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. To teach a kid to actually work with their mind is such a gift!
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 reoccurred 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 30s, 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. Seven 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 was more of a longer-term undertaking!
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 for me has been developing self-compassion. To actually love and be able to unconditionally accept myself is the most fundamental shift I’ve experienced. This set the foundation to be present with kindness most of the time and not be tossed around by my thoughts and emotions — there is tremendous freedom in just that.
I had another wonderful opportunity to work with accumulated practice from needing to have heart surgery a few years ago which was the rubber hitting the road — I was able to meet my experiences with some equanimity, less-to-no fear and real tenderness.
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 take stock of my mind, heart and body and then practice accordingly. 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 of yoga and lie down 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 arising in the moment and noticing it with kind, relaxed and bright 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 find is the biggest difficulty people have?
Most people have difficulty accepting and being kind to themselves. When we start to look at our own minds and hearts, even feel our own body, we might hear, see and feel things that we don’t want to hear, feel or think. How we meet that is pivotal to continuing. If we accept that we have a human mind, heart and body and it’s not any better than or worse than anyone else, and meet what we see with kindness, then the path of practice and life actually opens its arms and welcomes and supports us in being with what is. But, if we are constantly fighting what is happening, wishing it were different and criticizing or judging ourselves, everything is harder and there is no ease. Ease isn’t about being dispassionate, but just not attached.
To Teach, Know Your Internal Landscape
How does one teach people to meditate?
It’s important to have practiced, so we need to work with our own minds for a while first. I’m not saying we have to be experts and really wise to begin, but we need to know our own internal landscape well enough so that we are sharing our direct experience rather than concept. Meditation is experiential, not conceptual — you actually have to sit and do it to benefit from it. There is a story of an old Tibetan master who, when he was asked by a student how he got to be so wise and compassionate, pulled down his pants and patted his flat, leathery bottom that he earned by sitting, a lot.
It’s also 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! I am glad to be where I am in terms of time and experience so that for my part, I can continue the chain of what has been graciously passed along to me and from one person to another over the centuries. It’s really imperative that as many of us as possible become more embodied so that we can take care of our shared earth body — empathetic and compassionate so that we can relieve suffering where we can, and sane so that we can act from clarity rather than confusion.
The qualification of being mostly happy about the mindfulness wave is that everyone is teaching it and in all sorts of weird and not-so-well-informed ways. The shingle of mindfulness this-and-that is ubiquitous, therefore becoming watered down and taken less seriously. So, I recommend that if you are looking for a teacher that you do your homework and place your heart, mind and body in the hands of someone experienced, kind and not dogmatic.
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 to have the conscious presence to be more empathetic to spark all types of compassionate action. Because we are all in this together, it’s really beyond time to live up to that.