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.

Great..so 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!

Resources

 

When Fragmented Attention Causes Harm

Recently Kristina and myself were packing and readying to move to our new house some 1500 miles south, and I recall doing an errant down the hill to the grocery store. It was spring in the Northwest, and the light was streaming through the beautiful green translucent leaves. There was luscious green grass all around, plenty to eat for a rabbit. As I waited to turn on a side street, I briefly stopped to enjoy watching a small rabbit hopping across the street I was turning into.

Rabbit

Then shortly after a sports car appeared quite suddenly from the opposite direction, and a man in it was smiling and chatting on his mobile phone.

He drove over the rabbit, and I could clearly see the rabbit was being torn up and mangled. The man and his car moved on without stopping a beat, and the rabbit was now laying motionless on the street. The man was so involved in his conversation that he barely noticed. He kept on driving and chatting, moving on with his life.

I immediately felt sadness, and went over to the rabbit to at least get him off the street. That way, even if already dead, the rabbits body would not sustain additional damage.

As I approached he body, I could see the legs were broken and twisted, and all of it’s abdomen, stomach, and intestines were hanging out. Even it’s heart was visible, and it was still beating. It was sad and emotional for me to watch this precious little heart beating, but the rabbit was likely no longer there, or unconscious and dying.

I stroked it’s ears and head and talked with it some soothing words. And then told the rabbit I was moving it to the side of the street, so it could die more peacefully.

After having moved it slowly, as everything was hanging out, a few minutes passed. Slowly the heartbeat became less pronounced until finally it ceased. I tried closing the rabbit’s eyes, but they stayed open.

I wished the rabbit peace and got back in the car. I reflected on how all of us, not just the guy on the phone can get so distracted from the present.

As you can see by this example, we really cause harm when not paying attention to what is right beneath or in front of us.

At the same time, I also reflected on my own journey, and could clearly see that this move out of state, while hectic, and with a few minor moments of forgetfulness, was overall so much more stable and less messy, than the move we did 16 years earlier. I could see how years of practicing meditation and mindfulness and mingling this into every day life allowed me to be able to be so much more present for this big life transition than the earlier move was.

However, what the rabbit in it’s death was showing, that we, all of us have a tendency to get caught up in a small bubble with so many distractions that fragment our attention.

Increasingly in recent years, our attention has become fragmented, and our focus shortened. With internet and mobile device use, the rise of social media, advertisements and infinite choices competing for our attention, and so many other demands in our lives.

To me this increasing fragmented attention is highly likely causing harm to something, or someone, somewhere.

We have to keep practicing, keep refining our practice, so we can be awake, and present for this moment, where all life flows.

The more present and awake we are, the less harm we cause.

Please verify this with your own experience. What happens to your encounters in the now when you become more present? Alternatively, what happens to your immediate family, the human family, and the rest of our planetary family when you’re less present?

I’d love to know what your experience is like.

MF 23 – Guided Meditation for Present Moment to Moment Attention and Awareness

MF 23 – Guided Meditation for Present Moment to Moment Attention and Awareness

Guided Meditation for Present Moment to Moment Attention and Awareness Cultivation with Sicco

This episode deviates from the usual interview episode.

Kristina and myself are in a time of transition. We’re moving to another state, hence I thought this would be a bit easier to do than arranging an interview. This is also based on request from several listeners. They wanted a guided meditation to listen to from my perspective, so here it is above (click on the link above to download or play directly in the web page).

Kristina trucking past Mt Hood

Kristina and me trucking past Mt Hood

The awesome Mt Shasta

Please let me know what you think of this episode in the comments below!

Thanks!

MF 22 – Solo Episode about Recklessness as a way into Attention, Awareness, and Consciousness Practices

MF 22 – Solo Episode about Recklessness as a way into Attention, Awareness, and Consciousness Practices

Episode 22 – Solo episode about why I value meditation and mindfulness

This is a summary (not a full transcript) of the interview

Good morning, we just had a 4.1 earthquake out here in the Anza-Borrego desert, just as I was towards the end of my half hour meditation session. A reminder that we are not on solid ground, the ground can be pulled literally underneath us.

Since we’re moving, it is too difficult logistically for me to do interviews, so I will attempt to create a couple of episodes that are different from the usual interview format.

The next week after that, I’ll share an episode with a guided meditation from myself, and one that my wife, Kristina made for Youtube. After that we’ll resume interviews.

I believe there are a number of reasons we start meditating, in this episode I just want to look at one angle. Here is one of the reasons I started meditating, being less reckless.

So one of the things I was thinking to bring up on this episode, is by bringing up something that moved me towards a meditation/mindfulness practice as a teen. I already explored some of the reasons I wanted to learn to meditate in the introduction episode, so for this episode I’ll just explore another piece of this. As you may have noticed by listening to this podcast so far, the reasons people give, why they started a meditation practice are wide ranging, and some will admit that they don’t know for sure, or can pinpoint exactly what or  how it all got started for them.

And for illustrative purposes, and since it will be most accurate if I recount my own experiences, I want to just focus on one of the reasons I likely felt compelled towards a meditation practice.

There were of course positive causes like, why am I here, how can I be a kinder person, but there were also other things that motivated me. While my curiosity for a lot of things is usually beneficial, I can look back and also see how curiosity combined with a tendency for distraction/ self-absorbtion/self-centeredness can also turn into a more destructive force like recklessness, or disregard for others or the environment.

So let’s look a little bit at some of the more destructive reasons that brought me to a mediation path.

I suppose I could be on occasion reckless like most children/teenager growing up. Now I don’t want to paint myself as a little shit, I also was sensitive and didn’t like what we were doing to each other, and animals, and the planet at a young age. I recall not liking it when fellow kids took apart living spiders, and similar things boys primarily seem to be attracted to doing.

I think it is important for me to not just show flattering things, but just to be real, and show that I certainly had good reasons for needing to take a look at my own actions and thoughts.

Some examples of my own recklessness in childhood

I liked adventure, exploring, and had curiosity for a lot of things (which hasn’t changed much by the way). To give you some sense of that, I used to row to this trash heap, and dig through it to find old electronics in particular, and see if I could fix them. And so it happened a couple of times, where I got very intense 220 Volts electrical shocks, because I was taking old defective radios and things apart and then trying to put new plugs in them. This type of curiosity coupled with ignorance and disregard for safety was a form of reckless endangerment to myself.

Another thing I liked was playing with fire literally, whether that was things like lighting an ashtray on fire in the house and running up to my parents upstairs, because I couldn’t completely extinguish it, or lighting trash cans in the park on fire to create interesting effects in the park. Or blowing up an old guitar with fireworks.

One of the things I remember was noticing how I almost always had a cut, or bruise, blister, or something else painful going on, because I was into something I probably shouldn’t or wasn’t paying attention.

Another reckless example. For a time I was riding a bike without breaks, so the only way to stop was ride it in the bushes, or use my feet as brake pads.

Another area in which i was reckless was while bicycling in traffic.I would not hesitate to run red lights, cut people off, and pass when ill advised. One time I paid for that by passing two slightly overweight folks, and then slipping on the ice, with them both falling on me and the bike.

The most dangerous time was when I had fallen in love in a summer camp in France with a Dutch girl, and as I mentioned before, when back home in Holland, I would listen to music while bicycling, and completely involved in the music, not caring about my bike.  This is perhaps more likely behavior of young folks who might be tempted to think death, old age, and ill health is for other people or far off in the future.

This I paid for, because on one intersection, I did not have due diligence when looking both ways for traffic and so got hit hard (30-40 mph or more) and literally was thrown off my bike and experienced the event out of my body. Then landed hard, and have had back issues on and off ever since. While the experience was a fascinating experience of time slowing and the mind, and gave me a few days off school. What this did really bring home to me, was that I was reckless and had a problem being fully present and attentive to what was happening around me.

With all these injuries I realized I was clumsy in the attention department, and started realizing that a practice of attention was necessary for me to learn to reduce these accidents.

So as part of my spiritual reading, besides books about Hinduism, I got attracted to Zen. Now I think in part because I had a tendency to be distracted, I was at that time attracted to the simplicity and no-nonsense directness of Zen. The lack of clutter, it’s emphasis of simplicity, inner peace, wisdom and understanding, clarity and dignity, grace, and the deep appreciation and cultivation for each moment.

One book in particular got my attention and drew me a little closer to a Zen meditation practice. I don’t remember which book, sorry. But in the book there is a story of a monk who likes to get out of the monastery at night to hang out in the city, perhaps going out drinking sake and making friends in the bar.

What interested me, is not so much talking about the monk violating the monastic community by escaping the monastery. It’s about his mindfulness and attention. So perhaps some teachers or head monks would have just chastised the escaping monk, and told him to stop violating the monastic rules. But what’s interesting is that in this story the Zen teacher decides to follow the monk and observe him for a while.

So the next day, the teacher calls in the monk and wants to have a chat with him. He says, you know, I saw you getting out again last night, climbing over the fence, and so I followed you. When you got to the city street, you crossed the street not paying attention, and you bumped into a woman who was carrying a baby. This woman was already stressed (could see on her face), and you bumping in her, without paying attention, caused her to drop the bag and she was having to clean up. This also caused a car to have to stand on his brakes. More agitated, she then walked into the bakery to get bread and passed on her frustration to the baker who had just been dealing with his sick wife. His mood was not helped. And so on, and so on the teacher goes on to explain how each of these acts had a ripple effect, seen and unseen.

So what so impressed me with this story was how one’s own mind, attitude, and behavior can affect others in ways we have no idea about. They can have ripple effects that is just not measurable, except in this instance where a very perceptive teacher follows just one of the consequences of our own behaviors.

I’ll never forget this story, and how it impressed on me the importance of one’s own state of mind, and attentiveness to the present moment and all our encounters.

Perhaps you say, great, glad you figured this out, but I was a good child, I don’t make a mess of things around me, and have never had these issues. Is that really true?

My good friend David Bainbridge visited yesterday, and he wrote a big book that is a guide for Desert and Dryland restoration.

To be continued

Resources

  • A Guide for Desert and Dryland Restoration

MF 21 – John Martin Zen Buddhist Student

MF 21 – John Martin Zen Buddhist Student

John Martin Zen Meditation Student

John practices in the Zen Buddhist tradition of Robert Aitken (Diamond Sangha)

This is a summary (not a full transcript) of the interview

John was attracted to fundamentalist Christianity as a teen for a few years. It did not work for John. He abandoned all religion in his 20’s living an agnostic/atheist life. He was accepting things that other people were saying, and he decided he was not going to do that again.

He stumbled on a book On Zen by Alan Watts. That caught his attention. Then started to figure out how to meditate, learned a bit from the TM movement.

Did you understand what parts of it?

He did not understand all of it, but he did get non-duality. This was a whole new understanding that opened up for John. He by then had his own meditation practice on and off. Year on, year off kind of practice. He would feel that he would need to get back into it.

Where you attracted to meditation as a way of insight, or as a way to experience something you were looking for?

Maybe more the insight. I got fairly involved in the lead-up to the presidential elections in 2004. When that was all done, and the dust settled, I realized I was full of anger and even hatred towards the chosen political enemies. Then I phoned the Zen Center after finding them online.

Have you found that joining a group is different than meditating alone?

Yes, definitely. Especially the first couple of years, John derived tremendous support from the regular weekly sits, and meditating and support from other people. That whole structure that keeps you on the cushion, and prevents you from a moment of restlessness coming along, and tricking you into jumping up, and doing something else. And the book studies have been very helpful.

So the structure is very helpful too?

Yes, extremely helpful. If you see structure as a means to an end, as a tool, then you wouldn’t see it as limiting or old-fashioned tradition that doesn’t fit the modern era. It’s there to help people.

How has your relationship with those perceived enemies changed at all?

I don’t think my political views have shifted much. My indulging in hatred is way less than it used to be (laughs). So that’s a good thing! The hatred thing, the target is no longer individual people. There are so many facets to a complex society, some not functioning well, sick, very poor design. So a person may get elected to congress.

For example the structure of congress is stacked against you. Very hard to be an awake and honest person, and not get corrupted by the money from the lobbyists and so forth, when you’re in that environment all the time.

So, I guess I’ve shifted from individuals to the system that I perceive as something that is bad.

Do you see that a system can be shifted by individuals or groups, or completely needs to be uprooted or re-designed?

Uprooting is a tempting fantasy, because it is quick. The ultimate expression of that is war. You perceive an enemy, and the best thing is just to eliminate your enemy.

But then you assume of enemy as outside?

Yes, the enemy is all outside, and things good is all in me, and all things bad in someone else.

But to truly have a culture evolving into something healthier, does require the individuals in that culture, become more aware, educated and enlightened.  And developed in a balanced way, where not just our minds, but our hearts are also developed.

Has this way of long-term seeing changed the way you get attached to outcomes?

Perhaps, I understand how to be unattached to outcomes, but more focused on the nature on your actions, is perhaps a more spiritual way to be in the world.

When you practice there is a certain letting go of the desire of certain outcomes, not having strong attachments to certain outcomes, whether in your immediate area, or the larger geopolitical arena?

Yes, I’ve probably developed a little in that direction. As things play out from my actions, I’m not necessarily in control. I might do something in one particular thing in space and time, but the consequences of what I do in that spot, goes on without me. It’s better to focus on the nature of my act. Am I acting free of greed or, desire for revenge, hatred. What is my true motivation I think is more important, than banking on a particular outcome. Because it never comes out that way anyway, even driving to the store to get milk.

Yes, that reminds me of your example you mentioned  of an instance of road rage?

Yes, I have an 2 examples of my own road rage. Both times I was really surprised I had this in me, I didn’t know it was there.

I was just getting on the freeway, it was fall, rainy and dark. I was careful to look for a space in traffic. and this guy comes zooming in. He roared by me, and it made me jump. It triggered this rage in me, it took me 2 miles on the freeway to get this under control. This whole time I sat with this rage. I realized if I had a much bigger vehicle, and it was banged up, I would have chased him down and bumped his car and driven him into the barrier. That’s how illogical and enraged I was. I just had a little car and couldn’t catch up.

So I started thinking….what does a Buddhist do in this situation I thought? I think you just be a bit detached, just watch it, instead of being it, but 2-3 miles, I did start to settle down.

Second time, similar incident, also someone roared by. And in this case not only was I powerless, but my wife also screamed at John to slow down. She reminded him to slow down, and he might escalate the situation. those are two instances, where I had to struggle to become detached from the rage I experience inside of me.

What was also important was the constraints that I have, I had a little bit of a rational mind, but also external constraints, the realities of traffic, not doing something that was even more dangerous. and my wife reminding me to get sane again.

But there are also other times, when there were no external constraints at all, and then there will be that moment of choice.

Sure, give us another example.

This involves you and Kristina! (laughs)

This was one of the very the first times I showed up for Zen, and we exchanged names, and one of you said something like, “Are you new to Spokane? Have you lived here long?”

And I asked you two, well how long have you been in this town?

And Kristina laughed at the way I said that. And somehow, and this is just me, not you or Kristina, I took that as a kind of a put-down. That i was using a phrase that was dated, or maybe she thought I was pompous. He felt judged. But as soon as she laughed, I could feel myself getting defensive.

And that moment, if you catch it right at the beginning, that’s when things are most fluid. I didn’t even have words behind this decision. I just made the decision, I wasn’t going to go there, just going to watch it happen.

There’s my feeling vulnerable, and insecure again, feeling judged again. That sort of thing. Because i was able to catch it in the very beginning, it just evaporated. It was an experience of freedom. I did not make a psychic cage around myself. I was free. 

You didn’t take it personal?

Absolutely not, the laugh happened, my judgement happened, my reaction happened, I just watched it happen. And then I was fine, I was done with it.

Another example of a positive outcome. Many years ago, Mary and I had a disagreement. We were getting at each other a bit, and she said something that hooked me. I watched the whole thing happen. I watched the words go in, and there was a strong visual component to this experience. It was like I was looking inside myself. I could see this happening.

Inside myself, looking down through my spine, at the bottom there was this dark pool of liquid. Like mud. And I looked down, and I saw this shape starting to emerge, and as it came out, I saw it was this coiled snake. But it was really anger at what my wife said. It was halfway out, and I still had a choice. At that moment I still had a choice. I could say yes, or no to this thing, and so I said no . And it went back down.  No anger at that point.

What about present-moment awareness, have you noticed that change over the years of practice?

I think so, I’m more aware when I’m not in the present. I can kind of pull myself away from all my head trips that takes me out of the present. When I’m going to beautiful scenery, like on a walk, I’m much more likely to actually notice it, like smells and sounds as well as the sights.

Is that something from practicing in that moment, or over time practice?

Yes, the second thing, it’s a cumulative effect of practicing over time.

Is there anything when you’re not on the cushion that is practice related?

Sometimes I’ll use the Tibetan mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum. When I feel a need to be more in my heart than my head, I use that, and I visualize my energy going from my head to my heart.

The jewel is in the lotus, that which I seek, I already am?

Yes, the jewel in the lotus, the lotus being the heart. The pearl of great price, The jewel that we’re all seeking. We don’t know that it is there, we have to put our attention there, to live from that spot.

When I’m really feeling really scattered, irritated, tired, bored,  I will sometimes use that.

What is the role of a teacher in your practice?

I get to ask Jack (John’s teacher) some questions, that I don’t know who else to possibly ask those questions of that nature. He’s reassuring for me. Sometimes I don’t know where I am in this journey, even though I have some mental road maps. Like the 10 ox herding pictures. But I don’t know where I am on that road map. I need a second opinion on that (laughs). Am I more or less awakened than I think I am?

Any other tips, or inspirations that help you?

Your questions make me aware that I can do much more on a daily basis to remind myself to return to the present. I think I might make that a project to jot down some of those tools and use them more often. I just tend to notice more frequently where I am, where my attention, awareness, and energies are.  Sometimes that’s all you need.

And you intend to keep on practicing?

Yes it’s been good for me. One of the aspects of Zen that is a good fit for me, is that in my youth I was so much in my head, and Zen is merciless at cutting down those head trips. Pushing you out of that comfort zone.

Resources