MF 38 – Nourishing Meditation Practice Remotely with Wild Mind Teacher and Founder Bodhipaksa
Biography: Bodhipaksa is an accomplished teacher, published author, and founder of the popular Wildmind web site. He recently (Oct 2012) gave a TEDx talk on compassion (“The Surprising Secret of Unlocking Compassion”).
He has been meditating and practicing Buddhism since 1982. He was ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order (former known as the Western Buddhist Order) in 1993. In addition to his work with Wildmind, he leads activities at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, New Hampshire, and for nine years he has taught a summer course to low income teens at the University of New Hampshire.
He was formerly the director of a retreat center in Scotland, and was center director at the Rocky Mountain Buddhist Center in Missoula, Montana. He completed a Master’s degree in Buddhist approaches to business at the university of Montana, and founded Wildmind in 2001.
He has published several books and audiobooks on aspects of meditation and Buddhist practice, and is well-known for his guided meditation recordings. As the director of Wildmind and the father of two young children, Bodhipaksa understands the challenges of balancing a meditation practice with a busy life. His online courses have been running since 2002, and he has received consistent praise for his practical, down-to-earth approach as well as his care for and commitment to each student.
What brought you to a meditation practice?
It was a confluence of things in his life. Bodhipaksa was young and in high school, 17 or 18 years old, when he got interested in finding some kind of religious path, to find meaning and purpose in his life.
He did some exploration of left-wing politics, in an era where the communist party was very strong at the time. It was idealistic, socialism that attracted him. He’d been an atheist since he was eleven years old, the concept of God didn’t make sense at all. He did go back to the New Testament, interested in the ethical teachings of the New Testament.
He did come across references of Buddhism. It was not well known in Scotland at that time. But Buddhism made sense to him. It was rational to him, and didn’t require any belief in a supernatural being, etc.
At that same time, he went through a personal crisis as well. His friends went off to do other things, and left the area. His friends were very important to him, and he experienced a lot suffering. He felt quite lonely, anxiety, and a feeling of not fitting in. He had a hard time getting on with the people remaining.
Bodhipaksa was looking for something that gave his life meaning and purpose.
The idea of meditation as being a way of finding happiness within oneself was attractive to him. Because the outside world didn’t seem at all reliable.
Unfortunately there was no way for him to get to a meditation class. The nearest town was about 30 miles away, and might as well be on the other side of the world, as he didn’t drive. So it wasn’t until Bodhipaksa went to Glasgow, to the university, and he saw posters around campus, until he started going to these classes.
Did your sense of what you were looking for change as you started going to these classes? Anything you wanted to delve more deeply into?
Bodhipaksa had some particular experiences fairly early on. On particular day, he was with some classmates, and they were sitting together in the car to go home. And he was in a terrible mood, he tended to be very irritable in those days. In some ways he was quiet sensitive, and irritation was his defense mechanism in those days. He was listening to this conversation these two girls were having, and getting annoyed at how trivial and trite it seemed. But he caught himself getting really annoyed.
“And I remembered this loving-kindness practice that he had learned. And just started saying to myself, “May I be well…. may I be happy… may I be free from suffering”. And it completely stunned me, but after 3 or 4 minutes of this, I actually felt really happy! Nothing mystical, or anything like that, meditation just works.”
Yeah, it’s pretty radical..
It does actually work. Today, I’m getting into teaching very short meditations to people, just 3 or 4 minutes long. They very often, almost everyone reports they’ve experienced a change in their level of well-being.
The reason for teaching these short meditations is because he’s very interested in helping people to make meditation part of their life. The trouble is that we teach meditation, make them sit through 25, 35, or 45 minutes of meditation.
People can get the idea that meditation isn’t real meditation, no point in doing it, unless you sit for 45 minutes. And then they go home at the end of the meditation class, and the next day its like, OK, I suppose I should meditate. Do I have 30 or 40 spare minutes?
No of course they don’t, because their lives are already full, they’ve already got a bunch of habits and responsibilities. And because they have this idea that it has to be a full fledged long meditation, or it is not a real meditation. And they end up not doing it at all.
So Bodhipaksa tries to encourage people to just try tiny 3 or 4 minutes of meditation, this is what you can do. He gets them to do the meditation standing up, or sitting in a chair. Get the idea across that you don’t need special equipment, get all setup, or lighting all the candles.
Yes, in our daily life is where the real fruits of meditation are..
Yes, especially with regularity, consistency in practice.
Do you find that the folks who do the mini meditations repeat the meditations until it becomes part of their lives..that something kicks in that activates within the person that then practices automatically, where it might be really helpful to de-escalate the inner turmoil?
Yes, I think it’s quite hard for people to start meditating on their own. This is maybe another reason to encourage people to do shorter meditations. Because what we’re asking people to do is to apply a certain mindset, things like being patient, and kind with yourself. Recognizing that it’s OK to be distracted. You’re not the worst meditator in the world because your mind is distracted and all over the place.
People bring a lot of unhelpful attitudes into the practice, so it can be quite difficult to get a meditation practice established.
Did you find that as you as you bring these meditations online, that this influences the way you’re doing these meditations? Because some of the folks are like you were when you were young in a remote place far away from a meditation center. So maybe that is part of the reason why you decided you wanted to bring it online to make it accessible to people who are like you at an earlier time in your life?
That’s really interesting. I haven’t made that connection before but i think that’s quite possibly the case. Yeah I have a very strong sympathetic, empathetic response to people who are in isolated situations, and who find it difficult to get a meditation practice started, and there are a lot of them.
How many are there, what is that like since you’ve been doing this since 2001?
Yeah, I’ve doing it for a long time. I mean when I said there’s a lot of them I was thinking there’s a lot of people in a similar situation and perhaps the entire state where there’s hardly any meditations centers. And you have to travel like a 120 miles to get to a meditation center.
But in terms of how many I managed to reach through online activities is quite difficult to count. We have a lot of traffic to our website. I have this website with structured guides to meditation, all free. There’s recorded guided meditations that you can listen to. The Wild Mind web site get something like a 150.ooo thousand visits per month.
Wow, that’s a lot.
Yeah, and they’re all over the world as well so when the last time I looked, there were visitors from every country in the world except for think Western Sahara. It’s a disputed area, government or maybe there’s not even the internet there. Quite possibly there’s no internet connection.
You wrote a couple of books about diets. Did that change as a result of meditation in any way?
Yes, it did interestingly. To put this in context. I first got in touch with a practicing Buddhist since I’ve been meditating. I was going to the University of Glasgow and I was training to be a veterinarian which is something that I had wanted to be for a long long time. Since it was a long time, probably since I was about 14 years old.
I was in contact with Buddhists and most of the Buddhists I knew where vegetarian. And I actually hung around with Buddhists a lot. I really enjoyed being with them. I was actually working with a Buddhist company during my summer vacation. We’d eat with each other, going to each other’s houses after working all day. So I was eating a lot of vegetarian food but I was almost militantly anti-vegetarian.
People would say you’re eating a dead animal. I didn’t affect me at all at that time. It was completely normal and natural to me to eat meat. And then my entire veterinary class went to a slaughter house.
One of the things that you’re trained to do as a veterinarian is meat inspection. Two aspects to it There’s the welfare of animals before they die, and there’s also inspecting carcasses to make sure they’re not diseased so that cancer and infections and things don’t get to the food supply. So we had to go and learn how to do these things.
And the very first day I went into the slaughterhouse was quite horrifying. First of all those the smell of the place felt absolutely disgusting. Nobody else having this reaction I think it was possibly because I had just for several months not been eating much meat and been living a vegetarian diet. As I was hanging around with other vegetarians.
I had to have a scarf wrapped around my face to try to filter out some of the smell. And then we went through into the killing floor to have a look at the end of the day and they’d finished slaughtering animals for the day. There was a pig which had been spotted which had been quite badly injured. And the animal welfare rules say, that the animals to be killed as quickly as possible. So I saw my first pig being slaughtered, by being shot in the head and having its throat cut and bleeding on the floor.
And at that point the question or statement, “you do realize that that meat is a dead animal” is something that made sense. I didn’t actually make a conscious decision to become a vegetarian. I just went home and I couldn’t eat it anymore. We already had some meat that we bought for our meal. And I just looked at it and I realized I can’t eat this. And I think it was a combination of, as I mentioned not having it very much meat for a while, while hanging out with vegetarians. Their philosophical approach to vegetarianism had not really affected me on a conscious level.
I think the meditation practice that I’ve been doing had perhaps woken me up. Because I was the only person out of like 40, 45 people. The only one who had this kind of response.
I don’t want to have anything to do with this.
Yeah so that it opened you up in in a sense to the the suffering of someone else. Kind of like an empathetic response.
I think so yeah. I’ve been doing a combination of mindfulness of breathing and loving-kindness practice for several months. And at that point I think it opened me up in an empathetic way.
I also noticed on your website you mentioned you see your children as your spiritual teachers. Maybe you can explain that a little bit what you mean.
Well , so you’re a meditation teacher and you go and teach your meditation class. You’re friendly and understanding to everybody, even when people can be quite difficult. And you’re patient with them. It is much more difficult to maintain that sense of, I’m in public, and I’m in charge of myself and I am emotionally non-reactive, kind and patient.
It’s much more difficult to maintain that kind of equanimity when you’ve got a child who’s screaming at you. Or having a temper tantrum or really upset about something. Doesn’t want to do what you want to do. Or even when they’re sick you know. When my kids were really young and I’d have to stay up half the night, holding them up right because they couldn’t sleep lying down, because of an earache, etc.
It really tests you. Children push your buttons and they learn how to push your buttons . So it teaches you to practice patience and kindness in a much deeper level. Because when you’re doing it at the meditation class, it’s relatively easy to do.
When you’re in public and people are watching you, you’re on your best behavior. But you can also remember to be on your best behavior all the time when with your kids. And you don’t feel like anyone is watching you when you’re on your own with them.
Yeah just like at the workplace, you know it’s easier to be nice there too because you’re you’re also getting getting paid to be there and so forth.
I think sometimes the amount of time that people spend at work leads to that familiarity that breeds contempt. That’s also a very good practice place for sure. Especially at meetings, where people disagree with you, it’s very easy to get heated and to get stubborn.
And in terms of your website, what inspired you to decide to do the Wild Mind web site about meditation full time? What what makes you realize this is something that you wanted to do full time right?
It is now. It was not full time at first, it was a very part time thing for a long time. The idea for the website came to me but I was doing a master’s degree at the University of Montana. And I had this decision that I wanted to go and study Buddhism at University. I wanted to do a master’s in Buddhism.
And the reason for that was because being smart can be a bit of a problem sometimes, because it can seem quite easy to get your head around Buddhist teachings. And because you think you understand it, you don’t ask yourself the deeper questions, like do I really understand this?
On an experiential level. Does this even make sense. Are there contradictions. Because you can sometimes find yourself holding contradictory ideas in your head. And you can flip from one to the other without even realizing that you’re doing. It is very common to do that. So I wanted to be challenged to think more deeply about about the Dharma, about Buddhism.
And I was lucky enough to bump into professor of Buddhist Studies who is looking for a teaching assistant. And a teaching assistantship would pay for a masters degree.
However, and this was a real stroke of good luck. It wasn’t possible to do a pure masters in Buddhism at this particular University. There weren’t enough for credit courses available. So was gonna have to do some kind of interdisciplinary masters. And choose two different areas of Buddhism. And something else and focus on both of those areas but especially on the overlap between them and I considered various options. I was quite interested at one point in studying Zen Buddhism and so on studying Japanese. But my adviser pointed out that would take many many years to develop enough proficiency in Japanese and Chinese, which I’d also have to learn, classical Chinese, in order to be able to make any use of that.
And it occurred to me that one of the things I’d always really love doing was running businesses. Hadn’t really thought of myself as doing that. But when I was in Glasgow and involved in Dharma center there, I volunteered to run the book shop. I love the craft of taking something and making it work well. And making it appealing to people. Increasing the range of books there, expanding things, building things up
So I love that, and then moved into a Buddhist center for a number of years. A retreat center in the Highlands of Scotland when I arrived it was a very small scale operation then. Again I just love building it up and be able to reach more people and being the benefit more people.
And so I thought well maybe I could study Buddhism and business. A really intreaging thing to do. Most people do what you’re doing right now and give a little nervous laugh. Buddhism, business? Aren’t they the complete opposite? (laughing)
But of course in the Buddhist teaching there’s the 8 fold path, which is the core teaching of Buddhism, and one of the aspects of the eight fold path, is right livelihood . So that’s Buddhism and business. It’s how to make your work into a practice.
So I was studying classes in the business school and I was studying Buddhism in the philosophy department. And I was trying to think what am I gonna do with this degree. Where is this going to go. I had friends who were Buddhists who were running businesses, and I got involved. And looked at whether I might be able to apply the principles I was learning to their particular businesses.
Hello dogs! (NOTE: Sorry, the dogs were barking for a few seconds at this point..As you can see, our dogs can be troublemakers. They want to apparently insert themselves not just in pots, pans, and trashcans, but also in the podcast!)
And then it just it just came to me one day, but it just came to me that the internet at that time (around 2000) was not a good place to go if you want to learn meditation. There were people who were advertising meditation classes there, but you can’t go onto the internet at a particular time and learn how to meditate.
And I thought well you know you can. People don’t think it’s unusual to learn meditation from a book to go out and buy tons of books about meditation. People don’t think it’s unusual to go out and buy a CD on meditation. And then you can do all of those things on the internet.
So I worked on putting together a structured program, and actually wrote a grant proposal to the Council of learned societies and managed to get some grant money. Which funded me for a summer to work on writing and recording some material and I tried to make in the University first of all of it was an online course. Just within the university and then I you know that started the website and that was 2001 November 2001.
And and then it started attracting people to come to it, and and how did you do change over time, to meet whatever needs they had. Did you just do it based on whatever feedback you got?
Well things just kind of evolved. My original idea was just have a website where people can come and we can learn something about meditation. And that was it. Trouble, I was a graduate student and I could barely scrape through a week and feed myself. Never mind set a website. I had a friend who was a Buddhist was fairly successful businessman and I told them about my idea for this website and I said I’d probably need a couple hundred dollars to get started. He said, no problem at all more like this one particular time. He asked if I thought about doing meditation classes online, because he knew I was a meditation teacher. And I thought, yeah I know how I could do that. I Immediately thought about how you could you could do that with discussion forum and readings and guided meditations.
And so after starting their website I moved into having online courses . And people liked the recordings I done. So tried to put some of those CD and CD did very well. And things just gonna took off from there.
And then did the CD’s then turn into downloadable audio?
Yeah we’ve the website now has a an online store, where you can buy CDs. The online courses have changed quite dramatically. I used to work with a small number of people quite intensively. And have a daily correspondence with them about their practice. That limits you to a small number though.
Now there’s a suggested donation, no fixed charges. If you got some more money use another level of donation. And so you know we’re getting in our most recent course there is like 227 people.
You also mentioned prison, do you the same way with them?
Yeah for several years I went along to the state prison for men in Concord, New Hampshire, where there was already a meditation group. They don’t have a lot of internet access in prison, for obvious reasons. So that was actually an incredibly fulfilling thing to do. This was quite frustrating in some ways not because of the inmates that the staff was often making it quite difficult. I would drive an hour there and discover that was something else planned at the chapel that day, and no one had bothered to call any of the volunteers. So you drive an hour home again. So sometimes it it was quite frustrating.
But the amazing thing was that these guys had an incredible depth of practice, as they were living in very difficult circumstances and the Dharma practice, their meditation practice was a lifesaver. But it was actually inspirational to be with a group of people who are so committed to the practice.
It was much more satisfying in many ways then teaching meditation class in my my local Dharma center just down the road. Where you know in some cases people would come along and meditate in the evening. But that was the only meditation that they did all week.
It’s almost like that image of your hair being on fire. I have a sense that if you’re in prison you’re more willing to make a full commitment. Then in the case that you’re not in prison where you got lots of distractions and other things.
Yeah absolutely the problem became one of time and resources. My then wife and I adopted two children , and she wasn’t working anymore, because she was staying with them. Staying at home to look after the children. And a lot less money came in, and I just have to be more careful about how I spent my time. So unfortunately there was one of the things I had to withdraw.
Their group is still meeting by the other people who stepped. I also went down to a couple of prisons in Massachusetts as well to manage to get somebody else to take over.
And you also mentioned you worked with low-income teens have at one point.
That was the University of New Hampshire. There was a program there is actually a federally funded program called Upward Bound. And everyone thinks I’m saying outward bound, and think it’s about camping. It’s a federally funded program that started in the nineteen sixties. Back in the days when people had a consensus around helping people from low-income families to get into higher education, and when they saw it as a good thing. Because it would strengthen the nation, because you’re tapping into talent, that might otherwise go unrealized.
And so the program means to help teens from low-income families prepare for college. Very well actually none of their parents have ever been to college. Often their parents are quite impoverished. Sometimes now your mental health problems substance abuse problems etc. So they were great bunch of kids and I did that for ten years. I have very tentatively started doing some meditation with them. I was basically asked to come in and help teach them study skills and personal development skills. And I was a little hesitant about it at first, because it’s something that really precious to me. And the thought of taking something very precious and offering up to a bunch of people who might not appreciate it, or think it was boring or dull or something like that that was that was scary.
But I took the risk and I started introducing to meditation to the low-income kids, and found out very quickly it was their favorite thing of everything that was being taught. And they wanted more of it. It became a regular thing, and we did it in every single class. And they found that very beneficial.
Did you notice it changed them as well?
It’s kinda hard to tell, whether meditation changes people. I mean I’m getting a bunch of people I don’t really know very well I’m teaching to meditate. By the time I’m getting to know them they had only been meditating for a few weeks. But a lot of them said that they find it helpful. I have to go on their reports, rather than mine.
How do you explain Wild Mind in terms of working with habit patterns?
It was just a name. Well it’s become in a way just the name. I would explain it in terms of ecosystem for example. An ecosystem doesn’t have anyone in control of it. There was no one saying, okay we’ve got too many insects you know, let’s send in the birds. There’s no one saying, oh, there’s a clearing. Let’s plant seeds so that some trees drop. It just all you know works perfectly and beautifully.
So meditation can bring about something like that as well. First we feel compelled to meddle with our minds. Feeling like we always need to be doing something. And actually we do need to do something at first. You know we need to make some kind of an effort. But with practice you can get more of a sense that your meditation practice is just happening. It’s just something that’s just arising within you. And it can happen quite beautifully.
There can be no conscious intent to do anything. You’re just sitting there. It’s like sitting observing a forest and seeing all the life going about its business, doing whatever it does, staying, keeping in balance. And it can be like that with the mind well. You’re not doing anything but sitting there.
And sometimes even when you’re not watching you get the sense there’s things going on. I’ve had many times in my meditation practice, where I’ve become mildly distracted. And I’m thinking about something, and then I realized. Oh, I’m distracted, let’s go back to my experiences and notice what my experience is. And I find that my experience is very different from what it was before I got distracted.
Suddenly now I’m really happy. And it’s really easy to be calm. My mind feels bright and I feel energized And it’s like, while my attention was out of the way, some parts of me were collaborating to produce this beautiful experience for me to come back to.
And so, yeah there is there is a sense in which I’m using this word Wild Mind, to suggest something quite expansive. Also tend to use a lot of nature images.
I think all meditation teachers end up using a lot of nature imagery, as it is very evocative. So we talk about sitting like a mountain.
We talk about letting your mind be like water so the water. You stop stirring the water, and you just let it settle down and let it become clear and and calm. And able to reflect. You find but as water calms down, you can see into it. With your mind calming down, you can also see into that more easily.
So there’s a lot of nature imagery that tends to come into meditation practice. Again this idea, of the wild as being something spiritual.
But I don’t tend to think about why I called it, “Wild Mind” very much these days.
But it’s really nice to let meditation help you become aware of the background (nature), instead what is often the foreground (our minds). The Background comes to the foreground.
You’re also an individual coach. Is that part of the website as well?
It’s something that’s available through the website. It is something that’s fairly new for me as well. As I mentioned I did quite a bit of coaching in my early days when I first saw online courses. I mean a lot. I was doing a lot of coaching. But primarily through text. Corresponding with them pretty much on a daily basis. And that’s where I got the idea from being on the generation X dharma teachers conference this past summer. And there were a few people there who are coaching.
Folks listening to this might be thinking, maybe that’s a helpful way to have somebody like a coach, “see your back”. You’ve already mentioned your kids, and that’s wonderful. That folks folks like us who have families. They look at the back of our necks as well. They can see the parts of ourselves that we don’t necessarily notice or wanna notice as much. And as a coach you kind of do that as well, seeing patterns that someone else might not recognize as easily?
Yeah, I think that’s one of the big advantages of Kalyana Mitta (spiritual friends) or special friendship. It is interesting you look at the scriptures and you see that, “spiritual friendship is the whole of the spiritual life“. That is a very strong statement.
There’s actually very little in terms of teachings apart from that, spiritual friendship. I can think of a couple of suttas where either the Buddha either discusses spiritual friendship or praises spiritual friendship in a detailed way. But it’s not really developed very strongly. One of the advantages of spiritual friendship is it helps you to become conscious of things that you’re not so conscious of.
Is there anything else that you would like to tell people that would be listening now, who want to be free from suffering?
There are many things I could say. The first thing that springs to mind is to find some kind of balance in your meditation practice. A lot of people when we they go to learn meditation take up some kind of mindfulness practice. That’s the most common thing. So you’re sitting watching everything or paying attention to the body are you sitting watching thoughts passing through. And letting go of them.
That’s all great so wonderful very good thing to do. That’s an excellent practice. But there’s a whole other side of practice which involves working with heart. And developing more kindness and developing more compassion and developing more appreciation. And that is really important.
One of the things that I’m quite wary of in the modern Buddhist world is, there is this emphasis on the goal, as being having a particular kind of insight. And so people want to have this kind of insight. They want to see you through the illusion of self. Which is a completely valid, and wonderful thing to do. And everyone should have that experience.
But the Buddha’s ideal of somebody who’s awakened was not just somebody who has that insight and seen through the illusion of a separate self. But the Buddha’s ideal was of somebody who is like an ideal human being. Somebody who is warm and compassionate and kind. Somebody who is patient and who is able to live in a very simple way. So some of those elements tend to get lost in people’s practice because they’re focusing on developing mindfulness and insight.
But if you’re doing that, you not really aiming at becoming the kind of person that the Buddha was encouraging us to be. So you’re not really aiming for the Buddha’s goal was. So I really encourage people to take up not just mindfulness practice, but also some kind of loving-kindness or compassion practices as well.
Great advice. I know my my teachers teacher put that, is he said, “I’m not interested in your enlightenment experience. I’m interested in the day after.” (laughing)
I really appreciate your time and and your kind words, and I hope that folks can check out your website.
- Bodhipaksa personal web site
- Bodhipaksa’s Books and Guided Meditation CD’s
- Triratna Buddhist Centre