Posts Tagged ‘stories’

Settle Into The Bliss

Posted in Interviews on March 22nd, 2012 by Vlad – Be the first to comment

An interview with Shaila Catherine by Vlad Moskovski

Shaila begins to speak. Her voice, like her personality, fits her well. It is like a warm whisper that washes over the gathered crowd at this public talk. I am moved by her peaceful and calm demeanor and awed by her experience in meditation and the clarity with which she is able to describe the most subtle of concepts. Shaila has been practicing meditation since 1980, with more than eight years of accumulated silent retreat experience and has studied with masters in India, Nepal and Thailand. She has taught since 1996 in the USA and internationally, and is the founder/lead teacher at Insight Meditation South Bay.


Vlad: You have done many long retreats in your life, what is the longest period that you have been silent on retreat, and where?

My longest retreat was a ten-month retreat at the Forest Refuge in Massachusetts in 2003-2004. During this retreat I emphasized concentration, and practiced jhana as the basis for insight for the first time. Following that retreat I wrote my first book, Focused and Fearless in order to encourage the cultivation of concentration, and to share the techniques I had learned for establishing the deep absorption states of jhana.


Vlad: Do you think it is important for serious meditation practitioners to do long retreats or can we advance in our practice just going about our lives?

We must use whatever opportunities we have, and not long for opportunities that we don’t have. A meditation student who has young children is not going to run off and attend a ten-month retreat—that would be irresponsible. But even with many worldly responsibilities, we can take a lot of care with the daily practice and the continuity of mindfulness throughout the day.

Generally I don’t encourage the average practitioner to do multi-month retreats. Only a small proportion of students have sufficient interest and enough skill in meditation, and also have the social and economic opportunities to make use of such extended periods of seclusion. I usually encourage students to attend regular and frequent retreats of one week, a few weeks, or a month. These are long enough for the mind to settle, for the concentration to develop, and for a rich experience of insight to occur. I introduce jhana practice in ten-day retreats and am pleased with the results.


Vlad: You teach jhana and vipassana meditation. Many people have never heard of jhana, can you tell me briefly what the difference is?

Jhana refers to deeply concentrated meditative states in which attention is steadily absorbed by the perception of a single meditation object. The Theravada tradition describes four particular absorption states. Skilled meditators can cultivate these peaceful and blissful states, and allow the mind to abide in them for whatever period of time they wish. But the purpose of deepening concentration is not to indulge in meditative bliss. Strong concentration allows deep insight to happen. I never teach concentration or jhana divorced from insight (vipassana). The purpose of cultivating concentration is to realize liberating insight.

Different kinds of concentration develop with different types of meditation objects. For example, when practicing insight meditation (vipassana) we contemplate the characteristics of changing mental or material phenomena, and develop a type of momentary concentration called khanika samadhi. The mind becomes unified through the momentary knowing of perceptions as they arise and perish. Jhana, however, refers to a subset of samadhi practices that use fixed, rather than changing, objects for meditation. When practicing with the breath as a jhana subject, for example, we steadily focus on the breath at the area of the nostrils until it transforms into a mental reflection of the breath, called a nimitta. Essentially, the objects that lead to jhana include certain concepts and mental objects; absorptions do not develop when observing changing sensations or fluctuating feelings.


Vlad: Why the dominance of Vipassana, insight meditation, in the US?

Vipassana practice is liberating. When we devote time to develop strong concentration, we do so to strengthen our vipassana. A steady mind makes it possible to see things very clearly. The Theravada Buddhist tradition offers a carefully crafted sequence of exercises designed to guide the mind from distracted and obstructed habitual states, to liberation. First we learn to calm, strengthen, and energize the mind through concentration practices. Next, we use the concentrated mind to carefully discern the nature and functions of matter, mind, and their causes and effects. Once the concentrated mind has discerned mind and matter, then we contemplate mind and matter as impermanent, unsatisfactory, and empty of self. Clear seeing of these universal characteristics propels the mind through a sequence of insights that culminate in the realization of nibbana (nirvana in Sanskrit).

Although monastics and very dedicated lay practitioners have, for centuries, practiced deep concentration, most lay people don’t have the time, inclination, or conducive living conditions to engage in rigorous traditional training. Some time ago, a historic movement began to emphasize forms of meditation that could be practiced by lay people. Emphasis was wisely placed on mindfulness and shorter retreats, which can be easily integrated into a lay lifestyle. Mindfulness is the basis of all these practice, and may be the most important factor for developing both concentration and insight.


Vlad: I am sure you have had many amazing teachers, is there one in particular that you would say is your main teacher? 

I really could not say that there is one single teacher in my life; I feel deep gratitude for several teachers who have guided me, and several meditation centers that have provided the opportunity for practice. I started meditating in 1980, and in the mid 80’s I met Christopher Titmuss, an English dhamma teacher who startled me with a rather direct approach to enquiry. I continued to attend retreats with many different teachers, but noticed that my practice progressed most rapidly with Christopher’s guidance. Over the years I returned to his retreats with some regularity, and gradually he came to know my practice well. It was Christopher Titmuss who asked me to serve as a dhamma teacher, and he has remained my mentor.

I cherish the years that I spent in Asia—practicing in monasteries in Thailand, and studying with a guru named H.W.L Poonja in northern India. I lived in Poonjaji’s home for several years in the early and mid 1990’s. He taught a direct realization of the mind and stirred a powerful love of freedom. I also have sat many retreats at the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts and I continue to appreciate the clarity and integrity in this community of western dhamma teachers.

In 2006 I met Venerable Pa-Auk Sayadaw—a highly skilled practitioner and teacher of jhana and vipassana. Practicing with him has refined my approach to both jhana and vipassana. I wrote my second book, Wisdom Wide and Deep, at his request—to present this systematic training in a form that would be accessible to Western practitioners.


Vlad: If at all possible, can you describe what it is like to be on a long retreat?

Long retreats help us get past our personal stories and particular attachments. Once you settle into the silence and let go of the busyness of daily activities, an impersonal and objective way of seeing the mind and body tends to arise. On retreat we are just less caught up in all the things that stimulate our identities, so we will see how attachment functions as an impersonal process, rather than focus on personal attachments to particular things.

I like long retreats—they are lovely, and allow me to go very deep in the practice. But I also like short retreats, because they allow me to integrate the dhamma into daily life. So I try to do both long retreats and short retreats so that there is both a deepening and integration of the meditative experience.


Vlad: That state, the universal or impersonal, does that experience last after the retreat is over?

Well, we live our lives. We don’t live anybody else’s lives, and we don’t live sequestered in retreat. By “impersonal” I am referring to what is not bound by my particular story, my life, my roles, or my activities. We must integrate our understandings and insight with how we live as unique individuals interacting through personal relationships and making daily choices.

During meditation we might see, in refined detail, how misperception functions. For example, we might have a fleeting experience of seeing something attractive, and then blinded by ignorance and desire, we misperceive that sight as something that might bring us happiness, if only we could possess it, control it, or keep it. But no impermanent perception can be a reliable source of happiness. With insight we recognize the misperception, contemplate the impermanence of the experience, and discover that when we see with wisdom, equanimity naturally arises. Wisdom, clarity, and equanimity certainly influence our experiences long after a retreat ends. Nothing that we find in the world can actually be possessed as mine, or be identified with as who I am. Attachments fall away, and then we live our individual lives fully, but without, or at least with less, attachment. Suffering diminishes.


To find out more about Shaila Catherine, her books, classes, and retreats check out Insight Meditation South Bay


The Roots of War Within

Posted in Interviews on January 29th, 2012 by Vlad – Be the first to comment

Interview with Claude AnShin Thomas conducted by Vlad Moskovski

I first met Claude AnShin Thomas at a talk that he gave, and the first thing that struck me about him was his straightforward honesty. There was something very sharp and clear about his talk, his attitude, and his vision. I am honored to have the chance to interview Claude AnShin, who has experienced so much in his life. He has been many things. A combat soldier in Vietnam, martial arts teacher, musician, political activist, peace advocate, and ascetic wondering monk.


Vlad: You have walked many miles on foot, what is the longest continuous journey you have done on foot and what inspired this journey? 

The longest continuous journey I would have to say was from the Auschwitz concentration camp inPolandtoVietnam. I was ordained in Auschwitz, a decision made by my teacher. In preparation for that ordination, I sat in the selection site between two railroad tracks in Auschwitz/Birkenau. I fasted there for four days, no food or water, and I chanted from sunup to sundown.

I then walked to Vietnam, through something like 25 or 27 countries. Most of the places I walked through were places of current or past fighting.  The experience of being a combat soldier has shaped the way my Zen Buddhist practice has developed.  It has helped me come into a more conscious relationship with the sources of conflict that are within me. It has also given me a greater insight into the reality of separation that exists amongst those who call themselves peace advocates. A lot of these people see the soldiers as the enemy. I realized through my own experience that people seldom pay attention to the suffering of the perpetrator.  However, if we observe carefully, we can see that within each victim there is a perpetrator and within each perpetrator there is a victim.


Vlad: What was it like to be walking through these countries on foot?

That was a long time ago. I can only say now in hindsight that it was incredibly important, and intensely powerful in the sense that it got me into a more intimate connection with how I was affected by my military service. It brought into a sharper focus the full spectrum of the experience of war: the war before the war, the war itself, and the war after the war. It refined my understanding that War is not a finite experience.

The pilgrimage helped me understand the experience in a more certain and clear way.  It made me realize clearly that I don’t have any enemies. The whole notion of enemy is a fabrication. The demonization of the other helped to absolve the roots of war in me. If I want to be an advocate of active non-violence, I have to be awake to the sense of war in me, to the soldier in me. I have to be able to embrace the reality of my duality, understanding that I don’t know the specific experience of anIraqor Iranian soldier, or a Chilean soldier. I don’t know their exact experience, but I do know that I am not different from them. I try not to focus on precise experience, which can create a sense of separation, but rather to see where am I connected, where it is that our experiences intersect.


Vlad: If I understand correctly, you don’t have a permanent home, is this part of your spiritual practice? How did that come about?

Somehow, from the very beginning, it just made sense to me and I did not know why. I feel the critical importance of living a very direct life. Everything that I have read and studied talks about the importance of renunciation through the maturation of spiritual practice, of not being rooted in fame or gain. I want nothing more than to wake up. I want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. My life is committed to that, because of all the consequences to living in forgetfulness.

My vows – no home, no resources, no saving, no insurance, none of the trappings of security bring more sharply into focus the reality that these sorts of this do not provide security. I am often invited to teach meditation or to work with cultures of violence in support of a desired transformation out of this cycle. The invitations come from all over the world. I do not charge for my services. I do everything for free, but if people want me there, they have to get me there and I don’t fly business class or first class. You chuckle at that, but I can’t tell you how many Buddhist teachers I know who won’t travel any other way than business class or first class.


Vlad: Would you recommend this wandering lifestyle to others who may want to follow in your footsteps?

I think this way of living is the best way in the world. Now, would I recommend this to others? Not my job. People need to find their own way. People have the sense somehow that it is a glamorous life and it is not.

Let’s say somebody embarks on this path. They need to be fully committed to it, because they have no real sense of the its’ demands. I had ideas of what this might be like, but in truth there is no way that I could ever know what this lifestyle is like. That is the wonder of it. It just keeps revealing itself day by day, year by year. I suppose I will live like this until I don’t live. I hear monks and priests talking about retirement, and I go, “are you kidding me?” To be a monk is not a job, this is a life commitment. You don’t retire from this.


Vlad: For many years you have, and still do, live with post traumatic stress, how has meditation and Zen practice affected that?

Living the life of spiritual development has taught me to live in a more conscious relation with myself. That being said, the 4th noble truth tells us that the cure for suffering does not entail the elimination of suffering. It does not mean that suffering goes away. Not in my experience. In my experience it means that I learn to live in a different relationship with my suffering. As a result my suffering does not haunt me in the ways that it did when I was attempting to eliminate this suffering.

I have not slept for more than 2 hours consecutively since 1967. I still don’t. When I was wrapped up in the notion that I had to get my life to conform to certain standards, I was in a place of non-acceptance. Through spiritual practice I was catapulted into a place of awareness and acceptance of my life as it was. I am then encouraged to take responsibility, not pretend that I am someone I’m not, or that there is some fixed way to be in the world.

I think there is a false impression marketed in regards to the issue of feelings and transformation on the spiritual path. Ideas are sold that healing is the absence of suffering, that it means everything goes away and becomes like it always was or is supposed to be. When in reality, there is no supposed to be. There is no fixed place where we can stand firm except in the reality of not knowing, in the reality of impermanence.

Spiritual practice is not an intellectual matter. I can’t think myself into a new way of living. I have to live myself into a new way of thinking.


Vlad: What advice, if any, do you have for vets?

First let me say that I am not in the advice giving business. What I pass along to Veterans is what I have learned and experienced through my own life. That healing is not the

absence of suffering, it is learning to live in a more conscious  relationship with how we have been affected. How we react and respond to the world makes absolute sense based on the nature of our experiences. We can’t ever go back to who we were before our military service, and the very nature of our experiences in war can’t be changed. I pass along the message that healing is possible, if one is willing to give up ideas of what that means. The very heart of healing rests with the acceptance that this is like this because that was like that. I think acceptance grows  out of the desire to accept.  But it must be supported by disciplined spiritual practice.

What I talk about often is the roots of war that are within us. I think the majority of people never consider this reality. It is something foreign to them. I think it is incredibly important to understand that the non-veteran is more responsible for war than the veteran. Because they think they are not responsible. People look to the violence that is external to them, and never reflect on the roots of that violence within them. We must pick up the roots of war within us and commit our lives to the transformation of this violence.

The world is constantly communicating to me, but if I am so set on the answer that I want to hear or what I think I should be hearing, then I loose my capacity to hear. Understanding is not the accumulation of information, but rather how that information manifests itself in real life terms in my life. It is a two-fold process, of asking the question, and being able to listen to the answer.


Mindful Ripples: Mindfulness in Public Education

Posted in Interviews, News, Resources & Reviews on January 3rd, 2012 by Vlad – 1 Comment

Vlad Moskovski interview with Megan Cowan, co-found and executive director of programs at Mindful Schools.

Imagine a classroom in a public inner- city elementary school. Perhaps images of loud screaming kids comes to mind. Nope, this is not the classroom we are talking about. In this mindfulness classroom the kids are quiet and contemplative. They are learning to noticing their feelings and observe their thoughts. This is happening in every classroom, spreading like wildfire across many schools, with teachers and staff learning along side the kids. Welcome to the world of Mindful Schools. A non-profit that is integrating mindfulness into education.

Vlad: How did Mindful Schools start, and what was your involvement?

In 2007, at the first Mindfulness in Education Conferences I met Laurie Grossman and Richard Shaknman who had just started a pilot program teaching mindfulness at Emerson Elementary School in Oakland. My whole background is in mindfulness meditation and kids and I have been teaching kids mindfulness in a variety of context for a while and was looking to get more into the public arena. So I went and saw Richard teach at that first school and I think the three of us knew right away, “Oh yeah, a perfect fit”. At the time teaching mindfulness in schools was new and for us it was just an experiment, but it was very evident that the impact was powerful. I taught the second school that we piloted and things just flowed from there. My involvement was from the beginning, but it evolved from us doing a program to us really starting to learn something that was going to become an organization. Since then, there has been a strong surge in the field. In a way, we caught the wave.

Vlad: What inspires you to continue going into schools?

The classroom is why I do this work. If I haven’t been in the classroom in a while then I start to get depressed. I feel like I get more from the kids then they get from me. For me it is such an honor and such a gift to be able to work with them. We work primarily with elementary schools, and I think that age group feels very healing to me. I get a tremendous amount of joy from being able to connect with them, and teach them a skill that I find valuable and see them embrace it and take in on in a way that is improving the way they relate to their life. There is a magic of seeing how they apply mindfulness on their own.

Vlad: Is there an underlying assumption underneath the work that Mindful Schools does – an ideology?

I think it is a fundamental assumption that self awareness does improve the quality of your life. I guess we could say it all comes down to a preventative mental health tool that gives young people the capacity to notice and navigate their experiences and emotions. If you teach that to them while they are young, you are giving them a much stronger foundation from which to approach challenges and difficulties and recognize and appreciate the things that are good and going well in life.

Part of what happens when you are self aware is that you don’t take yourself or your thoughts as personally or as seriously so you can rebound more quickly from being depressed or being caught in an obsessive thought pattern. You can catch it sooner, and you can see it more objectively, and are much more empowered to make choice around those thoughts and emotions.

Vlad: How do you imagine mindfulness will help and change this generation of kids?

I don’t feel like I am operating in this work with an idealized vision of how we are going to change the world. If we are building one interactions to the next then I feel like we are connecting with kids. We are embowering them, giving them a tools that help them navigate through life maybe in a way they did not have before. There is this ripple effect in how they relate to their classmates, their teacher, their families, and the challenges in their life and the decisions that they make. When you follow it out step by step, I guess theoretically we could be looking at a more peaceful world. But you know, it is a big world and there are a lot of people and it is a big jump.

Vlad: How is mindfulness being regarded in the public school system? Do teachers, staff, and principals get it?

We have been, as of this Fall, in just over 50 schools and work with about 14,000 kids all in the Bay Area. I think that I have encountered every single reaction, from incredibly supporting and engaged in the work to not interested or even objecting to the work, but the large majority are really interested and responsive. My general sense is that there is something intuitive that people recognize about the potential benefits of teaching kids mindfulness.

Living in our culture that is moving full speed ahead constantly, people don’t allow themselves any down time to stop and deliberately let their body become still and bring awareness into their physical experience to start to notice the content of their mind. There is a relief in that, just the stopping. We teach the program to the kids and the teachers. And then, over the course of the two months, or however long we are at a school we are preparing the kids to take ownership over leading mindfulness in the classroom.

Vlad: I’ve been seeing a lot of articles about meditation and the brain. Is mindfulness gaining popularity-recognition?

It is hard to say when you are in it, I think it is everywhere! Every time I’m at a staff meeting in a school I ask, “Raise your had if you’ve never heard of mindfulness and usually plenty of hands go up”. You look in any arena, mindfulness based things are popping up everywhere. Most notably in medicine and psychology.

Vlad: Is mindfulness a set of skills or can it also be part of a spiritual path? In other words, what is the relationship between learning mindfulness and spirituality?

I think that ultimately mindfulness still holds a place in both of those worlds. That mindfulness is used as a spiritual practice in deepening ones own understanding and wisdom in a spiritual context, and it will continue to be utilized as a life skills or a mental health tool. When you pull it apart, mindfulness is a universal human capacity to pay attention. It just so happens that certain contemplative traditions have utilized that capacity with spiritual means. And it is found most obviously in Buddhism, but looking at oneself in a contemplative way is found within all contemplative traditions. I think we are really fortunate that it got such a methodical laid out structure in Buddhism. That is what makes it really accessible.

Vlad: Do you think anything is lost in taking it out of the Buddhist or spiritual context?

I think it depends on what your intention is. I think there is this concern that Buddhists are co-opting education, they are trying to sneak in the back door or something. For Mindful Schools, our intention is to give kids tools that help them navigate their world more easily and that is really sincere. And in that way, I absolute do not think anything is lost. You don’t need a religious context for that at all.

And then I can say for people, for myself, that learning mindfulness when I was young as a life skills would not have been enough for me. I wanted something more out of it and I like that there is a place to pursue that.

For more info and to get involved check out:

You are Perfect

Posted in Musings, Yoga on July 11th, 2011 by Vlad – Be the first to comment

Everyone knows that people are strange, but sometimes that strangeness comes out in such beautiful and unique ways that it inspires one to want to share it with others. While passing an intersection one day I saw a man standing on the corner holding up a big sign. The sign read, “You Are Perfect” and the man holding the sign had a big smile on his face. He was clearly enjoying himself and unlike many people I see with signs wanting a handout or advertising something, he wanted nothing at all. He was simply there to spread this message and make people feel good. Passing him by, I could not help but smile. I would not be surprised if that sign made many people slow down just a bit, think just a little deeper, and perhaps even smile.

Like a gardener planting seeds to eventually sprout into plants, this man is planting a thought seed that we are all perfect and that so much of the stress in our lives comes from self- induced desire to compare, strive, and fight to achieve something better. If only we could take a little time each day to contemplate the meaning of, “You Are Perfect”. But who is this you that is perfect? Is the body perfect? No certainly not, there are aches and pains, things break and despite our best efforts the body is bound to change, grow older and eventually decay. So is the personality perfect? We all have our insecurities, our weaknesses, our faults and all those strange quirky things that we do that make each person so unique and individual.

What is left of the “You” then? If we look at the above statement through the eyes of Yoga, we can talk about the you that is perfect as something that is ever constant – the unchanging self which is within all of us. After all, the full aim of Yoga – from the root word to yoke or join – can be interpreted as the joining the individual “you” with the cosmic “YOU”. The individual “you” is compromised of memories, feelings, sensory perceptions. On a conscious and sub-conscious level it manifests in our habits and our character.

The big “YOU” is the spirit within, it is the real you and it is changeless and timeless, always present in the now. Maybe, that man standing on the corner was simply reminding us that it is the big “YOU” that is perfect. Since it is a part of you and within you, it is available always for you to experience. To remember that truth and look within for it is spiritual practice. This is meditation, this is Yoga. To touch that truth within is to experience bliss, event if only for a moment. Once that stillness and peace is felt, we begin to yearn and desire for another taste. Having tasted an intoxicating fruit, we hunger for another bite. This desire is the drive and the fire which propels us towards a spiritual life.

May we all one day remember and dwell in the experience of this bliss. To know this is to truly know that “You Are Perfect.” May we all reach perfection not through striving, not through struggling, but through discrimination, dispassion, non-attachment, and a keen mental sharpness. Ask yourself these words, “What am I becoming, and what is the world asking me to become?”

A short video about the man with the sign. His name is Benjamin Smythe and you can find his website here!

You Can’t Dance Unless You Let Go

Posted in Interviews on July 5th, 2011 by Vlad – Be the first to comment

A conversation with Nipun Mehta conducted by Vlad Moskovski

For the last fourteen years, Nipun Mehta and a team of dedicated volunteers have been revolutionizing what it means to embrace generosity and bring it into daily life. CharityFocus has inspired thousands of people around the world and include projects such as: Smile Cards, Karma Kitchen, Karma Tube, and many more. CharityFocus is an experiment in the joy of giving and together this community works from the intent to “be the change we wish to see in the world.”


Vlad: Is there an underlying philosophy to CharityFocus that informs everything you do?

I think one of the core underlying values is that everybody has something to give. This goes against the grain of our dominant culture. Even early on when I was giving, people would tell me, “You have to have something before you can give.  Go out and get some money and then you can give.”  But that is a reductionist view of giving. Yesterday, I was talking to a woman who is really engaged with the deaf community. A typical response of our dominant culture is, “Those guys really need to learn how to talk and communicate” and she is saying, “Maybe that’s not the answer. Maybe they have different gifts.”

Another friend was telling me a story of talking to a homeless guy who treated him to a coffee. It was so profound for that fellow to *receive* that cup of coffee from a homeless man.  And he does it every time they meet.  Someone did something really nice for that homeless man once and he was never able to thank them but now he wants to pay it forward. Underneath this coffee is a certain kind of inner transformation. That’s one of the fundamental pillars of CharityFocus, that in any situation, you can manifest a heart of service.

Vlad: What is the connection of generosity and spiritual growth?

Before you practice any act of kindness you have to have an intent and our capacity to deal with the subsequent thoughts is what manifests spiritual insight.  Regardless of what happens at the external level of  impact, that inner transformation and insight is ours to keep. This is why sages say that it doesn’t matter if you give a million dollars or a penny — what matters is *how* you are giving it. And when you approach it in that way, generosity is a great catalyst for spiritual growth.

All of a sudden life looks very different. Everywhere you are trying to say, “Where can I give?” Even if you can’t give anything, the fact that you had that thought carries the potential for inner transformation. To be generous you have to recognize interconnectedness between you and the other. First step along this generosity path is a sense of sacrifice or even faith.  If I give something away, I’ll have less of it, so you need to figure out a compelling reason for you to suspend your selfish tendencies.  The second step is to realize, “Oh, when I give, I actually receive.” The third step, after you’ve done a lot of giving and receiving is to see it as a dance — sometimes you may give a lot, sometimes you may receive a lot. It does not matter, you are just doing a dance and you can’t dance unless you let go.

Vlad: There is a big focus on doing small acts rather than big ones. I think the quote you share from Mother Theresa is, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” Do you think this empowers people?

Surely.  If we look at the world through the lens of inner transformation, it really does not matter how big or small our act is.  What matters most is that we are in the space of inner generosity. When we continue doing ‘small acts with great love’ and we hold that space within us, it starts to shift our deepest sub-conscious from a me-orientation to a we-orientation.  Our culture tends to admire those who do big things and we often create halos around them but really that just points to our own insecurities about sub-consciously wanting to be powerful like them.  When we let-go of that and start being we-centered, those patterns come undone.  If you really break it down, all those people in positions of leverage are just doing the same small acts that you and I might be doing.  They might have come together in an elegant way or in a way that is very visible or has created a dramatic impact, but that is just happenstance.  If we get caught up in that, we lose the capacity to be still and hence to love.  So the keyword in “small thing with great love” is love; small is all there is, but it is love that shifts our orientation and empower us.

Vlad: What I hear is an element of humility.

Gandhi used to say, “I am less than dirt” and a lot of people look at that and say, “Oh, he is so humble.” He is not trying to be humble — he is actually lower than dirt. We are all dirt that has come together for a short period of time and that is going to disintegrate again. We are constantly integrating and disintegrating and in that whole unfolding, our highest capacity is to be an instrument of a Nature and our lowest capacity is to be an instrument of our ego.  Ego leads to separation and isolation and everything seems like an uphill battle. But when we are instruments of nature, when we see ourselves as we really are — lots of molecules arising and passing in each moment — and become catalysts for something much larger than the ego.  In its early stages, that creates a sense of humility, but over time it becomes a way to be natural, to be inter-connected with life and to be a servant of a constant emergence.

Vlad: How has meditation influenced you?

Without meditation, I would be in a very different space and CharityFocus would have taken a very different trajectory. Meditation has given me a view of my inner landscape, of my mind, and that’s been priceless.  It shows me that how I’m aware of a very small portion of my mind and yet each of my daily decisions are influenced by my subconscious parts.  That’s a jarring insight.  It means we’re basically throw darts in the dark and hoping to find happiness.  People smoke even when they know it’ll cause them intense suffering.  Why do we do it?  Because of the heavy yet subtle conditioning of our mind.  It pleases our senses in the short-term, so we are taken by it.  We do that with all our subtle habits too.  Meditation, then, helps you see that clearly.  And not just see it, but also realize the depth of that problem and ultimately start to unravel it.  Its very humbling endeavor [laughs] but also invaluable.
Even more troublesome, for someone like me, is that the problems that meditation uncovers aren’t going to be solved by putting them on your todo list.  Getting milk from the store is easier, creating revolutions is easier, changing other people is easier … than changing yourself at the depth of your being.  That takes a lot.  The real revolution is the inner revolution.   When we serve and allow “what is” to do its natural dance, that’s a revolutionary act.  Sometimes things work out just the way we want them, sometimes they work out exactly opposite how we want them.  It’s all good.  We have to just stop putting a spin on it.  It’s not positive thinking, not negative.   The problem is thinking it self.  These are simple things to say and very hard to put into practice. [laughs]

Vlad: What is the direction you see CharityFocus going?
Really, the main thing I’d like CharityFocus to do is stay true to its values.  With that foundational strength, it’ll be fun to see how we can get creative with the power of inner transformation and shift our cultural narrative towards greater generosity. For example, after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, there was no looting.  People were civil.  That was not the work of some nonprofit organization telling everyone, “Ok, please be good.  Don’t fight.”  No.  It happened because of their culture, because of the 5000-year plan of their ancestors.  In 5,000 years, people are not going to remember a building or an organization; they are going to remember values and if those values are aligned with our basic human nature, and in way that generosity clearly is, then its going to survive.  So I hope that CharityFocus continues to work a 5,000 year plan and continue to plant seeds for tress we will never see.

For more info visit:
CharityFocus (incubator), DailyGood (news), Karma Tube (videos), HelpOthers (kind acts), Conversations (artists), iJourney (wisdom), KarmaKitchen (US), MovedByLove (India), CFSites (technical)

The Magic of Devotion

Posted in Interviews, Yoga on June 16th, 2011 by Vlad – Be the first to comment

An interview with Sean Feit conducted by Vlad Moskovski

It is a lovely and warm Friday evening as I walk into the back studio of Yoga Mandala to attend a ceremony done on the first Friday of every month. No cult here, but yes there are some intriguing symbols and plenty of chanting and singing involved. It’s called a kirtan and it is the embodiment of spiritual devotional singing and chanting in the Hindu tradition that is at the heart of one major branch of yoga called Bhakti Yoga. Blissed out after the amazing evening, I decided to interview the charismatic and wildly funny conductor of the kirtan – Sean Feit.


Vlad: You lead kirtan, essentially devotional singing, how did you get started with that?

Sean: I had been doing long Buddhist retreats for many years, and at a certain point in the unfolding of the practice it became clear that another kind of medicine was needed. I noticed that one of my strengths was faith, and connected with that energy. It is not very emphasized in the Vipassana tradition that I was practicing in at the time. But I had faith in the process, and in the possibility of guidance coming from wherever it comes from.

To anthropomorphize that guidance made sense to my heart. The forms, images, and stories – the human-shaped archetypes of the divinities really worked for me more than a dry, “pure” wisdom-all-the-time kind of approach. I’d been doing yoga for a decade and really loved the yoga deities.

I started to connect with the forms of the deities, and because I was already a musician kirtan was easy and I started doing it. I grew up Catholic, and really like the rituals, I really like being in relationship with something, but didn’t want to be part of a church. But devotion and faith still turns out to work for me. So I’ve transferred my affection to the blue guy and the monkey – somehow those images just resonate.


Vlad: What is your favorite part of leading a kirtan, what is that sweet moment that you savor?

Sean: The moment, like in any practice, is when you are actually feeling something. When I am singing to somebody and things line up and I get it for a second. It’s a little like the way they say you have to repeat a mantra 100,000 times because you only actually have to say it once but most of those times you weren’t really there. I like that about bhakti – its tolerance of endless failure. When you get it it’s really sweet. It doesn’t ask you to be perfect in any way. The moment is whenever I am actually available for it: I’m singing, or other people are singing, and the heart is just there.


Vlad: Devotional chanting is considered a major part of Bhakti Yoga, so what is Bhakti yoga?

Sean: To me, and this is a very idiosyncratic definition, bhakti is something like permission. The spiritual world is so full of methods, prescriptions, and things you have to do a certain way! If you don’t do the exercises right they don’t work. Bhakti is the part of the path that takes you as you are, and whatever works for you – do that. The heart of the practice is just the feeling of being connected. It’s different from asana where there are lots of things to do, and meditation with lots of things to not do. Bhakti is really simple, really sweet. What do you love? How you get lit up?  Just do that!


Vlad: So what is the textbook definition of Bhakti Yoga?

Sean: Heart opening practices like mantras, and thinking about the wisdom stories, connecting with aspects of whatever you call Divine, with what makes you feel connected. One of the things that seems important to me about bhakti is what Krishna says in the Gita: all the paths work, but the bhakti path is easier, because it gives you a form to focus on.  It’s not absolute truth, of course.  There is no Krishna, no blue guy, no monkey God, but thinking about Krishna or Jesus or whoever you like does something. It’s what I call a skillful use of duality. You take on the dual, understanding that ultimately it’s fictional. If I already understood that my self is fictional I would not need to do that. But as long as I think I exist, it may be helpful to think that the Divine exists as something that I can have a relationship with.

Within the bhakti tradition, you reflect on Kali, or Krishna, or whoever is your favorite form and as that reflection matures you let go of the separation, you take the deity into your body and you feel like you are Krishna or Kali. In bhakti yoga losing yourself in the devotion brings deep happiness that leads toward wisdom, love, and clear seeing.


Vlad: How is Bhakti path different from the traditional yoga as we know it in the West – in theory and practice?

Sean: Yoga in the West, through some brilliant marketing maneuvers, has become a self-help practice that is often little more than physical exercise. Bhakti tends to look more like Pentecostal Christianity: just sing all day and lose yourself in loving! But really get involved in your worship, really adore God!

It’s strange and interesting to have public yoga classes that are essentially all about physicality and the cultivation of body, but within this near-universal focus on body there are tidbits of philosophy and spiritual affirmation – teachers play Sanskrit mantras and chants in the background. I say it as if I am critiquing it, but I do it too!

It is an interesting recipe: 90 percent exercise, 5 percent rest and 5 percent affirmation. It’s come a long way from Indian yoga, and certainly a long way from the roots of yoga in the Tantras and earlier meditation traditions, but Western yoga has lead to Indian music and Indian mantras sung by Westerners – and it’s a signal of authentic spiritual seeking in the Bay Area and throughout the Western world. It’s problematic – colonial, orientalist, and appropriation – but that’s how the symbols are working right now, and the amazing thing is that it really works for people. It has good effects, as we get out of our heads and into our bodies. We could all use some exercise, after all, and endorphins make you susceptible to suggestion, so we are in this open state and our teachers – who are kind and well-intentioned – plant in us information about wellbeing and freedom.


Vlad: Would you change this in any way?

Sean: I like teaching classes sometimes that are not within that model. I would love to teach a regular Saturday morning class that was an hour of asana, with no music and just focused silence, then an hour of sitting in silence, and I’m never sure where to put the kirtan piece – maybe after.  Certainly some chanting in there somewhere.

The sitting thing is so interesting because across the tracks in the Buddhist world, total beginners will come to a sitting group and sit for 45 minutes regularly. They just deal. But in the yoga world, the standard form is movement, and nobody can sit still. Its partially because in the Buddhist world, discomfort is considered grist for the mill, whereas in the yoga world it is considered a sign that you are doing it wrong. I’m working on bringing those two worlds together.


Vlad: If somebody was going to choose a yoga path – what advice would you give them on how to do that?

Sean: I would say, “who are you? What are your strengths and temperament?” “Do a practice that mostly relies on your strengths, but that will open into your weaknesses. If you absolutely can’t sit still for one minute, start doing a fast vinyasa practice for a couple of years and do that until you can sit still.”

One of the things Buddha admitted was that yoga, like spiritual paths in general, was not for everyone. The Buddha actually considered not teaching after he attained enlightened because the thing he realized was too subtle for most people to understand. The story goes that Sacca, the king of the gods, overheard him thinking this, and materialized before him saying, “Blessed one you are wrong, there are beings with little dust in their eyes who would be able to understand the Dharma that you teach.”

Yoga – by which I mean an integrated practice that includes meditation and spiritual inquiry – is suitable for people with relatively little dust in their eyes, but folks with a lot of dust may need something else. There are so many ways that the psyche gets traumatized, and may be not available for deconstruction, and yoga at its heart is a deconstruction practice. It’s a practice that challenges who and what you think you are. A lot of us are not ready for it.  But the asana practice on its own – and this is how yoga is most often taught in the West – can be an appropriate doorway, because we can engage with it on many levels, including just as physical conditioning.

There is a strong movement to bring the physical practice of yoga asana to a lot of different populations, and in a way I think that runs parallel to the way yoga in general has become more widely adopted. It speaks to our level of inner health. That actually before we do anything really deep, we have to be in our bodies and be here! The physical practice of asana is right for our culture, for the amount of stress and disassociation so many of us carry. It is then a practice that is right also for bringing to a wider populations and it does seem like it can really help.  And when folks hunger for more, the deep river of the tradition is right there.

Wellness for the Homeless

Posted in Interviews, Yoga on June 8th, 2011 by Vlad – Be the first to comment

Interview with Marty Fleetwood conducted by Vlad Moskovski

Modern yoga in America has become an icon for fitness, health and spirituality. In addition to these varied perspectives is it possible to use yoga to bring people together in a positive environment to facilitate emotional healing? For the last few years, Marty Fleetwood and a team of dedicated teachers have been doing just that by bringing yoga to homeless shelters though a collaboration between Homebase, Boss, and the Piedmont Yoga Studio.


Vlad: What moved you to want to share yoga with this community?

When I started working as a lawyer in the 80’s homelessness as a public interest problem was very confounding. So going out and interviewing homeless people and realizing they were just people. Bad things that could happened to anybody happened to them and they lived at an economic level at a time in our country where you could not hold on to your housing and there wasn’t cheaper housing to go to with the resources that you had. And that really enraged me.

When I took the yoga teacher training and was thinking about teaching I talk with the director and owner of Piedmont Yoga Studio (PYS), where I did my teacher training, about developing some kind of  piedmont yoga community programs. Teachers could go out of the studio into the community and teach. Piedmont Yoga Studio was all for it and they said they would sponsor us, so we got PYS, Boss, and Homebase where I work all to bond together and we began in fall of 2008.


Vlad: How does yoga help homeless? Does it address directly any of the underlying challenges and issues that homeless people deal with?

One of the foundation research pieces done by Stanford on homelessness was to answer what leads to one person or family becoming homeless when an equally poor person or family does not. A big differentiators is whether you have an effective social network and relationships to other people that support you in life. It is pretty basic. One of the key things we are doing is creating a place to have a positive common experience with other people. It’s nice to see the bonding among some of the participants. Chat on your way in, chat on your way out, maybe develop some relationships. It is a healthy way to connect to other people.

If you think about what happens in a yoga class, this a fun way to learn to follow directions, show up in life and learn how to be in a common endeavor with people arriving at the same place. Clients say, that we have given them tools to calm themselves, less hurried, stronger – its giving them something to do that allows them to feel good about themselves.


Vlad: What have you learned about teaching homeless?

We have found the space that works best is as close as possible to where people sleep. If we can do yoga right near there that’s much better than trying to transport anybody anywhere.

We have a schedule that is three weeks on and two weeks off. In the beginning we had graduation ceremonies, we would give out certificates. Right from the beginning we had a soft journaling for feedback. The goal of the journals was not feedback for the teachers of the program, it was for the participants to be self-reflective. We are helping people be responsible for their own wellness. The program is not about just transferring resources, but building capacity and knowledge within your body to control yourself. Self awareness leads to self control and if you can control yourself, you can control the environment that you are in.

Another feature we evolved is the three teachers rule – one teacher and two assistants. It works really well because you can never predict who’s coming into the room. We keep our minds open and the door open – everybody is welcome.

We went out of our way to figure out nametags that you could clip to the mat. It is all part of how boss creates a welcoming environment in many of its programs. You create transparency around things without requiring people to remember, there is no anxiety or expectation. It’s a conscious action to give everybody space to feel included.


Vlad: What keeps you coming back to teach more classes, is there any particular sweet moment in class that you look forward to?

I like teaching yoga. I particularly like teaching people that don’t have rich opportunities in life because they are much more engaged with what they are doing, they appreciate the honor and opportunity. There comes an understanding that the adjustment that you making on somebody is the friendliest touch that body has had in six months and the most neutral non- demanding touch. It makes you realize your presence is a gift to other people and that gift may carry them a long way. What could be better than that. Serving people who appreciative the service.


Vlad: What is unique or special about working with this population?

The fabulous thing about this population, is that they are verbal and vocal. During class there is a lively sense of camaraderie and community about what is happening in the room.

The other thing we do that isn’t part of a regular yoga program is we read them a story. A lot of the feedback we got in the class is they love being read to. It creates a safe space and makes them feel like nursery school naptime.

We always do pranayama, both at the beginning and at the end of class. We do it that way to bring them into the room, to help them understand that this is a relaxing space. To connect their mind to breath and then slowly start doing movement that connects their breath to their body’s movement. Students use that a lot to deal with anger.


Vlad: How has sharing yoga with homeless changed your life?

It has made me absolutely appreciate the privilege of being alive and the blessing of having a body that does what I want it to do most of the time. It allows me to be just a human being with other human beings. They don’t come with a lot of expectations and they seem to appreciate what we have to give.

This being in community with them is what teaching yoga has given me. I just show up and say, “hey I’m just a yoga teacher, I’ve come to where you guys are sleeping tonight to teach you yoga.” It just makes me feel good and alive!



Piedmont Yoga Studio

Home Base – The Center for Common Concerns

Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS)