Interview with Gil Fronsdal & Nikki Mirghafori: Into the Abyss

Gil Fronsdal: Both Buddhist practice and secular trainings in mindfulness and compassion have great potential to free people from suffering and the limitations of self-clinging. Nikki, you have been trained to teach Buddhist meditation as well as secular programs in mindfulness and compassion. Could you talk a bit about your background and the value you have found in both? I’d like this to lead to a discussion on what Buddhism has to offer to secular trainings in mindfulness and compassion.

Nikki Mirghafori: My first real exposure to the Dharma was coming to practice and hearing you, right here in this hall at IMC. This was eleven years ago when I was working with a chronic illness. Little did I know that I would indeed find peace and well-being in the midst of Lyme disease. All my regular philosophical and spiritual inquiry aside, it was suffering that brought me through these doors, like many others whom I have met on the path.

A few months later, I did my first ten-day retreat with Jack Kornfield. I was amazed by the depth silence could offer; a door opened to a world in my mind I didn’t know existed. Four years later, after about ten weeks of cumulative silent retreat practice, I took a two-year leave of absence from my high-tech work in academia for practice and contemplation. During that period I sat for three months at the Forest Refuge at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, practicing with the Burmese master Ven. Pa Auk Sayadaw.

Pa Auk guided me as if his life depended on my liberation. Practicing under his tutelage was intense, rigorous and quite demanding. His teachings, closely based on the Abhidhamma and Visuddhimagga, took me to a much deeper level. I sat with Pa Auk again three years later at the Forest Refuge for another three months of deepening practice.

I can’t imagine a better way to have spent my time. I began to see the world in a new way. The best way I can describe it is as a sense of ease. You have a story in your book, Gil, The Monastery Within, about walking into the abyss. It was like that: stepping into the abyss and falling and yet feeling completely safe. There is no bottom, and therefore no danger of crashing. Instead, there is an exhilarating sense of leaping, traveling through space, while being held. I experienced a deep trust that no matter what stresses life brings, such as illness and loss, it’s all really, really okay.

GF: Did that shift happen gradually or was a particular experience a catalyst for it?

NM: Pa Auk Sayadaw carefully led and directly pointed to a series of specific insights in succession, many of which shook me to the core. All of those accumulated into a shift. Once, for example, when my mind was deeply concentrated, I saw all the experiences of every moment disintegrating. Everything was disassembling as quickly as it arose. Then, there was the knowledge that everything that was ever going to arise—every experience, every moment—was also going to die, perish, pass. Everything. There was absolutely nothing to hang onto.

At first, this insight brought up a sense of existential despair, which then coalesced into a deep acceptance of the way things are in this human life. I felt a sense of “okay-ness” and equanimity with respect to everything that has happened, happens and will ever happen. My inspiration for teaching others is to help them find a similar shift in perspective. It’s very rewarding to be the “doula” of insights that will mature into that sense of ease. Now, this is not the conventional ease where you are content because the conditions are right—health in the body, happy relationships, job security. The state of ease that I talk about holds the suffering, the craziness, everything that this world is—and knows that it’s all okay. It’s a sense of transcendence, not outside of but within the fullness of life.

It’s like when you walk to the top of a mountain and see the landscape from a different perspective. Living in the valley, you only saw trees around you, but now, up above, you see valleys and rivers and everything as far as the eye can see. After you come back down to the flatlands, you remember the view from up there. Then, even if conditions are not supportive of happiness—if, for example, you fall into a hole (and there are plenty of holes)—you can still recall the bigger picture.

GF: Sitting on long retreats, we don’t literally go to a mountaintop with great views. We go into a meditation room and close our eyes. But retreat practice opens up those vistas. How do you think that happens?

NM: For me, the vistas opened when I was able to really stop and still the mind for a long time and, under Pa Auk’s direction, look deeply into the nature of reality. It’s not something one can do on the weekend or as a hobby, like, “I’ll just do a few hours of meditation here, a few hours there.”

Practicing systematically, taking the time to go into deep practice and making it the number-one priority, leads to a state where the mind is very still and malleable and can investigate. When I sit down to meditate in my day-to-day life, my mind is thinking; it is going here and there, and it takes time for it to calm and settle. In daily sittings, the degree to which the attention can rest on a particular object doesn’t compare, for example, to the experience when the mind is very stable through the practice of concentration in jhanas.

Classically, in the suttas, jhanas are eight states of concentration and meditative absorption where the mind deeply settles and insights more easily arise. Entering a jhana, one can abide in that absorption, or come out and incline the still mind towards investigation. For example, after coming out of the fourth jhana, one can investigate the seemingly solid sense of the body and see it is only a gestalt of felt sensations of heat, pressure, hardness, softness, etc.      

GF: Yes, the mind is malleable, which means you can have the mind do what you set it to do. It’s a mental mastery over attention and how your attention is used. Another translation for that quality of mind is soft. Transformative insights are possible through practicing with this soft or malleable mind developed in deep practice.

In addition to your training in teaching vipassana, you teach both mindfulness and compassion in secular programs. What drew you to these trainings and how would you compare them with the intensive practice we’ve been discussing?

NM: Seeking community and interested, as someone trained in science, in programs that would bring in current neuroscience research, I was drawn to both UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center, which offers training similar to Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, and Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE). These courses offer wonderful teachings in accessible ways. Making time-honored Buddhist contemplative techniques—presented with the scientific seal of approval—available to people in all walks of life can help the adoption of these practices into our Western culture and be of benefit for society at large. In every six-to-eight-week secular course I have taught, I’ve witnessed many students benefit. For instance, students in my compassion classes had never before noticed how harshly they tend to judge themselves or others, or considered the perspective of “just like me”—that everyone else just wants to be happy. Through practice, many have reported more kindness, patience and acceptance in relationship to their own minds and bodies, with family and friends, strangers and even with those with whom they have difficulty. They have reported a greater capacity to let go, take a common-humanity perspective and feel more gratitude in their lives.

GF: A unique aspect of Buddhist practice is an in-depth exploration of self, self-identity and self-clinging. In this way Buddhist practice is a means to radical liberation from all forms of attachment to self. I suspect that Buddhism can therefore augment the benefit of secular mindfulness trainings by pointing to the great value of finding freedom from “self.” Rather than a means for coping and managing life so “I” can be happier and more successful in my pursuits, mindfulness can highlight the limitations of self-referencing.

NM: On this note, one of your beautiful teachings comes to mind—that before letting go of the self, one must explore it. Secular offerings may be thought of as preparatory practice in exploring the self, as long as students understand that the offering serves as a stepping stone and not the complete path to liberation.

Here is an example of the difference in the potential scope of secular vs. Buddhist trainings. In the CCARE compassion training, participants contemplate that they are not alone in their suffering, that just as they experience grief or pain or fear, so do others “just like me.” In the training of Pa Auk Sayadaw, students are instructed in a very systematic way to recall past lives for the specific purpose of insight and liberation. I like to hold a “don’t-know mind” rather than a firm belief about the content of what came up for me. But I do know that a profound insight arose from going through this practice, which was the result of the (seemingly firsthand) experience of somebody else’s life—their hopes, dreams, aspirations, pains, sorrows, death—and then somebody else’s and somebody else’s. I understood that the consciousness I am experiencing in this life, as this self, could have been born as somebody else. I could have been you and experiencing life through you. This practice of experiencing life from another person’s perspective radically broke down any sense of separation, transforming it into a felt sense of shared humanity in a way that is not accessible to students in a CCARE compassion course, no matter how much they practice the prescribed protocol.

It is my hope that if people practice diligently, secular practice will open them up for deeper exploration. Of course mindfulness and compassion students need to have the right support, good teachings and good pointers. I hope all teachers in secular contexts talk about the potential—that the secular offering is only a small piece of one leaf and there is a bigger picture to be found: a whole handful of leaves.

From the Spring 2015 issue of Inquiring Mind (Vol. 31, No. 2)
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