How long have you been meditating?
Since around 4 years old. I was fortunate to have been taught to meditate by my Mother, who called it “mind control”. She first introduced me to working with my mind so that I could stop sucking my finger.
She also taught me body scans to relax, which I would do in bed when I got scared. I had some very trippy experiences from going deeply into my body as a child that re-occurred in the same ways decades later on silent retreats. When I finally sat on a silent retreat in 1992 it wasn’t totally unfamiliar territory.
Understanding Your Own Mind
As an adult I specifically sought out meditation initially to help me understand my own mind because I had been living in chronic pain for many years. By my early 30’s I had hit a wall with the conventional medical tradition and several surgeries – and was told that the pain I was experiencing was “only” in my mind. I figured then, that my only sane choice was to get to know my own mind better so that I could work with how it was registering pain. Plus, I don’t pay much attention to can’t or don’t – so I needed to find out for myself what I could do. 7 intense years of practice allowed me to re-trigger a part of my autonomic nervous system to function properly again, and be free of physical pain – emotional and mental pain has been more of a longer term undertaking, but I’m getting there!
Subsequently, I’ve sat on over 150 silent retreats over the past 30 years. Fortunately, we do eventually become what we practice; it’s not only intentions and hopes for the future, it is what we can be.
Personally, what have you seen as changing in your life as a result?
The most valuable gift is developing self-compassion. To be able to unconditionally accept my full range of human tones and shades is the most fundamental shift I’ve experienced. This allowance so to speak lets me work with my mind in a really kind way, so there’s no inherent struggle with or against my own mind anymore. Now, being with my own mind is full of curiosity and a lot of times much more delightful – I’m not taking everything personally, I can see my patterns of thoughts and feelings and not be owned by them, and I can choose what to fertilize and what to uproot.
I had opportunity to work with accumulated practice when having heart surgery a few years back. My practice showed up as the rubber hit the road again – I was able to meet my experiences with a great amount of balance, less to no fear and real tenderness towards what I was going through.
How often do you meditate?
Daily in the morning, and many short times during the day.
Tailoring Practice to Your Needs
Could you describe your practice?
My practice depends on what I need – I check into myself – mind, heart and body and then practice prescriptively. For instance, if I’m restless I might focus on my breath. If I could use a little more spaciousness in my mind I might practice mindfulness of sound, if my body is worn out, I take a restorative posture to rest my nervous system and stay very present to sensations – but mostly I rest my mind in what can be called open awareness which is inclusive of everything that is happening in the moment, and noticing it with relaxed attention.
When did you start teaching?
I started teaching 35 years ago – but I started as a yoga teacher, back in the day when it wasn’t a profession but a way to share what I loved and support my art making.
Over the years, it became less interesting to me to tell people how to arrange their bodies, and more interesting to offer ways to know the body intimately as a reflection of the mind. And, to know and work with what is discovered both somatically and cognitively.
What do you and is the biggest difficulty people have?
Most people have difficulty being kind to themselves and so there is an automatic struggle with staying in the present moment because it takes practice to develop the ability. If we judge our ability to meditate then it becomes more of an exercise in rigidity and determination than ease. And ease isn’t about being dispassionate, but about not being attached.
To Teach, Know Your Internal Landscape
How does one teach people to meditate?
Start by practicing a lot, then if you can, get training. Know your own internal landscape well enough to teach from direct experience rather than concept. Meditation is experiential, not conceptual, so it takes time. There is a story of an old Tibetan master who when was asked by a student how he got to be so wise and compassionate, he pulled down his pants and patted his flat, leathery bottom that he earned by sitting, a lot.
It’s important to live your practices not just think about them – how we apply a practice is pivotal to working with our mind, then minds in general. Knowing skillful options to being with your own mind and conditioning will translate into what you might offer others because essentially we are more similar than different. It also breaks down the illusion of self and other, which is how empathy and compassion flourishes.
Meditation in Mainstream Culture
What are your feelings on mediation entering mainstream culture?
Mostly, I think it’s great because do we ever need it now! It’s imperative that as many of us as possible become more embodied and know our own minds so that we can make wise and considerate choices about how we would like to be and how we would like the world to become. We really need basic sanity and compassion so that we can act from clarity rather than confusion.
And the flip side of being mainstream is the commodification of it – mindfulness is ubiquitous and the shingle is hung on anything to sell it more. It’s unsavory to me. There are too many rainbows and love and light quotes going around and they are at best band aids. I don’t see people taking wise or kind action from them but I guess they look great on Instagram, but not all is good, and we need to take compassionate, clear actions because of that.
Our planet needs all the help it can get so those who are shifting their own internal paradigm to see things as they are not only what we want them to be, can help shift the world, hopefully in time.
Life Beyond Meditation
Where are you from?
Originally from the East Coast – I grew up mainly in Connecticut, lived in Bedford, NY many years and in New York City many years.
How old are you?
A proud 61, so thank goodness wisdom develops with time spent on earth.
Where do you live?
I moved to Berkeley California about 5 years ago, but I’m kind of bi-coastal because my beau lives in Brooklyn.
When you are not meditating what do you do?
I work for myself, so I work a lot… I founded a not for profit training and service organization in NYC which I just let go of after many years. I trained as a Buddhist Chaplain so I have worked in that world a bit. I create curriculum and trainings to teach others to teach. I consult, mentor and coach, and I lead silent retreats nationally and internationally. I also write a fair amount and am trying to find a way back to making visual art.
Supporting an Aging Brain and Body
You seem very fit
My mind is very fit, my heart is pretty open, and my body is getting there again post heart surgery. Meditation is the best support one can have for an aging brain and body. I’ve started teaching about being with aging, illness and death a lot more because of what I know to be true and beneficial.
What are your ambitions for the next few years?
I want to be as awake as possible for the time I have left. I would love to be more free creatively which in my mind manifests in being really out of the box mentally to push the limits of what is possible consciously especially while getting older. I’d like to be as expansive as possible in my heart, and also not tied to cultural, social conditioning anymore. I truly believe it is time to shift the paradigms, collectively wake up and take care of each other and the planet.
I’d like to support as many people as I possibly can to be in the world feeling and being valued and with the conscious presence to be more empathetic so that we ignite and sustain all types of compassionate action. I want to continue to be real living example (as long as I can) of how one can work with their own mind, how we can change and grow and be courageous because we are all in this together it’s really beyond time to live up to that.
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