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An Interview with Sylvia Boorstein
on Buddhism, Meditation, and Mindfulness

by Dennis Hughes, Share Guide Publisher

Sylvia Boorstein is a Buddhist Teacher and a cofounder of Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California. She has a Ph.D. in Psychology and teaches and lectures widely. She is the author of several books, including That's Funny, You Don't Look Buddhist and Pay Attention, For Goodness' Sake. She lives in Sonoma County, California.

Share Guide: Could you tell our readers something about your own search for enlightenment and how you came to be on the Buddhist Path?

Sylvia Boorstein: I discovered mindfulness meditation in 1977. It is the typical meditation that the Buddhists have. In the Pali Canon, which is the compilation of the earliest teachings of the Buddha, there are two principle teaching sermons where Buddha says, "This is what you should do." One of them is the Mindfulness Sermon and the other one is the Lovingkindness Sermon. What is interesting about the whole lesson of the Pali Canon is a continuing narrative of the life of the Buddha: where he went, whom he taught, and the different teachings that he gave. For the most part he did not give instructions for practice, he just probed his vision of the truth, of what a healthy, happy or a fulfilled life would be. It is tremendously uplifting to read them because in many instances, he teaches and then the narrative describes how many people became completely free of all conditioning and became completely liberated. The Mindfulness Sermon gives instructions for paying attention in your life in a really awakened and consistently conscious way.

Lovingkindness, which is a facet of mindfulness, is paying attention most specifically to the climate of your heart. Is it open and loving or is it closed up and in self-serving mode? You need to determine if it is frightened, overwhelmed, confused, and then do what you need to do. It is a very simple teaching. I started it because it was the 1970's and people were doing all kinds of meditative practices for the first time. It was a really wonderful time of spiritual surge in this country. There were all kinds of things to do. I tried a lot of them mostly because my husband was a tremendously spiritual seeker and adventurer and he would come home with great ideas to try. I would go and be initiated into this or that. Nothing was ever bad, but nothing actually captivated me until this did. I went on a Mindfulness Retreat in 1977 and I have never left.

Share Guide: From my study with local Buddhist teachers, it seems to me that this teaching is more about daily practical living rather than abstract principles and studies.

Sylvia Boorstein: That would be fair to say. It is based more on daily living, but also on a daily sustained meditation practice that is quite simple and doesn't require abstract thought. You could explain it to anyone: Take some time quietly during the day by yourself. You can choose to walk back and forth in some place that clearly defines you, just paying attention to the sensations of your body and discovering how that makes you present and more awake--not only in that moment but in the rest of the day that follows. Alternately, find a place to sit quietly for some period of time and focus on your bodily sensations and the coming and going of the breath. Notice that your attention and focus becomes settled and refined in that very quiet and simple experience of just existing and sitting and breathing and being alive. Then you are more aware and alert as you go about the rest of the day.

Share Guide: What does enlightenment mean to you?

Sylvia Boorstein: I like to think I have an enlightened moment when I see clearly and respond wisely, when my actions are not colored by greed, hatred or delusion. It's when wisdom predominates and not ignorance. I think of those as enlightened moments. I have more of them now than I did when I began studying the Buddha's teachings. The mind freed from greed, hatred, or delusion is not a complicated thing. We have plenty of times to recognize them, as these are liberated moments. I'd certainly like to have more enlightened moments in my life.

Share Guide: When I read the life story of the Buddha, it seemed that the central feature of Gautama Buddha's life was his enlightenment. Can you explain more about his enlightenment experience?

Sylvia Boorstein: I think that the Buddha's enlightenment was a moment in which he fully understood the causes of suffering and the ends of suffering. He realized the possibility of the end of suffering, and the path of practice to get to the end of suffering. In that same enlightenment experience he also had complete clarity about all his previous lives. And he had a full understanding of karma and the way in which that works.

Share Guide: I've seen that depicted by artists. Was that the moment when he was sitting under the Bodhi Tree and touched the earth?

Sylvia Boorstein: Yes. It is a great story, called Through the Watch of the Night. Buddha sat down, having finished six years of practice with two different renowned teachers of the time, each of whom had taught him everything that he knew and had acclaimed him as being equal to the teacher himself in terms of meditative skills. He could do the severest austerities. The legends about him were that he was so skinny from fasting that he could feel his backbone by touching his belly and that he could sit out in the hottest sun for long periods of time. Yet he said at the end of that period of practice: "I knew that even though I had mastered these great stages of consciousness in which I had control over my physical body in an amazing way, and also a complete ease of mind, that I had not discovered what I was searching for, which was the cause of suffering and the end of suffering." The whole journey that brought Buddha to this realization was motivated by the kinds of feelings we all have about how difficult it is to be a human being and live in the world. I am thrilled about the Buddhist complete enlightenment experience. My life is wiser and freer and clearer much of the time.

Share Guide: So you have more moments of light than darkness, even during traffic jams and other daily challenges?

Sylvia Boorstein: Right. In daily challenges, I can at least recognize that I am annoyed or challenged!

Share Guide: It makes sense that we will have more moments of enlightenment as we practice. I don't think I have reached a higher level, but I see it as a path. I have more light now than when I did when I was younger, because I am working on it. But I have a long way to go.

Sylvia Boorstein: One more thing I want to say about this: Although Buddha's experience was far more dramatic, sublime and complete than mine, I think his motivation was not that different than all of ours. Sooner or later in our lives, we all ask, "What is this all about?" We all get born, like it or not. We are all going to do this whole trip, which is really about trying to accommodate the changing circumstances all the time. We have to adjust to challenges, and even like it, even enjoy it, and have leftover energy so we can help other people! And in the end, we all die. We want to be able to live life with energy, with determination, with fervor, and with spirit.

Share Guide: The first teaching, which the Buddha gave after declaring his enlightenment, is called Setting in Motion the Wheel of Truth. This was the first one in which he elucidates The Four Noble Truths. I will list them for our readers. The first one is "Suffering is a part of life." The second is "The cause of suffering is the mind struggle in response to the challenges of life." The third is "The end of suffering is a possiblity." And the fourth is "The path to the end of suffering, which is the Eightfold Path." Would you say that this first sermon is considered the essence of his teaching?

Sylvia Boorstein: I think that it's fine to say it is the essence of his teaching. It is elaborated on in other teachings.

Share Guide: In your book, Pay Attention for Goodness' Sake, you focus on the Ten Paramitas, stated as generosity, morality, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, determination, lovingkindness, and equanimity. How do the paramitas relate to The Four Noble Truths? And why did you choose to do a whole book on this?

Sylvia Boorstein: The Paramitas relate to the life of the Buddha and the discovery of The Four Noble Truths. The Buddha is said to have developed these particular capacities of heart in lifetimes before his life as Siddhartha Gautama. There is a body of literature called Jataka Tales, which are children's stories that are part of the compendium of Buddhist folklore from early times. They are stories about previous lifetimes of the Buddha in which he was a water buffalo, a monkey, etc., and in the stories it is clear that the water buffalo or monkey is the Buddha in a prior incarnation doing some completely selfless or wise task on behalf of others. The stories are meant to inspire the cultivation of that same capacity in one's self. It's like the story we are taught in school about George Washington. We're told that he never told a lie, and that when he chopped down the cherry tree, he admitted that he did it. These stories are meant to inspire children and adults to cultivate the same qualities in one's self. It's interesting to think that these are the things the Buddha did before he had his enlightenment. It is not necessary to wait until we have that vision that releases us from the prison of self preoccupation. We can practice being good people first. If we practice enough--maybe we'll have the vision, maybe we won't--at least we will have the pleasure of leading a life that is much more fun, and much more a cause of happiness. It's a joy to notice that there is a whole world out there, and we can help to take care of other people. For me, the point of becoming enlightened is to be able to act without greed, hatred and delusion in the world. It doesn't mean to forget about taking care of yourself; it means to somehow be free of the captivating habits of self preoccupation which are so limiting. The Dalai Lama always says "It's a much better gamble to be interested in the well-being of others than your own because the odds are six billion to one."

Share Guide: There is a story in your book about the Dalai Lama, where he is asked "what kind of religion is Buddhism?" He responds by saying, "My religion is kindness." Do you see kindness as the foremost quality here?

Sylvia Boorstein: I do. And I think there are all forms of kindness. Kindness comes up in the word metta in the ninth Paramita, which is lovingkindness. The word metta actually means friendliness, and friendliness, patience, equanimity, and truthfulness are all forms of kindness. When you think about the kindnesses you can do for somebody, if you tell them the truth, you level the playing field. You do not hold an extra card up your sleeve. If you are patient, it is also a kindness to people. Here is a mundane example. I go into a dry cleaner one evening to pick up a sweater I plan to wear when I give a lecture that night. I come with a ticket and I say, "Here I am," and they look and say, "The sweater is not back yet." Then I say, "but it's Tuesday," and they look at the slip and say, "Yes, it's Tuesday, but it's not back yet." There are other customers around me listening to this. At that moment if I say, "That's okay, I'll come back tomorrow; I'll find something else to wear," then the whole tension level in the dry cleaners goes down. It's a relief not only for the dry cleaner who doesn't have the sweater, but also for the people there who are anticipating an escalation of tension. It's also good for me, because I could have gone ahead and escalated the tension to no avail, because the sweater is not there! And it's not going to suddenly appear if I am impatient. I could create a fuss, upset everybody else there, and upset my own heart. Really, the central point in all the Paramitas is to behave in a way that is kind and that keeps your own heart from getting upset. It looks like it is good for other people but actually, it is good for you as well.

Share Guide: After college I lived with Swami Muktananda, back in the mid-70's. Muktananda once said, "You say I am so selfless all the time, but I'm really the most selfish amongst you." Everybody gasped and then there was silence in the hall--it sounded like sacrilege! He smiled and said, "The only difference is that my self is all of us, it's one big self, so I am selfish for all of us." I thought that was so cool that I never forgot it.

Sylvia Boorstein: Good story. I like to think that cultivating the Paramitas happens both because you make a conscious effort to try to do them, and because ultimately a loving and kind heart makes you happy. In order to achieve this, there is a way of practicing as if you already are, and watching as the impulse for lack of generosity arises in the mind and then you override it. You can practice in a way that comes from really understanding the joy of not feeling needy--or realizing the ease in the mind in which no desire arises. This is a meditative experience. I was at a meditation retreat, an ordinary day, actually, and I was sitting on a bench outside the building just before lunch. I was a little hungry, the cement bench was hard, and it was cold and foggy. I had been sitting and my mind at that point was so relaxed and so peaceful that I heard the bell ring for lunch but I didn't move. Usually, when a bell rings for lunch and you are hungry, you get right up. I realized that even though I had heard the bell, nothing jumped up in me--not in my mind, and not my body. I was just sitting there. I sat for a while more and then I got up and had lunch. But that moment was a learning moment, showing that when the mind is relaxed, it does not feel needy. It has feelings but it doesn't want anything in particular. I realized that the overriding feeling in that whole experience was a sublime peace, such that I had not felt ever before. It was really my first moment of knowing the third Noble Truth: peace is possible.

Share Guide: So you were having the experience but you weren't attached to it?

Sylvia Boorstein: Right. I had the experience without the need arising to change it in anyway. It's the non-neediness which is so liberating, and the awareness that intense neediness is so painful. The sense of non-neediness is so happy, it makes you really want to practice generosity. Any cling that arises in the mind, you want to get over it, because what the Buddha meant by that cling is suffering! The second Noble Truth is that the cause of suffering is craving. Suffering is the incessant craving in the mind for anything.

Share Guide: Wanting more?

Sylvia Boorstein: Wanting different, wanting more, wanting other.

Share Guide: I think this is why people go shopping when they aren't feeling good. There are different ways to get peace of mind--one is to buy stuff, and we are taught to do that in this society. We are not taught to sit down and enjoy the moment and not buy anything.

Sylvia Boorstein: Yes, to enjoy a moment of non-neediness!

Share Guide: I need to ask, why not just lead a life of service? Why bother with meditation and mind training?

Sylvia Boorstein: That is a very good question. For me, I think actually I can't do it without some mind training, because of the amount of despair, dismay, and disillusionment that comes up in me when I look at the amount of pain in the world. If I did not have a practice that kept my heart buoyant enough, to keep it going, I would be overwhelmed by it. I need something to keep me reminded that this incarnation is beautiful, amazing, and thrilling and has a lot of potential to it, and that people's hearts can change. Look at the times we are living in! But I have a fundamental belief that human beings are good-hearted. When it seems like someone gets pleasure out of hurting, I think there must be something out of tune in that person's heart and mind. I believe that the natural impulse of the heart is compassion. What am I teaching these days are the things that I think are really important to do in these difficult times. I don't want to spend any time blaming anyone. The real culprits are greed, hatred and delusion--and ignorance. I want to tell people that human beings can wake up, that they have in the past, some of them completely. Many of us have woken up enough to be dedicated to kindness. We can do it!

Share Guide: In other words, the meditation and mind training that keep you buoyant are like a source of inspiration to counteract all the negative stuff in the world.

Sylvia Boorstein: That is exactly so. I like to use the definition of hope that Vaslav Havel gave. He said, "Hope is the ability to say no to what's exactly in front of you--which is not a denial that it's happening, but it's a denial of the idea that it's all that is happening."

Share Guide: You define mindfulness as "paying attention." Can you expand on this?

Sylvia Boorstein: The definition of mindfulness which I like most is the awake attention to what is happening inside and outside so we can respond from a place of wisdom. When my own mind has closed up because it got startled into some self-serving stance, then I don't think clearly and I don't respond kindly. That is actually my test for whether I am seeing clearly, which is to see if I am feeling kind.

Share Guide: You mention in your books that you come from a Jewish background, and still consider yourself a Jew. I have come across a number of people raised in a Jewish family that are deeply involved in Buddhism. Are there facets of Judaism that somehow meld with Buddhism more than Christianity or Islam or any other major religion? How do you account for so many Jewish Buddhists being around? There's Ram Dass and Lama Surya Das, for example.

Sylvia Boorstein: I don't know the answer to that. I think it's partly serendipity. A lot of Jews were in the Peace Corps and went to Asia in the 60's, and then came back and taught Buddhism in the 70's. Back in the 50's and 60's, the earliest real interest in Buddhist thought and meditation came from the Catholic Contemplative community. Thomas Merton was writing about it, and people like William Johnston, Aelred Graham, and many Catholic monastics were interested in it. As a discipline of mind training, Buddhism has been very interesting to all people dedicated to religious practice as a way of connecting their heart practice with direct immediate experience. My own experience is that I had a traditional upbringing in a Jewish family, and was raised in in the Jewish tradition. I like it. I never considered that my practice of mindfulness or study of Buddhist thought would make me any less of a Jew.

Share Guide: The Dalai Lama has said that enlightenment can be achieved through a number of paths and it's not wise to be jumpy. In other words, if you are born in the West and you are raised as a Christian or a Jew, you may need to go back to the roots of your own tradition to find the truth for you.

Sylvia Boorstein: I think of myself as a Jew whose life has been tremendously enhanced by my practice of mindfulness, by my understanding of what the Buddha taught. I would like to think that Buddhism and Judaism are both lineages dedicated to kindness and compassion. And I'm sure that Christianity is too, although I'm no expert.

Share Guide: You have a Ph.D in Psychology. Buddhism, with it's emphasis on mindfulness, seems to appeal quite a lot to the Western mind and Western psychology. What are your thoughts on this?

Sylvia Boorstein: I agree. I think the Buddha was a pre-eminent psychologist and that interested me enormously because I was a practicing psychotherapist for many years. The Buddha has a different understanding of how the mind works, but it did not replace my understanding of psychodynamics, or child development, or any part of Western psychology that I had learned. I came to learn how the Buddha understood the mind and the afflictions of greed, hatred, upsets of peace. This offered a different template for understanding the human mind. This was knowledge I used in addition to and not instead of what I knew as a Westerner. It was of tremendous help to me as a therapist. From the outside my practice may have looked the same, but I was much better informed after I learned what the Buddha taught. I actually think the Buddha had a brilliant understanding of the nature of the human mind and heart, and this was two millennia before Western psychology began!

Share Guide: In your books, you talk about how amazing it is that life exists, and with this viewpoint it seems that kindness is the natural way to live. But we see so much of nature that's "red in tooth and claw," like the old poem says--in other words, based on survival of the fittest. Seeing the clashes of man against man, it seems our species is just as violent as the rest of the animals. How do you reconcile this with living kindly?

Sylvia Boorstein: I honestly don't know. I really take the biggest hope from my faith that human beings in the end are compassionate. At least when we are not confused, we are compassionate. But we are often confused by the very strong impulses of greed and the hatred that comes up when protecting that greed. I think fundamentally it's greed more than anything else that is the problem.

Share Guide: The story of the Buddha is very inspiring. It shows the possibility of freedom and happiness, but in our daily lives the uplifting feeling comes and goes. Sometimes we feel enlightened and sometimes worldly responsibilities wear you down like a flickering candle. So what can we do to stabilize our awareness and try to be more enlightened in our daily lives?

Sylvia Boorstein: The key word is stabilize. I think about stabilizing and I think about reinspiring our spiritual faculties. The Buddha had a list of five spiritual faculties. One of them is concentration--we could concentrate a little bit more because the mind needs to calm down from whatever overwhelms us. Also, if we pay a little more attention, we see a bit more and what accrues is wisdom. Not perhaps enduring wisdom of the world, but a wisdom of what is the wise and appropriate response in a given situation. Then we see we are not trapped, because when we feel trapped, we are paralyzed. When we see something left to do, even if it's an internal move and not an external move, we can have the energy to do it. Then we see clearly again, which re-inspires our faith. This is a doable concept. That is what the Buddha taught: peace is possible in this very lifetime.

Sylvia Boorstein is one of the cofounders of Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre. The Center is dedicated to the teachings of the Buddha as presented in the Vipassana tradition. The practice of mindful awareness, called Insight or Vipassana Meditation, is at the heart of all the activities at Spirit Rock. The Center hosts a full program of ongoing classes, daylong, and residential retreats. For more information, please visit www.spiritrock.org.

Related Articles:
Deepak Chopra, M.D. on meditation
Wayne Dyer, M.D. on meditation and spirituality
Lama Surya Das on spirituality and meditation
Being the Change We Seek
The Dalai Lama on Learning Universal Responsibility
Be Love Now
Marci Shimoff on being happy from the inside out

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