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 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.
MF 39 – Bringing Stillness and Peace between Police and Community
Cheri Maples is a dharma teacher, keynote speaker, and organizational consultant and trainer. In 2008 she was ordained a dharma teacher by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, her long-time spiritual teacher.
For 25 years Cheri worked in the criminal justice system, as an Assistant Attorney General in the Wisconsin Department of Justice, head of Probation and Parole for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, and as a police officer with the City of Madison Police Department, earning the rank of Captain of Personnel and Training.
Cheri has been an active community organizer, working in neighborhood centers, deferred prosecution programs, and as the first Director of the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence. As Past President of the Dane County Timebank, Cheri was instrumental in creating its justice projects – the Youth Court, which is based on a prevention and restorative justice model; and the Prison Project, a prison education and reintegration initiative supported by multiple community groups.
She has incorporated all of these experiences into her mindfulness practice. Cheri’s interest in criminal justice professionals comes from learning that peace in one’s own heart is a prerequisite to providing true justice and compassion to others. Her initial focus was on translating the language and practice of mindfulness into an understandable framework for criminal justice professionals. Cheri’s work has evolved to include other helping professionals – health-care workers, teachers, and employees of social service agencies – who must also manage the emotional effects of their work, while maintaining an open heart and healthy boundaries.
(video above is a sharing or dharma talk by Lay Dharma teacher Cheri Maples during a 21-Day Retreat)
Cheri holds a J.D. and a M.S.S.W. from University of Wisconsin-Madison and is currently a licensed attorney and licensed clinical social worker in the state of Wisconsin.
(This is a summary transcript, listen to the episode for the full conversation)
What brought you to a meditation practice?
Either series of coincidences or perhaps miracles. I was certainly open to it. About 7 years into police career, was a street sergeant at the time. Had a back injury, from lifting a moped out of a squad car. Went to chiropractor, and in her waiting room she had the book, Being Peace. This got Cheri interested, started reading her own copy. Then she found a flyer for a retreat in Illinois, in 1991, and decided to go to this week-long retreat.
In those days Thay or (Thich Nhat Hanh), translated as teacher. In those days Thay did everything. Dharma talks by Thay, questions and answers. And they were taught sitting, eating, and walking meditation. It was lovely to stop and she got very interested in the practice. So she started practicing. She didn’t understand Buddhism very much. She had an intuitive understanding of it from practice.
Where there moments during this retreat for you that sort of woke you up?
There were several. For example, during eating meditation the first time she did it. She was such a fast eater, especially as a cop. You try to get food in as fast as you can between the next siren call. Wolf it down as fast as you could before the next call. To actually slow down and taste my food, be with it, and think of where it came from. Was a wonderful experience.
It was sitting and walking meditation. Of course just watching Thay walking to a room is a dharma talk in and of itself.
Bells, there were beautiful bells, not just the bells that were invited (rang) in our sessions. But this was in a Catholic college campus, so we’d also stop whenever those bells went off. We’d stop and take three breaths when we heard any kind of bell.
That was also the retreat where I had some tough questions. I still had a chip on my shoulder. I didn’t want anyone to know I was a cop. Was sure I’d be pigeon holed and people assume what my politics are, and that I only eat donuts. So I didn’t say much.
The Five Mindfulness Trainings represent the Buddhist vision for a global spirituality and ethic. They are a concrete expression of the Buddha’s teachings on the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, the path of right understanding and true love, leading to healing, transformation, and happiness for ourselves and for the world. To practice the Five Mindfulness Trainings is to cultivate the insight of interbeing, or Right View, which can remove all discrimination, intolerance, anger, fear, and despair. If we live according to the Five Mindfulness Trainings, we are already on the path of a bodhisattva (someone who joyfully and wholeheartedly hears and participates in the “sorrows of the world”). Knowing we are on that path, we are not lost in confusion about our life in the present or in fears about the future.
1. Reverence For Life
Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating the insight of interbeing and compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to support any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, or in my way of life. Seeing that harmful actions arise from anger, fear, greed, and intolerance, which in turn come from dualistic and discriminative thinking, I will cultivate openness, non-discrimination, and non-attachment to views in order to transform violence, fanaticism, and dogmatism in myself and in the world.
2. True Happiness
Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to practicing generosity in my thinking, speaking, and acting. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others; and I will share my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need. I will practice looking deeply to see that the happiness and suffering of others are not separate from my own happiness and suffering; that true happiness is not possible without understanding and compassion; and that running after wealth, fame, power and sensual pleasures can bring much suffering and despair. I am aware that happiness depends on my mental attitude and not on external conditions, and that I can live happily in the present moment simply by remembering that I already have more than enough conditions to be happy. I am committed to practicing Right Livelihood so that I can help reduce the suffering of living beings on Earth and reverse the process of global warming.
3. True Love
Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I am committed to cultivating responsibility and learning ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society. Knowing that sexual desire is not love, and that sexual activity motivated by craving always harms myself as well as others, I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without true love and a deep, long-term commitment made known to my family and friends. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to prevent couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct. Seeing that body and mind are one, I am committed to learning appropriate ways to take care of my sexual energy and cultivating loving kindness, compassion, joy and inclusiveness – which are the four basic elements of true love – for my greater happiness and the greater happiness of others. Practicing true love, we know that we will continue beautifully into the future.
4. Loving Speech and Deep Listening
Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and compassionate listening in order to relieve suffering and to promote reconciliation and peace in myself and among other people, ethnic and religious groups, and nations. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am committed to speaking truthfully using words that inspire confidence, joy, and hope. When anger is manifesting in me, I am determined not to speak. I will practice mindful breathing and walking in order to recognize and to look deeply into my anger. I know that the roots of anger can be found in my wrong perceptions and lack of understanding of the suffering in myself and in the other person. I will speak and listen in a way that can help myself and the other person to transform suffering and see the way out of difficult situations. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to utter words that can cause division or discord. I will practice Right Diligence to nourish my capacity for understanding, love, joy, and inclusiveness, and gradually transform anger, violence, and fear that lie deep in my consciousness.
5. Nourishment and Healing
Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivating good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I will practice looking deeply into how I consume the Four Kinds of Nutriments, namely edible foods, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness. I am determined not to gamble, or to use alcohol, drugs, or any other products which contain toxins, such as certain websites, electronic games, TV programs, films, magazines, books, and conversations. I will practice coming back to the present moment to be in touch with the refreshing, healing and nourishing elements in me and around me, not letting regrets and sorrow drag me back into the past nor letting anxieties, fear, or craving pull me out of the present moment. I am determined not to try to cover up loneliness, anxiety, or other suffering by losing myself in consumption. I will contemplate interbeing and consume in a way that preserves peace, joy, and well-being in my body and consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family, my society and the Earth.
And someone asked me if I was going to take these 5 mindfulness trainings. And I said, I can’t take these, I’m a cop. During a question/answer session, I asked Thay about it, and that’s where he said. Who else would we want to carry a gun, but someone who will do it mindfully? So I took the 5 mindfulness trainings and joined a Sangha that was formed after that retreat. And slowly started developing a practice.
When you came back out into the world, it changed the quality and intentionality on how you confronted the day-to-day consumption of violence that police officers have to go through.
I don’t think anybody faces the consequences and results of poverty, racism, and violence on a daily basis more than cops. I had a very powerful experience right after the retreat that taught me a lot.
I came back to work, and I literally couldn’t understand why everyone had changed. Even the people I was arresting, it just seemed like they had gotten kinder in my absence. It was the energy I was putting out.
It was such a powerful experience for me. To realize that. It’s not like it lasted, but I did something that knew was very important for me, and that I could come back to.
I started realizing over time, we’re talking incremental changes here. That it was possible to start every call with the intention not to do further harm. Even if force was required.
Not to do further harm.
I have an example too that I wanted to talk about with you. Some time back I remember going to the airport to pick up my wife. I did not notice the speed sign, and went a little too fast coming into the airport. And a police officer stopped me and as he was walking to my vehicle. I recall being very still and peaceful place at that time. Perhaps I had come from a retreat as well recently. At any rate, my heart was calm in that moment. I could see the stress on the officers place. It was eye opening to me. I realized my own state of mind was then shifting his state of mind. I could see the tension drop off his face. It made me realize how important the quality of our being that we bring to every interaction and every encounter.
So true, love that example. It’s a powerful example how energy follows thought. What we tend to put out comes back at us.
So many of these awful things that are happening right now. The unnecessary use of deadly force. I often wonder in these interactions that happen. The main responsibility should be with the professional, but I often wonder if either person in the interaction was just able to calm down.
Just start turning that volume down, what would happen?
Whether it’s the police officer or someone like yourself, who’s trying to bring some stillness to that interaction. It makes a huge difference.
What you saw, is what happens a lot of the time. Police officers are taught to expect the worst from people. And they’re taught that their safety depends on it. That whole things needs to be reexamined.
And there’s already this kind of expectation of tension and plausible conflict just by the way the police officer has to not just figuratively put on body armor, but literally put on body armor.
Just imagine going to work, having to change, and with that change comes. I have small children, so kept things in a locker. You’re putting on a uniform. Before you even put on the outer clothing of a uniform with a badge. You’re putting on a bullet proof vest, gun-belt, weapons, you’re literally putting armor on. You’re preparing for work by putting armor on. Most places now require bullet proof vests, it’s not optional.
One of the things I wanted to explore. You know rational thinking often will say, you’ve got to be pro-active, and react (when someone provokes you, or in the case of a terrorist attack for example). But there’s something that happens (Thay calls that the miracle of mindfulness) when you inner disarm, when you bring that stillness in your heart, that then de-escalates the encounter, whichever encounter you then have. I think it can be extrapolated for example with wars as well, to all kinds of situations, like with the military and politics, where there’s a military reaction, rather than a calmer response to a provocation.
Well you see what happens. Thay would be the first to say, you can’t fight violence with violence. It’s so interesting, because I think..
Until we start learning from history, this will probably continue. We’ve just seen in the history books. Humiliating the Germans gave a springboard to Hitler. Then we bombarded Cambodia in ’73, which became fodder for the recruitment campaign of Khmer Rouge. and then the war in Iraq really led to Islamist fanaticism and the current crisis. As long as we continue doing what we’ve done, we’re going to get what we’ve always gotten.
What would this look like from the point of view of deep listening? To someone who might be looking at these crisis and provocations from the point of view of someone who is of the viewpoint that you have got to fight fire with fire, or else you’d be seen as weak. What ideas or advice would you have for someone who struggles with that.
That’s a really hard one. One is to recognize the responsibility that someone like the president of France has right now (This was recorded after the Paris attacks). As the US president had during 9/11. They need deep listening, people have to know that they’re not alone. There are times when you absolutely can’t let people, terrorists take over. But the answer is not bombing civilians, or tearing countries apart.
Someone who had interviewed all these ISIS people who had been prisoners, and what had motivated them there. And a lot of them were saying they’d lost their adolescence, because of the war. Lost all means of supporting their families, and a lot of it was plain financial, and some of it was hatred towards America for forcing them to live in a worn-torn country. And now we’re doing that to Syria. So what are the alternatives?
I’m not sure, but I am sure that we can’t continue to do the things we did. I do think that we need better intelligence, we need to understand the whole idea of interdependence. It’s not just an idea, we are all inter-related. What we do matters, what we do to ourselves and others.
There has to be some very careful thought about how to respond, and what is going to be the most effective response. We’ve learned over and over that that is not violence.
We can verify that in our own lives and with our practice, waking up, doesn’t matter what job we have. It’s the intention we bring when starting our day. If we come from a place from stillness and peace, and wanting there to be more love in the world. Then it changes our interactions everywhere.
So true. I was reading something by the Dalai Lama. He said, we’re all equal members of one and the same family. And the affairs of the entire world are our internal affairs. There’s a complete recognition of the internal and external, and how totally interdependent they are.
Can you imagine what it would look like if we had people running the world, who were mindful human beings?
Getting back to not letting ourselves get run over. It’s a different way for a police officer to come at a situation from a mindful perspective. Than carrying and using a gun is a compassionate action if you do have to use it. A different way to use a gun when coming from that place right?
Exactly the focus is always intention. What is my intention in this interaction. Is it to stop the violence to protect more people, or is it coming from a place of anger and vengeance and punishment? Those are two very different places to start an interaction with. Whether it is with an individual or with another country.
That’s one of the reason I appreciate what you’re saying. A lot of people would look at Buddhist practitioners and peace activists and they would ask. How does this apply in real situations where there is a threat and you do need to save someone, and it may require force to do handle that situation.
And folks need to understand that there are some encounters that demand the use of force. But again, not as many as people think. And this includes from the police officer’s perspective, and the militairy. And it can be done in a manner again from where the intention is. It can be done for the good of the most people possible. What would that be, what would that look like?
There’s a Buddhist parable. There was a captain of a ship, he had some 200 people on board. And he realized that this one guy who came on the boat, was going to do great harm to this people. Very mindfully he actually killed this man. And in his act he said out of love and compassion and to keep him from having to live with the karma of what he was doing. Very different intention, or very different place to start that interaction from, than most people would start from.
How would you work with the current situation where the police and the African American community are at odds in some places. How would you change that on a systemic level?
People have to understand that this is not a police issue. Questions have to be asked, why is racial profiling happening? Why is it happening. How is this happening in my own organization? Where are the individual and organizational decision making points were race is and can be a factor? And that is certainly. Race is and can’t be a factor in deciding who to stop. That is where it starts.
But this is not just a question for police officers. This is a question for all of us. How do we become more aware of the conscious and unconscious bias operating in our individual and organizational decisions making.
How do we begin to monitor and shift the unconscious agreements that lead to racial profiling. So for example, there are many officers, I’m only talking about my own department. There were not many officers in my department who walked around with a conscious belief that one race is superior to another. But if you’re walking around with unconscious biases of any kind…
Let’s take it out of the race context. Let’s say I belief Ford drivers are more likely to commit traffic offenses than Chevy drivers. So I’ll put myself outside Ford dealerships and stop more Ford drivers. Put myself in a position where more Ford drivers are. And I’ll stop a lot more of these drivers. And because I stop more of these Ford drivers than Chevy drivers. And because I’m going to stop more of them, I’m going to arrest more of them as well. Which reinforces my own bias.
The analogies are obvious. What makes it worse is that the racial disparities actually gets worse at each point in the system. So they start with who’s stopped. The racial disparity is so clear there, its been researched extensively. Who gets arrested is another decision making point. Who gets actually charged, is another decision making point, in terms of who gets prosecuted. Who gets sentenced, and how they get sentenced, whether it’s going to be jail or prison is another decision making point. And then there’s all kinds of decision making points, once someone is actually incarcerated. In terms of conduct violations, parole, who gets treatments. List goes on and on.
So it’s Cheri’s (as a member working in the criminal justice system), it is my responsibility to define where those decision making points are. And to do what I can about them. It’s important for all of us, no matter where we work to do the same thing.
And what would you recommend an organization do to reveal to expose or reveal these subconscious beliefs, these implicit biases?
One of the things I would NOT recommend is a talking head up on the stage, and have a “diversity training”. People just get resentful about that. There are experiential trainings that can be really helpful.
For example with racial profiling. We know police officers have this mechanism for training, it’s called fast training. It’s with simulators where they have to make decisions whether to shoot or not shoot with these infra-red weapons. The simulators will mark if they make the right decision or not. It’s a training exercise.
So why not use this same sort of technology and have officers making stops, and talk through exactly what is going through their minds. And why they are stopping and for what reason.
The other thing that is very important, and can be done anywhere.
It’s not so much what the mission statement of an organization is, but what are the unconscious agreements, that peers, employees, socialize each other to. They’re usually unconscious, unspoken, usually not talked about publicly, you won’t find them on paper. It’s important to get people together and just ask questions.
For example, as a young officer the first thing I got taught is where to go to get a free cup of coffee. By the time I was a sergeant I was interested in examining that norm. It wouldn’t have done me any good to say, hey I’m ordering you to not go to that coffee store, because I know they give out free coffee, and I see 4 squad cars out there all the time. That would have been a joke.
But if I can get people together and say, Hey, I know from the time I came on the department, I was told that you could go to get free coffee there. So let’s talk about it. Is that OK? So I’ve had those conversations about that, and when they talk about that, they raise their own consciousness.
They might have disagreements, about it. But it is out there, and the norm is challenged. I think that’s how you work to change ethical climates in organizations. You bring unconscious agreements into the conscious arena of dialogue. You don’t tell people to do things, but you make inquiries.
But you are talking to some extent about challenging the status quo in some organizations. Not everyone would be open to that, especially a top-down type organization. In some organization, if you question anything, your career promotion is up for grabs. What would you say for those situations, where people are afraid to speak up, or bring up issues they see?
Until I rose through the ranks, and was a captain….Everyone works in a team, at least in policing. I was just talking to my 7-8 people team about this. But what they do matters, and that can have a ripple effect. They then talk to 7 or 8 more people. There are ethics scenarios that can be acted out with 20 people at a time. The order is already there, it’s in the policy manual, don’t accept free things. There are good reasons for that.
Think of the gossip that goes on in organizations. How many organizations have a culture where you try to recruit somebody to your viewpoint behind closed doors? A lot of time is spend doing that. What if people made an agreement not to gossip? I did that, it was the most satisfying wonderful work experience I’ve ever had.
I told them that they are the ones to take responsibility for refraining from gossip. So let’s all agree on that, if we all want that. And I used the fourth mindfulness training (see above). Basically I said to them. How would it be, since we all talking about not liking the gossip, and politics that goes on in this organization. If we made a decision to take a complaint directly to the person we had it with, or somebody who could do something about it.
You had some buy-in at this point?
I didn’t say, let’s do it. I asked everybody, what is the biggest source of stress, the major stressor in this organization? That’s what they came up with, gossip, politics in the organization. What if we did something just on our team. Not an order, that wouldn’t be effective. We don’t make an agreement, unless everybody agreed on it. Everybody agrees to police each other. And they did, and then they brought it to the recruits, and they bought in to it.
So you changed the organizational culture at that point.
It all started in 2002 for Cheri at Plum Village, where she was chopping vegetables with someone. She had this image of seeing police officers walking hand in hand, trying to make peaceful steps on the earth. And the person she was relating that image to, said, “Sure, you can make that happen.” You can make that happen!
Thursday, the day after she said that to me, with an FAQ session with Thay. Cheri asked Thay to come to a retreat for police officers. He said to me that we don’t need to wait 2 years to do a retreat for police officers. We can do this next year, so in 2003 there was a retreat for police officers. That woman does not know the ripple effects of what she said to me, she will never know what she started.
Her practice was so much part of her, it came out without hesitation.
It did. I can’t even remember her name, or what she looked like, but I can remember the impact that she had on me.
So here you have a complete stranger that started all of these ripple effects that have reverberated on and on.
Is this something that you’d recommend for all police departments. To have a yearly or so retreat?
I’m working with someone in the DC area to hold a retreat for police officers on the east coast next year. So I’m hoping that we’ll get a lot of people there.
One of the things in terms of deep listening and understanding that has to happen..I really believe that trust isn’t going to be restored between police departments and their communities without dialogue.
Police officers have to meet in small groups with community members, and we have to tell each other. Police officers have to tell community members, and community members have to tell police officers what it’s like for them.
And listen to each other. That has more of an impact than anything else I can think of.
At the end of the retreat for police officers, Thay asked to hear from police officers. I’d never heard police officers share like that in my life. And I’ve never seen a community respond to them like they did. That had a big impact on me. I think that has to be replicated.
And communities also have to put pressure on their police departments. They have to understand what it’s like.
But the communities also have to ask questions.
What is your standard for using deadly force? Police officers have the ability to use an employer state sanctioned violence. And communities have the right to know under what circumstances they’re using it. And why? And how it’s being trained for. And those are important questions that every community needs to ask.
Is there anything else you’d recommend to folks who don’t currently have a retreat to go to, where they can cultivate that peace in their heart-mind? When they step in their patrol car or wherever they are in situations of conflict?
To understand the cycle. So many people are either very hyper vigilant to keep themselves safe. Which produces adrenaline. Or multi-tasking like crazy. Especially people responding to trauma, there’s a lot of adrenaline that gets produced in those situations. The research shows that, that adrenaline pushes you out of the normal, and it takes 24 hours to return to normal. But people go back to work before that. So a lot of the time what people experience is this spike. They’re at the top of their game. They have humor, they can make quick decisions, they’re not procrastinating. Then they go home. They’re listless, don’t have any energy. They start to project that unto the people that are at home. I’m feeling better at work. At home is where I can’t make decisions, procrastinating, a lot of the things that look like depression at the bottom of that cycle. I see that over and over. There are people that have researched and talked about this.
Watering the Seeds of Joy
So one has to do some very pro-active things. And one of the most important things is watering the seeds of joy. What are the things that you really like to do? Here’s the trick though. If you wait until you feel like doing them, you’re not going to do them. But if you schedule them pro-actively, you will do them.
When you’re at work there are a number of things you can do..
Take 3 breaths….Each time you get a call, before you respond, before you do anything. Find reasons to take 3 breaths during your shift during your work. If you get a lunch break, you can get off the street, and chose to eat mindfully. If you’re in an office close your door and spend 15 minutes eating mindfully. Rather than eating on the computer or while driving.
The most important thing anyone can do is to develop a daily practice.To learn how to still and disengage from your mind, and to learn how to understand that your thoughts are not the truth. They are a result of your conditioning. When you really get that, things become very different. And you get that from being still, through practice, through learning how to be mindful. And there are so many tools available to us. Everyone can access to a podcast. There are so many people out there offering tools, so many tools in how to meditate, and learn mindfulness.
Read Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Keeping the Peace. The book which came out of the retreat for police officers.
I was thinking about my first retreat with Thay’s. Part of this is also self-acceptance. Especially in the west, we have the problem of self-loathing. That we don’t even think we deserve to get 3 breaths. Than that could be another obstacle.
That’s so important I think too. Pema Chodron says that she gets the same letter from everyone of her students in some form. And that letter says, “I’m the worst person in the world, help me”. And in some way it’s like that. And right away there’s one thing we can do about that.
We can undo what the Buddha called “the second arrow”.
In other words, for example, and event happens with me and my son that is extremely stressful and leads to suffering. That suffering is an event that has occurred. But if I start to say, “bad mother” to myself. That is suffering added to suffering. That is the second arrow, and the kind of suffering that we can control.
That is another thing that meditation and mindfulness help us do.
They help us recognize our self-talk. And it is so helpful to recognize our judgments. And they help us become friendly with ourselves.
For example, one of the questions that I started asking myself through meditation was, when will I be enough, and what would make me enough?
Another one I started asking myself, is what would I do in this situation if I didn’t have an ego? To protect, defend and build up. What would my actions look like?
This practice is not about a goal of enlightenment, it’s about transformation.
It’s about transformation and freedom.
Getting those arrows out of the way, is very freeing.
Learning not to shoot them in the first place, wouldn’t that be freeing? (laughing)
I just want people to take advantage of all the resources and teachers out there right now, so take advantage of them. Thay has so many podcasts out there as well. And I think retreats are so important. If you’ve never been to a retreat, it’s like an acceleration what you might get from 60 times of trying to meditate on your own. Not only do you get instruction, but you have other people, and you all contribute energy. You’re contributing to it, and you’re drawing from it. And you’re letting the details, the to-do lists, go for a few days, so you can totally devote yourselves to this. So find a retreat and go to it.
MF 34 – The Benefits (and Challenges!) of Self-Discipline in Cultivating a Meditation Practice
(This is a summary transcript, listen to the episode for the full conversation)
Kristina and I reflect on what it takes to cultivate self-discipline in our meditation practice. What are some of the challenges we have come across, and what are some of the benefits of doing a regular consistent practice. We start off with some quotes.
Self-Discipline is needed to get up out of bed early enough to enjoy the sunset, to enjoy the world waking up!
“Like a beautiful flower full of color but without fragrance, even so, fruitless are the fair words of one who does not practice them.” Dhammapada
“With sustained effort and sincerity discipline and self-control the wise become like islands which no flood can overwhelm” Dhammapada
This type of effort of course requires commitment, consistency, patience, courage, determination, and enthusiasm.
In, When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chodron understands sila/discipline to be a “process that supports us in going against the grain of our painful habitual patterns.”
She notes that:
“Discipline provides the support to slow down enough and be present enough so that we can live our lives without making a big mess. It provides the encouragement to step further into groundlessness.
….What we discipline is not our “badness” or our “wrongness.”
What we discipline is any form of potential escape from reality. In other words, discipline allows us to be right here and connect with the richness of the moment. What makes this discipline free from severity is prajna (wisdom).”
Self Discipline, or self-control has somewhat negative connotation in the west I think. But I wanted to talk about self-chosen discipline instead of externally imposed discipline.
Discipline is often associated with punishment. However, the latin root of the word means learning disciplina teaching, learning, from discipulus pupil.
Sure, there is a dark side of discipline that is too serious, too restrictive and narrowing. I think too much of that can lead to a separation, where it could move away from intimacy, and turn into too much coldness and detachment from the world, and therefor another type of separation.
That is not what we want to talk about today. Perhaps, calling it cultivation, instead of discipline. For example, the cultivation of moment-to-moment mindfulness sounds nicer than calling it, the discipline of mindfulness. But really what it means to me is simply to practice something regularly and consistently in a structure that I chose on my own volition (or my community), and make it a priority, make time for it.
For example, without discipline, we wouldn’t brush our teeth. But because we don’t like getting drilled, we decide to give some of our time to the discipline of brushing our teeth. (Kristina shares her thoughts)
For me, when I was a teenager, I wanted the benefits of meditation, such as peace, and equanimity, but I did not have the discipline, or some might say, serious enough intent and humility to practice regularly.
I didn’t realize how serious I would need to take the practice in order to really start transforming my afflictions etc. Now I’m not saying meditation is a serious practice, simply saying that we do need to take our practice seriously, but then enjoy and take joy in the practice. You can have both serious and joy at the same time, recognizing these opposites can co-exist at the same time is part of maturity.
Back then, I’d sit whenever I felt like it, do it with eyes closed, try multiple meditations traditions and practices at once, didn’t seek out a mentor, read a lot, etc. (Kristina shares her thoughts)
As I got into meditation formally, and got feedback from a teacher and a community of practitioners. This formal at-home, as well as community practice helped me see the various gaps in mindfulness, the times where I lacked of composure. Some might call those gaps leaks. And the practice is about doing our best to create a gap-less practice.
As I practiced more, I uncovered and became aware of more and deeper levels and areas where I was stuck, or clinging, or afflicted, or forgetful, etc. So that further provided the fuel and motivation to continue to practice. I’d become aware of the tendency to hold onto illusions of separateness, fear of change, desire to grasp onto illusions, “nostalgia for samsara”, clinging to solidity of image, etc. etc.
Can I see and treat each and every “thing” as a manifestation of the “mystery” and realize non-separation? Can I see or exclaim, “not-two!” whenever I see a flower, or perhaps a rapist, or terrorist? If not, I’d have to look even deeper, and see behind the mask, behind the veil, behind outward appearances.
Anger issues when things don’t go the way I expect or prefer. Sloppiness, forgetfulness, like forgetting keys, or forgetting to close the gate, can all lead to a lot of suffering. Not cleaning up after myself, not maintaining relationships or the possessions, etc,.
Each of those instances, are reminders to get back to practicing (or polishing that jewel that we all have). It also takes discipline to remain fully engaged in each moment, even when tired, sick, physically injured, or fatigued. It is so easy to start sliding into complacency, or some type of lazyness.
Jim Rohn says discipline is the bridge between Goal and Accomplishment. Dreams get you started, discipline keeps you going.
A mentor or teacher, community helps push us deeper into understanding. I talk some more on what I think of as non-rigid discipline. Kristina laughs and we talk some more.
What’s your sense of it, what do you make of self-discipline?
In this post I would like to share some practical ideas for how you can easily bring meditation into your daily work life. This might be especially helpful if your current workplace does not have a dedicated meditation room, or higher level endorsement of this beneficial practice.
I’ll show you how you can incorporate, “mini”-meditations and mindfulness at your place of work, without having to look weird, or needing a, “meditation room”.
This said, having a dedicated meditation room in the workplace would of course be a great asset and high level endorsement of wellness!
I don’t have Time to Meditate at Work!
You may think that you don’t have time to meditate at work! Sure, most of us don’t have dedicated chunks of time during the day to practice formal meditation.
No problem! Lets break down a workday, and see how you can get the benefits from meditation during your workday. Some simple techniques can help you stay fresh throughout the day, and also help you through that afternoon slump.
Most of our jobs involves a lot of sedentary sitting at a computer. But you still get up to go to meetings, or get some water, get your lunch, pick up your mail, go to the restroom, etc. Each of those transitions are opportunities for a quick mini-meditation!
A meditation does not need to be a certain number of minutes or a designated time to be of benefit.
Don’t take my word for it. Try it out and verify with your own experience right now!
Try this Mini-Meditation!
If you are sitting in an office, straighten your back if possible, with your head and ears in alignment with your shoulders.
Put your feet flat on the ground and feel the connection of your feet to the ground.
Lay your hands on your lap, so that your shoulders can totally relax.
Check your breathing, let the breathing relax as well.
Now close your eyes, especially if your screen is still on.
Take just 10 deep and conscious breaths, not hurrying it, or slowing it down on purpose, just 10 relaxed breaths.
Count on each in breath, so that for each in, and out-breath, it counts as one. You can count to 5 (each in and out breath counting as one, next in breath and out breath, count as 2, and so on until your count is at 5 or 10, then return back to one).
Add another 10 if you have another minute!
After you have opened your eyes, tell me you don’t feel just a little bit better!
In all likelihood these 10 breaths took you about a minute of your time. Now imagine doing this multiple times a day, maybe once an hour, and you start to see how this feeling of relaxation and recharging and refreshed clarity might benefit your day at work and into the evening and next day.
Breaking Down a Work Day
So, let’s take a workday and break it down to see where you can squeeze in some mini-meditations.
Going to Work
First going to work. Most of us get into a car, or you get into the subway, or perhaps you are walking or biking to work.
All of these transitions give you an opportunity to meditate if even only for a few breaths.
In the case of your car, be mindful of getting in the car and sitting down. Why not close your eyes and take 3-10 breaths before cranking the engine? Try it, and you will find yourself more intentional and conscious behind the wheel, which will also keep you safer and more awake on the road.
Now say you’re driving, if you like to listen to the radio, you could once in a while hit the pause button, or take a break from listening to the radio (maybe during a commercial) and again breathe consciously for 5 or 10 breaths at a time (there is more distraction while driving, so 10 breaths will be harder to keep track of at the same time you’re trying to be focused on driving.)
Another opportunity to do this simple breath meditation, is while waiting at a stoplight or traffic jam. Why not use the stop lights as small opportunities to meditate? Especially since they may seem like time wasters and may even be frustrating.
Make that waiting your queue to meditate, and become aware of how tempting it is to not want to be present in the moment, because you want to be at your destination.
These are all ways we can become aware of how easy it is to avoid the present moment, because there is always something better in the future to look forward to. The problem with that is that we then end up “missing our appointment with the present” as Thich Nhat Hanh has so wisely observed.
For the subway, bike, and walking meditation, use similar technique as explained above. Find something as your queue to do a short meditation, like waiting for the doors of the subway to close, or waiting at a pedestrian light.
Walking Meditation to your office
So those are some ideas of what you can do to incorporate meditation on the way to work. Same thing when you leave your car to walk into the building. Use the walk to your office to practice walking meditation.
This doesn’t mean you have to walk super slow; just be conscious while walking. Slowing down helps, as we do hurry a lot, and are overall as a species walking faster than we did a decade ago.
Pay attention, and hear the birds, or jackhammer, or cab honking, or fans above your head as you walk underneath them.
Notice your feet walking over the concrete. Notice your breath as you walk in various situations. Is it hurried as you walk over the boardwalk? Does it slow down as you walk on a quiet hallway?
Each breath is unique, and each breath will inform and teach you about how present, relaxed, or tense you are in that moment. Is your breathing coming from your chest or lower down from your abdomen?
The lower and more relaxed your belly and breathing, the more beneficial for your oxygen distribution and your well-being. If your breathing is tense and shallow, don’t worry, just keep practicing. It may just be tense in certain circumstances.
With consistent practice, it will over time get relaxed more often, and you’ll start enjoying the present moment more and more. This will happen even in parts of your life that you previously thought were “boring” or “tedious”.
Opening Doors Meditation
So now you’re at the office, how do you open the door? Is it conscious, or on auto-pilot? How do you greet your workplace by way of opening the door and entering into what is a Big part of your life? This stepping into your office may be a good time to internally think about some of the reasons why you are grateful to have this particular job (even if it is not what you want to do the rest of your life). Being grateful as you get in the office will help you feel good and more purposeful about why you are there at that time
It will likely also make your day go more smoothly, even when there are fires.
Sitting Down into Your Office Chair
So now you sit down or stand to start the work day. That moment of sitting down, just like in the case of getting into the car or subway, is another opportunity to take a few breaths and pay attention to how you sit down and go about your work day.
Check your posture, that it is upright and not tense. Same with your arms, if they’re tense from holding the mouse, it will manifest itself as tightness in your shoulders and neck and turn into repetitive strain.
Now the trick is to maintain that upright posture throughout the day. And of course it is very easy to get totally absorbed in your tasks and end up slumping towards your screen or sitting way too long at a time.
So here are a couple of ideas you can try to avoid that slump creeping up on your as the day wears on, which then can turn into fatigue, if not checked.
What has worked well for me while working in various job environments and continues to do so, is setting timers. I’ll link to a couple of options here. You can use a Youtube meditation timer, such as this 8 hour video, with a mindfulness bell or bells going off, every so many minutes.
You can also install a mindfulness timer app on your computer or smartphone, to help remind you to get up and move around or meditate for a minute or two.
I’ve also tried kitchen timers, however, the mindfulness bells sound way nicer!
One caveat though, if you use meditation bells too often, you may end up ignoring them. So vary them up if need be. And one thing I’ve noticed about a kitchen timer, is that if you use one that keeps on beeping until you reset it, it will force you to get up from sitting, and this will have the beneficial effect of forcing you to move. You can then utilize that pause to reset the timer as an opportunity to walk stairs, or do some stretches, exercises, or do some cleaning.
I’ve gathered all kinds of mindfulness bells and timers here on one page:
Once you have picked a mindfulness sound that works well for you, I would suggest trying different settings and see which one is most optimal for you.
For example, you could try a bell once every 30 minutes, or perhaps in a very demanding day, at least try once an hour.
If you can’t take a 5 minute walk, at least close your eyes in front of your computer, and just allow yourself to breathe for 10 or 20 breaths as mentioned earlier in this post.
As always recommended, please check your posture while doing that to make sure it is upright and awake.
This also has the added benefit of giving your eyes a break from staring at a monitor.
Getting Up and Walking is Crucial for Your Health!
Because extensive sedentary sitting is now known to not be healthy, and is now even compared to the harm of cigarettes. If possible, also try getting up for a brief 5 minute walks through the hallways or staircases of your office or office building. (An outside walk is of course even better. Try to fit that into your day routine as well if possible)
If you have staircases, great! Staircases are ideal, because they are very conducive to meditation. They are quiet, sparse in decorations (distractions), and peaceful. Give that a try! Stairs also have the added health benefits of being a good workout for your body.
If you have only a couple flights of stairs in your building, then just go up and down several times depending on how much time you have.
A consistent slower pace might be more conducive for meditation and mindful walking.
The nice thing about that, is that if you do this every hour or 45 minutes, that when you get back to your desk, your blood is flowing again, your brain is oxygenated, and you can then fully do another chunk of focused work again and be very productive!
You can also do the same type of quick mini-break whenever you walk to the restrooms, the water cooler, or fridge, and before a meeting.
By all means experiment, try things out, the idea is just to incorporate or weave small little mini-meditations throughout your day.
The restroom doesn’t just have to be a place to “get your business over with”.
It can also be a rest-room, where you can take a minute or two to meditate!
For guys like me, even when standing, you can still take an extra 5-10 breaths before finishing up. That’s standing meditation. Same when washing hands, and drying. I notice with many people, the whole procedure is hurried, and treated like an inconvenience. Especially when there are lots of thoughts and busyness in the mind, it will express itself in the way you wash, and dry your hands.
In my case, I often drink about a glass of water an hour, so that consequently meant about one restroom break every hour or two.
If you are a director or manager and you are having issues with unproductive meetings, try and incorporate a one minute meditation right before starting a meeting.
Allow everyone to enjoy some calm and a few moments of silence, and create a collaborative meeting environment where team members can feel included, whether they are extroverted or introverted. Create a conducive meeting environment where it is less about showing off and more about drawing out and giving room to each team member’s talent. Where attention is gathered, instead of scattered.
During lunch take notice of what you’re eating, really enjoy your food. And be mindful of how much you eat and how it affects the rest of your afternoon. If you eat mindfully, and slower, your belly will be able to signal that it is satisfied better, thus decreasing the risk of eating to much. Eating too much, or too much sugar may cause an afternoon slump.
See if you can repeat the above process of taking breaks in the afternoon. As you get better at it, notice how it may be harder to do the meditation/walking breaks in the afternoon.
If taking meditation breaks is more difficult, it is most likely because our will power decreases as the day wears on, we of course get more tired.
All the more reason perhaps to focus even more on these little breaks. It will much improve how you feel in the afternoon. Remember that by breathing fully and mindfully, it helps our brain keep oxygenated, which will help us feel more awake and fresh and available for each moment.
Be Kind to Yourself!
Lastly, be kind to yourself, don’t beat yourself up if you are doing this hundreds of times, and you don’t see whatever results you are expecting, or you forget to do it, etc.
I stumble with this practice all the time too. And it can be more difficult if your environment or job changes a lot. You’ll have to then develop new mindfulness cues and routines.
Just let it go, and try again at the next opportunity and tomorrow.
Start with one moment during your workday. With one thing that is easiest for you, and continue to incorporate more and more moments, or mini-meditations throughout your workday.
This mindfulness practice is a way of life, an ongoing process of becoming more aware and awake, not a goal to reach or something to cross of the list of things to “do”.
This is not about doing, it’s about learning to be here and now, and show up and fully appreciate your one and only precious life. In the process, you will increase your appreciation for everything else as well.
Enjoy the stumbles and discoveries of being forgetful and messing up. It is a wonderful gift just to be able to take a deep spacious breath and feel alive. And let me know if you tried any of this and what your experience was in the comments below!
Guided Meditation for Present Moment to Moment Attention and Awareness Cultivation with Sicco
This episode deviates from the usual interview episode.
Kristina and myself are in a time of transition. We’re moving to another state, hence I thought this would be a bit easier to do than arranging an interview. This is also based on request from several listeners. They wanted a guided meditation to listen to from my perspective, so here it is above (click on the link above to download or play directly in the web page).
Kristina and me trucking past Mt Hood
Please let me know what you think of this episode in the comments below!
Interview with Kenley Neufeld of the Deer Park Buddhist Mindfulness Community. Kenley was ordained in 2005 by Thich Nhat Hanh as a lay-practitioner in the Order of Interbeing with the dharma name, True Recollection of Joy. Kenley received the Lamp of Wisdom, permission to teach, from Thich Nhat Hanh in 2012.
This is a summary (not a full transcript) of the interview
What brought you to a meditation practice?
How did you get started with meditation?
Kenley took a world religion class in the late 80’s. Then in the 90’s he’d been participating in 12-step recovery process in San Francisco where he lived at the time. The program had a meditation portion. He then went to a Zen Center, and didn’t get into it. But after picking up a book, and sitting by himself worked better initially.
So it blossomed out of the 12 step recovery experience. He wanted to try meditation to get in touch with the spiritual side of his life.
Is the meditation offered as part of the 12-step?
Yes, some it’s part of the spiritual practice and some of the groups do it. To deepen our spiritual practice, and being able to sit still and be able to reflect on this thing called life, and the directions we want to go.
He just wanted to do a little more than was offered. It was an easy segway to explore for himself. He”s always been on a spiritual journey for most of his life.
Where there any particular struggles at the time?
It was more of a general spiritual search. He was taking his recovery very seriously at the time. And one of the steps is to explore meditation. So he was trying to explore meditation. Coupled with his experience with the world religion. His wife also gave him a book, “Peace is every Step” which also influenced Kenley.
As you practiced over the years, did you see other good reasons to practice, like finding it helpful to pay attention for example? Was there an aha moment?
It didn’t really come until years later. 1995-2001 he did meditation regularly, he like the way it helped him to stop and become aware of his body. It was still very rooted in the recovery program, it was part of the puzzle of being clean and sober.
But something happened that pushed him unto the high speed conveyor belt, moving forward on a path of mindfulness and meditation and transformed his being in a much more significant way, then all those years he did it on his own.
Yeah there is a big difference, between doing it on your own and with a community or group?
Yes, what happened is September 11, 2001 (the terrorist attacks for those unfamiliar). Kenley was quite traumatized on different levels. Some experienced the horror of the towers coming down, but also our response to that. That is what pushed him to see clearly how important community was.
He was drawn to, and needed to draw himself in to others who felt like they could bring peace, and be peace in the world. And he couldn’t do this by himself, or through the recovery program.
He needed to find a spiritual community that embodied that concept of being peace in this world.
So he went to the Deer Park Buddhist monastery in Escondido, California, and learned about being in community with people. And he went home to Fresno, CA where he was living, and started a Sangha (community).
And that completely changed everything for him, just sitting and being in a community and practicing with people. Allowed him to walk through this very dark time in American history. We struggled as a nation.
Being in a Sangha helped him to navigate that, and not let anger be the primary feeling in his life. He felt meditation could transform that anger from 9/11.
When you saw the reaction of a lot of Americans and the world. You wanted to respond in a different way than with anger..
And he was on tour at that time. And he was reading it, and he realized he had to do something different in his life, put more effort into what Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh’s nickname) is talking about.
He is a teacher who speaks extensively about Sangha. Community is so important to our well-being and society. How important the 3 jewels are, buddha, dharma (teachings) and sangha (community). Thay’s teachings on peace, social work, social justice work. That really attracted me to his community in particular, that’s where I decided to put my energy and time.
You also mentioned (as part of your commencement address), that a lone person shot up the UC Santa Barbara campus across town? How does loneliness contribute to the anger?
He was a student of this Campus as well. This goes back to the idea of community. The human being really craves to be together with others.
In this last century we’ve become disconnected from the roots of our families and communities. It’s so easy to move around, travel and live a thousand miles away from them. That was not the case earlier times. Not to say there is no suffering in those environments. All those elements build the support network that allows for us to see each other.
Not being seen builds this loneliness, coupled with mental illness can lead to those tragic events.
I do believe, we can work together as communities to bring a little bit more well-being into society. It starts with our own selves, with our own practice. How we’re able to transform our own suffering, our own loneliness, and being able to see with a different set of eyes.
Thay talks about looking deeply, to see you’re not a separate self.
Yes, the inter-being nature of all that exists. Essentially, we all come down to being star dust, all the way to the present. We have this relationship with this planet, there is no way to separate each other. Without the sun for example, a big thing that is clear, without the sun there would be no life. But that can all come down to our most intimate relationships. And how we connect with each other, the connection between the past and the present. Which can then inform the future.
Explain Inter-being a bit more for someone new to this?
For me that means there is this idea that there isn’t any separate self. I am because you are. Because there is this connection between us. Our relationship exists, my well being and my taking care of the plants, will bring well-being for more than just me. For everyone else as well. For example, on a physical level, the air in my house is exchanged between my family, my self, pets, plants, etc.
There is no separate self, this is one of the most deepest teachings of the Buddha. Thay says, we can’t have the lotus without the mud. There is this relationship with the lotus and the mud. That is that inter-being nature of all things.
What types of things do you still struggle with today?
I always need to come back to, and remind myself that meditation is not just what I do on the cushion in the morning when I get up. I spend my 45 minutes or so in meditation to bring awareness to my breathing, and look deeply at something in my life.
But what i try to remind myself is that that meditation is what I try to do each moment of the day, and how I wake up in the morning, how I walk across the floor, how I brush my teeth, How I prepare my meal, how I drive my car, how I interact with the people at work.
It’s not a struggle, more of trying to always remind myself that each moment is a moment to be mindful. And to be present for what is in front of me.
Just like we’re speaking right now. When misc thoughts arrive, like “why did I say that”, that could be going on in my mind when I talk with you.
Meditation is being aware that this is happening.
Recognizing that it’s happening, and
Letting it go…(without judgement)
If I can do that in all aspects of my life, then I walk more in a free way, can be more at ease with my interactions, and those things that go on around me. That’s what I try do with my meditation these days with varying degrees of success..
What advice would you have for folks who do struggle with those types of things, bringing their meditation, their presence, being fully present into their daily life?
The best thing we can do to support our practice, is to create an environment in which we can practice. I try to set up conditions and reminders, so that I can have that opportunity to practice. Whether a little sign by the sink that has a little Gatha, that reminds/tells him what to do when brushing my teach. So I set up a condition to allow that to happen in the bathroom.
I’ve trained my mind to have a little verse. When I wake up , i have a little verse, it took months, perhaps a couple years to automatically remember this when I wake up.
“Waking up this morning, I smile. Twenty-four brand new hours are before me. I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion and love.”
So that when I wake up, it just comes, it arrives. It takes some training, so start with a note. This also comes in my work environment. I want to be present for the people at work. I put the computer out of the way, so I have to really talk with them, not have that screen distraction. I keep my desk clear as well. Again setting up a condition, so that there is nothing there to distract me from being there for this other person. This is there for me, to remind me.
That is how I practice my mindfulness in each moment.
Do you also take out time-outs during the day to take a few breaths, (mini-meditations)?
Yes, he uses a computer program to call for him to stop occasionally and take a breath.
Walking Meditation at work
He also practices walking meditation when he moves between buildings on his campus. All it needs to do is bring attention to your breathing, and your footsteps, and avoid the texting, phones, etc, distractions. Keep that in his pocket, and enjoy the beauty of the environment where he works in. Avoid multi-tasking. It all takes discipline, a lot of years.
There are so many opportunities for practice.
The sitting practice informs the rest of the day, so that part is important. Looking deeply into my being, it would be more challenging if I did not do that. It would be harder to bring that awareness into other parts of my life without the sitting practice at the beginning of the day.
There is no such thing as multi-tasking. See research debunking the virtues of multi-tasking. It is really switching activities quickly, is not good for cognitive process. It could have long term impacts. Kenley has made changes in his physical environment to support LESS multi-tasking. Like turning off all notifications on his phone. It’s no good for it to be beeping at him every 20 seconds. He doesn’t need those constant distractions.
Thay is a good example, takes his time drinking his tea, and yet super productive, he’s written like 90-100 books now?
Yes, I look at someone like my teacher, with seemingly endless energy, almost 90 years old. So there is a way to do it, and be peaceful and free.
Having the mindfulness practice helps to ground myself, and know when to be productive, and also when to rest and take care of myself. To take it easy and not push myself. He’s definitely an inspiration. He’s currently recovering from a stroke.
What do you think Thay means, when he says, “The Buddha is the Sangha”?
He talks about the collective awakening we need, the power of the community. Like M Luther King, about the beloved community. We have this ability if we work together, to transform ourselves, our communities, and the world. We don’t need to go into dispair. There is this capacity to go beyond that. The “Buddha community”, being our capacity to live in harmony and transform our society and our world.
Also a not just one person responsible, co-responsible to awaken.
We all have this capacity to wake up, individually. Each one of us, we can do this together also.
Do you see this at your work, any movement towards mindfulness into the institutional culture, to the physical campus?
Yes, the wake up community 18-35 year folks. They will go out and offer programs, and lead meditations with college campuses. Kenley also does a meditation group on his campus, not affiliated with religious organization. Not yet a dedicated space yet. He’s always done it in his office so far.
It’s starting to happen more in the corporate world, with providing opportunities and spaces for employees.
Practice Centers also in Deer park Monastery (also in Germany, NY, Hong Kong, Australia, Thailand, and France)
Wake Up for young people (Wake Up is an active global community of young
mindfulness practitioners, aged 18-35, inspired by the teachings of Zen Master and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. They come together to practice mindfulness in order to take care of themselves, nourish happiness and contribute to building a healthier and a more compassionate society.)
This bell is a lovely sound to help harmonize our breathing and our body.
It’s an opportunity to come back to our true selves, to come back fully to this present moment in time.
To be able to let go of our worries, our projects, to come back fully to this present moment in time.
To be able to give all our attention to the sound of the bell.
Breathing in, I hear this sound of the bell.
When I invite the bell I have a verse (invite is a gentler term chosen then striking a bell)
Sending my heart along with the sound of this bell, may the hearer awaken from forgetfulness, and transcend all anxiety and sorrow.
You as the listener can come back to your breath, and be present, and listen, listen to this wonderful sound of this bell. Calling you back to your true home.
The following video was discussed in this interview, as a mindfulness tool for during an 8 hour work day. The bells will go off every 30 minutes, allowing you to take a few breaths, and a time-out, increasing your energy and productivity.