All right. Well, you know, my name is George Beecher, and I’m from originally from Columbus, Georgia. But I grew up there. Then I spent a number of years living on the road with a rock band. And then I when I when I got done with that, I moved to Atlanta. And I’ve lived in Atlanta ever since, probably my my mid twenties on. So it’s been a long time, almost 30 years. And growing up, I, my my mother, my family was Catholic because my mother was Catholic. So we didn’t choose Catholicism. You know, we didn’t choose the thug life. The thug life chose us. But we my my mom was Catholic and kind of forced all of us kids to go to Catholic Church in Columbus, Georgia, and and she was really she she felt really deep, deeply connected with Catholicism, but none of us did. And we kind of revolted at a young age. And I was the youngest by far. My brother was ten years older than me and my sister’s about six years older than me. And so I guess when my brother was probably 16 or so, he said, I’m not doing this anymore, and he was too old for her to stop. And then as soon as he bailed on Catholicism, then, then my sister did as well. And then as soon as my sister did, I was just a little kid. But I said, I’m not doing that either. And my mom just kind of gave up. And and so I was done with the church. But there was still something in me that kind of sought the spiritual life. And I just knew that Catholic Catholics or Catholicism and Baptists was not for me, because in my town, the big Catholic Church and the big Baptist Church were on the same property. And I remember my first impression of that being that they shared a parking lot, or they they didn’t share a parking lot.
I’m trying to think of obstacles to practice for me. So for me, I talked about the mindful eating. For me, a lot of a lot of the obstacles of practice. There’s two things that were key for me. Number one is I feel like I didn’t feel like I had a lot of obstacles because I really kind of recognized, as I mentioned earlier, when I saw the Dharma, I kind of went, Oh, this is something I understand. It’s a system. It’s very it’s very it’s got a, you know, the four noble truths, that eightfold path, the 12 links of dependent origination, you know, and all this. I loved all the numbered lists of Buddhism, which there’s a lot, you know, and I loved all of that. And, and lists make a lot of sense to me. I’m a lifelong geek, you know? So a thing about being a geek is we get into something, we get all the way into it, you know, and we learn all about it. And. And so for me, I just took to it. I really a lot of the stumbling blocks that people might encounter, maybe I didn’t encounter because I was just committed to it, you know, right away. And one of the things that I love, the most about the Dharma and to this day, I tell people this all the time, is another of those messages that I got early on about the Dharma was that the Buddha would say, you know, this is what’s true. I know that this is true, but you need to practice this for yourself and see if it’s true, and then you do what’s true for you. You know, basically and in the message I took away from that was that the Buddha was saying, this works, but you need to see if it works for you. And and the sort of succinct message I took from that was try to break Buddhism. And that’s what I do every day, every day in my practice, since the day that I’ve discovered it, I put these practices to the test and see if they work. And I haven’t they haven’t failed me yet. You know, it’s not there’s nothing about it. This is one of the things I love about is there’s nothing about it that asks me to believe in anything. It asks me to try it, see if it works and, and apply it, you know, and and so I do that every single day. And that’s probably a stumbling block for some people, is going through the process of learning that I had a lifelong, you know, career that that taught me to do that. You know, I learned early on that when there’s a problem, you identify the root cause of that problem and then you you try different things to solve that problem. I’m a professional problem solver, and my wife will tell you I’m a personal problem solver, too much to her chagrin, you know. So for me, this this path that says, hey, here’s a set of of guidelines, of practices, of tools that you can use and you can apply them. And it will solve your your issues that you’re trying to solve. For me, that was a natural fit, you know, so I didn’t have some of the stumbling blocks maybe that other people do. I also another side of that is I also probably early on didn’t recognize all of my own stumbling blocks. For better or worse, I’m I’ve never had a problem with low self-esteem or anything like that. I generally not 100% like anybody, but generally speaking, I’ve always had a strong sense of self esteem and things like that. And so I don’t have a lot of negative self-talk and all that. So what that meant for me is though I probably was a food addict, I didn’t see myself as a food addict. You know, I saw myself as having this problem, not I am an addict of food or whatever. I saw it as I have a problem with food and I can solve that problem and this path is going to help me solve that problem. And it and I knew that it would take the constant daily application of that practice. So a stumbling block for a lot of people is that the Dharma is not a quick fix. And a lot of people come to the practice thinking it’s going to be a quick fix. And there is lots, especially today versus ten years ago. There’s a lot of people out there selling it as a quick fix. You know, mindfulness will cure this, it’ll cure that and, you know, all these different ideas. And it really is not in one thing that I’ve seen as someone who leads a meditation group is we over the years now, 13 years, we’ve had people come and people go. They they they come in and, you know, you get maybe on any given week, you might have two or three people that show up and and they’re like, Oh, this is the greatest thing ever. I love this. My meditation is awesome. This helps me so much. I’m like, I’m so happy I found this, you know? And they’re just you can tell the relief in their in their voice, you know, and they come for two or three weeks or two or three months, and they start to realize pretty quickly that it is not a quick fix it and that that great experience they had that one time they meditated doesn’t necessarily happen every single time. And they pretty quickly realize that this is not quick. It’s a long, slow water drip method, you know, and and when that sets in, when that hits, then they go looking for something else that’s quicker, you know. Oh well maybe if I do Kundalini or maybe if I do some chakra practice or whatever it is, you know, and not knocking any of those things, but they’ll go and they’ll try those things. And I kind of asking you earlier, I kind of mentioned this, but I think earlier I talked about how having conversations with other Dharma practitioners kind of I kind of see myself in them and vice versa. And and it kind of is almost like a meditation for me when I have a conversation like that. For me noticing when people come and then they go away. What I’ve noticed in addition to that is that almost all of the people that I know who are deep, lifelong practitioners now or committed to this path, the thing that that they often have in common, not always but often have in common, is they came to the Dharma. They left just like everybody else typically does. And they tried a bunch of other things. And then they eventually come back and go, This is the only thing that ever almost kind of worked for me. And they come back to it maybe. Maybe a year later, maybe ten years later, maybe 20 years later. And they come back and they and then they when they come back, they understand that it’s not going to be a quick fix and they’re there for the long haul. And and that’s when they start seeing results, you know. So yeah. So I think some of, some of it was me not having a lot of the stumbling blocks that that I might have. And some of it was not seeing those stumbling blocks as stumbling blocks. I kind of, I kind of understood that there would be problems and I was oblivious to some of my own problems, which is helpful in some not not long term. That’s not good. But but there’s a certain benefit to not knowing that I was suffering. You know, the old ignorance is bliss saying, you know, it’s not long term, but when you’re trying to get a practice going and all of that, not knowing the nature of your suffering is maybe helpful because maybe you don’t know how bad it is, how long it’s going to take to fix, and you start working on it and, and you, you know, if you start seeing some of those early successes like I did, like I saw a lot of benefit very quickly. And that’s probably a big part of what worked for me. And not everybody necessarily does that for me. The weight loss was so fast and so healthy and so beneficial for me in so many different ways. It impacted my life in so many ways that I had a very clear, very, very obvious set of benefits. And I went, Okay, if it’ll do this just just with eating, what else might it offer for me? You know, and that’s where I dove in deep. And I think a lot of people who come to it, they’re coming for internal struggles rather than external struggles. You know, like like I came to it with this obvious physical thing that I could look in the mirror in two months, six months, a year, and I could see massive change. I’m literally thinking of this for the first time as I’m talking about it right now. I’ve never I’ve never thought about this aspect of it before, but I think maybe the fact that I was able to see the change, not just kind of wonder if I’m changing, I could see it physically very quickly. And and the longer I dedicated myself to it, the more beneficial I saw it being. You know, I think that was a huge benefit that I’m only literally right now realizing. Whereas whereas I think a lot of people that come to it, maybe with anxiety, depression, that’s the two things I hear the most from people, many other things as well. And they come to it and, and yeah, it’s nice and yeah, it kind of works, but it’s, it’s a much longer, much slower process than what mine was initially. Nothing to do with me and my practice only to do with the fact that it’s an internal struggle, you know. So I think that’s a significant thing. And it’s interesting talking about it right now and realizing that as I’m saying it, I’m going to have a lot to work with on that later on and and a lot to consider around that. I may have I may have some meditations and Dharma talks coming out of coming out of this conversation from that. So. Well, wonderful. Yeah. I think that like I said, I think you really hit the nail on that just because you, like I say, you taste the benefits manifesting so much in life.
These five precepts early on when I when I went to my first Against the Stream, my first retreat, which was an Against the Stream retreat. They offered the five precepts, and I was already kind of aware of them. I was already living by several of them. But now when when they offered the five precepts, I said, okay, this retreat, I’m going to use this as my chance. I had already also adopted a healthy diet by that time because I had already long since lost the weight by that point. But though I was eating very little meat, I was still eating meat. And I said, You know what? This is my opportunity to go vegetarian. The retreat is vegetarian, and I’ll already be doing it for a week. I can just carry it on. So when they gave the five precepts and they offered that and they offered the the refuge, you know, I had a really good understanding that taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, I had a really good understanding, like I just said, that that didn’t mean taking refuge in no ill divine or against the stream or my friends around me or anything like that. It meant I’m taking refuge in the fact that somebody has done this before. And so it’s possible I’m taking refuge in the the the one thing that is constant, which is the Dharma, you know, and, and I’m taking refuge in the community of people who practice the same way. I do not this community, but the community, you know, like all community and and so I took the refuge vows and then I took the five precepts. And the only one I probably wasn’t living by at that time or trying to live by at that time. And I think that’s an important distinction because nobody lives the precepts perfectly. I don’t think I think people, you know, there’s shades of gray there. It’s all shades of gray. But but I was living to the best of my ability by four of the precepts by that point in the fifth precept, which was about alcohol. I’ve never been a huge drinker, but I would occasionally drink and and very rarely I probably at that time I was probably only drinking on social occasions a couple of times a year maybe, but I took that as the opportunity to say, okay, again, like, this is something I’m committing to. And I and I took that commitment seriously. I took the precepts and I stopped eating meat, and I also stopped drinking. And so at that point and ever since then, I have that was the last time I had alcohol. And a lot of times the people meet me and they find out I don’t drink. Their first assumption is, oh, he must be an alcoholic. You know, I don’t I don’t not drink because I can’t I don’t I don’t drink because I don’t want to slow down my own progress on the path, you know, and I don’t. And the main thing is what I love about the fifth precept is that it’s like it, it supports the other four, you know. So if, if you’re going to drink alcohol, you’re going to be more likely to lie, cheat, steal, you know, all these other things. So, so I love I love taking that on, not as denying myself alcohol, but as supporting the ability to to really be diligent about practice, you know. And so that’s that’s what the precepts have meant for me.
How are you deep in your own practice or whatever? I’m always, always relentlessly trying to deepen my own practice or not not deepen my own practice that I am trying to deepen it. But I’m also, I guess, deepening is the effect of what I’m trying to do, which is broaden it, I guess, like I’m always trying to learn more, which has the effect of deepening the practice. And, you know, my teacher, my current teacher, she’s part of what she says. She says, you know, you can anybody can memorize a Dharma book and regurgitate the Dharma to people and call themselves a teacher. Anybody can do that. So what does it even mean to be a teacher? That was a big eye opening question for me, too, was was like, what is it even mean to teach? What does it mean to teach? To me, it means embodying the Dharma, like really living the Dharma. And I don’t claim for a second to be the living embodiment of the Dharma or anything like that. I mean, I’m the reason that I’m constantly working at it is to is to get better at it. I don’t think I’m there yet. You know, and and you know, I mean, that’s kind of the the the the idea in the Dharma is that you can always deepen that and then eventually arrive at Nirvana or whatever, you know. So which is a whole other topic. I mean, like enlightenment has never been important to me, but in the last couple of few years I’ve started more and more coming around to the idea of it. I used to kind of dismiss it and go, I’m just trying to live my life. I’m just trying to like live. You know, I’m not worried about what happens later on. I just want to live more and more as I’ve go through these trainings and as I as I do deepen my Dharma practice, I am more and more coming around to the idea of, of, you know, if if we’re not if we’re not here to get enlightened, what are we here for? You know, and and coming around to that idea, the question then is, of course, is what is enlightenment? And that’s a I won’t even approach that topic today, but but I kind of think of just as a short version, I kind of think of enlightenment as big and little enlightenment. Like I think there’s stages along the path, but I think the little enlightenment happens all day, every day for people over and over again throughout their days. You know, if they’re practicing, especially. And then the quote unquote big enlightenment is, is, you know, a whole different matter. But but for me, with with the with as I’ve gone through these practices and whatnot and the trainings that I’ve gone through, for me, I shifted from feeling like I needed to tell somebody something about the Dharma to realizing that I just need to show them through my own practice. And I learned that early on and but it took me a long time to feel like what I had to show was worth showing. You know what I mean? Like, I feel like I feel like I have I have enough stability and comfort level and knowledge and practice and all of it. All of those things comes together for me to where I feel like now I have something more than words. I have something worth showing to somebody and saying, You know, this is possible. Not like, hey, look at me, but but like walking out the Dharma, you know, like, you know, my I’ll use my daughter as an example. My daughter is 15 and I would love if she wanted to be a Buddhist. She doesn’t right now. I’ve told her many times that like things like someday when I’m not around, whether it’s five years from now or 50 years from now when I’m not around. If you have a question that you want to ask me and I’m not around, go find a Dharma Book. Look in that Dharma book for that thing, and you’ll find my answer, because that’s what I would want to tell you, you know, and and that’s kind of it right there is like I’m I try to live my own life modeled on the Dharma so that so that even if somebody I know never like I have I have a friend who’s always saying she wants to see one of my meditations. I’m like, you know, you don’t need to see one of my meditations, but, you know, great, come along. But but if she never, ever comes to a Dharma talk of mine, I want her to be able to go, Wow. He’s always positive. He’s always happy. He’s always, you know, when things got bad, he always stayed stable and maintained and and or whatever it is. I want I want people to be able to look at how I behave and see the Dharma. And then to me, that’s that’s being a teacher. And that’s the part I guess that’s what I’m saying is like it took me realizing that teaching the Dharma is not sitting in front of a room full of people and reading a suit out to them. And I do that a lot. But that’s not that’s not just all there is to teaching. Some of teaching is maybe maybe most of teaching is people going, you know, I mean, the same way that I have teachers in my past that I let go of, you know, like I said, I got a lot of great benefit out of Noel Levine’s teaching when he was my teacher. I let go of him as a teacher because I no longer felt like I saw in him what I wanted to walk out in my own life. And that’s not a knock on his qualities as a teacher. It’s a it’s a it’s a comment about me and what I want in my own life. You know. So that’s what I try to do. I try to I try to imbue that quality to my daughter and say, look, you know, it’s not about some weird poly words in a book. It’s about, what did my dad do when we had this bad situation and happened? How did he respond when we got in a car accident? How did he respond when his brother died during COVID? How did he respond when he got that job promotion and or he or he had an opportunity to do this job over that job. And how did he behave when that situation came up? And I try to do that throughout. I don’t know if that answers the question you ask, but but to me, that’s what it means to be a Dharma teacher and a dharma practitioner, because they’re really just the same thing. You know, I think everybody is a Dharma teacher. That’s another aspect of this. I think, you know, there’s all people always sort of comment or joke about how it’s usually a joke about my my best teacher is my wife or my best teacher is my daughter or know whatever. But it really is true. Anybody can can be a Dharma teacher, whether they know it or not, whether they even know that they’re Dharma teacher or not. Sometimes they’re teaching you the Dharma, you know.
Evolution of Practice
So when I you know, as I mentioned when I first started practicing and read the book, Savor. My immediate my immediate response was to start meditating. I said, okay, I got I’m going to start meditating to try this out. And I was not at all familiar or comfortable with that, that idea. So for me, my meditation started as waking up at 4 a.m. I’m a I’m an early riser. So I would wake up at four, 430 in the morning. The only time that I felt like my house would be quiet enough for me to meditate because I was under the incorrect understanding that it needed to be quiet. And I would wake up and I would go out into the living room with the animals and the family were all still quietly asleep. And I would sit in my La-Z-Boy chair, my big comfortable La-Z-Boy chair, kick back, and I would just close my eyes and meditate for 5 minutes. You know, I started out with 5 minutes of that, and and then I slowly went to 10 minutes and 15 and 20. But that took a while to do a few months, probably to work up to. And I was one of the things I’ve I tell people this all the time, I feel like I was really fortunate that early in my and I owe it all the tick not horns teachings but early in my studies or training or reading and all of that. I learned a lot of like a lot of the, the, the pitfalls I learned about those through books. And one of those was how like when you meditate, if something is going on around you instead of instead of being annoyed by that thing shift your attention to that thing and make it the object of your meditation. And I had picked that up somewhere I probably from took my hand and and so when, when I would sit in that chair in the morning and I’m trying to meditate, the house was quiet and we had in those days a TiVo, which was a DVR. And and the hard drive in that TiVo would spin up with that high pitched whine that a hard drive makes. And as soon as that spin up would happen or the air conditioner would kick on and I’d hear the air conditioner come on, it would distract me and I’d get so angry. Then that’s how that’s what we do, right? And, and I would get angry about this distraction and try to figure out how to quiet that distraction, you know, turn off the air or silence the DVR or something like that. And I realized I couldn’t. So those things had to happen. And and I remember the the teaching that I had read somewhere about focusing on it. So I pretty quickly learned that if I just put my attention on that, noticing the sound of it spinning up and not not being averse to it, just letting it happen and noticing how it made me angry and how that felt in the body and all of that. All I was doing was shifting my meditation object from the breath to the hard drive or to the air conditioner, you know, and, and that was very helpful for me in practice. And that was something that I still do to this day. You know, there’s, you know, as far as like different kinds of stumbling blocks like that. Like that was something I encountered early on. I built my practice at home meditating just like that. And then I after a while I was like, okay, I should probably not lay back in a La-Z-Boy. I should probably be sitting upright, you know, and and so I started trying to find different things. I got a I got a cushion set to meditate on. And, you know, and that stuff’s not critically necessary, but it’s helpful in some ways. And, and so I had my nice practice going at home and I kind of overcame a lot of the internal hurdles, you know, gratitude, practice work worked for me the same way I had a friend named Khalil White, an acquaintance named Khalil White, who started some sort of a gratitude app when the iPhone was new and all of that. And she always said that like 21 days of gratitude will change your life forever, you know? And I was like, I sort of rolled my eyes at that and and I she she firmly believe that it took 21 days. It didn’t take 21 days for me. It took like six months. But after I had been practicing gratitude practice for a while, I started noticing that I was looking for the positive of, you know, good things in the day rather than habitually noticing the negative things that happen. We’re hardwired to notice those things. So. So all day long, you know, you go through your day, somebody asks you how your day has been. Oh, man, it’s been terrible. I’ve been, you know, and you tell them all the bad things. There’s so many good things that happen in the day, so many more good things than there are bad typically for most of us. And, and I started noticing that and now and now I notice I’m really aware of it when I’m talking to somebody. And, you know, there’s somebody there’s a few people in my life that I ask them in the morning how, how, you know, how was your day or how’s it going? And they’ll say, you know, they’ll either say it’s great or they’ll say it’s terrible. And you kind of can see this working in people. And so gratitude has been, for me, the the most beneficial practice for the least amount of effort. Like it takes very little energy and effort to do it. It’s very anybody can do it. Even people who say, I can’t meditate, I’m not a meditator. You don’t have to meditate to do gratitude practice unless you think of meditation, of thinking, of gratitude as meditation. You may pause unless you think of of the practice of sitting there and considering some gratitude. Unless you think of that as a meditation, it’s really not meditation. And it’s so easy to just take a few minutes out of your day and think of the good things that happened to you that day and that doing that daily, like we were talking about earlier, doing that daily just reframes your day for you and it starts gives you that muscle memory where you begin when something is going on. You don’t think of all the negative stuff that happened that day. You suddenly are looking at the positive things and and that’s had a huge impact on my life. So I love all of these different practices. And for me, when I practice my, my primary main practice since day one has always just been sitting sort of in open awareness, you know, just sitting there and observing my inner experience and my outer experience. And I do lots of other practices as well when I feel like I need them. Like if I’m if I’m going through a period of anger, then I’ll practice loving kindness. If I’m going through a period of, you know, envy or something like that, I might practice appreciative joy or something like that. You know. So I’ll do that. I’ll do those other practices on a like an as needed basis. But my primary practice is just sitting in open awareness and just that alone is an endless amount of, of, you know, food for practice, you know, so.
Fruit of Practice
People. It’s interesting to me because a lot of people who know me have said when I say this, a lot of people that know me say, Oh, no, you know, you’ve always been nice or whatever. But to me, I was not a nice person. You know, I was I was angry. I had I had lots of things that about me that I didn’t like. You know, not not, not. I’ve never been, like, terribly self-critical. So. So I didn’t I didn’t have a bad self-image, but I definitely knew there was aspects of my personality that were a lot to deal with, I’ll put it that way. And and probably still are. But I a lot of things in my life, I noticed right away the Dharma helped kind of alleviate that stuff. Like, like for me, you know, I would get really angry in traffic. I was a road rage or, you know, and living in Atlanta, one of the worst traffic cities in the world, you know, we you know, I used to I used to have a job that was 17 miles away. And it took me an hour and a half on a good day to get that 17 miles, you know. And so I would just be angry the entire time on the way to work. And mindfulness changed that to where suddenly I didn’t mind sitting in that traffic all day, you know, and I mean, it wasn’t ideal, but I didn’t get angry anymore. And one of the first times that someone else noticed the practice working for me, other than me noticing it for myself, was my wife in traffic? She said, We’re sitting in some really bad traffic and I wasn’t banging on the steering wheel or yelling at somebody or whatever. And and she said, out of nowhere she just goes, Whatever this Buddhist stuff is that you’re doing, you need to keep doing it. And I said, I said, Why? And she said, Because it’s working. I was like, How do you know? And she’s she said, Because look around you. I was like, Yeah. And she’s like, Any other time we’ve ever sat in this kind of traffic, you’re banging on the steering wheel or cussing or whatever, and she’s like, You’re just chill, you know? And I was like, Wow, you’re right. It took her pointing that out to me for me to notice that, you know, and and so I started seeing that throughout my life. I started, you know, when I practiced loving kindness practice for a long time. I first noticed that that was working because I was on my way to a recovery Dharma meeting and and on the way to that meeting in rush hour traffic after work one day I knew it was going to be a long drive and on my way and there was an accident. The way traffic anywhere probably works. But in Atlanta, for sure, when one little thing happens, it’s over. You’re going to be stuck for for a long time. And I was on my way to this meeting. There was an accident somewhere ahead of me. And all of a sudden traffic was sitting still. And I sat there for a really long time. I was definitely going to be late, you know. And then and then when I finally got up to where the accident was in the past, I would have said some unkind things about the people that had been in the accident. And then I would have kept going and that would have been it, you know. But as I approached the accident, I caught myself saying, you know, maybe save me, you’ll be happy, may be healthy, may you live with these over and over for all. And I was saying it for the people in the accident, for the people helping the accident for for the families of the people involved and for all the people in the traffic and all of this. And I noticed myself doing that. I was like, wow, that is a very different reaction than I’ve had in the past. And.
You know. So when I got when I when I read that book and I was introduced to the four novel truths and all of that and the mindful eating piece, you know, they really put the four noble truths and the eight in the eightfold path in the, the kind of flavored it with mindful eating or with or with weight problems or whatever. So they he didn’t say the first noble truth. He said the first noble truth of eating or of overeating or something like that and kind of put it in that framework. And you can do that with anything, you know. But, but one of the exercises is chapter two of the book. I know because I’ve read it 50 times, you know, but is, is mindfully eating an apple and it says it says it’s something like eating the universe or something like that. I forget what they call it, but it talks about taking an apple out of the refrigerator or whatever and sitting down with it and really looking at that apple, you know, turning it around, looking at it from every angle, noticing all the different colors in it and the texture, feeling it, smelling the apple, you know, and and before taking a bite of the apple, taking a nice in breath and a long, slow out breath and then taking your first bite and noticing the feeling of the skin of the apple breaking as you bite into it, noticing the juice coming out and the flavor of that and the texture of the inside and the skin and all of that. And it just went through it was just like it was a really slow process and it was a really deep, intense process of all of these things, like hundreds of things about eating an apple that you never notice when you eat an apple, you know, or anything else. We we live in a culture where we, you know, we shovel food in as fast as we can. We go to a restaurant and we get giant portions of food and we just eat whatever I was raised. And this this goes back to the you know, if you ask me, did I have any sort of a traumatic childhood, I would say, no, I had a great childhood. I loved my childhood, you know, but, you know, there’s things that are that impact you, whether you know it or not. And one of those things was when I was a kid, my mother would make me sit at the table until my plate was clear. You know, we didn’t have a lot of money and and she didn’t want me wasting food and whatever was put on my plate. That’s what I had to eat. And and so you grow up with this mindset of whatever is put in front of you. You have to eat and lots of other little things like that that teach you a certain way of thinking about food. You know, I was also raised that, you know, my mom was a wonderful mother and I loved her very much. She was not a great cook. And so I was raised eating food that didn’t necessarily taste good and just being okay with that and whatnot, not really caring about the taste of my food and stuff like that. So mindful eating, really introduced me to this incredibly rich experience that I had never, you know, by that time I was living, gosh, what, 40 years, you know, roughly, and 40 years of eating food. I probably had never taste that an apple as tick mom would have said, you know, I’d eaten a million apples and I never tasted one, you know, really. And, and so like that experience of, of really mindfully eating that apple and I did I literally did it like I didn’t just read it and then eat something. I read it and then went home, got an apple and did that exact exercise and through the whole thing, chewing your food 30 times. And one of the things that I, I tell people still today about about this is how like Buddhism or the Dharma is, is really this these simple things that my mom taught me as a kid. I just didn’t get it. You know, your parents teach you to chew your food. Well, you know, but we don’t do it when and and for some reason, it took 95 year old Vietnamese monk to get me to eat my food slowly, you know, and and I chewed the food 30 times, which seems excessive, you know, and and and I got so much out of that experience. And and, you know, people, you know, even even Dr. Chung, who I’ve had a friendship with over the years, she even asked me, like, you know, why do you think this was as successful for you as it was? And I can’t really say. But but I guess if I’m going to attribute it to anything, I would attribute it to slowing down, you know, is the number one thing that it did for me that slowing down enabled so many other things to happen. The taste, noticing all of those hundreds of things in the experience that you don’t notice before. But the biggest thing of all is in your body tells you when it’s full, your body, you know, your body lets you know when you’re done eating or anything else. I think for for that matter. But we just are, you know, we’re not taught to listen to it. In fact, we’re in some ways, we’re taught not to listen to it. You know, certainly the food industry and any other industry teaches us to ignore ourselves and listen to their advertising or whatever it is. And and so when you when you eat mindfully and you eat that slowly and, you know, instead of, you know, what we do our natural everybody’s natural tendency is you scoop up a spoonful of food or a forkful of food. You put it in the mouth, you scoop the next one and hold it waiting. As soon as you chew that one enough, you put it in the next one, you know, and this thing of this idea of putting down the fork and then chewing your food 30 times or whatever, and then and then taking a moment to just notice all of that process, even like swallowing it and then just taking a breath and sitting there, then taking the next spoonful. That alone enabled all these other things to happen, in particular, being able to hear the body signal me when I’m full. So what I found is that right away I was eating a third or a fourth of the amount of food that I was eating normally, just because I would notice that I was full and I didn’t need anymore and I would stop. So that was the biggest impact for me. Now that by itself was life altering and it did. I lost £110 in 11 months and I kept that off for years and I still have kept off most of that, or at least a good deal of that. And and but that same principle applied to everything else in life, to, you know, you know, I started noticing that driving my car to work, I had a much less stressful time driving to work because I was noticing everything about it rather than racing to get to work. And, you know, sometimes you can drive somewhere and you get out of the car and you think, I don’t even remember driving here, you know, and and and all of a sudden I was noticing people that are next to me. I was noticing, you know, all sorts of things around me that were going on, noticing how I felt about driving to work every day and things like that. And and so it just applies to every experience, you know, the, the mindful eating. It could be mindful, washing the dishes, mindful, brushing your teeth, mindful dressing, mindful, driving you know, whatever it is. And all of them impacted my life in a little ways. And then meditating as well and meditation is just the same thing as well. It’s just the inner experience instead of the outer experience and all of this combined and doing it all that first year especially, you know, it’s all new and it’s all, it’s all interesting. And, and.
Role of Teacher
So, you know, as far as teaching teachers are concerned and as far as in the sangha, the role of the teacher and things like that. You know, having come in through take that on background on it at the beginning, you know, there’s a very there’s a very structured sort of student teacher relationship or like levels of monastic teaching. And then Technion has the order of inter being and there’s and there’s lay teachers and things like that. So there’s this kind of the very formal sort of structure there. And, and of course, Technion was the top, you know, again, I mentioned earlier that some of the things that that I feel like I was really fortunate to learn a lot of these little lessons early on. And I guess I got them mostly from techno handbooks. But one of the lessons that I learned early on was that that your your own teacher, you know that. And it’s funny because Technion tradition in particular, they really kind of encourage a teacher. Most of them do, of course, but but Technion, it’s definitely very encouraged to have a good teacher in the Mahayana and all that. But while the teacher plays an important role, I never got the impression that the teacher was your master, your guru, your you know, I never got this idea that somehow the teacher was better than you, you know? And in the Dharma, of course, the Buddha says, you know, be a lamp unto yourself, you know, or or be a lantern unto yourself. And in fact, just recently, I was talking with somebody about how in as the Buddha is dying, he sees, you know, he catches a non crying, you know, about it and he says, hey, you know, why are you crying? You’re, you know, everything that’s compounded eventually dissolves. We we always knew this was going to happen, you know, and and he says, you know, don’t be upset. And he said, if you’re sad about losing your teacher, then if you want to pay homage to the teacher, use the practices as your teacher and, you know, really dedicate yourself to the practice. And I picked up that message early on. So I never in my in my whole time practicing the Dharma, I’ve never felt like I needed a guru to be my one and ultimate teacher or any of that weird stuff that goes on with that. Like, you know, there’s I watched a lot of other communities in this time, yoga communities and things like that. There’s lots of turmoil and lots of things going on where there would be some scandal and that teacher would, you know, go away and it would wreck the sangha and and and you get people who were just their lives were just upended, you know, over this teacher. And I never felt that way. And eventually it served me well when Against the Stream went through that with Noel, Divine had his own struggles and, and, and I was sad about it. I was sad to see the Sangha break up. I was sad to see the centers go away. I was sad to see that hub of connection go away. But my practice wasn’t altered by it. I didn’t feel the least bit like I had lost a teacher or anything like that. I felt like I had lost a teacher, not my teacher, you know what I mean? And and I kind of looked at it like, you know, my practice was never based on my teacher. My practice was based on the Dharma, you know, and and the Dharma is does not it doesn’t it’s the Dharma is the Dharma. It doesn’t it doesn’t have sex scandals and financial problems and all of that. But the Dharma is always there for you, you know, and teachers come and go. And I got that message early on before against the stream and know and all that. And, you know, and I got a lot of great benefit out of Noel Levine’s teachings and that Sangha. I got a lot of great benefit out of out of them. And I had no problem letting go of Noel when, when, when I felt like he wasn’t representing what I needed to learn. And so and I and it’s happened with the young was it I forget his name, but it happened in the Shambhala community. It’s happened in lots of communities, in communities, everything. It’s a it’s not unique to Buddhism. It’s not unique to Christianity. It happens a lot. And and so as far as the role of a teacher, I always got this message that the Dharma is my teacher and that also teachers have a benefit as well and can benefit at different times for different reasons. And you know, there’s that saying that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. And I think people misunderstand what that means a lot. I don’t think it means that, like when you want a teacher, one will appear in the right, one will appear. I think it means that, you know, when you understand what a teacher is, then you’ll see the teaching wherever you need to see the teaching, you know. And that might be a person. It might not for me as far as teachers over over the years take my hand was first for me if I looked at him as a teacher. Noel Levine then in the in the against the stream community there was all of these really wonderful teachers. There was Dave Smith and Joanna Hardy, you know, Joe Pablo Doss, George Haas. There was, you know, Vinny Ferraro and Matthew Brant Silver. And for me, Matthew to bring Silver, Vinny Ferraro and Joanna Hardy were some of the best. And and and when I did facilitator training with Against the Stream, Joanna and Vinnie were my teachers in that. And and I really I’ve always had a friendship with Joanna through against the stream and and when I when she took on the role of being a teacher to me like to me she was my friend and then she became a teacher, you know, whereas Vinnie, I had never met and he was a teacher for me for a while. And, you know, I got some I got some wisdom from Vinnie and from Joanna that was just incredible. Like Vinnie said to me, this one little thing one time that I still use every day, you know, for years now of, you know, in a situation and he was talking about a very specific thing. He said, what’s the most generous thing you can do in this moment? And that has become a thing that I live by now. You know, because it applies to all things, not just that one, but they were wonderful teachers for me. And I remember talking with Vinnie. I went to Vinnie after my training was over. I went and visited him at his Songer and and I went to him and I said I said, hey, you know, do you take on students as being a direct personal teacher? And and he said, Yeah, I do. And, you know, he told me how to find that information or whatever. And I said, Yeah, I’m thinking about it. It was it was too much for me to afford at the time. But I said, I’m thinking about actually taking on a formal teacher. And he said, Woody, why are you thinking about doing that? And I said, Well, I don’t think I need one. And that’s probably why I need one, because. Because. And he laughed. Because because he’s like he’s like, that’s wisdom right there. And he said, if you don’t think you need a teacher, you probably do. And I said, Yeah, I think so. And and it ended up actually being a while longer before I committed to doing something like that. And, and it took me a little while there was a period where I didn’t really know what I was going to this was when the Sangha dissolved and all of that stuff happened. And there was a period where I felt sort of groundless in my practice as far as global sangha was concerned. I had my local group, but I didn’t feel like I had a bigger community. You know, for a little while there. And and it was around that time I discovered heartwood refuge in North Carolina and venerable pun of Deepa and part of Wattie and Pine, the Deepa. He just passed away this past Saturday and and he was a he was an amazing teacher. Very, very spoke very little but said volumes, you know, and and part of what the is still my teacher now and and they’re just amazing and if I’ve ever felt like I had a teacher it’s part of what tea and I still don’t place my practice on that teacher you know, I love her and and I learn from her every time she speaks. You know, I learn from her. And sometimes when she doesn’t. But but I still feel like the Dharma is my teacher. And she’s my next in line, so to speak. You know, she’s my she’s my teacher in the physical form, I guess you’d say. And so I think I think that it’s important to know those things ahead of time and to not place your your practice should never be placed on an impermanent thing. The Buddha taught us that, you know, he said all compounded things are impermanent. So if if the teacher is also impermanent, then then you know what he said? His dying words. Let the let the Dharma be your teacher. That’s good advice. And I like I said, I try to break it every day and I haven’t found any problem with it yet. So it comes back to that thing about, you know, it being a slow process and committing to the path and all of that. You know, a teacher cannot do cannot do your practice for you. Nobody can do your practice for you. You have to do it yourself. And and that’s the part people don’t like to hear. They want a teacher to make it easy. They want and people project and I’ve learned this a lot lately, you know, and and I saw it happening with teachers that I practiced with as well. People project all sorts of things onto the teacher and and some of that is, is maybe deserved. You know, some, some of those teachers maybe do things that aren’t ethical or whatever or they, they don’t walk the path that they’re teaching you. You know, and for me, you know, George has actually I’ve never considered George one of my teachers, but I think he’s a brilliant teacher. And and he talks a lot. He always has talked a lot about like about like really like rigorously analyzing your teacher and seeing if they’re meeting the the the the teachings of the Dharma. And if you’ve got a teacher who you’re watching them do things that aren’t part of the Dharma, you know, the, the, the precepts, you know, you mentioned the precepts.
But I still I knew right away early on, I knew that I wanted to be around other people practicing the same things. And I had no idea how to do that. And so one of the big hurdles for me was to find a sangha. And in looking for one, I couldn’t find any around me. You know, only only ten years ago, mindfulness wasn’t the big thing that it is now. And and Buddhists in general are not going to advertise missing their product. You know, they don’t they don’t you know, Buddhists don’t go out and evangelize. You know, they they just do their practice and that’s it, you know. And so it was pretty hard in those days to find a sitting group and not knowing much about it. I didn’t know where to look or how to get it. And so I started my own just so I would have a group. And I found one other person that was interested. And we started meeting up. And then we found a third person. And then we started a group and and the group that meets here grew out of that. And, and I also had and this was very fortunate, I think I think I was really, really fortunate for this. I also had a job that I traveled for work all the time. So every week I was in a different city or cities and and I would go, I found that the mindfulness bill, which is a magazine by the Technion community, they had a Sangha directory which was like finding a pot of gold, you know, and, and I would everywhere I went, I would find a take my hand sangha somewhere and I would go and visit that sangha while I was there. And and it was it was beautiful. It was so wonderful because I got to meet so many different people in so many different ways that people practice in the Technion community. They practice a particular way. So they all kind of looked familiar and felt familiar, but they all had their own little differences as well. And so I got to see a lot of people how they worked. I got to learn a lot about how to start a sangha, how to let a sangha build. I always credit the Honey Locust Sangha in Omaha, Nebraska. They the guy this guy, Mike. I think it’s Mike McMahon. But Mike, I asked him early on, I said, how do I started this little group? How do I build it? How do I make it grow? And he said he said my advice, he said, is to let go of what you want it to be and let it grow into what it wants to be. And and kind of sum that up as let go and let it grow. And I have lived by that since then. And it’s really served me well, not just with Sangha Building, but with everything, you know, let go of what you want it to be like and and let it be whatever it is. I mean, that’s Buddhist practice right there. You know, being okay with things as they are, you know, is our practice. So. So that was how I got started building the Sangha for me is I started practicing and, you know, I had I had those little songs I would visit and I can’t say enough how great the experience was of going to all those Han songs over the years because they were all so welcoming. That was that gave me a real good impression of Buddhism as well, because I would go to some random 90 year old woman’s house and she would invite me right in. And, you know, and I mean, when you look like me and you show up on some 90 year old lady’s doorstep, you know, you wouldn’t expect to be invited in, but they would always welcome in very openly. And and and a lot of them I’m still friends with today. Now, I mentioned the online meditation crew, the Twitter, which really was my first song. And and it was great because I felt like there were other people out there who were doing the same thing. I was at the same time I was I had people I could ask questions to or answer questions for when I went on retreat for the first time, which as I mentioned, was an ATS retreat, when I went on that retreat, one of my online meditation crew friends went with me on that and we went together and she’s one of my best friends and we were at that retreat. First time we’d ever met in person. We were at that retreat. And one of the one of the reasons this is I think this is a good example of how being together in community is useful. Just one example. But when we went through that retreat all week long, we’re there and we’re eating three meals a day in mindful silence, noble silence, and and we’re doing mindful eating. So the week goes by at the end of the week when we could finally break silence and we could talk again. She was like, Man, sitting next to you was so great for my mindful eating. I was like, Really? I was like, I thought the same thing about you. And she’s like, What? And and the reason was her sitting next to me. She said, I couldn’t believe how slow you were eating. And she said, You know, sitting next to you reminded me to slow down and really eat mindfully. And I was like, Wow, that’s awesome. And I said, It’s funny, though, because sitting next to you taught me I didn’t need to take a giant plate full of food because what she would do is take these tiny small portions and she would eat it. And then if she wanted more, she would go back. If she didn’t, she didn’t. But I would take these big portions and feel obligated to eat it all. So though I was eating slowly, I was eating more than I needed to eat. And she was a constant reminder for me that I didn’t have to do that. So we see the things that we’re doing reflected in what others are doing, and we see things that and we’re doing the same thing for them. And then we also see things that we’re not doing, you know, others modeling that. And so I think that’s one of the reasons Sangha is so important, is we we see ourselves in them and we also see model behavior in them. You know, hopefully. And and that was some of the benefit of sangha for me now.
And I kind of went really deep really quickly. And then and then I’ve spent years since then just learning the nuances of it and whatnot. But I really, I really just fell in love with the Dharma. And for me, I’ve always been in anything I do. I tend to be someone who is good at or appreciates sharing that information with other people. So, you know, for me pretty quickly, I knew that I wanted to teach the Dharma as a way for me to learn it. And then I pretty quickly figured out that if I’m going to teach the Dharma, I need to know it now. And and so, like a big fear for me was a big fear for me was I didn’t want to share the Dharma incorrectly. I didn’t want to teach somebody something about the Dharma and actually cause harm rather than helping them. So I was real cognizant of that. And I and I started, you know, trying to find ways to learn properly, whatever that means, you know, and and really like you and I were discussing earlier, it’s these simple practices. There’s not much to the Dharma. You know, you can learn everything you need to know about the Dharma in a few minutes, you know, and then you can spend your whole life unfolding that and unpacking it and practicing it and building that muscle memory. And, and and that muscle memory is a lot of what it’s about. It’s about like when you’re in a situation out in the world, it’s not about sitting on the cushion. It’s about when you’re in that situation out in the world and something goes sideways and you have to respond to that, being able to respond rather than react badly, you know, that’s that’s that’s where all of it comes together. And that’s that for me is life changing as well, you know. So for me, I liked, you know, like I said early on, I knew I wanted to be a teacher. And I would say that like I think about this a lot because I’ve had the question a lot too. And from teachers. So I’ve thought about this question a lot. And the more I think about this question, the harder it gets for me to answer it in a weird way. Because. Because the truth is like over the years, over the span of my time practicing, which, you know, sometimes feels like a long time and sometimes it feels like no time at all, you know? But almost 13 years now, in that time, I’ve had many different reasons for wanting to be a teacher and all of them at once. So, you know, there’s times where I would have said I wanted to teach because I wanted to be a teacher. There was times that one got pretty quickly shoved aside. I pretty quickly realized there’s no great reason for me to be a drama teacher. You know, it’s not a lucrative career. It’s not a it’s not a you know, it’s not some there’s not a lot of, you know, fame and glory to it or anything like that. So so I, I sort of disavowed or got disabused of that early on. And there’s times the two primary things and it’s always kind of like flip flopped between these two. And I would say now it’s kind of all of these things or both of those things, which is not wanting to cause harm through incorrectly sharing the Dharma and also learning the Dharma by teaching it. I learn best by teaching people. And that’s true. Whatever it is I’m doing. If I, you know, I professionally I’m a teacher of of computer stuff. So I mentioned that I was a tech support guy most of my life, a huge period of that time or really even when you’re a tech support guy, that’s what you’re doing is you’re teaching people to fix a problem, right? They call up and they say, I can’t connect to whatever. And did you plug it in? You know? You know, you teach them you teach them to plug in their computer with with everything I do. I’ve found that when I have to when I have the responsibility of if I’m going to teach it to someone, I have to learn it myself. When I have to learn it myself, then now I’m learning what I want to learn. So I, I find that by having to show someone else how to do it and not wanting to look bad, doing it and, and teach them the wrong thing, doing it and all of that, I end up it’s for me, it’s just a way of being accountable, you know? It’s a way of making myself accountable to myself in order to teach the thing. And in the case of the Dharma, I don’t want to cause harm. One of the precepts that I said I was going to uphold was not to cause harm. And to me it would be harmful if I like. And, you know, something I’ve always kind of struggled with as a as I’ve done this is there’s times where I don’t want to speak. I want to let somebody else talk or whatever. Right. So you’re you’re trying to let somebody else talk sometimes, as I will. One of the reasons I don’t lead recovery Dharma meetings personally, I help them get started, but I don’t lead them typically. One of the reasons is generally it’s thought that when somebody shares, you’re not supposed to cross talk or something like that. There’s no rule about that. But that’s the idea. And I find that like a lot of times when somebody says something that I know is not correct about the Dharma, like, I don’t want them to leave that room with that misunderstanding to me. If I let them leave that room without telling them whatever I know that might help them, then I’m causing harm by not doing anything. It’s the it’s the if you choose not to decide, you’ve still made a choice thing, you know? So, like, if I don’t say anything at all, I’m still causing harm because I didn’t correct something I knew to be wrong. We were joking about people thinking that they’re supposed to stop thinking when they meditate. If somebody says that I am going to correct that, you know, I can’t I can’t not say something about that. I have to I feel like I have a responsibility knowing that we’re not trying to stop thinking. I feel like I have a responsibility to say, hey, just so you know, when you meditate, you don’t need to stop thinking it’s okay to think. You’re always going to be thinking until you’re dead and then you don’t have to worry about it anymore, you know? And, and so, like, in that way, like some of it is about not wanting to cause harm and some of it is about holding myself accountable to learn. And those two together, I find it complements each other real well and all of that. So when I first started practicing after about a year or two of the tick hand stuff now I never really had any sense of wanting to teach when I was learning the technology. So that was very much a time of just learning. You know, when I got to the Against the Stream Group, I sort of started going, Oh, man, this is something I’m I’m so interested in. I want to start teaching. And that would have been the point where I wanted to teach so that I could be a teacher, whatever that means. And there’s there’s a lot of great things about Noel Levine and there’s some things that I don’t particularly enjoy about him. But one of the things, to his credit that I will that I will say is that when I went to him early on and said, I want to be a teacher, he very, you know, he took it in stride. And he said he said, yeah, yeah, great, we can do that. And I was like, yes. And then he goes, you know, just practice for like five more years and then come back and see me. And I was like five years, you know? I thought that was like a lifetime, you know? Might have been a lifetime for me at that point. No. And I said I said got five years. But but I said, okay, you got it. And I and I said, okay, I got five years and I’m going to in five years I’ll be a teacher and that wasn’t true. But I thought, okay, five years. That’s what we’re doing now. And on that same retreat, I went to Matthew Brants over and I told him and he said he listen to me. If you know Matthew, if you ever see Matthew talk or anything, he listens completely to you. You know, like you can tell he’s like 100% focused on you. And he’s nodding his head and blinking his eyes and watching me while I talked. And when I finished my passionate plea that I wanted to be a teacher, he said, you know, there’s already a lot of teachers. You don’t really need to be a teacher. Don’t do that. Just practice. And I was like, What? How can you tell me not to be? You know, I just told you this is what I want to do. How can you tell me not to do it? And really, in retrospect, he was just doing the same thing that Noah did in a different way. He was saying, just focus on practice. The rest will happen. You know, Dave Smith, you mentioned a couple of times, Dave Smith is somebody I knew. He was in the he was at that time not yet a teacher through against the stream, but he was on his what he was teaching just not officially as an against the stream teacher. He had a long practice before that. But Dave, I went to him and Dave’s a character, you know, and I went to him and I went to lunch with him or coffee or something. And, and to me at that point, it was like going to lunch with a big teacher or whatever, you know, whatever that is. And, and he’s very he’s very down to earth and I won’t even say what he actually said because, you know, I don’t know who might see this, but he I told him what I was after and he said he said he said, look, he’s like, you’re already a teacher. Why are you trying to be a teacher? I was like, What do you mean? He goes, he goes, You know, at this point, I was probably like three years into practice or something. I had my sangha go on for about a year or two and and he said, he said, You have a sangha. I said, Yeah. And he said, Do you lead meditations in your sangha? Said, Yeah. And he goes, Do you give Dharma talks? I said, Well, yeah, kind of. And he goes, What do you mean kind of? I said, Well, when I started, I would play a Dharma talk, and then over time I started talking about, you know, I would read from a book and we would talk about that, and then I would start commenting on the reading. And then I started just giving my own talks and it kind of like morphed over time into that. He said, You’re already teaching, you’re already leading meditations, you’ve got a group. He’s like, All you’re saying that you want is a certificate that says you’re a teacher. And he didn’t say it exactly like that. It was a little more colorful than that. But he said he said, You just want a piece of paper that says you’re a teacher. He said, you want a blessing. You want a a robe or the you know, he’s you’re just looking for the authority to teach. You’re not looking to teach. You’re already teaching. And I was like, Thanks, have a nice day. And I left and I was like, That guy’s batshit crazy. I was like, You know, I’m not a teacher, you know? And and I realize now that he was the first person to lay it out and just tell me the truth. I mean, he was right in, and I didn’t I wasn’t ready to hear that at the time. I felt like I needed something. You know, Americans, we tend to think we have to have certifications and all of this when really Buddhist teachers throughout time have just been, you know, decided they were going to teach and they taught, you know, and then maybe an abbot of a monastery, you know, gave them a blessing. But, you know, whatever the case, they’re just teaching. And and he was he ended up just being the first of many people, let you know, Vinnie and Joanna later on said the same thing to me. Joanna in particular, you know, told me she’s like she was like, you’re already doing what you want to do. Just keep doing it and you’ll you’ll be fine, you know? And again, I wasn’t ready to hear that. I was more ready, but I wasn’t ready to hear that. And and there was that period of time after against the stream imploded. And I found what I’m doing right now, the the hardwood stuff there was two or three year period there where like I mentioned earlier, I felt kind of adrift. And it was partly that I felt like, you know, I felt like I had run out of options that I could afford. There was lots of options out there as we talked about. There’s lots of people willing to sell you those certifications and things like that. So there’s lots of pathways to being a teacher if you can afford them. And but I felt like where I was, there was not much available to me and, and, and the this one training that I’m part of now that I’m about to graduate from now, the Dharma Charter program at Heartwood, they had supposedly ended that and then all of a sudden they announced a new, you know, okay, we were just kidding. This is going to be the last one. And they said they were going to do a new one. So I seized the opportunity and signed up for that. And in the course of going through this first of all, there’s nothing anywhere in it that says you’re going to be a Dharma teacher, but everybody thinks they’re going to be a Dharma teacher out of it. So and our teacher has pointed that out. She’s been like, I don’t know where you all got the idea that I’ve you know, but it’s funny for me because it was really through this training and through it kind of started with Against the Streams Facilitator program because I learned a really valuable lesson in that from one of my fellow students in that we were talking one day and and she kind of said that same thing again. I was I was kind of like saying something about the training. I was like, man, I really thought this training was going to be X, Y, Z, you know, and and she goes, The training is not about the training. The training is about the experience of the training. And it was like a light went off for me. I was like, Wow, that’s really, really true. And that knowledge or that experience with her a few years later when I started the Dharma Chariot program and I had to fill out an application, and she said, Why do you want to be a teacher? Why do you want to do this and all that? And I had to like kind of write my story down, sort of like we’re talking about now. And I kind of realized that I no longer needed that authentication or certification or whatever to make me feel like a teacher. I realized that I already have been teaching for years now. I realized that really what I want is that is that confidence that I’m not misleading anybody through the Dharma, that I’m not incorrectly conveying the Dharma and the meaning of the Dharma not doing harm through that, teaching all of that. And that’s what I was trying to get, is not the certified certification, but the but the confidence in myself too, that I can do this and that I can that I can properly convey it. And I finally learned that no training anywhere is going to give me that note. Nobody can. Again, like I said earlier, nobody can do your work for you. I had to do my own work and it took me a lot longer than I thought. But I had to do my own work to get to the point where I felt like I was capable of being a teacher. And and that when I talked about this earlier, I said, I think people misunderstand that saying about when the student is ready, the teacher arrives. That’s what I think it really means, is not my teacher showed up when I needed her, but I became the teacher when I was ready to be the student, you know, as if that if that’s a little cryptic. But but like that’s kind of how it feels to me now. I feel like I feel like when I quit trying to become a teacher, I was a teacher, you know, I don’t know if that makes sense, but that’s how that’s how it feels for me. So I went through the arts training and that was wonderful. I got a lot of really great experience out of that. I’ve gone through now this Dharma career program in two weeks. I graduate from that and I’ll, you know, ordain as a reverend or whatever, whatever that entails for four, the Dharma Charter program. And it’s really neat because one of the things that sort of unintended consequence that I’ve seen coming out of that too is, you know, traditionally in America, the West Coast is a Dharma Haven, you know, I mean, there’s there’s all the Dharma you want out on the West Coast here. 13 years ago, you’d be hard pressed to find it was here, but you’d be hard pressed to find it. And the variety certainly wasn’t here. Now we have this rich variety within ten miles of where we’re sitting, there’s probably five, you know, five monasteries that nobody even knows are there, you know, but they’re there and and and even more, if you go into the greater metro Atlanta area, there’s dozens and dozens and dozens, one of the one of the interesting things that came out of this Dharma Charter program for me is, you know, venerable poverty. And on a deeper they they built heartwood refuge. I don’t even know how long they’ve been around. I don’t know, you know, I know some of their story, but not nearly all of it. And but I know that in the time that heartwood has been around, they’ve they’ve trained and not cranking them out, but have really trained nearly 100 Dharma graduates. Only a fraction of those went on to be, quote unquote, teachers. Some of them did it for their own practice. Some of them did it just and then didn’t finish or whatever. But there’s about 80 or 100 of us and and I was talking with one of my buddies who also went through that program. And and we’ve had the conversation several times about the South needing its own Dharma, meaning I don’t mean different from somebody else’s Dharma. I mean, you know, we don’t need to go to California to get our Dharma. We need the South to have its own, you know, places to go. Now, we’ve got you know, in the last many years here, we have established a magnolia grove, the Technion monastery in Mississippi. That’s huge. We’ve got tons of places around here now. So it’s really it’s coming along. And what’s interesting is all of these not all, but a lot of these dharma. Char, you are from the southeast. Not all. Not not all of them by any means, but a lot of them are. So we have a lot of people who are now beginning to work together. I just recently guest taught at Deep South Dharma, which is in Mississippi through Zoom or whatever. And I’ve and I’ve worked with one of my fellow students, Lisa Storey, at her sangha, led her sangha, and she’s going to eventually lead mine at some point. So we’re all sort of starting to work together and kind of teach each other’s groups and and and pass information to one another and help each other learn and grow and build our communities and all of that. So I think we do have this this Southern Dharma that’s a rising, you know, and that’s exciting. It’s exciting to know that, you know, five, ten, 20 years from now, we’re going to have retreat centers where we don’t have to travel to California. People can come. People in the south are seeking it out, you know, and there’s a need for it. If there’s not a need for it, they won’t happen. But it is happening. So there must be a need for it, you know. So that’s that’s exciting to me. I like that aspect of it. One of the one of the that question about like why do you want to be a teacher, which I have over the 13 years of my practice, that I’ve asked myself that a lot of times. But that question about why do you want to be a teacher? You know, the happiest I’ve ever been with the answer is like, is like lately now that I’ve been in this Dharma career program which is going to end with possibly presumably is going to end with me being a reverend, you know, Reverend, whatever my name will be and people will say, Well, why do you want to be a reverend? And my best answer right now for that, instead of saying, I want to teach or I want to learn or any of those things, my my answer has been so that I can tell my wife, she has to call me the reverend. That’s like that’s my big reason, you know. So I no longer worried about any of those other things. I just to me, it’s just it’s almost a bit of a joke right now. You know, in terms of the title, you know, I told my wife she’s going to call me the reverend, but but what’s coming from the South? That’s just a funny thing. But but the yeah, it is. It’s like all these all these different, you know, the spiritual materialism aspect of it. You know, we do that. I mean, just humans, we cling to this idea of like, you know, what? What does that even mean to say I’m a teacher and all of that kind of stuff. I am I, I have definitely gone through them all and like I said, different ones at different times and sometimes overlapping and all of that. And I’m I’m happy with where I am now, which is that I used to not ever want to call myself a teacher. I always shied away from being called a teacher because I felt like I was breaking some code or some rule or something like that. I don’t mind calling myself a teacher now because I do t i I finally listen to all those people that were saying, you’re teaching, you know, and, and I am, I’m teaching. So now it’s about making sure I’m doing it well and living up to it, not not causing any harm and all of that. But I don’t care about being called a teacher. I don’t care about getting a certificate. You know, my, my, my program that I’m in right now, in two weeks, I graduate and I become a reverend and whatever. There’s no guarantee that that happens. They tell you when you start the program, as they do with most programs like that, they tell you at the beginning, we’re not promising you this is going to happen because if you suck, you’re not you’re not going to you know, we’re not going to put our name on it. If you’re terrible teacher, we’re not going to make you a teacher. Or if you’re a terrible this, we’re not going to make you that. You know. So like one of my the guy that runs evolve or Jeremy when he was asking me about it and he’s like so what’s going to happen is like in two weeks you’re going to be official teacher get a certification where I was like, I don’t know. I was like, maybe in two weeks. I don’t know. I mean, you know, my my teacher, she’s kind of known for being very unpredictable. She’s very, very she kind of goes with whatever she feels. The Dharma is in that moment, you know, like she’s really in the moment and and you never know what to expect from her. You know, you you just whatever you think it is, it ain’t going to be that. It’s going to be something else. And, and, you know, I have no I have zero confidence. I’m two weeks away from graduation of this program. I have zero confidence that I’m going to get some sort of a certification or be called a reverend or whatever. Maybe that’s going to happen. But I’m not I’m not counting my eggs before they hatch, so to speak, because because I really don’t know. And any other time in my life, I would have been very nervous and very upset about that possible city of like spending money and committing and working hard for two years and then maybe not getting the the prize at the end. But I really I really I’ll be okay no matter what happens. You know, obviously it’d be nice to get the thing that I was told I would get, but if I don’t get it, I don’t care because it doesn’t change the fact that I’m already teaching three or four or five nights a week. You know, I already have my local song. I have my own practice that works really well for me. So the, the other things don’t really matter. That’s, that’s really what it boils down to. So yeah, yeah. That’s definitely fun to let go that yeah. You know herself. Yeah. So I think it’s a good time to wrap it up. Yeah. Cool.
VR and Virtual Sangha
My earliest sangha was actually an online group. And this is this is not unusual today, but at that time was relatively unusual. And and I’ve always been a very digital, you know, online kind of person using the Internet before it was called the Internet, you know, and that kind of thing. And and in looking for meditation groups, I stumbled across this group called the online meditation crew or own crew is was the was the acronym for it. And it was on Twitter. And it was a bunch of people on Twitter that would any time they were going to meditate, they would tweet out and say, I’m going to sit for 30 minutes and do metta practice starting at 8:00 Eastern time. And then they would put a hashtag on their of OM crew and hashtag want to sit and and so they would tweet that out and then other people would get alerted to that tag and they would say, Hey, I’ll join and you’d end up with 30 or 40 people around the planet who would sit together apart. And and we grew into this community that sat together every day at any given time. During the day, you might be sitting with ten or 15 or 20 people. And, and we would have particular days where we would practice for a certain, you know, I’m going to do method practice for such and such community affected by this tragedy or whatever. And, and we would kind of focus our practice that way in a lot of ways. It was like a regular sangha, but it was all through Twitter and and that was my first song that I would have had, you know, and then other things grew from that. But all of those people, the core people that practice that together at that time, we’re all still friends today. We’ve all met in person over the years. And a lot of that, again, due to my travel, I’ve been able to go where they are and meet up with them. And and many of them we practice together today. Some of them you may have already interviewed, you know, Gary Sanders. And I mean, I could just name off 20 people off the top of my head that we’re all we’ve been friends for 13 years and practicing together. Gary was part of my introduction. Gary Sanders was part of my introduction to the Against the Stream Sangha. And and he and I went in Pasadena, California. We got together in Pasadena and went and saw Dickman in person. And then I went down to Deer Park Monastery and did did a daylong thing with techno horn. So I had the, the real honor of being in the presence of take my hand, you know, a few feet away from him. And that’s something I’ll always be grateful for. But so there’s benefits in person that are obvious, there’s benefits in online that are wonderful as well. Anonymity, I think, is a benefit of an online group. And so when the pandemic hit, you know, I had my local sangha every week. I was traveling and stuff and I had I had various different ways of being in community with people. Sangha locally was my primary way at that time when the pandemic hit and we went to, you know, online only suddenly I’m staring at a zoom call type of format. It could be Zoom, it could be Facebook Live, it could be, you know, any of the options that are out there. There’s a lot of them. And it’s just this 2D screen that’s very flat. And you don’t get any sense of being together with someone. And oddly enough, I felt more together with people in that Twitter group from ten years earlier than I did in in some sort of a Zoom call. And I don’t really know why that is. I’m not I’m not sure why that is. Maybe because the online portion was in my head versus looking at a screen, you know. So when the pandemic hit, I, I had let’s see, probably three months before that, I had gotten a virtual reality headset and I love to talk about this. So but for me, one of my coworkers had a VR headset and he had this like really complicated setup with all the different cameras and stuff. And he brought it to work one day and he let us all try it. I had never seen VR. I kind of knew what it was but didn’t know much about it. And he got it ready for me and then he handed me the headset and I put it on. I put on that headset and he already had a game cued up where I was in a tower and there were some little goblins that were trying to overtake the tower and they’re charging towards a tower is called a tower defense game and they’re charging the tower. And I was shooting arrows and having to fend them off. And so you have a thing full of arrows and your bow and I put on this helmet and I’m like, okay. And I start grabbing arrows and shooting them. Now, in virtual reality, you’re holding a couple of controllers and they function the way your hands do. So like if you squeeze your hand like this, you grip in the game. If you pull a trigger finger, you pull that trigger finger in a game, you know? And it’s only gotten better since then. But but with that type of, of thing in mind, when you put on VR, one of the things that’s amazing about VR is your brain instantly knows what to do. You don’t have to really be trained. You don’t have to learn a bunch of buttons. Even though there are a bunch of buttons, your brain knows how to use it. And so one of the real benefits of VR is you jump in and it’s so immersive, you’re immediately in that space and your brain also totally buys it. Your brain goes, Okay, I need to shoot arrows at this, and you know how to shoot an arrow. So you just grab one and you do it and it happens, you know? And I did that for like 5 minutes. If I would move, I would feel like I was going to fall off of this tower. If I, you know, if something flew over my head, I would duck. You know, your brain makes you do that. And I took off this headset and I, I said, that was amazing. I was like, number one, I was amazed that I knew what to do without do it without training. So that speaks to how immersive and natural it is, right. The second and the most impressive thing to me was that in virtual reality, I thought if my brain believed that goblins were shooting arrows over my head and that I had to duck to avoid an arrow, or I had to pick up an arrow and knock it and let loose. If my brain believed that so easily, what does that say about actual reality? If if if actual reality is the information? You know, the Buddha says we get information through sixth sense doors, you know, touch, taste, you know, all that and then the mind. So if that’s what forms our reality and you put on a virtual reality headset and your your sight and your sound and even to some extent your touch. If at least three out of your six senses are immediately told something different and you believe it, then what does that say about actual, actual reality? You know, and if you have a Dharma practice, you know, about absolute reality and relative reality and and our relative reality is that one that we see that comes to our senses. So basically what it said to me was virtual virtual reality highlights the fact that relative reality is subjective, you know, and and I thought if it could be like that, I said, I wonder if I could meditate in virtual reality and if my brain could believe it. You know, I wonder if my brain would believe that I was with somebody in a sangha. So I started looking for that and there wasn’t anything that I could find for a few months. I did some other things in VR, just playing games and stuff like that. And eventually when the pandemic hit, it was about three months later when the pandemic hit, and I was like, I’m going to be at home for a long time. I’m going to use VR and I’m going to start meditation. If I have to start a sangha, I’ll start a song here just like I did, you know, years ago. And and I just got lucky. I went in looking and I just happened to stumble across this thing. I went into virtual reality. I went into an app called Alt Space, which is a free app owned by Microsoft. And I went in there and you have an avatar that you can make look like your body if you want to ish and, and I went into that, I set it up, I go in. And the first thing I found just by pure luck was this group gathering called Saying Goodbye. And I went to it and I thought, well, that sounds interesting. Let me go check that out. And it was this man named Tom Niccol who was running it, and he has a great voice and he’s a great with people. And and he’s leading this event in in this field. There was a stage in the middle of this field, and there was like a compass on the stage. And in the in the cardinal directions, there were campfires that you could go to. So like a small group could go off to one of these campfires. And it’s this beautiful valley in the mountains with the moon slowly moving overhead and clouds and all this and all these people standing around the stage and Tom carrying on a conversation. And what he was doing was he was asking people, you know, what’s what happened in your life this week that you have to say goodbye to, you know? And so pandemic times, everybody’s saying goodbye to jobs, to people that they love, to, you know, all kinds of things. You know, life changed. And so people had a lot of things they were saying goodbye to. And I was just enthralled. I was amazed by it. And after an hour and a half of that, I got out of there. I talked to Tom a little bit, but I got out of there and I was like I was like, wow, this is it is possible. I felt like I was in the same room with those were in the same space with those people. I felt like, you know, when you looked at somebody, you could see their head moving, their hands moving, you know, now these are cartoony avatars, you know, with no arms, just hands. But you when they move, you can understand it. You know, the body language was there even without the body, you know, and and so I came away from that going, yes, it does work. I can I can have a a community feeling without being there physically. And if you want to hug somebody, you can’t hug somebody. You can virtually hug somebody, but you don’t feel it. Right. So there are drawbacks, you know, anonymity. I mentioned this earlier, but like a lot of people, regardless of the pandemic, before the pandemic, lots of people suffer from various things of social awkwardness, social anxiety, you know, all manner of different things. And being able to be with people without being with people is a life saving to some people. Some people are shut ins, you know, all kinds of things. They’re disabled and can’t go to a public space like that. And all of a sudden they’re flying in the sky with friends or whatever, you know, because you can do anything almost, you know, so so it really makes a lot of accessibility. Things go away. It makes a lot of of being together. Problems go away. And and it’s not perfect. There’s things that you wish it could do that it doesn’t yet do, although they’re working on it. You know, there’s haptic feedback vests. They’re they’re pretty darned close. I’d say another two or three years away from you’ll be able to give somebody a hug in VR and feel them hugging you. Like literally if they tap you, you’ll feel where their fingers are on your body and things like that. So it’s getting more and more like it every day. That said, it’s not it is not now and it’s probably not ever going to be a good replacement for real human connection, because there’s something about humans, about humanity that you can’t get virtually no matter how good it is, you know, so, so to me, virtual reality is a wonderful thing for accessing a sense of community when you aren’t able to. But would I choose virtual community over in-person community? I wouldn’t. I would go to in-person community given the chance. But I would also say that I would definitely do both, you know, even if I had full access to my local sangha and could have all the community that I want locally, in-person, I would still also do the virtual stuff because it connects me with people all over the world and really and here’s the thing, and I tell people this all the time, this virtual reality community that I’ve become a part of, and now I’m teaching and there are three nights a week and all of that. And we have this beautiful community and is every bit as real and in some ways even better than some communities. People who support each other, they they look after one another, they check on one another in the real world, not just in the virtual world and things like when somebody’s sick, people send gifts and blankets and, you know, all sorts of things to that person. When somebody graduates, they send them books or whatever it is. But the thing that I’ve lost my train of thought, again, I do that sometimes have so many things I want to say about it that I lose track of. The one thing I was trying to say about it, one thing what was it? Oh, so one of the things I think is so cool about about this is VR meditation. Sangha to me is just the online meditation crew from Twitter in today’s age, like when we did that online meditation crew, when I started out and that was my sangha, we would say, we’re going to sit together, we would meditate together, and we were thousands of miles apart all over the world. People in Australia, you know, wherever. And we would all have this sense of practicing together and really the VR thing is just the next level of that. It’s the same thing. It’s people from all over the world who agree to sit and listen to the Dhamma at a certain time and practice the Dharma at a certain time and talk to one another. The only difference is now we have voice instead of a tweet and and now we can see body language. I mean, there’s eyes blinking and mouth moving and head movement and hand movement and stuff like that. And it really gives you it really makes you feel like you’re in community with people, you know. And I think that’s priceless. I think it’s I think it’s essential to a person’s well-being to to to get some of that, even if it’s only virtual. I also think it’s essential to do it for real. So so I think both have a place and I think both are invaluable as far as meditating in VR and whether or not that’s doable, it is absolutely doable. It’s funny because so I mentioned the evolve or community that I’m a part of. And by the way, Tom Niccol, that guy that I mentioned who I first encountered his son, is the one that started this VR community called it Volver, and he’s been doing it for about five years. And it was a nonprofit. He was building this community, and he’s a Unitarian minister himself and sort of Buddhist leaning. But but definitively does not call himself a Buddhist, but he’s definitely very Buddhist. And and, you know, Unitarians are pretty open spiritually. And I always joke that Jeremy felt that even the Unitarians weren’t open enough for him. So he wanted to start this community, and that’s where he started the evolved community. It’s not a Buddhist community. It’s not a Buddhist sangha. It’s just a community of people who are looking to improve their lives in some way, whatever that is, you know, and are basically getting together and being good people, you know, and it happens to be primarily Buddhist because of me and some of the other teachers that are there. That’s that’s not to say that it couldn’t be something else if if people showed up from some some other, you know, spiritual path or whatever. Right now, most of us are either Buddhist or Buddhist in and we’re and we’re the ones leading the meditation. So it has that flavor. But that community eventually got bought or merged with an app called Trip that is a solo meditation experience in VR. It’s the world’s leading VR meditation app. There’s lots of them. Trip is by far the biggest and best known. The CEO of that company, her name is Naya Reeves. She’s Keanu Reeves cousin or something like that. And she started this company. She has her own interesting background with practice. She’s done a lot of Tibetan practice, so years and years and years of practice from her, both for herself and also her. Her husband, I think was was a practitioner as well. And he he had an illness and passed away. And a big part of her life became basically like, okay, what’s going to help me get through this Tibetan Buddhism did, and also how am I going to live out the rest of my life? And she wanted to help people but also have a career in what she knew, which was technology. So she started Trip and and that’s where that comes from. So it’s a very solo. It’s not really even she would maybe even balk at the idea of saying it’s a meditation experience, but it’s meditative experience. And, and, and she’s trying to find ways to use that experience to help people who are suffering from chronic pain, from depression and anxiety, different things like that. But it is definitively solo. So she started noticing a need for community. People are like, This is great, but I want to be with people. And so she found us and we we put our chocolate and peanut butter together and, you know, now we are trip evolved I guess. And, and it was funny because the reason I’m bringing all of that up is because partially I want to point out it’s not just a corporation who bought, you know, this community. There’s a real reason that she wants to do this and a real reason why the two communities connect together. But but the other aspect of it is that when they when this merger was first announced and it said, hey, we got a meditation community with people and real sangha and all this stuff, somebody on the trip, Social Network, I think it was Facebook’s trip group, somebody in that group which you have to actively ask to join. You know, you’re not just in there by accident. You choose to be there. Somebody in their comments said, this is a joke. VR is a tool for putting people to sleep, not for waking them up. And I thought, what a weird thing to say, because first of all, this guy who’s saying bad stuff about it chose to be there. So he obviously used to trip. And when sort them out and connected with this group. So that’s weird in itself. But but then also I thought that’s so not true. Like he’s missing like it’s hard for me to understand how someone could try it out and then still think that. So maybe he didn’t try it out. I don’t know. But he said it’s a tool for putting the people to sleep. And I said, you know what? No, that’s that’s just dumb. You know, I said, you know, any tool can first of all, any tool can be a tool for awakening, but but a tool that that teaches people, encourages people to meditate and all of that. I don’t see how that’s a tool for putting people to sleep. And, and what his point was, I think I don’t know the guy, so I don’t know. But I think what his point was is it’s visual. Instead of closing your eyes and meditating. But not all meditation is done with eyes closed. Tibetan practice is not always done, you know, Zen is not always done that way. So number one, I think he was saying that like visually it is and it’s a lot of like fractal imagery and stuff like that. And it is meant to like calm me visually calm you down and stuff like that. But sometimes that can be really helpful, you know. So to me, I look at visual meditation in general, regardless of virtual reality, I look at eyes open meditation as one of many ways to meditate. You know, sometimes when I’m feeling disconnected from my body, eyes open might be a really good way for me to come back into being grounded in my body, you know, or whatever. And sometimes most of the time for me, I prefer to meditate with my eyes closed because I’m it helps me eat more easily, see my inner experience. So I thought it was a weird comment and I think it highlights some of the benefits and negatives of it. A lot of a common thing that I hear people say, well, in virtual and virtual reality, how can you meditate with this big hot brick on your face? You know, and that’s true. It’s you’ve got this you’ve basically got a smartphone attached to your eyeballs. You know, how can you meditate with that? Well, anybody who meditates knows that. How can you meditate with the noise of the hard drive spinning up? How can you meditate with the air conditioner going on? How can you meditate when little kids are screaming or your you know, I’ve meditated in Disney World before in during a parade and I’ve sat there and meditated, you know. So how can you do that? Well, VR isn’t isn’t anything any different than any other distraction that you experience in meditation. The only difference is you’re willingly putting on a distraction to then meditate and get rid of that distraction. Right? So there is that I personally have no interest in meditating and looking at fractal imagery and stuff like that does nothing for me. It only creates more stuff for me to work with, which I don’t need. But for some people who have real anxiety issues or real chronic problems, there are people who that visualization gets their nervous system under control and then allows them to meditate in the traditional sense or whatever. So I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. I don’t think it’s a tool for putting people to sleep. I think it’s a tool and it can be used skillfully or it can be used poorly. You know, the Buddha’s teachings are does it lead you to to wholesome or unwholesome behavior? You know, is it is it leading you away from happiness or towards happiness? When I put on a virtual reality headset and I’ve got 30, 40, 50 people from all over the world there, and we’re all talking about the Dharma and we’re meditating together. And when you meditate, you close your eyes so that visual distraction goes away. If you’re, you know, at least in if you’re closing your eyes, that visual distraction goes away. And again, in virtual reality, like one of the worlds that we are in, in my meditations, is called the Ancient Ruins. And it’s like a it’s like a hilltop in the forest that’s clear. And it’s got like a stone steps that go up to it. And these little stone slabs everywhere and people each stand on their own little slab. And and you’re in you’re surrounded by trees. There’s crickets, there’s little fireflies is floating around. And there’s the the Milky Way galaxy clearly visible above you, you know, and it’s this beautiful, serene space to me. It benefits it doesn’t take away in any in any way if I’m only able to meditate by putting on a headset, then I’ve got a problem. You know, if I’m only able to meditate by sitting on a cushion, then I’ve got a problem if I’m, you know, if it goes back to, like we talked about earlier, the simplest teachings, does it lead to suffering? Does it lead away from suffering? If are you clinging or are you letting go? You know, if I’m if I can’t be happy unless I’m meditating in VR, then I have something to work with there, you know, and I think that’s true no matter what it is. So as far as the benefits and can you meditate in VR? Yeah, absolutely. Anybody that says otherwise, I would challenge that. Maybe they need to have their own work to do on that. You know, in virtual reality or in any reality, you know, part of practice is commitment. We talked about earlier about how with your meditation you have to commit to doing it every day. It’s a slow water drip method. Well, it’s the same thing with community as well. You know, you you don’t walk in the door and suddenly have 200 friends or whatever. You you depending on the community, you know, you’re going to have to learn, get to know those people and whatnot. And you also don’t immediately walk in the door and feel connected with all those people. But but that comes over time. And that’s true in any community. I think virtual has some benefits because you’re not being seen. So like I said, if there’s people who have an I, I’m surprised by how many people are socially awkward or socially have social anxiety. You know, it’s definitely something that prior to practicing the Dharma I wasn’t aware of. I kind of thought like, get over it, you know, if somebody said they were scared to go to a big group, I’d be like, Oh, you’ll be fine, you know? But I now understand it’s a legitimate problem that people deal with in their lives and in a lot of people. So, so in, in real space, like I’ve been to all these little quaint little songs that are very nice. It’s like four people or eight people, you know? And those are like you said, those are those are lovely because it’s a small group. You get to know people quickly. You feel very, you know, very close because you literally are very close, you know, in a small space, you might be in somebody’s living room or in a small meeting space or whatever. But when, you know, it’s like when you go to a big church like we’re sitting in now, there could be 250 people in here and I’ve always felt the same way. You walk in a group that size, and I’m a very gregarious, outgoing person, you know, big, big personality and all of that. So when I walk into a room, I’m quick to make friends and all of that. But do I want to walk in and be the center of attention? No, I don’t. You know, and and but I think that’s true in any community. And virtual virtual reality is no different. The one one of the cool things about virtual reality is you can’t walk in currently today’s technology, you can’t walk into a room of 250 people because that’s not that’s a limitation in virtual reality. All of these platforms that are out there for virtual reality right now, they’re usually limited somewhere between like four and eight people for some of the smaller like games and things like that to even the social platforms like Alt Space and Horizon Worlds and all that, there’s a limit of about 30 to 50 people. So like in all space, which is probably the biggest one I’m aware of, you can have, you know, you can have about 32 people before things start or no, no alt space. You can have about 50 people before things start getting a little bit problematic and then they’ve done a great job of dealing with that because they do concerts and things like that, which by the way, is another thing you can do in VR. I’ve been to some really great concerts in VR, but they have this thing in all space called front row technology and they came up with it. And so what happens is a space can only hold 50 people, and when that exceeds, they came up with this way where they create a second instance of that same space that looks exactly the same. And the people in that space see the exact same thing as far as what they’re there to see. So if you’re at a concert, people in both spaces see the band. If they’re at a Dharma Talk, people in both spaces see the teacher. But the teacher doesn’t see both spaces. They just see the one space and they see like they’ll see like a little ring where each person in that other space is. So if somebody in that other space sends up emojis, like thinking, you know, like heart emojis or something, you’ll see heart emojis coming from a little circle that represents a person in another space. So you can have 50 or 100, 200 people or whatever, but you’re not going be able to walk around and socialize with them. You can only walk around and socialize with that group of 50 people. So the technology kind of limits the size of it and makes it a little more accessible. The anonymity, as I mentioned earlier, also makes it we have a lot of people who have told me that they thought they were going to be terrified to come in and socialize. And they found that not being able to be seen physically made it possible for them to come in and socialize and then and then a lot of it just happens the same way that it does in the real world. You know, if you if you come into a church like we’re sitting in and they’re having a service, there’s parts of that service that are going to build community and it happens naturally. And some of it’s planned out, you know, but like the pastor in a church or the Dharma teacher in a Dharma Hall is going to have a period where you can do questions and answers. And when people ask questions, you you go, Oh, that person has the same struggle that I do, or that person has got a crazy struggle, or, you know, whatever it is that we do as humans, you know, and you end up finding people that you kind of identify with, you know, you’re like, Oh, that person. I’m going to remember them. You don’t consciously do this. Your brain goes, That person is like me. That person’s not like me. And you end up connecting with groups. That’s why humans have cliques and stuff like that. We get clicky and big groups. We break into small groups, right? And if you’ve done any Dharma practice in big groups, you know that sooner or later they’re going to break you into some dyads and make you have conversations with people. I always hate that part, you know? Oh, but that’s how you build community. You get people talking to each other in a church and in a Dharma Hall. They’re usually going to say at the very beginning, they’ll ring a bell and say, Hey, spend the next 2 minutes, turn to your person next to you and introduce yourself. And I’m always like, Oh, you know? And I go, and, but you do it. And then you pretty quickly find out it’s not as scary. You feel like, you know, people and and all of that. Another thing that happens in virtual reality, as it does in the real world, is, is to the two things to me that I’ve really learned through virtual reality that shall I ever find myself again in a large public gathering in the real world. I will utilize this because I realize how valuable it is, but I learned it through virtual reality, which is, number one, that that sharing period happens at the end, usually of a Dharma talk or whatever, where, you know, they say, well, you know, anybody would like to say anything and somebody will raise their hand and they’ll just say what they got out of the Dharma talk. When you hear people say that sometimes that’s better than the Dharma talk, you know, sometimes the the insights that come from the people who listen to the Dharma talk because they’re bringing whatever they came in with and meeting that. My, my, my current teacher, venerable of what she says, she always says, you know, the Dharma arises where wisdom and ignorance meet. You know, when wisdom and ignorance come together, the dharma arises, you know, and and that’s what that is. When you’re in a room full of people and somebody shares something they’re not they’re not reiterating what the teacher said. They’re saying, you know, and it kind of always starts the same way. And it’s kind of funny to me. It’s it’s like a running joke or whatever. But somebody will raise their hand and they’ll say, Wow, this was really timely for me. And you ever notice in a Dharma Talk, everybody, it was timely for everybody, right? It’s not that the Dharma talk was timely. It’s that you listen to the Dharma talk when you needed to hear a Dharma talk. And so I’m struggling right now with this challenge and that Dharma talk talks about Dharma, and the Dharma meets every challenge. You know, the Dharma meets all challenges. So of course it’s timely because you’re making it timely, you know, and so when your ignorance and that has a negative connotation, but when the ignorance of your challenge meets the Dharma or meets the wisdom Dharma arises, you know, and, and so that happens, whether it’s virtual reality or not. And and I think that that part of the night really makes people connect and makes them go, Oh, that person understands my struggle, too. I’m not the only one struggling with this problem, you know? So that helps a lot. And then also a thing that we do in virtual reality at our sessions in Evolve or is at the end of the night, you know, we’ll say okay, well sessions over but everybody can stay as long as you like because in virtual reality there’s no time limit. You know, you can stay there as long as you like. So we don’t have to clean up the space. We don’t have to clock up the building or anything. You can stay as long as you like and socialize. And what happens is people kind of wander around and they’ll see a group over here and somebody who’s a little shy might kind of like you can see it happen. They’ll ease up to the group, you know, and get closer and closer and and part of community, whether it’s in person or not, is the community that already is established, recognizing that in the new people and going, hey, how’s it going? What do you what did you think about tonight? You know, like introducing themselves or or drawing them into that discussion and and just people feeling like, wow, this is this is what I needed to hear when I needed to hear it. And these people understand me that right there is the community, you know, and and it doesn’t happen instantly, but it happens constantly. And that constant happening of it is what we were talking about is the the you know, it always happens when you get together like that. So all you have to do is show up and it will happen. So the the constant showing up is what’s necessary. And like I said, that’s true. Whether you’re talking about meditation, you have to constantly show up for your meditation, whether you’re talking about the Dharma, you have to constantly show up and study the Dharma and practice the Dharma. And you have to constantly show up for community and help clean up the space and lock up the doors or whatever it is you do in virtual reality. It’s funny, I’ve got a new event that I’m doing in a new space called Horizon Worlds. It’s Facebook. They own this thing called Horizon Worlds and it’s pretty new and it’s really rough and it lacks the maturity of alt space, but it’s really nice looking and they just got a long ways to go. But one of the things we did in this in this world that we created, it’s a it’s kind of a a different version of that same ancient ruins world is in all of the other places you show up, you just stand there and listen to the Dharma talk. In this space, we had the option, so we took it of we created stacks of meditation cushions in. And when you come in so when you walk in now first of all, you don’t have legs and you can’t sit down. But we made meditation cushions where when you come in, you can grab a meditation cushion, you can go to your spot wherever you want to sit, and you can drop your meditation cushion and move over on top of it. And you’re sitting on your meditation because there is absolutely no reason whatsoever for it except that it makes it’s a ritual, you know, it’s that it’s a ritual practice of a thing that you do when you go into the Dharma Hall and a thing that you do when you leave, it helps people feel more real. You know, it helps it feel more realistic for people because, oh, I got to get my cushion and put it where I want to sit, you know, and know how it is in a Dharma Hall. People try to go, Oh, this is my cushion. Don’t you can’t sit on this cushion. This is my put your water bottle in front of it so everybody knows that you’re there. You know, it’s the what’s what’s awesome, though, is besides the fact that it kind of makes people feel more real world, it also has other benefits of of respect and dignity for the dharma. So like, you know, you know, the routine of going into a real dharma Hall and bowing to the Buddha statue. Well, we don’t have that. So how do you establish that that dignified sort of homage or or respect for the practice? Well, grabbing your cushion and taking it to that spot and picking it up when you leave, which you have zero reason to do, and going and putting it back makes people feel that respect without even them knowing that that’s what’s going on. It has that effect. And it also has in terms of respect for other people’s meditation practice, when you go into a Dharma Hall, you know how it is. If you’re late you don’t want to be late to Dharma Hall, but if you’re late to the Dharma Hall and you walk in, you try to go in quiet and you creep over to your thing and as quiet as you can, you sit down on your cushion and all of that, and you don’t want to leave in the middle of it, right? Because you’re going to disturb everybody and it’s rude and all of that. Well, in that same way, when you’re in Horizon Worlds for example, when you want to leave, you click a button and you’re gone. So when that happens, the character makes the sound. It’s kind of like a tool like that, and it makes a teleportation streams of rainbow light go up into the air, you know? So it’s an audible thing and it’s also a visual thing and it’s very distracting. And so if you’re in the middle of a meditation and somebody decides they want to leave, all of a sudden there’s a issue and they teleport out and everybody goes, What the hell was that? You know, and and so as a as a teacher, I’m constantly reminding people, hey, you know, please come in, grab yourself a meditation cushion. And if you would, when you decide that you want to go, it’s totally okay to leave. You’re not going to bother anyone if you leave. But when you leave, if you would pick up your cushion, put it back on the stack, go down the stairs and then teleport, because that’s a distance away. We don’t hear it and see it. And so you’re sort of teaching them to be respectful to the people meditating, teaching them to be respectful to the space and to the Dharma. And, you know, it’s a learned behavior. It’s a way of like enforcing that thing and it is absolutely useless. There’s no point in it at all except that it enforces those those ideals, you know. And and then the the other aspect of that as well is that inevitably, you know, you’ll get let’s say you have ten people that are new and they don’t know how it all works. Maybe two or three of them will go downstairs and exit properly, but the other five or six are going to teleport out when they get bored. And you know, we’ve had people come in and we had a guy one night we’re in the middle of a meditation, everything’s going great. Everybody’s nice and chill and meditating and, you know, doing their thing. Some guy comes in and he runs around and picks up everybody is meditation cushion while they’re meditating. He builds a giant stack of them and you know, he’s just having a blast and he doesn’t even know what’s going on. So when those kinds of things happen. Or when somebody teleports out of the space, I use that as an example. The trolls that come in and just want to run around and say racist stuff or whatever, I use those people in those instances as an example of how the human mind works. I’m like, you know, in the middle of my practice, I see somebody running around and grabbing a cushion. I’m like, Here comes trouble, you know? And so I’ll go, you know, just like when you meditate and your thoughts arise and they run around and they try to grab your attention. And if you’re not focused on meditation, you’ll get carried away with that thought. If you’re if you’re able, you’ll let go of it and it’ll eventually go away. It it’s a visual representation of that. And just like that harddrive on my DVR or my air conditioner, when I first started meditating, somebody teleporting out and creating a stream of light while I’m meditating is just a distraction. So it’s actually a benefit. It’s actually a gift. And that’s what I tell people. I say, you know, when somebody breaks the rules and meditate and teleports out in the middle of a of a thing, which is just a weird sentence to say anyways. But when somebody teleports out of a meditation and that stream of light up and that sound happens instead of getting aggravated by it, just be appreciative for the gift that they gave you of another opportunity to start over and to begin again and bring it back. And it is so effective and it’s so good. So in that way, this weird virtual reality, unique thing is actually not only is it not a tool for putting somebody to sleep like that guy said, it’s actually a thing you can’t even get in the real world. It’s a benefit that you don’t even get in the real world. So there are pros and cons to it, but I really think that the pros outweigh the cons. And it’s just a matter of is it useful to you and can it bolster your practice again? Goes back all of that all of that lengthy conversation to say, does it lead toward suffering or away from suffering? That’s an none of it leads toward or away from some. It’s you that decides whether it leads towards or away from it. Right. Is a distraction going to am I going to let that distraction distract me or am I going to let go of that distraction? That’s not the distraction doing that. That’s us doing that. Right. So, yeah, that’s that’s how that works. So let’s take a quick break. I was thinking the same, but I.
They they had two parking lots that touched each other. And so I remember at an early age on Sundays, the the people would be fighting over the parking lots. And and I remember seeing like Baptists and Catholics like saying terrible things to each other. And I asked my mom, like, aren’t these supposed to be, you know, religious folks? And and so that was my impression then. And when I was about 19, I went on the road with this band. And so kind of the, the fun band life. But I was I’ve always been an early riser and when the band would sleep late every day till two, three, 4:00 in the afternoon and I would get up at 8 a.m. and I’d be going around town and I would go visit different kinds of churches, you know, anything I could find synagogues, you know, anything that I could find. And I would explore these different religions and different, different flavors of religion as well. So I might go to, you know, 50 different Christian churches that were all a little different from one another, you know, and and just explored them all over the southeast where we traveled and and each time I felt like it wasn’t for me, you know, each time I kind of got a bad impression from every one of them. And and keep in mind, I was young. So at that young age, I kind of decided that religion was bad and and I kind of gave up on it. I said, Well, none of them suit me. So I gave up on that. And I over the years, I had kind of found certain things I liked about different practices and, and took those and, and let go of all the rest of it. And I just decided church as a building was definitely not for me. And so I kind of had my own practice. Yeah. It’s past 1/2 church just going to. Yeah, you had the monks pick them up all you got to just, you know, anticipated that. Yeah, that happens. Yeah. Yeah, great. Okay. Sorry. Yeah, no worries. That happens. Noticeable. Yeah. I was like, what is that? I’ve, I’ve had that happen before. I should have thought of that. Yeah. Do we need to start over. Is it okay to pick up? Okay, cool. Yeah. Talking about. Yeah, yeah. So by like 22 to 25, I had kind of found certain things I liked and certain things I didn’t. And I knew church and religion wasn’t for me, but spiritual life I did like and and so I kind of like came up with my own, you know, I don’t want to say I came up with my own religion, but I came up with my own spiritual practices that work for me. And I could boil the whole thing down. At that time, if you’d asked me at age 25, I would have boiled the whole thing down to sort of being like a battery.
which ended up, I’m convinced, ended up saving my life.
I thought, okay, you know, you have positive and negative on on a battery and there’s, you know, you have both and they both coexist, you know. So I kind of thought we have the bad and we have the good. It has to be a balance. And and and my my my sort of overall outlook was that I wanted I wanted to live my life doing as much positive as I could so that like when that time came that the majority of it was positive and, and the least amount was negative, and that to me was, was spiritual life, you know, and and I kind of quit searching at that point and I felt like, okay, this is it for me. This is where I am. Well, then, you know, I ended up getting married and and had had a child and my daughter and my wife and I, when we went to on a trip to Canada to visit her family, I was at the highest weight that I had ever been. I’ve always been a big guy. I’ve always been overweight, six foot four, you know. So I’ve always been big no matter what. And and by the time I had gone through marriage and all of this stuff, I kind of had gained a lot of weight. And I was as big as I’d ever been. And I, I felt really unhealthy, and I felt like my days were numbered. You know, and and when we went to this on this trip to Canada was a vacation. It was in the summer, believe it or not. A lot of people think Canada’s cold. It’s hot in the summer. No, we we went and and everything about the trip was was a problem for me. You know, everything about the trip highlighted the fact that I was unhealthy. I was hot constantly. I was I was uncomfortable constantly. You know, the flight I could barely fit in the plane seat. I had to ask for the seatbelt extender. And, you know, all of these things that made me really unhappy about my size and and plus, I just didn’t feel good either, you know, I felt unhealthy. And my dad died at age 59 from cancer and other health issues as well to do with weight as well. My my mom also died later on but but also from health issues and and so I kind of felt like I was on a I was on a very short timetable and I felt like I’d be lucky if I lived a few more years. But I had a really young daughter and I, I didn’t know what else to do. I had tried everything and nothing had ever worked. And and it also wasn’t on my mind, like I wasn’t looking for anything. I had kind of resigned myself to the fact that I was probably going to die young. And and on that trip, I woke up one day and I went to a bookstore, and there’s a whole story with my family about making me mad with that. But my mother in law would not give me a ride to the bookstore. She said, You need the exercise, you know. And she she was right. Was also wasn’t the nice way to do it. And um, and I went to, I went, I said, okay. And I walked down to this bookstore in August and and I was just, you know, drenched with sweat by the time I got there. And for me, like, kind of like my lowest point in life ever that I felt bad about myself. And I don’t I’m not a kind of person who typically feels bad about himself. So for me, this was unusual. But I went to this bookstore, I got there and I was soaking wet with sweat, and I went to the bathroom and I’m standing in the stall and I’m take off my clothes and I’m flapping my clothes trying to dry them off, you know, and and I was like, God, this is just not a way to live, you know? And and the reason I was going to this, bookstores, I love books, but also they had a Starbucks and I was going to get my Frappuccino and my chocolate chip cookie, you know, and as I came out of the bathroom and headed for that Starbucks there, as I passed by an end cap of books, and there was this white cover book with a slice of an orange on it, and it just said, savor mindful eating, mindful living. And I don’t know why that caught my attention. I don’t know why I even bothered picking it up. And, you know, I don’t know. But I picked up that book and I saw it was by this Buddhist monk and a Harvard nutritionist. And and I took it to the table with me, got my Frappuccino and my chocolate chip cookie. And then I sat down and I read half of the book during that set. The next day I came back and did it all over again and read the other half. Then I bought the book and took it home with me. And that book saver by Tickner Hahn and Dr. Lillian Cheung was my first introduction to mindfulness and the Dharma. And it also was my first introduction to mindful eating, which ended up, I’m convinced, ended up saving my life. I think I would have been dead already had it not been for that. So that was my first foray into it. And not only did it introduce me to mindful eating and mindful living, but but it introduced me to the four noble truths and the Eightfold Path and all of that. And, and unrelated to the food. When I read the Four Noble Truths, which essentially puts it, put it in the frame of food, but it said something like, you know, there’s a root, there’s a problem, acknowledge the problem. And then I said, you know, there’s a there’s a root cause for this problem. Find that root cause and identify that. And then it says, and there’s a solution, recognize that there’s a solution. And the root of the path for that solution is the eightfold path. And I kind of read that and I went, you know, my whole life, except for when I was on the road with a band. I’ve always worked in the technology world and and I’ve always been a tech support type person solving technical problems. And I read The Four Noble Truths, and I was like, This is a problem solving recipe. You know, it’s a it’s a it’s a a framework for solving problems. And I was like, this is what I’ve been doing my whole life. I’ve been doing this. So I felt like I had found a name, Buddhism, for what I had been my whole life and that thing that I had been seeking my whole life, that spiritual ity that I had been seeking when I was going to all those churches and all of that, it was already something I was doing. I just didn’t know that it was a thing, you know, and and finding that name for it and finding kind of the explanation of how it works, like what I’m doing is already a successful thing. I just need to learn more about it. And, and I felt like I had found that and that was, that was my introduction to the Dharma. And I just fell hook, line and sinker for it. And, and I’ve been practicing the Dharma ever since. That was 2010. That was July 3rd, 2010. And I remember the day of that trip, you know, but and been practicing ever since. So so I guess we’re coming up on 13 years now. My first year of practice was out horn style because that was my introduction to it, maybe almost two years and then and then slowly in that second year, I sort of discovered the Dharma punk scene and all of that, which is used to be called the Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society.
And I kind of discovered that that sangha, which at that time was pretty big and growing quickly and and when I went there and I love the horn, you know, sangha, the whole the whole thing was very beautiful, very lovely and sweet and kind and gentle and all these wonderful qualities and, you know, I loved that. But at the same time, when I walked in to and against the Stream Sangha at that time, and it was a bunch of people who looked the way that I felt, you know, like in the rock and roll music or punk rock music and things like that, rap and all that. People who cussed, people who are who dress the way that I dress, you know, and stuff like that. It just, it just had a whole different flavor to it. And then I really like that. And I started getting into Theravada and teachings and, and for a long time I kind of cherry picked the things I liked from those kind of the way I did from spirituality in my early life. And, and eventually I kind of understood this, this idea that I kind of understood this idea that if you you can cherry pick those things if you want to, and that’s fine. But but that if you really, really want to learn the most, you kind of it’s helpful if you go deep with one tradition. And the way that I learned that was basically someone said, you know, it was a teacher that said it’s okay to cherry pick, but if you pick and go deep with one, you’re going to learn things that you won’t learn any other way. And and it’s also a way of like honoring that tradition and keeping that tradition alive, you know? And so the way that I picked it up was it doesn’t even matter which tradition you choose. Choose the one that you feel the most identified with, but really, really go deep. And then if you still want to cherry pick things from other practices, do that. And that’s kind of what I’ve done. I, I consider myself Theravada and I practice primarily to serve out in practices, but when I like something from another tradition, I’ll practice that as well. Recently and I’ve been going through this training program called the Dharma Chariot Program with Heartwood Refuge in North Carolina. And they they’re sort of a triple lineage training. The the teachers. There have been ordained in all three traditions. So so they kind of teach from all three and one of the things that we did was we did a month where we practice the long phrases from Tibetan, Tibetan mind training and and I really, really loved it. And now I do that every day, even though it’s not Tibetan is not my practice, you know, so.