How to Embody Kindness

How to Embody Kindness

Lessons From a Lifetime of Spiritual Adventure

Willa Blythe Baker

Willa Blythe Baker sits down to discuss her somatic mindfulness journey.

Willa Blythe Baker began meditating when she was eight years old and developed her practice through a pair of three-year meditation retreats to become a lama in the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. She also earned a doctorate from Harvard and founded the Natural Dharma Fellowship in Boston and the Wonderwell Mountain Refuge in Springfield, New Hampshire. All that has led to an embodied practice called somatic mindfulness—a practice that wonderfully dovetails with what we know from modern neuroscience. Her marvelous new book is The Wakeful Body: Somatic Mindfulness as a Path to Freedom.

Let’s start back in the late ’60s, in Berkeley, California, when your spiritual adventure began.

Well, it actually started earlier than that, in Portland, Oregon, in the mid-’60s. My dad was a professor at Reed College during the heyday of all the crazy psychedelic stuff. Our neighbor was kind of a cult figure, a legendary English professor who had these wild parties. We were tamer than he was, but still my dad was pushing the envelope in his way, wearing a baja jacket and cowboy boots to class at a time when the dress code was a suit and tie.

When I was three, my parents divorced and my mother got a job at UC Berkeley. She was a professor of cell biology, and when I was eight we started Transcendental Meditation together. She took me down to the Berkeley Flats, where there was a TM center in a big old house converted into an ashram, populated by swamis in peach-colored robes. TM became kind of a mother/daughter thing.

My TM teacher gave me a secret mantra. Because I was a child, she’d have me walk or do a puzzle while saying my mantra. When I was about 10 or 11, she started transferring me from the child practice into the closed-eyes, sitting technique of TM.

It strikes me that the stated goal of meditation back then was different than what you write about now. The quest for enlightenment was a purely mental state—and that was often demonstrated by how the mind can dominate the body.

TM advertised levitation—psychic flying. My mother studied TM and learned to levitate—or at least tried to. The reality of levitation was an awkward kind of hopping that seemed really silly to me. Your new book was enormously helpful to me because it reframes the quest. What you’re talking about is a unified mind and body.

Yes. Being a young person at that time, I was a little caught up in the mysticism and “miracles” of those traditions. But slowly, through the practice of meditation, I started to see what the real miracle of meditation is. It’s not that you can do magical things with your mind, but rather that you become more intimate with yourself. As you become more intimate with yourself, you notice the ways you are suffering. These are human sufferings, so by extension you become more intimate with the sufferings of others, also. A natural byproduct of meditation is to discover that compassion is innate to yourself. The miracle of meditation is that it opens this doorway to love and compassion and kindness—a sort of kindness that is deeper than a manufactured sense of kindness, deeper than a cognitive sense of kindness. It’s a more embodied and innate kindness that you begin to access for yourself and by extension for others through practice.

Another miracle of meditation is that it helps dissolve the separation between body and mind and between self and world. It helps us become less dualistic, more integrated with everything in and around us.

That’s lovely. How did you make the jump from TM to Buddhism?

That transition really started in high school when I began to read books on world religions. I knew early on that I was a seeker. But there is one moment that I remember from eighth grade when we were reading Siddhartha in class and my teacher wrote the Four Noble Truths on the chalkboard. He wrote “Life is Suffering,” and then he turned around and looked at all of our faces to see our reactions. My first reaction was, “Hell yeah! I feel pretty miserable. We’re all miserable.” Middle school is a hard time, and I was like, “Oh wow! Buddha gets it!”

The Buddha’s First Noble Truth helped me feel less alone at that moment in my life. But over time, I began to realize that Buddhist teachings are not obsessed with suffering. Not at all. The teachings are very much about joy and looking for the causes of happiness.

You write that part of your own awakening to embodied meditation began in college with your struggle with body image.

Yes. Before I went to college, my body wasn’t something that I thought about very much. But then in college this inner voice took over—almost like it was in the campus ether. It was subtle: It crept up on me and suddenly I was counting calories. A scale appeared in my room, and I started looking at myself in the mirror to see if I was thin enough. I had never done these things before and I didn’t know what was going on. It was this strange, unspoken tyranny.

Then I went to Nepal for a junior year abroad and that broke the cycle. To some degree I credit the meditation practices I encountered, which were practices of accessing wisdom and valuing the body as a sacred space. I also remember the images of bodies that were all over the temple walls in Nepal. These were images of Buddhas, both male and female, in positions of great dignity and ease. Those Buddhas really spoke to me, and my teachers in Nepal explained that they were supposed to. “That’s you!” they said. “That’s everyone. We all have the divine within.” There was something about seeing those divine bodies and asking, “Why do I not see my own body as that?” that helped me break the cycle.

What led you into your first three-year retreat?

I fell in love with the Himalayan culture and the language—and that drew me to a monastery on the Hudson River in New York that happened to have a three-year retreat center. I didn’t go to the monastery because I was drawn by that idea of doing a three-year retreat. But once I was there, I was impressed that just a few feet from where I was living in the old barn on the property there were others so devoted to meditation that they were cloistered in order to do nothing else. There was no leaving and there was no telephone and there was no radio and there were no magazines. There was just them in their meditation cells for three years. The group had just gone in, so they became like mythical people, physically close but mysterious. Eventually, I thought that if I really wanted to master the practice of meditation—if I wanted to go all the way to awakening—then I should do a long retreat, too. I ended up enrolling in the next one.

In those days, there were not many options for pursuing deep training in meditation in the West. But now things have changed a lot. There are many options for training and many more qualified teachers than there used to be.

You do not have to do one long retreat. You can do many shorter retreats, join a local dharma community, listen to guided meditations on podcasts, or do a cloistered retreat for weeks or months at a time (rather than years) under the guidance of a teacher. I actually think this kind of integrated practice is a fantastic option for most people and can yield the same result as a long retreat, if done under the right conditions, with the right guidance.

Who funds these things? How does that work?

These days there are organizations that offer grants and scholarships to attend retreats. Back then you had to save your own money. In my case, my mother passed away when I was 21 and left me a house that I sold. I used the money to pay for my meditation training in the first few years, and thereafter I worked to support myself.

Do people outside bring food?

In fully cloistered retreats like the one I attended, the cook is allowed to go out to do the shopping. The cook is compensated for that work monetarily and also gets to attend the teachings. The second person or persons who go in and out are the teachers who give the teachings.

You use a phrase that I have never encountered before: somatic bypass. Could you talk about that?

Somatic bypass is the tendency to mentalize a spiritual or meditation practice and to ignore or dismiss the body. It’s drawn from the idea that I can somehow transcend the flesh, that I can leap out of my life and go to someplace better than where I am.

Buddhist teachings are not obsessed with suffering. Not at all. The teachings are very much about joy and looking for the causes of happiness.

But in fact, there’s nothing that we need to escape. It’s all right here. Whatever we’re seeking is right here.

I had that somatic bypass tendency when I was younger. I thought I could transcend the flesh and go to a higher plane. But in fact, when we do that—either with our ideas or with our practice—we actually leave behind a really important and valuable wisdom teacher. There are many different goals for spiritual paths, but the goal of my practice is to be embodied, compassionate, and wise. For me, there’s nothing more than that. And if we’re not living through the body, we’re missing something, because compassion and wisdom do not live somewhere else. Somatic bypass is disconnecting from the source of everything.

That speaks to me. I remember huge groups of meditators who gathered in one place believing they could create peace in the world. And researchers, some of them good friends, trying hard to prove that it was all true. Plus, millions of dollars spent trying to prove that prayers could heal at a distance. Over the decades, that fell apart.

I’m not saying gathering is a bad thing. Or praying is a bad thing. But the expanding discoveries of neuroscience keep saying, “Hey, we’re embodied beings! Consciousness is embodied! Deal with it!” And this seems exactly what you’re saying—where your spiritual practice leads. Embodying kindness seems to me a lot more helpful than thinking kind thoughts and hoping they’re going to spread.

Yes. You cannot be kind if you are not present. And we are often not all that present. One of the most important wisdoms is that the body lives in the here and now. The body brings us into the present moment, while the mind is running around with its stories. The mind dives into the past and anticipates the future. It’s worrying about this and trying to fix that. The thinking mind is the agitated part of our experience, while the body is centered in the here and now. I think that’s really the key.

So how do we embody kindness? It starts with being in the here and now—and we discover that there’s no other place to experience or to express kindness or compassion than right now. We don’t need to worry about some time in the future when we are going to be a kinder person. We just need to stay in the here and now and attune to our own state and to the state of others. Real love comes from that. The body is speaking that truth all the time.

I think one of my biggest mistakes has been thinking that I know what it means to be kind. Before kindness, we need a sense of curiosity. We need to ask questions. Because what I think would be kind is not necessarily what someone else needs at all. You have to ask what someone needs and then follow through with an appropriate response.

In Buddhist practice, we take this big vow called the Bodhisattva Vow. The vow is to have compassion for all beings no matter what. The first part of that word bodhisattva means “to awaken,” and the second part means “courageous one.” So a bodhisattva is a courageous one who is on their way to awakening. That could be any of us, at least in theory. It takes courage to put kind intentions into action, because we know we will sometimes fail spectacularly. We have to be willing to take a few risks, even when we know we will make mistakes. But it’s really important to take risks, because otherwise we are not walking our truth. Kindness is as kindness does.

How can anyone actually remain kind and compassionate?

Here’s the thing about compassion. In the West, our idea of compassion has to do with giving selflessly to others. There’s not much in our compassion narrative that has to do with giving kindness to ourselves as well. And I would say that becoming really intimate with your own experience—intimate with your body/mind—is one of the deepest kindnesses you can show to yourself.

When you’re grounded and intimate with your own experience, you are embodying compassion for the self. When you become really good at compassion for the self, you can come towards others with compassion in a way that you aren’t thrown off balance.

When we are off balance, we have compassion, but we undermine our own wellbeing—especially if we’re particularly empathetic. We think we’re giving kindness or service to another person, but in fact, we’ve actually made ourselves needy. We need to be taken care of because we’ve forgotten to take care of ourselves.

The most effective form of compassion is a balance between care for the self and care for the other—and realizing that those two things are really the same. We have to do both in order to be a sustainable caregiver in the world.

That’s very helpful. Thank you. Looking back over the last 30 years, two of the biggest discoveries about consciousness are the mirror cells in the brain that allow us to feel other people’s emotions and that microbes in our gut impact our thoughts and moods. These discoveries have shifted how we think about our minds. What I love about your book is that your teaching makes complete sense in terms of what science is discovering.

Recognizing how much the gut influences our thoughts and behavior is profound because we tend to think we’re in control. We think our prefrontal cortex is the manager of our experience, that it’s in control of everything. In fact, the body is taking the lead on so much. Hormones, too. Our hormones can change pretty much everything about our behavior and our thoughts. And still we think we’re in control. I think understanding the science is really helpful because it undermines the sense that we’re in charge and encourages us to surrender a bit and practice listening to what’s going on in the body.

Mirror neurons also help explain a lot—like my experience in Nepal where I felt changed by looking at the images of gods and goddesses on the temple walls. These Tibetan masters were saying, “That is you, you are that.” And looking at them, I am Tara and Tara is me. The images mirror back compassion and kindness and wisdom and beauty.

How do we hang on to that kindness and wisdom?

Intimacy is key. When we become intimate with ourselves, we realize that we’re always going through something. And then we realize that everyone is always going through something. That’s the beauty of being human. It’s also the pain of being human. So, I like to keep this phrase in my mind: “Everyone is going through something.” When you do that, it’s really easy to stay open and curious when you are in the presence of another person. When you wonder what they’re going through, you soften because everyone is going through something— just like me. That’s the kindness mantra: “Just like me.”

Four people I knew well died this year. For two of them, I was at their deathbed. And it really brought front and center to me that we’re all going to die, and we don’t know when. That’s another key: For anybody that you meet, this may be your last interaction with them. That brings up natural compassion. And then it’s easier to be kind.

The deepest answer for me is this: Know that kindness is innate. Kindness is innate, and yet you can also commit to working on it. Both of those things are true. And that’s also true with what we call in Buddhism the Buddhanature. It’s innate—and we also have to work on it. We have to refine it. We have to burnish the jewel. And that’s true with compassion.

How do we know that—that kindness is innate?

You know that by getting in touch with the most authentic essence of who you are.

There is a witness in each of us that is naturally loving. It’s a dimension of who we are. And when we slow down—and introspect—we can find a gaze on our own experience that is loving. And that’s innate. We don’t know it unless we slow down and wait. Slow down and make space to see through the eyes of the loving witness. The loving witness is already gazing. But we’re not always in touch with that loving witness. No one can know that for us. If we try to grasp it, we won’t find it. But if we relax, it will come forward—because it’s our natural state.

That’s what my teachers told me. I trusted that, but I also tested it. And that was my experience. By slowing down and relaxing and looking within, the essence comes out of its secret cave. And then of course it goes back into hiding. And for me, that’s what meditation practice is, what yoga practice is. It’s making space for that essence to keep coming out of hiding, to become more manifest. Then we contract. I contract. I get caught up in my thoughts and my ego, and I lose the thread of connection to the innate loving witness. Practice for me is coming back again and again to the gaze of that loving witness.

That’s lovely.

And I’ll add one more thing. Meditation helps us develop a nonjudgmental awareness, which means we learn not to demonize our thoughts and emotions, and also not to glorify them, either. That nonjudgmental awareness can also be directed towards others.

When we’re less judgmental with others, we can truly feel compassionate for them. As long as we’re judging others, that thwarts the love that we could have for them. That’s what I believe to be true and what I have experienced to be true. But I’m also open to other perspectives on human nature. We are complex creatures!

It strikes me that your somatic mindfulness is both modern and indigenous in the sense of connecting to the consciousness of other animals as well as to the natural world. When I was a kid, for example, you weren’t really supposed to talk to your pets because that was anthropomorphizing them. They weren’t conscious. Now it’s okay to have a conversation.

I talk to my dog a lot. I’m totally guilty of that.

Willa Miller 7630

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