In her new book, Close to the Ground, the S&H columnist and Zen practitioner explores Buddhism’s seven factors of enlightenment: mindfulness, investigation, effort, ease, joy, concentration, and equanimity.
Which of the seven factors do you think is the most misunderstood?
Joy. I don’t know what it is about joy that is so confusing. My experience is that most people equate pleasure with joy. Although there may be joy within some pleasures, it is so much more. Quieter. Lighter. Braver.
There is a Buddhist saying, “Ten thousand joys, ten thousand sorrows. “ We’ve got the sorrows down. I want people to remember the joy part and how important it is to spiritual maturity. Happily, when we give ourselves permission to feel it, just about everything we experience can trigger it, starting with seeing a baby bird hopping around on its first official worm hunt just outside our window.
Mindfulness is a real buzzword right now. Do you think that’s a good thing?
I’m happy mindfulness is a buzzword. It means we are at least thinking about it and how it matters in our lives. Having said this, let me add that genuine mindfulness is a hard-won skill. One quick way to position ourselves to be more mindful is to simply ask ourselves randomly, “What am I doing?” If we answer honestly, it will teach us where we need to pay more attention.
The work of enlightenment can seem so sober—being alone, sitting in silence, the years of practice—yet you call it the recipe for a “sweet, juicy life.” Isn’t that a contradiction?
I can only speak for myself. I needed years of meditation practice, solo retreats, and living in temples just to settle down enough for a “sweet juicy life” to appear. It probably took 10 years to get over the shock of what a frigging kaleidoscope of thoughts ran my life. Once I eased into welcoming them, I was able to get a kick out of them more and more, not taking them or myself so seriously. That, in turn, led to the spaciousness that allowed for a (mostly) grounded, ordinary life, where every day is just fine.
You write in a way that's very, well, close to the ground—basing a lot of your lessons in very personal, and ordinary, life experiences. How did you adopt this style?
When I first started giving dharma talks some 20 years ago, I swear I would spend a full week researching a topic and writing copious notes which I then used to give an informative if dry talk each Sunday. Nobody fell asleep, but there was some nodding off as I recall. Then one week I was so consumed with the ending of a relationship that I didn’t have time to do anything but feel sorry for myself. I would go to the park by the river in Ann Arbor and sit on a bench and just cry. One morning a policeman sat down next to me. After a couple of minutes he said, “You know, you are lucky to be able to feel this sad about whatever this is. It means you are still in the land of the living.” I was so stunned that I picked myself up, brushed myself off, and said, “Enough.” The following Sunday I told that story within the context of a teaching about trusting yourself and noticed that people really paid attention. Better yet, many stayed to talk to me and each other about their own experiences dealing with heartbreak. From then on, I just told my own stories within the context of a more formal Buddhist teaching. It has served two purposes: first, it keeps me humble (given my front seat view of all the mistakes I manage to make on a regular basis) and second, it hopefully demonstrates the groundedness that comes from long years of sincere spiritual practice.
Your book explores the seven factors of enlightenment. Is there one that's closest to your heart?
I don’t know if I would call it closest to my heart, but the factor that I pay the most attention to these days is “ease.” The reason is that, given life on this sweet stretched out planet, things are difficult for most of us these days. I watch my children and young neighbors struggle to pay basic bills. Friends get sick; the dog throws up for the third time in a morning; a surprise tax bill appears from the state; I hear about another prostitute ring in the city that is comprised of young immigrant Vietnamese women conned into their situations. My habitual response to all of these things is to tighten up, grit my teeth, and try to solve whatever it is sooner rather than later. Because some of my concerns include things like sex trafficking you can see why it is hard for me to relax, knowing I probably won’t be able to have much of an impact on it any time soon. As a result, I have to consciously remind myself to relax into whatever the truth of the situation is and move out from there, having learned that when I let ease take over there are lots of ways to be helpful. Pay part of the bill. Split the vegetables from the garden. Send some money every month to a nonprofit I believe in.
Why should people aspire to what you describe as a feeling of "okayness" about their lives? Isn't there more?
If I stopped ten people on the street and asked them if their life was okay, mostly people would tell me of their problems. Fair enough. We all have problems. But this (forgive me) bias prevents us from experiencing the other side of how our lives can move through time, the side where joy, ease, and equanimity are waiting for their turn. The feeling of “okayness” is one window into our consciousness. Gratitude, in particular, grows out of a feeling of okayness. With gratitude comes ease, equanimity, and, if we give it a chance, joy.