Online Community Q&A with Gil Fronsdal: March 2011

Online Community Q&A with Gil Fronsdal: March 2011

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Hello, Gil, today is the time for the question and answer session for the month of March. You will be answering questions from the IMC Online Community. We have a series of questions.


The first one is from an Anonymous Friend and she says: I have deep remorse, sorrow — and guilt, about my behavior toward my son when he was growing up, some harmful effects of which are still apparent in his self-regard and life choices. Years ago when I realized how hurtful I had been, I made it my highest priority and mission to bring my behavior in line with my loving intentions. I have expressed my profound regret to my son and our relationship is good and loving now, but I see that I can not undo some of the damage. I am not seeking forgiveness or any sort of absolution. They won’t change the facts. As soon as I realized that I had harmed my own child, I knew that I would be sorry for the rest of my life but I would like to have a Buddhist context for remorse, a precept or a belief  that I can repeat to myself many times a day when I feel the sorrow.

Gil: Well, I am very impressed by the honesty and the way that you have dealt with your past behavior. I think, generally, Buddhism emphasizes being forward looking rather than backward looking when we have caused harm to other people. That means that rather than dwelling in that past, regretting it and being a victim of your own past, we look at the past just enough to acknowledge what happened and then try to do better. Being forward looking means we see how we can do better in the future, and that seems to be what you have done. It might be that for the rest of your life your regret will be a fuel for you, a catalyst for you to continue to work on yourself, continue to be a better person, continue to try and bring benefits to this world of ours. I think the Buddhist approach would be never to deny or be defensive around whatever pain you feel but be completely open to feel it without attachment or without resistance. And let it inform you. Let the wisdom of it allow your compassion to arise from it and then try to do better in the world with it. In terms of what you might say on a regular basis to remind yourself, in the Zen tradition there is a beautiful little poem that is recited regularly. The poem goes, the chant goes: “All my ancient twisted karma/ from beginning-less greed, hate, and delusion/ born through body, speech and mind, /I now fully avow.” Here we are acknowledging that it isn’t just this particular event, but maybe it is timeless and goes back into endless time, that we have all made mistakes, all had difficulties and challenges, and we recognize that. Then to avow means to step aside, to acknowledge, to confess and no longer stand behind it, no longer be committed to it.  Instead be committed to living a different life now. For some people, doing that chant makes it a little less personal because when we take these things too personally, it adds more suffering than needs to be. It is part of the human condition that unfortunately we all make mistakes and some mistakes are huge; and to recognize that it isn’t exactly personal sometimes makes it easier to learn from our mistakes and then try to be a better person as a result.


The next question is from Ray in Glasgow, Scotland who talks about having a tendency to control his breathing. After almost a year now of meditating up to three sittings a day, I have managed to let the in-breath come in naturally but the out-breath is still being controlled. During these times I observe the controlling and end up tensing up. How should I approach this?

Gil: A great question. I’m very appreciative that you have hung in there for this time and that you have done the work that it took to have half your breathing be natural. I think it’s very good to be patient with the breath and not to make it too much of a project that you are supposed to have natural breath. Mindfulness unfolds from seeing clearly what is and in seeing what is learning to be non-attached to how things are. If what’s happening is that your breath is controlled, the task of mindfulness is to see that very clearly and to learn to hold it with a spacious relaxed mind. It just happens that being relaxed and calm about having controlled breath is one of the best conditions for helping become more natural in the breathing. So you are asking about the out-breath and how to bring that to a more natural way. I think that to look more carefully at how you breathe out, what happens when you breathe out, is a good beginning. And, in particular, it might be useful to notice if there are emotions that come into play as you breathe out. Be very still and attentive and keep looking over and over again. There might be some very subtle feeling or emotion that comes into play on the out breath. I have known people for whom the out-breath was kind of a letting go of control, and they were afraid of giving up control. So fear would kick in, especially near the end of the out breath. So they would not breathe all the way out because somehow for their psyche it was too frightening to let go of control that way. I’m not saying that is your issue but you might look and see. Connected to emotions is there might be a very subtle belief operating, not connected to the breath per se but our relationship to the breath many times represents how we relate to life in general. For example, someone who may feel that they will never get anything back if they give anything away so are always hoarding and holding onto things might have the same attitude about breathing. They are fine breathing in but have this belief that if they give it away they will never get it back again. Rationally it seems that people wouldn’t have these kinds of ideas, but it’s as if breathing somehow manifests in subtle almost unconscious ways these deep belief patterns. Looking more carefully to see what’s going on can be helpful. Another thing that can be helpful with the breath is that sometimes it is useful, after having a long time of controlling the breath, is to go and work with a breath-worker, someone who is trained to help people with their breathing. There are a variety of different schools of what is called breath-work and people who specialize in breath-work. There is a school coming out of Germany, I think it’s called Mendeldorf (I apologize for not remembering the exact name). There are not a lot of practitioners, but it is good work. Or sometimes body-based psychotherapies that focus on somatic experience more than talking about what is going on. The therapist helps guide the client to feel the body, to discover what is held in the body. Sometimes that kind of body work can be very helpful because of how much can be stored in the breathing. All these things are useful but I still stress that the most useful is not to be concerned but be relaxed about your breathing. Just watch the controlled breath.


Next is Terry from the UK who wants to know How can the deluded mind become aware of its delusion if it is caught in delusion? He also wants to know if you have any thoughts about what the most common delusions are.

Gil: That is a good question. There are many ways we can learn about our delusions. Sometimes we can have a delusion, a certain understanding about how things are, but then at some point it becomes clear that that’s not how things are. We get new evidence. We might have an interpretation of a person, think the person is one way, and operate as if that person is one way but then we may actually get to know the person better and discover the person isn’t that way at all. It still happens for me occasionally that I will make a quick evaluation of someone and then I get to know them better and realize that I didn’t really understand them but had some kind of illusion I was operating under. So I have learned to be very careful when I first meet people, to watch what happens in my mind and see the ideas that bubble up about the person and hold those very lightly, not necessarily believing them based on flimsy evidence. As a person becomes more mindful, one of the very interesting developments is that you can watch the arising of a thought, and if you can watch the arising of a thought – kind of stand back and see it arise – then it’s possible to look at the thought and question whether it is accurate or not. If you are living in your thinking, then it’s very easy to believe that the thought is an accurate representation of what is going on. But if you step back and watch the arising of a thought – and see it just as the arising of a thought – then the wise part of the mind can evaluate that thought and say whether that thought is accurate, wise, deluded. There are a lot of delusions. For example, you might be shopping and you see arising in your mind the thought that if you can get a certain kind of snack then you will be happy. Because you step back and watch the arising of that thought, it’s a delusive thought perhaps, and so you can watch the arising of it and question it. Is this really true? And you say well, no, it’s not really true. If I have any more food I will probably throw up. So you realize that it was just a delusion in the mind. There are a lot of common delusions people have around what will make them happy. Or what will make them secure. A lot of them are based on desire; some are based on aversion.  Some delusions are based on fear. Sometimes by looking carefully at the emotions that are connected to the particular thoughts or ideas, we can get a hint about whether we need to look more carefully into the accuracy of them. The last thing I’ll say is that it is really useful to ask your friends if you have an idea or interpretation or evaluation or belief, check it out with other people and see if they share it or not. Sometimes your friends can point out if you are deluded.


The next is a question from Kevin in Florida. My father who is a convicted sex offender was released on probation after a prison sentence. I do meet with him regularly. He is still in complete denial. Every time I see him the anger and hurt well up to what feels like unmanageable levels. Yet I am civil and unchallenging. I feel that the anger has penetrated into my personal and work relationships. I do meditation and yoga regularly, but the ongoing nature makes me wonder if I am perhaps not approaching my practice in a right-minded way.

Gil: That sounds like a difficult situation to be in. I’m sorry for you. It’s very hard to advise someone without more information about the family dynamics and what is going on in a situation like this. What comes to mind first is that the relationship between a child and a parent is very deep and so deep that it might not really be appropriate to work on this only personally, such as in your own meditation or Buddhist practice. There might be something really important that has to happen in the relationship between you and your father. Perhaps without being angry at him or blaming him, it might be very, very important to inform your father, to let your father know how all this is for you, how it was for you for your father to spend time in prison for a sex offense. The confusion that arises, the shame perhaps, or the fear or the anger or the despair. I don’t know what it was for you. Making “I” statements about how it was for you. And let him take it in without having to defend himself so that he really understands what has gone on for you. If you are not letting him know what is going on for you, then it’s not really an open or clear relationship, and the relationship can’t really maybe become healed. I don’t know if you can do the healing just by yourself on the cushion. He might not be able to hear anything or participate in that conversation, but it might be helpful for you if you at least tried and tried in away that hopefully doesn’t close him down or have him withdraw from you. It might be helpful for you to spend a little time with a therapist to have a chance to talk about your feelings, your ideas around all this so that when you finally do talk to your father there isn’t a pent up pressure of emotions and ideas. You would be able to get some things off your chest and hear yourself speak about them. It also can be if your father is willing, it might be useful to have the conversation mediated with a family therapist there to support the two of you so that the conversation is safe for everyone. That person can guide you in a process of healing and reconciliation. So I wish you well with that.


The next question is from Jeff in London. Since I have restarted meditating with strong motivation my sleep has changed. I am waking up around three o’clock in the morning or sometimes earlier, and I get up and meditate and listen to audio talks. I work roughly nine to six p.m. and I used to sleep fairly normal hours from eleven to seven a.m. Is this change in sleep – a lot less of it – healthy? I don’t seem to be getting chronically tired yet. And I’m getting loads more done. But I wonder if it’s to be avoided or encouraged?

Gil: It’s not uncommon for some people to need less sleep when they start to meditate. Meditation itself can substitute for the need to sleep because of the deep rest that some people can get in meditation. Also, as we meditate, there is sometimes less reactivity in daily life. We are calmer in daily life so there is less need to rest from the big stressful way. And, finally, sometimes meditation can process some of the psychological needs that normally are processed through dreams. So again there is less need for sleep.  I think that if you are operating completely fine and your friends are telling you that you are normal, then it’s fine to do with less sleep. If after awhile you feel that you are dragging, are irritable, but you ask your friends if they think you’re ok and they think you are, then by all means sleep less. And enjoy all the time and meditation. Use it really well.



This is our last question. From Marilyn in San Francisco: What did you mean, Gil, when you said “in any conversations between two practitioners both practitioners should protect each other’s solitude”?

Gil: Well, that was a quotation from a book called Letters to A Young Poet by Rilke. It might be that you can go back and see what he meant. But one of the things that I meant by that is that I think it is very important to leave people alone in their responsibility for themselves. We do a disservice to people if we take too much responsibility for their happiness and we try to fix them, help them. Some people are held hostage by their responsibility to make other people happy or something. Each person needs to be left alone, to be responsible for their own happiness. Only by taking responsibility for one’s self will one really find liberation and freedom.


Thank you, this concludes our session.