Five Questions for Bodhipaksa
Bodhipaksa is a New Hampshire-based author and Buddhist teacher. He also happens to be Battlestar Galactica geek and a frequent attendee at the monthly NH Media Makers meetup, which is where we met him.
- What’s your elevator pitch for Living as a River? Why should someone go buy it right now?
Actually, I really don’t like marketing-speak, and I only heard the term “elevator pitch” a couple of months back. I’m still not sure what it means. OK, I just looked it up on Wikipedia, so that last sentence is no longer true (assuming that no one has messed with that entry). But as you can tell, I’m not a salesman, and I’m probably not the right person to describe my book in an elevator, unless it’s the elevator in the building at the end of Vanilla Sky (which, if you haven’t seen the film, looks to be at least a mile high). The book’s 300 pages long and when I describe it to people I tend to give rather extended accounts.
But here goes:
Fifth floor: It’s a book that helps people overcome the delusions they have of themselves being separate and unchanging, and helps them to overcome the fear that supports and arises from those delusions.
Fourth floor: The book starts with the observation that we’re afraid of change because it reminds us of death, and that our fear leads us to cling to the idea of having a particular kind of self—a self that’s separate, permanent, and unified.
Third floor: Using a reflective practice from the Buddhist tradition, I systematically explore the nature of the self, showing how we’re in fact entirely interconnected, physically and mentally, and that the body and mind are always changing.
Second floor: I also explore some really freaky stuff that shows how we’re not as in control of ourselves as we think we are. It’s a book that’s full of gripping and even disturbing insights from the sciences, and particularly from psychology.
First floor: People have described it as being fascinating and even mind-blowing.
- According to the bio on the back of Living as a River, you were born Graeme Stephen. Where did the name Bodhipaksa come from, and what does it mean?
I grew up in a smallish town on the East coast of Scotland, but although I got interested in Buddhism and meditation while I was at high school there was nowhere to learn meditation anywhere near my home. So when I went to university in Glasgow I jumped at the chance to learn to meditate. As it happened, my first meditation class was in a center affiliated to the Triratna Buddhist Community, and I kept practicing in that tradition. In about 1985 I asked to join the Triratna Buddhist Order, and in 1993 I went on a 16 week retreat to get ordained. It was at my ordination that I was given the name Bodhipaksa, which means “Wings of Enlightenment.”
- Are Buddhism specifically and spirituality in general something that a person can geek out about? What are us skeptics and non-believers missing, and is there a way to gain some of the benefits of meditation and living as a river without believing in some sort of higher power or greater purpose to the universe?
I’m a skeptic as well, and I don’t believe in higher powers. Buddhism’s a non-theistic religion (although arguably religion’s not an ideal word to describe something that doesn’t have a God). Buddhism’s actually not that different from the Greek and Roman philosophical tradition of Stoicism, of whom Marcus Aurelius was a famous adherent. In fact I sometimes call the Stoics “the original Western Buddhists.” I think of Buddhism more as a practical philosophy.
Meditation absolutely brings benefits even if you’re totally skeptical—as long as you actually do the practice. It’s like working out at the gym, in that it doesn’t matter whether you “believe” in fitness; you’re going to get fitter if you do the exercise. Meditation has been researched intensively in the last ten years in particular, and has been shown to make people happier, to boost the immune system, to reduce depression, to help with chronic illness, to reduce the perception of pain—the list goes on and on…
There are elements of Buddhist practice that look “religious” in a conventional sense, like shrines, and candles, and bowing. But all of those things are really just useful tools for reminding ourselves of what’s important in life. Haven’t we all built shrines, whether as posters of our idols that we hung on our bedroom walls, or the wallpaper on our computers, or family altars composed of photographs and mementoes? Even bowing is just a way of politely saying “hi.” In the west we tend to think of bowing as being a form of subservience, but in Japan and other eastern countries bowing is just how people greet each other. And these things aren’t exactly “core” elements of the Buddhist path. They’re just cultural artifacts.
My book isn’t actually a “Buddhist book,” even though it uses a reflection from the Buddhist tradition as its primary method of inquiry. It doesn’t assume that you have any identification with Buddhism—rather it just says “here’s how we think things are; let’s take a look and see how they actually are.” It’s a very science-based book, in fact.
- Wildmind, the online meditation center that you run, is meant to increase awareness of the positive effects of meditation. In this crazy, “crush it,” social media, take on multiple jobs to stay afloat world that we live in, when and where does a busy person fit meditation into their life?
It can be tough. The thing is to get your toe in the door to your own life. A lot of our busyness arises from anxiety. When we’re busy we lose touch with ourselves, and it becomes scary to slow down. Often when we do we find there’s a bunch of hurt and fear and want that we haven’t processed. And so we stay busy in order to avoid all that. Sometimes we just have to bottom out, and hit a crisis that tells us we have to change the way we’re living. If we’re lucky we can see that coming and make some changes before we crash and burn. At the very least we can sneak in a three-minute meditation. If we don’t know what to do in those three minutes, there are guided meditations we can listen to (I have a three-minute meditation available for download on wildmind.org). That’s the toe in the door that allows us to let go of some of the frantic busyness and open up a bit more space for quiet, calm, self-nourishment, and reflection.
- Two of the most successful science/speculative fiction TV programs of the past decade, Lost and the new Battlestar Galactica, both featured mysticism and spirituality pretty heavily. Why do you think the producers of each show made that choice? Is this a trend you see continuing? And, just because we’ve got to settle this once and for all, which ending was more disappointing? Fans seem pretty divided on that question. We weren’t disappointed by either, but we know we’re in the minority.
Maybe I’m too skeptical, but the supernatural elements of BSG and Lost were the parts that I found least satisfying. Who or what was Kara after her return from the vortex? Why was the island a source of energy? I think those shows just dabbled in spirituality, but weren’t able to muster anything resembling a genuine and coherent mythos. On the whole I think BSG was more satisfying, because although there was a current of unexplained mysticism running through the show, it was somehow less central to the plot. To me, the most moving parts of that show were to do with mankind’s having been through a holocaust, with the tiny band of survivors struggling to survive afterwards. The show reminds us that life is fragile. I can’t watch Laura Roslin’s swearing-in ceremony without being brought to tears. And the fake-out regarding Earth was brilliant, as was the revelation that we are all descendants of the characters in the show. With Lost, on the other hand, the mysterious and inherently mystical island was absolutely central to the show, and there were no answers to that crucial plot device. Lost lost me right from the start of the final season. I stopped caring long before the finale, and when it turned out they’d all been dead and that half of the last season had all been a kind of dream, it was just confirmation of the suspicion I’d had that the writers were just jerking our chains. I loved the first five seasons, but I’d no longer encourage anyone to watch them because of where it ends up, which isn’t far short of “then they woke up and it was all a dream.”
I think you do bring up a really good point, that both of these very popular shows had a mystical or spiritual element to them. I think we have a hunger for our lives to have meaning. I don’t believe that there is, in the language you used earlier, a “greater purpose to the universe.” I think we need to create or even find a sense of purpose and meaning in our lives, and that most of us lack that. I think even the supernatural elements in shows like Buffy, Angel, and True Blood are tapping into our sense that there must be “something more” to life than what we see on the surface, which is an encouragement to make money and consume. Sometimes Buffy in particular was good at reminding us that we can all die. OK, Buffy herself died twice and came back, but her mother’s death was final, and some of the most powerful episodes in that show were to do with the deaths of important characters we’d come to know and love. I think that kind of thing reminds us of something very important: we’re all going to die. It doesn’t matter how much you don’t want to think about it, you’re going to die; so with that in mind, what do you think the most important things are you can do in the short time you have left to you? That, incidentally, is the question with which I open Living as a River. And it’s that question, I believe, that leads to a real sense of spirituality. It’s probably a good premise for a TV show as well.