The theme of my blog is trends in sustainability and this post looks at the trend of meditation for personal sustainability. However, it always seems to come back to taking inspiration from nature. First it was the bees and now it’s the birds!

Read along to find out: if you are in search of contentment, you can try the flock approach.  

I bring you an interview with my mediation instructor, Matthew Sullivan. I met Matthew and his partner Ann Margaret through the free mediation circles at my local yoga studio, Moksha Yoga Downtown I started going two years ago and while I don’t make it as regularly as I’d like to, it has been a very profoundly helpful way to calm my buzzing mind, especially with balancing my demanding career and Masters programme at the same time. I share the benefits with everyone who will listen and have gotten a few friends to attend the class with me. My previous boss even asked me to do a short mediation for our entire team of 70 people during a team meeting!

Q: Tell me about yourself and your background:

A: My name is Mathew Sullivan. I am a Zen master in the Korean Zen Tradition. I was ordained by my Zen master Yangil Sunim about two years ago.

Before that he ordained me as a Dharma teacher in his tradition. Before I met him my first introduction was to mediation was in Tibetan Buddhism. That was about 20 years ago, when I just turned 20, when I began sitting in meditation.

Q: Why did you start mediating?

A: I was quite unhappy. I was essentially still a child and trying to find my emotions and fit into the world. I was very lucky in the way that mediation was introduced to me or the way I found it. There were two things that were key for me. I first was that I started sitting into mediation at the same time I entered into a yearlong bout of cognitive behavioural therapy with a lovely therapist. Those two things made a huge impact on my life and my relationship with myself and I’ve been a lot happier since then. And the second thing that I was very lucky, when I was 21 I was going through a very difficult time and a friend of mine found for me a Buddhist meditation center off of Vancouver Island. I am a big believer that mediation lives in a context, it lives in a matrix, and I found this wonderful context this land, this retreat center that was on top of a mountain. The land itself was great teacher.

There were two Lamas there and I think of them as my first two teachers – they began my education and I am very grateful for them. Eventually I moved away from Tibetan Buddhism but the underlying lessons are the same.

Q: Meditation became more popular about 5 years ago similar to how yoga became popular about 15 years ago. What are your thoughts on that?

A: That is a fascinating question for me… I think there are both good and bad impulses that drive people towards meditations in the sense that there are probably are people like me 20 years ago – they want to be happy.

Something that amazes me is that people don’t know how to be happy when they grow up – they know how to get great grades, know how to get a job, or how to make babies, but not how to be happy or content.

I think that is the main thing: I think Contentment drives people crazy. I think that’s one thing that drives people to mediation.

I think there is also a danger in mediation. There is a teacher named great teacher – Trungpa Rinpoche  – he is a founder of the Shambhala School of mediation – he wrote a lot about spiritual materialism, spiritual shopping, and the grocery cart approach to spirituality that is a dangerous part of mediation. You see that in yoga, the Lululemon approach where you just need to get all the stuff for meditation and so people think that mediation is another way for people to fill a shopping cart. But it’s another way to get people to think about meditation and that is a wonderful thing.

Q: What about the role of retreats and how important were they in your education in Mediation?

A: Retreats were essential to my own education – the original retreat I attended, Kunzang Dechen Osel Ling or KDOL on Salt Spring Island – going there was essential to my education. I think it’s wonderful to get out of your own context and into a space. I did a series of retreats there – I started with a few days and then weeks in my undergrad. I did a summer there. During law school I took a year off of law school much to the consternation of my father who thought I might never come back. I was essentially auditioning to be a Monk so see if it would be a good fit for me. It turned out I wouldn’t. That year long retreat was a profound learning experience for me — partially because it was a bit of a failure for me. I was bored. I was content for the first 8 weeks or so then I was very bored, anxious to leave, counting the days. That might sound negative but in retrospect it reflected so much about me and it was an extremely important mirror to me. That is now something that I try and teach.

Failure and frustration or unhappiness are great teachers and in many ways are better teachers than being happy or content or calm.

Q: You mentioned you have traveled with mediation and we had the opportunity to do a Korean tea ceremony at the studio. Tell me more about that.

A: The main travel I did was with my Zen master to Korea. I was living in Vancouver and left and came here to Toronto and I came to the realization that I loved my lamas at KDOL and KDOL but that Tibetan Buddhism which is a wonderful tradition wasn’t for me. That’s when I met Yangil Sunim. We are extremely lucky to have him here in Toronto. He is a world class teacher – he is very famous in Korea but here in Toronto he lives in a self-imposed exile and keeps a very low profile and it’s hard to find him. I knew almost immediately upon meeting him that he was my teacher. I also knew almost immediately that Korean Zen was the tradition that I was the most comfortable with.

That was a very challenging experience. Like a lot of teachers he is a very challenging person himself.  I know I have given dharma talks on this subject – the best way to explode your preconceived notions about enlightenment is to meet someone who is enlightened. It’s not a path to personality perfection, it’s something else. It’s not a state of mind, it’s something else.

We went to Korea with several of his other students and I think it was a wonderful experience to see the temples but the more profound experiences were things like the traditional Korean tea ceremonies. Watching how that is done in Korea. It’s a very informal process – it’s not like a Japanese tea ceremony, it’s a very relaxed, meditative but understated procedure. Watching the various ways Zen masters did various tea ceremonies was one of the most instructive processes I saw there.

Q: For someone who hasn’t come to mediation before – what benefit do people get who come to a mediation circle or a retreat?

A: My Zen master says it increases your skin quality – so there are the cosmetic benefits – very well know cosmetic benefits. I am a firm believer that you sit in Zen meditation for no reason – there isn’t a goal. That is a very freeing approach because if there is no goal, you can’t be bad at it. You can’t fuck up Zen meditation. There is no being good at it either.

That being said, there are side effects to Zen. I teach mediation at a yoga studio – I think of mediation in a fairly unromantic way, as yoga exercises, yoga exercises that don’t involve movement of your body. There are all sorts of yogas that occur during mediation. There is yoga of awareness – that in itself is very profound as most people aren’t aware of what is going on in their minds a lot of the time. There is the yoga of letting go. There is the yoga of refocusing your mind back on to your breath. There is the yoga of refocusing your mind so that your awareness and your mind open up and your mind is no longer a thing between your ears – your mind is now the sound of the birds, it’s your friend sitting next to you breathing – your mind becomes the sky. I think of that as a very simple yoga exercise as well.

Q: Is mediation a religion for you or do you think it’s something that people can just do casually, like yoga?

A: I don’t think about it at all. In my Zen Master’s Zen temple there is a fair amount of religiosity. There is bowing to the Buddha, there are big bags of rice in front of the Buddha, there are chants and homages… and in Korea there is a much greater amount of religiosity.

For me Zen is not a religion and it’s not not a religion. The religion is beside the point but it’s also indispensable. I don’t think that you have to be religious to buy into Buddhism or practice it well, but I think that it is an antidote to the spiritual materialism to understand some of the context.

A very important moment for me – when I was at KDOL – when I was thinking about taking refuge which is the most basic entry ceremony as a Buddhist. I was thinking about it very seriously. You go for refuge in the Buddha  and go for refuge in the Sangha… both of those things made a lot of sense to me, but it was very hard for me to go for refuge in the Dharma – because I thought how do I believe in this stuff? How do I believe in reincarnation?  In the god realm and in the demi god realm? Both very important aspects of (especially) Tibetan Buddhism.

I asked my teacher Lama Tara this and I said I don’t understand reincarnation – she very patiently explained it to me and I said I had heard  that – I had heard the explanation but I don’t buy it. She said “Then I can’t help you with that.” It was at that moment that everything fell away for me – both loving and not caring about the religious aspects of mediation.

Q: For someone interested in meditation, how can they go and get started?

A:  I think there are many ways. The first thing that I did when I wanted to mediate was that I found a paper backed book called “How to meditate” and that was very compelling for me. You can practice on your own. It’s wonderful if you can find a place and if you can find a qualified teacher. That can be great but it’s also dangerous because people can go to a center and the chemistry isn’t there for them. That makes them fall away and think that meditation isn’t for them.

Finding a Zen master or mediation teacher is like finding a therapist. There are many wonderful therapists out there that you won’t find any connection with so you keep trying until you find one. I recommend finding a teacher but I wouldn’t get hung up on it.

The one thing I will say is that meditating in a group is very different than doing it on your own. It’s like geese flying in the sky – it’s much easier when there are other people around doing it.

 Thank you to Matthew!

A final note from me: I also highly recommend an iPhone App called Insight Timer. It’s available in the App Store and features free guided and timed meditations!  

Canadian Geese take flight over Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada.