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In this episode of the Mindspace podcast, Dr. Joe speaks with Pascal Auclair about meditation and its role in cultivating well-being. They discuss:
- Pascal’s background and how he got into practicing and teaching meditation, including some interesting stories from long retreats he has sat.
- His take on how meditation helps people live healthier and happier lives – explored through some practical examples from real life.
- What people can do to enjoy some of the benefits of meditation, even if they don’t have time for long, silent retreats.
- Pascal’s perspective on the “secular mindfulness movement,” including some recent challenges from the scientific community, suggesting that all meditation teachers should develop greater sensitivity to the mental health problems that can arise in meditation.
- The reason for his commitment to Social Justice in his practice and teaching.
Pascal Auclair is a meditation and Dharma teacher. He leads Insight Meditation retreats around the world and teaches locally in Montreal with True North Insight. His teaching schedule, as well as other info, is available at pascalauclair.org. He is also on facebook at pascal.auclairmeditation.
If you’re interested in learning more about the mindfulness meditation classes available at Mindspace, please visit mindspacewellbeing.com. There should be plenty of programming to suit your schedule, in one of our 3 locations: Westmount, downtown, and Outremont.
You can also drop in to Presence, our meditation studio, located on St. Viateur in the heart of Mile End. Info available at presencemeditation.ca.
Here are some highlights of the conversation with Pascal:
What do you do when you teach meditation?
In a way I just do nothing with people for a number of days in a beautiful rural environment. We practice just paying attention. It’s an amazing thing. It’s something that really touches me, to be with a group of people and just pay attention. I think it’s a strange and beautiful thing to do. Usually… if you’re pay attention it’s because there are ideas being shared or there is music or movies or a play or dance and people come together and they pay attention to something – some kind of entertainment, we could say. And in the classes we come together and we pay attention but there is nothing being presented except our psyches and nature – life of the senses. And it’s quite remarkable that people can do that come together and offer attention, offer presence to themselves and to the space.
As we sit and we pay attention first the mind might pacify itself – like calm itself. And also we’ll notice how the psyche behaves, what it does. So if you and I and the people listening to us were to stop for a few minutes and say “let’s do nothing and just pay attention,” what would happen to us? One of us would start worrying about later today this or that and another of us would start thinking about earlier this morning – or something of the past and by just doing this, we notice what are our habits of mind. And are they really useful? Are they liberating or entangling?
Another thing that happens is a kind of softening of the heart. So in just paying attention like this, there is something that opens up maybe appreciation of the quietness or maybe compassion for the confused mind or agitated mind. We can be touched by the way we live. And that’s quite remarkable.
How did you get in to meditation and eventually teaching?
I was sooo interested in the studies I was doing . I thought it’s the beginning. I’m beginning to calm my mind. Now my mind is a little bit gathered instead of scattered and it’s more laser like and I’m starting to see things in a much more refined way. The quick behaviour of the mind, all kinds of movements of mind and heart. Reactivity judgement self-loathing, self-aggrandizement, all these movements. And noticing the pain, the mistaken views that were behind these attitudes.
Discovering what it is like to be in a body – to be in a heart and mind. And the way the heart and mind can behave and create so much trouble for oneself. And the way it can also be so beautiful with itself. There can be calm, curiosity, joy, benevolence, friendliness, when that’s there, reality is so different. And this is amazing to discover! That reality changes with mindstates. In hopelessness and despondency – “oh my god I’m stuck here for another 2 months” and “people are building careers and having families and buying homes and participating in society and I’m here people cooking for me, and I’m doing nothing, sitting on my ass all day.” So that’s a mind state. And another mind state is gratitude: “cannot believe I am given this time to actually detoxify this mind – really take responsibility for what’s happening in there.” Starting to make order and clarify how is the best way for myself and others to use this mind instead of cultivating self-deprecation or arrogance. What is the taste of humility? True humility? I really want to be there when it shows up. I don’t’ want to be too occupied by other things. That’s the laboratory.
What skills are you training in yourself and teaching to others? How does that help you and others cultivate well-being?
There is a chain of mental qualities that are develop as we pay attention. Paying attention, something will start to stand out. I’ll notice either sounds or the quality of my mind, the impatience, the turbulence. This is often – in Insight Meditation – one way to describe this practice. The first insight is we notice that our minds are a little “crazy” (I don’t know if it’s ok to use this word in this way but…). You’ll just sit and say “let’s pay attention to just the quality of the air, the temperature, the quietness in the room, and then will be “am I doing this right? I don’t know if I’m doing this right, etc…” And this will be revealed. The tendency of the mind… and so will get curious. So we’ll go from being duped by our mind-states to becoming awake to them. Instead of just believing impatience we’ll start to feel the effect of impatience on the body-mind right now. And if there happens to be some kind of quiet listening, then we might get interested in the contentment that arises in just being there attentive. Suddenly, I don’t need to be somebody else, further along. So it cuts through some illusions that I have. The illusory, mirage-like nature of these beliefs is revealed, just by that. For me that’s very powerful.
So I sit there. I think I have so many things to do today and I should be somebody else and this and that and I sit and just pay attention and suddenly it’s full. And so when I go back to that belief or the things to do maybe I’ll be a little bit more free from the grasp of these thoughts.
I pay attention, something will stand out. It activates curiosity in my mind. And curiosity in time will bring some kind of enthusiasm or contentment or something like this. And this will lead to the calming of the mind that was scattered and busy and occupied in all kinds of ways. The mind will calm because it will be content, interested in what’s here.
In this way I’ll see more clearly reality. So that’s kind of a fast version I give you. The reality is much more messy than this. I get lost, doubt comes “what am I doing? Why am I doing this? I’m wasting my time” etc. But slowly I get to clarify how I’m living. How I’m being. So that’s one way to talk about this.
If mindfulness is just a word that is used to entice people and it doesn’t have the depth, then I’m really sorry, because it’s a very powerful thing…
The buddhist teachings are about suffering and the end of suffering…. A really big part of this is the suffering that this system called pascal – this body, psyche, hormonal everything. How it creates suffering for itsefl. And how, with the same tools – psyche, heart and body – it can create some kind of healing, psychological healing or inner wellbeing… And so a big part of the practice is to sit in meditation and in daily ife and to observe how the 2nd arrow is planted in the heart by one’s own psyche. A lot of hte buddhist teaching is like this – to see how one creates trouble for oneself. And how we can untangle the tangles of the heart and mind. So that is one aspect.
How do you engage with social justice with your practice?
Another aspect of this, for me, very very clear, I have no doubt about this, if I think about suffering and the end of suffering, I can see it, really clearly, that a society is also a system. Like Pascal is it’s own little system. There is a larger system called society. At different scales. Society has in it a lot of tools to create suffering for itself or some members of it. And it also has everything there to create healing and support and visibility and safety and protection. It has everything to make people be the best of who they are and contribute. And so I’m interested in suffering and the end of suffering, so I’m very interested in how, in a systemic way, we create oppression and how we create privilege for some of us. How we start valuing in overt or hidden or unknown ways for some of us. To me that requires the same tools. In the sitting practice, I learn how to quiet the mind so it can really feel reality instead of being agitated by it’s preconceived ideas; how I can slow down and pay attention so that I can really see what is happening in my heart and my mind. So what I need is quietness, calm, a stable mind that is very curious, honest, courageous, investigative. So these qualities I think are the same that are needed to look at society and how it produces well-being. It needs to go underneath my ideas that we are all equal… I might say “Oh no, it’s all equal, it’s all the same.” Well, but if I look a little closer, I’ll see that we might all be equal in thoughts, but in treatment, it’s not exactly what’s happening. So I need honesty, I need calm, curiosity. So for me teaching mindfulness is giving us the tools to address the issues of sexism, racism, ableism, ageism, fat-phobia, transphobia, homophobia. All the ways we elevate some of us and put down some of us. I’d like my practice and the teachings that I do to serve that goal of protecting human beings.
“Let go a little and you’ll have a little peace. Let go a lot you’ll have a lot of peace. Let go completely and you’ll experience complete peace.”