What inspired you to write this book?
I have spent twenty-five years studying teachings on how to develop courage, dignity, warmth, insight, integrity — and it has changed the course of my life. I thought if I could share what I learned, and use everyday language and personal stories to do this, it might encourage someone else. Everyone needs true courage and optimism. This is my way to try to help.
You have studied with some of the great meditation teachers from Asia, North America and South America. What is it like to have a teacher?
Precious, lucky, messy, and sometimes downright terrifying.
Say more about the terrifying part!
These teachings are not a set of concepts you can just put on and take off like a suit of clothes or a good idea. When you take a teaching to heart, it becomes part of your longing, your intelligence, and that sense of meaning you call your purpose, your integrity or soul, your bone and marrow. This is what you bring to the encounter with a teacher, and that’s scary. And you find out that you have layers, and layers, and layers of thickness, so it’s difficult to put their teachings into practice. That, of course, is the journey part. You discover the teachings are really part of you — you are the one who recognizes the wisdom. So the trick is on you, so to speak. This adds up to being a precious and rocky journey.
You are an ordinary person who works in business, which is not a very contemplative place. How do you integrate meditation with your interest in business?
To me, these two worlds are not so far apart. Contemplation is another word for reflection. It means resting your mind on something, looking deeply, letting something penetrate. This kind of activity isn’t separate from what we do every day. We’re always contemplating something — what we want for dinner, what’s happening with our kids, or what’s happening with our company, our competitors, our team, another person, or ourselves. I had a business mentor who, when I asked him one day what he was doing — because he seemed to be doing nothing — said, “I’m thinking. I have only a few decisions to make, and they have to be the right ones.” This seems to me a good idea whether you are at work, playing basketball on a team, shopping for groceries, or parenting your kids. In contemplation the further you go, you more you listen to your heart. It’s completely up to you how deep you go.
Why did you call your book Awake Mind, Open Heart?
Usually we think of mind as something complex inside us that includes consciousness, unconsciousness, memories, perceptions, all our ups and downs, and so on. And awake means we are no longer asleep — we are ready to step into the world. We are clear, open, and curious about what’s happening. So I used the notion of awake mind to suggest that, generally speaking, this mind you or I have doesn’t seem to be all that awake! One moment it is wild and brilliant, or light and hilarious; another moment it is immovable — stuck on a thought. It gets over-crowded by thoughts that aren’t sensible, or it is so sluggish that you can’t perceive the simplest things happening around you, or with yourself. Yet when you look at it directly, it doesn’t seem to do anything at all. Generally speaking, this mind doesn’t do what we want it to do.
What about “heart?” Isn’t that being sentimental?
I used the notion of open heart to indicate courage. When we do something “with heart” or “wholeheartedly,” we engage without hesitation and without holding back. We relate fully. So heart doesn’t mean being weak or sentimental. Heart is some kind of guts and intelligence you have in you to open and extend yourself, feel things fully and properly, be challenged and learn. When we have heart, the result is dignity — a style of engaging with situations that is powerful and charismatic. So dignity here is a result of an inner journey that you make. In a nutshell, including how-to instructions, this is what the book is about.
You talk about a tradition called Shambhala that includes Buddhism, zen archery, and the Peruvian practices you studied. What is Shambhala?
In Asia “Shambhala” is the notion of an enlightened society where people prosper, live long lives, and have relationships based on mutual respect. Some scholars believe a society like this existed in Central Asia during the Buddha’s lifetime, and that the Buddha taught there. This is the outer meaning of Shambhala. Maps exist about how to find it, and this is probably where we got our notion of an Eastern paradise called “shangri-la.” Other people say Shambhala has inner meaning as an innate vision or archetype in the human psyche. Purely by being a human being we have a vision of a good society — for example, even vicious people are focused on destroying a vision they have of something good. Finally, there is a secret or self-secret meaning, where Shambhala is a personal experience and a bond we share with each other. In the secret meaning, there are enlightened energies just beneath the surface of our ordinary consciousness and we only have to work to bring them forward to create a good society. This is the meaning I was taught, and this experiential meaning is what I emphasize in the book. The responsibility for creating enlightened society comes down to you and me.
Why is Shambhala called a “warrior” tradition?
The Tibetans talk about “Shambhala warriors.” This isn’t warrior in the sense of aggression. It is warrior in the sense of having the courage to be genuine, care for others, and stay in contact with your heart. You can be a government worker, an ambulance driver, a mother giving birth, or a person on one side of a conflict. What makes you a warrior is not that you fight with bombs and guns. You might also be a soldier, but that’s not what’s brave about you. Your bravery is that you engage the essence of your humanity as you do what you do — while you drive a cab, write a memo, give birth to a child, and engage in a conflict. Your bravery is personal. You trust in your humanity and in your own kind of intelligence. You have sympathy or compassion for human experience, your own and that of others. You still eat, sleep, make love, talk with your kids, handle your dilemmas, drive a car, walk down the road, take a bath, do your laundry, look at a sunset, listen to the news and water your plants. The difference is that, as a person who is brave about humanity, you try to create, protect and promote the energy of life in everything you do. You try to always be in contact with what my teachers called basic goodness.
The notion of basic goodness seems central to these teachings. What do you mean by basic goodness? Why is this so important?
Basic goodness is a simple experience of non-duality, like when you experience the beauty of falling snow without the snow saying to you, “Shovel me.” In the simplicity of the experience, there is no problem anywhere. Basic goodness is also the capacity we have to have personal experience at all. If you take apart your being right now, and go back, back, back, not in time but in this moment now, digging underneath everyday concerns to what’s really fundamental, you won’t find a problem anywhere. All you find is a huge sensitivity that’s very tender. This raw and fundamental sensitivity is what lets you incorporate the world’s energies and learn. It’s what’s human about you. Basic goodness provides human beings with a direct connection to reality. Openness, freedom, gentleness, the potential for creativity and intelligence — these are also different ways of describing basic goodness.
Gentleness has a negative connotation in our culture. If I am gentle, I’m seen as unrealistic, a fool, ready to be taken advantage of, and so on. How do you respond to this criticism? What’s the benefit?
Being gentle is actually a realistic way to be. When you are gentle, you are intelligent, clear, not confused, resourceful. You have more options, more flexibility. With fear and aggression it’s just the opposite. You feel backed into a corner. Gentleness never puts you there.
Tell me about sadness. You say in your book that when we’re genuine, we’re joyful and sad at the same time. It’s unusual to value sadness.
Sadness isn’t a flaw of being human. It’s being human. If you look closely at your everyday experience, there is a touch of sadness whenever you are being genuine. This isn’t weepy — it’s just tender. Somehow realizing that I can never fully share my experience with you — and that the same is true for you — makes the bond between us stronger. You could become resentful about this unrequited longing, I suppose. But if you stay open, it makes you joyful-sad. In the book I try to show how having a joyful-sad heart helps us evolve into being a decent human being.
There is a lot of confusion about meditation in our culture. You present meditation as a simple, accessible, not religious activity—you call it, settling down with yourself. Yet you also say it’s difficult to do. Can you talk about this?
I give meditation instruction in the book, but the main point is that meditation is not exotic, mystical or frightening. Meditation is intrinsic to human beings. The kind of meditation I was taught is meditating as just being — being strong, confident, aware, and resting as you are. It sounds simple, but it is very powerful. It is also difficult to do. We have to train ourselves to even get the hang of it, because we are constantly busy being productive, thinking, daydreaming, reacting, veering away from what’s in front of us, moving on to the next thing, and so on. It takes practice just to sit simply and be fully in the present, as we are.
Can you give me one image that captures meditation as ‘just being’?
All the traditional images indicate composure, compassion, strength, dignity. Some emphasize activity; others emphasize stillness. One I especially like emphasizes courage. I took it from Akira Kirosawa’s film Kagemusha: the Shadow Warrior, and I use it in the book. In the film there is a medieval battle scene viewed from a cliff above the plains where a fight between two clans is taking place. A great warrior and his generals are seated on the cliff. That way they can see and be seen by their troops, so the troops won’t become discouraged in the awful fight that’s going on. In this scene the great warrior is actually a “shadow warrior,” an imposter chosen by the clan’s leaders because he looks like the true warrior. No one but the inner circle knows that the true warrior has died. So the whole scene has this tender quality. The shadow warrior is actually just a gentle peasant, with a big heart, who happens to look like the real warrior. From time to time he gasps as he watches men and horses die on the plains beneath him. Each time he gasps, the generals command him, “Hold, hold.” He composes himself. Then he gasps again at the bloodshed. They command him, “Hold, hold.” It’s a fabulous scene. He sits there choicelessly with a soft and gentle heart and also with an attitude of strength, stillness, and balance. Soft and tough at the same time. When you take your seat in meditation, you are like this shadow warrior. You aren’t doing anything. The entire approach is that you are a dignified person, sane, regal and worthwhile as you are, and it is fully natural for you to sit and be, sit and open your heart. Your attitude is not to escape what’s happening, but to get into it. Your intention is to open your senses, engage fully in what you’re doing, and proclaim your sanity. This is how you are on the cushion, and this is the sanity and openness you try to take into the world.
I was struck by another image you use of a caterpillar breaking out of its cocoon. You use this as an image of breaking through to bigger vision, instead of being suffocated by habitual patterns and fear. Can you say more about this?
A Shambhala warrior is always leaving the cocoon, in subtler and subtler ways. When a caterpillar weaves a cocoon, it produces strands of sticky stuff. It criss-crosses, changes route, and lays sticky stuff down in patterns to create a safe, snug, secure home where no light can come in. No breeze, nothing unpredictable, nothing unfamiliar and threatening can get in from the outside. The aspect of our mind that is constantly commenting, judging and interpreting is like this caterpillar. Our commentator thinks the same thoughts over and over, repeats the same behaviors over and over, and justifies them in the same old way, until a rigid cocoon is woven out of these thoughts and behaviors. The same material is chewed and regurgitated to come to the same conclusions, over and over. We come down the stairs, walk out of the house, pull out of the drive, get off the subway. Wherever we are, we look out and see the same lukewarm world we saw yesterday and the day before, over and over. We play the same lukewarm mental tapes over and over. We can weave a rigid cocoon out of anything. There’s something comforting about this, and at the same time nauseating. The motivation to hide in a cocoon is to find security and escape from fear, which doesn’t work.
You introduce a three-step process for working with fear. What is this three-step process, and why is working with fear such an important practice?
You can’t be fearless without knowing fear. That’s the basic teaching. The three-step process is this. First, look at your fear. Don’t look so much at the content — just see its purpose. Its purpose is to frighten you. That’s its job. Once you look at the fear, the next step is to soften to yourself. Underneath the fear there is something soft and tender in you, which is genuine and real, calm and realistic. The second step is to contact this. Finally, as the third step, use this sense of calm and tenderness that you contacted to go into the fear. Instead of running away, instead of trying to put the fear behind you or save yourself, trust your humanity and march into the fear. The three steps are look, soften, and just march in. You’ll find the fear dissolves, and you are left with yourself. Now your intelligence is unhindered, and you can use it to pick up clues about how to proceed. You can try this with any fear. The key is to work with the energy and use warmth to bring you through.
You link this to rousing confidence or “windhorse energy.” The concept of windhorse energy is new to me. What is it? Where does this practice come from?
Windhorse practice is very ancient. It is a practice of fearlessness and greater vision that comes from the great clans of Mongolia, Eastern Tibet and China, but it’s important to realize that, like meditation, windhorse energy isn’t remote or esoteric. The practice is based on connecting to greater vitality or life force — windhorse energy — in us. Every person is born with windhorse. You can increase or decrease your connection to it as you go about your day. In the book I teach how to rouse this energy, so you can have a strong connection to windhorse. Strong windhorse won’t guarantee you a particular outcome, but it will give you the energy you need to meet your challenges. It gives you greater strength and inspiration. In the traditions I studied, a Shambhala warrior rouses windhorse purely to escape the cocoon, purely to be in contact with basic goodness and the flowing of it. That way you command coincidence, rather than coincidence having command over you.
You tell stories about Rosa Parks when she sparked the civil rights movement, and stories about Nelson Mandela and others like an artist friend as he was dying. Each story you tell seems connected to courage and dignity. What can people like you and me do to gain dignity?
You already have dignity. That’s the whole point. No one can take it from you, not even yourself—although you can bury it pretty deep. What human beings like Rosa Parks achieve is related to the basic nature of you and me. Every person, without exception, is born with innate dignity. In order to bring it out and display it, you have to wear out your longing for another world and another moment than the one you have. This longing can be very subtle. So the teachings encourage you to appreciate your life, so that your body, speech and mind can manifest without resentment of any kind. The result is dignity. I tell many stories in the book about this, and about how to manifest different styles of dignity.
Another theme that comes through strongly is that the world is a friend. With so much insecurity, economic struggle, war and fear in the world, the world doesn’t seem very friendly. What you do mean?
On an experiential level, our world is always trying to wake us up. In fact, the teachers say the world has been trying to reach us and teach us for a long time. Before we realize this, we divide up everything into humans, animals, my world, your world, the world of people like myself, the world of people who are different, the sky over Mexico City, the sky over me, men, women, different economic classes, different governments, your side, my side, you and me, us and them. These divisions are supposed to help us understand things, but they actually produce bewilderment, and the bewilderment produces fear. Now we struggle to understand a divided world, and our world becomes an unfriendly place. Meanwhile, the real world — the one that isn’t capitalist, socialist, western, eastern, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, yours, or mine — the one that just is what it is, continues to do what it does — to function naturally to counsel, guide and, potentially, cheer us up.
Can you give an example?
One spring a Mongolian dust cloud was moving over the western United States. It moved right over the city where I lived, and newscasters showed the cloud on television. The weather forecasters laughed about how they had missed the class on Mongolian dust when they were studying to be meteorologists. But I sat there thinking it’s astonishing how connected we are. We are all one system. I thought, “A Mongolian dust cloud! It’s a magical world.” This is a very simple example. The notion of the world’s friendship is that we have endless possibilities like this to wake up, even in noticing a dust cloud floating by. What’s required is that we open up.
What makes your book different from other books on meditation, personal development, and courage?
I am talking about the same things as others, from a different point of view. I tried to be as open as possible, while remaining true to my teachers. For example, I studied and practiced Buddhism for many years, and I continue on this path, but in Awake Mind, Open Heart I try to steer clear of specific doctrinal teachings that the Buddha taught. Instead, I talk about subtleties in our everyday experience. There is so much treasure in ordinary human experience that usually isn’t acknowledged or proclaimed. I felt it was time to proclaim the richness underneath the surface of everyday life. By “subtle” I mean what we can experience directly, personally, without getting caught in big concepts of Good and Bad, Right and Wrong. So I took a phenomenological approach rather than a doctrinal one. I learned this approach from my teachers. Also, Awake Mind, Open Heart is not about personal development alone. It teaches how to engage further in the world. Toward the end of the book I bring in experiences and teachings from the world of business, where I’ve been engaged for years.
Your book has a lot of personal stories, from your own life and about your teachers. Is this also different from other books on this topic?
Well, I try to show that being on a path of courage and dignity includes everything you do, can, and will experience. It is messy, because life is messy. It has successes, failures, bruises, joys, deep holes to fall into and climb out of, and vast playgrounds for compassionate expression and activity. It is, as they say, life itself. So courage and dignity are always timely. The people you and I admire for their integrity, kindness, bravery, or whatever, are just like you and me. They build up their strength and vision in the same way you and I do. The stories I tell in Awake Mind, Open Heart could be anyone’s stories. Each story conveys a hopeful message for you and me.
Can you tell us one of the stories that’s in your book?
There is one about a U.N. doctor who inspired me. This doctor had worked on the ebola crisis in Africa, and when I heard about him he was working with the AIDS crisis in Africa. At one point government officials tried to shut his AIDS clinic down. He refused to cooperate. An interviewer asked him, “Don’t you get discouraged at these obstacles?” He said, “Well, my emotions do go up and down. When the helicopter with the soldiers came to get me, I refused. Yes, I was frightened. But no, I don’t get discouraged.” He continued, “The helicopter that came to get me left without me and crashed on its way back to the capital city. This showed me that life depends on nothing. It is very fragile. Now when I see what’s happening around me, it makes me more determined to help.” This U.N. doctor is teaching us that when greater vision is awakened, being afraid can’t stop you. Your strength and inspiration increase in unexpected ways.
What parting thoughts would you like to share with us?
That our world is completely workable. It may be in a terrible mess, but it is a workable mess. This is because there is something unconditionally good, without exception, in our experience, and this is true for everyone. As human beings we can use this in a visionary way, or not. We are free to help others, or not. What you do in any situation depends on your unique situation, what the world presents to you, and how much bravery you have to be a fully human being, just as what I do depends on me. Maybe you have enough bravery to lead your family unit, your company or your country. That’s good. Maybe you have only enough bravery to meet a few surprises with kindness and curiosity as you take your dog on a walk. That’s good, not bad. Sometimes circumstances bring you to your knees. You thought you were capable, and now all you can do is lie in your teepee and weep. All the other warriors are out being brave, and you can barely help the little insect that’s landed in your soup. That’s also good, not bad. The entire message of Awake Mind, Open Heart is to help you feel encouraged about yourself, regardless of your situations and circumstances. Each one of us can always bring out our courage, and we can try to bring out courage and greater vision in others around us, too. In this way we can help this world. Any one action you do may seem insignificant, but in practice it’s not, and you can’t know its effect. If you are being genuine, I’m sure it will help.