Trudy Goodman lives and teaches in Los Angeles, and is a member of the Boston-based Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapist (IMP). She has been practicing Dharma for many years, in both the Zen and Vipassanā traditions.
Trudy, in addition to being a long-time dharma practitioner and teacher, you are also a trained psychotherapist. What do you think of the recent confluence of these two traditions?
I’m interested in the ways these two different traditions are already enriching one another. For years now my colleagues at IMP and I have been working with questions like, “Can we put the dharma into the language of evidence-based psychology, or psychoanalytic theory, without losing the spirit and intention of the ancient teachings?” If we can use professional language and methods to integrate the field of psychotherapy with the vast knowledge of consciousness arising from Buddhist meditation, this will help people. And the good news for dharma teaching is that, with training in psychotherapy (or judicious referral to psychotherapists), we have a much wider range of skillful means for meeting the deeply rooted emotional obstacles people often encounter in their practice.
Which came first, dharma or therapy?
In my life? It was always dharma first—meditation—and then therapy.
I never set out to do therapy initially. Already a dharma practitioner for some time, I found myself the director of a little nursery school at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center. It was a lab school for the residents in child psychiatry, and by being part of their regular seminars I was learning about how the psychiatrists looked at the children.
The psychiatrist who ran that seminar for the residents invited me (and two friends) to start a school with him for severely emotionally disturbed children in the greater Boston area. In the course of working with these children I had to learn to do therapy, because they were wildly disturbed and could not do nursery school activities with any sustained attention or cooperation. We worked with the children no one else wanted. They had been kicked out of every other child care program around.
It was while working with these children and their families that I became interested in the emotional, affective life of people. Before that I was seeking to understand how humans know, and I had studied cognitive development with Jean Piaget in Switzerland. I was looking for the dharma, really, but didn’t know where to look in those days. So I looked in the field of epistemology, the study of how we know perception and reality, but I didn’t find there what I wanted to know. I couldn’t name it at the time, but I was transfixed by the mystery of consciousness.
Dr. Piaget was not much help here?
No, and that was so disappointing. Piaget studied children as a means of understanding the birth of intelligence, but his definition of intelligence was cognitive development, not consciousness per se. He even said, “If I could interview prehistoric man, (he did not say ‘prehistoric people,’) that’s what I would do. But since they are not available I have to study children.” He believed that a child’s development recapitulated the ontology of intelligence, and that he could somehow go back in history by studying children and how their minds unfold as they learn. He did want to know how they come to know things in reality, but his reason for wanting to know was very different from mine. He was interested in learning about the functioning of intelligence, but I had an eye out for something bigger that I found missing in his program.
But I went on to learn a lot about the emotional lives of children and families by working with multiply-challenged inner-city families, and by dealing with intensities of suffering and poverty that I couldn’t even imagine. It was incredible, right in Boston, people living in filth and crowding and crazy loneliness. That was a whole other education. This is when I started meditating and practicing dharma more intensively, when my first teacher came to Cambridge and started a Zen Center.
The Zen model was pretty monastic in those days, was it not?
My first teacher, Zen Master Seung Sahn, was a monk. He urged people to become monks and nuns and, short of that, to live in the Zen Center. That was his training and he believed in it. But I was a single mother by then, and the Zen Centers were not particularly healthy places to raise a child in those days. Most people were trying to be monastic, but they weren’t really, and most had little tolerance for kids.
I practiced for a few years in that context and then met Kobun Chino Roshi and Maurine (Stuart, Roshi), who both lived a family life and understood how living together and raising children can be part of spiritual training. It affirmed what I knew from experience. I also practiced vipassanā [insight meditation] in the early years. This was before IMS got started in Barre [in 1976]. They used to rent a place in Great Barrington, and I sat vipassanā, too, in those days.
I found out about the vipassanā retreats through my friend Jon Kabat-Zinn, who practiced Zen with me. He said “These people can really sit!” So I went to see. After that I would go on retreats whenever my circumstances allowed. Occasionally friends, or my parents would take care of my daughter, or I would do trades with other single parents I trusted, and we would help each other that way.
Were there any issues for you about practicing in the two different traditions?
You know in those days, it was no problem. My teacher Seung Sahn, Soen Sa Nim, encouraged my going to the retreats, but said of the vipassanā meditatators, “They fall into emptiness. If you go to a retreat with them, you will have more samādhi [concentration] on the retreat, but when you come out it will be ‘more worser’.” And there was definitely more samādhi in the retreats. But it was more difficult to return to ordinary life when I came out—the emphasis then was not on mindfulness in everyday life.
I would emerge in these profound states, and everything would be an impingement—including my own child. I would be painfully sensitive for days.
Whereas when I would sit at the urban Zen Center, in Providence, there would be people with boom boxes walking outside, and neither the sitting nor the walking sessions were long. You could never really sink in to any particular state. You’d be up and down, up and down, working with a koan, meeting with the teacher. And when you came home it seemed a more natural extension of that—meeting with life’s circumstances as your teacher. But I learned things about stillness on the vipassanā retreats that I did not learn on those Zen retreats. There was no conflict. The teachings seemed consistent and similar to me. Of course, the relationships with the teachers was quite different, but neither would say you could not practice with the other.
Can you say more, from your own experience, about some of the differences between practicing vipassanā and practicing Zen?
With Zen you manifest what you know by being it—fully.
I feel each has something to offer that the other doesn’t. The vipassanā teachings were more accessible, in the sense that there was a map you could follow. The instructions follow the four foundations of mindfulness. You are given techniques for how not to get lost in your thoughts, how to cultivate loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity, and for what to do, rather, how to be in the sitting. You’re not busy, busy, like in the Tibetan tradition, but there is something to hang your mind-hat on. Especially with the practice of noting and labeling, it’s possible to connect mindfulness with named, and accurately known, emotions that may have been repressed. This can be a profound way to offer ourselves the acceptance we seek outside of ourselves—being seen and known completely, including psychologically. Vipassanā has contributed in this way. There are also very explicit dharma talks about what the Buddha actually taught. So you hear about the four noble truths, the three characteristics, the factors of enlightenment, and the eightfold path. The Buddhist way is laid out in a very methodical and accessible manner, suffused with mettā [lovingkindness].
Much of that was missing in Zen. I was a Zen student for years, and we would sit intensively and work with our teacher, but study was not much emphasized. What was valued was looking into your own don’t-know mind, your self, your life, the mystery of it all. That was considered to be alive, and true. It was what I had been seeking all my young life.
What I loved about Zen, and did not find in vipassanā, was an emphasis on direct experience, pure presence, the spontaneous expression of the immediate moment. Now you are free! What do you do? Free to do what? How do you manifest your understanding? The meetings with my teacher Maurine were like that, too: “Okay, so you understand this. Now, what? What do you do? How can you help? Show me!” That was always the emphasis.
With Zen you manifest what you know by being it—fully. If you are giving a dharma talk you don’t talk about the dharma. You sit in presence, body, breath, mind, fully present, and you speak from that, moment-to-moment.
It’s not that you can’t have an outline of what you want to say, but you don’t read a prepared talk. As Kobun Chino Roshi said to me once, “Would you want to go around the table and eat the garbage off everybody’s plate when they were done eating?” I was taught that a prepared talk is like leftovers, not fresh from the pot or the oven. This is a more challenging way of teaching, less consistent sometimes, but it can carry great vitality. It involves trusting our knowing at a deep level.
Another thing about the Zen tradition I think is very useful is that you are working closely with the teacher. Now, obviously, there are things that can go wrong in this close relationship, but we are talking here about strengths, not weaknesses. The point is to have that meeting be as unclouded as possible by expectation, longing for approval, showing off—all the things we habitually bring to our encounters with people.
As a female, I had difficulty trusting my own realization.
There is something remarkable about seeing and being seen by another, about being so naked and clear and present. It’s such an intimate acceptance. It almost takes your breath away!! To come to that pure presence and see: It’s just this! Nothing else! Everything falls away! All your illusions, your idealizations, your longing for love, your paranoia about your teacher not liking you, or finding you’re not enough—all those projections just have to stop, at least for a moment!
In Zen interviews you are facing this person sitting there in the power seat who is the authority. Depending on the teacher, you find yourself trying to answer an unanswerable question they’ve asked you, or you’re trying to come up with something to say or do that demonstrates your understanding, your willingness to be fully present and open to what is. The Zen choreography is used to cultivate mindfulness and try and dislodge people from their comfort zone and encourage them to step out of their mind-house and see what’s there. It draws out whatever poisons come up for you in intimate relationship. Whatever you are carrying will come up in that situation.
When the teacher is wise, balanced, strong and mature, it can be an unparalleled chance to trust someone and be completely without artifice or pretense. In those moments you realize that your mind and your teacher’s mind are just one big mind you are both inhabiting. You’re not caught by the particularities of anyone. To me, this sort of mind-to-mind direct transmission of understanding is a huge strength of Zen.
And the teacher encounter in a vipassanā retreat?
In the beginning, the interviews were the least satisfying element of sitting vipassanā. I loved being on retreat, I loved the dharma talks, the long sitting and walking, the stillness—all of it, except for the interviews. I would go and talk about my practice and then be told I was doing fine. I couldn’t simply trust my teachers then, as I learned to do when I returned to intensive vipassanā retreats a dozen years ago.
As a female, and I don’t think this is unique, I had difficulty trusting my own realization. It was difficult to trust that just hearing is enough, just seeing, just tasting, just this thought, just this feeling in the body—is enough. The mind likes to search for more, for something deeper… Although the teaching is clear: “Zen mind is enough mind,” Zen practice sometimes reinforced a sense of never doing enough. I find that can be a beautiful spirit if it keeps us from fixating and being complacent, or to understanding how the way is infinite and there is always more to learn. But so often our fears inform our beliefs, such as, whatever I’m doing can’t possibly be it. So if a teacher tells you, “You’re doing fine, just continue,” You think, “Well, he must not really know.” (Laughter)
Have you worked recently with vipassanā teachers?
I have felt Joseph [Goldstein], Sharon [Salzberg], Sarah [Doering] and Jack [Kornfield]’s strong caring and support for years now, and have benefited hugely from the teaching—and friendship—of other vipassanā teachers, too. After the teacher retreat at the Forest Refuge at IMS last year, I stayed for the month with Sayadaw U Pandita. U Pandita’s commitment to sīla [virtue] is palpable.
The morning after he arrived at the retreat, there was a rainbow over the whole entrance to the Forest Refuge. It was raining light. And when he walked in the meditation hall that morning, it was like a wave of that fragrance just rolling into the room. Such a wave of purity I felt in his presence, it made me cry. Being one of the people hurt by unethical behavior, I can say: Sīla is the best medicine!
We were given a very clear protocol on what our report to the teacher was to include and, especially, what it was not to include. The report was to focus primarily on the rising and falling of the abdomen. We could name certain mind states, or describe what the mind might be trying to do, but not in any way that was personally identified with the experience. For example, we could say “There was sadness arising.” But we would not say, “I got so sad because…” We were given very strict instructions on how to report most clearly to the Sayadaws, and that is all they would talk to us about.
Reality is holographic. If you focus on any one piece with all your attention, you are going to discover universal dharma truths.
It was a matter of using impersonal language, speaking without the identification ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘mine’, and focusing on a very tiny segment of experience.
But we know reality is holographic. If you focus on any one piece and bring all of your attention to it, you are going to discover the dharma truths that are universal. So you might be just looking at rising and falling, for example; but you’re going to start experiencing just pulsations, and then you’re going to start seeing how some disappear and others take their place, and then you’re going to start having your focus on how they disappear all together as soon as they are perceived. Through the microcosm of the rising and falling and the sensations that accompany that—because that’s what you’re reporting and focusing on—you actually come to experience their true nature. And yet, to learn in this way, you are leaving out huge amounts of your life and your experience.
Does this kind of precisely concentrated mindfulness play any role in therapy, where you also track and report on experience?
The level of concentration is different outside of retreat. But the more care and attentiveness the partnership of therapist/client can bring to exploring experience, the more compassion and connection there will be. And then people begin to trust their own capacity to slow into experience and see what’s there. Noting, labeling the felt sense of things, can help here too.
Both as a dharma teacher and as a therapist, I am passionate about awareness and have empathy for who we are in all our manifestations! We have all seen what happens when people compartmentalize parts of their lives. When we disavow and deny aspects of who we are by projecting them on to an enemy, or try to be a ‘spiritual’ person, we wind up at the mercy of the very forces we reject, without the protection of mindfulness and compassion. I think the best way for us to learn to live in peace with each other is to be able to know that, with a little mindfulness and mettā and karunā [compassion], all the different parts of who we are—even the crazy parts—can peacefully coexist in our own hearts.
To wake up, to be fully alive, most of us have to include the wider range of emotional experience along with body-based, sensation-based awareness. High levels of energy and aliveness come through the emotions when they are approached skillfully and can transform into wisdom. I say transform, rather than be transformed, because it’s something that just happens when we are willing to be present and trust our experience. And having the wise company of a skilled therapist (or teacher) can help people find the courage and strength to trust even their painful losses as truth.
Discovering how to do that came from practicing with my own intense suffering. We can find what lies on the other side of suffering—what’s left when you’ve had insight into how you came to be this way through your parents being the way they were, in part because your grandparents brought them up this way, and their parents’ lives were this way, and so on. The view of human life gets very, very big. Bigger than you or me or them! And what’s naturally left when our suffering falls away? A vast peace and freedom that has always been there.
Might this be one of the ways these traditions of Zen and vipassanā are complementary?
Everything is complementary for me. I don’t get into conflicts or confusion with different practices, because I can see how they’re all expressing dharmic truth. I spent two years studying Vajrayāna Buddhism, doing ngondro practices, doing a Dzogchen retreat in the mountain jungles of Bhutan, then continuing to practice in India for a couple of months in Bodh-Gaya, doing prostrations at the stupa. I could see that each practice was just drawing on different pāramis [moral perfections] and developing different qualities. And they were all so clearly and deeply rooted in the dharma, in the teachings of the Buddha. They were just coming at it from different upāya [skillful means]. It seems to me it is the creativity of human culture developing all of these skillful means of waking up and expressing our gratitude and love of life. Such an abundance of imagination, creativity and cultural diversity! 50 ways to love the dharma! Thank you, India, Korea, Japan, China, Burma, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Tibet, Bhutan! United States, Switzerland, France, England, Thank you, too!
What about the differing notions of selfhood and identity, East and West?
There is a lot of conversation about this. It gets confusing for the therapists when they hear “no self.” Then people start talking about “no self’ or “emptiness” as if they were things, reified (thing-afied) experiences. There is also a lot of confusion in dharma circles about therapy. Many people jump on Freud’s phrase about returning his patients to ordinary human unhappiness, and view therapy as simply a way of adjusting to dukkha [suffering] without much spiritual value.
I remember hearing a Rinpoche [Tibetan Buddhist teacher] at a conference on psychotherapy and Buddhism in the early eighties say in his opening talk to an assembly of professionals something like, “I suppose some poor, unfortunate individuals might need some psychotherapy before they can practice dharma.” That was his understanding of what we were doing. So there are misunderstandings on both sides.
In my experience, there are places in practice where personality is uncovered as illusory and unnecessary. These insights can be vivid and on-going if you are on a retreat, and maybe for some people they are on-going when not on retreat. Some of those dimensions of experience are not ordinarily accessible through psychotherapy, and they’re not usually accessible to psychotherapists unless they’ve practiced.
How do you feel about combining the professions of dharma teachers and psychotherapists?
You see a lot of dharma teachers who become therapists, and some are not necnecessarily trained as therapists. And there are therapists who learn dharma, but then continue to think in therapy terms. Not everyone makes the shift.
For me beginning to teach dharma was very humbling, because I realized it wasn’t about me. It was really about just performing a service. People need to hear the dharma, for the same reasons I did. It saved my life over and over. If you’ve been blessed with being given the chance to practice a bit and work usefully with suffering, it is a service to pass on the teachings about how to do this to others.
I don’t think I have a strong teacher identity. I’ve seen too many hurtful things arise out of that, so I’m really careful. I think of myself like a French teacher or a piano teacher. I have a way of being with people (and myself) that I’ve practiced a lot because it’s something I love. And if you share what you love, it’s contagious. People can catch that spark. And it’s profoundly healing to love your life; this is where the two paths intersect for me.
What brought you from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where you lived for so many years, to Los Angeles?
I left Cambridge after a tough divorce that tore away deeply rooted illusions I’d had for years. It felt like dying, and I had to jump into the unknown and live a gypsy life on the dharma trail for a few years.
I landed in Los Angeles for family reasons. My elderly mom lives there, and needed help in a way that she hadn’t before. She is showing me what it is to be old. It truly is a different stage of development, with its own cognition and ways of perceiving things. It’s not just rhythm and pace that slow down; there are also subtle changes in perception. Understanding this has allowed me to be patient with her in ways that did not come easily at all. She wasn’t a very patient parent, and I wasn’t a very patient daughter. She has sweetened and mellowed, and only speaks her gratitude and support now. I just can’t imagine living far away from her during these years. I’m learning a different kind of love, her dharma of old age.
My daughter also lives in the area, and got pregnant before I went to India. She had been off on her own quite happily for a long time, but wanted me nearby because of the baby. I was in transition in my life, so I thought I would spend a little time while the baby is young and help my daughter. But I fell in love, head over heels, with that child, and did not want to live far away from her. She is almost three now, and she has a new baby brother! So my family life now turns around the evolving relationship with my mother, siblings, daughter, and watching my grandchildren grow.
So you are fully embedded in the life of a householder now?
Oh no! I’m in it, but not of it – that’s the beauty of being a grandparent. When I came to LA a teacher said to me, “Well, being so involved with your family is going to be very bad for your spiritual life.” I knew what he meant, because I was always getting triggered by my family. I felt a lot more kilesas [imperfections], such as impatience and aversion.
Yet I began to think, “Wait a minute, what is this practice if it doesn’t work around my family of origin? Isn’t that a training ground? Don’t they push my buttons the most? Why do I have to go to a monastery to seek out situations that push my buttons? I have them right here: endless chances to cultivate my least favorite virtue, patience! Countless opportunities for renunciation! It’s been very humbling, like going backwards in time and bringing the practice to ancient family dynamics that I’d been able to bypass for a long time.
So how did you get started teaching in LA?
Out of appreciation for the intensity of my own family path, I started Growing Spirit, a family practice program in LA that meets once and a while on Sunday mornings. We sit, and the kids do meditations that are geared toward kids and play. In my new life, I just created a practice situation I knew to be valuable and offered it to the community. We started with two people and now have a regular Thursday sitting group, monthly retreats, weekly classes, visiting teachers, and a growing sangha: Insight LA.
I’m truly grateful to the people in Los Angeles who have come to sit with me. They are so devoted to waking up and being compassionate in this life, caring about each other and the dharma. When I talk about what’s happening with Insight LA, I immediately think of them. They are, we are, what’s happening with Insight LA.