From Maria in Buenos Aires, Argentina: I found Gil’s material half a year ago. I really found it revealing and it introduced me to an unknown world. Since then I have listened to almost all of Gil’s audios and have read many books related. I keep the practice active. The thing is that as I live in Buenos Aires I still find it very difficult to share my daily experience and thoughts with a sangha in the flesh because I couldn’t find a sangha so far. I am starting to feel that it is limiting my experience. I notice that the issue is entangling my mind. Having heard Gil say how important it is to have dharma friends, I just wanted to know if not having them in the flesh could be limiting at some point. I do believe that sharing experiences the way I listen you share at IMC would be priceless. But is it a must?
Gil: Ok, that was a wonderful question and I appreciate it. I think always when people practice Buddhism or mindfulness the idea is to practice with the conditions you have. The conditions are very seldom ideal and sometimes less than ideal conditions offer opportunities for a different kind of strength. They call on different types of qualities within us to meet those and so whereas it’s very nice to have a sangha to practice with and dharma friends to talk with – it’s very helpful – but when those are not available, then the challenge of not having that calls on us to use different resources, some within ourselves. In some ways it can be harder to practice alone but then it requires us to awaken a stronger determination, a stronger intention. Sometimes it’s too easy to practice when you are practicing with a lot of other people and we get carried by the people around us rather than finding the initiative within ourselves. Sometimes the people who practice alone are the ones who develop a really strong, beautiful sense of purpose and intention and value in the practice because they know that they find it in themselves. Having said that though, if there are no mindfulness practitioners, no Buddhist practitioners in your area, sometimes it’s possible to find people/other people who share kind of similar values and similar approaches to life. Sometimes it can be other religious people. Some people go and sit with Quakers, who sit in silence as part of their main practice and they don’t mind if you meditate while they are silent. They know something about silence. Sometimes there are priests, ministers, rabbis who know lots about the inner life, the contemplative life. They might have a different vocabulary, different words but if you are lucky you can find someone where there is enough overlap that you can share something of yourself with them, share experiences and understanding. I would look around and see. An interesting quest would be to ask in your community the people you think are wise who they think are the wisest people they know. See if that question might lead you to wiser and wiser people. And ask why they are wise. Or ask someone who has been voted the wisest person in your community to say what makes them wise. That very question can draw out some of the shared experience and value that could help you in your practice. I wish you well and am delighted that what we do here in California has meaning in Argentina.
From John in South Dakota: He says, my question for Gil would be the one I usually ask myself: This is something like, if I have all of the knowledge regarding Buddhism, meditation, and being in this moment, why is it that I find it so difficult to act out of that knowledge? I have become better and better at meditation with practice; but outside meditation during everyday life it seems that even when I know what I should do and how I should act, it still seems entirely impossible to do as well as I would like.
Gil: That is also a wonderful question. I think it’s a question probably shared by almost everyone who practices: That their practice is not going as quickly or as well as they would ideally hope; or that, as John says, it might be working ok in meditation but outside it doesn’t seem to translate into a wiser life. I think it’s very helpful not to be too idealistic. The people who are too idealistic and try too hard sometimes undermine the very practice they are trying to do. Being perfectionist often is one of the very strong ways to undermine one’s practice. Practice seems to unfold best if the person is somewhat relaxed about the ideals and just allows it to kind of grow slowly over time. One thing to always do is to focus not on what you’d like but to focus on what stands in the way. Study how you live your life, what goes on in your mind, your emotional life, that stands in your way and makes it difficult for you to bring more mindfulness into daily life and receive some of the benefits of the practice. Is it simple impatience? Or is it doing too many things, too many projects, too many activities? Being too busy can make it difficult. Could it be a lack of confidence in yourself or in the path? Could it be that you are attracted to your mind’s strong desires for other things besides practice or meditation or mindfulness so you have to look at what your mind’s really interested in and evaluate. Sometimes some very serious evaluation, contemplation, consideration, prioritization of our lives is very important. Sometimes what’s required in order for practice to work better is to institute behavioral changes in your life so that your life is more supportive of practice. It could be as simple as after morning meditation taking 15 minutes to be somewhat slow in starting up regular life. And so you start your life in a way that continues the mindfulness practice. Maybe something that would take five minutes after meditation, take ten or fifteen minutes to do. You can understand what goes on in your mind; how does it speed up, what are some of the things it gets attached to or caught by as you start your daily life. That’s a simple behavioral change. Sometimes people give up some of the things they do – even worthwhile things they do – because if you decide your mindfulness is more important, then maybe you have to do less rather than more. Some activities may be not so conducive to practice so have to be given up. One of the prime ones is watching television. Some people watch more television than they meditate and it doesn’t really help them as much. Or instead of watching television, do some reading of dharma books. John seems to say that he has studied a lot and has a lot of knowledge, if he still has time to study is to study less. One of the really beautiful things to do is to read one page of a dharma book each day, maybe read it a couple of times, and then live with that one page. Then if you have normally more time to read, give yourself less time to read but read that one page and then start up your day, get involved in your life. Then pause periodically, maybe every 15-20 minutes, for 2-3 minutes and take stock, notice what’s going on for you, and see if you can call up what you read and contemplate it in how you are living your life that day. These periodic pauses throughout the day to reflect, reprioritize can be very helpful in the integration of practice into daily life. Thank you, John, for the question.
From Natalie in Brisbane, Australia. This is a practice question. She says My question is on the topic of procrastination. I was wondering if he has advice on how to deal with it more skillfully. It would be great to have a better understanding of this challenging emotion and shed light on some underlying belief patterns that may purge its growth. It’s really great to be able to ask Gil questions. I have been listening to the podcasts for several years, often wishing that I could attend in person. Thank you for this opportunity to ask questions.
Gil: Thank you for the question. It’s one shared by many. I think that again one of the most useful ways of working with procrastination is to look at it carefully and try to understand what is actually going on. Sometimes it’s useful to sit quietly and procrastinate even more. Maybe try to procrastinate really well. Get into it. And as you get into it and do it even better, start looking and feeling your way into what is going on inside you. What are the emotions playing out? What do you feel? What are the beliefs playing out? Is it simple laziness? Is it lack of confidence in what you want to do? Is it fear involved? There are many kinds of fear that come into play which limit our engagement in doing what we feel we should do. Are we excessively idealistic so we think the mountain is too high to climb so why bother? Or do we feel that we are not up to the task? Some people procrastinate with their spiritual life because they are the only people they know who are engaged with the spiritual life. So they are worried about how other people will see them, what they will think, or how they will relate to their world if they are the only one being changed in a particular way. So I would encourage Natalie to procrastinate even better in order to take a better look at what goes on. Maybe also see the suffering that is part of the procrastination. Sometimes suffering is the very catalyst to help us get out of it. And the last thing I’ll say is that sometimes instead of doing what I just talked about, sometimes procrastination is best dealt with by very directly and forcibly overcoming it. Just do it. Don’t think about it. Sometimes it’s a matter of just doing it for awhile that helps overcome the initial inertia or hesitation that might be there. It’s also a very good muscle to develop, the muscle of doing something when it’s time to do it. And do it directly, forthrightly, and don’t hesitate, don’t wobble. I have found that helpful in my life when I have had something I needed to do but started asking is this the right time, maybe I should do it later, a different way, a variety of reasons to hold back or hesitate. And sometimes I find that my life is a lot easier and more straightforward if I know that it has to be done and just do it. Then I sometimes find a lot of joy in the acting and doing. That joy in the doing can also overcome the procrastination. Thank you for the question.
From Warren in the UK. He says I practice twice daily and have been on retreat three times now. A) However, I find it very difficult to meditate without listening to a guided meditation. Is this wrong? B) Also, this is not meant to sound harsh in any way but friends often ask me what good monks and nuns do. I often myself looking for practical answers to this. Can you help? With metta.
Gil: A) Guided meditations can be very helpful because they keep us focused. They help us overcome our distracted mind when we’re guided and reminded again and again to stay present and connected. When not guided, it can be a lot easier for the mind to wander off and not stay on task. On the other hand, when we have guided meditations, we might get calmer quicker or present quicker, but we’re doing it with the help of an outside agent. Sooner or later it’s very important to learn to do it on one’s own. If that means one isn’t as deep in meditation, then so be it because sometimes it’s very valuable to really take an honest look at what’s actually going on in your mind and what is it that’s keeping you from being calm or concentrated. So if you are doing a spiritual bypass around what goes on in your mind, anxieties, preoccupations, then you won’t actually address them and they will come back and have an impact on your life. Sometimes it’s a lot better to sit in agitation in the mind and work through it, be present for it, settle it directly by looking at it than it is to use an external help. I sometimes say that if you are new to meditation, it can be helpful to get into the swing with guided meditation; or if you are really anxious or for example if you are going in for surgery, some people find that a good time to have a guided meditation tape with them. There are times when it is useful, but sooner or later people should do it on their own and face up to what is going on and work through it. So in terms of the question, it isn’t wrong to use it, but sometimes it isn’t as beneficial as avoiding using it.
B) In terms of the monks and nuns, there are many different types of monks and nuns. There are some who actually don’t do much. If you go to some place like Thailand, occasionally you will find a monk or nun in a monastery because it is a relatively comfortable life, you don’t have to go to work, and they sit around a lot. So that can happen. The great majority of monks and nuns are doing lots of good for their society. One is that they are held up as examples of a life that is dedicated to purifying the mind and the heart, as opposed to a life that perpetuates greed, hate, and delusion, our fear, our attachments. So the monastic community lives a life that is meant to exemplify freedom from the common delusions and attachments people have. I am sometimes quite inspired by the monastics who live that way. It’s a pure life and shows me a possibility of how to purify my heart and mind in similar ways. In addition, some teach not only Buddhism and meditation and its benefits but also in many countries like Thailand and Burma, monks are involved in the community life of the village. The monastery might be the community center. The abbess might be a mediator in the village life. Monasteries can be refuges for the poor and those in trouble. Friends can stay there. It used to be that primary sources of medical care in villages were the monastics. Not so much now. So the answer is that it depends on the monks and the nuns. Some do a tremendous amount of good in the world; some occasionally don’t do much at all.
From Terry in the UK. The question is Regarding Gil’s kind offer to answer questions, I would like to raise this issue. I often if at my age – 64 – I am too old and too late to practice, knowing that the spiritual journey is a long and difficult one, according to Ajahn Chah at least. So I would be interested to know of any advice from Gil or from any Buddhist teachings on the matter. I am not aware of any. For now I try to content myself with doing the best I can and tell myself I can only be where I am in life and in my practice. This question/issue should be of interest to other IMC members and dharma listeners who are coming to the dhamma late in life.
Gil: Wonderful question. I think it should be interesting for many people. Here in the US it seems that the average age for a vipassana practitioner is about 50. I have often wondered why. Thirty years ago the average age was closer to 20 and slowly over the years the age has gone up. Now it seems stable for several years. I don’t know all the reasons for that. Some have to do with cultural reasons. Thirty or forty years ago there was a counter culture in America that brought a lot of interest in alternative approaches to life and meditation and Eastern religion. But I think also in many people they are too busy to spend a lot of time devoted to spiritual life. By the time some people reach 50 they are on the other side of career and family establishing and they are ready to look at some of the deeper issues of life, the questions of existence. Sometimes seeing death at their horizon, seeing life as finite, can be very motivating in terms of reorganizing priorities. As people age they find themselves more motivated and that can help their practice. Also older people have more maturity and capacity for self-knowledge which make it easier to practice than when younger. Both youth and age have their advantages and disadvantages. When I was in Burma practicing with U Pandita, he would often tell stories of people who came to meditation quite late in life. He was proud of a colleague of his who came to start meditation when he was in his sixties and practiced seriously and diligently; then by the time he was eighty, he became a teacher and he became well respected as a teacher for about ten years. Then he had a stroke and used the practice, especially walking meditation, to help him recover from the stroke. The story is that he had two younger monks who would walk next to him holding him up. They would walk back and forth. Then about the time he was 95 he started teaching again. In the time of the Buddha as well, there were people who came to the monastic life, the spiritual life quite late. So I think that rather than focusing on the challenges of practicing late in life, one should focus on just doing it the best one can with the conditions one has. Yes, sometimes spiritual journeys seem to be long and difficult but sometimes it also seems to me to be easy and immediate. I like to teach both. I like to teach that it’s very important when a person does mindfulness practice to both have a sense of a goal that one can work towards – greater freedom, compassion, insight that grows over time – but at the same time to have a very deep appreciation that a moment of mindfulness is complete in itself. A moment of mindfulness of being here and now is a kind of completeness that happens here. A moment of mindfulness is a nonreactive moment where just the simplicity of this moment is enough in itself. There is no need to have it any different. There is something very deeply satisfying about having that moment of mindfulness that is complete in itself. When we string these moments of mindfulness together over time, they put us on the path that leads us to spiritual growth, puts us on a journey. But I hope that people who practice mindfulness find tremendous value just in being mindful for this day and they never regret having been mindful just for this day. Even if doesn’t go anywhere in terms of a longer journey, it is very satisfying and meaningful to have practiced for this day or for this hour or this minute. And no need to be anxious about how far or how well we are going to do. I hope that is encouraging and I hope that Terry engages as fully in the practice as he is inspired to do.
From Hye in Sydney, Australia. It relates to comments on one of your talks on the fear topic. Many, many years ago you were very much worried and concerned about what other people thought about you. I would be grateful if you could give me some tips about how to be free from this type of fear or anxiety.
Gil: What helped me a lot, the first thing that really helped a lot was suffering because of this. Suffering is a great teacher and motivator. It wasn’t until I saw the extent of how much I was suffering because of my anxiety that I finally decided to do something about it. I decided that it wasn’t worth it. Until I saw the suffering enough, I was kind of believing it and just went along and was kind of tolerant of it. One of the ways of suffering better is to pay more attention to it. Notice how it operates in our life. Notice it until you know it so well that you are properly fed up with it. It seems like an odd teaching but some people just simply don’t get fed up enough with their anxieties and fears and give them too much authority. Getting to know it, becoming more familiar with it. One interesting way to get fed up with it earlier is to talk to other people about it. If you have good friends, not burden them but if you can confess or acknowledge the fears when they come up and have a good laugh about it. Or just try to hold it lightly and not see it as a heavy personal fault that there is anxiety or fear about what others think of you. Sometimes talking about it with other people can help the healthy process of getting fed up or help it lose its hold on us. The other thing that can be helpful is to know that an alternative to anxiety and fear and concern for other people is meditation, to really develop your meditation practice well, and develop a sense of well-being that isn’t dependent on what other people think of you. That sense of well-being can be a reference point, a reminder that you can be happy and feel peaceful regardless of what other people think of you. And you can always assume that there will be people who will think poorly of you. That is part and parcel of life. There will always be people who will think well of you. And we can’t orchestrate what other people are going to think of us but we can free ourselves from the concern for it. Meditation is one of the things that helped me a lot to realize that the sense of beingness, aliveness, peace is really independent of what other people thought. Then I can carry that with me into the world, not to be aloof from what people think but to be free of it and at the same time more aware or sensitive to the inner life of other people so I can have more compassion and understanding of what motivates them as they might be judging me. So, I hope that is helpful. It’s a great and wonderful task to overcome the anxiety of what other people think of you.