MF 48 – Mindful Communications with Gregory Heffron

MF 48 – Mindful Communications with Gregory Heffron

MF 48 – Mindful communications with Gregory Heffron

Gregory Heffron MFA owns and manages Green Zone Conversations Retreats. He is the only certified teacher of Mindful Communication authorized by author and Buddhist teacher Susan Chapman MA.

He has been teaching Mindful Communication workshops with Susan since 2009, and has been a mindfulness meditation teacher in the Shambhala Lineage since 2005.

In 2005, he apprenticed with senior Mudra Space Awareness teacher Craig Smith, and became authorized to teach this unique mind-body meditation technique. In 2007, Smith and Heffron taught this practice in a workshop for fourth-year students in the Dance Division at The Juilliard School in New York City.

His background is in creative writing, having earned an MFA in Nonfiction Creative Writing from the University of Iowa in 2003. He is a student of Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and lives in Santa Monica, California.

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

How did your path to meditation start?

When I was in my 20’s and had just broken up with my girlfriend. It hit me in just that way that shook my world. For a variety of reasons, I didn’t have any tools to work with that, I was into art and literature, done therapy. I just couldn’t quite hold it all together. I came to meditation like many people through struggle and pain and challenge. Luckily I knew some people in meditation groups. Shambala Buddhist meditation group.

It struck me as being a sensible thing to experiment with. They were kind enough to bring me along. It’s been 17 years since then.

When you got attracted to that particular tradition and practice, was there anything in particular that stood out to you in that tradition that helped you with your breakup?

I found there was something about just resting with my emotional experience, without having to resolve it. Without having to come up with the big solution. I think that was the most powerful part of the practice for me, even though it was quite difficult. Quite challenging. At that time I was going through a tumultuous time.

The more I did it, I gradually gained confidence, that it could be done. That I could sit in chaos and confusion, complexity, and the richness of my emotional experience. And that it was OK to do that. Instead of finding it to be something that violated the rules of reality. It was reality, and it was OK to feel really tumultuous. There is something calming and soothing and sensible about that, that I could handle complexity and chaos and not freak out about it.

And I imagine with most meditation practices, that is a big part, to learn to be comfortable with uncertainty, not knowing, not having the answers and like you said to be OK with chaos. Not something that most of us can just learn in a few periods of meditation sitting. 

Yeah, the length of practice, and repetition of practice is crucial. Otherwise it is sort of like picking up an exercise regiment and doing it for a couple of days, you just feel kind of sore. And you don’t get very far. But if you keep it up, something happens.

How did your practice evolve from there. Did you find it was helping you in other situations, or areas of life?

Sure..I found greater ease entering uncertain situations. Situations that were unclear, where I felt anxious. That was really encouraging.

I can think of particular situations, walking in somewhere, where I thought, “Oh boy, I’m really nervous”, and then feeling that bubbling energy, that anxiety. And then enter anyways, with a certain kind of equanimity. That was ground-braking for me. There was always that sense before that, of trying to stuff down my anxiety. Trying to suppress it, which of course only makes it worse.

Suddenly I had a different way to relate. That actually allowed me to at least feel a little bit calmer. So then I was inspired as I saw those results. So within a year I did a week retreat, and then as time went on, a month retreats, and longer and complex retreats as time went on. Until that whole process became more of a passion project.  I was really interested to see where this would go. And I still feel that way now.

So your continued practice is in part led by curiosity about what else there is to learn about this practice?

Yeah, which is what else there is to learn about myself. To some degree there is more to learn about the practice itself, but really. In a way it is just applying what I’ve learned so far. Relaxing into the practice….and seeing what I can see.

Since you talking about bringing your meditation practice into your daily life. You got into mindfulness and mindful communications. Maybe you can elaborate on how you moved into that direction..

In 2009, I met Susan Gillis Chapman, who’s a senior teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition. She was teaching mindfulness communications. She conceived that type of teaching from being a marriage and family therapist, as well as a Buddhist teacher who in the Shambhala tradition was in charge of one of the longest and most sophisticated retreats in our tradition, the 3 year retreat at Gampo Abbey. Pema Chodron put her in charge of that retreat. I met her after that period.

She with her range of experience not only as a therapist, but also, she worked in a  maximum security prison with sex offenders, she worked in domestic violence shelters. From this range of experience, she put together a unique set of materials, that she calls mindful communications. Which eventually ended up in the book, The Five Keys to Mindful Communication: Using Deep Listening and Mindful Speech to Strengthen Relationships, Heal Conflicts, and Accomplish Your Goals

I met her when she was starting to teach seminars on this materials. And she invited me in to teach a mind-body meditation that I have a background in, called Mudra Space Awareness that comes out of the Tibetan tradition. I was going to teach the mind-body component, and then she was going to teach mindful communications.

We did that for a few years, and in that process I began to learn what she was teaching. I wasn’t even sure at first. It was startling to me, the material she was teaching. It was based on the one hand on some of the highest Buddhist teachings, but it was also very pragmatic, very useful. You just felt like you had a way to understand very simple interactions and situations, that before had been completely confusion.

Maybe you can give a couple of examples, and elaborate on what you mean with Mudra Space Awareness….

It’s essentially an acute direct practice of experiencing your mind and body together. That comes out of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Rooted in Tibetan monastic dance training. That the monks would do in the monasteries in Tibet.

In terms of mindful communications. The easiest way to understand it is, that we’re already born with innate sensitivity to understand what is happening with our communication with others. That is the primary point of view. Not so much that mindful communication is building up a set of skills that you have to try to remember and get better. But actually in some ways it is the opposite process. That we are stripping down the kinds of habits that cover over our innate sensitivity to communication. That actually could allow us to steer very naturally, spontaneously, and accurately in our interactions with others. 

So do you have examples of habits or habit patterns that cover up what we already innately have available to us. 

One of the ones that causes the most trouble for most of us, is not recognizing certain primary states in communication. Like for example, failing to recognize when communication has shut down between ourselves and someone else. For whatever someone has broken off communication. They might still be in the room, or even speaking with us. But we can feel that something has broken down in the communications. Up until that point, there was a kind of natural interchange. We have this natural open kind of communications that we naturally carry out with others. Like over the counter in the post office or grocery line. Very simple, nothing elaborate.

And yet, there comes a moment where that can break down, and we feel it. We feel it almost immediately. We said one thing, someone thought we said something else, and they’re offended.

A miscommunication…

Or we said something, and someone didn’t hear it, so they don’t respond to us. There are a variety of ways that communication breaks down. Maybe they are overwhelmed. And whatever we said makes them even more overwhelmed. So they just tuned us out. That is a good fundamental example to go with.

You’ve spoken and someone is not responding, and there is that gap, where we don’t understand what is going on. Usually in that moment, we feel anxious. There is a subtle, a feeling of being socked in the gut. A vacuum in the room emerges, where that happens…”Now what should I do…not sure what’s going on.. is the sense. ”

What most of us do out of habit that causes trouble, is that we plow forward, as though it wasn’t happening. If what we said overwhelms that person, we might say it again, or saying it louder or elaborating more. Which of course makes this other person feel even more overwhelmed. So communication shuts down even further.

Or could be defense. Or we could cut it off. Because they didn’t respond, we feel like I’m not going to speak to this person again, now they’ve offended me. There is a variety of things, we could try to seduce them into being more friendly, or tune them out, or become angry.

All of this misses the point. The reality is very simple, there was a communication breakdown, and we felt it. No-one is telling us what is going on. We can actually feel it. It doesn’t mean we know what is going on at some deeper level per se. But we’re pretty good at knowing what is going on.

Just being willing to be mindful at such a moment is incredibly powerful. To stop the forward momentum, and just be curious. Just explore…like looking at this person’s face. If they are speaking, listening to the tone of their voice. Paying close attention to our self, to our own emotions that are rising up. Maybe we do start to feel anxious, and then feeling that. Being willing to let those feelings come through, because they are information. They are our own sensitivity.

In many ways, and in our many interactions with others, we have this sensitivity, that could allow us to slow down, and become a little more careful. And steer more accurately. But we have to remember to let go of our patterns, our habits that we build up over time.

I think it’s good you elaborated on the various things that can happen in those few moments. When you pause enough, those things can happen, but if you don’t know how to pause, that can bring problems. The ability to pause is a huge component of that. 

It’s very radical to pause. In our retreats we do a pause practice. Where randomly we ring a chime. When people are in small groups, and talking, and the instruction is to just stop for 3 breaths….nothing. Getting used to being interrupted by something unexpected..and then you resume. It’s just life interrupts us. Instead of that being a bad thing, often the idea of being interrupted in communications is upsetting. Instead, if we can reverse that tendency.

And feel that being interrupted could allow us to restart fresh. And tune in a little bit more. 

And a big part is too that a lot of us forget to breathe deeply. Just that mindfulness bell is a wonderful opportunity to get back to your breath, the here and now, your body, everything….

Absolutely, I think it’s originally adapted from Thich Nhat Hanh. Susan calls that a positive interruption. In communication we could have positive interruptions.

Interestingly enough, when we get really fixated, stuck and trapped in our habits, sometimes the best thing possible is a positive interruption.

Suddenly a hummingbird flies by your head..You’re in the midst of something, like being shut down, angry or whatever, and suddenly something just breaks you out of it. It’s not something you can organize or plan for, but you can go with it when it happens. It could just be the taste of your coffee. While you’re upset or trying to be upset, and you get interrupted. You realize suddenly your coffee just tastes so good! For an instant you forget to be furious. We can take these opportunities and go with them. Start fresh.

In terms of mindful communication. You’ve already mentioned curiosity, listening with full attention, giving full attention. Which is also a good skill to learn. A lot of people have a hard time listening to someone else, without having agendas, maybe preparing a counter argument at the same time while the other person is speaking.

Right..The fundamental material that is in The Five Keys to Mindful Communication, covers this somewhat systematically. But essentially, just being present is one whole set of skills. And then listening is one whole set of skills.

There’s 2 ways of listening. There’s listening at a level of accuracy and information, the content of the conversation. And then there is listening at a heart level, to the emotional truth of the conversation. Which includes things that are maybe not spoken, but that you can feel them as they change.

And then there is skills around speaking, and being able to be truthful, without neither exaggerating, nor suppressing. How can we say true things without being either harsh or coy about them. So there is training around all these different elements.

Is this training that someone would do over the course of a period of time, or.. what does that look like?

We offer courses, from just a talk, or for that matter reading the book on your own, to longer retreats, like weekend retreats, or 5 day retreats. These are all on our web site Green Zone Talk.

But they do need to be worked with, and trained with. It’s easy to think about all this stuff, but much harder to get it down into your bones so to speak. So that when you’re in a challenging situation, you can apply them.

Making it part of a natural response or muscle memory that you’ve trained yourself in..

And I’ll add that one of our fundamental trainings is mindfulness meditation. If we can’t connect with the present moment, and what is arising in our senses, in our emotional faculties, what’s arising in terms of our thoughts. Then there is nothing to work with. We have to connect first and foremost with the present moment.

Anyone of us who’s done mindfulness training knows, we have to train! If you don’t train, you lose the acuity. You lose the richness of that connection, that has tremendous potential if we develop it. And then if we do develop that, then we can aim that awareness in various directions, including towards communication.

Since we’ve had such a contentious election. Maybe you can walk the listener through this example. You’ve got two groups, one on the right, and one on the political left, and they start discussing politics. And within no time at all, people part ways in anger. Walk us through how someone might approach this using your mindfulness communication techniques. 

That’s a great topic right now. So many people are deeply distraught over the level of discord in this election, and it’s historic. I think we’re living through a historic event. A lot of us are really challenged by that.

First and foremost is to just acknowledge that we are living through this unusual historic moment that is pushing these buttons even more than usual. But I would use one of our fundamental metaphors in mindful communication, which is the traffic light. We use the traffic light because it is so simple, very basic, easy, and helpful. You can teach this to children. The traffic light is good, because when we get upset, we get a bit simplistic. The more upset we get, the more childlike we actually are, not necessarily in a positive direction. We lose our intelligence and sophistication. I bring this up because it is so useful and simple.

What happens in say talking about this election, if you run into people who have different views than oneself.  We already carry around with us anxiety about the state of the world, the state of the nation, and our place in that, our future security, our freedom, and sense of connected-ness to the culture in the US say. So there is already a bit of anxiety.

Which in the traffic light metaphor, when we’re open and connected with ourselves, which automatically connects us with others. As soon as we’re really connected with ourselves, we’re already in the room. We already realize that we are interacting with our environment. Even when we’re alone. Not to mention that when we’re with others.

But as our anxiety level rises, it takes us out of the green light state of openness, into the yellow light state. The yellow light state is very much connected to fear, uncertainty and confusion. Like I don’t know what’s happening, what is going on, I don’t understand! That kind of feeling.

And when we enter the yellow light state, we’re suddenly living in a different world, than we were just a minute before. When we were feeling very connected. We’ve entered a situation where we can’t handle as much as we could just a few minutes ago. A different state. We become in some ways weakened. And our sophistication, and all of our big theories about the world, the way we want to be as a human being in the world, they get scaled way back. We get into a kind of fight or flight sensibility.

We need to recognize this when this happens. Politics triggers this in us. Because the stakes are high, and we have these big concerns. There are moral issues, that really touch us at a deep heart level. Maybe they have a different morality that we don’t understand, that we don’t share. So we’re in the yellow light. Usually already, just to find out that someone has a different view from us is already threatening to a lot of us.

Now when we’re in the yellow light, we’re already feeling quite overwhelmed. We don’t want to absorb far more information than we already have. Since we’re already overwhelmed, we don’t want to take on an even bigger task at that moment. Because we already got disconnected a bit from our self, we start to lose touch with our heart, lose touch with our senses. It’s when we go into our head, and stop paying attention to the room and the feeling in our body. Basic truths. We stop seeing what our eyes are actually seeing in the room, because we’re in our minds. We’re starting to worry and go off into the future. What if this political situation happens, that could be tragic, etc…

So because we’re disconnected, due to our anxiety, we have to realize we’re a little limited on that moment. Our top priority at that moment is to reconnect. Our top priority is not at that point to continue the discussion or get an opinion down someone else’s throat. Or to sit through a discussion that for whatever reason we don’t feel like we can tolerate at that moment.

We need to protect our-self a little bit at that point. It’s nobody’s fault, it’s not the fault of the other person, or the other political party. We have become disconnected from our own mind and heart a little bit. Not even our fault, it just is.

So the question is what do we do?.. And what we need to do is get a little protective, and perhaps get ourselves to a safer space. Whatever that means. This may mean literally opting out. “Please continue without me!” or it could mean, just saying, “I’m not doing very well with this, and I don’t know if I can continue talking about this at this time.” Whatever it is, we need to reconnect.

Once we can get or are able to get back to the present moment, reconnect to our senses, to our heart, to the intelligence that we carry as human beings…Then we can have any kind of sophisticated political conversation.

We need to recognize that we go in and out of this. Anxiety may bring us to a certain state were we are not going to make a lot of progress..Until we soothe our-self, and calm down, and reconnect. That is the important part. And that others are going through this as well. Driving someone into a state of anxiety, while maybe no-one’s fault. But if they are in a higher and higher state of anxiety, the conversation is not going to be that fruitful.

Yeah, it’s only going to escalate, get more reactive and reactionary…

What we don’t want, is for the situation to progress to what we call the, “red light”. The red light is when we fully shut down. The yellow light we’re sort of in-between, we’re fearful, getting disconnected, but we haven’t really gone for it. But the red light is where we tip into fully shut down. That’s when we lash out, or go silent. Give someone the silent treatment. Or could take different forms. Could be arrogance, or hyper competitiveness. I don’t care what is true anymore, I just want to win, no matter what. That kind of thing.

These are habits, no-one’s fault, but we carry them out because we’re afraid essentially. And we’ve run away from our own fear, into this shut down state. That is where more harm can happen. Both to ourselves and others. And we don’t want to do that. We want to find our way back out. Instead of pushing ourselves so hard to where we shut down, we just need to naturally recognize our limits. And pull back a bit. We might even be able to continue the conversation if we pull back a little bit. Maybe a few minutes break, get some more snacks for example at a holiday party. Allows us to reconnect a little bit, and we can actually say what we really mean, instead of having things come out of our mouth that we don’t mean.

And continuing to see each other’s humanity, seeing a common ground. Some of these conversations, people end up completely alienated from each other. That’s sad!

Absolutely. The worst part about that, from my point of view, is that we then don’t understand what is going on with this other person. If we’d been able to slow down, step back a bit, and allow the conversation to progress on a more human level, instead of trying to win, or trying to prove that this person is morally bankrupt, or something. We could then ask them to, “tell me more about your world, what do you believe.”

That’s how we do break down those barriers. Instead of the world progressing into a kind of red light state, where suddenly there’s whole groups of people who are considered as inhuman. “Those people” on the other side. “I don’t even think of them as human beings anymore. ” Instead we realize that shared humanity, like you were saying.

And then we go, OK, well I don’t really agree with them, but I understand what they’re thinking. I talk to this person, and they told me their view of the world. Even if you think they are wrong. Even if you want your candidate to win, and theirs to lose, That’s fine. But even then you need to understand who you’re up against, and what they’re into. How they see things.

So it’s effective, it’s not just ideological, not just being compassionate in a moral way. If you want to get things done, you need to know the world in which you are trying to get things done in. 

Even in congress, the complete failure of communication across the isles and how it’s turned into a stand still. In a lot of different situations, to learn to be more mindful and communicate better would have a lot of fruit and benefit. 

I saw an article recently on that, that charted it across decades, and how fractured it has become now. That is in terms of the democrats and republicans, no longer being able to work with each other.  You look back 50 years, and it was a different world.

That is where you see that our own troubles and habits around communication breaking down, they turn into world history. It’s exactly the same as what is going on within us, but it is a bunch of people who happen to be in congress, or whatever other government body, or military body for that matter in the world, that they have the same trouble that we do.

And that when they shut down into the red light, suddenly if that is the wrong person shutting down, you’ve got a war, and a 100.000 people die. Because of that one moment of shut-down. It’s that simple in a way. It comes down to one moment where someone said, I’m not going to connect with my experience. I’m going to turn this other person into an object, I’m going to objectify this other country, or another. And now we can attack them. But it’s now different than our own experience.

Yeah it’s an important practice. I imagine you also work with marriages in your practice..

That’s an interesting one, because here’s someone we’re so close to in intimate relationships to. We’re so close is that the irony is that we feel every grain of disagreement. As if there were little bits of sand, that if you weren’t absolutely pressed up against each other, you wouldn’t feel a little grain of sand. But because you are, every little bit can become some huge drama. Some huge disagreement. It’s only because we’re so invested, and we’re so close, that that’s the case. Which is a bit unfair way to judge our relationships. We’re doing our best, they are doing their best. And yet we’re judging it by this very extreme standard.

Do your retreats emphasize couples, or do you have a variety of emphasize different aspects of life, different situations?

Yeah, we have a number of retreats. The one that is focused on relationships is called, “the four seasons of relationship”. This looks at the cycles that relationships go through. In terms of every relationship is like a year. In the sense that, we start out alone, and then we go through a kind of spring time, where a courtship that happens. You meet someone, and you start to assess whether there is a connection. And if there is a connection, you continue into the summer. And summer is this sense of deepening the connection, and committing to the connection. And even to the point of making vows to each other, in whatever sense. Whether literal or coming to understandings, of what the nature of the connection is.

And then at some point, even if it is just over the course of a human life, where of course we’re going to die at the end of our lives. There is a coming apart. Or could be breakup. There is a natural point where the connection has to come apart, and this is true even for ongoing relationships. That we could recognize that even walking into a room with someone in the morning we go through these seasons. We were alone, and we walk in to have breakfast or something, and there is that meeting point where we come together, and begin a conversation, or whatever that is. And then there is the full breakfast time, where we’re really deeply engaging. And then we split of into different directions for the day.

So this 4 season cycle happens in a lot of different ways. Not just in romantic relationships. It could be someone you meet on the bus and have a conversation with.. So that retreat covers that material.

We have a whole retreat about conflict, and the 4 stages of escalation into conflict, and how to undo each of those 4 those stages. We have a whole retreat on the chemistry of emotions. How the emotions manifest in the 3 different traffic lights. Open emotions (green), the yellow light emotions of fear and anxiety, and then finally the shut down emotions of the red light.

And we have a retreat (called the stories of our lives) that is all about looking back at our life story, and re-configuring our life story. Telling it in different ways, in order to cut through the complaint a lot of us have about our lives. “My life should have gone a certain way, instead it went a different way.” And to actually look at our lives, and say, “ah, this is a hero’s journey.” In which there are tragic moments, and disappointments.

It’s a bit like an opera, but it’s a spiritual journey in some sense. We’re going through a lot of experiences, some of which are quite painful. In order to live a heroic life.

So the retreat helps you to learn to appreciate things that you formally didn’t really appreciate about your life.

Yes, that’s it, recognizing that our lives are rich. They’re not necessarily a vacation. They’re not for sissies so to speak! Life can be quite intense, and yet we could really view it as a powerful experience. Including all the troubles that we’ve had. Those could all be crucial parts of the story.

Could you mention the book one more time, so folks who are interested can follow up and learn more about this practice.

Yeah, it’s,The Five Keys to Mindful Communication from Shambhala publications by Susan Gillis Chapman. And there is going to be another book, a workbook, hopefully in the next year. people can do some homework, and implement it. 

Exactly, because a lot of people are interested in doing that, and this will make that more explicit and give you more of a path to travel through the material.

That’s great, that’s what we’re all about, applied meditation.

Thanks so much!



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

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

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

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

Interview with Laurel Vogel

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

What brought you to a contemplative practice?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you practice with him?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you have a funny example of that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That sounds right yeah..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did you come about to explore Eco-Therapy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The only salvation is kindness.

Eve Ensler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks so much!



MF 45 – Stepping Out of The Busy-ness of Daily Life Into The Sanctuary of Our Heart with Bruce Davis

MF 45 – Stepping Out of The Busy-ness of Daily Life Into The Sanctuary of Our Heart with Bruce Davis

MF 45 – Stepping Out of The Busy-ness of Daily Life Into The Sanctuary of Our Heart with Bruce Davis

Bruce is the author of  The Heart of Healing, Monastery without Walls ~ Daily Life in the Silence, My Little Flowers, Simple Peace ~ The Inner Life of St Francis of Assisi and The Calling of Joy. His latest book is The Love Letters of St Francis & St Clare.  Bruce is a regular contributor to Huffington Post. A graduate of Saybrook University, Bruce is a spiritual psychologist and teacher of the essence of world religions. He has taught at JFK University in Pleasant Hill, California and many spiritual centers in the United States, Germany, and Switzerland.

In 1975 he wrote the book The Magical Child Within You which was the first book written on trusting and nurturing the inner child.  A couple years later he coauthored another best selling book Hugs & Kisses about loving life, which has been a theme of his work ever since.

While a graduate student, Bruce met and became an apprentice to a remarkable Shaman who had the gift of entering into and teaching people in their dreams.  For four years, Bruce was introduced to many realms and worlds outside normal western thought. These years were to be the beginning of Bruce’s quest to understand the potential of psychology and spirituality.

Since 1983 he has led interfaith spiritual retreats in many parts of Europe, Asia, United States.  Taking people to sacred places like Assisi, Italy, participants discover the sacred place within themselves.  For twelve years Bruce and Ruth lived in Assisi, founding the Assisi Retreat Center where people of all backgrounds are welcome to enjoy the simple peace and spirit of St. Francis of Assisi.  He returned home to California in 2012 and established, Silent Stay. It is Bruce’s wish to provide a sanctuary for everyone who yearns for real peace and quiet towards finding their own inner joy, spirituality, and purpose.

Through the years, Bruce has studied and lived with spiritual teachers in India, Philippines, Germany and Bali, Indonesia.  In 1992 Bruce & Ruth established a free food program for the homeless in San Francisco that continues till this day.  High schoolers from some of America’s wealthiest communities are traveling each weekend, into the poorest neighborhoods, serving food to people living in the streets.  At Silent Stay, Bruce has a great interest in supporting people who have had a Near Death Experience or spiritual awakening. His primary intention is helping others to develop a meaningful spiritual life including a daily life of joy.

Interview with Bruce Davis

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

What brought you to a contemplative practice?

Began when Bruce was in grad school, in psychology. He was looking at his serious teachers, uptight, not happy, all grown up. So he wrote a book, The Magical Child Within You in 1975. It was the first book on the inner child.

That there’s more to life than being serious and dull, grown up and responsible. We each have an inner child to trust and enjoy. Ever since he’s been exploring the place of the heart. Then I gradually became more interested in meditation. Because meditation is a doorway to the really big part inside the heart.

And when you saw all those “grown-ups” and serious people  around you, did you ever go through that stage of being lost, and finding your inner child again?

My wife says I never grew up. (laughs). She says, “Bruce you’ve never really had a job”. You’ve never really worked. That’s true, I’ve been leading retreats for almost 40 years, all over Europe, and US, and now going to Bali and other places. I’ve always been living from my heart, sharing from my heart. And it’s worked. Trusting. Not an easy path, but it was the only true path I could do.

Since you already found your inner child, was there anything that you did struggle with, where meditation practice was beneficial?

Those days you didn’t really know much about meditation, or India, or Buddhism, and all these new feeling therapies were out. I started a clinic in Denver, where people would come and we’d ask them how old they felt. And the ones that would say 15, we’d send these teenagers upstairs, the 5-7 year olds to another room, babies to another room. They would explore these different ages inside of them. This was the Denver feeling center. We thought this was a new frontier. We were adults, we were grad students, all different ages, but remembering the inner child.

Meanwhile I was at a seminar in grad school, with a shaman. I didn’t know at the time what that meant. One night I fell asleep and she came into my dream to my bed. The next day I went over to her, she said, “do you remember me coming to you last night?”. So for 4 years, I was her student. And she’d come into my dreams, and take me to the other side, teach me in my dreams. She said I was the most stubborn student she had ever had. So mental. I was raised in a non-spiritual, non-religious family. I didn’t really believe in any of these things. I thought finding my inner child and feelings, and thought that was a breakthrough. I didn’t know that there was something even more. So she slowly taught me more. Even though I had all these direct experiences, I was resistant. Because it wasn’t in my background, my culture.

Once in Germany, she again came into my dream, she came into my dream, and I said this is not real. She said, “oh yeah?” And she pushed me, and I woke up on the floor. So slowly I began to realize there is much more to this world, then what we normally think in western culture.

I spend some months with Philippine healers. These people were very poor, had no medicine, but they were using their hands to heal. And I saw and experienced incredible things. And then again I realized there is more to this world. These shamans and teachers all told me to think less and be more present. That I needed to learn how to meditate. Get out of your mental mind, and just to be present. 

So that was your main struggle, and stubborness, that you were not being present at the time?

We’re caught up in our heads, we don’t realize that our mental life is only a very small part of a much bigger picture.  In the west, we think our mental life is everything.

Right, we let it dominate, even though it should be a support…

We should think when there’s something to think about. My wife tells me, Bruce you don’t think too much ..(laughs) It’s nice to just be present and enjoy life. And there’s so much presents to receive. 

And appropriate action come out of non-thinking as well. Even though it is common to think that you have to think a lot before acting. Sometimes that is necessary, but often times, appropriate action comes about due to being fully present, available, and attentive to the present. 

Exactly, now 40 years later, we live mostly in silence, we run a silent retreat. People discover the silence of their heart. And as you discover the silence of your heart, our intuition is more available. Creativity is more available. But more importantly, this borderless, this vastness inside that’s usually covered up with all of our thinking and busyness we have to do. 

So we enjoy living mostly in silence, and having people absorb the deep joy that was inside of us.

A joy that they didn’t think they had, but was covered up by the thinking, conditioning, etc. 

Exactly, most people are so busy with their mental lives. They don’t know underneath it is this vastness. Even people who’ve been meditating for many years, watching their thoughts, thinking about non-thinking. They haven’t really gone in and absorbed this deep heart inside of us, which I call our heart-essence.

So in the west, even those on a meditative path, a lot of them have not experienced this space, this lightfulness.

And some would want results that the meditation would have quick results, but  that is not always the case…

Well, in our case it is the case..My wife takes beginners, particularly beginners, they’re the easiest, into this space within their hearts, within 5-10 minutes. And they find this big space, and their innocence is right there.

Now people who’ve been meditating for many years, its’ more complicated for them. Because they already have a system to of going inside. Generally more mental, more challenging for them to let go, and go deep into their heart. And then we ask what do you find, and they find this space that has no borders. And then we ask what do you feel in that space, what’s your experience? Everyone has their own experience. Some people will say, they feel at home here. Or I feel this gentleness inside with no end, or they feel this deep joy.

And then we ask them where are your thoughts? And they say, what do you mean? There are no thoughts there. There is just this big space. And I think in all traditions, more and more of us are discovering this, as we learn to get creative with our mental role.  And really not just watch what’s in our hearts, but go deep inside our hearts and receive.

When you mention that just anyone can walk up to your retreat, and have this opening experience? Do you find it’s easier for this opening experience to take place for younger folks, than folks who are more set in their ways? I’m thinking of for example a very divisive politician for example, how easy would it be for them to turn around and become this joy and openness?

Most folks who come in, they stay mostly in silence, and they feel the silence of the heart, and from that place we ask them what do they find. And they find this beautiful space. But if they’re in the middle of emotional trauma or drama, they just broke up with their boyfriend, or they’re sick, or they lost their job. You can’t just push through those feelings, and go underneath to this big space.

So if they’re in the midst of a big emotional drama, we just have them embrace that place and be with it. Maybe they go underneath it and find that big space. Maybe their retreat is just being loving and being with what is going on with their lives.

We don’t get to many politicians to our retreats, but we do live near Silicon valley and get people from Apple, Google, Twitter, and Yahoo. They love it, just to put their mind aside, and feel this deep valley of non-thinking. So for them it’s not difficult to find.

I write for the Huffington post and once wrote this article, “Can you be a republican and still meditate?” I was making fun, but I’m not sure if you can be republican and meditate. If you go into your peaceful heart, you’re going to find compassion for yourself and others. But how can you have compassion and do some of the things that are going on this world? I don’t know.

I’m finding on the liberal side, there too can be a lot of mocking of the other side, that could be mean spirited and also isn’t all that compassionate either. I’ve seen mean spiritedness on both sides of the political spectrum that could turn into something more destructive harmful…you know what I mean?

Yeah, I don’t think it’s related to politics. We all have a personality and ego, and just by nature we want to be comfortable. After 40 years of meditation, I’m finding that that personality has not gone away. I still have an ego, still uncomfortable. But it’s not so intense, it’s a bit thinner. I’m a little bit more understanding, a bit more patient, and open, and happy. But that structure, our ego, our personality, all this deep patterns. I think it stays with us, we’re just a little less reactive. Hopefully a little less aggressive. We’re just a little more giving and caring.

And that space that you mentioned, the ability to pause to respond, rather than have a reflex and reaction. Having that space alone would make a huge difference in the de-escalation of violence and all those things that spiral out of control. 

Exactly, we tell people that once they find that space, and we help them find that. Then their intention is to receive that space, to absorb that space in our awareness.

Going back to the inner child. When we were kids, we were naturally open, trusting, receiving, spontaneous. That awareness was just here…But as we filled our awareness with all that stuff, all kinds of drama, feelings, and intellectual stuff, we become separate from source of trusting, and just be.

So we tell people coming to retreats, to really drink from that source as much as you can. And so we have no media, no cell phones, no everything, and it’s pretty quiet, beautiful nature. So people have a few days to really practice drinking from that place inside.

And then when they get home, that’s their spiritual practice. To continue absorbing our deep self of no-self. This deep being-ness.

And then when that becomes our source, our personality, and our mental life, it becomes less busy, hopefully more open, less automatic, more choices.

I was just talking to our daughter, who works with us. And she says she feels so much more freedom. She has two kids, yoga center, very busy with lots of responsibility. But doing this big heartfulness meditation, she just feels so much more free, so many more choices, feels better and more relaxed.

Do you have some examples in your own life, where you felt more freedom as a result of your contemplative meditation practice?

I’ve been on this path for a long time, so it’s hard to say…I’ve always been close to the near-death community, with folks having near-death experiences. I found folks there that could understand what I’ve gone through better.

We just finished living in Assisi, Italy for 12 years. Mostly in silence, just ouside of town. Then when I came back, there was things like Youtube, and books, and other internet experiences, where I had never anyone to talk about these experiences, like my experience with the Shaman. It’s a big thing where we all have begun to talk about these things. Whereas it wasn’t in my culture at the time, it wasn’t normal. Where it was normal in those cultures.

So I’ve been going through a process of discovering community. Just hearing their stories. It’s been a big hug to I am. I’ve been to retreats for all these years, and leading and sharing retreats for myself, not for others so much. But for my own health and well being. Enjoyed sharing it with others, wasn’t exactly planned.  I just live this way as a contemplative in a non-contemplative world.

Are you seeing people move away or towards silence and stillness, because they have less of it. What kind of frictions do you see with that?

A little of both. A lot of people at Google for example are now meditating, they have a silence room. But most of the meditation in California is mindfulness. Which is OK, because mindfulness helps people to be present, that’s a big gift just to learn to be present. But just watching our thoughts and watching our experience, we’re still separate from our hearts. 

And I think that the whole Silicon Valley technology world has to reconnect with the heart, and realize that technology for it’s own sake in my opinion is not that great. It just keeps the kids busy. The important thing is to get connected to our heart, to have purpose, to have service.

I love all the opportunity to reach out and touch each other, it’s amazing what you can do with the smart phone these days. But on another level, if you’re not grounded in our own hearts, there’s no meaning, there’s no purpose. We’re just playing with technology all the time.

Just endless distraction. One thing after another…

Exactly, an endless distraction. And it’s very seductive. Very hard, we have grand-kids. In our days it was only television, and we could get off the television. But these days, it’s very hard for kids to be away from it for more than a few minutes. That’s sad..

It has a bullying effect to it, they are constantly tethered to it.. they can’t leave it, fear of missing out. 

We have this beautiful place in nature, 25 acres on top of a hill. I think the kids would like to come out here, see the animals, turkeys, etc. And they’re more or less tethered to their machines.

What do you advice folks to help them ground themselves once they go to your retreats, and go back home, and its very tempting to come back on full distraction mode? 

That’s the challenge. In a non-contemplative world, it’s very hard to embrace meditation, to embrace spirituality. We tell them to find a local group. Whatever it is that you can resonate with. To sit and meditate with a group. There’s something very beautiful about sitting with a group.

If not a group, make a regular time, morning and/or evening where you sit. And some days are wonderful, and some days your mind is very busy and will not stop. That’s OK, just do it, discipline is very healthy.

And then there’s the nurturing yourself, I’m still into the inner child. People have to find their joy, practice receiving your joy.  You can’t go deep into your heart if it’s closed, angry, or uptight or frustrated. It’s not just a meditation practice. We have to live our joy, and enjoy life. 

Sometimes that means you might have to go to a therapist. If the knot around their heart is too strong, and they can’t loosen it up through their own practice?

I’m trained as a psychologist, and folks always ask what is the best therapy? What do you suggest. I always tell them, doesn’t matter what kind of therapy, just find someone with a good heart. Someone with a good heart whatever their training is, they’re going to help you get more deeply open up your heart.

You mentioned the monastery without walls, maybe you can elaborate on that..

I wrote the book with that title in 1986. It’s this idea that we each of us have an inner monk or nun, but we’re not about to join an order. But we still need to learn to listen, and create a space in our lives to receive this monk/nun inside of us. So this whole book is how do we live in the world, and make our own monastery but without walls. 

The first step is to recognize is that there is a part of us, in everyone of us, that is a monk or a nun. That needs that solitude, we need some time just to listen…to be, and to receive the presence.

Through the years, I’ve met many monks and nuns, living cloistered lives, in monasteries, and they have the same challenges as we do, living in the world. There’s no easy answer. It’s not a question of whether or not to join a monastery. It’s a questions of creating a monastery without walls. Creating your own monastery and making it work for you.

You also talk about brother body, brother death, sister rain, etc. You talk about the change in relationship with the world around you is no longer an it. Where it’s no longer me vs it, or me vs them relationship. When you dissolve that too, then the world becomes the monastery without walls too….

Yeah, the world becomes your family..I got that teaching, I become a bit of a Franciscan monk in Assisi. An incredible place. I started going in 1983, and eventually lived there for many years. But this whole path of St Francis. Brother body, brother death, brother tree, sister rock, and sister moon. It’s another way of being, that we’re all one family, living in harmony, receiving each other. 

The big thing about St Francis that most people don’t understand, is this idea of poverty. It wasn’t outside poverty so much, but this great sense of emptiness. In Buddhism you know this emptiness. But in the west, in the Judaeo-Christian world, there is no talk about emptiness. So emptiness was a big part of my path of becoming free of the mental world. This profound emptiness that’s where you begin to see brother moon, and sister sound, all the animals in nature, because it’s very present. Very intimate on some level.

Besides Italy, we spent a lot of time in Bali, with the Shamans, which is Buddhist, Hindu, but also shamanic in some ways. With emptiness they’re making offerings. They’re offering everything in their heart. That’s another thing that is missing most Western spirituality. We don’t have an understanding what offering is.

We’re missing devotion, offering, and emptiness. These three elements are key to opening profoundly to the space of no-thought. This border-less space.

We talk about “intimacy”, everything is family. These fictitious boundaries, you take away these boundaries between you and everything else, and you become more intimate. And so that practice helps you become more intimate, you realize yourself more intimate with everything. 

So for St Francis it was through nakedness. That we’re all profoundly human, profoundly naked. In our nakedness, we see each other, nature, trees, flowers, we see it differently.

We started a little order in Italy, called the “little flowers”. The community of little flowers. Were were all just little flowers, where we shine the best we can for a few moments, with a few petals, and then we disappear.. And that’s how life is. So we have a community of little flowers in 17 countries now. All kinds of people, from priests to Buddhist monks, all kinds of normal people. We just support each other in the nakedness of being a little flower in this world.

Wonderful…In your book about St Clare and St Frances, you talk about pope Francis, being inspired by these two saints right?

Right, as soon as we came back to California, from living in Italy for 12 years, we started to learn about pope Francis. We never imagined a pope Francis, it’s the first one. So I started wondering, I wonder what St Francis and St Clare would think…

So I started writing these love letters between Frances and Clare. Could a pope be a real brother of ours, could he raise the poor, hug nature, is this really real? So I wrote the book in about 3 weeks, had a great time. All these love letters back and forth. And now, a few years later, I think pope Francis is real brother. And I think the church is a muzzle. (32:05) I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s a big opportunity for the church.

Yeah, you talk about a living church vs a dead church. My sense of what your’e saying here, is that you’re looking at a dead church. That the pope, and a ton of brothers and sisters who have allegiance to the church are trying to make alive again. Living rather than a dead institution that is just hoards money and isn’t really practicing what they preach. 

Exactly, the church is a very complicated place. We’ve met a lot of beautiful people, monks and nuns in Assisi living there a number of years. But we’ve also met a lot of, I feel like used cars salesmen. What are you doing??? So there’s both extremes. And the pope created a year of Mercy. Sort of like a year of devotion. Asking everyone in the church, to just practice mercy for a year, despite of what your head is telling you. Try to show mercy. He’s doing the best he can, but it is impossible. But the good part about it, is there really is a God, Mary, Jesus and angels, all these things are not just fabricated by the church.

The problem with the New Age, and people who’ve left religion altogether. They have no connection to these deities, the deities are part of us. So it’s too bad. So it’s either a dead church or no connection to everything. The Pope, Dalai Lama, and others, etc, are really a big opportunity for all of us “normal” folks.

But do you sense that because it’s so hard to relate to the institution of the church at this point. That this hierarchical structure in the end is too vulnerable to getting the wrong person floating to the top. Alienating a lot of people from this practice? Do you think this will work for future generations?

Yeah, but any organization has a little hierarchy. The problem right now, I was a teacher out here at a university. And generally the kids have no respect for teachers. They don’t understand that they are our teachers. And so it’s gone from one extreme to another. There are teachers, and the Western world, there really aren’t priests. They’ve gone to school, and learned some things, but we’ve had priests come to our retreats in Italy, ask us how do you pray, what is prayer. They were like beginners, and they were priests!

And so, that’s the problem. The western church is missing real priests. In Bali, the priests are priests. They are amazing beings, been through initiation, been through the inner path. They stick to that inner path.

So that’s part of the problem why people have trusts in most religions. Because most of the leaders are not real priests.  I don’t know what their training is, but it’s not the same.

So it’s a form of corruption that crept into these institutions. And they’re no longer trustworthy, the wrong people have come into positions of power..

Well the church in general is in my opinion no different than the culture in general. Our culture is only mental, and is missing heart. So whatever religion we’re talking about. Most of them in the west are mental, and missing a deep connection to the heart. When there’s a deep connection with the heart, then there is a religion going on. Doesn’t matter which religion it is. 

Religions are pointing to that which is beyond words and thoughts, they are not IT itself, but they’re pointing to it. 

Yeah and it’s important that people have a place to go to, to find their inner sanctuary. But most religions talk about it, thinking about it, reading about it, but not actually going there and experiencing it. And even if you’re experiencing it, that’s just the beginning. One experience doesn’t change you. You have to live out of that experience and drink it everyday. Absorb it through your whole being. And that’s a life practice. That’s a path. 

What would you say to someone who wants to go back into say a Christian church, but don’t want to go to a dead church. Who would you point them to?

We’re ecumenical, we don’t really ever discuss religion, because we live mostly in silence. But with regards to churches, I would say the same as I say with finding a therapist. Find the church with the biggest heart. Find a monk, priest, or nun, and if they have a heart, then they can lead you to the heart of that religion. 

And if they’re more intellectual or doctrinaire, or more into rules, then that is where they are going to lead you. Just find the one with the biggest heart.

And also other signs of wisdom and compassion, like trust, vulnerability, joy, etc. 

Yeah, they don’t get upset with rules, or controlling. I wasn’t raised Catholic, but what’s nice about the Catholic church is their devotion. Very deep with the Catholic church. Devotion is missing from a lot of other Christian churches. The Eucharist, presence of Mary, most of the Christian churches are also missing the divine feminine, Mary. So there’s rituals in the Catholic church that are very deep. And in Europe there’s places that are very powerful, that embody these rituals. Embody these deities.

I spend time in Holland as well, and the people are very beautiful, but all the churches are social clubs. There’s no presence, very little spirituality in most churches there. That’s too bad. A lot of Europe lost the fruit of real deep religion, spirituality. It’s deep rooted there. Whereas in America there is very few what I would call, “sacred places”. Where you can really feel that presence. There’s no Assisi in America that I’ve found. Where if you walk into town, and even normal people begin crying, because there is so much presence there.

And a church that has a heartfelt teacher or priest will create that sanctuary for people, so that you can feel it. You can’t feel it inside unless you have some support, or some place to feel it.

And you have to cultivate some stillness so you can actually be open to it…

Right, a sanctuary actually is stillness. So you walk into it, and you breathe into it, and you don’t know what is going on. And before you know it, you find yourself crying. There is something more than stillness here, there’s something special that’s here.

Coming back to Pope Francis, do you think he’ll be able to loosen the tight grip that the institution of the church has?

I have no idea, because the church is so conservative. A lot of people are spiritual, not religious. So they left the church. Just the other day, the pope was talking about having women deacons. But for many of us, that’s a non-starter. We should be having women priests, deacons, women everything..etc. So we’re starting back in the last century. And I’m living next to Google, Yahoo, Twitter…

That’s not even the real issue. The real issue is, you want women involved in the church, because women are closer to their hearts generally. And we need more heart in the church. So there is less masculine, mental energy, and more feminine heart-full, giving, caring energy of the mother. That is called, “Mother Church”. But we need more women and women leadership in the church. Women deacons is just a small step. 

So your’e saying it’s still generations away at that rate…

Yeah, and on the other hand, it could happen in the next few years. It’s not like the president of the US. The pope can do almost everything. But if he does something, then the conservatives may break away from the church and start another church. So it’s not an easy place where he is.

I think the biggest thing he does, is set an example for his own life. Which he’s doing. Like the feet washing of Muslim prisoners, women, and more..every Easter. That is totally revolutionary. It used to be just washing the feet of 12 male Catholic priests. That was it for centuries. But now it’s this whole idea, to wash the feet of the sick and the poor, people in jail, and of other religions. It’s revolutionary and beautiful.

Yes, he’s setting a powerful example. 

Yeah, I think it started a lot with Mother Theresa. She was the first person who went to the poor of the poor, and hugged them, and was with them. Nobody was talking about that before her. It really brought the poor out of the background, making us feel some responsibility. And it’s a very Franciscan idea, Francis did this when he was with the lepers. Mother Theresa was the modern Francis. Now we have pope Francis. So as a Franciscan, I think this is very beautiful.

Some folks in religions see being in the present moment, or say worshiping all creation, is idolatry. Even though creation is the very manifestation of God, or whatever word you want to use. How do you see that? That all of creation is sacred, and deserves to be fully attended to? Rather than waiting or looking forward to something in the hereafter. 

Throughout the years, we’ve had many ministers come to our retreats, and they’re almost always the most difficult people at the retreat. Because they have such a mindset, and the mind can be a real enemy of being with a simple heart, and simple peace. People who’ve been meditating forever, if they haven’t connected to their heart, they can be the most difficult people coming into silence. Both ministers and priests through the years have been the most difficult, because they make life so complicated.

I really having these intellectual conversations is without meaning. I’d rather hug the guy, and ask what are you feeling, why are you in so much pain, what’s this all about? Have you seen the sunrise this morning? It was incredible! That’s God presence. Just the beauty that we can sit here together, talking through the internet, that’s life, that’s God’s presence, beautiful. That I can meet a Zen brother like yourself. Why make life complicated? That’s just avoiding being present. Here is life, and here is God.

Great way to explain that, if people spend too much time in their thinking, they really do miss what’s right before them, whether that’s a sunrise or their partner. 

Thinking is one of the little closets in the universe. It’s terrible to spend your life in a closet.  We get so impressed with out thoughts, they’re just thoughts, but there’s much more.

You also deal with not-knowing a lot right?

The main thing we’re trying to share with people is that there is a definite presence in our hearts. Meditation is does not have to be complicated. You just need to spend some time in silence, nature, and your own sanctuary. And to really receive deeply, not just think or not think about it, or observe it, but to really receive the heart inside our heart. And that is we find that the other side is totally present on this side. God is so present inside of us. But we got this filter of our thinking world on top of it.

So when we receive this silence of our heart, we feel this vast gentleness, and absorb it into our awareness, and take a bath in it. I tell people who come to our retreat, you want to bathe in the silence so deeply, that after a few days, your skin is all wrinkled up with silence. Wet through and through. Absorb it, and enjoy it. Because silence is actually full of everything. 

Not just outward silence, but inward silence. The silence of the heart is really our mystical journey. And I tell you, it’s normal that we’re not always open like a flower. A flower is also closed, it releases it’s petals. We spend so much time judging ourselves, judging each other. 

If we can rid of one thing, I tell people to get rid of our judgments. Just to be as much as you can.

A retreat is not about always being open, and being blissful. It can have just the opposite. That’s OK. Our judgments are really heavy doors, we’re intense about each other, and ourselves. If we just lighten up on that one door, life would get a lot easier and a lot more fun.

And it’s OK that sometimes a door is closed, and you come back on another retreat, and the door can be opened a bit more. 

Sometimes the door is closed, but still you see deeply anyway. In my life I’ve had any issue like we all do. And that’s part of being a human being..

It makes us more equal, as human beings, and understand each other better..

We’re all completely human.  What’s amazing is that in our awareness is a place of incredible love. That we’re not observing, reaching for it, thinking about it. It’s just an incredible presence of love. Nothing else is really that important. That presence of love is who we are. And eventually we’re going to give up that human story, and we will be presence, we’ll be this love. We are this presence of this love that expands out forever.

That’s part of this problem of people who have spiritual experiences. And it’s a challenge to be so human at this same time. And all of us are experiencing that now, living both, knowing how divine we are.

That’s a great way to end it. It’s like you say, that thinning of the hard sense of separate self, and becoming much more transparent to that much bigger Self that we are all part of. 

Yeah, we all are it, and we all are. It is who we are. Great meeting you!


Books authored by Bruce Davis




MF 42 – A Lifelong Zen Meditation Practice and Perspective with Sandy Haskin

MF 42 – A Lifelong Zen Meditation Practice and Perspective with Sandy Haskin

MF 42 – A Lifelong Zen Meditation Practice with Sandy Haskin

(This is a summary transcript, listen to the episode for the full conversation)

Sandy Haskin practices Zen meditation with the Three Treasures Sangha of the Northwest. She currently lives and works in Spokane, Washington. She works as a Nurse Aide at a home for mentally ill adults, and also sells books, DVD’s, CD’s on Amazon with her sister. She has worked at the former for 10 years and the latter for 5 years.

What was your life like before taking on a meditation practice?

Sandy remembers how she began to meditate and when, she had just left the town she grew up in, Spokane, WA. And she moved to Olympia. And found out because of her family history, she could get some help via friends through the 12 step program, so she joined (ACoA) Adult Children of Alcoholics and began to work the 12 steps. This was in 1986. And she thought moving away from her hometown would help her take care of her problems and her dissatisfaction with her life and herself.

What she had done was move to Olympia, and create yet another  dysfunctional relationship, like she had had in Spokane. So she was disappointed that it repeated itself and where her life was headed at that point.

And you mean by relationship, with another?

Yes, with another man. So she was confounded what to do with her life, and how to make her life work. So she read a book called, Women Who Love Too Much, by Robin Norwood. And she said, if there’s any alcoholism in your family, look up a 12 step group. And I said, well, I qualify! (laughing) It was just an afterthought, last chapter in the book. So Sandy went to ACoA, and found her home.

12 steps is all about finding a spiritual answer to your life, to your problems. And it is not an option, that’s the whole basis of the 12 step program. But they don’t tell you what it is going to look like, that is your job to find the answer.

So Sandy began to meditate at home, watching a candle flame. That particular meditation just so happens to be the one she began with. She then ran into a friend, Pamela Lee who invited her to meditate with her in Seattle. So she began sitting with a group, which was fundamental for Sandy. To start a practice, and be connected with a group, a schedule, a teacher, and a community. That was back in late ’86. And she’s been meditating ever since, off for about 5.

Was meditation part of the ACoA, or is it all find it on your own?

I called myself not an alcoholic, but ACoA, I was in 4 different 12 step programs. But yes, the 2nd step is coming to believe that a power greater than myself could restore me to sanity. And the 11th step is through prayer and meditation seek to improve your conscious contact with God as I understood God to mean. Praying only for knowledge of God’s will, for me to carry that out. So yes, prayer and meditation are very basic, I made them basic to my program. But it is not necessary, but it is part a path you could learn.  Other folks go to church and don’t meditate, and yet others do go to church and meditate. You gotta find your own way, finding your own spiritual path. 

And you were in 4 different 12 step programs?

I was, I was quite the addict! (laughing) In fact I was ordered to go, my best friends were there, it was so much fun. I was going to treatment for my alcoholism, which I love, I love the attention to myself. And the counselor said, when we’re finished with your treatment, you will go to AA. And I said , I will not, I’m already in another 12 step group, I love it, and I’m getting it. So she couldn’t finish her treatment there. She started out in one group and ended up in quite a few others.

So what kind of meditation group did you end up in?

Her friend had sat extensively with the Three Treasures Sangha, a Zen meditation group in Seattle, Washington. They’re under the umbrella of Robert Aitken’s Diamond Sangha in Hawaii. And she has been with them ever since.

What did you find in particular very helpful about a Zen group like the one you’re going to?

I guess the focus is totally on meditation, and not so much what you do or don’t believe. In fact, the people that introduced her to this practice, are Catholics, and don’t even want to be called Buddhists. So the focus is on the practice. Doing the practice, and committing to it. Sandy liked what she saw in these people, they were adults, her age. She seemed to really settle into just meditating. Not too much of read this, follow that person, there wasn’t so much asked. Then when there was a teacher, you could listen. It wasn’t like sermons in church. More focus on meditation, which fit her personality more.

Where there insights during this journey, maybe early on that made you realize you wanted to keep coming back to it. In other words, that kept you motivated to keep coming back to it?

Yeah, one thing about meditation that is hard for our culture, is I don’t believe that there are typically not instant results. There are subtle results, like over time, her personality started to calm down. From the outside, for example, you wouldn’t guess that I have a lot of anxiety. But I did, I was tongue tied, I was very self conscious, worried about things I would say, etc. And meditation seemed to calm things down, but it took a long time.

I remember a strange story. I was sober and looking for God, looking for a program for a few years. And I wasn’t getting it…Like where is God, or the spirit, whatever. I was miserable.

When you go into meetings, Jamborees, retreats, etc. With all these people that seem so happy, and I wasn’t so happy. So I was asking God for a sign. I was desperate. I was like, there is nothing happening, there’s nothing here, I just wasn’t getting it.

And..I was, maybe I need this, maybe some people don’t need to get what I got. So I asked for a sign, but I did, I was up in the middle of the night. I had been sober for a year, religiously doing the steps. And I was on the toilet crying in the middle of the morning. Sometimes you have those nights! About a half hour after that, I started to smell smoke. I lived in an apartment, and I opened the door, there was smoke coming down the hallway, and one of my neighbors apartments was on fire.

So I went back to my apartment, and we ran to get everyone out of the place. I went back and locked my door. It was a mess, my place was a mess, they smashed my door, so don’t lock your door if you’re ever in a fire!

So anyway, I was at a friends house that night. And I was just thinking about everything that happened that evening. And I realized that the day before the fire, I had done this motherpeace Tarot card game. And the I had gotten this card of a person, a woman sitting in meditation, and she was surrounded by flames. I know this is new agey, its weird, but the moment I remembered getting that card, I felt the presence of God. I felt a peace about my life, that this was supposed to happen to me. I don’t know why, I don’t understand. But I gained something through understanding that in spiritual terms this was the way my life was supposed to go.

And her friends would say, aren’t you going to cry? Your stuff is trashed! But she would just say Wow!

So anyway she gained a tremendous amount of peace. I just believe that when we sincerely want answers, that when we sincerely seek, that we do get answers. That we do find guidance, on the spiritual path. Even if it is not what we expected. So yeah, I’ve had ups and downs. But you just have to follow through. I think anyone on any spiritual path, is going to find it is not going to be easy. But the alternative, I don’t want to go back to my old life, and how I used to feel, it was pretty ugly.

Great story..

Yeah, you get your answers along the way, I guess if you ask in all sincerity.

I’m sure you’ve had more moments along the way..and it just continues to unfold…

Yeah, in the Zen tradition, it’s liked by some people, because it’s not heavily promoted that you have to believe the ancestors. Or that you memorize books. But the longer I meditate, the more I see the world the way they see the world. That it is very satisfying. I know this is because of my meditation, not because of my intellect. They’re talking about a spiritual plane, and it is not something you can intellectualize.

Yes, and I’ve had some whoppers of experiences, that helps one to keep going. But I also think human beings, human contact, having a teacher, are so so important to having a meditation practice. If I had not met that woman, who meditated and who connected me to a meditation group, it would have just been on my list.  Oh yeah, some time I’ll meditate….

To be in a group with a schedule, and needs your help, volunteer, do service work, getting involved, it’s crucial. Because I’m self-centered, just want to live my own life, and I still just want to be left alone! (laughing). So involvement in a group is crucial for the long haul of sticking to meditation practice. 

At some point you also started to attend retreats, can you highlight some of the benefits of retreats, as opposed to just group gatherings?

Yes, I would go on these 7 day retreats a year, which really solidified my in practice. The experiences in Sesshin (long retreat intensives) are that one is very much supported in turning around your attention to look inwards and do your practice. And it’s really rare to have that opportunity in our culture, because even if we’re home alone, we feel compelled to be productive. 

So to have some place to go, where you have permission. It’s set up to not have to thinking, talking, planning, or writing. It’s very helpful. So that year when I started retreats fixed me into practice. The benefits I would say.

When you’re in retreat, you’re with the same people sitting, eating, snoring for 24 hours a day. And it’s easy to get critical or judgmental with people. But going with other people, really opens you up to accepting other people, and being able to help them in their practice. I’m often judgmental with others, but when you’re on retreat, you communicate on a level that is not intellectual, it’s not verbal. 

You almost get to experience what I would call love, a unity, and a co-traveler type thing with all of these people, maybe half of whom you’ve never met before. So it’s an experience that speaks for itself. Just having value in the quit time and doing that with a group of people.

Maybe you have an example of an experience that you had during a retreat that stood out for you..

I’ve been over to Mountain Lamp retreat center in the past few years, where her teacher Jack Duffy and partner Eileen Kierra teach retreats there. The weather can be very chaotic, raining, storming, sunshine, hailing etc all in the same day.

So this one day it was storming around around us, and we’re sitting in this zendo (meditation hall), and I was like 5 days in a 7 day retreat. And towards the end of the evening, I’d been listening to the storm, letting it flow in and out of me. And after a while I realized that I was no longer sitting there on the cushion in my body. I was raining. That is just the reality, I was no longer a person, I was rain!

Yeah that’s great. (laughing)

It was fabulous. Yeah, you’re talking about the boundaries that we’re conditioned to think of ourselves as, were dissolving, you no longer ended at the edge of your skin. 

And we don’t meditate to “get experiences”, but certain experiences come along. But when they do, you know that you’re really settled. And that was wonderful.

And I think it’s good to see what’s possible during retreats, rather than reading from a book. It’s nice to hear examples of what can happen during a retreat. 

I’m always surprised at how much energy we take, to do social greetings, to smile at people, to always have the right composure, etc. All of that takes energy. And when you’re in a group, that the focus is taken care of, and not expected, so you can turn inward. That is a huge freedom.

And it’s very difficult to do alone. When you meditate with a group, there’s a power, a strength to keep going, because everyone else is. So you can do more with a group than you can do alone. It’s just what I found to be true over the years.

Same here…

It turns into a way of life, which is so wonderful. I set my life up more now on retreats, than on vacations. It’s a lifelong practice. It’s very wonderful to have as I grow older.

When you come out of retreats, do you get the sense of wanting to mingle or integrate that into the rest of your life? 

I think in retreats I think you can become rather naive and you’re feeling a certain way, a certain zone of vulnerability. I tend to fall for it every time, I tend to think it’s going to last forever. But it doesn’t. I guess what I take with me, I re-integrate is slowly, have a peaceful the day after a retreat. And I recognize how my judging people stops.  I appreciate the work of everyone who’s made the retreat happen. Those are the things I take into my life hopefully. The ability to watch my mind, and lessen the judgement of others.

It’s just a habitual way to separate. It’s not even true. It’s about my ego, having one-up over yours.

That sense of peace is there for a while, but I can’t keep it for a long time. But I think of it later, let that person alone! Don’t hassle him in my own head!

It’s a gift to have a practice.

What would you say to someone who struggles to have and keep a meditation practice?

I strongly urge people to get together with a group. (If you’re into Buddhist meditation practice), check out the web site called Buddhanet. If people are trying to sit alone, it can backslide. It’s very difficult to do that. But if you try a group, like on the web site above, you’d be amazed how many groups there are in the US. So my first idea is don’t sit alone, do that, but also connect with other folks, and talk about your practice.

The motivation I’ve had, was that I was emotionally miserable. The more miserable you are, the more you may want to seek out a spiritual path. It is very difficult. It may not be obvious that you’re growing, or that you’re getting it. And that’s just the way it goes.

Yeah, like a crock-pot slowly cooking….

Yeah, right, but in the end it’s worth it. And it’s good to reflect back. That’s the 4th part of the 12 steps, “Make a searching and fearless written moral inventory of yourself.” It’s good to look back, and look at why you are where you are. I don’t owe it to myself, I owe it to AA and 12 step groups.

Thanks so much!





MF 39 – How to Bring Peace between Police and Community

MF 39 – How to Bring Peace between Police and Community

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)

Cheri Maples in MeditationWhat 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.

But there was this whole thing about the 5 mindfulness trainings, see below, taken from

The Five Mindfulness Trainings

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.

Interview continued..

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?

  1. 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

  1. 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..

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. If you’re a police officer, go to the Center for Mindfulness and Justice. Watch the calendar, and come to the retreat.
  4. 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.

Thanks again!


MF 37 – Awakening from the Illusion of Separation with Lama Surya Das

MF 37 – Awakening from the Illusion of Separation with Lama Surya Das

MF 37 – Awakening from the Illusion of Separation with Lama Surya Das

Lama Surya Das is one of the foremost Western Buddhist meditation teachers and scholars, one of the main interpreters of Tibetan Buddhism in the West, and a leading spokesperson for the emerging American Buddhism. The Dalai Lama affectionately calls him “The Western Lama.”

Lama Surya Das Surya has spent over forty five years studying Zen, vipassana, yoga, and Tibetan Buddhism with the great masters of Asia, including the Dalai Lama’s own teachers, and has twice completed the traditional three year meditation cloistered retreat at his teacher’s Tibetan monastery. He is an authorized lama and lineage holder in the Nyingmapa School of Tibetan Buddhism, and a close personal disciple of the leading grand lamas of that tradition. He is the founder of the Dzogchen Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and its branch centers around the country, including the retreat center Dzogchen Osel Ling outside Austin, Texas, where he conducts long training retreats and Advanced Dzogchen retreats. Over the years, Surya has brought many Tibetan lamas to this country to teach and start centers and retreats. As founder of the Western Buddhist Teachers Network with the Dalai Lama, he regularly helps organize its international Buddhist Teachers Conferences. He is also active in interfaith dialogue and charitable projects in the Third World. In recent years, Lama Surya has turned his efforts and focus towards youth and contemplative education initiatives, what he calls “True higher education and wisdom for life training.”

Lama Surya Das is a sought after speaker and lecturer, teaching and conducting meditation retreats and workshops around the world. He is a published author, translator, chant master (see Chants to Awaken the Buddhist Heart CD, with Stephen Halpern), and a regular blog contributor at The Huffington Post, as well as his own blog site where he shares his thoughts and answers questions from the public each week.

Surya Das has been featured in numerous publications and major media, including ABC, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Boston Herald, New York Post, Long Island Newsday, Long Island Business Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, The Jewish Free Press, New Age Journal, Tricycle Magazine, Yoga Journal, The Oregonian, Science of Mind, and has been the subject of a seven minute magazine story on CNN. One segment of the ABC-TV sitcom Dharma & Greg was based on his life (“Leonard’s Return”). Surya has appeared on Politically Correct with Bill Maher, and twice on The Colbert Report (see links below).

Surya is the author of thirteen books, the latest: Make Me One With Everything: Buddhist Meditations to Awaken from the Illusion of Separation (May 2015) See the rest of the book titles and links in the Resources section at the bottom of this page.

Lama Surya Das resides in Concord, Massachusetts.

Interview Transcript

(This is a summary transcript, please listen to the episode to enjoy the full conversation)

Maybe you could start us off with a guided mini-meditation? (I usually do a short mini-meditation before all interviews)

Maybe we’ll just keep silent for the whole 45 minutes! (laughing)

Yes, let’s have a little instant meditation, very American. Friends, Meditate as fast as you can (laughing)!

  1. Breathe in first, and say “Ahhhhhh” 3 times, the seed-syllable of Dzogchen, Tibetan Meditation. And enjoy a moment of mindfulness and contemplative sweetness, of just being. Getting of the threat-mill of events, and momentum of our conditioning and drivenness, and just breathing, just sitting, just being.

Present attentive. Lucidly aware.

Mindful, rather than mindlessly sleepwalking through life.

Just sitting, natural body is Buddha’s body.

Let it be, relaxed and at ease.

2. Just breathing, natural breath is letting go, letting if flow.

Awaring…Awareness is a verb.

Aware of physical sensations in the body.

Mindfulness of breathing,

3. Aware of awareness itself. Aware of thoughts, memories, moods, not trying to suppress them.

Mindfulness of thoughts is meditation. Not trying not to think.

Incandescent presence. Choice-less awareness. Nowness awareness is the true Buddha within.

Letting everything come and go, letting be, as it is.

Aware open, friendly accepting.

And enjoy the joy of natural meditation.

This breath as if the only breath, this moment as if the only moment. Enjoy the joy of naturalness, of genuine meditation.


Tibetan chanting follows…

“May all beings be happy, peaceful, in harmony, fulfilled and serene.

Healed and whole again.

And may we all together fulfill the promise of this spiritual journey.

One family, one sangha community, One world.

All beings, love to one and all.

And I bow to the Buddha in your seat, don’t overlook her. “

I like that, as a substitute for God Bless America some times. 

Yes, that’s what I say, “God Bless Everyone”. Let’s be a blessing in the world, a light, rather than a blight on the landscape. The world needs it.

Thank you..

That was a little natural meditation. You can find these in my books, which are like work books full of practices you can do.

Like breathe, relax, center and smile. 4 steps to instant meditation. Not that complicated. There’s 2600 years of ethics, practices, wisdom, and meditations behind all that.

3 pillars of natural meditations behind it. Just sitting, just breathing, just being aware. These are great practices for today. Secular, non-sectarian, no beliefs or conversions needed.

How did you get on a a path of meditation?

I grew up in the 50’s and sixties, and went to college in New York at the university of New York, university of Buffalo. And his best high school friend, Allison Krause, was shot and killed in may of 1970, along with 3 other students, she was 19. It was a big tragedy. She was running away from the  part-time soldiers, the Ohio national guard. Who shot the students who were demonstrating the secret bombings of Cambodia and Vietnam by Nixon and Kissinger during the Vietnam war era.

That turned his head around about fighting for peace, and the radical anti-war movement. Lama Surya Das wanted to be for something positive. To make peace, become peace, be a peacemaker in the world. Rather than fighting for peace. Which became increasingly a contradiction in terms.

Like today we have suicide bombers, killing in the name of God. I don’t think that is exactly what God has in mind for us. Nothing new about this fanaticism, it’s been going for millennia and centuries. It’s part of our human society, we have to deal with it.

I went to India after graduation from college 1971, went to Zen retreats, meditation, encounter groups, legal and otherwise consciousness research. Hitchhiked across Europe, and middle East, Iran, Afghanistan, India, etc. Went to his first Vipassana course, insight meditation course.

That was in August 1971, with people like Sharon Salzberg, Daniel Coleman, and many of our current mindfulness teachers in America. Then met his first Tibetan teachers, Lamas. His first Hindu guru Neem Karoli Baba, who gave him his name Surya Das.

Surya Das was there throughout the 70’s and 80’s.  Became a Buddhist monk, went to tibetan buddhist training for lamas. Did that twice in the 80’s, learned Tibetan. Was then invited to teach by some of the Vipassana teachers in America. Taught these teachers Dzogchen. His lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, starting in 1989.

By the 90’s started to write books and teach in Europe and America, started Dzogchen centers in America. That’s what he does, teaching, writing, and social activism. Spiritual service, or activism. Make a positive difference in the world. Be a Bodhisattva, an edifier, an awakener. A light in this world.

Now as he gets older, a spiritual elder. A role we sorely need today. Young folks don’t necessarily want authorities, religious leaders. Or trust political leaders. And yet..

We’re all thirsty for for this timeless wisdom, self knowledge, inner teacher, inner peace, outer harmony. How to heal the planet and climate issues. Not very esoteric. Everyone is interested in this today.

I did read in your book, you read a line as a teen, that “the whole universe is my body, all beings are my mind”.  At that time you may not have realized it very deeply, but you were attracted to it right?

Of course, when I was in college, I was a Woodstock. Everyone he knew went to Woodstock. He read books like Aldous Huxley’s Perennial philosophy, Tibetan book of the Dead, Carlos Castaneda’s Yaqui way of knowledge, about his teacher Don Juan.

So he read that, but had no idea, was a kid, a jock, not interested in religion. Had no idea, just studied philosophy in college. He was into psychology, political science, creative writing. So now even now when I look at those notebooks from that day that I wrote down. Maybe I remember some of that. It’s amazing how much was there, and how little I understood about it when I was a kid.

Hormone driven, anti-counter-cultural, Vietnam era. But then it all starts to come back as you open your third eye. When he came back from India, even in the bible, of course humanism, of course Judaism and Christianity, there’s was plenty in there. But growing up, we weren’t that interested in it. Nobody taught us really how to meditate or pray to bring that into our bodies or into our lives.

It was more like oh on Sunday, where you listen to an old person give a boring sermon while reading a book in your lap about a totally different subject.

Right, I was the same way..

That’s what we did. I’m Jewish on my parents side, I was Bar Mitzvah, went to Hebrew school.  There was nothing of interest for me. When he asked all his millions of questions, they would say, “Sheket! “, translated quiet little monkey! Shhh, Shh. OK, I’ll try..

When he landed in India, he went to the meditation course, 10 day mindfulness course, silent for 10 days with S.N. Goenka. Not many questions. Teacher gave one hour talk everyday. Which the insight school is carrying on these days in America. Tara Brach, Jon Kabat Zinn is an offshoot of that. Terrific mindfulness training.

When he was with his first lama grand old masters of Tibet Kalu Rinpoche, he was Dalai Lama’s teacher of the 6 Tibetan Tantric Yogas. He used to pepper him a lot with questions, he had a lot more work and teaching, refuge camps, building schools and infirmaries.

So when Surya Das asked him, is it OK if I ask you all these questions? He said, “Ask me all of your questions, then one day you too will know.”

That was very empowering. Quite different then my, “religious upbringing”. He also gave me practices, self inquiry, ways of thinking, basic Buddhist philosophy and psychology. How to meditate and look into his mind, his feelings. Ways of looking into relationships, ethics and moral precepts. How to develop virtues, like generosity and patience.  Not just believe in them.

Oh Jesus could love the enemy, well I don’t know how? But he taught us how!

To exchange self for others, called Tibetan Tonglen practices. Put yourself in the other’s shoes, equalizing yourself and others. And mindfulness and awareness practices.

I encourage people to question, seek, inquire. Find out for yourself, don’t just belief everything on blind faith. Of course most of us won’t, since many of us are Americans.

Do you think we have to journey into separateness, into a sense of self and other, so we can fully appreciate non-separateness?

Yes. That’s really the universal pageant. It’s a little hard to talk about, so let me talk in English.

God created the world because he/she was lonely. Likes a good story. That is one amusing way of looking at it.

The whole journey back to the Garden of Eden, or oneness or God or beyond separation. First you have to be separate to experience Union, otherwise you have no perspective. 

Like the poet, mystic Saint Kabir of India said, “The fish doesn’t know the sea that there in. ”

“I laugh when I hear that the fish in the water is thirsty.

You don’t grasp the fact that what is most alive of all is inside your own house;
and you walk from one holy city to the next with a confused look!

Kabir will tell you the truth: go wherever you like, to Calcutta or Tibet;
if you can’t find where your soul is hidden,
for you the world will never be real!”
― Kabir

The bubble has to burst to return to the sea, but it has never been apart.

So we’re conceived and we cut the umbilical cord and become separate, and grow up and individuate and become independent. These are healthy stages of development. But then we also have to have a healthy ego, not be an egotistical bastard.

And then, start to recognize interdependence and interconnection. And have autonomy within interdependence, not just be independent like a teenager wants.

Find autonomy and freedom within interdependence. Recognize that we’re not separate, that we’re all interconnected.

As we see in the global level today, with the global economy, environment, ozone layer, rising seas. We’re all connected, we can’t just worry about what’s going on in our village in our own country anymore. And not worry about the bigger issues.

And also individually, nobody can do it alone today. It’s not the age of isolationism of specialists anymore.

Belief me, I’ve tried as a Tibetan monk in monasteries for 8 or 9 years.

We need each other, to develop compassion, empathy, loving-kindness Not just wisdom from the far head up.

The whole journey is about coming home to oneness or ourselves. The subtitle of my book, make me one with everything, is “Buddhist meditations to awaken from the illusion of separation”.

So we have to experience separation in order to come back, just like with love. You can’t know love unless we feel a little separate. Then we can experience the oneness and the union of being one and together, as we come together and apart in a healthy relationship dance.

When you became a monk for those 8 years when you still thought that it was a separate journey, was there a point that you realized that you perspective was shifting from that sense of separate individual journey to we’re part of a larger whole. 

Well it was very gradual in the sense that growing up I was always on sports teams, stayed in one neighborhood, being with my buddies. That was great, and then also in college, and later, a little bit more inner, with hallucinogens, started to write poetry, creatively, songs, develop my inner. That was a little more of the separate. Self growth, self development. Although still with friends, women.

My teachers in India, Nepal, Tibet, even in Japan where Lama Das studied Zen and teaching English. Mostly monks or monastic style, they wanted us to become monks and nuns. Like the Kalu Rinpoche started the first 3 year western training in the west. But I never believed I’d be a monk my own life. I wanted to come back to my own culture. And place and time  and make a difference. Not be an ex-pat in foreign country. It’s different if you’re part of the scene there, like you as a Dutch person married here in America.

But in India it was more separate, like sahibs and memsabs. Like the British invaders. I wanted to go back to my own time and culture, and starting teaching counseling, writing, and organizing, social activism.

As a monk that is very hard to imagine continuing to do that. I didn’t intend to stay a monk forever. As a monk, it gets really complicated. Not being able to do many things. It’s not my vocation anyway. I’m more of a people person, Bhakti, as they say in India. A lover of life, people and of God. God in people, God in nature, God in animals.

So when the 3 year retreats were over after 8/9 years, I gave up my robes.

My message is if I can do it, you can do it, everyone can do it. I’m not different, I’m not the Dalai Lama, I don’t want anyone to idealize me. Just a Jewish jock from Long Island. Like a player coach, let’s do these practices together. It’s a wonderful joyous spiritual path. 

I love this journey of kindred spirits together. I love the beloved community, the Sangha, the Satsang. So gradually I got used to this idea. Starting to see, this is not the time, it’s never the time for selfishness. But self-growth, isolationism, and closing my eyes, and going inward, and being silent for years.

This is the era for integration, collaboration, of the 99% occupying the spirit. Not just the 1% percent waiting for the Dalai Lama or Mother Theresa to do it. 

This is very important, so that is why I wrote this book about co-meditation, inter-meditation, awakening together.

I could tell by the way you wrote it, you want to take the “me” out of Meditation. So you created the new word, inter-meditation. 

Yes from Me-ditation to We-ditation. Not just with people, but with nature, with animals, with the lake, trees, the sun, the sky, with the sound of the waves. And let them do it for you, wash over you and through you. Relax a little, be open, not just close our eyes, and try to get away from it all.

Be with it, not trying to get away from it. Be with it, be open, not against it. Be with it!

Loving kindness means friendliness and openness. And also be friendly and open to what comes up within us. To our own inner phenomena and noumena, the mental stuff, bodily feeling. Healthily integrating it all into our open heart and Big Mind.

It’s the Big Mindfulness. Re-Mindfulness, remembering through member what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. Not just trying to getaway from it all or stop thinking.

To me the sense of integration, that you talk about, is we used to spend a lot of time developing or nurturing the little self, the ego, ignoring the big self. And now when the Big Self is in the foreground, and the little self is in service of the big self. At the same time we need to develop our own unique expression of the Big Self, which is non-repeatable, which has it’s own talents and skills that still need nurturing. Some might think they have to kill their ego, or toss it away. Because the world needs everyone to be there, authentic to show up. 

Authentic, effective, yes. Authentic is a hard word to define. But it’s so important. No need to kill anything or kill your ego. Anti-ego is just another crime. Egotism, “I’m the worst”, or “I’m worse than anybody else!”

I think Buddhist greatest teaching is the middle way. Not too much and not too little. Not ascetic and not indulgent. There’s a lot of room in between, it’s not a razor’s edge. There’s a lot of lanes in the great highway of authentic awakening.  And the awakened life. The mindful life. The beautiful loving true life that everyone deserves. Not in an entitled way, that everyone can have and participate in equally.

There’s a lot of lanes in this great highway of life, let’s just try to stay away from the ditches on either side. Nihilism, nothing matters. Vs Materialism, everything is as real as it seems. If we can’t weight it or see it, it’s not real. That’s materialism. Nihilism and materialism are extreme views, the ditches off the highway. Extreme views. Killing for God mentality.

There’s a lot of lanes in the great highway including the different religions, like humanism, and atheism. Atheists and Agnostics are some of the most spiritual people I know. There’s room for all.

Suicide bombings and genocide, not so much room in my mind for that. We have to deal with that for sure. It’s part of life. And the inequalities and injustices of life make the problem worse. So we have to make some systemic changes, not just change ourselves.

When I become clearer, everything becomes clearer. That’s Buddha’s basic premise. That’s why we meditate, concentrate, self-inquiry. But still we have to work on the outer level, as well as the inner level. 

It’s election year, an important time to step up, speak out, and vote. If you don’t vote, I don’t want to hear you complaining about what’s wrong with politics in Washington.

Being an informed citizen is a co-meditation in a way.

Participating. If you’re a parent you got to participate with the children, not just send them off to school, and hope someone else do the parenting. Stand up for them, going to the school, and being involved.

This is a time for integration, not getting away from it all.

Of course having said that, I got away from it all for a long time. I still lead silent meditation retreats year-round. You can see my schedule, see below in the resources. But I still talk a lot about integration and selfless service, seva.

Linking our hands, hearts and heads. We’re all in the same boat, we rise and fall, sink or swim together.

We got a lot more to do, with terrorism, school shootings, separation and alienation. 

Yes, it’s terrible. The education system in North America. But the gun problem is even more of a crisis than the education crisis. There’s some pretty entrenched lobbies around that issue. Maybe we need to implement more mindful anger management in law enforcement. So people can think before they respond. More mindful management amongst teachers and institutional leaders. And with children. But it’s coming.

Mindful anger management can go a long way to reducing the violence that is becoming so endemic to our society.

These school shootings and mass killings are becoming like a national characteristic. It’s infuriating. Doesn’t happen in Canada. In this country there’s more guns then people! Don’t know why.

Inner peace and outer peace and harmony have to go together. I’m all for it.

You mention in your book, there’s a massive movement towards mindfulness , but folks miss out on some of the spiritual benefits, if they only go for the more mindful this or that. Effectiveness training.

It’s probably always been this way, com-modifying. Different societies generalize the things they import, like Yoga, that came into the 50’s and 60’s. Now probably in the armed forces.

Yoga just for exercise and health is missing out on the real meaning of Yoga, which is Yoga as Union with the Oneness, God, the highness. Missing out on the spiritual dimensions. The 8 limb yoga. Not just physical yoga.

Similarly meditation and mindfulness. Mindfulness for effectiveness, mindfulness for relaxation, for stress relief is terrific. But mindfulness is also part of the Buddhist path of awakening. Brings enlightenment, brings other benefits. Brings wisdom development, less selfishness, more openness. Wouldn’t want us to lose out on those aspects.

If prayer would be only for what you want, like kids petitioning Santa. It would be a big loss.

If mindfulness becomes only about us getting what we want, like feeling a little better, getting a bigger high, reducing blood pressure and stress. It would be a loss from the point of view of wisdom cultivation and development.

Awareness, self-knowledge development, attitude transformation, and so on. Other aspects of mindfulness. When Surya Das teaches, he also teaches about 6 kinds of mindfulness. It’s a very rich subject.

It’s also about soulfulness and heartfulness. Not just about the mind. That’s very American, we love the mind and thoughts. We’re think-aholics! Addicted to thinking. 

But there’s life without thinking! Sometimes we’re having an experience and we’re still there, but not thinking. Like in the throws of ecstatic love making, or other situation, extreme exercise, or lucid dreaming.

Thoughts are a good servant, but a poor master. We’re too much under it’s power. Which is why I stress awareness.

I really appreciate my uncle who was a priest at the time. We were on a boat, about to go under a bridge, and I was standing on the boat about to get my head sliced off. He swore the most highest profanities at the time to get me to immediately bend down, or my head was about to get sliced off. That response was very appropriate!

Yes, you can’t legislate that. We call that wrathful compassion, not anger. He saved your life by cursing at the top of his lungs. If your children run into the street, you scream. You don’t just tiptoe, mindfully, silently toward the street to save them. That would be insane.

Spiritual life practice make us more sane, not insane. 

Meditation is a good friend with benefits.

I wouldn’t want it to be just mindfulness for effectiveness or yoga for health.

And that does require a balance between taking the practice seriously, but holding it lightly..another balance you gotta learn over time. 

Life aint much fun if we’re taking ourselves to seriously. That’s one of the downsides of religion today. It’s become so intimidating, so sectarian. I believe we need to really work to transform the atmosphere of spirituality. Apply it to daily life in many different ways, like mindful anger management, health and stress reduction is all good.

We need to lighten up, as well as enlighten up.

Joy is one of the four boundless virtues of Buddhist practice. Also joy in the good fortune of others, rejoicing. Joy is an important virtue to cultivate. Not just thinking this world sucks, waiting for the next world. 

And your book title, “Make me one with everything”, maybe you can mention this joke.

Here’s the joke! BTW, I’m proud that, “Serious Das” (his wife used to call him that when he got too serious about his practice) has the only book title that I know of, in which the title is the punch line of a joke.

So you probably don’t know what the Dalai said to the hot-dog vendor?

The Dalai Lama walked up to the hot dog vendor and said, “Make me One with Everything!”

But there’s more! So then the vendor starts making the hot-dog, the sweet relish, the crappy onions, bean sprouts, mustard, ketchup, etc.

Then the vendor hands over the hot-dog to the Dalai Lama, and then the Dalai Lama hands over the 10 dollar bill. Then there’s a pregnant pause, a silence, are they meditating? Staring contest? What’s going on? Misunderstanding?

The Dalai Lama then finally gives in, speaks first, “What no change?”

The hot dog vendor responds, “Change must come from within”….:-)

Lightening up, while enlightening up. Not taking ourselves too seriously, and also cultivating the joy. Life is a miracle, we didn’t create it. Everyday we get up is a good day, we’re not dead. We all know folks who are younger and have died or dread diagnosis. In parts of the world where people are in slavery, poverty, wars, famines all the time, or most of the time. etc.

The beautiful nature around us, the freedoms we have in this great country. Increasingly diverse.  Religious freedoms, freedom of speech and so on. Let me add, especially if you’re a white person.

I practice this kind of reverence and gratitude everyday. That makes my heart more joyful. I’m more resilient. Less brittle, less fearful, less cautious. More free and spontaneous. I can give and take. I can breathe in and out. Co-meditate with the difficulties, as well as with the people I like. Have much more resilience, forbearance and tolerance. Joyous, it’s a buoyant awakening.

And the meditation practice is what helps you with these benefits like resilience..

Yes, I’ve been meditating since 19791, when I did that first mindfulness course. Like that American expression, don’t leave home without it. I take it with me everyday, wherever I go.

Sometimes twice a day, sometimes in retreats all day. Sometimes I take part of the Sabbath off to take some time off to meditate. Meditate pray chant. Walking meditation, natural meditation, or sky gazing, lie down, dissolving into the sky, or co-meditation with water. Walk outside without earbuds. Co-meditation helps us integrate, inter-meditate with everything, every moment, even if we’re in a busy place. 

It seems like the lack of appreciation is one of the reasons why there’s so much depression, why people have problems with the world. 

It’s the difference between seeing the half of glass that’s empty and the half that’s full. Or, if things are never good enough for you, if you’re a perfectionist. Or worse insatiable craving or addiction. How those things cycle. It’s hard to get out of it by more of the same things that you’re stuck in. You have to make a quantum leap. Not just a little adjustment.

I’m  not an alcoholic, I’ll just drink less. Well good luck to you if that works. From my understanding, the 12 step program at stopping totally, is the best and almost the only solution for alcoholics. I’m for the middle way, but sometimes you have to be all or nothing with certain things.

With the bad habits, afflictions, things like depression, or other pathologies, maybe we need some psychiatric help, or chemical intervention. Maybe we need to change our diet, or lifestyle. If we can’t change our ways of thinking.

Back to what I believe in is experiential practices. Not just converting to another religion, or converting to another political party, they’re so much the same. But doing the inner work, on oneself, and together. And asking for help, getting help from others who have more experience can be very helpful.

So meditation, self inquiry, support groups, therapy, Tai chi, yoga, or your favorite hobby. Maybe kneeling in the sun in your garden is your way of being closest to the One, rather than kneeling in the church where you have all kinds of other associations. Maybe some creative art is it for you. Authenticity, we have to be honest with ourselves, or imitate someone else’s way. If we’re truth seekers. Not fool ourselves, learn and apply. With our youngers, with our elders, with other species etc.

As a teacher what issues do you see your students struggle the most with?

I shouldn’t tell on them (laughing) from their private consultations, etc. It’s no secret, that westerners mostly struggle with mental stuff. Less so with poverty and disease that you see in other parts of the world. Like genocide, being refugees, or having your family members disappeared, kidnapped.

A lost of his students struggle with relationships. The search for love and wholeness. The feelings of incompleteness, feelings of loneliness and isolation. Meaninglessness, what’s it all about in life. Why bad things happen to good people. People with various cancers, ill children, parents, to take care of. These are things that people struggling with, and have always struggled with.

That’s why I’m thinking about co-meditation. The difficulty or challenge. Being with it not trying to get away from it. The “enemy”, like a disease. To be with it, breathe with it, learn to tolerate it, be more patient less resistant.

See through the illusion of separation, is a great antidote to all this mental suffering. 

You don’t just mean intellectual..

Breathing with it, tolerating. Like befriend anxiety, if you have difficult feelings. Not fighting it, thinking it has to go away. Or over-medicating it away. Like sweeping crap under the rug. Where it festers. Throwing radioactive waste into the ocean. So we don’t have to deal with it. Of course our children would have to deal with it. Breathing through physical pain. Moving your attention can move your world in a positive direction.

Recognizing the inter-connectedness, putting yourself in others shoes. If your “enemy”, “bad” boss, (bad is subjective) employee, neighbors, if you have a problematic relationship. If you put yourself in their shoes, you might see yourself very differently.

We might have been the Hitler youth, if we’d been brought up in Nazi Germany. With the boy scouts, everyone was in the Hitler youth. You have to say that these extremists from the middle east. I don’t know that I’d be a terrorist. But they’re very loyal to their parents, their schools, just like we were. They’re not that different. They have the universal commonality of human beings, we love our land, our children, etc. We gotta find some common ground. Doesn’t mean we have to have the same religion.

Look at our gridlocked separateness in our nation’s capital. The partisan politics. Nobody can get anything done. It’s a real problem if we can’t find a third or fourth way, and see through the illusion of separateness. And get to the greater common good.

We have to take relational actional steps, learning, inquiring steps.

This Tibetan practice about riding the breath is very helpful and important today. Breathing in the difficulty, with Tibetan Tonglen practice is very important. Equalizing self and other.

You mention the shootings, it’s about what we’ve been talking about. Why do people do it, it’s about feeling separate, excluded, meaningless, victimized, pushed out, no one will listen to me. I’m gonna make a statement, extreme statement, because I’m not heard. We need to address these issues.

And the spiritual practice and path is a timeless and evergreen path to addressing these big life questions. 

What further encouragement would you give someone listening who’s not fully committed or sure why they’re practicing?

Nobody fully understands it, I don’t pretend to fully understand. Life is a mystery.  We have to live it. It’s like love, who fully understands love? But some are better than others, they become good lovers, good loving people. Like Buddha or Christ like love. Buddha said only go where invited, and when people ask. You can’t push people. So if people ask, then I share the best that I can.

In general I don’t need people to be different then they are. If they’re interested and looking where I’m looking, then we can start to “co-meditate” together. Discuss, and practice together. I’m not that square that I think everyone should meditate. There are people who should not meditate, like extreme introverts. They might do better with a relational spiritual practice.  Being involved with others, like sing and dance and chant.

Tai chi was a big one for me when I was young. A martial art, not an us/them martial art, an internal martial art. 

Yes, that’s more like contemplation in action, it’s a very good competitive sports. They train kids in ethics, character, self empowerment, courage, I advocate that for sure. Also, as my wife used to say it’s un-american to sit quietly and do nothing. Tai Chi, Chi gong, yoga. Especially with the younger people. It’s a little late when kids are already in college, their habits are already entrenched. It’s hard to change.

Since I was in college I’ve been working in this self-growth and transformation biz. And it’s still hard to change!

But a little acceptance goes a long way to transform your relations, which is the point. Self-acceptance, other acceptance. radical acceptance. I love Tara Brach’s, Radical Acceptance book. Much recommended.

So there’s definitely a discernment where you can’t just shove down each person’s throat to meditate.

Yes, that’s aggressive. Only teach where asked, not intervene. Maybe you don’t really know better than them. People used to say, how can I get my family to go to church, eat vegetarian, do this or that, etc. How can I get them to do what I want them to do. That’s not my situation. What we’re talking about is a journey where you can easily be their travel agent. Not for everyone, inner travel.

So it’s important for everyone today to take a breath, and slow down, breathe, relax, center and smile. Have a moment of prayer, connect with yourself. Not always thinking or looking down the road into the future. Sit in the car and feel the feelings in your bud cheeks and in your hands, not just thinking about where you’re going to arrive.

More fully inhabit your body and mind, and spirit, energy and soul. And then see about authenticity, inquiring into about what you’re deceiving yourself about. Or denying, or “bad habits” that you always wanted to change, but never can.

This is all part of working on ourselves, very doable. Just wise and sane, and the world needs that.

The head is the office, the heart is the home.

Try to live from the heart. Be kind and compassionate to others. 

And then the method doesn’t matter, as long as you’re moving towards the heart. 

And it’s an infinite journey, so there’s no hurry. Hasten slowly, and you shall soon arrive as the Chinese proverb says.

Life moves fast, you must move slowly. 

That’s what this podcast for me is about to, I like to interview folks from very differing backgrounds. I have a more Zen background, I do believe that everyone has to find what works for them. As long as it makes them more loving and move towards non-separation, then whatever works for them. 

Right as long as it doesn’t intrude on others. We all have the right to be as eccentric as we want to be, if it fits. If the Nazis want to march, but they’re not to genocide.

We have to live by that, and also for ourselves. We have to respect others, and respect ourselves. We don’t want to fit into someone else’s mold. That’s imitation. Not just sit there like ice cubes in a tray, like in a Zen monastery. Everyone on a cushion, same position, at the same time.

If you’re a single mom with 3 kids, that’s probably not going to be your practice for the next 20 years. There’s got to be another way. There’s a million ways to worship and to reverence and to be beautiful in this world. All different kinds of flowers in “God’s Garden”. Not just one kind, just roses, not just lotuses. 

And a lot of gardeners. 

If you have a ending poem that helps people feel less separate. 

Let me chant out my millennium prayer that I wrote and said on the radio of Y2K.

May all beings everywhere, with whom we are inseparably interconnected

And who want and need the same as we do

May all be awakened, liberated, healed, fulfilled, and free

May there peace and harmony in this world, and an end to war, violence, injustice, poverty, and oppression.

And may we all together fulfill the promise of the spiritual journey.

All together now, one family, one sangha, one beloved community, all one.

In love, the heart of the matter.

And I bow to the Buddha in your seat, don’t overlook her.. friends.

Thank you.


Lama Surya Das Books 

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