You write that traditional Western psychotherapy tends to hone in on what's gone wrong in an individual's past, and Eastern practices can help you get to the heart of "what's right".
I would say both Western psychology and Eastern paths would recognize that we get caught up in feeling like a separate self and an unworthy self. I call it "the trance of unworthiness" because it's like our whole reality shrinks and we get very self-centered in our idea of "I'm a deficient self, I need to be better." That takes our life energy.
I think the reason Buddhism and Western psychology are so compatible is that Western psychology helps to identify the stories and the patterns in our personal lives, but what Buddhist awareness training does is it actually allows the person to develop skills to stay in what's going on. It's learning to stay. In our culture especially, our reflex when it's uncomfortable is to leave and we get busy. The Chinese word for busy is "heart-killing." Isn't that amazing?
So what we do when we get anxious and insecure is we speed up. We get busy: we get addicted to email, we get addicted to being online, we get addicted to food and drugs, we get addicted to talking to other people--not just to communicate but just to keep busy. Buddhist practices offer a way of saying, Hey, come back over here, reconnect. The only way that you'll actually wake up and have some freedom is if you have the capacity and courage to stay with the vulnerability and the discomfort.
Meditation helps us to pay attention so that we can directly realize and trust the goodness that's there. We actually begin to recognize that who we are is awareness, who we are is love, and our sense of identity shifts in such a fundamental way that it actually challenges the small-self story.
What do you mean by "small-self"?
The perception that we are separate and deficient. One of the metaphors I always find helpful is that our being is like an ocean and we get identified with different waves, like different weather systems that go through, like we get identified with fear or clinging or certain thoughts and if we can recognize those waves but remember our oceanness, really remember who we are, remember the innate radiance of our mind, the tenderness, then we can be with the changing weather systems, the waves, but not get caught up in them, not lose sight of who we are.
One of the teachings I love the most from the Buddha is, "Our fear is great, but greater yet is the truth of our connectedness." So we can remember our belonging at any moment—even facing death—if we can remember the love that holds us. Then we can actually face living and dying and have something that's large enough to hold us.
One of the reasons I was so drawn to writing about radical acceptance is because we spend so many moments at war, and we do it in the ways we judge ourselves, we do it in the ways we blame others, we do it in the ways we feel it's our country against that country. There is so much division in this world. So what is really the path of healing? It can begin in this moment, by embracing the life that's here. Because if we can begin to bring a sense of peace and care to the life inside us, naturally the circles widen to include other people. It's the way of the heart—if we can be kind towards ourselves we'll be kind towards others.
This conference is about fear, something you've written a lot about.
The biggest fear we have is that somewhere, we are failing or are going to fail. You can almost say that our personalities are in a large part a way of compensating for fear. We want to show to the world what would be acceptable and loveable. In doing so, we in some way disconnect from the aliveness and authenticity of who we are.
So I really feel like our path should be one of slowing down enough to re-embrace, re-connect with what we've pushed away. One of the simplest ways we can do that is just to intend to say "yes" to what we experience in the moment. I teach that a lot. We can at any moment feel what's going on; just say "yes" to that. It's a practice of truthfulness, we're acknowledging what's real and saying, this is here and meaning that with some kindness and when we do that, when we accept what's in the moment, it actually taps us into the intelligence, the wisdom, the heart that allows us to act more wisely in the future.
One of the great psychologists, Carl Rogers, put it this way, "It wasn't until I accepted myself just as I was in this moment, that I was free to change." So it's a pre-condition to true transformation, is to accept ourselves in the moment.
Because we think failing means that our biggest fear [will be realized]: that we'll be rejected. And rejection is bad; it severs our belonging. So we do whatever we can to not have that happen.
If deep down we're feeling something's wrong with me, we can't really be intimate with another person. We can't take risks, we can't be creative, it binds our life. So when people start recognizing how much of their life has been imprisoned by that trance of unworthiness, just that recognition with it comes a sense of "Oh, it's possible not to live inside that." And it's very liberating.
When some people talk about accepting themselves they have this fear that they're condoning some bad behavior, or that if they accept themselves, that means they'll never improve. But the truth is, we're not saying, "It's OK that you did that bad thing." All we're accepting is the actuality of our experience in the moment: I'm accepting this shame is here, I'm accepting this fear is here, I'm accepting this anger, I'm accepting that there's craving, I'm accepting the truth just now, that I acted out of that craving and I ate too much. I'm accepting how bad I feel about that. But in the moment of accepting, we're not condoning. We're just acknowledging the truth of what's here with kindness. The reality is, if we can do that, it actually begins to free us so we can in the next moment, be a lot more wise.
Can you tell us about your own practice? Do you meditate every day?
Yes. I meditate 45 minutes in the morning and I catch-as-catch-can through the day.
You're very good at making it a priority.
Yeah, because it's a gift to the soul.
What I believe in for myself and for most of us is that we need to learn to pause more. That we race through the day, it's like we're living our life as if we're on our way to the next thing which means we get to the finish line—death—and we haven't really dropped in and touched what's here. So a lot of my inner training is to pause and reconnect, it means I come back into my body and come back into my life.
I think the two most powerful questions I ask myself are, "What is happening inside me right now?" and "Can I meet this with some kindness?" Just to keep stopping and doing that. Because if I can do that with my own body and heart, then I can show up in the same way and pause and really notice with another person, their vulnerability, that each one of us is scared in different ways. I mean we're all feeling the same stuff. And also their goodness, like I can actually pause and sense that each of us wants to be happy, we want to love without holding back and we want to be free. So it helps me to pause and then move through the day with more awareness.
Does American culture pose particular challenges for Buddhists?
There's a growing number of people that are really waking up and cherishing waking up, people who want to be honest with what's happening and want to live in a genuinely compassionate, tender way. It's a challenging time in that it's very painful to see all this violence there is in the world. It's very painful to see how out of fear and greed and consumption we're destroying the earth.
A number of us won a Buddhist peace fellowship in Washington at the time we were going to war with Iraq because there's a recognition that to be committed to reverence for life, and not harming means that to take a stand in our world, that you can't separate our inner commitment to spirituality from our outer commitment to be part of the healing of the world. And a number of us were arrested; I was arrested before the war started. But the commitment was not to be an anti-war movement that was strident and angry; it was to come from a place of genuine caring about the world and embody that. And so we actually, it was quite a respectful kind of process and it continues to be happening.
So when you ask me about being a Buddhist in the world today, it's not being a Buddhist, it's being a person that loves life and wants to wake up and I feel like, I have many friends in many different religions, we're all holding hands, wanting to wake up together.
Is activism a big part of your life?
Yeah, it is. I don't think of the spiritual path as something that's just on a cushion or in a cave. I feel like we live out our values and our love for life by waking up both in solitude and quiet and also by speaking our truths and doing whatever we can on the planet that'll help us move towards healing.