Online Community Q&A with Gil Fronsdal: February 2011

Online Community Q&A with Gil Fronsdal: February 2011

Transcribed by: Elizabeth Paschall

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Welcome, Gil, to our new question and answer session with you answering questions from the IMC online community.

Gil: Great, nice to be with you again.

We have quite a few questions today, starting with Freja from Santa Cruz, CA: Right now I am losing my father who has always been the person I love most in the world. I am so terrified but have been feeling extra motivated to sit. Part of me is not at all confident that I can make it through this. It feels like this is one time where I cannot accept and look my feelings in the eye, face the loss head on, and let it be. It’s too much. I feel like my grief is going to destroy me. What are your thoughts?

Gil: Thank you for the question. My heart goes out to you with you losing your father. That is a big loss. I think when there are losses that big – of a parent or a child or a spouse – it’s completely natural to feel like it’s too much, that the grief is going to destroy you. It’s a very common feeling. To be idealistic in thinking that you are supposed to be able to cope with it or to manage it is probably going too far. It adds the second arrow; it adds more suffering, more confusion, more distress. You are not expected to be able to hold the grief. The grief has its own life, its own pattern. You are lucky to have the meditation practice. And if you can just sit with it, still and upright, and let whatever feelings come and go through you. If some of those feelings are that you can’t manage, let those feelings go through you as well. Those thoughts and feelings that you can’t manage, that it’s too much, that it’s overwhelming, those are impermanent. That is part of the process as much as anything else. You don’t have to take it too seriously – those thoughts. As long as you sit there, still and upright, and let it go through you, the meditation posture is your refuge. It’s not up to you. You just have to keep showing up. And if you feel like you can’t keep showing up, that’s part of it as well. Just stay in the practice; stay with it. Grief is unfolding. It best unfolds if we in some ways get out of the way. Many people have come through this and gone through to the other side. But it takes its own time. It’s a very deep, deep process that loss puts us through and it’s important to be very respectful of it. In the process be very kind and generous to yourself during this time. It’s more a matter of time and allowing than a matter of you having the skills to know how to cope with it wisely.

Thank you, Gil. The next question is from Pujah in New Dehli, India: During the day my attention and awareness of the body vary in degrees and most times I am aware of fine, subtle sensations that are sweeping through the body. When I am talking to someone, I find the subtle sensations fade out into the background of my attention. What is the best way to keep the mind in the body as I pursue daily activities?

Gil: That’s a wonderful question. I think keeping the attention centered in the body is an important part of living a wise life. Our body, our posture, the sensations give us a lot of information about what’s going on in our reactions. It helps us to keep a steady balance. It helps keep us from getting too caught up in our reactions, our thoughts, our interpretations of what is going on. And also the body is a wonderful vehicle for empathy. Through the body is how we best feel the hearts of other people. We feel what they are going through and we feel our heart as well. So I think it’s a great thing to do. As we stay with the body, I think it’s important not to have some particular idea about what it is supposed to be like to be mindful of the body.  There are times when there could be a lot of subtle sensations a person could feel and it could be very satisfying and meaningful to feel that. But there are times when subtle sensations are not available, and that’s not a mistake or a problem. Then the body is manifesting in a different way, and the task of mindfulness is to be present for how it is and learn from that, not about how you think it should be. When life gets more complicated as when you are engaged with activities in the world, a good part of the attention will go to the conversation or to the person, so the attention is not available for the subtleties going on in the body. Having said that, it’s helpful to come back to your body as much as you can, not in the sense of residing in your body, abiding in your body. But when you are listening to someone, listen not through your ears but through your torso, your chest, your body. And as you speak, do so not so much through your thoughts or opinions, your mind or your voice box; but feel like you are speaking from your torso or from deep inside. One of the ways to pay attention to this is to notice whether you are tense or relaxed. And if you’re relaxed, then speak from the relaxed place. Then you are more likely to be in your body. If you speak or are engaged with the world with tension, then often we leave the body or are not so connected to the body in a useful way. A really useful way of staying in your body is to focus on the simple task of “Is the body tense or is the body relaxed, are you aware of the body or are you not aware of the body?” Simply being aware of the body – that’s enough. You don’t have to have some particular idea of what you’re supposed to notice in the body. It’s a big step just to know that you’re in the body.

Thank you. Janelle in Michigan wants to know Our dharma friends group is interested in the degrees or opportunities related to vipassana and Theravada Buddhism. We noted that Naropa is perhaps the most well known Buddhist university in the U.S.. However, its roots are Shambala. What would you suggest for someone interested in a degree program centered in Theravadan tradition?

Gil: It depends what the person wants to do with the degree. If a person wants to become a scholar of the Theravadan tradition, then they should go to a research university where they can study Pali and engage in the academic form of scholarship. But if the person wants more of a general education in Theravadan Buddhism without following the scholarly direction, then that’s a different question. For the more academic approach, there are not a lot of places in the United States where you can do Pali studies. In Chicago at the University of Chicago, there is a professor who teaches Pali studies and is quite good. There are a number of religious studies departments in the country that have strong Buddhist studies programs – the University of California at Los Angeles, UC Berkeley, University of Virginia, Columbia University. At one time Bloomington, Indiana had one. At one time the University of Hawaii had a Buddhist studies department. There are a variety of places to go. But in terms of something like Naropa, there is no Theravadan university or college that specializes in the way Naropa does. It’s still a good place to study. People from many Buddhist traditions can benefit from that. In Berkeley, California, there is the Institute of Buddhist Studies that comes from the Japanese Pure Land tradition. Even though it’s Japanese Buddhism, they have a wide range of classes including Theravadan Buddhism. It’s a good place to get a good education. In the long term, here in Redwood Center, the Sati Center which I am involved with has a vision to develop a master’s degree program in Theravadan Buddhist studies. But that’s some years away.

Thank you. David in New York says that music is both my passion as well as my career. For a long time I have been confused about how to hold music. I know that just like most things one can become very attached to it. I am very guilty of this. If music is just a sensual desire, how can I hold music in a way that supports a path of mindfulness?

Gil: Thank you for the question. The way to hold music in a way that supports the path of mindfulness is to be mindful of what it’s like to play music. Bring your mindfulness to what you are doing when you are playing music. If you look at yourself and are very mindful of what happens as you play music, then that becomes the path of understanding yourself. If there is attachment, you’ll see the attachment. Then you can slowly work on the attachment, to let go of where the attachment is. What you don’t want to do is throw out the baby with the bathwater. The fact that there might be some attachment to the music doesn’t mean that’s all that’s going on. There could be other very significant motivations to playing music. One could be almost like a natural expression of creativity, of intimacy, of connectedness, of beauty that brings you joy, helps you bring joy to others. Music can sometimes express people’s deeper inner life, deeper spiritual life in a way that nothing else does. It’s one thing, for example, to meditate and have some deep inner life. It’s another thing to give expression to that inner life. Sometimes music and artistic endeavors are a beautiful way of expressing and therefore reinforcing and developing that inner life as well. If all your music has to do with drugs, sex, and status, then perhaps it’s not going to address the inner life in a deep way. So you need to look at what you do when you are playing music, what your music is expressing, what motivates your music, what the consequences of playing music are. Be involved with your music and then when you are not doing it, notice if it is supporting you or if it is draining you. What are the consequences of doing it? The way to make it the path of practice is to bring your mind to your music-making and your music activity. Really study and be honest about what goes on. I’m confident that if you do that you will find your way and if music is an important, integral part of your life it will remain that way. And if in that process you find that it’s not integral, then perhaps you’ll be encouraged to let go of it.

Thank you.  Rich in Cary, North Carolina, says One time when I attended a Kadampa Center in my area, I noticed that the teachers, monks and nuns wore special robes. Would you be willing to speak about this style of dress of those who attend the IMC and the usefulness of the various styles of dress for both lay people and others?

Gil: IMC is a lay Buddhist community with a lay Buddhist teacher. The approach of IMC is to offer the depth of Buddhist practice — practice of meditation, mindfulness, and the teachings without the support of any particular kind of clothing, of any particular ritual, of any kind of chanting. We are kind of pared down to a very simple, direct, and hopefully very deep kind of expression of Buddha dharma without a lot of the extras, some of which are coming out of different Asian cultures. Some of the ideas about clothing come from the usefulness of having people clearly identified as religious, having stepped out of the normal roles of society and are there as clergy or spiritual teachers. Here at IMC there are no special clothes to wear. Sometimes I wear blue jeans when I teach, a shirt. The clothes I wear are not so different from anybody else’s. There are no expectations for people to dress in a particular way. The only thing we say is that when you meditate it is useful to wear clothes that are loose fitting so the legs are not constricted. When I was a monk, of course I wore monastic robes. I found it really useful to wear robes in the way some people find it useful to wear a big shawl around the shoulders. There’s something about the way robes or big blankets hold us, kind of contain us or make us feel more intimate or held or almost as if the blood or energy can flow more freely – especially with robes. It’s different with pants or with something dividing at the midline like belts. Sometimes it physiologically feels nice to wear robes. And sometimes wearing religious clothes reminds us of our intentions and makes us a little more serious about our practice, a little more connected to it than when we wear ordinary clothes. There are times it’s useful but then sometimes it’s not useful because it can create a status difference, or people may hide behind religious clothes or get attached and think they’re unique or special because they are religious. And they’re not really special but they’re holding it up in some way. Then people start comparing themselves, saying that person is better than I am, more holy than I am. There can be unfortunate consequences from wearing robes. That doesn’t happen here at IMC but at the same time the benefits of wearing special clothes also don’t happen. So that’s how it is at IMC.

Thank you. Susan from Australia would like to ask how to make sense of and let go of the self consciousness which accompanies most of my meditation. I am aware of myself guiding the meditation and aware of being aware of breathing, not just aware of breathing. I think of this as self consciousness which piggybacks on my meditation and I would like to know what produces it and if most meditators experience it? How can one escape it? Does it compromise meditation?

Gil: That’s a great question. It may or may not compromise meditation. Self consciousness usually means some preoccupation or tension around the sense of self. That is not uncommon. Sometimes it takes the form that if someone is watching their breath, they get self conscious about their breathing and start controlling it or worrying about it or get anxious about it. Sometimes this self consciousness can take the form of monitoring the meditation too much and judging oneself as a good or bad meditator or questioning how one is doing as a meditator. The whole idea of defining oneself as a meditator brings up a lot of tension or anxiety for people and that gets in the way of relaxing into the meditation itself. So to work with that kind of self consciousness I mostly recommend using mindfulness to study it but not make a problem of the problem. Rather than thinking it should be different, it is more useful to think that this is something to bring our attention to and get to know better. A lot of freedom comes from really seeing deeply what is actually happening. And if what is happening is some self consciousness, then the task is to turn toward that and get to know it. Feel what it’s like in the body. Get to know it. Feel the emotion. See if you can recognize what beliefs are there. Learn to step back in a sense and not struggle with the self consciousness but see it for what it is. Chances are if you do it that way, the self consciousness will fade by itself and you will relax. If you continue to see it as a problem, that might be the very thing that fuels it and keeps it going.

There is a different kind of attention you may be referring to here. That is awareness of being aware. It doesn’t have to be self consciousness with that but rather it could just be a part of mindfulness. There can be mindfulness of things and mindfulness of mindfulness operating, kind of an overarching awareness. It is very interesting to allow for that and to notice if there is no self consciousness involved, then probably that awareness of awareness is more relaxed, spacious, and open than the primary awareness that you have. It’s kind of a heightened presence going on. Sometimes it takes the form: You know that you know. And there is freedom to be found in that kind of knowing that you know. You might experiment and see if you can tell the difference between self consciousness and a more freeing, clear, luminous, or open kind of awareness in which you are so present that you know that you know.

Thank you. Cindy from Palo Alto, California is interested in the landscape of the mind around food. What tools can we use around insight to help cope with health issues about food? Things such as cravings or sufferings around food.

Gil: That’s a great question. A lot of people have issues around food and there are a number of books written about mindfulness, insight practice and food. Ronna Kabatznik wrote a book called The Zen of Eating and even though it’s called the Zen of Eating because of the popularity of zen (I think the editor named it that) it’s really the insight meditation book about eating. I think that mindfulness can help a lot. One of the ways it helps is that it helps us to notice our impulses when they occur – the impulse to eat. Notice when that impulse arises and notice it really well. In a sense, stop and recognize that the impulse is there before we act on it. And then when that acknowledgment is made, clearly acknowledge it, and then instead of acting on it, consider what the other choices are. Sometimes the choice, the most useful choice, might be to walk away from the refrigerator, go get some exercise. Call a friend. Do something wholesome and healthy, a healthy alternative to pursuing the food. Another possibility, another choice is to go find some place quiet to sit or go for a walk and really look more deeply at what is going on behind the impulse to eat. Is it simply addictive behavior where you are pursuing pleasure? Or is it motivated by loneliness or anxiety or fear, a way of distracting yourself from yourself, a way of comforting yourself because of underlying insecurity? Really kind of stop and very respectfully and gently look more deeply. As you do it, do it in a loving and caring and kind way. It’s not necessarily easy but it’s really important work. If you can do it with kindness, then the inner world around eating can open up in a fuller, nicer way to discover what is going on. If the craving is really intense around food, then there is a wonderful practice which I call “riding out the desire.” This would entail feeling that very strong impulse, then sitting down in an easy chair, and committing yourself not to leave the chair until the impulse has passed. It can be very intense. All the lawyers of the mind can come up and argue why you have to have the food/the addiction now. Sometimes if the addiction is strong enough, you can feel like you’re going to die but you’re committed to staying in your seat, staying in your easy chair and letting the intensity of the craving get as strong as it needs to get. At some point you will discover that you rode out the wave to the other side and somehow the wave has passed and you are on the back side of the wave. And the intensity dissipates. Go through it a few times — the escalating of the impulse, the strengthening of it, not giving in to it but seeing it to the other end. It brings a lot of confidence; it is very empowering. And it begins to undermine the authority that our addictions sometimes have. You might try that if your craving is strong enough. Find that easy chair and ride it out.

Thank you. Next question is from David in Redwood City, CA, who wants to know if it’s possible to follow the Eightfold Path well and still suffer. Is it the only way to end suffering?

Gil: It’s one thing to follow the Eightfold Path, to be on it, and another thing to complete it. It is possible to be very diligent and do a very good job with the different steps, but those are really the foundation that allows the heart or the mind to let go in a very deep way. That letting go is what is needed to really end suffering. But the deepest letting go that needs to happen is not something we choose or can actually do with our self conscious self. It’s more like we put the conditions in place. Now following the Eightfold Path will certainly lessen suffering a lot, certainly lessening the suffering of causing further harm. If you follow the path hopefully you won’t have additional regrets about harm you’ve done or caused in the world. You will learn how not to add more suffering to yourself by following the path. But sometimes there are really deep issues in a person’s life that are hard to address, even with the Eightfold Path. Sometimes other approaches are needed; sometimes psychotherapy is helpful. Sometimes there are particular actions we need to do in the world that will help. I wouldn’t rely on the Eightfold Path as the only path to deal with particular forms of suffering but the Eightfold Path is a powerful path for dealing with some of the deepest attachments we have. The deepest attachments are not released through the Eightfold Path but the release happens because of the foundation the Eightfold Path provides. Now there are other paths to release suffering. There are other paths to release particular suffering. Psychotherapies are necessary for some people to address certain issues that are best not addressed through meditation. I’ve known people who thought meditation should address all their problems but found it very inefficient and would have been better off in some kind of psychotherapy. And so for particular issues, there might be other things that need to be addressed. But for the full liberation from suffering that the Buddha promises, can it be found outside the Eightfold Path? I kind of doubt that. However, we should be careful not to assume that the way other people live the Eightfold Path looks like the Buddhist Eightfold Path. If we think about it and analyze it, we might say yes we find the Eightfold Path in a person’s life but never thought about it in that framework. But I think that for the deepest level of freedom, the Eightfold Path is necessary. Each step of the path is a step in not causing harm. There’s no liberation without ending causing harm to ourselves and to others.

Thank you. The next question is from James in New Zealand who says he has been experiencing anxiety for a while in my face, neck and shoulders. Unfortunately I have come to associate this tension with a change in facial appearance and have labeled this tension a negative thing which then causes a lot more anxiety because I fear I am now destroying my appearance from the effects of the anxiety. I am wondering within the framework of mindfulness meditation how I should treat these anxiety symptoms and the emotional reaction to them.

Gil: Thank you, James. I think it is quite astute of you to see the circular pattern of how these things work. Many times we are caught in circular loops where we keep reinforcing certain patterns. And also it’s useful to see that some of the emotional holding patterns we have do have physical consequences in how we look and how we hold ourselves. Someone who is angry a lot has a certain expression that has built up and is stored in the face. If one is angry all the time, then those muscles get stronger and stronger and it affects how someone looks. It doesn’t look necessarily so beautiful to see someone who is always angry. To be anxious about being anxious is one of the things that perpetuate the cycle. So the question is how we end the cycles of suffering, of clinging, of anxiety, if it kind of builds on itself. Sometimes it’s useful to do other things besides being mindful. Mindfulness may give us more information to be anxious about. So sometimes in meditation doing a concentration practice can be useful where we kind of cut through the cycle. Part of the function of concentration is to commit the mind to the breath. Just keep coming back to the breath and be concentrated on the breath so as to break the pattern of being preoccupied by different patterns of anxiety or whatever is going on in your mind. Or sometimes it’s doing loving kindness practice as a concentration practice to cut through a pattern. Once the mind is concentrated and calm, then it might be more useful to open the mind up to be present for the anxiety without getting caught in its orbit. Then once you’re not caught in the anxiety, then look at it carefully, kindly, lovingly. See if you can hold it in a non-reactive attention. Feel it in your body and see if something can begin to relax. Or look at it deeply enough to be able to see the source of the particular anxiety. Is it unresolved sufferings that you’ve carried with you for a lifetime? What is really going on in a deeper way? So, sometimes it’s useful to ignore it in order to cut through the problem and then come back to it later. And sometimes it’s useful to turn toward the very thing/issue and hold it in mindfulness. I wish you well, James.

Thank you, Gil; this concludes our session for today.

Gil: Thank you, everyone. I appreciate getting these questions and feeling the connections with people all over the world. It’s quite marvelous that there are people who have such great interest in the practice and have such wonderful questions. I think that for people who want to practice Buddhism or want to practice mindfulness, having a habit of asking questions is a really good habit. Not only asking questions of a teacher but also asking questions of yourself. And exploring the questions and coming up with your own best responses is an important part of the path. Thank you all.