trudge across the searing Mojave Desert, kick steps up icy slopes in the High Sierra, and ford rapids swollen with snowmelt. Through the permeable layer between self and nature,  they walked deeply into the wilderness of love, and the question Who am I?

A former administrative director of the University of Houston Creative Writing Program, Gail now writes, hoopdances, and jumps out of cakes, not necessarily at the same time.

She writes:

“I have a hunger to hike the whole trail” , Porter (Gail’s husband asked her), “It’s been growing in me for years, intensified by the work with people living their dying. But what keeps you going?” [Gail writes] For once I was at a loss for words. What wanted me out here? Not my body, it was falling apart. Not my thoughts, alternately confident and doubtful. Certainly not my emotions, unreliable in their swings from high to low. I wanted to be with Porter, yes, but even more, I felt inseparable now from the vast green and blue and white of the wilderness. I looked out on the lake, shimmering under the moon. I was as sturdy as the trees. I flowed over obstacles like water over rocks. I was as solid as the mountains, as clear as the sky. The wind blew through my heart. I was what knew the wind. What knew the world was here in me, pulsing in the trees, water, rocks, mountains, moon

Questions asked in the interview with Gail Storey

I’d like to start with how you got started on a meditation path, what prompted you to start thinking of doing a meditation practice? and why Buddhism?

You did some long retreats, how did those retreats and practice help you in our daily life?

Moving on to a different type of meditative retreat, let’s talk about your book, “I promise not to suffer, A fool for love hikes the Pacific Crest Trail”.

When you and your husband Porter where thinking about this epic trip along the Pacific Crest Trail, you were initially not totally thrilled with spending time in nature, as you say on the first page of your book, you “never much cared for nature, or rather, thought it OK, as long as it stays outside”. Was it the sense of your own mortality, as well as the circumstances (Porter quitting his job) or also those years of practice influence your decision to join your husband? (since you couldn’t join him on the Appalachian Trail).

Besides spending alone time, and relief from stresses of career, was it also nature that was calling you?

As you went further down the PCT, your relationship with nature changed…

You also mentioned that you wanted to fully experience each moment, instead of the endless “Cartesian chatter” as you call it.

You wanted (as you mention on page 94) the wilderness to make such claims on my body that my thoughts would settle like silt on the bottom of a lake.

Maybe you can describe a bit the experience you had on the trail, starting with suffering. As the book said, you made a distinction between pain and suffering. Explain what you mean with that to the audience.

Where you no longer had a clear sense of inside/outside. Where your persona, your face (as you say), everything dropped away, and your relationship or identification with nature transformed.

How has this affected your sense of authenticity?

Your husband Porter called it a vision quest, what was the main insight he got from this trip?


You can find out more about Gail:

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