Can you tell us something about your jataka, your life story, where you came from and how you got into all this?
I grew up in New York, was married when I was 18 years old, graduated from college a year or so later, and had four children in five and a half years (they are all grown, now). I always thought I would die very young because I did everything in such a hurry. I figured I’d be finished with all my things and there wouldn’t be anything else left to do, any people tell a story that starts with intense and clear spiritual searching, with them knowing they are on a spiritual path. But that’s not my story.
By the time I was 27 or 28 my youngest child was 2, and I went to graduate school to be a therapist because my husband was that, and it looked good to me. Also, I was in therapy at that time for various anxieties I had, and I was so impressed with how much better I felt that I thought, “I should do that.”
That’s actually been something that’s true about me my whole life. When I experience something that I really value, I decide to be able to do it so I can teach it to people. I think I have a teaching gene I inherited from my father. I like to teach. I was a yoga teacher for 15 years. If I look back, I think that was really the beginning of my appreciation of the whole area of consciousness or the mind-body connection. Eventually I went on to get a doctorate in psychology.
And what brought you to meditation?
There were specific serendipitous events that brought me in contact with vipassana insight meditation, but the deeper part of the story has to do with a certain existential anxiety I was feeling in an otherwise ideal life. I had a husband who loved me and whom I loved (we’re still married, by the way—40 years this year, is that amazing?); I had a profession that I loved; I had enough material comforts to be comfortable; I had four wonderful, healthy children growing up. I had, in fact, the American dream—everybody’s dream. And I wasn’t unhappy with that; but I was feeling frightened, because I had an increasing sense of dread: I knew it couldn’t last. Somehow, I had a sense of how frail it all is.
It seems there is a precedent for that..
Yes, perhaps it is similar [to Prince Siddhartha], I had an increasing sense of dread about how all this could not last. Something will happen sooner or later. The dread was based on the sense that I didn’t think I had the wherewithal to deal with it. I knew I didn’t. It wasn’t just that something will happen and that’s the way things are. Something will happen, and I’m not prepared to deal with it.
I had no sense at that time that spiritual practice or meditative practice or even religion was a way of dealing with that. I had the religion of my childhood, which was pleasing to me. I still have a great, affectionate tie and sense of belonging in that tradition. What it had not done, in my experience, is provide me with a framework for understanding things like life and death and suffering and the great existential dilemmas of life. And so I found myself, as an adult in my 30’s, increasingly alone and fearful of not being able to cope with some catastrophe that might happen at any time.
I don’t even remember how my husband fell into the vipassana scene, but he went off and did two weeks somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. He came home and in his usual way said, “This is it.” And in my usual way, a couple of months later I went off and did the same thing. And you know what? It was it.
Its not that my experience was easy, because it wasn’t. I was in terrible pain. I had a very unclear idea of what vipassana was about, or what Buddhism was about. I had no idea what it meant to work with mind states or be attentive or any of that. But I knew they were singing my song. When I began to hear dharma the teachings sounded so exactly right to me. It just made so much sense, and it was such a comfort to hear it.
Had someone asked after that first retreat, “Has anything happened to you?” I would have said that nothing much happened. But, that night after we broke the silence I phoned my husband, who told me the sorry news that my father was just diagnosed with an incurable blood cancer. Now I want to be careful how I say this, because I loved my father very much and did not feel indifferent. I felt really sad to hear that news—but I didn’t feel blown out of the water.
And in that moment I knew that something profound had happened to me that I had not noticed. I hung up the phone, and I went out and had tea with people. And I didn’t tell them my news, because they didn’t have to know my news. I had tea with people. This was an incredible thing for me to do, and I knew it!
And then I began quite a serious period (which continues until now) of study and going to retreats. The particulars of my family situation were such that I could not leave home and go off and do intensive practice for long periods of time. But like a homing pigeon, I just sort of began to go to retreats and returning with regularity. It took me some years to really understand what I was doing and why I was doing it. As I began to understand it better, my ability to practice became better. For me there was a long period of time where I was doing it on faith. I’m surprised I’m saying that, because I now think of myself as a person of extreme faith; but I would not have said that in the beginning.
So for you faith came after the practice rather than before?
I think so. This is so funny. I’m discovering this about myself as we speak, which is mostly how I discover myself. I used to actually make quite a big thing of saying, “I’m a person of little faith.” I’ve always loved the teaching of the Buddha about “Don’t believe anything that I tell you or that anybody else tells you or that learned teachers tell you, etc. Discover the truth for yourself.” [Kalama Sutta]
That was a very big appeal for me about this practice. It did not require, so I heard, faith or belief. Just do it. Either it’s your experience, or it’s not your experience. But once you know, you can’t forget to know. Once you see, you see.
And the practice helped you cope with your anxieties?
Things are manageable now that I didn’t used to think were manageable. Time goes by, and all the things that you’re afraid of start to happen. Everybody gets older, their bodies start breaking, different things start going wrong. But, they’re manageable. Sometimes they’re painful and still they’re manageable, or very painful and manageable; but they’re manageable. And I didn’t used to think that. I used to think, if such and such happens, I couldn’t manage.
I am definitely not free, but I am freer, and freer counts a lot. Free enough to manage is such a relief, because it takes away the fear. I’m pretty sure that as terrible things continue to happen to me in my life—I will have a lot of pain about them. I don’t know that in relational life there’s a way to move past that, or that I even want to. But I’m not afraid of it. I’m really not afraid of it because I think I can manage it.
Do you think meditation practice helps you in any way to be a better psychologist?
I think the principle thing that makes people feel better in therapy is feeling they are heard by the person who’s listening to them. Really we can’t do anything more for people than hear them and be present for them in their pain. We can’t fix up somebody’s childhood and we can’t fix up their grief and we can’t take away their pain; but one thing that I think really ameliorates the pain is the sense of being heard and understood. If we are not frightened of pain, we’re able to be most present for people.
So it’s the insight into the manageability of pain that allows you to open to other people and help relieve them of their pain?
That, and also the insight into the ubiquitous nature of pain. People aren’t doing their life wrong because they have pain. I think that’s such a big relief for people to hear. People tell me their pain and they “get it” that I hear it. Somehow it’s communicated that that’s just what happens. Pain is one of those things. Pain is what’s true about life experience. To whatever degree I am less frightened or more sure that pain is manageable, I’m less frightened of the people who come to see me and of their pain. So I become a better therapist—not because I know some more clever thing or because I tell them to meditate.
There are probably two pieces of Buddhadharma [the teachings of the Buddha] which I explicitly enunciate in my practice. One of them is working with hindrances. People will say, “I’m filled with anger.” And I say, “Where?” I am able to say, “You know, the Buddhists have another notion about that. We all have those particular difficult wavelengths of energy that happen: sometimes we’re angry, sometimes we’re greedy, sometimes we’re something else again. But you aren’t just that. And some of us have one particular wavelength more greased for whatever reason that other people, so that particular one seems to give us the most problem. It’s just the wiring. My particular wiring is I come more with a predilection for fretting and restlessness of mind than I do for aversion or greed. That’s just the way it is with me. I also have brown eyes and I’m short. It’s just what came with the package. So there’s no onus on having that. It’s normal. It comes with the organism.
Practice is staying composed and alert in the middle of a life of constantly arising experience and reacting to it in a way that’s wise and compassionate.
Then we can talk about ways to work with that. The biggest way to work with that—both in psychotherapy and dharma practice—is to stay attentive to it. You say, “I know this is my Achilles heel. Now, before I erupt and tell my boss what I think of her, or my partner exactly what I think of him, maybe I should go for a walk around the block for a little bit. Knowing that this is my most difficult energy to see through, I better take a little bit of time so that I address it in the most wise way.” That would be a way of directly taking a piece of Buddhadharma and transplanting it over into what I think of as psychotherapy.
The other thing that I teach people about, which is a direct reflection of Buddhist teachings: I talk about right speech a lot with couples as part of relationship therapy. It’s helpful to teach right speech.
What about the other way around? Does the fact that you’re a trained psychologist inform your dharma teaching in any way, either in dharma talks or in personal interviews?
I think they inform each other. To the degree that I perhaps have some skill in recognizing (now using Western psychological talk) that people have different degrees of ego integrity can be helpful. There are some people whose level of ego integrity is not sufficiendy strong to tolerate things like long periods of silence or the somewhat unusual mind and body states that sometimes arise from intensive meditation practice. So sometimes it’s been helpful for me to have that particular clinical skill, to be able to recognize that perhaps this person should not be here. It doesn’t happen very much, but when it does happen I feel fortunate to be able to recognize it.
So, each informs the other. The line between dharma and Western psychology is blurring. After all, mind is mind.
Every modern lay dharma teacher seems to have a particular style or orientation in the way they teach. How might you characterize yours?
If I have any particular thing I’d like to say to people, it’s that practice is ordinary. We’re not doing a strange, esoteric thing. Perhaps it is strange to go off and sit quietly on a zafu, to be silent, to cultivate samadhi [concentration]. But those are techniques of practice; that is not practice.
Practice is staying composed and alert in the middle of a life of constantly arising experience and reacting to it in a way that’s wise and compassionate. That’s what I think practice is. And I think you do it everywhere. Sitting quietly, cultivating samadhi, and developing insight are tools. But they’re not ends in themselves. I think everybody knows that now.
So you’d still recommend for people to go on retreats, but to recognize that in some sense it is just a training. The real retreat, perhaps, starts on closing day?
Or it continues. Life is a retreat. That’s what I’d like to say. Life is one long retreat, with periods spent on zafus in retreat centers. Didn’t the Buddha say there are four postures: standing, sitting, lying down and moving about? Well, the moving about part is the whole rest of life. But I would not want people to think that I didn’t have the most enormous regard and respect for intensive practice, for samadhi. It is how people begin to tap in to the kind of composure that allows you to look around and say, “Whew. This is manageable. There are moments of freedom.” The moment that I got the phone call and I didn’t get blown away was a moment of freedom. It was a moment with pain, but a moment of freedom.
Personally, I love being on retreat, because I’m totally fascinated by how the mind works. I remember my first meeting with Joseph [Goldstein] years ago when he said (you’ve probably heard him say it) “Put your arm up, move it in, move it out, move it in. After a while you think, ‘This is boring. Arm in and out.’ But there is a way in which, if the attention is focused enough, it’s totally fascinating—we can do it all day.” And that’s true! When the mind is concentrated enough, when enough composure and alertness is present, everything is extraordinarily fascinating. There’s nothing that’s more fascinating.
What if someone were to say to you, “The Greeks had a name for somebody who was fascinated with watching himself: Narcissus?”
But that is about watching yourself. This is watching the mind manifest, watching the play of consciousness. It’s amazing. You find that things are not what you thought they were. They’re really quite different. Phenomena really do arise and pass away just as they say they do in the book. And form is emptiness and emptiness is form—you can see that! You see discreet events of consciousness arise out of nowhere and disappear into nowhere, which can’t happen in outside life, because to see those things, you have to slow down.
So even though I’m fond of saying to people that practicing composure and alertness and calmness and compassion is really a whole life practice—it’s not just a retreat type of thing—I think the ability to practice in life is tremendously informed by the insights that arise from really concentrated, intensive practice, from samadhi. So, I love it. I love to sit in meditation centers and watch the play of the mind on that level. But I also love to come home. My retreat never ends….