July 21, 2011

Q&A with Thirty-Year Vipassana Instructor Michele McDonald

Michele McDonald, who has been teaching vipassana meditation for thirty years, co-founded Vipassana Hawai’i and was the first woman to teach a formal retreat in Burma (with Sayadaw U Lakkhana, Abbot of Kyaswa Monastery). Although she’s been busy lately holding retreats for both her novice and more experienced students, Tricycle had the chance to chat with her via email about practice, teaching, and her CD “Awake at the Wheel: Mindful Driving,” which presents vipassana meditation instructions for drivers. Tricycle’s very own Web Editor, Philip Ryan, tried it out a few months ago while on a trip to visit the Venerable Bhikku Bodhi, which you can read about here. Personally I’ve never been in the oh-so-perfect circumstance of listening to a mindfulness CD while on my way to a monastery, but I did almost hit a jogger yesterday while driving to my town’s train station, which seems like just as good of a reason to give it a listen. It’s available for purchase here.

After thirty years of teaching vipassana meditation, what inspires you to keep doing it? Mostly I’m inspired by my own love of, and deep faith in, the liberating power of vipassana practice. It doesn't feel like a career that I'll ever retire from. More like a deep calling, it feels like what I've always done. It feels timeless.

Even if all the same people were all to return year after year to the same retreat, it could never, ever be the same. We never experience the same moment twice. All of us are ever unfolding from our depth, and the newness and beauty of it make it an entirely new and awesome experience for us each and every time. Every moment that passes we are different because we are alive. This true teaching is timeless. It's a student's depth and goodness that continuously draws me into being present for them. And in turn it calls up my own depth and goodness, experienced as if for the first time. It's just the way it is.

I think the ability to access the timelessness of this wisdom develops the more we understand on the deeper level there is "no-me", "no-you", "no-bodies", "no-thoughts." It's not "my" greed or "your" greed—it's simply greed. Greed is the mind that's attached. It is the mind that believes it can control so much of what we actually can’t control. It doesn't matter if the greed feels like it's yours or mine. When you start to get it, how this impersonal but self-centered and so often destructive kind of greed overpowers us—we understand that we don't have to act upon it. The growing need to understand this is very powerful and liberating. It's sweet to have a healthy desire to not get caught up in this stuff in order to have a better world.

It's pretty simple. Mindfulness is like offering people pure spring water in the desert. When mindfulness is present, when greed, hatred and delusion are absent, there is true non-violence. There is peace. And helping to end greed, hatred, and delusion inside oneself or for others turns out to be the same process. To know that the source of this peace is available at any time for us is deeply inspiring and joyful.

Also what's fun for me is it doesn't depend on age at all. I recently came from teaching a teen retreat on our land in Hawai’i. At the end of the retreat, one teen said to me, "Thanks for making me feel like I have the right to know the truth." We do have the right to understand what non-violence really means, beyond just being a good idea. And to actually go through a process of undertaking that discipline—the joy and hardship of it—to stick it out five, ten, forty years is the art of life and this is why I teach.

What’s a piece of advice that you could give to beginner vipassana practitioners? Any worthy endeavor in life takes a lot of dedication, good training, patience, and humor! Do the best you can to hold yourself capable for being in your life fully—with as much kindness and care as you can. Mindfulness gives us courage. You can move through deeply buried layers of fear, anger, or greed to find a more refined awareness infused with beauty and peace.

Investigate with true interest why you are looking into your own experience in this very moment, and in each unfurling moment, with a meditative presence. How does it make you feel? Is it a helpful use of your attention and interest? If you find anything at all beneficial about being in the present moment, feeling and hanging out with your own experience rather than just thinking about it, with patience—that interest and investigation will be present more and more. A wonderful kind of commitment comes from being able to be genuinely interested. It's like a genuine interest in a friend or in someone difficult, or an interest in being angry rather than getting overwhelmed in the thoughts about the anger and acting it out, or in sexual attraction. It takes this kind of committed attention to be with your experience rather than be oppressed by it. It's such a wonderful shift in being alive when you start getting that taste of liberation—when you start being with your whole body, mind, and heart, rather than simply believing your thoughts about experiences.

For example, say you work all day and you come home and your partner doesn't cook dinner like you expected. Your expectations have not been met. It's much easier to get caught up in what we wanted to have happen rather than be interested in what is happening. If we get over just believing the thought about the experience and we have an interest in our own expectation and don't buy into it, then we can be interested in the other person, and have a genuine connection in that moment. Only then can you work out whatever is needed in that connection, rather than being disconnected, believing in your expectations, shutting down, and not getting anything done. When you can actually stop the knee-jerk reaction and get interested in what's really going on, then you can connect. It's the cause for true connection—there's no real relationship without it. Otherwise it's just a projection of our fantasies, of how we want it to be. We all know this, but it's important to have a practice to help us figure out how to actually shift and to develop a discerning wisdom from your own experience, not just from what we've been told.

Why did you decide to teach vipassana meditation through driving—and not another activity—in your CD “Awake at the Wheel: Mindful Driving”? There were three reasons: I meet a lot of stressed out taxi drivers in city traffic jams while traveling to teach. One taxi driver asked me a lot of questions about meditation and he didn’t think it was possible to be aware in the present moment while driving. Most people have no training or practice in what mindfulness actually is. He not only learned how to be mindful while driving, he was profoundly grateful that he could access this ease of well being in such a difficult work environment and that he could keep practicing this while working. I learned from him that it is fun and challenging to train people to be mindful while driving. I felt so inspired by his willingness to learn.

I see so many people on their phones in the car, Bluetooth or not, or texting, eating, or putting make-up on—never mind whatever else might be going on in their heads! Most of us act out the urge to get more and more done in the car, instead of attending to what is really happening as we drive. I realized that mindfulness while driving is a training that we all can learn and practice. We spend so much time in our cars. It is such a rich time to learn and practice mindfulness! Because so many of us drive everyday, it can be a habitual, automatic, half-attended endeavor or it can be an opportunity to be really present and engaged with what's happening. Besides, driving is NOT something you do between times of being awake. It's actually a very good time to be awake. Yet we need encouragement and tools. That is what the CD is about.

I also was in a car accident some years ago in Honolulu, hit by someone who admitted that he was talking with his girlfriend and wasn't paying attention to driving. The speed we travel can dramatically heighten the consequences of inattention. These intense karmic consequences of the responsibility that goes with driving, the stress on each other's lives of car accidents, or even the stress of driving without the tools that come with mindfulness training, also motivated making Awake at the Wheel.

The website of Vipassana Hawai'i mentions that you like to help individuals “find entry points into stillness.” How can driving, where one is constantly moving, be one of those entry points? An "entry point into stillness" is simply a moment of knowing experience in the ever-changing stream of experience, in which mindfulness of present-time activity becomes framed, or a focus of attention. We all discover which kinds of knowings are easiest for us to be mindful of. That is different and unique for everyone. When driving, for example, we can train our attention with moments of knowing we are hearing, with knowing the body sensations happening with our hands touching the steering wheel, or the body sensations of sitting in the car. We find a sense-door that is easiest to be with in the present moment, and then apply that ease to all of our present moments.

What I mean by stillness is Samadhi: body/mind unification, or collectedness. The mind not distracted is present with things as they are. Sensations, sights, sounds, thoughts, mental moods, all of these phenomena are happening in the present, continually arising and disappearing. An entry point into stillness is a moment where the mind is not drifting or distracted with the constantly changing nature all around. It doesn't matter if you're driving on the freeway or sitting in a cave. This is a Samadhi that is alive and not fixed. The awareness is settled back and with the stream of life as it is changing, not absorbed in or lost in what is happening.

Often we are told in vipassana meditation not to “conceptualize” our experience—is it possible to do that while we are driving? Non-conceptual awareness means you're not engaging the meaning as the primary reality. You notice seeing and notice red, but wouldn't necessarily conceptualize the meaning that you should stop. But mindfulness is designed to give you options, freedom whether in conceptual or non-conceptual reality. So when you're driving you want to be fully in the conceptual world, of course. There are two aspects of mindfulness called ‘clear comprehension of purpose,’ and ‘clear comprehension of suitability’—in this case you need both of these to be operating really well. They help us to be mindful and clear in what we are doing (purpose) and to respond skillfully and be flexible to change (suitability). Mindfulness is able to adapt to both the conceptual and non-conceptual world. Say you're driving and you see a red light, the mindfulness will help you notice seeing, see the red light more quickly, and to brake. Your response times are going to be quicker and will allow you to assess any dangers on the road and respond more intelligently and spaciously. The wisdom-intelligence ends up being applied, no matter what's happening.

And say you're in a traffic jam…you'll be able to slow down and enjoy where you are instead of worrying you need to get somewhere. Mindfulness allows you to live on many different dimensions of reality, but when, through clear comprehension of purpose and suitability, you know you need to be on the conceptual level, it will give you much more capacity to be so, because you are able to attend to the moment clearly without being so affected by it.

Does Awake at the Wheel include any tips for city-dwellers who more often take public transport than drive? Yes, it is a matter of simply shifting from being in the driver's seat to being a passenger. It will be easier as one is less responsible for the safety of everyone on the road. It will be the same engaged mindfulness interacting more with externally changing conditions to more internalized attention, sensations, thoughts, feelings, sounds and visual sights arising from the experience of being transported. You get to just enjoy the ride.

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