"These Are the Times We Practice For"—Sage Advice from Sylvia Boorstein
Sylvia Boorstein, MSW, PhD, is the author of numerous books on Buddhist philosophy and meditation practice, including That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist: On Being a Faithful Jew and a Passionate Buddhist; It’s Easier Than You Think: The Buddhist Way to Happiness; and Happiness Is an Inside Job: Practicing for a Joyful Life. She is a founding teacher of Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California.
Sylvia has been teaching nationally and internationally since 1985. She is a frequent contributor to Lion’s Roar, a magazine of contemporary Buddhist thought. Her personal emphasis in teaching is the integration of mindfulness into everyday life.
1440: Why do you encourage everyone to have a regular contemplative practice?
Sylvia Boorstein: It’s good to set aside parts of the day or week specifically for contemplative practices like sitting in meditation or doing yoga. During these dedicated times it’s like the rest of life isn’t happening. We work on sharpening the skills of attentiveness, presence, and wakefulness so that when we’re in the rest of our life they are available to us.
I like to use the analogy of going to the gym. I go to the gym practically every day. I work out on the equipment and I work with a trainer so I can keep my body as fit, effective, and balanced as I possibly can. But I haven’t moved into the gym! I don’t stay there all the time. I go there for some particular period every day, and then I take that very same body into the rest of the world where I use what I did in the gym to walk up and down stairs, push the supermarket cart around, or drag my suitcase through an airport.
Time in the gym—or time meditating—is like a microcosm of my day. I use what I learn there as I go about my daily chores.
And I do daily life better when I go to the gym or take a little time to be quiet and reacquaint myself with the habit of remaining poised moment to moment.
1440: That’s an interesting word to use. What do you mean by “poised”?
Sylvia Boorstein: I’ve been using the word poise more and more in my teaching in recent years. What I tell people is I am practicing in order for my mind to be present, attentive, alert, and cognizant of what’s happening around me and in me moment to moment—to be aware of my own mind-body. This is the first half of the definition of mindfulness.
The second half continues by explaining the reason I’m doing this. I’m paying attention so that whatever I do next in response to what’s happening around me won’t create suffering for me or anyone else. If I’m poised enough in my mind, say, when I look at the morning headlines, which often disgust me, my response can be, “I think I’ll call my congressperson again and then I’ll announce this in class and get everybody to sign a petition.” I can respond with helpful action instead of reacting haphazardly.
1440: What happens as our practice develops over time?
Sylvia Boorstein: We practice the contemplative arts in order to live well.
As we become less distracted and more attentive, we enjoy our lives more because we’re there for them.
Generally, we also become less impulsive and more thoughtful. We learn to stay poised as if we were a figure skater, and by-and-by we become able to do pirouettes and not fall down.
As a result of paying attention so well, we also get an ever-growing sense of the suffering in the world. The first noble truth of the Buddha is that suffering is ubiquitous. You can’t miss it. And when we see the suffering more clearly, we’re less inclined to create more of it through our own thoughts and actions. We’re less likely to make our own story the center of the universe and we’re more likely to contribute.
As we see how much of the suffering in the world is created from social and cultural patterns that result in the tremendous inequity of wealth, power, and distribution of resources in the world, we come to see how much our own well-being is inextricably linked with the well-being (or lack thereof) of so many people on the planet. This is the link between contemplative practice and social activism. In the way the habits of my mind create pain and suffering for me and those around me, we recognize others are walking around with the same undisciplined mind and creating their own suffering. Together we wind up creating a culture that generates suffering if we don’t pay attention.
1440: Which daily practices do you rely on most?
Sylvia Boorstein: I practice a lot with the first line of one of the metta chants: May I be free of enmity and danger. But what I mostly do is try to stay attentive to the arising of unwholesome states in my mind.
If I’m in the middle of talking to somebody and it suddenly occurs to me to tell them this piece of gossip, if I catch myself I may not do it.
I think this practice has made me a nicer person. My husband says, “You’re always a nice person. You’re always kind.” I think that’s true. I came from kind and nice people, but I am kinder and nicer with this practice!
I also really cannot allow anger to take up residence in my mind. When it arises, I feel it in my body and hear it in my voice. I don’t try to overlook it—I try to make a space where it can exist in a context of compassion. The most obvious example is when I read the morning newspaper it’s hard not to have aversion arise in the mind. Wishing ill on someone or getting dismayed by the news is painful and just fires up the mind. I want to be aroused, but I don’t want to be perennially outraged (which is why I don’t watch cable news).
Outrage and anger are irritating to the mind. We don’t need more outrage. We need as many people as we can get practicing peace, kindness, restraint, and thoughtfulness these days.
Sylvia Boorstein will be teaching Wisdom in Every Cell: A Meditation, Mindful Yoga, and Dharma Retreat with Brahmani Liebman and Jashoda Edmunds, December 15 – 17, 2017 at 1440 Multiversity.