When a friend sent me a flier with a note inviting me to attend a public lecture by a man named Roger Guest, my initial reaction was twofold. First, I was excited about the prospect of encountering a teacher who might encourage my own languishing meditation practice and interest in Buddhism. But I was also aware of several inner reservations, including the fantasy that Guest might turn out to be just another Westerner mimicking his Eastern teachers in telling me how to work with my Western mind. More specifically, I have been wary of what I perceived to be a leveling effect in Buddhism, perhaps the spiritual equivalent of the Mondale camp in the Democratic party — try to please all of your constituent experiences and don’t get too excited about any of them. As a writer, I have been disturbed by this tendency, since many of my best works have come out of experience in extremis.
But, I was pleasantly surprised when Guest began speaking. He talked about our “collective neuroses” with wit, humor, and a keen insight into the games our minds play on themselves. One example that comes to mind was his description of our almost moment-to-moment amnesia. Say you walk toward the kitchen to make a cup of tea, get halfway there, and remember the letters you intended to mail yesterday. You return to the bedroom, put stamps on the letters, and then leave them on the stereo speaker. By the time you reach the kitchen you have forgotten why you came there. Then you remember — tea! But as you open the cupboard a box of chocolates catches your eye, etc. All of us can recognize this pattern. We can laugh at it, and recognize its absurdity. But we can also take seriously Guest’s question: is this wild, haphazard quality of the mind inevitable, or is there some other way to experience oneself and the world? Guest recreated this mundane human drama with vividness and compassion. Through his eyes what may have seemed ordinary became fantastic.
This last observation may offer an introduction to Guest’s personality as well: ordinary and fantastic. The executive co-director of Karme-Choling in Barnet, Vermont, a center for the study and practice of Buddhism, Guest addressed the audience at times like a Sunday school teacher of Buddhism, telling the story and avoiding the spicy embellishments. At other times he seemed remote, yet compelling, as though speaking from the vista of another world. Even then, Guest gently held open the crack between his world and ours with vital metaphors that allowed us a glimpse between the two worlds. One glimpse came for me when he was speaking about attending to present experience: “Carpet is just carpet, chair is just chair,” at which point a songbird began singing outside the auditorium. Without interrupting the flow of his lecture, he went on, “Bird is just bird.” In this moment, Guest was able to share the gentleness and openness of his perception by creating a space in which this tiny yet beautiful voice could be heard.
Guest, who at thirty-three has had a checkered past as a shepherd in Switzerland, an elementary school teacher in British Columbia, and a crewman on a sailboat, has mastered the art of teaching through humor. Laughing at one’s inane habits or petty dramas (or what my father might have called “schtick,” in Yiddish) is a first step toward changing them. His humor revealed an almost childlike delight in language and gesture — the delight of observing a human predicament as if for the first time. For instance, his talk was being recorded by the Buddhist group that had sponsored his visit. When, in the middle of a sentence, the tape ran out and the machine stopped, Guest, instead of appearing uncomfortable with the silence or benevolently patient, just mouthed the words with all the appropriate gestures — a lighthearted commentary on our dependency on machines for human expression. At the same time Guest wasn’t waiting for the prepared talk — the “real experience” — to resume; he was just enjoying and utilizing that moment in which the tape was being turned to the other side. Ultimately, his humor resonated with the sound of compassion. I never had the sense that he was laughing at anything — or perhaps, only at existence itself. And existence was laughing along with him.
My interactions with Guest were colored by yet another, more elusive quality. I kept returning to the transcript to find it. It wasn’t there.
SUN: Neurosis seems to be an important concept for Buddhism. Maybe you could start by saying what neurosis is.
GUEST: Conventionally, the word “neurotic” is slightly terrifying. “Ooh how neurotic!” or “How dare they accuse me of being neurotic!” Big word. But in Buddhism it’s something we use to describe anything that’s not sane, in the sense that sanity is free from anxiety, free from confusion. So generally you could say that most everyone is neurotic, and it’s not so terrifying to be part of such a large group. Everyone has his or her own neuroses. Some are much more obvious and intense than others. But fundamentally neurosis implies some kind of confusion, anxiety, primitive belief or fixation, aggression, passion.
SUN: How, according to the Buddhist path, are we to overcome neurosis?
GUEST: Well, that’s sort of the whole path. The path of Buddhism in a nutshell is that when you look in your mind you find lots of different tendencies and habitual patterns. When you sit still, you realize that those tendencies themselves are impermanent, that you don’t need to fall into them. By sitting still, and acknowledging the neurotic patterns bravely and confidently, you begin to see through them. You realize that seeing through the neurotic patterns is in itself fundamentally sane. So two things happen: one — you begin to unravel neurosis, and at the same time you nourish sanity. They are one thing, in a way.
SUN: I am wondering if in teaching meditation practice you have found any particular neurotic tendencies that characterize Westerners who are trying to follow the Buddhist path?
GUEST: Of course, I don’t know that much about Easterners so I can’t say this is particularly Western. But many people have a fundamental problem with “isms,” which is not necessarily neurotic. Actually, it’s probably quite smart to be wary. But people tend to have one of two approaches: one is to jump right in; the other is to hold back, to be wary to the point where they judge and condemn meditation practice without actually having gotten into it. They get the wrong idea and those wrong ideas tend to dominate. Also, I think Westerners have a difficult time developing a daily discipline, putting the amount of energy into a spiritual practice that it really deserves. It is time-consuming, and there are so many other temptations in the West; just to do practice means that you’re giving up something else. In the East you’re not necessarily giving up another activity. It’s just one of the activities you could do like eating, washing, going to market. But for a Westerner, sitting in meditation for an hour means that you’re not going to the movies or out on a date, whatever. So it makes it more difficult.
SUN: I wonder if having so many choices among spiritual disciplines is a problem.
GUEST: My teacher, Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, said that Westerners are like people who go to a banquet of spiritual disciplines. They take a little of this, a little of that, and they never quite make a meal out of it. It’s a smorgasbord approach. Or they sit down and devour the entire dish of potato salad. It doesn’t occur to them that the one next to it might be better, or that what they’re eating is slightly poisonous. So there’s the problem of being too hungry and not hungry enough.
SUN: Trungpa talks a lot about spiritual materialism as one particular obstacle that Westerners face. What is meant by spiritual materialism?
GUEST: Spiritual materialism means approaching spirituality with the thought that you’re going to get something out of it: that you can make friends, influence people. In other words, it’s an approach to spirituality that enhances your ego. Or it’s regarded as one’s little, safe spot that protects your ego. Your whole life can be a mess, but your spiritual practice is safe. At least you’re good at your yoga. The problem is that true spirituality in fact undermines the process of what we know as ego; it’s not safe to ego. You can twist your practice around so that it becomes your access to power, influence, and possibly money; that’s a problem for people who don’t appreciate what they are doing.
SUN: What form would that take in meditation?
GUEST: It comes up in different ways. You might try to practice in a certain way to achieve a goal, and the goal you’re trying to achieve may be subtly twisted. Say you think you can go on retreat longer than anyone else; therefore, you’re going to be heroic — the first American to retreat for ten years! Your name will go down in history and you’ll be famous. Or it might come up purely in the practice itself as nurturing certain tendencies and eliminating others instead of having an equal or balanced approach to mental events. Usually in meditation practice people go through a lot of fantasies. You’re sitting there thinking — in spite of the fact that you’re supposed to be meditating — about the woman sitting two rows over, how you’re going to title your next book, what you should have said to so-and-so last week. You could be using meditation practice as a sort of game-planning session.
SUN: A number of people have said of Trungpa that he has a very strong ego, and that he is a fairly flamboyant man. I am wondering if you see any conflict between Trungpa’s personality and reputation and the heart of the Buddhist teaching?
GUEST: People observe spiritual teachers and Trungpa Rinpoche seems to be a particular target of scrutiny. But this scrutiny is coming from a point of view of traditional values and the assumption that spiritual teachers should be a certain way, and that spiritual teachers are motivated by the same things as the rest of us. For example, if we have an affair in our marriage, it’s motivated by a whole set of events. It doesn’t occur to us that there could be a very sane and compassionate reason to do that same thing. The activity we see is always judged by our own way of doing it, why we would do it. From my experience with Trungpa Rinpoche, I have never seen any symptoms of anxiety, or confusion, or selfishness. From the way he lives his life, he is constantly teaching. And it’s not always teaching in the most benevolent and gentle way — sometimes it’s quite outrageous. But it’s teaching. It works for those who can understand.
SUN: I think part of the problem is that all we can judge others by is our own motivational structure. It seems like you’re saying you have to drop that when you’re approaching a teacher and have some kind of faith. I am wondering if there can be any rational basis for that faith.
GUEST: Some. Certainly blind faith is not a signature of Buddhism. In fact the Buddha himself was adamant about instructing his students not to do things just because he said they should, but to work out their own salvation. However, a certain amount of faith develops when you have tasted one side of the pie and you haven’t died, you’ve tasted the middle of the pie and you haven’t died. Therefore, you can assume that the last piece is still good and not poisonous. After working with someone like Trungpa Rinpoche for a long time you have confidence that he can employ skillful means that may not make sense to other people. So as a student gets more evolved, devotion and faith begin to evolve more, too. Therefore, it gives the teacher more leverage. There’s an old story about a teacher who was traveling and he came to a river and got into a boat. The ferryman paddled him across the river. He got to the other side and he said, “I don’t have any money to pay you, but I will do you a favor.” And he took out a big rock and smashed a hole in the boat and walked away. The ferryman said, “Thanks a lot.” It took him a week to fix his boat and then he went back across the river again. In the meantime, a conquering army had come and had swept across the land on the other side and killed many people, particularly people of his caste. They had swept through and left nothing much and were gone. So when he got back he realized this man had saved his life and that was his payment for taking him across the river. Teachers are like that — what they’re doing looks like “What?” But in fact it’s very skillful.
There seems to be a school of thought in America that you should really get into anger — throw a lamp. From a Buddhist point of view that’s not so good.
SUN: I’d like you to talk about some predicaments that come up in meditation. When you sit down, say a memory comes up, a childhood memory, and perhaps there’s a lot of anger. It’s very easy to get swept up in that anger. It’s so extensive, so deep. It’s hard to see beyond that. What’s the best approach to take toward anger?
GUEST: Working with emotions is a very powerful source of insight. You can see the way an emotion develops and is sustained by thinking. You’re sitting there and thinking, “My father should be more generous. He never sends me any gifts on my birthday. You know, he’s really quite greedy. I’m going to call him up and tell him what I really feel. He’s making a lot of money and blah, blah, blah. . . .” It’s like: “grrRRRRHHHHHH!” So thoughts stimulate a certain kind of momentum called emotion, a lot of energy — physically and psychologically. Interestingly, when you’re really in the middle of that emotional upheaval, you’re very awake. It’s hard to be really angry and sleepy at the same time. So there’s this awake quality in the emotions, a neurotic quality. Buddhism works with it by looking at the emotion and seeing its nature: what color it is, what shape it is, what does it taste like, where is its location in your mind, your body? You begin to see that there’s not really anything there except mind. Neurotic absorption with thoughts begins to dissolve. And suddenly you find that even anger becomes a source of great awareness. You can actually feed off emotions. It’s incredibly powerful, and brilliant, but scary because it’s so powerful. It’s those things that start to make the world very brilliant and go beyond the simple peace of lower-level enlightenment.
SUN: You’re not trying to renounce anger or push it aside.
GUEST: No, not at all. But don’t misconstrue that one should nurture anger or make yourself angry. Rather, anger should be regarded as potentially dangerous. Aggression generally is a big problem. So what I would recommend is that first you tame your mind, which is a different way of working with emotions. The first level is to let the transparency of thoughts be seen. Then emotions will also begin to become transparent. So when you’re in a fit of anger the best thing you can do is just hold your seat. Be careful what you do. There seems to be a school of thought in America that you should really get into anger — throw a lamp. From a Buddhist point of view that’s not so good.
SUN: Another set of powerful feelings that might interfere with meditation are sexual. I heard that Buddha said that if there had been one other passion like sex he never would have made it to enlightenment. What’s the proper way of working with sexual desire?
GUEST: I’ve never heard that story before, but I think it’s pretty likely. Sex has dominating qualities that really overwhelm you. Most people spend a lot of time thinking about it. There are obviously traditions within Buddhism like monasticism where it is regarded as a waste of one’s energy, seemingly regarded as a bad thing. But in fact even in monastic traditions sex is very much an issue. It’s an issue by being a non-issue, or present by its absence.
SUN: As in the Catholic church?
GUEST: Probably. Sex, like anger, has a great deal of energy and is a stimulant. To use that energy wisely is the trick. Most of the problems we have in our society with sex involve people misusing sexual energy. They have a certain spendthrift approach toward energy altogether. They make love with someone just for gratification. I’m not saying this is true for everyone, of course, but I think the general approach is that sex is a good, fun thing to do. And it is. I’m sure, for most people, it’s the most fun that they have. However, there’s more to it than that. Sexual energy can be drained and passion can overwhelm you and pull you off the path. The main question is how to work with it properly. I think for most people it’s having a good, compassionate approach to others, caring about others and not working purely for oneself. You have to figure out how you are going to relate sex and your marriage, how you’re going to relate sex and your friendships. A lot of people have different approaches to that. The thing people need to explore is repressed sexual energy. It’s a complicated issue. But as you become more practiced you see that it’s similar to anger, and you begin to make sexual energy a part of your practice.
I don’t think that suffering ever becomes bearable. It just rips you apart and I think that’s the point.
SUN: You were talking the other night about daydreaming. Could you say a little about this daydreaming tendency of the mind?
GUEST: The mind is fickle. It doesn’t like to stay in one spot. It has the ability to go anywhere it wants, at any time it wants. If you say San Diego, it’s in San Diego. Say World War II, and you have a vision of some movie. It’s got free association and no root. It’s groundless and rootless. Therefore, experiences and tendencies and activities that we have had in the past or are looking forward to in the future can completely invite mental activity, and your mind quickly goes away. It’s a very common experience. We do it all the time. This could be called discursive thought, daydreaming, or subconscious gossip, even conscious gossip. That fickleness or wildness of mind is taken for granted by most people — something they never particularly thought about. But the Buddha said, “Is it necessary? Isn’t there some alternative to being so wild in your mind?” From his point of view sanity was not having a wild, fickle mind, but a mind that was controlled. That word may connote some Nazi-like condition but it’s not that. It’s like a good horse that you are able to ride properly. It’s not wild. This is possible. The Buddha himself did it. He taught other people to do it, and they taught other people. That wild, discursive daydreaming quality can be recognized and awakened from. Meditation practice is seeing that you’re daydreaming and waking up from it again and again. As you do that enough, you begin to see that your daydreams are shorter and less compelling, and your daydreams themselves are never quite as dreamy again.
SUN: As a writer, often my inspiration comes from what you might call a daydream, or what I prefer to call a fantasy.
GUEST: Imagination is not necessarily neurotic, and it won’t necessarily go away as you practice meditation. Rather, I think it becomes more realistic. You could be a great science fiction or fantasy writer and still be enlightened. But you might find that you write a lot less garbage, and spend a lot less time going down dead ends. The ground of fantasy is having some clear perception first. If you never really looked at a maple leaf, if you never looked at the veins on it and the little hairs on it, then daydreaming about maple trees wouldn’t be as clear a perception as if you did. So by sitting practice you end up becoming more and more awake to the world you live in. You can see the details of it, hear the sound of a stick being broken as you walk in the woods, the different songs that different birds make. The world becomes much richer and your creative process has so much more to work with.
Trungpa Rinpoche said, “I’m never on my way anywhere. If I’m in an airplane going from New York to Denver, I am in the airplane. I’m not on my way to Denver.” And I think that is the trick: that when you are there, the world is full, and rich, and amazingly beautiful. When you’re in your fantasy it’s very difficult to do or appreciate or experience as much as you could. So space comes about by being unattached, not glued, but fluid.
SUN: But sometimes, when you’re there, things aren’t beautiful.
GUEST: It’s true. It’s a loaded word, beautiful. Generally, this planet is beautiful — the trees, rocks, the physical world without the emotional connotations. I mean, you can never say that the color brown is ugly. The world is inherently beautiful from that point of view — it has beautiful colors. The way that they are put together sometimes is not pretty. Psychologically, people have beauty: good minds, good hearts. Everyone actually has a good heart. Nobody is ever created with fundamental evil in their mind. It’s just that people, in trying to avoid suffering, create lots of schemes — they stop taking things into consideration, and their activity starts becoming painful. In their reaction to pain they lash out and hurt other people, kill other people. All of that activity, everything we do, is based on not wanting to suffer. In a sense that’s a good impulse, but goes awry. When you have a clear mind, the world’s beauty is available to you, but so is the world’s suffering. You could become excruciatingly sensitive and develop what’s called unbearable compassion, which is a trademark of enlightenment. Unbearable, great compassion is what separates the Buddhas from the rest of the boys.
SUN: It’s not necessarily up there in the clouds.
GUEST: No, it’s definitely not up there in the clouds. It’s right here in the heart.
SUN: Is the appreciation of beauty that’s inherent in every moment what makes the suffering bearable?
GUEST: I don’t think that suffering ever becomes bearable. It just rips you apart and I think that’s the point. Meditation practice is going to rip you apart because you’re going to see so much and you’re going to become so sensitive. Better you don’t get started if you don’t want to get ripped apart that way. Most people are quite willing to whitewash their lives and pad themselves from suffering. It never quite works. There’s still irritation. No matter how rich or famous you are, you still have to go to the bathroom. Life is just fundamentally irritating at times.
SUN: You have a special interest and facility in working with children. How would you help a child develop spiritually?
GUEST: First of all, a child has to want to do it. You can’t indoctrinate, which is difficult for a lot of parents to accept. Everyone wants to believe that his or her child is the reincarnation of Buddha.
Basically one should just create an atmosphere of gentleness and kindness, and let the child come to his or her own conclusion that this is good. Religious training for children should work with cause and effect. Then they realize that what they do has results; what’s occurring to them is a result of something else. If they can understand that, it’s incredible.
At a certain age they’ll get interested in meditation. The first time they try it usually they are doing it because they want to please you, so you have to be aware of that. As they go along, they have a more sincere interest. And then they go through everything that you go through: the resistance, the question of whether they really want to do this. You just have to let them do that. You could be very generous in training them, but not generous to the point where you try to cushion them from experience. But don’t push them too hard, that’s the other thing. That happens too much. Look at it this way: first you put them in a cradle of loving kindness. Then, as they become older, you take them out of that cradle and put them in the yard, with a nice shady tree. Then, gradually, you let them go, yet you don’t give them rampant freedom; you have certain guidelines. They keep their dignity that way. Then eventually they inherit the whole thing.
SUN: Do you find that working with children is part of your work on yourself?
GUEST: Sure. Children are profound teachers. They know right away whether you’re twisting something. You say one thing and you mean another. Children hear what you say. They don’t hear what you wished you said or thought you said. They hear exactly what you say. So even though you’re telling a joke, a child doesn’t necessarily know it’s a joke. So you have to be mindful when you’re around children. Then you start seeing all your other trips too: passion, aggression, wandering mind. If you lose your mind with a child it’s like letting the bird out of the cage. The next thing you know they’re halfway down the street, playing in the traffic.
SUN: You talk about being aware of a child in the same way you talk about being aware of your own mind.
GUEST: Usually, we are so hard on ourselves. It’s just amazing how much we expect of ourselves. We blame ourselves for not being perfect, for making mistakes. And we set standards for ourselves that are so far beyond reason. Yet, we forgive our children so easily. We can see they’re not expected to be perfect yet. For some reason we never let ourselves have a childhood in each thing we start. We’re never childhood Buddhists or childhood physicists. We have to be perfect before we open the first book on the subject. If we could look at our own minds and our own lives as we look at our children we would be much kinder to ourselves, and that would be good.
[For information about Karme-Choling and the workshops it offers, write Karme-Choling, Barnet, Vermont 05821.]