Steve Armstrong first came to IMS in 1977, served on the staff for more than two years and on the IMS board of directors before seeking ordination as a Theravada monk in Burma. He spent five years as the bhikkhu Buddharakkhita, practicing meditation with U Pandita and studying Abhidhamma with U Zagara. Since returning to lay life in 1991, he has been leading vipassanā/mettā retreats at IMS and worldwide.
Do you two generally teach as a team these days? And, are there special ways you work to complement one another?
Steve: We do teach a lot together and find that we complement each other in a very easy, natural way. My training in vipassanā [insight meditation] came from an intensive monastic background, with emphasis on the Abhidhamma [scholastic Buddhist psychology]; Kamala’s came from intensive household practice, with a lot of mettā [loving-kindness]. So when we teach together I tend to focus more on the vipassanā and she holds more of the mettā practice. It’s a good balance, and we learn from each other in many ways.
Why do you think mettā practice is becoming more often integrated into vipassanā retreats?
Steve: There is a tremendous amount of self-judgment, impatience, striving, and a closed-heartedness on the part of Western practitioners. A lot of people come to retreat nowadays wanting to “open their hearts.” Mettā practice, being basically a concentration exercise, strengthens the factors of tranquility or calmness of mind that can really help to open the heart. This naturally helps to dissolve self-judgement, impatience and striving.
Kamala: Mettā organically grows from a heart and mind that is tranquil and calm. With it comes more acceptance, confidence, compassion, equanimity… really powerful supports for the cultivation of wisdom. Sometimes in vipassanā practice we can feel avalanched by self-hatred, doubt, despair. Unless we have a large pool of mettā to draw from, it can be pretty bleak. We need the balance and non-judgmental spaciousness that mettā brings to our practice as a whole. When your heart and mind are filled with loving-kindness, wisdom comes easily.
Are there any possible difficulties in combining mettā with vipassanā practice?
Steve: Sometimes when a lot of dukkha [suffering] is arising and insight is good, one really needs to just stay with the vipassanā practice, but you might start doing some mettā practice, in the way of affirmations, just to get away from dukkha. In the process, one unknowingly turns away from the opening insights. Sometimes vipassanā does open to pretty difficult stuff. If you just drop it at that point and turn to mettā in order to feel good, then it’s really undermining the development of insight. So we try to make a clear distinction between the two; and in offering mettā, we suggest when it’s useful and when it is not.
What about the more directed nature of mettā practice—directing the intention to certain phrases, for example—compared with the more open and choiceless nature of vipassanā practice?
Kamala: Mettā practice “feels” different than doing vipassanā. In one sense mettā is continually returning to the same object of awareness…it’s almost like holding on to the phrases, while in vipassanā you open to the constantly changing objects of awareness, and let them go. So when I first practiced mettā, I found it difficult and frustrating to train myself to return over and over again to the same set of phrases, to hold onto them. But as I got the hang of it, I realized it was just a different kind of energy being developed, and it became easy.
Steve: A lot of people acknowledge how much energy it takes to just keep connecting with the phrases over and over again. They often don’t give themselves enough time to develop the momentum that practice needs in order to feel a level of ease and confidence. Patience is important.
Kamala: There have been times in my own practice when I have been cultivating mettā with a certain person—a friend or benefactor, for example—and it starts to feel really dry, like I’ve hit a wall of boredom, and I feel like giving up. But I just keep going, and then all of a sudden…boom! Out of nowhere can come this tremendous feeling of openheartedness, spaciousness, or feelings of pervading gratitude and acceptance. The experience is different each time. Sometimes mettā is like a warm, gentle rain falling inside my heart and body. It feels so healing.
Steve, did you get much exposure to mettā practice when you were a monk?
Steve: I did undertake formal practice of mettā and the other brahmavihāras [mettā / lovingkindness; karunā/compassion; muditā/appreciative joy; upekkhā/ equanimity] initially for about two and a half months. During this time I got through mettā, karunā, and maybe muditā, but then I lost my visa and I had to leave Burma. Later I went back and after another year or so of vipassanā practice, when there was a political uprising in Burma, I took up mettā continuously for more than a year.
When the dictator Ne Win stepped down, there was a huge uprising of popular support requesting democracy. There were millions of people marching on the streets, and crowds in front of the U.S. embassy in support of democracy. There was a general strike and the whole country shut down. They even closed the meditation center, and all the Burmese had to leave. There wasn’t any food or water. It was a major crisis.
When the democracy movement was brutally suppressed by the junta (SLORC), I found it quite difficult to do vipassanā practice, because all around the monastery there was shooting and it was a terrorized time in Rangoon.
So I started doing mettā for myself and for everyone both inside and outside the monastery, because I could see and hear a lot that was going on. For a couple of weeks I did mettā, mostly for those who were marching for democracy and for the numbers of people who “disappeared” when the military took over.
I remember going to my meditation teacher, Sayadaw U Pandita, and he asked me, “Are you doing mettā for the generals?” I was astounded. I said, “You’ve got to be kidding. Why would I want to do mettā for them? They’re just scoundrels.” And he said, “No. They also want happiness. But because they are so deluded, so ignorant of what really brings happiness, they believe that what they’re doing will bring them happiness. They, as much as anyone, need mettā.”
And so I started to do mettā for the generals and the military who were on the other end of the gun. At first it was very difficult. There was just so much judgment about their behavior that got in the way of my connecting with the human underneath that really wanted to be happy. My understanding was that if I could send mettā to the oppressors, maybe they would be really happy and they wouldn’t need to do what they were doing with such a deluded mind. It was so difficult, but I kept working at it.
After a while I found that I could really hold them in my heart and not have a judgment on their behavior interfere with my sincere wish that they be happy. It’s kind of a tricky state of mind, and it wasn’t a given that I could always do that. But in time it became easier to work with, and it was a very powerful lesson for me. I learned that if my judgment of their behavior wasn’t in the way, even heavily armed and threatening soldiers could be human. I think it was due to the power of mettā practice that I didn’t feel afraid or judgmental.
[practicing mettā] is like a warm, gentle rain falling inside my heart and body. It feels so healing.
Does mettā just transform one’s own psychological state, or is there some way it reaches out to influence others?
Steve: I think this is an interesting point I’ve heard of some research that suggests loving-kindness or prayer does appear to have a profound effect on everything, but it is hard for us to understand a mechanism to explain this.
If I’m here doing mettā, and you’re on the other side of the earth, how could it possibly happen? And yet it does seem to. I don’t know if it’s quantifiable, but those who practice insight—or any kind of practice—come to know for themselves that the influence of heart and mind is not limited in its scope to this body.
Once you get at least a glimpse of this, the possibility of the mind in this body here affecting some mind/heart somewhere else becomes less fantastic. We have some intuitive understanding of our interdependence with others, even if we do not yet have an adequate language to fully express it.
So tell us about Hawaii. What’s going on out there for you two these days?
Steve: We just finished our second annual month-long vipassanā–mettā retreat in August on the island of Maui. It is a small but very beautiful place to practice, and the group of about thirty-five retreatants seemed to appreciate the opportunity as much this year as last year.
Kamala: I’ve lived in Hawaii for twenty years, and because of my continuing commitments as a parent we were looking for a way to travel less but still offer ourselves as resources for people’s dharma training. So we decided to just offer a retreat on the island. We didn’t know whether it would work or not, but we decided to just commit ourselves and see what happened.
Steve: Six months before the retreat was scheduled to start it was full, so we knew we were on to something—there was a need that was being met. We asked those who attended: What brought you to this retreat? Was it the length of the retreat? Was it Maui? Was it the teachers? Was it the date? As it turns out, all of these were motivating factors. Many people came from the west coast, from Australia and Canada; a lot of them had never done a retreat with us before.
What sort of place or organization to you have for these retreats?
Steve: There is a small non-profit organization, Vipassana Metta Foundation, which organizes things for us. We rent a bed & breakfast for the retreats, since we don’t have a center. We’re not really interested in managing a retreat center. We travel to a number of other places to offer retreats (including the annual three-month retreat here in Barre), but we want to continue exploring offering more on the island of Maui. Next year we’ll offer a two-week retreat in winter, and we’ll continue to offer the month-long each August.
And there is something else brewing on the horizon for you in Maui, isn’t there?
Steve: Yes. Not only do we want to travel less for health reasons, we also want to stay home to do our own practice. We share a vision of practicing at home together, and also of sharing that practice with other meditators.
We have been living on this beautiful piece of land, just over thirteen acres in size. Only recently the owners said they were thinking of selling their land, but they have a spiritual connection and wanted to talk the matter over with us. What has emerged from our discussions with them and other friends is the opportunity to buy this land to create a spiritual sanctuary. It would be a place for the Maui sangha to practice and for others to come for extended periods of solitude in a small community.
One of the great joys we have on this land is that it is such an ideal place to practice. The weather is very mild–you can practice outdoors a lot, there are rarely any mosquitoes, it does not get cold, and it is only seldom rainy.
Kamala: Being able to be so close to nature, to the elements, is so supportive of dhamma practice. The beauty and serenity of the outer environment helps to establish those qualities in the inner environment of our hearts as well. It’s simply too beautiful to keep just for ourselves, and we want to share it with others.
It sounds like a lovely vision.
Steve: The vision that we are developing comes from a number of sources. One is the fact that there is a growing sangha on Maui. The longer were there, the more people seem to become interested in the practice. We would like to build a small meditation hall on this land and make it available to the local community.
Another thread of the vision comes from my experience in the monastery, where the practice evolved among a small group of monks practicing together. It’s more community-minded than the model of intensive practice in the solitude and silence of a retreat center. What we’re hoping to offer is an opportunity for a small group of serious yogis to practice together, and there may well be more talking and sharing than is usual on intensive retreat. We don’t want to be the teachers, we just want to practice ourselves and share that practice with a small group of like-minded people.
Kamala: It’s exciting and kind of scary to take on all the complexities that come with such a vision, yet we feel it would be irresponsible of us not to respond to the oppportunity. Whe we reflect on the possibility that this spiritual sanctuary would benefit generations to come, long after we die, our faith and confidence get stronger, and somehow we are able to keep our vision alive. It’s all for the dhamma.
Those who practice come to know for themselves that the influence of heart and mind is not limited to the body.
What is it like trying to do all this and raise a family at the same time?
Kamala: Family is really important to us. I still have a sixteen-year-old daughter living at home that we are raising together, and we have explored all sorts of unique ways of integrating our practice and our parenting. Steve and I set aside periods of days or weeks for practice in our home, and our daughter has come to understand and respect this. We are still there for her, and often begin or end a day of silence sharing with her the various dramas that are so much a part of a teenage girl’s life, but she generally understands and respects our path. And for our part, we are learning to hold our interaction with her as a part of our practice rather than see it as an intrusion.
Steve: Not long ago she said to me: “You know, you guys are a lot easier to live with when you’re on retreat.”
One thing I really appreciate is that we and all our peers are part of the first generation of Buddhists in the West. There just are not many formalized ways of how practice has to happen. So we’re pioneers. We’re just doing it–lay dhamma teachers with families, living an ordinary life and teaching the dhamma. In the past generation this wasn’t possible, and in the future it may not be; but right now there’s a window of opportunity and we consider ourselves tremendously fortunate to be integrating dhamma teaching and practice with ordinary life in this way. It’s a blessing that I never could have imagined until a few years ago. Our challenge is to do it with as much integrity, as much of the Buddha’s teachings, as we can possibly carry. That’s not to minimize the importance of other forms or of the renunciate sangha, for these too have something very precious to offer.
Kamala: The best dhamma talk I ever heard was right in my kitchen. My teacher Munindra-ji was staying with our family, and was trying to get me to sit everday. It was pretty hopeless, with three rambunctious kids and my job. So he asked me where I spent most of my time in the house, and I said, “In the kitchen, washing dishes.” So we went to the kitchen, and he stood there and gave me a dhamma talk on how you could build up this powerful mindfulness as a householder. He stood next to me at the sink as I began to wash the dishes, and he gave me on-the-spot mindfulness instruction…right there!
But, that wasn’t enough. Munindra also noticed that I could do my daily walking meditation in the hallway between my bedroom and the living room. He gave me simple instructions, but he was quite serious: Every time I step into the hallway, I am just ‘stepping,’ ‘stepping,’ ‘stepping.’ He really expected me to do it, too…every day!
I really can’t let you go without asking you the relationship question. Any thoughts about dhamma and relationship?
Kamala: Well, I’ll tell you a story about that, even though it will probably embarrass Steve. Not long ago I shared with him one of my secret aspirations. I told him, with some trepidation, that some day I would really like to experience the renunciation that a Buddhist nun experiences–shave my head, put on robes.
And he said right back, with so much happiness, “Honey, if that is what you want to do, then I will be honored to serve as your kappiya [the lay-supporter who does all the domestic chores and other mundane affairs in order to allow a Theravada monk to focus fully on a life of practice].” See? I still can’t talk about that without tears filling my eyes.