For those who might not have experienced mindfulness or meditation before, can you give us a brief primer on what exactly it is?
Please note that all the responses to these inquiries are personal in nature. They are a result of my direct experiences with the teachings of Buddhism that I have encountered and put into practice.
Meditation & Mindfulness are pathways to understanding how Mind works; they are methods to train the mind to be collected, stable, calm, and clear. When Mind is in this way, one is asked to notice the reality of things as they are: interdependent with all other things, impermanent, in a constant state of change. Seeing this, one begins to understand that nothing is fixed, and since nothing is fixed, understanding dawns that one can change their habits, can change how they act in the moment, can change how they respond to whatever stimulus they experience in the world.
Mindfulness Mediation is a way to be present to what is unfolding in every moment of life. When one is present to life in this way, one begins to learn to surf the waves of existence with humility, kindness and compassion. These heart-centered values naturally dawn because one sees that their own problems – or suffering to use the language of the Buddha – rise because of how one thinks about and responds to whatever it is that arises in one’s life. One begins to see that, regardless of the external causes and conditions of life, one is able to not be buffeted around by them, that they can be managed in a way – internally – that allows one to reside in peace.
What are some of the different types of meditation?
The main type of meditation that I’ve been exposed to, and use daily, is an awareness of the body and breath. Other types of meditation include reflecting on and cultivating love, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity; walking meditation – where the object of awareness is the footsteps; body scans, which are specific types of meditation on the body; using collected and stable mind to dig into and reflect on a specific “problem” one is working through; or investigate one’s habits of reactivity to come up with a strategy to choose a different response going forward. Others that I have not used, and know about, are sound meditation (focusing on sound as the object of meditation) and image meditation – such as focusing on the flame of a candle.
How did you originally become a meditation practitioner?
As a kid in the mid-1970’s, I was fascinated with the TV show “Kung Fu.” The life of a solitary wanderer, with little possessions, and the mental and physical abilities of a monk, intrigued me. Later in the mid-to-late 1980’s, the conversations between Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers – broadcast on PBS – became a source of inspiration to journey toward something beautiful and whole. The desire for that journey was brought on by personal suffering (a common starting point for embarking on a path of awakening). Buddhism was the way that I was attracted to, and I bought my first book “What the Buddha Taught,” and journeyed to South Asia on a trip of exploration: visiting Thailand and India. While on this trip, I was convinced that the path of the Buddha was a way for me. After I returned home, I began to study in earnest, and begin a journey with meditation.
I think oftentimes there’s a connotation that meditation isn’t manly or it’s not cool, what would you say to folks who might hold that belief?
Hmmmmm…..that type of thinking is a poison in society, no? That the so-called feminine traits are to be shunned or laughed at by men. Just look at the problems that has caused over the millennia! The violence of men on men, and more importantly, how that has manifested in violence toward women, and how anyone who doesn’t ascribe to the white male, macho insanity is to be ostracized, oppressed, shunned. For me, this is a wrong/unwholesome view: that to touch an inner life, to be kind and compassionate, to be empathetic, are traits that are weak, etc. This viewpoint holds one back from being healthy, from being whole. To live a kind, generous, compassionate, loving life results in a heart and mind that is cool (as opposed to hot), at ease, and peaceful. The opposite, to be unkind, stingy, wishing ill toward others, and hateful, results in a heart and mind that is constricted, tense, stressful, and primed for violence. This is a natural law that I have understood through my own direct experience.
What have you experienced as the connections between mental health and a meditation practice?
One experience is how with meditation, one sees the habit patterns of thinking – of how mind habitually reacts in ways that create suffering. Stuff happens – pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral. This is life. Meditation points a way toward seeing the reality of this, how Nature works, how so many things that happen are out of our control. And, it points a way toward how we can learn to control our responses to whatever external causes and conditions rise. One notices how the stories we tell in our minds, the narratives we might even live by, are simply concoctions of Mind; that these stories and narratives can both be let go of, and replaced by either a different, wholesome/skillful story, or simply no story at all. For instance, I have several unique features in my body – aka chronic injuries from a life of playing Sports. Before I came in contact with Buddhism, my response to these sensations in the body generally were one of aversion and stress, with thoughts like “dang, why me?!” and “I wish I didn’t have this injury,” etc. With mindfulness meditation, I noticed how these thoughts created tightness in the body, how they actually kept the easeful flow of healing energy and breath from moving through the injured places of the body. Now, the response is – “hi there, old friend. May you be happy and well.” The narrative shifted, and more importantly, I learned how to use breath to soften around and breathe through the unique feature. Rather than the tightness of aversion and “woe is me” thinking, there is a compassionate softening via mindful breathing that permeates the whole body. And ease is there. The injury is still there too, and the key is that the relationship to it has changed from one of aversion to acceptance; acceptance in the sense that yep, this is the reality here. Then, seeing that reality, sorting out how to respond to this reality that creates the most health, peace, contentment and ease in the mind.
It seems like there are actually quite a few similarities between the practice of casting a fly rod and being out in nature and mindfulness. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
Well, I’ve never been fly fishing, so can’t speak to that directly. And, yes, being in Nature is one of the most skillful (perhaps the most skillful) way to understand the truth of things. While in Nature, there’s a lack of technological stimuli (as long as one has left their smart phone in the car!) and one’s heart and mind begins to open up to the vastness of things, as well as to the minutiae that’s right at one’s fingertips and toe tips. Being intimate with Nature, one sees – if they look, which is very important, the looking – one sees the impermanent, interdependent, ever changing way of all things. This aspect of Nature is also the aspect of one’s life; this is also how the mind with body continuum functions. When mindful, when watching and noticing how things come and go in nature, the river flowing by, the wind in the trees, the coming and going of birds singing, then looking within one’s inner experience, one notices the same ever-flowing experience of reality. This is an important understanding, as it informs the previous response about mental health. Things are not fixed. “You can’t step into the same river twice” as the saying goes. I can reel in the line, or let it float some more. I can choose not to respond to the person who just cut me off in traffic with hatred and foul language. Rather, I can ponder, “What is going in their life this morning that results in that type of behavior? I hope they find a way to balance and peace today.” This is compassion for oneself and the other: for oneself by not planting seeds in one’s own mind of aversion and hatred that will rise again in the future (there’s no escaping the way Nature works); and compassion for the other by wishing them well, that they be free from suffering.
What is your philosophy or approach to mindfulness in your own life?
A simple way to describe that is to live a generous life and watch what I say. For me, I do my best day-to-day to be present to body and mind in order to be at ease and peaceful regardless of external causes and conditions. To be present to my day-to-day life with my wife; to be present to my day-to-day life at work – to be a peaceful, joyous, and goofy presence in the office, and to get my work done in a timely manner and help others as they need it. To hold space for Sangha (we host a Buddhist community in the cottage behind our house twice a week). Daily meditation practice is what makes it all go. There are so many skillful teachings out there, Buddhist or not, that point toward selfless living, toward being kind and generous toward oneself and others, and my sense is that what holds it all together, what makes it all go well, regularly, over the long haul, is a regular meditation practice.
For someone who might want to get into a meditation practice but doesn’t know where to start, what is your advice?
Look for a meditation group in the area where you live. It may be secular, Buddhist, Yoga-based, or something else. Try it out for a bit before making any decisions on whether it is the right fit. Do some study too. Though, don’t overdo the study; best to balance study with practice – no more than 50% study. Reading a book on the practice can be quite stimulating and inspiring, though, that’s just something rattling around in mind –a pleasant feeling or emotion. It’s not the thing itself, which is getting on the cushion, as it were, and doing the work of slowing down, coming inside, and seeing what’s there.
What are some ways that we can all bring mindfulness into our daily lives?
Start keeping a daily/regular gratitude journal. This brings energy into daily life, and brightens mind.
Pick one thing, a basic thing you do daily, to pay attention to on purpose: washing the dishes, putting on your seatbelt, brushing your teeth, etc. Be present with what the body is doing while engaged in the activity. Focus mind’s attention on the bodily movements of the activity.
Reflect on your morning routine, (or afternoon, or evening) whatever the moment is when you sit in a chair or on the sofa in your house or apartment to read, watch something, have a conversation. When that time comes during the day, choose to sit in a different chair or sofa. This begins to work on autopilot tendencies and places mind in the present moment.
Again, the linchpin here, the thing that makes all this go, that holds everything together, is a regular meditation practice.
Are there any resources that you really like that you might suggest to someone who is dipping their toe in the meditation waters?
An excellent primer for the whole path of living an awake life is “Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life” by Thich Nhat Hanh
(There are all sorts of apps out there that I know nothing about as I don’t own a smart phone. Wish I could suggest some, though I really don’t have a clue about that realm.)
Who are some meditation practitioners that you have found helpful in your own practice?
This is a list of Buddhist teachers who have inspired, instructed, and guided me over the years. Ajahn Buddhadasa, Thich Nhat Hanh, Ajahn Chah, Santikaro, Caitriona Reed, Lama Rod Owens, Joanna Macy, Pema Chodron, Lama Yeshe
Finally, where can folks find you?
My wife and I host meditation gatherings on Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings. If anyone finds themselves in Milwaukee and wants to check out the flavor of how we practice, they are more than welcome. Just send an email to connect and for more information.
Please include a photo that we can use as the header image for the blog.