Spirit Rock: What is a good way for us to start habituating or inclining our minds more to kindness and away from fear and aversion?
Sylvia Boorstein: It recently happened to me that a grumpy mood filled my mind and for some while I thought about it: "Why this? Why now? What happened? What does this mean?" Quite soon I realized that rather than being mindful of the mood, seeing it as a passing phenomenon, I'd engaged in a struggle with it. I laughed. I knew it for the grumpy mood it was. And it disappeared. I thought, "Wow! You can practice for thirty years and one false move—a cloudy day, a crowded freeway—and it's back to Square One. Trapped by a mood!” Then I laughed again and I realized I'd figured it wrong. I'd been tripped up by a grumpy mood, but not quite trapped. And Square One is no place we go back to, unless we want to count NOW as Square One, and Confused (and Suffering) and Unconfused (and therefore Not Suffering) as the two possible conditions of the eternal now. And nothing goes anywhere. We just wake up.
I love it that there are no graduated instructions for mindfulness practice. It is always the same. "Meet this moment fully. Meet it as a friend”—curious and kindly responsive. That's it.
SR: If we are not happy or fully contented with our life as it is right now, how can we start to change it so that we have a better life and greater happiness in 2013 and beyond?
Sylvia: I believe that the awareness, "I could feel better—and I want to!" is the first step. The three-part overview of the Path—Development of Morality, Cultivation of Skillful Mental Habits, offers three doorways for entrance into dedicated practice. A newly dedicated practitioner could take on a commitment to vigilant morality and without changing her/his style of life bring awakened attention to the everyday activities of life with the intention to be impeccable. Or, a new practitioner could begin a daily practice of mindfulness meditation, setting aside special contemplative time every day and working with a teacher for instructions and guidance. Or, a newly interested practitioner could attend classes, or listen to lectures, or join a study group to become more familiar with the theory and practice of freedom that the Buddha taught. Or, people could begin all three. A retreat is a good start. A daylong workshop of study and practice is both a good way to learn and a good way to meet like-minded people.
SR: Can you talk about the importance of ethical training in the larger context of the Buddha's teachings? It seems like this aspect is not always emphasized so much here in the West.
Sylvia: The list of the threefold training path—morality, mind-discipline, and wisdom—appears at first (as does everything that is deconstructed) to seem like three things. They are in fact integral to each other. A commitment to mindfulness, by definition, mandates morality. Mindfulness is non-coercive: it demands nothing. And wisdom mandates morality: to behave unskillfully creates suffering in one's own mind. When the mind is clear, balanced and non-coercive, wisdom is self-revealing and morality (as compassion) is the natural response.
Early interest in Buddhism in the West emphasized contemplative practices because that was what people were missing in their previous religious experiences. My sense is now that Westerners have come to realize that the great promise of Dharma is the transformation of painful habits of mind and heart to those of kindness and compassion, through wisdom in whatever ways it arises, that ethics as a hallmark of our lives in community has become as important as tranquility and stillness in our individual meditative lives.