Interview with Kenley Neufeld of the Deer Park Buddhist Mindfulness Community. Kenley was ordained in 2005 by Thich Nhat Hanh as a lay-practitioner in the Order of Interbeing with the dharma name, True Recollection of Joy. Kenley received the Lamp of Wisdom, permission to teach, from Thich Nhat Hanh in 2012.
This is a summary (not a full transcript) of the interview
What brought you to a meditation practice?
How did you get started with meditation?
Kenley took a world religion class in the late 80’s. Then in the 90’s he’d been participating in 12-step recovery process in San Francisco where he lived at the time. The program had a meditation portion. He then went to a Zen Center, and didn’t get into it. But after picking up a book, and sitting by himself worked better initially.
So it blossomed out of the 12 step recovery experience. He wanted to try meditation to get in touch with the spiritual side of his life.
Is the meditation offered as part of the 12-step?
Yes, some it’s part of the spiritual practice and some of the groups do it. To deepen our spiritual practice, and being able to sit still and be able to reflect on this thing called life, and the directions we want to go.
He just wanted to do a little more than was offered. It was an easy segway to explore for himself. He”s always been on a spiritual journey for most of his life.
Where there any particular struggles at the time?
It was more of a general spiritual search. He was taking his recovery very seriously at the time. And one of the steps is to explore meditation. So he was trying to explore meditation. Coupled with his experience with the world religion. His wife also gave him a book, “Peace is every Step” which also influenced Kenley.
As you practiced over the years, did you see other good reasons to practice, like finding it helpful to pay attention for example? Was there an aha moment?
It didn’t really come until years later. 1995-2001 he did meditation regularly, he like the way it helped him to stop and become aware of his body. It was still very rooted in the recovery program, it was part of the puzzle of being clean and sober.
But something happened that pushed him unto the high speed conveyor belt, moving forward on a path of mindfulness and meditation and transformed his being in a much more significant way, then all those years he did it on his own.
Yeah there is a big difference, between doing it on your own and with a community or group?
Yes, what happened is September 11, 2001 (the terrorist attacks for those unfamiliar). Kenley was quite traumatized on different levels. Some experienced the horror of the towers coming down, but also our response to that. That is what pushed him to see clearly how important community was.
He was drawn to, and needed to draw himself in to others who felt like they could bring peace, and be peace in the world. And he couldn’t do this by himself, or through the recovery program.
He needed to find a spiritual community that embodied that concept of being peace in this world.
So he went to the Deer Park Buddhist monastery in Escondido, California, and learned about being in community with people. And he went home to Fresno, CA where he was living, and started a Sangha (community).
And that completely changed everything for him, just sitting and being in a community and practicing with people. Allowed him to walk through this very dark time in American history. We struggled as a nation.
Being in a Sangha helped him to navigate that, and not let anger be the primary feeling in his life. He felt meditation could transform that anger from 9/11.
When you saw the reaction of a lot of Americans and the world. You wanted to respond in a different way than with anger..
Yes, absolutely. The timing was amazing, because Thich Nhat Hanh had just published a book around 2001, called Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames
And he was on tour at that time. And he was reading it, and he realized he had to do something different in his life, put more effort into what Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh’s nickname) is talking about.
He is a teacher who speaks extensively about Sangha. Community is so important to our well-being and society. How important the 3 jewels are, buddha, dharma (teachings) and sangha (community). Thay’s teachings on peace, social work, social justice work. That really attracted me to his community in particular, that’s where I decided to put my energy and time.
You also mentioned (as part of your commencement address), that a lone person shot up the UC Santa Barbara campus across town? How does loneliness contribute to the anger?
He was a student of this Campus as well. This goes back to the idea of community. The human being really craves to be together with others.
In this last century we’ve become disconnected from the roots of our families and communities. It’s so easy to move around, travel and live a thousand miles away from them. That was not the case earlier times. Not to say there is no suffering in those environments. All those elements build the support network that allows for us to see each other.
Not being seen builds this loneliness, coupled with mental illness can lead to those tragic events.
I do believe, we can work together as communities to bring a little bit more well-being into society. It starts with our own selves, with our own practice. How we’re able to transform our own suffering, our own loneliness, and being able to see with a different set of eyes.
Thay talks about looking deeply, to see you’re not a separate self.
Yes, the inter-being nature of all that exists. Essentially, we all come down to being star dust, all the way to the present. We have this relationship with this planet, there is no way to separate each other. Without the sun for example, a big thing that is clear, without the sun there would be no life. But that can all come down to our most intimate relationships. And how we connect with each other, the connection between the past and the present. Which can then inform the future.
Explain Inter-being a bit more for someone new to this?
For me that means there is this idea that there isn’t any separate self. I am because you are. Because there is this connection between us. Our relationship exists, my well being and my taking care of the plants, will bring well-being for more than just me. For everyone else as well. For example, on a physical level, the air in my house is exchanged between my family, my self, pets, plants, etc.
There is no separate self, this is one of the most deepest teachings of the Buddha. Thay says, we can’t have the lotus without the mud. There is this relationship with the lotus and the mud. That is that inter-being nature of all things.
What types of things do you still struggle with today?
I always need to come back to, and remind myself that meditation is not just what I do on the cushion in the morning when I get up. I spend my 45 minutes or so in meditation to bring awareness to my breathing, and look deeply at something in my life.
But what i try to remind myself is that that meditation is what I try to do each moment of the day, and how I wake up in the morning, how I walk across the floor, how I brush my teeth, How I prepare my meal, how I drive my car, how I interact with the people at work.
It’s not a struggle, more of trying to always remind myself that each moment is a moment to be mindful. And to be present for what is in front of me.
Just like we’re speaking right now. When misc thoughts arrive, like “why did I say that”, that could be going on in my mind when I talk with you.
Meditation is being aware that this is happening.
Recognizing that it’s happening, and
Letting it go…(without judgement)
If I can do that in all aspects of my life, then I walk more in a free way, can be more at ease with my interactions, and those things that go on around me. That’s what I try do with my meditation these days with varying degrees of success..
What advice would you have for folks who do struggle with those types of things, bringing their meditation, their presence, being fully present into their daily life?
The best thing we can do to support our practice, is to create an environment in which we can practice. I try to set up conditions and reminders, so that I can have that opportunity to practice. Whether a little sign by the sink that has a little Gatha, that reminds/tells him what to do when brushing my teach. So I set up a condition to allow that to happen in the bathroom.
I’ve trained my mind to have a little verse. When I wake up , i have a little verse, it took months, perhaps a couple years to automatically remember this when I wake up.
“Waking up this morning, I smile. Twenty-four brand new hours are before me. I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion and love.”
So that when I wake up, it just comes, it arrives. It takes some training, so start with a note. This also comes in my work environment. I want to be present for the people at work. I put the computer out of the way, so I have to really talk with them, not have that screen distraction. I keep my desk clear as well. Again setting up a condition, so that there is nothing there to distract me from being there for this other person. This is there for me, to remind me.
That is how I practice my mindfulness in each moment.
Do you also take out time-outs during the day to take a few breaths, (mini-meditations)?
Yes, he uses a computer program to call for him to stop occasionally and take a breath.
Walking Meditation at work
He also practices walking meditation when he moves between buildings on his campus. All it needs to do is bring attention to your breathing, and your footsteps, and avoid the texting, phones, etc, distractions. Keep that in his pocket, and enjoy the beauty of the environment where he works in. Avoid multi-tasking. It all takes discipline, a lot of years.
There are so many opportunities for practice.
The sitting practice informs the rest of the day, so that part is important. Looking deeply into my being, it would be more challenging if I did not do that. It would be harder to bring that awareness into other parts of my life without the sitting practice at the beginning of the day.
There is no such thing as multi-tasking. See research debunking the virtues of multi-tasking. It is really switching activities quickly, is not good for cognitive process. It could have long term impacts. Kenley has made changes in his physical environment to support LESS multi-tasking. Like turning off all notifications on his phone. It’s no good for it to be beeping at him every 20 seconds. He doesn’t need those constant distractions.
Thay is a good example, takes his time drinking his tea, and yet super productive, he’s written like 90-100 books now?
Yes, I look at someone like my teacher, with seemingly endless energy, almost 90 years old. So there is a way to do it, and be peaceful and free.
Having the mindfulness practice helps to ground myself, and know when to be productive, and also when to rest and take care of myself. To take it easy and not push myself. He’s definitely an inspiration. He’s currently recovering from a stroke.
What do you think Thay means, when he says, “The Buddha is the Sangha”?
He talks about the collective awakening we need, the power of the community. Like M Luther King, about the beloved community. We have this ability if we work together, to transform ourselves, our communities, and the world. We don’t need to go into dispair. There is this capacity to go beyond that. The “Buddha community”, being our capacity to live in harmony and transform our society and our world.
Also a not just one person responsible, co-responsible to awaken.
We all have this capacity to wake up, individually. Each one of us, we can do this together also.
Do you see this at your work, any movement towards mindfulness into the institutional culture, to the physical campus?
Yes, the wake up community 18-35 year folks. They will go out and offer programs, and lead meditations with college campuses. Kenley also does a meditation group on his campus, not affiliated with religious organization. Not yet a dedicated space yet. He’s always done it in his office so far.
It’s starting to happen more in the corporate world, with providing opportunities and spaces for employees.
- Ojai Mindfulness.org
- Practice Centers also in Deer park Monastery (also in Germany, NY, Hong Kong, Australia, Thailand, and France)
- Wake Up for young people (Wake Up is an active global community of young
mindfulness practitioners, aged 18-35, inspired by the teachings of Zen Master and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. They come together to practice mindfulness in order to take care of themselves, nourish happiness and contribute to building a healthier and a more compassionate society.)
- Books discussed:
Bonus Guided Mini-Meditation by Kenley Neufeld
- Why do we use the bell?
- This bell is a lovely sound to help harmonize our breathing and our body.
- It’s an opportunity to come back to our true selves, to come back fully to this present moment in time.
- To be able to let go of our worries, our projects, to come back fully to this present moment in time.
- To be able to give all our attention to the sound of the bell.
- Breathing in, I hear this sound of the bell.
When I invite the bell I have a verse (invite is a gentler term chosen then striking a bell)
Sending my heart along with the sound of this bell, may the hearer awaken from forgetfulness, and transcend all anxiety and sorrow.
You as the listener can come back to your breath, and be present, and listen, listen to this wonderful sound of this bell. Calling you back to your true home.
The following video was discussed in this interview, as a mindfulness tool for during an 8 hour work day. The bells will go off every 30 minutes, allowing you to take a few breaths, and a time-out, increasing your energy and productivity.