Issue #2: Phi Shectman
Chris: When did you first become interested in meditation and Buddhist teachings, and what specifically brought you to the Dharma?
Phi: I took an Intro to Buddhism class with Friends of the Western Buddhist Order in early 2001. That got me interested in meditation as a life practice. I “shopped around” various local meditation groups off and on and maintained a sporadic practice for quite some time after that. I found that the practice, and the teachings, made me a better person, in a scattershot kind of way. But it was not until much more recently, on retreat, that I really connected with the Dharma in a broader sense.
Chris: What does ‘being a better person’ mean to you and how do you recognize ‘being a better person’ in your own life. Are there specific changes that you attribute to your meditation practice and study of the Dharma?
Phi: I mostly mean kinder and more patient. I’m more aware of how my actions set an example rather than just how they will directly affect people around me. On my most recent retreat I sat a bunch with anatta (Pali: not-self) and that gave me some really great perspective on how individual actions fit into the world, shape it, and are shaped by it, when they’re not busy being harnessed to the Western myth of individualism. I look at the Dharma as a call to action and I’ve been energized by that to stay engaged in the work I do in my community.
Chris: I also see the Dharma as a ‘call to action.’ It’s easy to miss this aspect of the dharma or to overlook it in the pursuit of self-awakening, particularly at times when our own suffering is acute. But compassion also plays an important role in our own liberation. I think one of the ways that the dharma manifests in our life is through our interest in other people’s wellbeing. Do you see any correlation between compassion and your community involvement?
Phi: Certainly a lot of my community work is to help heal trauma and compassion is an important motivator and a critical technique. The heart practices are what get me through it, and recently I’ve been leaning pretty heavily on the phrases you gave me of “I see you”, “I care about you”, “I am here for you” to help keep me close to community. Those are definitely a compassion practice.
It is only in the last year or two that I’ve really gotten beyond lovingkindness (metta) in my heart practices, despite another one of my non-buddhist communities having a strong concept and tradition of empathetic joy (mudita). And that has really opened up my practice in general, both in community and in compassion for self which can be a struggle as well.
Chris: It is quite touching for me personally, to learn more about how your Dharma practice might impact other communities that you are a part of, and to know how the compassion phrases we often use at BMC might support that. I don’t see sangha (Pali: community) as separate from the rest of our life, and the other spaces that we give our time too. BMC was founded on the idea that a community like ours could be less insular and more invested in the wider world. Our vision is “to create and guide a culture of care, where the virtues of wisdom and kindness help sustain wellbeing for all people everywhere.” I see compassion as a natural extension of wisdom and kindness.
You mention your struggle with self compassion. This is common. Do you have a sense of why this is hard for you, and for so many people in general? Do you have any “tips” from your own success in being kinder and more compassionate to yourself? (I think one way this question relates to the community aspect is that the more able we are to be compassionate towards ourselves, often the better able we are to be compassionate toward others).
Phi: Soaking in Western and particularly American culture as I am, I’m certainly fighting the illusion of self-reliance, the myth of exceptionalism, expectations of performative masculinity, and I think I’m going to put duality into the “general” bin. By that I mean that as with everything else, it’s hard to keep from filing myself into buckets and among those are the separate “provider” and “recipient” buckets, so the moment I am closest to compassion is ironically when it is hardest to be compassionate to myself. Adding to that I was a child prodigy and it took a long time to realize how depersonalizing that was and start down the road to identifying with my own needs. I’m sure there are plenty of other depersonalizing experiences out there. Mostly the thing that helps the most for me is perspective. It’s pretty eye opening to consider myself as another community member or think about a stranger in my situation. It’s also helpful that both BMC and my other communities are big on self care and “putting your own oxygen mask on first”. This is a case where the “try it for yourself and see” approach of Buddhism really works.
Chris: Your self-described experience of being really close to compassion when you find it hardest to be compassionate is really interesting. This is subtle. While being cautious not to overlay my interpretation onto your own experience, I think I have some sense of what you might mean from moments in my own life when I am really struggling, suffering in some way, and then the mind gets clear and sees in very simple terms that I am not being friendly to myself, I am not accepting some aspect of suffering, some aspect of my life, but instead fighting against it. At that moment, when I see suffering as true and also impersonal, something in me softens and a kind of tenderness shows up that is very gentle.
Phi: Yes, like that. The moment comes on me very suddenly and seems a million miles away until it does. But it doesn’t take a lot of effort. For me it’s not that the tenderness shows up, it’s just that I’m suddenly able to direct it inward.
Chris: Well said, Phi. The Dharma is so often exactly like that, a million miles away until it suddenly shows up! And then there it is, embodied in our own body, speech, and mind. And it was so easy, effortless actually most of the time. This can be very encouraging to anyone who is interested in the Dharma and meditation practice. It reminds us that we can relax our grasping, keep meditating, and remember to be gentle and patient with ourselves.
Thank you, Phi.