Transcribed by: Elizabeth Paschall
Welcome, Gil, to the question and answer session from our worldwide online community. It has been a while since we have done this. We are really looking forward to your answers.
Gil: Great to see you again. I enjoy these kinds of questions so please…
Marguerite: The first question is from Oliver in Manchester in the UK. On the cushion I have generally tried using mindfulness of the body and breathing. Usually there is quite a lot of tension and discomfort in the body and the breathing often feels cramped, particularly in the chest and back area around the heart. It feels like some kind of blockage. Initially I only really noticed this during formal practice but now I notice it during daily life as well. Mindfulness has become something I need to get right, and as a result, when I try to arouse mindfulness in daily life, it is conjoined with this sense of pressure.
Gil: So I think it is very important to see that this is going on. Part of the function of mindfulness practice is to show us what we are doing. One thing we can see is that there can be a lot of tension with how we live our lives. In this situation I can imagine two reasons why there might be tension. One has to do with how a person is practicing mindfulness. It could be dealing with striving, with expectations, a strong sense of having to be right that makes a person tense or contracted, worried or stressed out about doing it. The other could be that the mindfulness might be revealing that this is an attitude one has most of one’s life, that one carries a lot of tension about how one lives, a lot of pressure. Perhaps it’s gotten so habituated that the person doesn’t realize it until he starts to slow down and see it. This is all good to see; it’s not a problem or a mistake that this is happening. Now, take this information and try to understand the wise thing to do. The easy thing to say is that it is useful to relax, to try to be as relaxed as possible. But it’s easier said than done. In terms of mindfulness practice it might be useful just to do a little bit of mindfulness at a time, just a few minutes; and then focus on two things – being relaxed and trying to understand when you start getting tense. But do it all in small doses so you can understand better what is going on. As you understand better what is going on, you can begin to make small course corrections. You can correct yourself from trying too much. You can be more relaxed. There is no need in mindfulness meditation to have any concern about right or wrong. You can just relax about how you are and get to know it. If you do that, I think you will find your way.
Marguerite: Thank you, Gil. The next question is actually very much in line with the previous one.It is from ViVi in Bangalore, India. I often get caught in doubts and concerns regarding accuracy and correctness of my practice. Meaning, is my understanding of the instructions accurate? Without error? Is my implementing some aspect of the instruction accurate? Such as my naming or labeling of emotion or its associated motivation. I find this a hindrance in the practice. Can you please address the attitude to have towards correctness in the context of understanding and implementing any Buddhist practice instructions? In that context, can you also address what is the consequence of incorrectness?
Gil: I don’t think I am qualified to answer the question of any Buddhist practice instruction; but in terms of the practices that we do, I think that a very important principle guiding how we do the practice is the principle of trying to do the practice so that we suffer less. The purpose of any technique, approach, instructions for practice is to help us suffer less but the practice itself doesn’t necessarily help us do it. Rather it is the feedback loop, how we understand what we are doing, how we look at it. Through trial and error, we understand what the things are we can do that reduce suffering or makes us lighter, more peaceful, clearer in our awareness. So the techniques of practice that we offer are in the service of that. If the practice doesn’t help you become freer of suffering, maybe you need to make an adjustment to find another one to do. Or perhaps the particular approach you have of focusing on accuracy and inaccuracy is not a useful attitude to have in terms of less suffering or becoming freer. Rather than approaching it from correct and incorrect, it might be more useful to approach the practice instructions from the point of view of what is helpful and not helpful. How do we do things so that they are helpful? Which instructions work for us? Then we learn from how it goes. We learn that this is helping me, this is not helping me. I know very well that a person can tie himself in knots by trying to do a practice technique correctly. I think probably it’s better not to be too correct but rather be a little bit incorrect about how you do it. And have the practice unfold nicely rather than being perfectly correct and be tense and then the path doesn’t open up. So I would encourage you to be relaxed, take your time, and hold the techniques very lightly. The point of the technique is to support our ability to be aware.
Marguerite: Thank you. Next is from Rian from Truro, Argentina. I have meditating for six months now, having seen the website of IMC, and feel that it is being very beneficial. I attended a local group in the UK and was based around the Geshe Kelsang Gyatso Meditation Handbook. I did not feel comfortable this meditation as I was unsure of my belief in lower rebirth, etc. And the meditations seemed to be based a lot around fear. I am trying to see the distinctions between the meditation styles of IMC and the Geshe style.
Gil: Thank you for the question. I don’t know Geshe or the meditation handbook so I don’t know how to answer the question except based on what is in your question. If his meditation practices are based on beliefs in rebirth and having fear about not being born in hell realms or lower rebirth, then that itself is a big difference between what we do here at IMC. We don’t base our practice on any kind of belief of past and future lives, in rebirths, hells and heavens. It’s not that we are against those beliefs that occur in Buddhism but we don’t find much need or usefulness for those beliefs. We find that we can practice meditation and the Buddhist Path all the way to liberation without recourse to ideas about rebirth. So we tend to be much more empirical, focusing on what we can see, hear, taste in the here and now of this life. And we find that that’s all we need to do.
Marguerite: Thank you. The next question is from ViVi in Bangalor again. At many
places in your mindfulness instruction in Q&A you de-emphasize certain things such as the need to keep the eyes closed during sitting vs. standing during meditation, labeling things, etc. This seems to give an impression that one can customize certain aspects of the practice. Can you please explain the boundaries of such details of customization? For example, in a Q&A about music in the background during sitting, you answered that music is not useful when sitting.
Gil: Thank you for the question. Perhaps the word customization that you are using is similar to the Buddhist idea of upaya kusula or kusala upaya or “skillful means.” We have to find our what the skillful means or approaches are that support us in the path to freedom, that cause us to suffer less, to find peace, to find compassion. So it is partly a process of trial and error to see what works. There are a lot of ways of doing practice and also a lot of different kinds of people, personal tendencies, abilities. We need to customize a little bit to ourselves. A person may not be able to sit on the floor so it is more skillful to sit in a chair. Some people have a problem with keeping the eyes closed so there is no problem with keeping them open. We have to find that. But it’s a very good question of finding the boundaries. One of the boundaries is that it is possible that every time there is a challenge or difficulty in meditation, the person concludes they are doing the wrong practice and change to a different practice. So they never really settle down into what is happening or develop the particular practice because they are avoiding the difficulties. There is an importance to having discipline, of choosing a practice you think suits you and then trying it even when it gets challenging. See what you can learn. There is no spiritual practice that doesn’t come with challenge. If you don’t find that challenge, it probably is not going to be worth that much for you. So don’t give up when it’s difficult. Some discipline is necessary, some sticking to it. But within reason. After awhile when you evaluate either on your own or with a teacher if what you are doing is really working or if something needs changing.
Marguerite: The next question is from Jan in Indianapolis. She wants to know if there is a study, talk, resource for the Satipatthana Sutta for elementary school children. She wants to know how she can share the peace of your talks with her daughter.
Gil: For the last part of your question about how to share the peace of the talks with your daughter – and I am glad that you experience them that way – and I believe that with young children the best way to share it is with the way a parent is, not the way a parent does. So if a parent practices mindfulness or meditation, then a parent has learned how to be more at ease, with less stress, less anxious, that is a powerful lesson for children. They learn by example. So I think for the parent who practices, the biggest thing is to demonstrate the practice of mindfulness to the children. In terms of resources using the teachings of the Satipatthana Sutta, which is the discourse on mindfulness, there are a number of resources for teaching it to school children. Probably the best place to go is on the website of an organization called “Mindful Schools.” Mindfulschools.org. They are in Oakland, CA. They have now taught some 20,000 elementary school children mindfulness. It has been a great success. If you go their website, you can learn more about what they do and what their resources are.
Marguerite: Thanks. The next question is from Peter in Lancashire, UK. I’m struggling with my belief in a creator god but still believe that there is something special going on, possibly something that has to remain a mystery to this simple human form. I want to embrace the dharma without the guilt, confusion I now feel. The guilt also stems from the simple fact, but I feel a fool hanging onto my Catholic guilt-based belief system. I hang back from making a leap of faith away from what faith I have left towards the dharma.
Gil: Yes, I can well understand that kind of challenge that can be very deep connections, a heart connection, to the religion of one’s birth. It might still feel meaningful; the emotional connection might keep us connected to it long after we don’t really feel much resonance with the teachings that are there. But I can reassure you that Buddhism and the Buddhist practices are not in opposition to any belief in a creator god or gods or Catholicism. I think from a Buddhist point of view it is quite fine to believe in a creator god and continue to practice the Buddhist practice. The Buddhist practice works independently of such beliefs. By all means continue to believe in something special going on, some creator. Maybe then you won’t feel so much guilt for being involved in Buddhism. I know that there are some people who come from religions where the idea is that you are supposed to believe in one religion and one only. So it can be difficult to be involved in Buddhism if it is seen as a religion and in competition with the first religion. But maybe you don’t have to look at Buddhism as a religion in the same way as Catholicism. Buddhism is more a way of practice. It is more of an approach of instructions for how to live a free, liberated life. It might help you become a better Catholic because you learn how to hold Catholic beliefs without clinging to them, without suffering because of it. I know a number of people have learned to feel a lot of guilt because of certain religious beliefs and perhaps mindfulness practice, Buddhist practice, can teach you how to hold the beliefs without needing to feel any guilt about them.
Marguerite: Thank you. The next two questions are from Cynthia in Tucson, Arizona.
I have spent a lot of the past summer idle with just a few things to do. I have done some meditating as far as I am able. I find that I am becoming more dissatisfied, emotional, and even tearful. In the past I would have said it’s because I don’t have the distraction of work. Now after listening to the dharma talks, I begin to wonder if I should have a different attitude toward these feelings. I would dismiss them before but now I wonder what they mean. Perhaps rather than distract myself, I need more time alone for reflection. Perhaps a retreat.
Gil: Yes, Cynthia, it is very touching to hear what you are considering, what is happening to you. Yes, it can happen that as a person becomes more mindful, practices meditation, that there can be a big backlog of unresolved emotions, feelings, memories that will come to the surface. I have known people who have needed to go through a period of time of releasing these things, letting them come to the surface. I have known people who have needed to spend quite a lot of time crying, releasing the backlog of tears that are there. That has been a healthy process. So if this is the result of meditating that these feelings are coming to the surface, I would take it as a good sign and, as you said, spend some time alone reflecting or go on retreat. But you also don’t have to do it alone. It could also be helpful to have a friend to talk to who could offer you some support as you go through this. Or perhaps a therapist. Or some other kind of teacher such as a Buddhist teacher. You don’t have to do this process alone.
Marguerite: And the next question from Cynthia is If meditation is a time when we keep coming back to breath and staying with the breath, then when is the time for deep introspection to find out what our true aspiration is? How do the two work together? What is the synergy? Would you say to set away time to meditate and then another time to introspect?
Gil: Yes, I think that is probably the best thing to do. Many people have such a strong habit of thinking that if we bring thinking into meditation, it continues to develop a habit of thinking even more; whereas meditation works best if we put aside discursive thinking. So I would have two different times. They could be closely connected; there could be a period of meditation and then end the meditation and intentionally spend time reflecting about intentions and meanings, things that are important for you. I think a reflective life is one that can be deeper and more meaningful so I hope that people spend time being reflective to a certain degree. But not to confuse it with what mindfulness is, with what meditation is.
Marguerite: The next question is from Cannes, France. Yesterday I was with my three year old daughter and I realized that she is always wanting things, like us in the adult mode. So we are all born with this feeling of wanting material things. My question is why are we born like this?
Gil: Yeah, I don’t know why we are born like this. It’s interesting that in the traditional Buddhist teachings, they say desires have no beginning, meaning there is no way to answer the question why. They just are kind of always there. But another point of view is that having desire for material things within reason is a very important thing for children to develop and have. Without it, how are they going to find a life for themselves? Security, well-being for themselves? So it’s what needed to some degree. But then as we grow up we get to look at our desires and our motivations and begin separating out those desires and motivations that bring us suffering from those that come from wisdom and understanding. So it isn’t that we aren’t supposed to have any desires at all in Buddhism, but rather, in a sense, we can grow up so that our desires become mature and peace-producing for ourselves and everyone else.
Marguerite: This is from Michael in La Mesa, California. When we chant, why is it that we chant in Pali? Is there something in the Buddhist teachings that prohibits chanting in a country’s main language? In a local Buddhist sitting I attended, we first chanted in Pali; then we repeated in English. This got me wondering why we chant in Pali at all.
Gil: There is no need to chant in Pali. The Buddha was asked at some point by people if they could record and preserve his teachings in the Sanskrit of the time, kind of the book language – the church Latin of ancient India. He prohibited it. He allowed people to record the teachings in the local idiom, the local language that people spoke. In fact, there are people today who chant the ancient chants in English translations. The monks at Amaravati and at Abhyagiri monasteries (Amaravati in England and Abhyagiri in California) have translated these ancient chants into English and put them into Gregorian style chanting all in English. It’s very meaningful to listen to them in English as you understand the meaning of it all. Some people chant in Pali. I do periodically primarily because of a kind of emotional connection to it. I heard the chanting in Pali when I was in Asia. I associate my time in monasteries in Asia with that. It was a very meaningful time in my life. There is a certain kind of gratitude, appreciation, a sense of connection to the ancient tradition, even to the Buddha that I get when I chant in Pali. Pali is probably the closest to the language that the Buddha spoke. So it’s kind of an emotional connection that is supportive for me. And there is no need to do it. It’s only if it is meaningful for you.
Marguerite: This is our last question. From Ramona in Charlottesville, Virginia. I live in a wooded area with many deer. Hence, ticks are prevalent, especially in the summertime. Lyme disease is a real issue. Recently I found a couple of ticks embedded in me and pulled them off with tweezers. Doing so killed the ticks. Leaving them embedded is just not an option. I try to avoid the ticks but it is not always possible. Would you please speak to this situation and how would one be able to follow the precept given the situation as described?
Gil: I appreciate this kind of question a lot. I wish that more people would be concerned about the precept of not killing and how to live it. If we had more care and consideration around this precept, I think we’d have a much better place to live in. At the same time, I prefer not to give a clear answer about what to do or not to do in situations like this. I let people decide for themselves, but in considering it carefully, certainly you do whatever you can to try and avoid getting bitten by a tick. There are a lot of things to be done. And also to perhaps after being in the woods is to search the body before the ticks have a chance to bore in. I’ve done that and found a tick, which I carefully brushed off my skin and took outside rather than killing it. If it is embedded in you and there’s a high chance for Lyme’s disease, you have to weigh the cost-benefits of the life of the tick and perhaps your own sense of well-being, your own life. If I were in those shoes, I would probably choose to pull out the tick, thinking that the consequences for the world would be a lot worse if I were to get Lyme’s disease. But I like to think of this as an individual question. If some people feel that they can’t kill anything whatsoever and let the tick continue with its bite, then you could patiently wait until it drops itself out and then go get a Lyme test, then if necessary take some antibiotics. If you take them right away, I hear that antibiotics for Lyme’s disease work very well.
Marguerite: Well, thank you, Gill. Before we end, could you give us an update about the retreat center?
Gil: So we have this wonderful retreat center nearby now. It’s called the Insight Retreat Center. We have spent the last year and a half involved in renovating it from a nursing home into a retreat center. We finally opened in October, 2012. We’ve offered two retreats there. The retreat center is a beautiful place. It surprises me what a nice place it is for doing retreats. It’s much nicer even than I expected and I always thought it would be nice. We have a wonderful group of people coming; a lot of people are volunteering. I like to think of it as a community-supported retreat center. We have no staff; it’s all run by volunteers. The people who come on retreat support the running of the retreat so there is a very strong sense of community for what we are doing. It’s very meaningful for us as a context for doing retreat practice. So it’s been a delight to be involved and I look forward to welcoming many of you who might be interested in coming to do a retreat.