Q&A WITH SOKEN: CONTEMPLATIVE PRACTICES
Q: How did you get into teaching, and teaching people meditation?
Soken: These days, most people intuitively grasp the relationship between the mind and the body. The more I did my work as a Rolfer, the more people asked me about the mind’s effect on the body. They wanted to learn more about meditation as a path to healing.
I started to teach some of my clients a little bit about meditation, with the understanding that — not always — but often physical pain is rooted in deep patterns of mind. As a result of contemplative practice, people started feeling better and getting positive results, so I continued to teach about consciousness and its effects on our lives.
Q: What does it look like when things in the mind cause pain in the body?
Soken: Well, for example, one of the things that people really struggle with is a false sense of urgency. And when people feel that they are under time pressure, their bodies get tight. Also, the body generates stress hormones that impair mental judgment, sleep, and cause inflammation of the body’s tissues, which is a source of disease.
That’s a simple example, but there are many thoughts that we have. For example: that the world is antagonistic, or that people want us to fail, or that someone is out to get us. Such thoughts excite fight-or-flight stress responses that degenerate the flesh.
So, in teaching different meditations and various spiritual views I have helped my clients to re-frame their experience, see new possibilities, and simply relax. These teachings have helped people who are suffering physically, emotionally and spiritually.
Q: What fascinates you about your field, about the contemplative field, and meditation?
Soken: I think that Contemplative Practice is a field of study that offers a possibility for us as a civilization and as individuals to reduce burnout, and bring more empathy and goodness into the world.
Contemplation has traditionally been held hostage by religious traditions, but the barriers between the sacred and secular worlds are dissolving. As everyday life becomes more informed by thoughtful, reflective practices, and as spiritual ethics and values are practiced with more and more vigor, I believe that a new level of understanding is emerging in culture.
I feel great things can come of this: more kindness, more innovation, happier lives, more meaningful lives, more purposeful lives, and more compassion to make for an overall better society capable of cooperation and collaboration while being able to acknowledge both equality and difference.
Q: What are some of your proudest professional achievements in this field of meditation, teaching, and mindfulness?
Soken: We created a free course in cooperation with UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center: a series of exercises and lessons that are scientifically proven to help people bring more happiness into the world. Making this material more and more accessible to people via the internet is an exciting project.
I’ve seen remarkable transformation with people over the years. I guess this is the part where I talk about how as a result of this work many people have made more money, or were able to have children, or start great businesses. And it’s true, I’ve helped people do all that. Clients have doubled their income in a year, had children when they were previously unsuccessful, started innovative businesses that freed them from day-jobs they didn’t like, etc.
But what I’m honestly happiest about, (proud is not quite my kind of word), what I enjoy seeing is when people grasp the possibilities and importance of living a spiritual life.
It is hard to quantify a person’s understanding, but when a client understands how a contemplative approach can be applied to and improve their life and that in doing so they can make life better for all life and everyone around them, this, to me, is a great accomplishment.
I believe we need more intelligent spirituality in the world, and I’m most proud when I see intelligent spiritual life become stronger, more active, more realized and articulate in the world and in the people I work with.
Q: This leads into the next question. What are some of the main things that you’ve accomplished for your clients?
Soken: I’ve helped a lot of my clients develop a better understanding of their life and what they’re about. And though it’s not the main focus, oddly, people always end up making more money when they work with me.
I was working with partners in a company and I encouraged them to use their business as a way of making their life more meaningful. I worked closely with them to develop a training course on mindful leadership, which went on to win an award form the American Management Association. The course also became a source of royalty income for them, which had the effect of helping to double their income, and I think they went on to establish a consulting company for critical thinking based on the material and work we covered in our sessions together.
It was exciting to help them find more meaning in their lives.
Q: What about other things you have accomplished, maybe for your younger clients?
Soken: Often, when younger people enter the workforce they’re there for a bit and things are ok, but they begin to realize that it’s really not what they want out of life: they’re not self- directed, they have no control over their time or resources, and they don’t necessarily share their company’s goals for life.
This dilemma causes people to ask what their life is all about. So, I’ve been very successful helping people figure out what they want to do with their lives, create an actual way to do it, and generate an income doing so. It’s not always an easy process, but it’s an unimaginably rewarding one, once it’s complete.
As I see it, this is not separate from a spiritual goal. In a successful spiritual life, both physical needs and spiritual needs are married, the two go together. It’s hard to be happy if this isn’t the case. Spiritual life is neither stoic, ascetic idealism, nor unchecked hedonism. It’s the middle way.
The ideal position is to generate a life in which both material and spiritual are unified into one reality. That’s what makes for satisfaction. For a complete life. It’s not easy to do. But this is what I help people achieve.
Q: What is your working philosophy and approach for working with clients?
Soken: My approach is to first meet clients where they are. We spend time examining their mental models and observing how those models impact their lives.
This work helps people identify and remove unnecessary blockages, which often take the form of confusion, doubt and negativity that keep them from achieving what they want in life.
I often use readings and discussions to help people reflect on themselves, their values, and vision of life. Meditation helps my clients see their thoughts and feel their feelings more clearly.
But mainly I encourage the raising of Bodhi Mind in one’s life for the benefit of all beings: fusing one’s particular life with universal purpose. Success with this makes people truly happy. Of course, not everyone achieves this, but it’s my core intention to help people achieve this.
Q: How do you work with your clients around meditation?
Soken: Well, together the client and I look at their life. Whatever meditation exercise we work with has to be very practical, doable, and it has to be the right kind of meditation at the right time. But in my view, meditation consists of a sustained reflection on realizing the meaning and purpose of one’s life.
Q: What is your educational background, or training for Contemplative Guidance, and teaching meditation?
Soken: I have been formally studying in the Zen Buddhist tradition for twenty years. My first teacher died at age 107 and I’ve been with another master in the same lineage since his passing.
I started studying Buddhism on my own when I was 12 years old and continued on in various capacities, including my twenty years of study under living masters, which continues to this day.
To continually study under the guidance of a certified master gives one insight into human consciousness, the human condition, and how to apply one’s self in practical everyday life for the benefit of others.
I’ve also worked closely with UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, looking at the science and neuroscience supporting the benefits of various meditations and practices. I’m very results oriented.
Q: Are you a Buddhist priest? How does that work . . . that hierarchy and training?
Soken: Yes, I am a Priest.
As a priest you have authority to teach intellectual content and lecture at the level of concepts and basic guidance, but you’re not qualified to certify someone as a Zen Master.
As a priest, you undergo training to teach teachers, which is the kind of training I’m currently doing. For me, that training involves establishing two temples and running them, one in the mountains of North Carolina and the other in Kyoto, Japan, as well as teaching people here in New York.
Here in New York I teach informally to beginners interested in learning more about Buddhism.
Q: It sounds like you are really busy. Do you have any extra curricular activities?
Soken: I write and publish articles every now and then on poetry and Buddhism. Most of this writing revolves around the theme of the poet as a kind of secular priest.
Q: People really seem to enjoy talking to you. What’s that about?
Soken: Oh, I love people. I mean, I’m endlessly fascinated by people and their stories. I care about them, and I understand a lot about myself by talking to others. Relating to people is how we get to know ourselves. Everyone has something to offer and I think that I see all my clients as teachers. So I ask a lot of questions and I’m genuinely interested in their lives, their struggles, perspectives, how they think, and what they have to say. We can help each other quite a bit by listening and sharing with each other. I enjoy that.
Okay, thank you very much, that concludes our interview!
To read some of the articles Soken has published, click here [link to The Millions]