Recorded: February, 2012
Transcription by: Elizabeth Paschall
Good morning, Gil. It’s nice to see you after such a long time. We haven’t done this for about six months. Before we start I want to ask you about the Insight Retreat Center and its progress that would interest the members of our community.
GIL: Hi, Marguerite, it’s nice to see you again and be asked questions from the online communities connected to IMC. A big project the Insight Meditation Center is involved in: The creation of our retreat center. Almost a year ago we bought the property about fifty minutes from here (Redwood City, California). It was an existing nursing home and will be remodeled into a place for residential retreats where people can go for a week or ten days or a weekend to engage in silent meditation retreats. It is very exciting for me and the center. To do retreats is one of the central activities we do in our particular spiritual practice in addition to regular daily meditation practice. We have been doing retreats – about six or seven a year – where we rent places, but there is a big demand for retreats. Many people want to come; people come from far away to do them. So by having this retreat center we can offer many more retreats during the year and try to meet the level of interest there is. It is a big project. We have been working for almost a year with an architect; it’s been slow to go through the local county building permit process due to new requirements. We are almost there. Probably within the next couple of weeks the work will begin. Then about six months to do the work. We are almost there in terms of fundraising for it. We were able to purchase the property and we have almost what we need to do the renovation but we still need another $200,000. We are in the last push to raise the money through a variety of things we are doing. We’re having an online auction. People from our community have offered some beautiful things – objects, services, events. At the end of March we will launch this online auction. For people out there in the online community who are interested in helping to create this retreat center, your support would be very much appreciated. You can go on our website and read more about the retreat center.
Marguerite: Thank you, Gil. Now we will start our session.
The first question comes from Will in New York: My reflections on death and impermanence have led me to let go of many of the ideas I’ve been attached to and have put me in touch with a feeling of profound emptiness. This process happened very rapidly (I am not a very experienced meditator) but it has had a beneficial effect on making me less concerned with things like conditioned self-identity and every day cravings. The problem is that this process has been very painful. I find myself face to face with more profound sufferings — the fear of death, the fear of loss, and a feeling of disorientation. And now I have few every day concerns in which to hide. Sometimes I feel almost as if I have delved too quickly into a certain type of practice without the necessary development. Do you have any advice about certain types of practices I can use to work on these powerful feelings?
GIL: It’s a wonderful question, Will. Thank you. Yes, it is possible for people to delve too quickly into the practice. Insights can open up quite quickly when there’s a lot of letting go of the ordinary or usual concerns or attachments people have, and they end up facing some of the deeper existential issues. Fear of death, for example. Sometimes when practice goes really quickly, there are a few things to keep in mind and try to do. One is that it’s very helpful to have a community of people to practice with. Sometimes it may be hard to find, but it’s helpful to find some community of spiritual practitioners or a meditation center or sitting group – even a Sunday morning sitting with the Quakers. The Friends Meeting House can be helpful. Just to feel that there are other people who are somehow connected to this same understanding, who are going through similar changes, so that you don’t feel as if you are the only one. You will feel support. If there is a teacher around or a spiritual mentor you can check in with regularly, someone whom you can question or who can help you understand more about what is going on for you. Perhaps a good friend can ask you questions and offer support. That would be great. The other thing is that when the practice goes deep and there is a strong feeling of emptiness, it’s also good to alternate the practice with practices of compassion and lovingkindness. This is to give the sense that our practice is connected to other people. The practice of generosity toward other people creates the sense that the practice is not only solitary or individual or personal or inner about letting go. But also that the practice connects you to the welfare and well being of other people as well. So then you get a clear sense that your practice of letting go, your practice of encountering these existential issues, isn’t just for yourself but also can help support other people as well. In that exploration of self and other, compassion and letting go, there are lots of wonderful insights and struggles that can happen in the process. I wish you well with that. Thank you.
The next question is from Cynthia in Tucson, Arizona. Please talk about regret and guilt. So many of us have spent our lives motivating ourselves through these negative emotions. I know I have deliberately cultivated guilt and regret, shame, etc. because otherwise I might not do what I’m supposed to do.
GIL: Yes, I agree that for some people guilt and regret can be big issues, big forms of suffering, big motivators for people. I had a lot of guilt, insecurity when I was a new practitioner in my early twenties. I had to deal with that. I think one of the primary approaches to these kinds of questions in mindfulness practice is to be willing to look at them more carefully and to try to look at them with a balanced mind, meaning a mind that isn’t judging them quickly, for or against them, where you don’t decide that you are bad for having these feelings and also don’t decide that they are right and justified. But rather in a balanced and equanimous way, be willing to explore and investigate. There are many ways of doing that. Sometimes in daily life you can just simply be actively thinking about how regret and guilt work in your life. Or talking to friends about it. It can also be an exploration of your relationship to it. What are the beliefs you have in relation to regret and guilt? How do you relate to them when they arise? What are the emotions they trigger or what were the lessons you received growing up which affect your relationship to them today? Step back and look at how we relate to it, a little bit with the hope that you can relate to it in simpler ways. So when regret or guilt arises, maybe you can just sit and meditate with it, being very easy with it, not needing to pick it up, not needing to push it away, and not needing to judge its presence. Just give permission for it to be there in a very simple way. And then bring mindfulness to that experience of regret or guilt in some deeper way. Feel it in your body. Practice mindfulness of emotions with it. Or just sit and breathe with it, breathe with the feelings without reacting to them and see what unfolds. If we step back a little bit and look at the Buddhist idea of regret and guilt, the Buddhist understanding of these words might not be the same way that other people use these words, but maybe what I have to say is useful. Buddhism distinguishes between regret and guilt. Where regret can be a healthy emotion or feeling, guilt is seen to be a form of aversion, of ill will, or hate. In Buddhism we say it is never useful to feel guilt. Buddhism doesn’t really have a place for guilt. The healthy part of regret is that if we have done something that caused harm to others or that isn’t right, then it is appropriate to feel some kind of “off” about it – regret. Not to weigh us down, not to suffer better, but to register really deeply that it was not right and I wish I hadn’t done it. Then, rather than drowning in the feelings of regret, the Buddhist approach would be to feel the regret, to acknowledge what wasn’t right and then be forward looking — see how I can do better in the future. We aren’t weighed down by the past but rather the past is a motivator to be inspired to do better in the future. In the situation of guilt, I think it’s useful to look at the aversion — the ill will that is there — and to realize that there are a lot of extra ideas about self and judgments. Guilt is seen as a kind of self-identity issue. I am wrong. I am bad. Some people find it meaningful to hear there is no place for guilt and it’s possible to let go of it. If there is healthy regret, there is no need for guilt.
Thank you, Gil. The next question is from a person in San Mateo. I’ve been meditating for about five weeks and have been having increased anxiety the last few weeks. I think it is related to meditation rather than the stresses in my life. Is this normal? When will it get better? What are you supposed to do with all the issues, feelings, and thoughts that are now being aroused?
GIL: Yes, it can happen this way. When some people start meditation, they immediately find it brings more calm and letting go of their stress and preoccupations. And some people find that the opposite occurs, that they do get more anxious. There are a few reasons for this. One is that some people confuse mindfulness with self-consciousness so that as we are mindful we become more aware of what we are thinking, feeling; and then old habits of self-consciousness, of being critical, of being judgmental come into play unnecessarily. Part of what we do in mindfulness is, in a sense, always step back from what is going on, and be mindful, be aware of it in a non-judgmental way. It is very helpful to see that we have this relationship of judging and then step back and see if we can hold that in a spacious way. Sometimes what happens is that the surface tensions of our life fall away; but sometimes there are hidden or buried or overlooked anxieties, fears, and unresolved issues just waiting to be addressed because we are always busy and preoccupied. So sometimes when we’re meditating and settled down, the deeper, unresolved issues come up. Rather than feeling distressed or that it’s wrong, I think it is helpful to see that it is beneficial to begin addressing some of the deeper issues. If the cost of that is to be anxious or stressed for a little while as you face it, I think that is ok as long as we have some confidence that this is a useful process to engage in. It’s important that a person have a good understanding of the instructions for mindfulness practice so that they know how to be mindful of emotions, thoughts, feeling, of their relationship to things. If a person doesn’t have confidence that they know the basic instructions, I would encourage them to go and get those instructions. One way to get them is from our audiodharma site where I have a six-week meditation course in mindfulness meditation. A person can listen to those and get some of the basic ideas.
The next question is from Benjamin in Dresden, Germany. I have been practicing vipassana meditation seriously for about four months hoping I could get rid of my discursive thoughts and worries just as so many books and famous meditation teachers promise. I sit down in full lotus for thirty minutes two times a day, morning and evening, trying to focus on my breath, expecting my thoughts to go away. The results or benefits are zero. I have started putting meditation into question, wondering if it is highly overrated. I do not agree with the phrase, “You are not your body, you are not your thoughts, you are not your emotions.” Of course I am. My thoughts are the results of my perceptions and experiences with the real world. Thinking that my thoughts are not me would be like denying reality. When I talk about thoughts and emotions, I mean thoughts about real happenings that affect me or my relatives directly. For example, one of my family members will soon die of cancer. Or I can’t pay the mortgage on my house and may lose it very soon. Why do you think that thoughts like that will ever go away from my mind like clouds in the sky as long as the real situations that stand behind these thoughts still exist?
GIL: Great, wonderful question, Benjamin. It might be helpful to step back from any ideas that you have about what meditation is and consider that one of the functions of vipassana (mindfulness) meditation is not to meditate and get calm but rather to see clearly what is going on. Vipassana means clear seeing. Some people find when they start meditating that the calming effect of staying with the breath is very helpful. It’s calming, it’s settling, the mind can settle down, pretty much like reading a really good book and really being involved in the book. A person can get absorbed in the activity of focusing on the breath, and the normal thoughts and activities of the mind don’t get much attention or energy and they fall away or calm down. Some people find that works in meditation. Other people find other activities in daily life that help them step away or relax the discursive mind. Some people exercise. Some read books. Some have a hobby. Some walk in nature. It’s often useful to have some kind of technique to lessen the intensity with which we are preoccupied and caught up in our thoughts. For some people meditation works that way; for some it doesn’t. Then we come to the idea of clearly seeing what is. So, to focus too much on trying to calm the mind can be counter-productive. What can be useful is to begin studying the busy mind, the thinking mind to understand what is going on. In particular, one of the things that can be helpful is to begin seeing the way in which our emotions and our concerns and our fears and our anxieties fuel the thinking mind, keep it going. There are different levels of intensity with which we think and seeing how the different intensities work — what propels the different intensities, what the preoccupation is — is very important, especially with some of these very important concerns that you are thinking about: a family member dying of cancer, paying your mortgage. There are many real issues that people have to think about and address and solve. But meditation is an opportunity to look not at how to solve those issues but how we are involved in those issues – the attachments, the concerns, the emotions that are fueling it. The hope is not that that a person would once and for all stop thinking about these concerns but from time to time have the ability to take a vacation from them. From time to time be able to put them down so that the mind has a chance to rest; the mind has a chance to reconsider these things from a different perspective or angle. Just as many times people can do that when they have a vacation. They come back from vacation and look at their work in a new way. But the process of being able to put things down happens most realistically if we understand how we are holding on, how we are tense, how we are glued, how we are propelled to be concerned with these things. One of the most useful things for doing that is to look at the emotions that fuel it. If you are interested, you can listen to the fourth week of my six-week introductory course where I talk about mindfulness of thinking. I think that may answer some of your questions.
In terms of the question about “you are not your body, not your thoughts, not your emotions,” I’d agree. Of course you are. Your body is not someone else’s body. Who else’s would it be? However, it’s easy to see how some people are overly preoccupied with “this is my body, these are my thoughts, these are my emotions”; and there’s a whole sense of self-identity, which is a concept, wrapped up in their body. So, for example, for someone who is a really handsome or beautiful person, their beauty is part of who they are for sure, but their self-identity can be totally caught up in how they look. And there can be a tremendous amount of suffering and preoccupation in that identity. Maybe it’s relatively easy to say that that person can relax and not be so conceited about and identified with their looks. To continue that process of not being so caught by the identity, not be so identified by these things is one of the ways that people find much more peace. So not to be identified with your thoughts, your emotions – meaning you don’t use your thoughts and emotions to define yourself, to evaluate yourself, to judge yourself, to limit yourself to your thoughts and emotions. By not doing that, some people find much more peace and ease and access to a much wider range of wisdom and perspective in how to engage their life, understand their life, respond to their life. I hope this is helpful.
The next question is from Carmen in Spain. I’m unemployed with no kids, no friends; my loving dog recently died. I’m very sad and feel a strong sense of failure, loneliness, fear of the future, and a lack of motivation to go on with my life. Meditation is helping me to surmount those feelings. Lately when I go to bed sometimes feeling very tired, I listen to a dharma talk and after a long while, I feel myself feeling quiet and calm but not really being able to sleep and have a deep rest. A kind of sensation similar to a deep meditation state. Is this normal? Is it because I am dedicating too much time to all of this new knowledge? Am I too centered in meditation due to a lack of other activities and interactions with other people?
GIL: Thank you. I am sorry the loss of your dog and work and the different challenges you have. I’m glad that you are able to lie in bed and be calm and relaxed. Sometimes sleep needs can change a bit; hopefully you are getting enough rest and are not tired during the day. I think that if a person spends too much time meditating or alone or quiet with some of the challenges you have, it might be helpful to try and reach out and be connected to other people just a little bit. Even if it’s just being around people where you don’t have to talk to them. Just to go some place to volunteer or help out. Try to reach out. Try to do some acts of generosity. It is an important thing to do in order to test one’s self to see what is really going on. If you spend too much time alone, it may be hard to understand the difference between depression and being really quiet and calm. Some people get really subdued or have feelings of profound emptiness and think that this is profound Buddhist emptiness they are feeling; but what they are actually feeling is some kind of depression. So reaching out and connecting to other people can be very helpful to kind of test and see what is going on and possibly bring a corrective. Sometimes it’s helpful to have a therapist or a spiritual mentor to reach out to and talk to. Since you find that listening to dharma talks is helpful to you, I would encourage you to try listening to talks during the day when you are awake and alert and not do it lying down but sitting up. See what effect that has. If that also helps you to get some kind of deeper quiet, calm feeling, then take that calm and quiet and do something active. Get involved with your life in some deeper way. Reach out to other people. If you don’t have friends, don’t worry so much about it but be friendly to other people. Don’t worry about people being friends with you but try to practice friendship, lovingkindness, generosity in small ways with the people around you. If you do that, I think you will find that the meditation practice can be a great support for your life. Thank you, Carmen.
The next question is from Danny in Leeds, UK. I feel I should have been born female, and I’ve spent most of my life thinking to minimize and dismiss my experience. As I connect more with the body and let go of thoughts, I find a new and different sense of struggle and discontentment. I’ve become aware of the shape of my body, of the lack of a womb, breasts, etc. and I find myself feeling tearful and even anxious. Yet, returning to thinking pulls me back into a struggle with thoughts and fears about what I just experienced in my body. I would appreciate if you could offer some advice or guidance for people like me who don’t feel a congruence between their mind and body in terms of gender and the special challenges this creates in practicing mindfulness.
GIL: Thank you, Danny. I believe that Buddhism, Buddhist practice can be greatly supportive of you and people in your situation because one of the approaches of mindfulness in Buddhism is not to begin with any judgments or concepts about what should be or how people are supposed to be. Rather to allow people to be as they are. We know that there are many different ways – completely wonderful ways – that human beings are that are very different from some of the conventional ways we think of as human. As we appreciate the great diversity of how people can be, then we free people from the oppression of thinking they are supposed to be any particular way – a conventional man, a conventional woman. There are now all kinds of understanding of different genders than male/female. There are people like you who feel they have the body of one gender but their body is of a different gender. I think the Buddhist approach is to be very generous, to be very accepting of this is how it is, and then to support people to find a way to live their life that is free of suffering and is wise and beneficial given how things are. So mindfulness practice, for example, can help because one of the important ways of doing mindfulness practice is to appreciate the difference between what is and our relationship to what is, what’s happening and our attitude toward what’s happening. If what is happening is struggle, suffering, what is the relationship to the suffering? The relationship is where the second arrow comes in. If you haven’t heard the story of the second arrow, it’s worth saying. The Buddha was talking to someone and he said, “If a man is struck by an arrow, is it painful?” The person said yes, it’s painful to be struck by an arrow. Then the Buddha said, “If a second arrow strikes, is that even more painful?” And the listener said, yes, it is more painful. And the Buddha said, “The first arrow is what sometimes happens to you in life. You cannot expect to go through life without any pain or suffering. But the second arrow is what we do because of it.” So if I break my leg, that is the first arrow. The second arrow is when we get angry at ourselves for being clumsy or at other people for how the sidewalk wasn’t repaired. The anger, the criticism, the guilt might be the second arrow. So, some of the first arrows aren’t even arrows but are flowers, but then there are all of these second arrows on top. People’s sexual orientation, gender can be quite beautiful, the different alternative ways. But unfortunately we have these second arrows. Part of mindfulness practice is to begin to understand how we relate, the attitude we have and see if we can simplify our relationship to it, to that attitude. Just let it be as it is. It can be beautiful to just relax and let the body be as it is without any reference point to any should be or supposed to be. Perhaps your inner feelings of how your body is as opposed to what it lacks, maybe if there is a deeper relaxation into that, maybe something really beautiful can bubble up from inside. If you can free yourself from the social judgments of how you should be, maybe you’ll find a beautifully creative way of expressing yourself in the body you have, the mind you have, the heart you have, the gifts you have. The gifts you have can be something you offer to the world. It’s not an easy thing you are up against but I am confident that with care and mindfulness and deep respect for who you are that you can a beautiful way of being who you are. I hope that you do that. I hope that you get lots of support and respect for who you are. Thank you.
The last question comes from Eddite in Hoffman Estates, Illinois. She says I keep thinking about friends who are not giving me the attention I want and obsess about it day and night. I keep planning what I will say to them when I see them. There is anger and self-judgment that I am so weird thinking these thoughts when I could be free and light- hearted and enjoy life’s many gifts. I want to rid my mind of these thoughts, all these shadows in my day when there is so much else I could enjoy in life.
GIL: Thank you. I think that with something like this it is helpful to investigate more deeply what the anger and self-judgment are, to understand how you’re behaving, what you are doing, what the nature of your friendship is with other people. Perhaps there are ways you can change, look at yourself and be honest about yourself in a deeper way. It may also be that you need to be more honest about the nature of your friends. Sometimes it is appropriate to let go of friends who are not really being friends to you. These kinds of issues that you are raising here may not be so easily addressed through meditation practice or through personal mindfulness practice. Here is an example where maybe talking with a therapist for awhile, bringing these issues up to give you a forum, a way to explore them, discuss them, be questioned about them may be more productive and faster than sitting and doing it by oneself in meditation. The second thing I have found useful in life in relationship to other people is that if I feel I’m not getting from someone what I want, it’s very interesting to turn the tables on this. Rather than waiting to get from others what I want, turn it around and offer the same thing to them. If someone is not giving me attention, then I turn around and offer them my attention. If they are not interested in me, then I show more interest in them, ask questions about them. If they are not being generous to me, and I feel that is a problem, then I turn around and try to be generous to them. Turn it around 180 degrees. That sometimes does amazing things; it sometimes works like magic. You might try it and see what happens. Run the experiment. Whatever you feel you are not getting, offer that to others. Best of luck with it.
Thank you, Gil. That concludes our question and answer time.