Hi, Gil, welcome to the question and answer session from our worldwide online community. I thought that before we begin you might update everyone on what has been happening here at IMC.
Thank you, Marguerite, it’s nice to see you and be with you again. I enjoy receiving the questions from the wider online community and having this connection through the question/answer sessions. One of the great pleasures for me in recent years has been that people who come to visit IMC one time from the audiodharma world, people who listen to the talks from far away – sometimes from Europe, from Canada, from Mexico – and who’ve listened to the talks for some time, when they have occasion to come to the Bay area will come down and make a visit to IMC. And at the end of the talk I give, they will often come over and introduce themselves and talk a little bit about the value these talks have given them and their delight to be at IMC in person. I take great pleasure in meeting them and through them realizing that IMC and audiodharma is connected to a wide network of people all over the globe. I’m very grateful that we have this expanded connection – kind of friendships all over the world.
One of the nice things happening at IMC now is the building of our retreat center. Six weeks ago we began the renovation work and hopefully it will be finished in October. By November we will have our own retreat center for about 40 people. People will be able to come and do residential retreats. This is very exciting for me and our community. People have been very supportive of our efforts. We have raised pretty much all the money we need for the renovation. Now we are looking for a little bit more money for buying the furniture. It doesn’t work to just have an empty shell of a building.
Marguerite: So, let’s turn to the first question. This is a question from Krishna in Valmont. While practicing vipassana meditation, the feelings or sensations one gets in the body are anitya. Then what is nitya or permanence? Is there anything that is permanent according to the Buddha?
Gil: Yes, so in Pali the word is anicca and that means impermanent or inconstant. Permanent is nicca. Buddhism puts a lot of emphasis on the insight into impermanence. It’s not meant to be a belief that you understand rationally or logically why everything is impermanent. Rather to develop your mindfulness to be strong enough – strong concentration – to begin seeing how all the things that we experience are impermanent, are in flux, are constantly changing all the time. I think of it more as a revelation because we are kind of doing the practice until impermanence kind of shows itself very clearly to us. We don’t have to impose our idea of impermanence on things even though sometimes it’s useful to know that things are inconstant, to know that our emotions come and go like the weather as opposed to falling into the delusion of permanence that because you are not feeling well one day, that it would always be that way would be the delusion. I remember once many years ago feeling really happy for a period of time and telling a friend I’ll never be depressed again. That was the delusion of permanence. In a couple of months I was more depressed than I’ve ever been in my life. I set myself up for that. Sometimes it is useful to be reminded that certain things come and go but for vipassana practice the idea is to practice until impermanence shows itself very clearly. There are things along the way that might appear as permanent. One of those things is consciousness or some sense of being-ness or awareness or the self might seem quite permanent. The instructions in Buddhist practice if you come across something that appears to be permanent is to look more closely at it, bring your careful mindfulness, concentrated attention to look more carefully and see what happens. Inevitably what will happen is that you will see that it is impermanent and will pass away. In Buddhist practice it is pretty rare to be left with anything that would qualify as something permanent. Occasionally people will say something like nirvana or the experience of liberation is timeless, outside of time. Timeless has a certain kind of permanence. But is nirvana something created? What is its status? Is it appropriate to talk about nirvana as permanent or impermanent? Probably not. There is some debate about whether nirvana is permanent or not. The practice of Buddhism is to keep looking whenever you find something that looks permanent.
Marguerite: The second question is from David in Philadelphia. He is wondering about the connection, if any, between Buddhism and nature. Does Buddhism have anything to say about being an environmentalist?
Gil: It’s a wonderful question. The word dharma sometimes is translated as nature. In some schools of Buddhism nature is seen as a very powerful teacher for ourselves. We’re trying to see very deeply into the nature of things, into the nature of nature, how things are. To be out in the wood, to be a forest monk or nun, part of the function of that is to feel a certain connection to nature that informs our practice, our lives, our selves, and helps us let go of some of the deep held attachments that we have which are easy to have in the middle of our social life with everyone. Many people find a different perspective in themselves when they are out in nature, spending days in the wilderness. It can be very helpful to free ourselves. And the line between humans and nature that some cultures have made very strong, in the core teachings of Buddhism there is no line between nature and humans. There is definitely a strong connection and empathy, intimacy between them. To let go of your attachments is one of the ways to allow oneself to feel a greater sense of connectedness with life around us, including the natural world. The mythology of Buddhism makes a very strong connection between nature and human beings. Especially the ethical quality of human beings. The more unethical people are, there is a way in which that translates to being a harsher, decadent world. The more ethical people are, the more vibrant they are and the natural world is. So one of the ways to work on the world is to work on human ethics and liberate ourselves from hate and greed and make us insensitive to the wider natural world and the care of it. For an environmentalist, I think that Buddhism would be very encouraging about someone being an environmentalist, about someone working out of care and compassion for our world is integral to Buddhist practice. I would very much hope that someone who develops Buddhism becomes someone who cares about the world around them, whether for neighbors or family. We certainly could use more of that. One of the things Buddhist practice has to offer to anyone who is an activist, including environmentalist, is to help them look very carefully at what motivates them – their reactions, attitudes, intentions – so that people are not acting out of anger or greed or confusion. So that when we are involved with a struggle to improve the environment we are not doing it out of fear or hostility or a strong sense of us vs. them. Rather we can do the environmental work with great passion and dedication but without harmful attitudes.
Marguerite: Thank you. Next is Alice who is confused about whether one is to explore or investigate or look at something while meditating, or how exactly it is best to investigate things such as clinging, aversion, anger, doubt, all of the big hindrances. She says if I think about these big issues, I get lost. When and how is the best way to do this? Is it off or on the cushion or both?
Gil: This is a good question. An important part of mindfulness practice is investigation, looking more closely at what our experience is, understanding it more deeply. It is important to understand that this investigation often is meant to be in balance with other factors of mind. Three of these factors are concentration, tranquility, and equanimity. Concentration is stability of mind, stillness of mind, calmness of mind. Tranquility is also calmness of mind. Equanimity is a non-reactivity of mind. If the investigation is in balance with those things, then investigation is less likely to be tripped up into reactive evaluations, judgments for what is going on. Also, what helps support the investigation is not being analytical. The idea is not to go into our discursive mind and have commentary and active analysis of our experience. Rather to feel it more fully in the present moment, experience it as it is actually happening. What is this right now? With a quiet and still mind, in a way that helps the mind be calm and more subtle, turn toward something, for example, like our clinging, turn toward the big issues that we have. Not think about them but feel what the impact is on our psycho-physical life in the present moment. For example, if you have a big decision to make, there may be many things to consider to make the decision in a wise way. But there also may be a lot of fears, desires, and confusion and a lot of different ideas that are interfering with making a good decision. What meditation can offer, if you are going to investigate the impact this big decision has on you, you wouldn’t think about it in meditation. Rather you would feel and look at what happens inside of you when you have this big issue you are grappling with. What parts of your body are tense or stressful? How does it affect your breathing? What emotions are coming into play in the present moment? What is the quality of your thinking mind – is it tight, spinning around, fragmented? To really look at the present moment, you need to experience this and try to separate yourself out from having to make a decision. Settle and relax and let all the things that are extra and not needed, all the stress, the anxiety subside. Then at that point you might be in a much better place to make a decision and understand what is needed. And that you may be able to do after you get out of meditation.
Marguerite: Next is Danny from Leeds in the UK. He says I try not to cause harm to others through my speech and actions but equally there are certain people in my life whom I don’t particularly like and a couple whom I feel wary of. My intuition tells me to be careful around them. I know that one of the ways that I keep such people at a distance is to be somewhat spikey. Could you please say something about reconciling my right to choose who I want in my life and the process of keeping some people at a distance when they want to be closer to me than I feel comfortable with.
Gil: I think this is a normal part of many people’s lives. Certainly you have the right to some degree to choose whom you are with, not to be around some people. I think the beginning of this question, in terms of Buddhist practice, is to appreciate that you don’t have to like the people that you have good will towards. You can have good will, friendly attitudes towards people without necessarily liking them. They might be behaving in ways which are distressing or uncomfortable for you. For whatever reason, you might not have to like everyone, but independent of liking them, you can have a basic human friendliness or good will towards them. In having good will toward them, it can be something private inside of you. You don’t have to act on it. Having a friendly attitude or good will doesn’t mean you have to act friendly toward them or act in ways that express this. But perhaps having good will or a friendly attitude will help you to explore other ways to keep your distance than being spikey. Perhaps there are ways that are more polite or friendly or harm you less. My assumption is that anybody who is spikey, it hurts to be spikey, it’s uncomfortable to do that. Are their ways to keep a healthy distance without making yourself or them uncomfortable? That takes certain kinds of skill in conversation, in social interactions to know how to not engage with people, spend time with people without being impolite or mean. Certainly you have permission not to have to spend time with people but figure out how to do that in a way that no one is harmed by it.
Marguerite: Thank you. Next is from Andre in Redwood City. He’s heard you mention several times how in certain families or social circles people interact with the idea that worrying is the same thing as caring. With that in mind, how can one relate to others with caring and compassion without having to do so in terms of their or any expectations?
Gil: If the expectation people have is that you are going to worry and that’s how you show your care and love, then there’s a few possibilities. In some situations it might be possible to talk about that very issue. I’m a great believer that whenever possible being articulate about what is going on. Sitting down and saying, looking at our family and our situation, it seems that the expectation is that people like to worry as a way of showing caring. It’s becoming hard for me and painful for me to continue with this worrying mode and I would like to explore how to show my caring for my family or friends in a way that’s not worrying. So please be prepared for this. If you see me behaving a little bit differently, please don’t take this to be that I don’t care. Look at it as I am trying to find new ways of doing it. And then we can talk about how it’s going if it makes you uncomfortable to change. Sometimes it’s possible to engage people and tell them up front in a way that is friendly and not offensive, not telling them that they have to be different but that you are trying to do some things differently. Sometimes the situation doesn’t allow for that but perhaps then you need to proactively make it clear that you do care for them, have love and compassion for them through your speech or gestures, giving them a gift, telling them you care, showing you care, asking how they are. Perhaps they can learn that you do care a lot when you don’t worry for them. That’s specifically around worrying. The question was also how you care for people without having to do so in terms of their expectations. Now if that is a more general question, then I think we want to take into account people’s expectations. Sometimes expectations are reasonable. Sometimes you have an agreement with people, such as in marriage. Marriage is usually seen as having an agreement about how to be together. So there is an expectation about a certain way of being that if you don’t live up to those expectations, it doesn’t make sense to stay married. Sometimes expectations are a normal part of life and need to be taken into account. Or sometimes expectations people have for us are unreasonable but they come from need that people have. Maybe behind the expectation is suffering. So we can look behind the expectation to see why it is there rather than dismissing it. That often helps. Then we can address those. When the expectations involve something unreasonable or that aren’t healthy for us to buy into, then it helps if we develop our own self-confidence. Be confident in ourselves that we don’t have to take responsibility for others and we don’t have to necessarily look good in others’ eyes. We don’t always have to have other people’s approval. That can help not being pulled into their expectations.
Marguerite: There are two questions from Cynthia in Tucson, Arizona. We’ll start with the first one. You said once that you did not meditate when you wrote your dissertation. You said you had to give up some of your quality of mind in order to get the document written. I want to ask why is writing a dissertation different from other activities. With kids I can understand we have to fit others’ schedules, but dissertation writing is much more flexible. Why didn’t meditation give you more time when you were writing?
Gil: Thank you, Cynthia, for that. Yes, of course, I think a dissertation can be similar to other activities in the sense that we can practice with it and do it in the same mind – relaxed and open mind. Maybe in an ideal world I would have engaged with my dissertation that way but if I was going to do it that way, it would have taken me a lot longer than it took. I wasn’t willing to spend a few more years doing it slowly and carefully and mindfully in the way that we keep a higher quality in my mind. I thought that there was more value than being finished with it and in the process sacrificed the quality of my mind. Now for some people maybe that is not healthy. It worked ok for me. And for me, if anything, my attachment was to a high quality of mind so I had to be willing to let go of that and be ok with being a little more stressed and absorbed. So the answer to the question is that dissertation writing for me was different than many others because I put myself under a time limit to get it done. What I did then was to take a three-month period of time, then a second period of one month where I did what I call the dissertation retreat. That’s all I did. Stay home for three months and worked and worked. My guess is that I worked 14-15 hours a day, nonstop 7 days a week in order to really pour myself into it. That worked for 10 weeks. The last two weeks I started getting too tired to keep it up. That kind of almost obsessive quality, which is fulltime engagement with intellectual activity, using my thinking mind all day long without a break, without meditation or settling and relaxing it, led to a certain kind of decrease in calm, openness, a certain kind of clarity. But I felt that for me not only because of the time limit but also because of the kind of analytical work required, the way my mind works, I thought I needed to be completely absorbed in that world. I’d learned that when I took time off – and I took lots of time off during my doctoral time to go off on retreat and do other things – when I was away from it, I’d lose touch with it and my mind wouldn’t be so creative and involved in the ideas of it. In fact, sometimes I’d come back to work on it and would say Why am I bothering to work on this, so the only way to get through it for me was to pour myself into it and make it my whole life for a period of time. That is a choice I made. I don’t know if it was the wisest choice but at the time it seemed like the choice to make. Hopefully that answers the question.
Marguerite: The next question from Cynthia is explain the difference between the attitude and intention. Somewhat related when I speak to people about Buddhism and the teaching that good intention brings happiness, people respond by saying that they know a lot of mean folks who are perfectly happy. What do I say about that? I agree, but for me good intentions are a great way to go. But I can’t speak for others.
Gil: This is a nice question, one that many people have. I’d begin by saying that one of the ways of feeling some happiness or well-being is to be happy with the intentions that you have. If you are paying attention to what motivates you – which many people don’t – then it’s possible to feel that those motivations are really good and be happy with them. Or to feel somehow distressed about oneself if one’s intentions are intending to cause harm for other people. There is a very direct connection that way between happiness and intention. I suspect that most people who are mean folks who are happy are probably not paying much attention, not much mindfulness. If they really felt their meanness, they would also feel suffering in the midst of whatever else they’re feeling. The difference between attitude and intention: I think of intention as being more the specific purpose and motivation behind what we are doing. Whereas attitude is the general approach we have or the general reactivity we have when we engage in things. I can have an intention to go and help my neighbor and the intention is to care for my neighbor who is sick. That could be the intention operating; however, for some reason that day I didn’t get enough sleep and my car doesn’t start and I got a letter from the IRS so it’s been a little depressing and so the general attitude I have is one of being grumpy. I carry that grumpiness with me even when I am helping my neighbor, even when my intention is to help. Hopefully the grumpiness doesn’t spill over on my neighbor. Attitude is more the general mood with which we approach what is going on. But I also realize that there is no hard and fast separation and that they can overlap quite a bit. Then the question of justice is behind this or how intention works in people’s lives. If intention brings happiness, then why are some people happy who don’t have good intentions? I like to say that there is not a 1-1 correlation between our good intentions and our happiness but our good intentions tend towards creating a happier person, tend toward creating a greater benefit for the people. There is no guarantee. There are so many variables in person’s lives that can shift and change. A person might do a lot of good, have a lot of good intentions in life, but then end up with some kind of crisis and tragedy and it makes it very hard to be happy because of that. But we tend to be happier and as we strengthen our intentions for the good, the strength of that sometimes will carry us through times of crisis in an easier, more beneficial way.
Marguerite: The next question is from Theresa in Darwin, Australia. My younger brother was abused by my father and I grew up witnessing this mistreatment as well as receiving some. I have kept in close contact with him through the years watching him emerge through drug abuse, although he is still quite damaged. He became the sole carer for his son who has developed a mental illness and I worry deeply about both of them. They live a long way from me. I am wondering how to be released from my worry and not take responsibility for their happiness or try to fix them or help them.
Gil: I am sorry for your experience, your brother’s challenges, and also for you. Perhaps one way of helping you sort through this is to distinguish between concern and worry. Distinguish between concern and taking responsibility. It can be quite a healthy and appropriate thing for you to have concern for your brother and his son. My hope for you is that that concern and care for them would be ongoing and that from a distance that they would know that someone in the world cares about them. That concern doesn’t have to translate to worrying or taking responsibility. Worrying generally has to do with fear and there might be reasons to be concerned that there could be greater damage. Sometimes when people feel fear, sometimes it’s reasonable to feel it but it is possible to bring a lot of mindfulness to the fear so we aren’t caught in its grip. The fearful concern can be there and move through it and maybe inform us and help us see what needs to be addressed. But worry is frozen fear, when we are trapped in the fear. In that case more mindfulness is helpful to look at our attitudes, our beliefs, the sense of self, the kind of relationship we have with those around us. There might be a lot of clarification that is useful to do to separate out the worry from the concern. To not take responsibility is a very hard thing for some people. There are a lot of Buddhist teachings about not taking responsibility. Hopefully, not taking responsibility does not translate to not being responsive. We have an ability to respond in as caring a way as appropriate. Responsibility is when we think it’s up to me and only me. I have to fix this. I have to do something. Ultimately people’s well being, happiness, and peace, or the lack of it, is their responsibility, especially when they are adults. And one of the important things is to grant people the freedom to make their own choices. People make them anyway. So to realize that people are making their own choices even if they are not wise…..