Online Community Q&A with Gil Fronsdal: August 2011

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Welcome, Gil, to the question and answer session with the IMC online community. We have had lots of people communicating with us about how interested they are in these sessions. And they are also expressing great gratitude for your answers. So, today we have a few more questions for you.

We have a question from Lawrence in Japan: He would like for you to talk about the gradual way that experiential knowledge relates to guidance from teachings.

Gil:  It’s nice to be with you again and to receive these kinds of questions from all over the world. So the question is about how teachings support or guide one in the experiential knowledge that practice gives. It’s a good question. The emphasis in Buddhism is, to a great extent, personal and direct insight experience of the dharma practice. You want to be very careful not to take Buddhist teachings and try to believe them blindly, then try to convince yourself that they are true. Rather, it is good to take Buddhist teachings and be challenged by them, to question them and to look at how in your own direct experience they might be true. Sometimes teachings point you in directions to look. For example, many people are looking for happiness in the wrong way, and so the teachings are not telling you what to believe but are saying look this way instead. Look into your own direct experience, into your mind, into your heart rather than looking into the stock market or into some relationship to be the lasting solution for your life. And then once you look at yourself, the Buddhist teachings also suggest looking at particular things within yourself. Looking and understanding the hindrances, for example. Looking at how aversion or desire or resistance, sloth and torpor, anxiety, agitation, and doubt operate in your life. And then the teachings often give instructions on how to look, how to pay attention. Do it non-judgmentally, non-reactively. Have a degree of kindness toward what you see. Even when you have to let go of things, you don’t want to let go with aversion. You don’t want to try to cultivate things with strong desire. A relaxed, open quality of the mind is what the teachings encourage. When you listen to teachings, one of the nice approaches is to assume that you already do it. Ask yourself how is it that I already do this particular teaching? There might be some small part of your life where you are already acting in those ways or understand those things. So the teachings say to look at your clinging and let go of your clinging. To hear this in an absolute way might seem much too big and raise questions about all the exceptions of when you shouldn’t cling. But if you look at how you already let go of clinging, you discover that you actually do it in many small ways throughout the day. Then you can see the benefits of that letting go. Then you can ask how you can expand what you already know, how you can apply what you already know. That kind of approach builds on what you already know and is sometimes more useful than taking absolute Buddhist statements and trying to believe them in an absolute way.


Thank you, Gil. The next question comes from Peter in Dublin, Ireland: Peter completed your online course in concentration some time ago. As part of the course, you asked that people learn the Metta Sutta, which Peter did. Lately, Peter has found that he is changing the line “as a mother” to saying “as a father.” He wonders if it is ok. This is very recent and felt natural and understandable. He says that he has a great relationship with his mother and is also a father so maybe finds it easier to relate to metta from the paternal aspect.


Gil:  That’s a great question, and I think it is wonderful that you have personalized this particular poem for yourself by changing it from mother to father. The whole purpose of the dharma, of these teachings is to be helpful for you. That criterion of doing what is helpful is a very useful approach in practicing dharma. If you find it more useful to say father rather than mother, then you have your own answer. As long as it is helpful, please do it. It may happen that at some point it will be useful to go back to the other; on the other hand, you might never go back. The whole approach to loving kindness practice is to do the practice in a way that is beneficial for you rather than struggling with ways that are difficult. You start to do loving kindness where it is easy and build from that. So it is the same with the teachings. If you can reword them for yourself in a way that gives you more access, more ability to get into them, then by all means do it. As the mindfulness and loving kindness get stronger, you will universalize your loving kindness and include all mothers and all fathers and all relatives and all people. But at this point, please, by all means, adapt it to work for you.

The next question is from New Zealand: I feel that I haven’t got a proper meditation to release the aversion with which I cling to past memories of betrayal, pain, hurt, etc. Gil, you are really good with putting words together in meditation that strike the heart. I was wondering if you could do a guided meditation on releasing aversion. Have you done one before?


Gil:   I don’t think I have done any guided meditation specifically about aversion. It’s a great topic. Perhaps some day I can do it. A few things I can say. There is a teacher here in America named Stephen Levine who has written several books with guided meditations in them. I am pretty confident that you will find in one of them guided meditations on aversion or difficult emotional states. What you could do is look into one of these books, find the meditation it offers, then record it and listen to it. Or have a friend read and record it. Some people find it helpful to do loving kindness meditation when there is aversion. So there are a number of guided meditations I have on loving kindness. Another approach is to use mindfulness to look directly at the aversion. To do that, you want to be very patient. The first lesson you may have to learn is how to approach your aversion with a certain degree of non-reactivity, of equanimity that it’s ok to have aversion, that your aversion deserves to be seen and felt clearly. It’s ok to feel it and let it be there. Then once you begin to approach with that kind of attitude, then you can begin to look more carefully at what is going on. What is your attitude towards the aversion? What is going on underneath the aversion? Is there fear? Is there hurt behind the aversion? Turn toward that aversion and hold it very gently in your awareness. Give it permission to be there and see how it unfolds. See what unfolds as you hold it kindly in your awareness. I wish you well with that.


Thank you. Next is a question from Mason in Michigan: On the IMC website are instructions for sitting meditation, walking meditation, etc. Could you give a basic set of instructions or guidelines for going on a multi-day retreat by oneself? And then another related question. Is it advisable to try a multi-day retreat by myself given that I’ve been meditating regularly for less than one year?


Gil:  Thank you for the question. Probably if you have been meditating for six months to a year on a regular basis, you are ready for a multi-day retreat. For some people it is nice to start slowly with a weekend retreat and go from there. Some like to jump in with a ten-day retreat. It depends a little bit on your personality. Generally it is good to take your time and build slowly over time. It is wonderful to go on a multi-day retreat because it allows one to understand the meditation practice in a new way. It allows one to understand oneself in a deeper way. It allows one to practice more thoroughly and consistently than in daily life. Sometimes practicing all day in a retreat will show you where some of the problems are with how you are meditating. So you have a chance to face them and work them out. When sitting each day even for an hour, the problems you may have in meditation might not be showing themselves. Sometimes on retreat the mind gets very settled and the teachings you receive can go much deeper. One of the common pieces of advice I give is to have an attitude or a policy that whatever happens on the retreat is supposed to happen. You don’t have to believe that literally but if you have that attitude, rather than getting upset at what is happening, you will turn toward what is happening – whether in your own mind or in the environment – and look and see how you can practice with it. As opposed to getting carried away with judgments or aversions such as this shouldn’t be happening. Or there is something wrong with me. You can even do a little ritual or visualization if something arises. Look at your wrist watch and say, “Right on time. Just on time that my knee hurts. Just on time that lunch is late. Just on time that I’m now thinking about my high school challenges.” Whatever goes on, take it as if it is supposed to happen and work with it. Bring mindfulness to it and learn how to let go in the midst of it. That might be the most important lesson that you’ll have on the retreat.

Thank you. The next question is from Todd in New Jersey: I have been meditating for a couple of years and am grateful for the benefits that come from this practice. I find myself interested in learning more about the dharma in order to get even more out of the teachings. I’ve listened to talks about the hindrances, the factors of awakening, and other specific topics. But I’m having trouble figuring out how to tie all this together in a cohesive approach to greater understanding of the dharma that will help me along on my spiritual path.


Gil:  That is a great question. It is wonderful to study the different aspects of the dharma but to try to intellectually synthesize it or have a bigger kind of context to hold it all is sometimes not so helpful. What can be helpful is to take one particular aspect of the practice and study that deeply. Then it will open up at some point to include the other aspects. So, for example, if you study the hindrances really well and bring a lot of mindfulness to them and try to develop concentration in learning to let go of the hindrances, at some point the factors of awakening will appear on their own in your mind, and then you can study the factors of awakening. Or, you could start studying particular factors of awakening — maybe spend a week on each one, looking at how it plays out in your life, trying to cultivate and develop it. And if you do that, probably what you will find is that the hindrances will also show themselves and you’ll have to face them and work with them as well. So, sometimes taking one particular topic and working with that is the best way to get to an overarching synthesis of it. Another approach to take when you have a fair understanding of the dharma is to go on a meditation retreat where you bring your whole life, your whole being to the practice for those days. There is something about bringing your whole self to the practice that brings the dharma whole as well. The dharma is comprehensive. The final thing is that rather than having some overarching cohesion or umbrella way to hold it all together, it might be more useful to think about the root or common denominator to all of the teachings. That gives some coherence to everything that follows. For me, that simple root is that when you cling, you will suffer; and if you let go of your clinging, that suffering will go away. And from that root teaching, all the other aspects will come forth. They are all dependent on that simple idea. So I wish you well in your study of the dharma.


The next question is from Lauren in Texas:  I live in the country and am not part of any sangha. I am involved in the meat trade. In the last two years I’ve had a daily meditation practice and listened to dharma talks and read books on Buddhism. I only last week saw where being in the meat trade, selling grass-fed beef to individuals, is specifically not a proper livelihood. I have qualms about taking my animals to the processor but I also eat meat. The first time I killed chickens myself, I did so largely so that I could plainly see what being a meat eater entails. At some point I could even become vegetarian but this would create more discomfort in my marriage. I have already told my husband that I want to stop being involved in the beef business but this may mean that the animals might go to feed lots which I believe will create more suffering for them. My question is: Am I wasting my time on daily meditation while not practicing sila. Now that I am up to 45 minutes of sitting I feel it is even more valuable to me. I do not kill scorpions, snakes, or other life forms; only the animals I take to the butcher. I apologize for introducing these ideas of violence but this is something I would like consul and compassion with.


Gil:  Thank you for your question. I certainly have compassion for your concern. It’s a beautiful concern actually. I’m always very happy when people bring these kinds of questions because my hope is that the dharma practice (the meditation practice) will help people become more ethical, help people add to the good and the benefit of the world and to themselves, and specifically how they act in their world. I don’t always have good answers to this, and sometimes I am reluctant to give strong ethical admonitions or guidelines. I would rather let people discover answers for themselves. But it certainly seems that you have gotten a lot of benefit from your meditation practice. The fact that you would ask these questions is the indication of the value you have received from meditating. I would certainly encourage you to continue meditating. And how you are going to negotiate what you do with your animals and your family and your husband is something I don’t know the answer to, but you’ll have to weigh or get a sense of what provides the greater good in what you are able to do. It could be that at some point you will keep mediating and keep developing your ethical sensitivity and compassion, and it will become really obvious that you can’t be involved in the animal trade anymore. You have no choice but to stop. Or it could be that you see the suffering of the animals but there might be other sufferings that you don’t do which mitigate the choices you make. The wellbeing of your husband might be one of them. You kind of have to work it out with him so that you can live in some kind of peace. So how you find your way is a very open question. Take your time, be patient, continue to practice your mindfulness, and continue to ask these kinds of questions. These are great questions to ask. In that it involves your husband as well, I hope you can have an open-ended discussion with him, sharing your concerns, well before you make any decision, so that he may feel he is participating in the decision-making. And you will be informed by how he is feeling about it. Likewise, he is well-informed about your feelings so that it’s not a surprise when you decide not to eat meat anymore. For some people, sila (ethics) is a practice they do as a foundation for their meditation. For other people, meditation is a practice they do that lays the foundation for their ethics. Some people do both. Please continue practicing meditation and it will become clear to you at some point, I believe, what you need to do. Thank you.


Thank you, Gil. This is the end of our session and we look forward to more questions and more sessions with you.