Recently Wildmind’s founder, Bodhipaksa, was interviewed by Tami Simon, the owner of the renowned publisher of spirituality audiobooks.
The interview (transcript below) is part of a series called “Insights at the Edge,” which also includes conversations with Buddhist teachers Sharon Salzberg, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Jack Kornfield. The interview includes a discussion of science and spirituality together can help us appreciate the interconnected nature of reality, and of Bodhipaksa’s forthcoming book on the Six Elements.
Here’s how Sounds True describes the podcast:
Bodhipaksa: Living as a River
Tami Simon speaks with Bodhipaksa, a Buddhist teacher, author, and member of the Western Buddhist Order since 1993. He currently teaches Buddhism and meditation to prisoners and is the author of several books, including Wildmind: A Step-by-step Guide to Meditation, as well as the Sounds True audio learning programs Still the Mind and The Wisdom of the Breath. In this interview, Bodhipaksa discusses the fluid nature of identity: what he calls “living as a river.” (56 minutes)
Tami Simon: So Bodhipaksa you submitted a very interesting book to Sounds True, which we’ve decided to publish and you called it in your submission, The Six Rivers of Becoming: What Science and Spirituality Teach Us about Who We Really Are and, of course, who knows, by the time Sounds True publishes it we might call it something like How to Be Happy Through the Six Rivers of Becoming. I’m curious first of all what brought you to writing this book and if you can tell us a little bit about what it’s about.
Bodhipaksa: Okay, the book comes out of a practice that I do. It’s an Insight Meditation practice called the Six Element Practice, and it’s a reflective meditation where you are working on becoming aware of what it is that you identify with of being yourself You’re realizing that what you identify with being yourself is in fact not something static and not something separate from the outside world. So you’ve got these six elements, which are earth, what is whatever’s solid with in the body; water whatever is liquid in the body; the fire element, just all the physical energy in the body. There’s the air element, whatever is gaseous within the body. There’s the space element, which is not one of the classical elements. The way I understand that in my practice is it’s the sum total of space that all of that matter and energy take up. So it’s your form, your physical appearance, which we identify with being ourselves.
And there’s the consciousness, which resides within all of our functions. With each of these elements, what you can do is reflect on the ways in which there’s not a thing there, but a process. And what you might identify with, for example as the earth element or the solid matter within your body right now has come from outside of you. A little while ago the calcium that’s in your bones was actually in bread or milk. The protein that’s making up your muscles was in a burger or slab of tofu. And what you’re doing it you’re becoming aware that what you commonly identify with is just borrowed from the outside world. It’s not something that you can hold onto because it’s continually passing back to the outside world. What you identified with a few moments ago as being you is already beginning to depart. So skin cells are flaking off. Hairs are falling out. Your combusting carbohydrates in your body and you’re exhaling them as carbon dioxide and that carbon dioxide is becoming trees. You go to the bathroom, you take a dump, that gets flushed away somewhere and gets broken down by bacteria and protozoa and gets built into plants, etc., etc. So when you start looking at yourself in this way you start to get a sense of yourself not as a thing, but as a process. And you start to realize that everything that you identify with as yourself is not yourself. It’s all borrowed. It’s all coming from the outside and it’s all returning to the outside.
Tami Simon: So Bodhipaksa I think most people even before deconstructing their body into these six different elements just think, well, of course who I am has a lot to do with my body because I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have a body, so my identity has a lot to do with my body. Correct? I might not be just my body, but I am kind of my body in a certain way, aren’t I?
Bodhipaksa: Well in a certain way, we are, yeah, What are we if we take away our bodies and our minds? It’s more a question of how we actually relate to our bodies. For example you look in the mirror and see yourself and notice that you’ve been changing. What does that feel like? You notice there’s a few more gray hairs there or some wrinkles that weren’t there before, You’re belly’s sagging a little bit more. Well, we suffer because we identify our bodies as being ourselves and our bodies are continually changing and so our basis for feeling secure about ourselves is continually changing because of identifying with something that’s insecure. So if you want to be happy what you have to do it embrace change and stop clinging to something that is continually changing because by clinging to something in an effort to find some kind of security, when that something is continually changing you’re going to end up suffering.
Tami Simon: Well, I think a lot of people have a great deal of panic, let’s say, if there’s a diagnosis of terminal illness kind of thing, of course. So without my body, I might not be here, so of course I feel identified with my body.
Bodhipaksa: Yeah, right, and it’s quite natural. It’s and evolutionary thing, really. We have to take care of our bodies, and this practice wouldn’t suggest that we start neglecting our bodies. It just suggests that we stop seeing so much importance and significance in them and start accepting the fact that they do change.
Tami Simon: So part of the idea behind this deconstruction into the six elements is recognizing the amount of change that’s always going on and that’s just the fact of what’s happening?
Bodhipaksa: Yeah, yeah, and those effects from that. This practice is traditionally regarded as an antidote to conceit. It can mean an inflated sense of self-importance. When we start being so proud of our bodies because they’re firm and good looking and people like them and that kind of stuff, that is setting up the conditions for future suffering because at some point people are going to be looking at our bodies and thinking, well, ten years ago she was pretty good looking. Ten years ago he had a body on him, but look at him now. So, this element of conceit gets let go that way. But there are other interpretations of the word conceit in this practice, which is that it’s conceiving ding. There’s a conceding of yourself as being either separate and of being either better than, equal to or worse than other beings. And all of those things are sources of suffering. We set ourselves up as being separate from the world or from other people and as soon as you start doing that, you set yourself up in competition with other people or separate and therefore we’re all competing for the same scare resources such as love, etc., and again we end up suffering because of that. We’re working on letting go of multiple levels of identification so we can be happier.
Tami Simon: This question that it seems like this six-element practice is exploring, what is the self, what is identity. It seems that is a core question in spirituality. Wouldn’t you agree?
Bodhipaksa: I think it’s the core question, who we are, what we are. I think at the time at the Buddha people were asking this question a lot: what is the true self? And most answers came down to some kind of true self or soul that was within us that we couldn’t necessarily have direct experience of or some aspect of ourselves would be taken to be an unchanging and separate entity. The Buddha’s response to that seemed to be quite radical, that you should let go of any identification whatsoever. It’s quite a hard position for us. Even with someone who’s been practicing two or three decades, it’s not an easy position to grasp. I have some sense of what the Buddha meant by that. But I can’t I’ve in any way plumbed the depths of what he was pointing at.
Tami Simon: This idea of dropping any kind of identification. So when you do the six-element practice how does that take you through that process of disidentifying?
Bodhipaksa: it’s quite a subtle thing, really. You’re doing this with the physical elements, so you’re becoming aware that everything that constitutes your body, whether it’s solid, liquid, gaseous or energy—all of that really isn’t you, and it’s not something that you can really hole onto. It can do many things to you, and one of them is that it causes this sense of lightness. It’s like having had a fist and then it begins to kind of open again. And it’s hard trying to communicate that to someone because you’re been going around your entire life with your hands in fists, and someone says, yeah, you don’t really need to have your hands that way, you can relax them a little bit, you can let go of them a little bit. It’s kind of hard to see how you can do that and hard to imagine what that would actually feel like until you’ve done it. But there is that sense of lightness. There can be a sense of humility, as well. Because we go around thinking that we’re the center of the world and actually we’re just a little vortex or matter and energy and consciousness in an absolutely huge world. A huge and very, very complex world, which is full of billions of other vortices of energy and consciousness ang matter. And it can bring about a sense of humility.
It can bring about a sense of appreciation as well because you start realizing how much you’re dependent upon others and other processes in the world round about you. And I think all of these things are ultimately kind of liberating. They’re liberating ourselves from a sense of, hey, I’m so cool, I’m the center of the world, you know, I’m the center of the universe. Everything revolves around about me. Get out of my way, here I come. We start to be more appreciative.
Tami Simon: Now probably the main way that people identify is with their thoughts about themselves. Wouldn’t you say? I think I’m this, I think I’m that. You were talking about the physical aspects of the body in terms of the elements, but how do we work on this disidentifying from what we think about who we are?
Bodhipaksa: Well, I think the longer you practice the more you start realizing that things can change. When I started practicing I was a really, really bad tempered person. I was so moody and bad tempered. I didn’t realize I was moody and bad tempered. I just thought the world was just full of idiots [laughs]. It’s kind of funny thinking about it?
Tami Simon: How old were you Bodhipaksa?
Bodhipaksa: This was early twenties and I guess I was quite arrogant and also quite insecure, as well. So over the years I’ve gone from being full of ill will and contempt for other people to being much friendlier, much more approachable, much more compassionate person. And so I’ve experience myself this big change in my personality. I think a lot of people who haven’t experienced that–that kind of change–still have the sense, well; you’re stuck with what you’re got. So if I’m a bad-tempered person that’s just how I am or if I’m full of craving and can’t stop eating or pursuing sensuous delights, and that’s just the kind of person I am. This is the way I was made. So people identify with the way that they are at a particular time and don’t realize—perhaps can’t realize—until they begin a process of changing. Actually, these things are quite malleable. There’s a lot of change that can go on.
Tami Simon: I guess still what I’m asking about is I have these ideas about who I am. I have these thought structures. I’m a person who is whatever. So what you’re saying is to take that lightly. That that could change?
Bodhipaksa: Yeah, it might be true in a sense, right now, but a lot of things can change very, very quickly. Think of someone for example like Eckhardt Tolle who told us about his experience of having this radical shift in consciousness, where literally one minute he’s depressed and contemplating suicide and the next minute he’s completely at peace. When you’re experiencing depression you think that’s how it’s going to be. This is how I am. This is how it’s going to be. I’m stuck. But sometimes the underlying support for a mental state, an attitude like that and all the views that go with it about the kind of person you are and the kind of world that you live in, and how that world that you live in relates to you. The whole substructure for that can just completely collapse at a moment’s notice. Radical change can happen quickly. Sometimes it takes a long, long time not to be a bad-tempered person, but sometimes things can just change quite instantaneously.
Tami Simon: How do you think the practice of meditation affected this bad-tempered person in their early twenties? Or do you think there were other factors that created this gradual change in you? How did you become less bad tempered?
Bodhipaksa: Well I did a lot of metta badna [?] loving kindness practice and . . .
Tami Simon: Can you tell us specifically what you did? What were you focusing on?
Bodhipaksa: Right, well, metta badna[?] or development of loving kindness is a practice for developing a more appreciative, friendly, loving, compassionate towards ourselves and toward others. I did that practice a lot where we start with ourselves, wishing ourselves well, more onto a good friend, and then a person we don’t have much emotional connection with, someone we have difficulties with, and then expanding that feeling of loving kindness to the world. I used to have a lot of enemies. I used to have a lot of people I didn’t like and so I would wish those people well. Sometimes things would change quite rapidly. I think I discovered within my first few weeks of meditation that my mood could suddenly shift.
I remember once I was a student at the time and I was sitting in the car with a bunch of other students I shared an apartment with and they were having this conversation and it was so trivial and I was just way above all this of course. They were talking about their fathers’ ties or something like this and to me this was so trivial and I was condescending and got myself into a real bad temper about it, and I remembered like just the week before I learned this loving kindness practice, so I just sat there saying may I be well, may I be happy, may I be free from suffering and after about four or five minutes I realized, Hey, I’m not in a bad mood anymore. I actually felt human and open and responsive to the people round about me, rather than judgmental of them.
So practice just does change you. I sometimes have to adapt the practice because there were parts of myself I just didn’t like. I became aware of how judgmental I was and I didn’t like that, so that became a problem in itself. I became judgmental of my judgmental attitude. So what I did was I created a version of the practice for myself, where in each stage of the practice it was just me. So I started off with wishing myself well, and in the friend state I would wish well the parts of myself that I liked and appreciated. In the neutral-person stage I’d take parts of myself I’d never really paid much attention to, and I would wish them well. And then in the enemy or the difficult-person stage I would take parts of myself I didn’t like and I’d wish them well. And that was very transforming as well, because it was because it was a practice of complete, unconditional loving kindness towards parts of myself that were not just difficult, but actually in pain.
I started to realize that underneath my prickliness and bad-temperedness was actually a lot of pain that I never really acknowledged. I guess I’d been brought up in a rather stiff-upper-lip culture where people are very reserved and you just dealt with it. If something happened round about you and it was difficult or painful it was kind of unmanly to show the world or even to admit to yourself that you found it painful. So I went through a long process of just allowing myself to feel pain and realizing that that was okay and welcoming the pain, and treating myself almost as a good friend who turned up on my doorstep. If you had a good friend who turned up on your doorstep and they were really unhappy about something, you’d probably want to just welcome them in and, “Sit down, dude, what’s going on? Tell me about it. I want to know.” And you’d kind of embrace their pain in an offshoot of kindly inquiry, and that’s what I started doing with my own pain as well, realizing that I could just welcome that in and [ask] what’s going on here? And that in itself was enough to take away the bad-temperedness, because the bad-temperedness was just an outward symptom of an inward problem of not accepting my own pain and my own vulnerability.
Tami Simon: And how did your view toward other people change–all those people you thought were idiots in your early twenties? [laughs]
Bodhipaksa: I still occasionally find people who I think are complete idiots [laughs], especially on the Internet and especially in political discussions. However, people that I actually knew I tend to be much more forgiving towards them. I’ve come to realize more and more that everything that everybody does comes ultimately from a good motive, which is that they want to be happy. It doesn’t matter how outrageous the behavior of that person or how unethical it may seem to be. They have a belief that in doing the things that they’re doing, it’s going to make them happy, and that in itself is actually a good motivation. It’s a good thing to want to be happy. It’s the strategy that is wrong or in error. When people are going things that generally pisses us off, sometimes it’s just us, the way we respond, but when someone’s genuinely doing something that’s unskillful or unethical it’s a strategy for becoming happy, but it’s a strategy that’s just not going to work, and that’s the problem with it.
There was a Buddhist text I translated once when I was studying Pali at university and it was quite staggering really. It was almost the antithesis of Buddhism–letting go of greed, letting go of hatred, letting go of delusion. And there was a passage where the Buddha said if greed, hate, and delusion make you happy I wouldn’t tell you to let go of them, I’d tell you to embrace them because the whole worth of the Buddhist path, the Buddha said is about one thing, which is suffering and how to get rid of suffering which in more positive terms is about happiness and fulfillment and how to find them. So the about greed, hatred, and delusion is not that they are somehow wrong, it’s that they don’t work. They’re strategies for finding happiness and they don’t actually create happiness, they create unhappiness.
So when you start having that perspective in mind—obviously, I can’t always keep it in mind—but when I can have that perspective in mind it’s much easier to be forgiving of people because you realize that at heart, right down in the core, there’s something very positive there, it’s just that there’s layer of delusion there, which is leading to strategies that aren’t going to work. And that in itself—that recognition—is a way to be more compassionate toward people, realizing that they’re doing something that they think is going to make them happy and it’s not. It’s going to make them unhappy.
Tami Simon: Now I was joking earlier with you Bodhipaksa that by the time your manuscript goes through the publishing process it’s going to be called something like How to Be Happy, but it does seem that there’s a connection between the six-element practice and that work of deconstructing ourselves that relates to happiness and I’m wondering if you can make that more explicit?
Bodhipaksa: Right, well, it is ultimately what the practice is about and it’s ultimately what all Buddhist practice is about. I suppose the way it works is that we seek happiness in trying to find some sense of security and how do we find security? Well we cling to something. We identify with it. We try to hold onto it. So with the impermanent world that we’re living in and we try to cling to our sense of ourselves as being separate and special, for example. Those strategies just don’t work. We’re not separate and in a way we’re really not that special—in some ways kind of miraculous, but in other ways we’re surrounded by miraculous things, so we’re just one miracle amongst many and if you’re just one miracle amongst many you’re not really that special.
So in letting go of the unhelpful strategy I’ve tried to hold onto, what you can do is embrace change and find security in not finding security, which is rather paradoxical, I realize, but we find happiness in a sense of well-being in a sense of security by realizing that we can’t hold onto anything.
Tami Simon: So Where’s the security in that?
Bodhipaksa: Well, that’s kind of interesting. I’m not sure I can actually put that into words right now. What comes to mind, I suppose, is that a lot of time in our lives we’re at odds with the world. We’re trying to hold back change. We don’t like getting old, for example. We don’t like the thought that we’re not really that special and we’re in denial about the actually reality of things, so that’s kind of inherently insecure. And I think just realizing the reality of things is the only way that we can actually feel secure. Actually, I think I can probably give a better answer.
The practice ultimately leads much through the body but also through the mind and paying attention to our experience and noticing that that experience, too, is just flowing through us. We have feeling, thought, emotions, etc., that are just passing through, and what we’re doing in the practice is developing a sense of equanimity towards all of our experience, which means we’re just allowing it to be, we’re just allowing it to flow through us. And it’s that sense of equanimity that I think is real security. These things are real hard to articulate. I think even for the Buddha these things were hard to articulate.
But, equanimity is an extremely nonreactive, nongrasping state of mind, which just allows things to be. And I think it’s ultimately that state of equanimity which is real security.
Tami Simon: Now the metaphor you use throughout the manuscript is this idea of living as a river. Can you talk a little bit about this idea of the river.
Bodhipaksa: Well, in the practice you’re observing the flow of each of these elements. And there’s a number of images that come to my mind when I’m doing the practice. I’ll have conjured up this image of each element coming from the outside world, it’s passing through this six-feet length of body and passing back into the outside world again. And I’ll have the sense of observing something like a river. And sometimes I just imagine that I’m sitting by a riverbank, a six-foot length of riverbank that I’m seeing, and that’s me. But every time I say that’s me, the water there has already moved as soon as I’ve articulated that though—that’s me—the water’s already passed through. It’s already gone. You’re left with a sense of trying to grasp the ungraspable. We have the sense that our self is a thing, the body is a thing, but actually it’s a process and you can’t hold onto a process. A process by its very nature is something that’s continually changing.
Trying to grasp into the river and hold back this six-foot length and it’s just flowing through your fingers. That’s one way that the river image comes to me—probably the main way I start thinking about myself as being not a thing, but a process.
Tami Simon: So part of the idea of doing the six-element practice is that we become accustomed in some way and accepting of our “riverness.”
Bodhipaksa: Yeah, our riverness. I like that word. Yes, It’s embracing our riverness, truly accepting our riverness, I suppose, rather than embracing even. Embracing has a sense of grasping or trying to cling to.
Tami Simon: And then, I know you have this interest in science, and even though this six-element practice is an ancient practice that there are now discoveries in contemporary science that are confirming or at least shedding light in some way for you on the value of the practice and how it works and I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about this.
Bodhipaksa: Sure, I think the six-element practice was in a way a kind of a scientific practice. That’s the best understanding the Buddha and people of that time had of the world was that it was made of solid, liquid, gas, and energy, all existing within space and somewhere in there, there was consciousness residing. So it was in a way a kind of scientific practice. And when you read things like the description of what the fire element say—the fire element internally, that is within the body—and it describes it as that which digests and causes the heart to beat, etc., so it’s all the physical processes within the body. So I think he was trying to be scientific in the way that the practice is structured. Our understanding of how change happens in the body has changed a lot. The ways that we have of understanding how the body is not ultimately ours, have also changed a lot.
So for example, you start thinking about your DNA and for a lot of us, that’s the essence of who we are. There’s more viral DNA in your genome than there is human DNA. You’re mostly virus, a viral hybrid, which is kind of an odd thought. So you start realizing that a lot of stuff that’s at your core isn’t even human. You start looking at the body, and science can give us a much better idea of how solid matter flows through the body.
There were some interesting experiments done about how long various tissues lasted. And it was based on the fact that in the 1950s and 1960s there were a lot of above-ground nuclear tests, and the plus of radiation that came out from the nuclear tests caused the formation of carbon 14, which is a mildly radioactive, heavier isotope of carbon. Now that quickly got absorbed into living beings, producing a kind of time stamp. And it became possible to look at the turnover of carbon 14 in the human body and get a sense of how long different tissues lasted, so you find, for example that the tissues on your skin only last a few days, and the gut lining similarly. Your bones last for several years. Even your bones, which you think of as being solid and permanent, are in continuous process of change. There are cells in your bones and their only function is to break down your bones. Your bones are continually dissolving from within. Fortunately there are also some cells in your bones and their function is to build up your bone tissue again. So your bones are continually in this process of dissolving away and being rebuilt. So what you think of as being something solid is actually a process that’s continually changing all the time.
So sometimes science can illuminate processes that the Buddha was already probably familiar with in some way. Sometimes it’s a bit of things you never could have imagined, for example, that our cells in our body aren’t actually ours in a number of different senses. If you do a count of all the cells in your body 90 percent of them are bacterial. So 90 percent nonhuman, which is kind of strange to think about; 90 percent of the cells are protozoa. But they’re really very important. They’re living in our skin. They produce the oils that cover our skin. We’ve never really evolved to do that because we’ve never needed to because we’ve got these bacteria. We give them a home and they’re useful for us.
When we eat food the digestion is carried out by bacteria. There are compounds that we can’t actually digest ourselves, so the bacteria dissolve them for us. There are various chemicals the body needs that are produced by bacteria. So we’re not even biochemically complete as human beings. We can’t exist in biochemical isolation from things that are not human.
Tami Simon: Now the 10 percent of me that is human, what is that made of?
Bodhipaksa: That in itself is made of nonhuman stuff, ultimately The 10 percent is your body, your cell count that is human is all your brain cells and gut cells and your skin cells, etc., but ultimately none of that from the perspective of the six-element practice is human because where did your skin come from? Well, it was that sandwich you ate a few weeks ago and the curry you had a few weeks before that. All those meals you’ve been eating is where your skin comes from and that was not you, it was stuff that came from the outside world.
So ultimately none of you is human. But it’s very interesting to see things that are so obviously not human within you and not just within you, but a functioning part of you. Some people have suggested that all the bacteria within us should be regarded as an organ in its own right because it performs complex functions that are intimately tied in with the function of the body. I talked about digestion for example, but our immune responses are conditioned and partly controlled by these bacteria. Things like fat metabolism and sugar metabolism are also moderated by these bacteria. Bacteria-producing chemicals that are affecting the whole biochemistry of the body. Again becoming aware of things shifts us away from that sense that we have of being separate and in some way special.
Tami Simon: You talked about there being six elements and I can understand this process of investigation following along the lines you’ve been sharing with us related to fire, water, air, and space, but when you get to consciousness it seems like the approach might be a little different. What do you mean by consciousness being an element?
Bodhipaksa: Well, that’s kind of interesting, isn’t it? What is consciousness? Nobody actually really knows what consciousness is. There’s no really adequate definition. In fact I don’t think you can really define what consciousness is because it’s its own thing. When scientists try to define consciousness they’re looking at activity within the brain. But activity within the brain is not the same as an experience. The experience of tasting an orange is the taste, color and smell of an orange and those are things that exist within consciousness, but you can’t see those things in the brain. You can see activities in the brain, which correlate to the experience, tasting and smelling and seeing and holding an orange. But there’s a world of different between the bioelectrical activity in the brain and that actual experience. So we can’t really define what consciousness is.
But the way that the practice is described, the consciousness element is a little bit different. What we’re doing is we’re realizing that again there’s a flow, but it’s a flow of perceptions, feelings, emotions, and thoughts and we’re observing that flow of these components of consciousness. And we’re observing them flowing, coming from nowhere. Appearing briefly and passing away again. So we’re observing the transience, the flowing riverlike nature of those aspects of consciousness.
The practice traditionally doesn’t include the same contemplation of inner and outer.
With each of the other elements what you’re doing you’re becoming aware of the element outside yourself of water. You’re becoming aware of the water element within you and how the water element within you is derived from the water element outside and how it’s passing back into the water outside. So you’re becoming aware of this entire process of flow. And there isn’t that outside-inside perspective as it’s described in the practice classically, but I found it’s actually a useful perspective to bring into the practice. To become aware, for example, of all the different aspects of ourselves that are conditioned by other people and our relationships with other people.
So very basic things like language, so if your weren’t exposed to language as a young child you’d never actually get to the stage of communicating linguistically. You’d never be able to learn any language whatsoever. There’s a narrow window or period around a year or fifteen months. If you don’t hear language in that period the language centers in your brain just don’t develop at all. So our ability to be able to think linguistically and communicate verbally that’s all depends upon other people.
All the ideas, culture, the music, thoughts, insights, traditions, religious practices some from outside ourselves. All the things we regard as being part of us and important parts of our identity mostly come from outside. That’s another way of thinking about the flow of the consciousness element and realizing, again, we can’t exist as separate entities and we’re not separate.
Tami Simon: So you’re saying that traditionally the practice of the six elements did not consider this outside-inside?
Bodhipaksa: No, traditionally it didn’t consider the outside-inside thing. That’s something I brought into my own practice and I’m writing about at the moment in the book. I have to say I depart from tradition when I think it’s useful. I tend to be quite pragmatic in my approach to meditation.
Tami Simon: Sounds good to me. That’s very interesting about the consciousness component, as you’re saying, considering it from the outside and the inside. This identification with our consciousness, even though we don’t know what it is, we still think we’re something like that.
Bodhipaksa: Yeah, yeah, we do. There’s some level on which we tend to assume there’s something fixed and static and separate about us and it’s a natural thought and attitude to have, but it’s very, very limiting. It ends up causing us suffering and it ends up preventing us from experiencing a great degree of happiness than we have at the moment.
Tami Simon: Well, I love this idea of living as a river and I’m wondering how that type of awareness and recognition comes into your daily challenges. I know you have a young child—two young children, right?
Bodhipaksa: Yes, we adopted two young children from Ethiopia.
Tami Simon: Does this river concept help at all in the parenting world?
Bodhipaksa: It does actually help me. My daughter who’s almost three is out of the stage of the terrible twos and she’s not as bad as a lot of children. She has a complete meltdown from time to time, lying on the floor, drumming her hands and feet against the floorboards and screaming at the top of her lungs when you want her to do something that she doesn’t want to do. I find it really interesting to realize that this is just a flow, again, of events that are happening. It’s very easy to think of it as she’s being bad. There’s a she there and she’s doing this thing and she is bad and she’s doing it to me, and I take it personally and I get annoyed by it because I want her to do it and she’s not doing it. And it all gets horribly messy. I find it much easier to have a looser sense of her as an evolving being, almost like a river, but of these current of her being coming into consciousness—sometimes for the first time.
It’s very, very interesting watching a child growing up because you start off very, very simple. Basically pretty damned happy, almost like you’d think of as an enlightened person. Certainly of just being aware of the world in a raw, nonconceptual way and being pretty happy unless they’re hungry or their in pain. And then the craving starts coming in. the clinging starts coming in after about a year. Up to a year my children didn’t complain If you took anything away from them it was okay, the toy was there, the toy was not there, and they just babble away. And once craving starts kicking in so does ill will and anger and all that kind of stuff. I’m happy to say neither of my children has exhibited any kind of hatred yet. That’s still to come.
So these emotions are kind of coming into being, and what is that like for the first time to start experiencing frustration, for example. You’ve got to learn to handle that. And looking at my daughter more and more as being this evolving being who’s dealing with the upwelling of stuff that has never been there before, and it’s not personal even for her. She doesn’t understand what’s going on, and it’s not something that she is doing. It’s almost happening to her. It’s not something that she’s doing to me. It’s not really about her, it’s the evolution of her consciousness. I’m finding that it’s easier and easier these days just to take her temper tantrums and surround them by a field of compassion, because I realize the magnitude of what she’s going through at the moment. And rather than setting myself in opposition to her just kind of embracing her and comforting her as she’s going through this transitional process.
The other day she had one of these meltdowns. She hadn’t napped all day. It was time to take her to bed. She was hyper, didn’t want to go to bed and I very gently kept saying, “Maya, Maya, you’ve got to go to bed. And I had to pick her up. I don’t like forcing her physically to do something unless it’s absolutely necessary. But I had to pick her up to take her up to bed, and she was kicking me and pinching, etc., and it was like none of this is personal, and it was easy to have that perspective. Being pinched by a three-year-old, it hurts. It’s not pleasant, but you don’t have to take it personally.
Tami Simon: So you’re not taking it personally, meaning it’s not about you, but you’re thinking that she’s meaning it in terms of her own personhood?
Bodhipaksa: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. It’s not personal about her. It’s not personal about me, either.
Tami Simon: You know it’s interesting. I wonder if it’s ever worth taking any thing personally.
Bodhipaksa: I don’t think it is. I don’t think anything is personal. I think that’s a slogan for life, is that nothing’s personal. And it comes back to what I was talking about earlier, where people all have the basic desire to be happy, but they have strategies that will often make them unhappy and in the process of making them unhappy they’ll also make other people unhappy as well. So it’s the strategy that’s at fault. It’s not the underlying deeper concern that that person has. So in a way, nothing’s personal.
Tami Simon: Well, let’s take an everyday example. Somebody says something critical about you online, or worse there’s some kind of embarrassment that just seems terrible.
Bodhipaksa: Okay, well I can give you an example. Not too long ago this woman was writing about some of the work I do in prisons, and it so happened that according to what she wrote, the person who murdered her eighty-three-year-old grandfather was in the prison that I teach meditation and Buddhism in. She made this enormous attack on me, criticizing everything about me. I wasn’t really a Buddhist and if I was really compassionate I’d be working with the victims, not the people who perpetrated them. The people who were in prison weren’t really human and that whole kind of thing.
when you see where that comes from, if she lost her grandfather, it would be painful thinking dealing with the re sources that she has available, which might not be particularly well-developed resources. So her best resource that she can find is anger, hatred and resentment, and it’s a strategy for trying to deal with the pain that she’s got. So when I responded to her. I responded with that perspective in mind—that she was a suffering being expressing her suffering in a way that wasn’t really going to help her or help others. I was trying not to hammer that too much, but just to point out some of the realities of what I’m doing, for example, people who are in prison are going to get out. If they get out do you want them to become more aware and more compassionate or do you want them to come out more embittered and more hostile? Because those are choices we make in our punitive system.
Tami Simon: So do you think it’s a reasonable recommendation that if someone finds themselves taking something personally that that’s a good moment to pause and inquire?
Bodhipaksa: I think when you find that you’re taking something personally, the first thing that I do is become aware of the pain that I’m experiencing or become aware of the underlying need that’s not being met. So for example I’m driving along, somebody cuts me off. They drive way too close to me. There’s a surge of anger that comes up. Then I’ll think, what’s the root of anger? Well, okay, fear. That person passed way to close to me and I had a fence that’s not a safe distance and that invisible boundary becomes transgressed. I experience fear and suffering. My sense of security has been lost. And if I acknowledge that sense of fear, pain, insecurity, the anger vanishes. So to not take something personally start looking a little bit deeper at what’s going on with yourself and empathize as well as notice what’s going on with the pain and suffering, but you have to become aware of it empathetically. Then everything changes.
Tami Simon: You know, finally, Bodhipaksa, our program is called “Insights at the Edge,” and I’m wondering—this has been a deep inquiry for you, the whole writing of the book on the Six Elements Practice—what is your own edge in all of this, in writing this book and the work that you’re doing now?
Bodhipaksa: Well, the book is my edge, really. It’s the inquiry into the nature of the self. Are you asking what effects this has had on me? It has had quite a strong effect on me. A few weeks ago I lost my sense of having a self, which was a most interesting development, quite unexpected.
I was putting my daughter to bed and I think that’s significant because I’ve been having this perspective for some time now of not regarding her actions as being something personal to her or that I should take personally. And as I was watching her beginning to drift off to sleep, suddenly I realized I didn’t have a self. My sense of my self was just a continuous process of change, becoming aware of my mind and body, I was just aware of continuously evolving process of changing causes and conditions, different thoughts, feelings, sensations coming into being and passing away. I didn’t have any sense of there being anything permanent there or any kind of substrata. And that was awareness has been with me ever since to varying degrees and sometimes it’s like—imagine if you won the lottery, you’d be bouncing up and down every fifteen minutes saying, “Wow I’ve won the lottery!” and then after a while it becomes part of your experience. Day fifteen it’s like, “Yeah, I won the lottery didn’t I?” and then you don’t think about it for a while. So it’s been a bit like that. It was something that I was just watching with amazement for the first week or so, and then after that it’s faded into a kind of background awareness, and whenever I bring my attention to my experience I realize that it’s continually changing; that there’s nothing permanent there. It’s almost like I have a new self every couple of seconds. It’s like watching a kaleidoscope turning. There’s always a picture there, but it’s only there momentarily. It’s instantly replaced by a new picture and that at the moment is my experience of myself of it being a kaleidoscope.
Tami Simon: So, previously, something in you was more solid and firm and now it’s more changing and fluid?
Bodhipaksa: I think it’s not so much that what’s there has changed. It’s my perception of what’s there has changed. I think I’ve always been a kaleidoscope of changing sense impressions and thoughts and feelings, etc., but there’s been an assumption of permanent and there’s something there that’s unchanging. So I think what’s happened is not that what’s there has changed, but my assumptions about it have changes. The way I look at it has changed.
Tami Simon: Wonderful. Thank you, Bodhipaksa. Living as a river, I like it.
Bodhipaksa: You’re very welcome. I enjoyed the chat. Well, maybe that’s a title for the book.