Q: How did you get into teaching, and teaching people meditation?
Soken: To be honest, at first I resisted teaching. I wasn’t sure if there was a genuine interest or an understanding of how meditation and Contemplative Practice could be helpful in people’s everyday lives.
But as I started working with people in my practice as a Rolfer, it became clear that these days, most people intuitively grasp the relationship between the mind and the body. And the more I did my work, I saw that there was a real interest in it and people were eager to learn about Contemplative Practice.
So I started to teach some of my clients a little bit about meditation, with the understanding that — not all — but much of people’s physical pain begins with causes that are rooted in the mind.
They started feeling better and seeing positive results in their lives, so I continued teaching.
Q: What does that look like? When people have things in their mind that are causing them pain in their body.
Soken: Well, one of the things that people really struggle with is a false sense of scarce time, and urgency. And when people feel that they are under time pressure, their bodies get tight. They experience stress hormones that impair mental judgment, sleep, and causes inflammation of their body tissues.
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, that create and excite the 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 also 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 civilisation and as individuals to bring more goodness into the world.
Contemplation has traditionally been held in the confines of 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, more empathy to make for an overall better society that acknowledges both equality and differences.
Q: What are some of your proudest professional achievements in this field of meditation and teaching and mindfulness?
Soken: We created a free course in cooperation with the UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center that is a series of exercises and lessons that are scientifically proven to help people establish a practice and 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 a 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 propelled them out of their day jobs etc.
But what honestly, I am happiest about, (proud is not quite my kind of word), but what I enjoy seeing is when people understand the possibilities and importance of living a spiritual or contemplative 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 own life and that in doing so they can make life better for all life. This is an accomplishment.
I believe we need more intelligent spirituality in the world, and I am most proud when I see an intelligent spiritual life become stronger and more active 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: Iv’e helped a lot of my clients cdevelop 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
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.
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 get it and generate an income doing it.
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’d hard to be happy if this isn’t the case. Spiritual life is neither stoic asceticism, or 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 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 more clearly see their thoughts and feel their feelings.
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 for people.
Q: How do you approach working with your clients with 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 in a sustained reflection on the meaning of life.
Q: What is your educational background, or training for contemplative guidance, and teaching meditation?
Soken: I have been studying in the Zen Buddhist tradition for just under 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 almost twenty years of study under living masters.
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.
Also I’ve worked closely with UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and Brown University in contemplative studies, looking at the scientific evidence and neuroscience that justifies 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.
Meanwhile, I’m here in New York, where 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. 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]