Episode 26 - Meditation, Mysticism, and the Two Winged Bird of Liberation: Deepening Your Appreciation of Human Experience – Part Two
In this episode Mark Michael Lewis of RationalSpirituality.com, Author, Speaker, And Entrepreneur, interviews Adam Coutts of IntroMeditation.com, a meditation teacher and practitioner for 2 decades, about the nature and fruits of Buddhist Meditation. Adam has worked with hundreds of individuals and group to guide them to discover the experience of meditative awareness, and to customize a spiritual practice that fits their personality and into their lives. So join us as we explore the power and simplicity of meditation, and the profound peace and bliss that comes for learning to rest in awareness and consciousness itself.
Part Two of Two.
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Announcer: This is Part Two of a two-part podcast. If you’d like Part One, you’ll find it at PersonalLifeMedia.com.
Mark Lewis: Welcome to “Money, Mission and Meaning: Passion at Work, Purpose at Play” where we explore how we can integrate our personal values and professional skills to create pleasure and profit in the business of life. I’m your host, Mark Michael Lewis of RationalSpirituality.com, author of “Relation Dancing: Consciously Creating What You Really Want in Your Relating” and “The Key is in the Darkness: Unlocking the Door to a Spiritual Life”.
This week we return for the second half of our interview with Adam Coutts, the meditation practitioner and teacher, who has worked with literally hundreds of individuals and groups, to guide them to discover the experience that we might call “Meditative Awareness” that’s at the heart of what it means to be human.
So join us, as we explore this topic and continue our conversation, and discover the possibility that comes from simply being who you are.
Adam Coutts: When a person is doing formal meditative practice, it’s not the time to review life. You might have insights come up for them. They might have creative ideas, but I agree with some of my teachers that talk about that’s really not the time to pursue those thought forms that come up. But afterwards, right afterwards, oftentimes the mind is very open. You’re still present to those insights. I think writing those things down or just insights that a person has about themselves; it’s a really great time to do that.
In a meditative posture, we’re held upright by gravity. We’re held in place through balance, not through muscular effort. We find a balanced posture that we can hold for a certain period of time, and a really good meditative posture involves a really upright spine. It will hold you up, and then the rest of the flesh of your body just relaxes off that spine. I think that’s a good metaphor for the balance between religion and spirituality; the lived experience and on having a tradition.
I was saying, in the Buddhist tradition there’s a fair amount of disagreement about the role of sexuality on the spiritual path. Much of Buddhism in Asia, as I understand it, is pretty traditional. Part of the Eightfold Path is right action, and part of right action is right sexuality, not harming through sexuality. For some traditional teachers, it just means no sexuality outside of procreation within a marriage. So, you’ll find strands like that in Buddhism. I’ve heard it said that the current Dalai Lama has said that homosexuality is inappropriate.
Mark Lewis: So, Adam, welcome back!
Adam Coutts: It’s great to be back. I had a great time with our conversation last week.
Mark Lewis: Excellent. At the end of our last conversation, we were talking about how the experience of meditation can usually be likened unto experience of what we call enlightenment, or even how it relates to the idea of God. The idea of practice and path on the way to that, and you didn’t have a chance to answer part of the idea where I had suggested that meditation can be somewhat like lifting weights, where you discover muscles where you didn’t before, and I wanted to give you a chance to get into that, if you could talk a bit about that.
Adam Coutts: [laughs] Thank you, Mark. I talked last week about how there are two aspects to traditional Buddhist meditative practice. One is focusing the mind, intentionally choosing an aspect of reality to focus on and let go of all else. The other one is having the mind accord with exactly what is, being mindful of the nature of what you could call phenomenological experience, or the different sensory experiences that a human being can have. I would say that the whole metaphor of lifting weights is more accurate for the first practice.
If a person is watching the breath and letting go of all distractions, there’s a way in which it’s a stupid, repetitive, boring exercise, like playing piano scales, or like lifting weights. The point of lifting weights is not lifting weights. The point is to really have a healthy, strong body. The point of playing piano scales is not to get good at playing piano scales. That might have its charms, but the point is to really play beautiful Chopin. The point of watching the breath, similarly, it’s a repetitive exercise. It can be boring. It can seem pointless. For any other meditation that focuses the mind by letting go of distractions, the point is really to have a mind that’s pliable, that’s powerful, that’s able to intentionally choose what you want to pay attention to.
Plato, the Greek philosopher, talked about how the human mind is like a sailing ship, where they’ve locked the captain and the navigator in the hold. The sailors don’t know how to steer the ship. They don’t know how to navigate, and they can’t decide where the ship is going. So it goes one way, towards one island, then it goes a few miles towards that island, then it goes a few miles towards a different island. That’s often how the human mind is. Samatha focus practice, the practice of intentionally cultivating a sharp mind, a mind that’s able to focus on one thing intentionally, is the opposite of that. So, it often is like lifting weights. It often is steady work.
However, I would say there is an aspect of work to the Postner[sp] practice, although less of one. It’s more letting reality choose you, rather than you intentionally choosing what you’re going to pay attention to. However, I would say with both focus practice and mindfulness practice, there’s a way at which there are times in formal meditation practice where it feels like work; where it feels like, “I’m up against my edge. It’s hard. I need to push myself. It’s difficult to push through and really meditate.” Then there are other times, where, from my own experience living as a monk in monasteries, and having a 20-year practice at home, it just feels really grooving, and it’s easy, and the practice kind of carries you along. Like in the popular sort of meditation, you’re just sort of grooving with the cosmos!
The Buddha had a student that came to him and said, “I’m kind of confused about this meditation thing, and the Buddha said, “Well, weren’t you a lute player (which is a stringed instrument like a guitar)? Weren’t you a lute player when you were a professional musician, before you were a monk?” And the monk said, “Yes sir, I was.”
“You know with a lute string, sometimes you need to tighten the string to have it sound true and on tune, and sometimes you need to loosen the string.”
The lute player said, “That’s exactly so.”
The Buddha said, “Well, so it does in our meditative practice. Sometimes we need to tighten the string. We need to work a little. We need to make a little bit of effort. We need to kind of lift up our spine a little bit more. We need to be a little bit more firm with ourselves. Hey, I’m not sitting here thinking and vegetating and just wondering what’s for lunch. I actually am meditating. I’m actually going to watch my breath, so I’m going to be a little more rigorous with myself.”
Other times, we need to put a little more slack into the string. We need to relax a little. We need to let our belly out. We need to just say, “Hey, I’m just trying to notice what is. I’m not trying to regulate the breath. I’m just trying to notice the breath as it is. I can be a little bit more relaxed.”
One more thing, if I may say about this: sometimes in the popular imagination, people think of Buddhism or Zen as, “Hey, it’s all good.” You’ve heard this phrase, right? Like...
Mark Lewis: “Don’t worry, be happy.”
Adam Coutts: Yes, just everything’s ok. You know, I think sometime in the sixties, or even to this day, people think of Zen as “it’s all Zen, right?” I think that’s because if you look at the history of Buddhism, there were monks who were meditating 20 hours a day, and the other one would say, “I meditate 21 hours a day.” They knew all the ancient scriptures, and they were super hardcore monks, and the master would say to them, “Relax. There’s nothing you can do or not do to get enlightened. It’s all good.” That phrase comes from Zen poetry, by the way. “It’s all good.”
Mark Lewis: I didn’t know that!
Adam Coutts: Yes. There’s a famous Zen poem, where he says,
”Flowers in the springtime, falling leaves in the fall;
If your mind is clear, then whatever season it is, it’s all good.”
Mark Lewis: Yes.
On the other hand though, that same master would find the common people sitting there smoking opium and playing mahjong, and he’d say, “Get off your lazy butts! You need to meditate. You need to sweat blood. You need to work harder. Don’t just do whatever is. It’s not all perfect. You actually need to stop your opium smoking, stop your gambling, and engage in a spiritual path.”
So this same master might say to some people, “Hey, relax! Put a little more slack in your string. To other people, he might say, “Hey, tighten up your string.” It all depends on what the person needed. So I think there are ways in which meditation is like lifting weights, and other ways in which it’s like relaxing and just grooving with the cosmos. It all depends on a person’s spiritual path. Different directions are appropriate for different people at different times.
Mark Lewis: [laughs] I love the idea of a string being tuned...
Adam Coutts: Yes!
Mark Lewis: ...and there’s this balance. You’re describing this effort on the one hand, and effortlessness on the other, and it’s not about going towards either extreme. It’s about the balance between them, so that the string is in tune. As I think about that and I experience it, as I imagine a cord that’s out of tune, where it’s just not “on”, it’s like there’s this feeling I get of “uuuuhh” and when it comes back into tune, it’s like the vibrations align for my ears, which have my body aligned, and there’s a rightness about it.
Adam Coutts: Yes! And we all know people that are a little “slack”, that we might say, “That might be healthy for that person to tighten up, actually get a job and quit smoking whatever they’re smoking. We all know people who are high-strung. Their string is a little too taut, and we say, “Man, you’re going to burst a vein.” We all know times in our own life when we’re a little too tight, and times in our own life we’re a little too slack. So, finding that balance requires paying attention.
Mark Lewis: So that brings up another kind of question, which is: what’s the point of this? I know for myself, when I first started my meditation practice, back when I was in college, I used to meditate, and I was in the bliss state that you were talking about, right?
Adam Coutts: Yes!
Mark Lewis: I’d have these fantastic experiences, and I’d think, “Oh wow, this is really going to change things!” and then literally, five minutes after I had gotten up from sitting down, it was gone! The whole experience was gone, and I’d come back the next day and I’d sit down, and feel like, “What happened to this experience? I went into this world and I got really clear, and then it disappeared.” Then, through time, I didn’t even have the bliss! [laughs] So I’m sitting, and I say, “Ok, I’m sitting, and I’m doing this, and I’m doing my focus meditation,” because I was doing focus meditation on a mantra at the time.
Adam Coutts: Yes. Yes.
Mark Lewis: Then, through time, I went through all these different experiences in my meditation, but what I kept finding was; when I left the meditation mat, most of the experience would disappear. I found for myself that I began taking up a practice where, when I’d get up from the meditation mat, or when I would stop my walking or my practice at the time, I would set aside some time to actually do some writing, or it might be actually when I could communicate with someone, because I’d gotten out of my anger and I was in a really clear space. So I would make plans, or I would do communication.
From a real, practical perspective, how does a meditation practice help you in your real life, in your daily life?
Adam Coutts: That is an excellent question, Mark. Yes, an excellent question. That’s really interesting. I didn’t know that about you, even though we’ve been friends for a while. Very interesting. I do think, as you say, when a person is doing formal meditation, when a person sits down and says, “Ok, for this 15 minutes or this hour, I’m going to do this formal meditative practice,” it’s not the time to review life. A person might have insights come up for them. They might have creative ideas, but I agree with some of my teachers that talk about that’s really not the time to pursue those thought forms that come up, but afterwards, right afterwards. Oftentimes the mind is very open. You’re still present to those insights. “It’d be really good to apologize to that person. Here’s an outline of a short story I could write. Here’s a way that I could improve things at work.” I think writing those things down, or just insights that a person has about themselves, “oh, I’ve noticed that my mind tends to do this” it’s a really great time to do that.
Mark Lewis: In terms of the benefits of meditation, what real world, practical benefits do they make?
Adam Coutts: I think people generally find that in the short term, sometimes there’s increased agitation. There’s increased hypersensitivity. There’s restlessness. There are all sorts of short term...
Mark Lewis: That’s not like fun!
Adam Coutts: It’s like I said about digging. Sometimes you hit a hard level of rock, and I think, in the short term, people have difficulty that comes up for them. It’s sort of like if you’re on a hill and you want to get to the mountain, you need to walk through the valley. Another analogy I might make is: if you have a water system in a house, and in some of the back channels there’s a lot of rust and algae; if you flush the whole water system of the house with a whole lot of high-pressure water, that rust and algae you’ll be flushing you will see coming out of the spigot. You’ll say, “Oh, this is horrible! I’m trying to clean out the water system, and here this rust and algae is coming through.” Well, that’s a good sign. It means you have some back channels that formerly you weren’t even aware of what was festering back there. But when you flush out the whole system, out comes the rust and algae. It only lasts for a while, and eventually your whole system is clean.
So it is with meditation. As you flush out the old back channels, sometimes weird agitated stuff comes through, but in the long term, even though the local fluctuations are up and down and you might feel more agitated in a given week or month, the mind gets clearer. It gets calmer. People tend to find that their heart is more opened. They’re more patient. They feel more of a sense of luminous goodness to life. They feel more of a sense of their natural intelligence, and clarity of thinking shines through. There’s less of a tendency towards addictiveness; more of a tendency towards just being at peace, without addictive rushes. People have more intuitive insight into the nature of things. All sorts of good things can happen.
As one of my teachers says, “If a person isn’t really clear what the benefit is in a meditation practice, one thing to try is to meditate every day for three months, and then don’t meditate for a week, and see how that week goes.” In my own experiments like that, typically that week is agitated. I feel a little panicked. I notice how much the meditation gives me a feeling of spaciousness, patience, the ability to deal with one thing at a time, the ability to give my full attention to people when I’m talking to them.
So, sometimes it’s hard to see the benefits of meditation, and sometimes, in the short term, things get worse before they get better. But in the long term, having more spacious mind, being in touch with a more spiritual source, clearing out the impurities in our heart, mind and soul; those can’t help but bring all sorts of blessings to a person’s life. The longer one practices, and the more sincerely one practices, the more one finds that these are present.
I would say one other thing, which is that: you know, you talked about daily life, and I know a lot of what this show is about is the way one makes a living, and there’s a tradition in Buddhism of practice out in daily life. One of the great 20th century masters that many American Buddhist teachers studied with was a Thai master called Ajahn Chah. If I understand correctly, at Ajahn Chah’s monastery, there wasn’t much formal sitting practiced. A lot of what people did was: they were mindful while cleaning the toilets, while chopping leaves, or (I don’t know exactly what the nature of the work was) while sweeping the courtyard.
There’s a way in which we can find mindfulness practice while we work on a computer, while riding the subway on the way to work. I think the Buddhist tradition says, “Practice out in everyday life being mindful, being aware, being aware of the breath, being aware of the mind, while walking down the street.” It helps support formal meditative practice first thing in the morning on the cushion, and vice versa. The stronger a person practices on the cushion, the more they are able to bring that, during a boring meeting at work, or while eating lunch. I think that there are many opportunities during daily life. Waiting in the doctor’s office is a great time to check in with, “How does my body feel? What’s the texture of my thoughts?” While riding in a vehicle, as long as you’re not the one driving, is a great time to check in. [laughter] While playing sports, people can bring mindfulness to the practice of playing sports, while going running.
So, formal regular practice, or daily practice or weekly practice can translate to daily life. Being more mindful in daily life really lubricates and facilitates the power and the clarity of regular sitting practice on a meditation cushion.
Mark Lewis: As you were saying that, you reminded me of something we said in the first show. We were talking about really experiencing the texture of pain, or going so deeply into pain that you broke through to the other side into something beautiful. This bringing mindfulness to the activities of our daily life, from one perspective it’s, “Ok, that way I can meditate more.” But from the other perspective, it’s really so that I can get the texture and the depth of this experience in daily life, kind of like a blade of grass that, as you really notice it and recognize its beauty, that transports you to this profound understanding of the miraculous nature of life and consciousness. As I was listening, this phrase came into my mind, which was that “meditative awareness or the spiritual relationship with your daily life” is kind of an acquired taste, it sounds like. Something like, the more you taste it, the more you realize how good it tastes, and the more you want that.
Adam Coutts: Yes.
Mark Lewis: I want to begin to switch gears into more, shall we say, political topics in a little bit, but we need to take a break first for our sponsors. I’m Mark Michael Lewis. This is “Money, Mission and Meaning” and we’re talking with meditation teacher Adam Coutts, and we’ll be right back.
[music and commercial break]
Mark Lewis: And we’re back, with meditation teacher Adam Coutts. So, Adam, we’ve been talking a lot about the internal experience and the lived experience of meditation and the Buddhist practice that you’re teaching and that you’ve worked to cultivate in your own life. I think it’s difficult to talk about religion at the beginning of the 21st century, and spirituality without it bringing up the context of the political challenges that we’re facing in the Mid-East, and Israel, and Iraq, and even in the United States, the religious attempt to bring creationism back into the schools under the rubric of intelligent design.
I wanted to ask you: how does your understanding of meditation, and your understanding of cultivating conscious awareness fit in with the more national and international political scene, in terms of how people deal with religion in general, and how religion at that level relates to what you’re talking about?
Adam Coutts: That’s a big subject, Mark, yes! Fascinating question. I think in America, you could say wherever Buddhism has gone, it has morphed; it has grafted itself onto traditional or indigenous religious thought. So, in Tibet, Tibetan Buddhism shows a lot of aspects of the pre-existing shamanic tradition called Ban. You could say Chinese Zen has a lot of similarities with Daoism, and Japanese Zen with Shintoism. So too in America, we would find that much of Buddhism has connected with or made an alliance with left-wing politics and humanistic psychology.
In America, I think Buddhism is often seen as a counter-cultural thing, being aligned with equality or a sort of non-religious religion. I think the fellow Buddhists I’ve met in monasteries are sort of refugees from religion. They didn’t like Judaism or Catholicism. They found it too patriarchal or too traditional, so they turned to Buddhism, because Buddhism could more be what they wanted it to be, and they could more live out their political ideals.
I think though, in traditional Asia, there are some Buddhists who see it that way. There was a great Thai Master in the 20th century, Buddhadasa, oh, what was his name? I think Buddhadasa Bhikkhu was his name, and he wanted to turn Thailand into a Socialist state and that was his political orientation.
However, I found it really eye-opening to read a book called “Zen at War”. It talked about how especially the Rinzai Zen masters had very much supported the Japanese imperial efforts in the imperial era, when they conquered Korea and Taiwan and went to war with China and up to Pearl Harbor. They would say these things that are just shocking to the modern ears. They were very nationalistic. They were very, almost racist. I think it’s helpful to realize that Buddhism can mean all sorts of different things.
There’s no absolute political alignment that Buddhism has. There are some aspects of Buddhism that, to the American ears, would seem very left-wing. The idea of compassion, the idea of getting rid of rituals; I think the Buddha was very much against the caste system. In modern India, many of the Untouchables converted to Buddhism. They thought, “Well, we can’t win with Hinduism, so we’re going to be Buddhists.” But it’s also a religion. It definitely stands for the authority of the elders. It stands for taking responsibility for self. It stands for being willing to do hard work. There are also aspects of Buddhism you could say are right-wing, so I think it doesn’t really map that easily to the American political spectrum and how we would think of things.
I would say this: there’s a psychologist named Marshall Rosenberg, who has invented a school of personal growth called Nonviolent Communication. I’ve talked with Marshall some, and he told me that he explicitly drew a lot of the principles of Nonviolent Communication from Buddhism. The idea with NVC is that you sit down and dialogue with people, and you really get to the point where you understand people’s feelings and needs. It’s kind of hard to encapsulate in a nutshell, but it’s a way of communicating such that genuine dialogue is fostered.
Now Marshall Rosenberg travels all over the world, and he works with warring groups in Colombia, and Israel/Palestine and the Balkans and all over America. He deals with groups in conflict. I have tremendous respect for what he does, and to my mind, he is a paragon of Buddhism in action, of bringing the essence of the mindfulness experience, of the meditative experience, out into political action and to people in conflict, people’s verbal speech, developing the idea of how a person on a cushion ideally is harmonizing with their own experience in finding a depth there and a richness there and really getting to the heart of the matter. There is a certain liberation or unhooking from suffering that happens there. Marshall has developed a technology of bringing that into interpersonal verbal communication that I have tremendous admiration for.
I do just want to underline what I said before. You know Buddhism is a religion and there’s a lot of tradition to it. Sometimes what I see is that the way it’s translated in the West is in a counter-culture, groovy kind of way. It’s not my take as to how the source religion is, and there are left-wing aspects to it. There are right-wing aspects to it. Ultimately, the spiritual experience is beyond both those categories, and transcends and includes them both.
Mark Lewis: One of the ways that I think about meditation is that meditation is the ultimate practice of Buddhist tradition or a more contemplative tradition, without the dogma. So, without the beliefs of how the world is, or who’s right and who’s wrong, it’s really about how do I get in touch with my own experience? How do I learn to be at peace with who and what I am, such that I can then act in the world in a way that’s harmonious; that furthers other people’s development and that furthers my own development, in a synergistic way?
I think the idea of the religion and the meditation can create a whole series of problems. In your classes - you teach an eight-week meditation course that people have gotten a lot of value from. How do you address the difference between the practice and the beliefs of religion? And what do you think about the belief side of it and how it fits into a practice?
Adam Coutts: This is a big question!
Mark Lewis: Yes, I’m asking the tough ones.
Adam Coutts: Yes, that’s a good question. I’ve had a few students who are uncomfortable with the religiosity aspects of Buddhism. There are people: Eckhart Tolle is one example of this, and definitely Jon Kabat-Zinn has written some best-selling books, who take the mindfulness of Buddhism and they present it, stripped of the religious context.
When I teach though, in respect to the lineages and respect to my teachers, I definitely teach it in an explicitly Buddhist context. I think most people come to my class being comfortable with that. I would say that any religion is definitely going to have a certain amount of dogma. When I’ve been a monk, there are times when it feels suffocating to me; the heaviness of Buddhism and the tradition, and there were times when I rebelled against it. I have also seen there are ways in which some of the monasteries I’ve been to seem old-fashioned, and they seem unable to fully open their minds. They seem a little attached to Buddhism, as opposed to being a Buddha. But then there are other ways in which sometimes I have rebelled against the traditions or seen them as archaic. What was really happening (I realized later) was I was too immature to actually understand the point of the tradition. There were aspects of Buddhism that seemed stuffy, dead, or oppressive, that years later I realized were the most beautiful things that were really there for my own happiness and I just couldn’t see it.
There are many aspects of Buddhism: the four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Twelvefold Chain of Dependent Co-Rising[sp]. These “Buddhisty” Buddhist teachings: when I first encountered them I thought, “That’s boring old philosophy,” and now twenty years into my practice, seem so powerful and so rich. They seem as real as saying that the sky is blue, or saying that if you want to eat lunch, you’ve got to go and chop up some food and cook it. That’s how you get lunch for yourself, or go order it. There are steps to take to get lunch in front of you, and so there are steps to take to be spiritually happy. There are things that have taken me time to really realize the value of.
I want to say, in a good meditative posture we are held upright by gravity. We are held in place through balance, not through muscular effort. We find a balanced posture that we can hold for a certain period of time. A really good meditative posture involves a really upright spine. Let’s say you’re sitting cross-legged on the floor. The upright spine holds you up, and then the rest of the flesh of your body just relaxes off that spine. Your arms relaxed, your belly relaxes, your face relaxes. I think that’s a good metaphor for the balance between religion and spirituality; the lived experience and having a tradition.
The traditional aspects of religion, I find, are like that spine. There are certain hard, rigid structures that hold you upright, that hold you up against aspects of yourself you wouldn’t otherwise want to encounter. And yet, the lived experience of religion does come from the Christ within, from the Buddha within, from your moment-by-moment truth. That’s like the relaxed belly and like the relaxed face. It’s like the shoulders are relaxed. Whatever’s deeply true about life, universe, and your own internal depths; that’s really your guru. That’s really what’s teaching you; really, what’s shining forth and informing your spiritual path.
I think in the modern world it’s traditional to say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” I have so many friends that say this. I think something gets lost in that. Ideally religion is a way of codifying and mass-producing the spiritual experience. Yes, something gets lost in that, and yes, commonly it does become dogma. We see that only too well in the modern world, terrorism and Fundamentalism and all sorts of ways that religion can become destructive. I also think that we need the tradition. We need the lineages. We need practices. We need teachings. That’s the upright spine. That’s the skeleton that holds the soft flesh of the spiritual experience that creates an uprightness to it; that creates a discipline to it; that creates a sincerity to it and a non-self-indulgence to it.
I think both aspects are important. Keep coming back to what’s real. Keep coming back to what’s true. Keep transcending dead dogma. At the same time, be willing to respect the wisdom of the elders. Be willing to respect the past. Be willing to give the benefit of the doubt to things that might seem stuffy or that might seem a little oppressive, and say, “Maybe this is something I don’t understand yet. Maybe there’s some wisdom here.”
Mark Lewis : It reminds me. Ken Wilber’s a big proponent of reviewing the results of your work or reviewing the results of your experiments, whether they’re in consciousness or whether they’re in external science, in what he calls the “community of the adequate.” By “the community of the adequate” he means people who have already gone through the kinds of experiences you are going through. That way, they can tell. They already know the major mistakes that people are going to make. There’s a truth that goes beyond that “peek” experience again, when you peek into something. When you have an extended set of relationships with it, an extended experience, you get into a deeper understanding with what’s true.
It sounds like one of the things that tradition offers, as the way you’re describing it, is this deeper wisdom of centuries, often sometimes of millennia, of people working in these arenas and recognizing that there are common pitfalls. The tradition helps you avoid those pitfalls and helps point them out to you. Sometimes, in order to do that, it seems a bit rigid, but that rigidity can be a structure that allows for the freedom.
Adam Coutts: If I may say something controversial: this is not a Buddhist point of view. This is just Adam Coutts’s point of view.
Mark Lewis: Actually, this is great. I’m going to have you hold that for just a moment. We’re going to take a break. We’re going to come back and hear the controversial thing you’re about to say. This is Mark Michael Lewis with “Money, Mission and Meaning”. We’re speaking with Adam Coutts, meditation teacher extraordinaire; again I will say it. We’ll be right back.
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Mark Lewis: And we’re back. “Money, Mission and Meaning” with Adam Coutts. Adam, you were just about to say something you said was going to be a bit controversial, not necessarily Buddhist. “This is Adam Coutts speaking.” I’m really curious what it is.
Adam Coutts: Great, thank you. I would say that one of the things that I find most obnoxious about the zeitgeist of the era that we live in is people’s assumption that we are cleverer than all the people that went before. I find that with a lot of the writings I read on the web or in magazines, or op-ed pages or just friends talking about sociology and the evolution of society. I think there’s a way in which our natural sciences are definitely showing an evolution. We are understanding the natural world, physics and biology, much better than we did fifty years ago, 100 years ago, 500 years ago. However, I think on a spiritual level, on an interpersonal level, I don’t really see that that’s the case.
I think there are signs society is evolving in a really positive direction, and there are signs that it isn’t. I don’t see it clearly and simply as one way or the other. I think that being willing to say that 50 or 100, 500 or 1,000 years ago might have something really valuable to teach us, I think that’s a certain mark of maturity, and something that the modern age could use a lot more of. My opinion alone. That’s definitely not a Buddhist teaching.
Mark Lewis: I think, given the context of what we’ve been talking about, that that makes a lot of sense. I know for myself, the famous Mark Twain quote where he said, “When I was 14 I couldn’t believe how stupid my father was. By the time I was 21 it was amazing how much he’d learned in that period of time.” And the other one is, “Go out when you’re young and make all of your fortune, before you get old and you realize that you don’t know everything.” [laughs]
I know in my own life, another thing that you said that really struck me was that it’s after 20 years that you look back at the tradition, and you recognize the beauty and the wisdom it contains. In the beginning, it was just oppressive and dogmatic, like it’s out of touch and they don’t understand. But there’s a deeper wisdom that you can appreciate, because it’s pointing to something that’s not obvious. When you’re pointing at something not obvious, sometimes people retreat back into poetry. They retreat into less formal, didactic, logical frameworks because you’re pointing at something that’s subtle, and it’s difficult to get at.
I think it’s true that there’s an idea, if it’s not new, then it can’t possibly be valuable. While it’s different from saying, “It’s old, therefore it’s valuable; well that’s 4,000 years old, therefore they must have insights that we don’t have,” there’s a respect that you can offer that’s made it through the test of time, to look for what’s beautiful. I appreciate that.
I want to shift gears one more time because we’ve talked about religion, we’ve talked about politics. [laughter] That pretty much leaves sex. So, I wanted to ask you...
Adam Coutts: [laughs]
Mark Lewis: In your own experience with yourself and your teachers, there are few things that have a greater taboo in our culture than sexuality. Yet, it’s such an essential part of the human experience. Whatever it is that gives us life and gives us consciousness and makes us want and desire, is definitely caught up in the sexual experiences that we have; sexual desires and the challenges and the possibilities, and the ecstasy of sex and consciousness are somehow deeply related. I’m wondering. In your experience with your students, what is it that meditation makes possible, in terms of being able to actually enjoy sex, or to deal with the taboos around it?
Adam Coutts: Yes. This is a good question. I would say, in the Buddhist tradition there’s a fair amount of disagreement about the role of sexuality on the spiritual path. I think, as I said, much of Buddhism in Asia, as I understand it, not from firsthand experience, but from books and from listening to my teachers talking, it is pretty traditional. Part of the Eightfold Path is, as I said, right action, and part of right action is right sexuality, not harming through sexuality. The way that that is translated is a lot of different ways.
For some traditional teachers, it just means no sexuality outside of procreation within a marriage. You and I live in the modern Bay Area, where there is all sorts of sexual freedom. That sort of point of view by a Christian teacher like Pat Robertson or the Pope is exactly what people rebel against. They say, “That’s ridiculous.” So, you’ll find strands like that in Buddhism. I’ve heard it said that the current Dalai Lama has said that homosexuality is inappropriate, which shocks a lot of American admirers of his. I don’t know if that’s true, but I’ve heard it said that he said that.
On the other hand, there were other Buddhist teachers like the wandering Zen Master Eiku, who lived in medieval Japan. His practice was getting drunk and going to brothels, and spreading the Dharma to the prostitutes. His whole thing was that Dharma is everywhere, that the truth is everywhere, that the moment is everywhere; that compassion is everywhere. It shouldn’t just be restrained to the temple, that we do live in the world with all of its messiness, with all of its choler; the rough side of the tracks. Spreading the Dharma there is as important as spreading it to the married people. Yes, I would say there are different traditional Buddhist teachings there.
Changing subject slightly, in my own life, meditative practice definitely helps to enjoy sex. It helps to open my heart. It helps to have me be present, to have me be in my lived experience as opposed to my thoughts, which all help create sexual pleasure. I would say more than anything else though, you know Buddhism is a religion, and a lot of what Buddhism is about ethical action, it being a religion. I am single. I’m not married. In my dating life, I think that it’s important for me to be honest with people. It’s important for me to have an open heart in my dating life. I find that my Buddhist practice is absolutely integrated in being successful in those endeavors. Does that answer your question?
Mark Lewis: Yes, I think it does. One part of my experience, as my meditative practice and my spiritual awareness has deepened through the years is I’ve become more and more concerned with the ethical nature of my relationships with other people, because there’s this depth. There’s a consideration that, when I was younger, I much more felt that “Ok, I’m me and you’re you and we’re different. If you can’t handle it, if we’re going to be together, you take care of you and I’ll take care of me and that’s it.”
The more that I allow the depth of my experience to come through, the more I realize how profound the connection with someone else is, and how important their happiness is and their health and their well being becomes to me. The ethical nature of the relationship around sexuality, even around friendship, but especially around sexuality because there’s so much potent energy there, becomes ever more important.
I was wondering, do you find that to be true among your students through meditating? Do they tend to take on a new type of... I don’t know if seriousness is the right word, but respect, care and honor for that?
Adam Coutts: I think most people that come to me to take my class are already people who are conscious, or giving some consideration to becoming the best people they know how to be. I think they often work meditation into that, toward learning more about what Buddhism has to give them, and they’re already people who are making an effort to be careful about how they speak with people, and the energy that they give and receive. I have a lot of respect for the people in my life, and many of the people that come to me to take my class, in terms of the ethical practice I see them having. I will say, Mark, that you’re a person that I do view as a role model, and someone that I have a lot of admiration for, for how you do bring a kindness and a patience, and a respect when you’re dealing with people.
I do want to say something about sexuality, going back just a little bit. I took a Religious Studies class in college, and they talked about “ascension and descension” or “ascension and descent” in spirituality. Ascent is sort of up and to God. It’s up into the bright white light. It’s up into One. Descent is down into the many, into the mess of the world and to the truth of things. I think a good spiritual practice has both. It’s sort of purifying and also embracing the mess. It’s like a tree has branches that reach up towards the sunlight and roots that sink down into the dark, dirty soil.
The author M. Scott Peck, who wrote the book “The Road Less Traveled”; I listened to a talk by him once, where he talked about how a dragon is this international symbol, and why is it a symbol? He said that it’s a snake that flies. It’s this animal that crawls on the earth and it’s really dangerous, and yet it flies. It soars into the heavens. He said that’s a metaphor for the human spirit: that we both are these animals who are selfish and dirty, who want to make money and want to have sex, regardless of the consequences. And yet, there’s something so beautiful in us. We do come from divinity. There’s something at the heart of us, at the depth of our being that touches the universal soul that is absolutely pure. I feel this to be the case.
I think with sex, when people first awaken to their sexual being in their teenage years, there’s a kind of instantaneous lust that we all feel. We just feel, “I want that. I want that experience.” Some people don’t grow out of that. They’re still 40 or 50 years old and they’re breaking their word with sex, or they’re addicted to prostitutes, or whatever people have. They haven’t mastered their lust. I think that sublimating that into a spiritual path is learning how to say, “I am an animal, and I do embrace that. I love that. I am a sexual being.” I mean, what’s a human body? It’s made out of sex. We come from the sex act, and we’re animated. I don’t think a person ever transcends the fact that we have that desire. And yet, at the same time we integrate that, we purify that with our highest aspirations, with our highest truth. We both ascend into learning how to be ethical with our sexuality and descend into really embracing our “animalness”.
There’s one thing more I want to say about that. I think the really erotic or pleasant sex act has both that animal turn on; it’s got that raw lust, and it has a sense of love and open-heartedness, and compassion and patience and presence and timing and really meeting the other person; being able to look in the other person’s eyes fully; to be right there with it, without shame, without holding anything back. So, I think that you have there in the archetypical fully erotic experience, you have both the descent into the raw animal lust, and you have the ascent into our highest nature and to our highest potentials.
So I think yet again, like we were talking about mindfulness and focus, about effort and non-effort; you have that balance between our animal natures and our purest and most soul natures. I think a lot of the Spiritual Path is about finding such balances.
Mark Lewis: Well, that seems like a great place to end this conversation. Thank you so much for your time, Adam, and for your wisdom and for your work, the course that you teach, and the life that you continually cultivate, to be able to bring more of this into the world. I appreciate you taking the time to share this with our listeners.
Adam Coutts: My pleasure. If I may make a little plug, my website is Intro, as in introduction: IntroMeditation.com. I’m about to go live in Buddhist monasteries for two years, so it’ll probably be late 2010 before I teach again. But if anybody’s listening to this and is inspired, in late 2010 please check out IntroMeditation.com. I will be leading meditation courses in the San Francisco Bay area.
So, it’s great being here on your show, Mark. It’s really wonderful to talk about these things; a lot of pleasure. I have a lot of respect for you, and I’ve appreciated you giving me the opportunity to share some of these thoughts.
Mark Lewis: Excellent. I look forward to having you back on the show after you have your two-year meditation retreat. I can imagine that you’ll have one or two things to share.
Adam Coutts: Sounds awesome!
Mark Lewis: Ok, great. So, that brings us to the end of our show. I am Mark Michael Lewis of RationalSpirituality.com, and this is “Money, Mission and Meaning, Passion at Work, Purpose at Play”. Join us each week as we explore the ideas and practices that allow us to create pleasure and profit in the business of life.
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