Interview with John
Doing One Thing Fully: Bringing Intention, Presence, and Mindfulness to Each Moment.
An interview with John Orr by Anna Louise Reynolds, conducted at John’s office in Durham on 19 July 2006.
Would you comment on how our sitting practice and daily life interact and relate to one another?
When I began to practice as a monk in Asia, life in a monastery meant that the whole practice was integrated into your daily life, because that was your daily life. Each activity of our day: arising in the morning, chanting and formal sitting in the meditation hall, alms round, eating the one meal a day, engaging in monastery chores, hauling cement to build the dining hall, carrying water from the well, listening to dharma talks – these comprised our practice. There was no distinction between formal meditation practice and everyday activities. It was seamless. The emphasis was on moment-to-moment mindfulness. Ajahn Chah’s emphasis was on doing one thing fully, whatever it might be, and the whole monastic environment supported that.
In the West, it’s a little bit different. People start with the formal practice, and then there’s the rest of one’s life. In the beginning it seems hard to bring mindfulness into the context of one’s daily life. We’re conditioned to move quickly and mindlessly through the day. To do otherwise requires intention, presence, and mindfulness, with intention being the primary factor that we need to develop. I have suggested that people begin by choosing specific areas of daily life to which to bring more mindfulness; for example, this week I intend to pay more attention to washing the dishes, or to driving my car without listening to music or the radio, to being engaged more mindfully in these or other activities. One can choose one a week to focus on. Gradually the practice becomes more integrated into the various aspects of our lives, and we reap the benefits. The willingness to be more present and mindful is itself the practice.
What sorts of experience might someone have who is new to practice?
The biggest misconception about practice is that you’re not supposed to think. However, people usually experience their conceptual, thinking mind at the beginning. The mind is not blank! There’s a lot of mental activity, imagery and emotions. The important thing to realize is that meditation is being present in the moment with acceptance of whatever we’re experiencing from moment to moment. The point is to be aware of what’s arising, but not to get lost in it. For example, there’s a difference between consciously planning a future event, like where we will go for vacation and being mindlessly lost in planning. As soon as we wake up to the fact that our mind is in the future or that we are lost in stories about our anger or other heavy emotions, then we are in the present moment with the actual experience. It’s important for beginners to recognize that Insight Meditation is being present in the moment with whatever it is that we are experiencing. It doesn’t mean the absence of bodily sensations, thoughts, or emotions. It means being fully and deeply present with these different aspects of body and mind as they present themselves from moment to moment.
Beginners should also be aware that they would encounter the hindrances: dullness, negativity, restlessness, and agitation, doubt. Our practice is to work with them skillfully.
What happens as practice deepens?
Mindfulness of the body, which is the first foundation of mindfulness, is a very good anchor and reference point for deeper awareness. That’s why we work initially with posture, sensations in the body, and breathing, because it connects us so deeply with our bodies. What we are experiencing emotionally is often registered in different parts of the body, for example, fear or anger in the stomach, chest, neck, shoulders, or hands. When we’re able to be sensitive and in touch with our bodies, we begin to pick up on these different mind states and emotions, which when we experience them helps us to cut through the tendency to get lost, to project anger onto somebody else or toward ourselves as feelings of inadequacy or unworthiness.
As practice deepens one finds a progression of insights: one is into how everything arises and passes away. This happens with body sensations, thought, emotions, perceptions, sounds, images, anything one comes in contact with: all being born and dying from moment to moment. As a result, one begins to experience cessation: the dissolving of the body and the mind, nothing arising or ceasing physically or mentally. Often fear arises at this point; if I allow myself to move more deeply into these experiences of impermanence and no self, what will become of me? Will I disappear? Then the body and mind re-solidify because we are not ready to move more deeply into impermanence and the space of emptiness. So we work with the fear as the proper object. As the fear begins to dissolve, there’s a sense of deep trust in oneself and in the practice. We can then move more deeply into the experience of impermanence and no self and begin to touch upon the unconditioned or ultimate reality. We begin to see the normal functioning of who we are from a different perspective. We experience an emotion like anger, but don’t get lost in being the angry one. Practice begins to become more integrated into our daily lives; we’re more fully present with whatever it is that we’re experiencing without getting caught in it. That’s really what freedom is.
How might others see a person who is in deeper practice?
People notice the degree of centeredness and focus. One can sense when someone is being fully present. Being calmer and at peace are also very obvious to others. When we are aware of what’s arising within us, not getting caught in reactive conditions: fear, anger, or grasping, this will be clearly apparent to others, especially to our intimates. We’re not reacting to the usual triggers any more! There’s a lot more openness, kindness, and compassion.
This is an important point: if in our practice we find that our life is becoming narrower, more rigid, more protective and defensive, then there’s something amiss in our practice, because practice should lead to more openness, spaciousness, and accessibility to others, to our having more ease and sense of well-being. Someone asked Ajahn Chah, “How do I know then my practice is deepening?” He said, “When the trees begin to look good, you know your practice is taking hold.” We’re more in direct touch with life.
As practitioners of the Dharma, we appreciate what we learn from Asia. Do you see a beneficial effect moving from the West to Asia?
Asia looks to America for guidance in economic growth and prosperity, which we have in excess. India and China, for example, previously among the poorest nations in the world, are rapidly becoming economically more prosperous. Their citizens can have their basic needs met, which before had not been the case. There was much material poverty; many suffered. This is a necessary part of human development, because people must have a degree of material comfort in order to develop spiritually. If people are hungry, not properly sheltered, don’t have enough medicine; it’s hard for them to give themselves more fully to spiritual pursuits.
After Ajahn Chah visited the U.S. and was back in Thailand, he was asked what was the difference between teaching Dharma in Thailand and in the West. In Thailand, he said, it’s like trying to keep an old plant alive. In the West, it’s like nurturing a seedling that’s just beginning to sprout, giving it water and sunlight, and watching it grow.
In the West, we have the suffering of the rich; in Asia, the suffering of the poor. Everyone experiences suffering. The Dharma is the medicine that helps us address this suffering, no matter what form it comes in, no matter where in the world one might be, people suffer. So the Dharma is universal.
How can we refrain from dualistic thinking (good vs. evil; kill the bad guys) in the face of the suffering and violence that we see in our world today?
We’re called to deal not only with the suffering of the world, but also our own suffering. If we can’t be with our own suffering skillfully, then we can’t be with the suffering of the world in a skillful, non-dualistic way.
It’s hard for us to see the cycle of violence and hatred in the Middle East, for example, because we feel powerless in the face of it, and it may touch places of fear and violence in ourselves. In finding more acceptance and spaciousness with our own fear and negativity, we can perhaps be more present with the suffering of the world. As that begins to happen, duality and separateness begin to fall away.
When we are present with our own suffering, we can begin to have compassion for it and for the suffering of others. It’s through that awareness and compassion that we’re able to move into more skillful action to address our suffering and that of the world, which is one and the same suffering. Suffering is suffering.
Would you comment on integrating different forms of Buddhist practice?
People come to practice from different directions, and there are different paths that lead to liberation. People are inwardly guided toward a primary practice, depending on what they need most. They start with that primary practice to develop certain spiritual qualities: concentration, calm, deeper clarity, insight, more opening of the heart, etc. That will become the ground, the foundation of their practice. Often the path will expand to incorporate other practices that focus on other needed areas, such as, Dzogchen Meditation, which is an awareness of our innate perfection. It’s an extension of the foundation. For me, I no longer make a distinction between Vipassana and Dzogchen; I see them as one practice, one Dharma – two practices integrated into one.
How do you see a person integrating their religious practice with Vipassana meditation without violating the integrity of either?
I grew up in a Christian family. I had faith in God and a deep love for Jesus. I didn’t, however, find in that the spiritual tools or practices to deepen my spiritual awareness and experience. That’s what drew me to the Hindu, then to the Buddhist traditions. I found tools that helped me to deepen an awareness of my spiritual nature. That was necessary for me to move along on my spiritual path. Years later, I found myself leading Vipassana retreats at the Jesuit Retreat House in Cleveland, Ohio. Priests, nuns and laypeople came to these retreats. Buddhist and Christian practices were integrated in that setting.
From that experience, I found myself opening again to the Christian path and to Jesus. So we grow beyond distinctions and the fear that surrounds them. We find that such distinctions tend to hold us back rather than help us build our spiritual home. In my experience, all paths merge in awareness, wisdom, and love.
What inspired you to travel to Brazil this summer to seek healing with John of God?
My teaching partner and dear friend Barbara Brodsky has made several trips to Brazil; I’ve seen how her work with John of God has helped her in various ways. Because I’ve been experiencing chronic physical illnesses, which are serious but not life-threatening, I wanted some way of working with them on the levels of the body, emotions, the heart, and spirit – in every dimension. And I know that the spiritual entities who work through John of God address all four of these bodies in a holistic way. Also, I recognized that my physical illnesses have Karmic roots, which I have seen in my meditation practice and with the guidance of my teacher, Aaron. I’m working with the illnesses through my meditation practice as a way to help release the Karmic knots. I feel connection with the spirits that work through John of God; I want to experience their healing energy.
How can we support your healing process?
By doing your practice. It’s all about practice. At the Casa, in Brazil, people sitting in “current rooms,” which help to raise the vibration healing energy, support part of the healing that occurs. Similarly, if people from our Sangha meditate, they’re helping to support the healing.
The New Hope Sangha is now going on three years old. What were your intentions in forming it?
I never intended to teach. When I began practice in the early ‘70’s, I was seeking liberation from suffering and freedom. When I came back to the West I soon began to teach because others asked me to. Increasingly, more and more people wanted guidance. The Dharma and Vipassana Meditation were just beginning to take root here; they were the seedlings being nurtured, as Ajahn Chah had said. I was inspired by people’s sincere interest in meditation and the Dharma, wanting to make it a part of their lives. When I came to North Carolina, Insight Meditation had not yet taken root. I wanted to introduce and support the practice here.
The New Hope Sangha grew out of the fact that people who had come to my meditation classes and retreats wanted a way of continuing their practice with others. I wanted to create a structure to support individual practice. A corps of experienced meditators was also interested in doing so. Essentially, the New Hope Sangha became that seedling that has begun to sprout. It’s a little shoot, but it’s there. And it’s providing the support that I’d hoped for.
How is it developing?
It’s an organic process. I didn’t have a particular vision of how it would develop. I felt that if we focused on practice, it would develop on its own. As long as people practice, they will help to support each other, and the Sangha will grow in a way that is most beneficial for it to grow. I am comfortable with this gradual process, especially because there have been so many changes in my personal life in the past several years. Therefore, I can effectively support only what I’m able to. I’m doing a lot of deep inner work, which will enable me to guide others more effectively.
How can we support you, our teacher?
The Retreat Committee has been extremely helpful to me; putting on retreats entails a lot of work. Now we’re in the process of putting together a Board of Directors, which will help us to obtain non-profit status. The Board will work with me closely: sharing a vision and establishing programs to support practice. Many who have found this practice helpful are now wanting to give back to others by supporting their practice in whatever way is possible: Retreat Committee, Board, newsletter production and mailing, or some other service. Financial support is always welcomed, as well.
Anyone who feels called to help may come to me. I would be happy to point them in directions that would utilize their talents and abilities in ways that would be most useful to the Sangha.