Can we fully heal from our traumas?

Estimated time to read: 32 minutes
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Mindfulness & Psychotherapy

In this episode, I have a talk with Robert Beatty. Robert is a member of the first wave of Theravada Buddhist Teachers who brought the Dharma from Asia in the 1970’s. Robert founded the Portland Insight Meditation Community where he is the guiding teacher. He has a Masters Degree in Environmental Studies from York University in Toronto, and Masters in Social Work from Portland State. Robert has extensive training in numerous Western therapies. This episode goes a bit deeper under our skin and proposes various questions like: Can we fully heal our trauma? What exactly is enlightenment? Do we need a guide for our practice? And what can we do about the climate crisis?

Episode 26 with Robert Beatty – Full transcription

Starts at 01:25
Christiaan: Robert Beatty, welcome to the podcast, happy to talk to you today.

Robert: Hi there, I’m glad to be with you. 

Christiaan: Awesome, so, Robert, tell us a bit about yourself. Who are you and what do you do in life? 

Robert: My goodness. Well, I’m the founder of the Portland Insight Meditation Center

in Portland, Oregon. And I’ve been teaching insight meditation here in Portland since 1979. And I first encountered the Dharma in India in 1971, I was traveling, I went overland, I lived in Europe for a couple of years and I went overland to India and Nepal to go trekking, was the primary reason. And my dear girlfriend of seven years at that point, told me at that point that she didn’t want to get married and live happily ever after when we got home, but she wanted to separate. And so, I got very depressed and freaked out and codependent, catastrophe and a lot of pain, really a lot of depression and anxiety. But I kept meeting other young people, travelers, and there were some of them that were kind of bright eyed and bushy tailed and they would always say the same thing, “oh, we just came from this 10-day meditation course with a guy called Goenka”. And so, I was desperate, even though I thought meditation was really the most stupid thing in the world. I mean, why would you go sit on your bottom for 10 days in India where there’s so much to do and see and taste and so on? But I’m glad I did because I went and a few days into that I had a remarkable experience, my terrified thinking mind stopped, and I experienced what I now know to be just a normal human mind, revolutionary at the time because I was then not in anguish.

Robert: And so, at the end of that retreat, I said to my girlfriend, we finished our trip together before coming back. And I said to her, “this is what I want to do with my life”. But I had no idea how to how to proceed with that. And I came back, I was living in Canada, I did a Master’s in Environmental Studies, because I was very concerned about the environmental collapse that I saw happening. And there I ran into psychotherapy and that began, really my life’s professional work, which is the synthesizing of meditation and psychotherapy. And so that’s what I’ve been doing in that realm. I have two grown children who are 36 and 32 and a couple of grandsons. And, I’m in pretty good, great health, actually, I’m 71 and I still go, I love going skiing and I ride my bicycle 12 miles each way to work back when the weather’s good and I’m in a really good marriage, I may be finally, having a really good marriage and we’re using that relationship as a vehicle for waking up further.

Christiaan: That’s incredible, especially when you talk about the fact that you were concerned about the environment and we’re talking about, it was a few years back, right? It’s not like–

Robert: 50 years, in 1971. 

Christiaan: Exactly. 

Robert: And, well, yeah, and the word environment, the concern with the environment hadn’t even emerged yet. But I had lived for a year in Australia, I traveled in Southeast Asia, I’d lived for two years in Europe and traveled overland to India. And everywhere I looked, the catastrophe was happening. Way back then, one little piece that I remember, every year back in the 70s, something like 2% of the arable land, 2% of the cultivatable land in Nepal was being eroded by weather. So, they were losing way back then and now, of course, the glaciers are drying up and then, all of, I mean, we’re in a very dire situation with this environmental crisis and it’s not new. It’s been happening for a long time, but it’s now becoming more apparent. 

Christiaan: Yeah, exactly, that’s one of the things that stuck out for me. Another question that I had about that was, you said that you went to this retreat and then you told your girlfriend, back then about it, but was she, like in any way connected to spirituality, or was she also wondering why you sit for so long when your buttocks? 

Robert: No, she went on the retreat with me. 

Christiaan: I see. 

Robert: And she got– It’s changed her life too. We’re still very good friends, our lives parted and we’ve done different things, but she really got it as well and became somewhat, she got bitten by the Dharma, it didn’t become her life’s work and passion, like mine but I mean, I don’t think you can do a 10-day insight meditation retreat without it having a really big effect. 

Christiaan: Right and the moment you really started to dig into that and practice more, was there a certain method or tradition that you connected to the most or that you connected to? 

Robert: Yeah, my first encounter really, with meditation, was with this fellow Goenka and there’s still the passion tradition here, Goenka’s, Sayagyi U Ba Khin, Goenka’s teacher authorized for four Westerners to teach. One of them was Ruth Denison who became my teacher for 40 years until she died four years ago, and another one of those four was Goenka G. And so, my first retreat was with Goenka and it was there, I learned that very focused perspective on the Dharma. And then some years later, I studied with Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein and lots of the big names here in the States. But then I ultimately connected with Ruth, who taught me abroad four foundations of mindfulness approach. And so, it’s from the Theravada tradition, which is the Buddhism of Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, partially Cambodia, which is the ancient tradition, it’s the oldest extent tradition from the Buddha. And so that’s been my lineage, that and Western psychotherapy would be another lineage, that’s provided plenty to work with the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold Path being the foundation of a spiritual life. 

Christiaan: Right. And so, the psychotherapy, you’ve had, like, extensive training and numerous Western therapies, I read, like gestalt, bio-energetics, biofeedback, a whole lot of them and, was it just curiosity that drove you to train in all of these different Western therapies? What was the reason for all these different ones? 

Robert: Well, I think the primary reason was always my own healing, and my own waking up. And I’ve seen it significantly as a responsibility, if I was going to be making my living, sitting with individuals and couples and families with the intention of helping them heal from psychological, emotional, wounding and trauma, that I really should have an ongoing therapy relationship myself, to be working with my own unfinished business. And so, I’m so grateful for the, you know, I speak about with Denison but I could also speak of, four elders, Westerners who from different schools of psychotherapy, I spent years meeting with once a week or once every two weeks. I had one 12-year relationship in therapy until the fellow had a heart attack, and then another one on for 13 years. And I started seeing the second one, once a week, and then it moved to a once every two weeks then I went to once a month or so, but that was a profound relationship, those people loved me. And they saw who I was, and they could help me grow psychologically, emotionally and spiritually. And so, I always was mixing that, I was always doing my sitting practice and developing my Dharma understanding. But, this self, this experience of a separate self, the Dharma helps with, but those early wounds, the Dharma, it really helps to have someone who can understand how to work with that early wounding, and the psychological and emotional stuff. 

Christiaan: Right.

Robert: Which interestingly, over half of the teachers in the insight meditation world are psychotherapists.

Christiaan: Yeah, so there’s some sort of connection going on there.

Robert: There are like two hands, washing each other

Can we fully heal from our trauma?

Christiaan: Right, it may be to say the Eastern and the Western coming together to create, yeah, that’s very beautiful. I want to ask, after all these different therapies and working with these different people, could you say a person comes to a place where they are fully healed? Or where they can fully, you know, from a trauma or a deep wound, come to a place of real acceptance, like, is that possible? And if so, why or how?

Robert: That’s a really beautiful question and you continued articulating it and changed my answer. I think, it’s my experience, that the wounds of early childhood and the traumas that occur are indelible. They are here for life, your personality, with its wounds is here for life. However, the trauma and angst around them can be changed, can be the energy, emotional energy can be grieved and then mindfulness and concentration and the seven enlightenment factors can be developed, such that the relationship to the separate self is radically changed. So that when life throws one of those very challenging curve-balls, when someone dies or you have a big loss or something, all the normal, all the predictable things that would come from one’s neurotic self, that will all arise, but it’s much quieter, and it’s not dominant, it’s– In the story of the awakening of the Buddha and you know, he’s sitting under Bodhi tree and Mara, the Buddhist Satan guy comes along and he tempts him with the beautiful women and then the anger, hatred, jealousy, the emotions and then the responsibilities and doubt. And the Buddha responded really interestingly, to Mara, he said, “I see you, Mara, I see you and the rich pole of this house is broken, never again, will this self be taken so seriously”. But then throughout his life in the cannon, there are stories of him saying, “I see you Mara, I see you”. So, his personality, his psychological, emotional challenges still happened but it would be kind of like, well, I see, now let’s get down to business. Now, you know, I have responsibilities to do, I have loving and caring and being compassionate for people. I don’t need to muck around in these old regrets and so on because they don’t have much power.

Christiaan: Yeah, that’s beautiful.

Robert: Which leaves a person very human. There’s another view, which is that a person transcends all this and that then they have no more sexual response to someone or they never have a moment of anger or irritation. And maybe that’s true but it’s not my experience.

What exactly is enlightenment?

Christiaan: Yeah, that’s also something I want to move into more, is this, the idea of enlightenment and what it means if someone is enlightened, it sometimes becomes almost this mystical idea of someone being completely free from an ego or a self. But as you said, it could be true but what you experience is that, it’s more of a dealing with the ego or the self, is that right?

Robert: If we succeeded to get rid of our ego, we would be institutionalized. The ego is a necessary structure, which mediates between the unconscious and all the stuff that’s going on, and the present moment. So, as I understand it, what the Buddha taught that there’s one, in psychology, it’s called an object relations function, there’s one function that happens, it’s an ego function, that is the problem and its secular DT, wrong view. So, that when an emotion happens, the mind says, “my emotion”, when a thought happens, “my thought”, “my fear, my loneliness, my desire, my mind”. And if that one little function is illuminated, then oh, it’s an emotion, oh, it’s a thought, oh, it’s a desire, no big deal, I don’t have to resist it or attach to it, I can just let it be. And that’s, the more, in the progress of insight and the development of consciousness, I think we become more and more adept at not being identified with whatever comes up. The– What do they call it? The four winds, the vicissitudes of life, pleasure, pain, gain, loss, happy, sad, sick health, that those come and go, but we’re less and less blown out of the water when things don’t go our way because, of course they don’t go away because life is like that.

How can EMDR help with trauma?

Christiaan: Yeah, that’s beautiful. And I had someone from the community asked specifically about the therapy called EMDR and she asked if you think it’s helpful for a lot more than working through trauma and why?

Robert: Do I think it’s helpful for working through more than trauma? 

Christiaan: I don’t know if that makes sense, in–.

Robert: Oh, it does. I’ve, I don’t know if I’ve got that in my bio there, but I’ve been doing EMDR for 15 years. And part of my, that last therapist that I worked with, I went to her because she was one of the National EMDR trainers. And so, I had been working, I have some abandonment issues from childhood, and the presumption that the person that I love will disappear, so insecure attachment. And I’d done all kinds of work on it, I mean, over decades in meditation and therapy and then I worked on it with EMDR and, let me just see if I can simplify it. EMDR is called, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, it should be called Bilateral Brain Stimulation Reprocessing because you can do it by tapping on someone’s knees, you can do it by tapping on their hands, you can do it with sound, “dededee”. And the idea is that when trauma happens, which is a challenging circumstance, and the organism can’t deal with it adequately, as a human, can’t go to bed at night and go into REM sleep and process the information and then have the trauma go away. Instead of that it gets stuck. And the hypothesis they have is that it gets stuck in the amygdala, which is a little almond shaped thing on the brain-stem, which has to do with fight flight, and recognition of threat. So, let’s say one is 35, 50, 60 years old and still, every time this something happens in life, it reminds one, I’m going to get left, I got left, when the last time this happened or way back, when I was abandoned. So, then, we automatically go into fight flight. 

Robert: Meditation, and particularly retreats will deal with a lot of that stuff over time. But this woman, Francine Shapiro discovered that you could deal with it really fast and so the practice is to remember the circumstance, to notice that there’s a little feeling in the body, a trauma feeling in the body and then you’re one way or and you maybe move your hand back and forth, or you tap back and forth. And while the person is remembering the thoughts that happened then and feeling it in the body and then the bilateral brain stimulation, things will start moving in memories and so stuff will move through really fast. It’s kind of like high speed vipassana, in a way. And sometimes there will be crying, sometimes there will be anger, sometimes laughter. But often, there are lots of memories really fast and somehow or another, that then allows one to redecide or for the organism to let go of that old tightly held belief and have a more spacious approach to things. So, an experiment a person could try, would be if you’re very overwrought emotionally, something really difficult is happening, you could try just feeling into your body for where the sensations are. And then just tap on one knee and then the other knee and move your eyes back and forth. And that alone can have quite an effect sometimes. 

Christiaan: Wow. So, it’s just the bodily sensation at that moment that does something to your system?

Robert: It’s the bodily sensation, mindfulness is of course the key ingredient. You’re bringing mindfulness and concentration into the sensation in the body and the memories, and you’re going to bring that all together, and then you’re doing something that seems to help the brain let go of the tight places that it’s stuck in. It’s odd, I could confess, when EMDR first came out, I thought, I’m not going to do that, I mean, that’s so hokey, I’ve been, I’m a meditation teacher, I’ve therapy for 20 years. There came, I was a social worker then and I needed continuing education credit, you know, you have to keep, go and get training so that you keep your credential and so I went, thinking, oh, man, this would be a wasted weekend. And then the first day I was sitting there, and the guy sitting beside me was, I didn’t think he should be a therapist, actually. But we partnered up and over a very simple exercise, he started moving his hand back and forth across my face. And all of a sudden, these memories and thoughts started moving through, and I went, oh, my God, this is really interesting. But that’s kind of been part of my history, my whole life, there is this arrogance that, oh, I don’t need anything and then boom, suddenly, I realized, that’s really important. We are kind of funny, aren’t we? I mean, how rigid and certain we can be about things until we then realized, oh, my gosh, it’s not like that at all. 

Christiaan: Yeah, absolutely. It feels like constantly my brain is coming up with a sort of certainty and then a few weeks later, it turns out, that wasn’t as certain as I thought it was. Yeah, that’s, yeah exactly. Yeah, it was funny when I met my teacher, the thing that struck me as that it was working was that every week I felt like I was completely, I didn’t know what I was doing and that, yeah exactly, yeah. It was, it’s very hard for the ego, the arrogant, I know it best, kind of, voice yeah.

Robert: There was a one liner once I think it make a great bumper sticker, “meditation is one embarrassment to the ego after another”.

Mind and Body duality

Christiaan: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense and talking about the body and trauma and tension, is there, like I’m super interested in this connection between the body and the mind and you have these different practices, like qi gong, tai chi, yoga, you’ve all these different body movements and body, things to work with your body and that can loosen up parts of your mind or it feels like that, what is your experience with this connection between the body and the mind and how to utilize that?

Robert: I think it’s a miss, how do I say it? I think it’s inaccurate to say there’s a connection between the body and mind. I think it would be more accurate to say, body/mind or body-mind or just body mind that we can, like even in this moment, we can like, if you were to feel your hand, just become aware of your hand from the inside, just, oh, that that’s my hand or if you’re sitting or your buttocks are pressing in the chair. We can we can articulate, oh well, there’s the contact, there’s the sensation, and there’s knowing it. So, one is mind and one is body but that’s an abstraction that in reality isn’t true, it’s just body mind. It’s just mind, and body. Now we can use it, the apparent separation that very often when people are really struggling, confused, we get lost in thought. If one could ask, what are you feeling in your body right now? For instance, about an emotion, what are you feeling in your body? Because all emotions have a bio-electronic base, they all have a body base. Emotions don’t happen in the mind, they happen in the mind body. And they developed evolutionarily to help us survive. So, if I remember, years ago, Ram Dass spoke of the universities in the school system as the temple of the worship of the rational mind. And so, we try to solve all problems with thinking. Whereas, it’s often like with emotions, it’s much more helpful to shift into mindfulness. And then, so where am I feeling this emotion? Where does it exist in my body, to let go of the thinking and then to, to kind of dive into the body sensations. And that’s where some resolution might happen. Whereas it’ll never happens if you just stay in the mind. There are other times when people are all caught up in the actual physical emotion, and then shifting into thinking about it can be very helpful. So, we make use of that apparent dichotomy but really, it’s one integrated process.

Christiaan: Right, yeah, that makes a lot of sense. But it seems, yeah, as you said that we are disconnected from very young age, but as a separation between the body and the mind is like, it seems separate. And I think that’s such a, for me, it took quite a long time to figure out what you said that there is no separation, but it does seem like that. It seems very rigid sometimes that your mind is really thinking about things and your body is, yeah, it’s like this vehicle. 

Robert: That was, I want to speak of my teacher who is Denison for a moment. She was a dancer before she was a Dharma teacher. And she a woman named Charlotte Selver who was German, who did a lot of movement practices, she came and lived with Ruth and Henry in Hollywood for a while. And then when Ruth began teaching, she was here in the States in California, and she saw that the students were restless all the time and moving and it occurred to her, well, why don’t I have them move mindfully? So, there was, before there was sitting in a walking meditation, but she started having people do quite specific, playful dance things, and to dance with each other and to be aware of your hand moving, downward. And, anyway, she introduced the movement and at first, the other teachers were mocking her say, I mean, isn’t that stupid? We all know that you’re just supposed to sit and walk. But then if you look at what’s happened now in the insight meditation world, people do yoga on retreats and they do Qi Gong and they incorporate all kinds of practices because, you can be mindful doing anything. And to do movement practices, then allows or it helps mindfulness move into daily life and it also can heal some of those old splits, that– You know, I’ve watched my two kids now, go to adulthood and they spent a long time in school, train the mind, train the mind. And there was very little, all right, now let go of the mind and be in the body. When do they do that? Maybe physical education maybe. But so, how many hours? I mean, it’s vast how we train people to be in the mind.

Can you do everything mindfully?

Christiaan: Yeah, it’s amazing. And I think that was also something that sometimes I noticed people who work in an office all day and then they find it hard to meditate and it’s like, well, I mean, obviously, it’s hard to meditate because you are sitting the whole day at an office or you’re sitting at a job and then you want to you know, sit another hour or so doing meditation. And it makes so much sense to get first into contact with the body as in, aware of contact with the body and then move to meditation and mindfulness. But what about, it just came up like someone said that they read something about, I think mindfulness and it said, it was very rigid about what is mindfulness and what isn’t mindfulness. And we’re talking with you, I noticed that you, is it true that you can do almost anything mindfully, is that true, or is that just not true?

Robert: Mindfulness is the great miracle. I mean, in this moment as we’re speaking, something is happening that we take for granted, which is that, we’re conscious. Right? There’s, something happening and where does that come from? It doesn’t, so it was from the brain, that doesn’t make a lot of sense. But so, anxiousness exists, you know, a sperm and an egg come together and somehow or another, a baby’s born, and it has a kind of rudimentary consciousness, it can’t think, it doesn’t have an ego, but it’s conscious, oh, something’s hurting and it cries and so on. Dogs have consciousness, cows have consciousness, humans have a particular capacity in consciousness, which is to know that they know. So, I could say in this moment, please become aware that you’re seeing and suddenly, they’re seeing but there’s also knowing of seeing. And that is, and that’s all mindfulness is, it’s just being aware of what’s happening.

Robert: And so, there’s, we can be mindful of, and this is right out of the Satipatthana Sutta, the four foundations of mindfulness, we can be mindful of the body, of the body’s positions, of its movements, of it putting on clothes, going to the toilet, driving the car, chopping carrots, making love, changing the diapers, all of that can be done mindfully. So, that’s a huge, I mean, that was, it’s even not all those details, but that was even specified at the very beginning. And then every sense stores the eye, the ear, the nose, the tongue, the feeling, body and the mind, every time they have a contact with their object, it’s either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral or not determined yet. We can be mindful of liking and disliking, happens all day long, it drives us through life. And then going further into mind, well, there’s all the stories we tell ourselves and all the moods and all the all the opinions and the memory, like the past is a class of thoughts and the future is a class of thoughts and we can be mindful of those. And then there’s the fourth foundation of mindful non-phenomena, there’s the five hindrances and the seven enlightenment factors and the Four Noble Truths and those are all experiences that are real, but they exist in mind. And there’s no reason, with training, that we can’t be aware of them, we can know that’s what’s happening.

Robert: So, that kind of covers the waterfront, it’s like, be mindful of something, stay awake, and then be mindful of you sitting in meditation, oh, there is something else I want to be sure to mention, you’re sitting in meditation and the mind wanders off, la la, it’s gone for a while maybe. And then blank, mindfulness pops on, your back. And, it’s my experience that I don’t do that. That’s the universe waking up, that’s the mystery, the Buddha nature, blank, so awaking it. And there’s no predicting when it will be here and when it will go away. And we practice creating the conditions for more of that and it’s been my experience in myself and others, that we can, in fact, become much more mindful. But I don’t think it’s because we’re creating mindfulness, it’s that we create the conditions for mindfulness to arise. But this other thing that I remember that, I think is, it may be the thing that I teach most, particularly with beginners, here at the meditation center, we have a lot of newcomers coming in. And I always say this, which it’s really crucial, the attitude that you hold toward meditation. And what you think meditation is supposed to do is crucial. And most people, and a lot of what is taught in the meditation world, believe that the purpose of meditation is to stop the mind, that if you’re meditating properly, you will enter into a state of bliss, there will be no thoughts, you won’t be suffering, it ought to be no pain. And so, they meditate for a day or two or three, and then they quit because I can’t control my mind. Well, I can’t control my mind. After 40 some years and the reality is, it’s not my mind, it’s the mind. And so, a much more useful approach is, I’m going to meditate and, for instance, I’m using mindfulness of breathing, I will be using the breath as my home base and I will do my best to stay with the breath as an actual sensation. And when the mind wanders, I’ll be very gentle and notice, oh wandering mind, or fear or loneliness or whatever it is, and then gently come back to the breath. But my real purpose is to accept it exactly as it is, not to change it. And then I can be relaxed because oh, you know, my child is somewhere on the other side of the planet and hasn’t texted in a few days and I’m starting, and there’s anxiety happening. Well, that’s, that’s not going to shut off, but oh, there’s that anxiety, thank you for sharing, back to the breath. We just, we don’t have to try to stop anything because everything is always arising and passing away.

Christiaan: Is that why some say that everything is perfect as it is?

Robert: Yes, which doesn’t mean then, we don’t take responsibility and act politically and but in fact, when we drop back into the bigger picture, it’s all okay because there’s nobody here. Which is weird, I got to admit, it’s weird, but–

Buddhist view on Environmentalism

Christiaan: It’s super interesting, coming from that to one of your talks, where the central theme is the Buddhist View of Environmentalism, and I’m just super interested in that topic because right now, it’s happening. There’s, I feel there’s a lot happening in the change of perspective, people are either finding it really hard to not change their perspective, or they are changing and doing something about it. It feels like a very crucial time for environmentalism and dealing with our environment. And so, what is something that you can give to our listeners about this Buddhist view of environmentalism right now in this time?

Robert: This is a really very poignant question. It’s a poignant question here at PIMC, because this is a large community, there’s probably 800 people who are apart of PIMC and there’s a call sometimes, let’s be active, let’s be politically active, let’s do something and, you know, we got to fight against those bad guys and I’ve been very reticent to engage in that way. So, it’s been complicated, but here’s, how I’m making sense of it. If I act on a polarized basis against someone, I’m the same old problem. Years ago, I am Canadian by birth, I became an American citizen in order to vote against Ronald Reagan. And, I lost the election, I lost. But I went to some rallies and I would try to speak and when I would say, we must love Ronald Reagan, he is us, we’re not separate. It doesn’t mean we don’t act to stop him but to hate him, is the same old problem. And that was not well received, it still isn’t well received very often, except in certain circles. 

Robert: So, I think the first order of business is to wake up enough, to have our practice developed enough that we can actually become and not freaked out at all. In fact, if we, ideally, to realize that there really isn’t a problem, that everything’s okay, the earth is perfectly safe. And the earth is a temporary phenomenon anyway and we’re all going to die anyway, the human species is come into being and then it’ll go out of being, and to be able to go into that ease, where there isn’t a problem and to rest there. That’s really important. Oh, and also in that, to be able to realize that, oh, I am this manifestation that comes out of the earth, and I’m going to go back into the earth. Ronald, Donald Trump is the same, Theresa May is the same, we’re all these flowers that keep, they come into being and then we take each other very seriously, we fight and then. So, one could say to that, well, that’s quite a capo. What about those refugees that are being turned away at the border? Or what about all the harm that these people are doing? 

Robert: So, that’s the other side of the coin, in which, from a place of love and compassion, we realize, well, there really is harm happening here. And then I asked myself the question, what is the realm of influence? Where do I have influence? And what can I do there, lovingly, in order to protect people, to reduce suffering, to work toward a better distribution of human wealth or to stop torture to–? What can I do where I can be effective? Because I know I can watch TV and they’re doing this here, they’re doing that there, it’s another flood here, it’s a tornado there, and I can blow myself out of the water. And I can then be talking with people are texting and getting on social media and being in an uproar to no avail, it’s serving no one. So, it’s kind of a practical approach, which is, where can I be helpful? And sometimes it’s just, donate some money or sometimes, it’s sit down with my child and help them learn to read or my wife comes home from work really tired and maybe it’s helping her to get to bed. And I’m in this wonderful context here at the meditation center, that my primary environmental action, my primary world peace action, is running this meditation center and teaching people how to meditate so they can become peace. 

Robert: There’s an old saying, “there is no way to peace, peace is the way”. And so, funny I keep thinking of this, one of my friends’ long time ago, worked on a Greenpeace boat out in the Pacific and he said that the people in that boat were among the most violent and angry people he ever met. And, I mean, I’ve supported Greenpeace a long time and I think they’ve done really good things. But it may not have been very good for, at least in that circumstance, those people were probably not helping themselves very much. And maybe they weren’t helping the cost of world peace very much because they were so unpeaceful. And, does that make sense?

Fighting fire with fire

Christiaan: That makes sense. Yeah, I am living in Berlin and in Berlin, obviously, the remains of the Second World War are very heartfelt, it’s very deep. And there are numerous memorials, you know, there’s, on the streets, there’s these golden plates for the names of the Jewish people lived in certain places. And you see a lot of messages, you know, Nazis out, and then they get more and more aggressive at a point where you read messages about killing them or you know, so violent. And I understand where it comes from but I don’t understand how it’s not clear that once you get over a certain border of saying, you know, kill them or fight them or be violent so that they must be stopped, how that is not in the same kind of energy that you know, is the one that you’re opposing that, that is something that I don’t– I think it has to do a lot with justifying, you justify what you believe or what you do, and say this is the right thing. So, whatever I do for the right thing has to be right. It could, yeah.

Robert:  Did you did you watch the Game of Thrones? 

Christiaan: I did not, I’m very out of the loop of the Game of Thrones.

Robert: Well, the last, hang on, what would I say? 

Christiaan: Is it a spoiler?

Robert: !!!!!Spoiler alert!!!!! This and you don’t want to hear about the end of the Game of Thrones, turn off your sound for about one minute. In the last session, this beautiful, young queen figure who’s been building up to be the queen of Westeros for years. She turns into a Hitler, like despot, and she’s– Hang on, turn this off. Ah, she massacres half a million people with her dragon and then in the very last scene, essentially, her lover John Snow, the other hero, kills his lover because she’s turned into this, she’s, kill for peace, we’re going to take over the world and we’ll finally drive out the darkness. And she studied the speeches of Hitler and other despots a lot, in order to be able to, and she was great, but you can see she was just– And that’s the problem, we all have that tendency in us and we’re going to stop the violence by being violent. 

Christiaan: Yeah, exactly, yeah. So, it makes a lot of sense what you said, I feel the same way. And actually, I want to ask you something about humor in spirituality, jumping from a very serious topic into maybe a more, light topic, like what is the purpose of humor in spirituality for you and your teaching?

Robert: I had an intimate relationship some years ago, so I was with this woman, for 13 years, and she was very funny. And one of the things she would say is, “life without a sense of humor, just isn’t very funny”. And, life is crazy. And one of the ways to point it out is to point out the lunacy, the insanity of what our minds will do. And I use humor, actually, sometimes quite consciously, when giving a talk, I lay out some, maybe a pretty heavy reality, like, we’re all going to die or something like you know, something that has some real weightiness to it. And then what will pop to mind is something humorous, and I’ll have the room laughing and it balances the energy somehow and the message just goes right in under the humor. So, I just find it very, it’s very natural for me, I’ve developed the capacity to be humorous and I mean, even when I’m by myself, pretty often, I’ll find something quite funny that, it’s like, look at what this mind is doing now. Right, Robert Beatty, Meditation Master, etc. and this is happening, how bizarre.

Humor and spirituality

Christiaan: Yeah. And how do you balance sort of, humor and then compassion and taking into account, what other people might feel? Because I see a lot of people attempting humor, and also, a lot of people who are into spirituality and still they managed to hurt people, or still they managed to not get it out right in certain ways. It feels like an art form.

Robert: It is an art form, you know? I think it helps to really be compassionate with people to not be trying to be compassionate but to actually be compassionate. And then what one says, people, what I say still hurts people sometimes and something I say at the at the end of my retreats always is, if during this retreat I have done or said anything that you felt hurt by, please come and tell me, please let me know, because I too have a shadow, and I can say and do things that, I had no idea they were hurtful, and I’ve had people for more times than I remember come up and say after, well you said this thing, or we were in private conversation and you said or did this and sometimes, I have no remembrance of it and sometimes they completely misheard it and it was some hypersensitivity on their part. But other times it’s been my ignorance or my, you know, my unconsciousness. So, and I also say, if I’ve taught anything, which will lead into greater suffering rather than less suffering, then I hope it’s just forgotten. If you’ve heard something like that, come and tell me, please. And people are very timid, you know, when they come in, well, I just end there. It’s another it’s a healing moment, when I say, okay, tell me, I’ll do my best to listen and then when I actually listen, you know, I carry a lot of father transference. Where people you know, have their fathers projected on me. And so many of us wouldn’t have thought to go to our father and say, you know what you said there really hurt me and to have the person carrying the transference say, whoa, you’re right, I’m really sorry, I’ll try to remember not to do that again. So, those can be very important moments too.

Christiaan: It’s very transparent and open, that’s how it comes across when you talk and also share, It seems with humor the same thing that, in a way, it breaks open a certain area where maybe tension was and you break through that and open it up, very cool, I tried to use it in the same way I’m still learning. But I do see the purpose of humor and why it can, you know, it literally can help people de-stress and also come out of suffering out of, a sort of, mental state of seeing everything very black and then they laugh, and I mean laughing alone does something to your brain, it like sends a signal, yeah. 

Robert: It’s in it. I mean, I’ve never studied humor, but it’s an interesting thing. I don’t think dogs have humor, you know it’s just, if it’s an interesting, sophisticated, something that happens for us that we have this, sometimes you get laughing and you remember being a teenager laughing and you couldn’t stop. I was really interesting. 

Why is a guide or teacher important?

Christiaan: Going from you teaching other people and giving them the opportunity to be open and also talking about, you know, projecting transference your parent onto someone, why is a personal relationship with a guide or teacher important for our practice?

Robert: You’re a good Interviewer. 

Christiaan: Thank you, I try. 

Robert: Well, you succeed very well, that’s a beautiful question. One of the reasons that we, a spiritual reason why we enter into intimate relationships is that our partner provides provocation for parts of ourselves that are otherwise invisible, to come forward. And the same is true with a teacher that, I know, I learned, I had Sufi training for some years and one of my Sufi teachers said that the, his most significant role was seeing the beauty. I think he said, seeing the divine, seeing the beauty in his students, that they couldn’t see and that his admiration of them and pointing out their beauty, their compassion, their love, their wisdom, allowed them to grow into it. For them, and the other where we project on the teacher, if the teacher is skillful, and can realize it’s not about them, but can hold a mirror up and say, oh, look, look what you’re doing, look what your condition mind is doing, then it’s an opportunity for tremendous growth because something that we didn’t know  existed in us has comes alive. I’m thinking of an example, I did several years of training with a fellow called Matt Flickstein, who’s a former Theravadan, no, really a non-dual teacher. And we had, there was a circumstance where he had us teach a five-minute talk and then he gave feedback and then the group gave feedback. 

Robert: And when I did my little talk, I really blew it, it was one of those times, that I forgot a whole critical piece. And it came off, not that I was aware of what the mind was doing, but that I was kind of whining and his feedback was harsh. And then other people did harsh feedback and I just collapse, I just went into a really dark place. And it was so bad that I realized, I couldn’t stay in there, I had to leave, it was just, it was a real regression, you know. And that evening, oh, and I actually called, and I found I could get a taxi, I was on the East Coast, I had to fly home, I could change my flight. And I realized going into the evening session that I was going to ask him to talk and if the conversation did not go well, that relationship was over. Like, I’m not doing this again. And partway through the evening, he stopped and said, “are you okay, Robert?” And I said, “no, I’m really not well”. And he said, “physically or emotionally?” And I said, “emotionally”. And then quite uncharacteristically, he said, “let’s meet when we’re finished tonight”. So, that was good, he saw it and then when I went in to see him, I actually feel a little teary as I’m talking about this, it was a very important encounter. I said, “something has come up between us, that unless we get a good resolution, I have to leave. 

Robert: Because my experience was your feedback today was not kind and was hurtful and if you can do that, then this isn’t a safe place for me”. And he said, “oh, I know, I’ve been feeling bad about it since this morning, I don’t think it was inaccurate but the way that I said it was really wrong, I’m very sorry”. And then he also said, “and several of the other people in the group then climbed onto my energy and so it was a bad feedback session for you”. And I started bawling. And then he shared something of his past that was kind of made sense of why he had lost perspective and been harsh. And the intimacy in our relationship when in other, several sub basements is like, oh, this is a very useful, important relationship. And I had a lot of healing around that trauma, that I did a guru trip early in my Buddhist thing, I fell under the spell of a Buddhist guru type for five years. So, that was really great, my transference on him was of, the harsh, mean, elder male. And it brought it to the fore and he because of his skillfulness and sensitivity, and also my own willingness to confront it, I managed to incorporate it to really, to be more whole around that issue. So, that’s an example of it. And that happens to me many times that I say, and often it’s not that I’m saying, not that I’ve done something, quote, wrong or bad. It said, I’m the recipient of transference.

Advice for those reluctant to find a real-life teacher

Christiaan: I feel that in our community, in our online community, there’s people who had bad experiences, for instance, with real life communities or with teachers, some even you know, work through a book by themselves to learn meditation and to do that. What would you give in as an advice for those people if they feel heard or even, you know, reluctant to find a real-life teacher, because they have such a bad experience?

Robert: That’s a big question, isn’t it? 

Christiaan: Yeah.

Robert: What can you possibly do–? Many people never find a teacher, they don’t even know to look. There’s so little trust that a teacher could be helpful, or certainty that the teacher will harm them. I don’t know, I mean, there are some safeguards to find a teacher who has a lineage and who has colleagues. There’s a very useful, when I came out of that cult that I was in, the Buddhist cult, one of the things that the fellow who helped me get out gave me was the writings of Robert Lifton and he was the fellow, he studied the Chinese brainwashing groups after the Korean War. And he has, if you googled eight points of mind control groups, that’s a very helpful list because you can look at the group that you’re joining, or the teacher that you’re approaching and see, is any of this happening? And the more of it that’s happening, the more dangerous it is. 

Christiaan: Wow. That’s all solid advice. Because, I feel the only way to equip anyone who has problems with finding a teacher is to be skeptical, but along a guideline, not to be over skeptical but also not to be under skeptical. I don’t know if that’s a word but yeah.

Robert: And falling into a relationship with a teacher where one gets injured somewhat is a very common piece of the journey and isn’t the end of the world, it can be really bad and difficult. But, we’re, I mean, so many of the teachers that I know have had that experience. And so many of the teachers I know have awakened from their own lack of integrity in some ways.

Buddhist cult

Christiaan: Yeah. All right. I actually wonder now because you talked about these five years, that you’re involved in a Buddhist cult, which country was that? And do you want to share a little bit more about that? Because, yeah.

Robert: I’ve talked about it publicly all the time. I’ve helped lots of people get out of mind control groups. So, yeah, the fellow’s name was Sujata, he died 25 years ago or so. He was a young American fellow who’d been a monk in Sri Lanka, and then in India for a year or two. And then he came, he had a narcissistic personality disorder and he had the capacity to go around a group of people, 10, 20 people and tell each person something about their life that hurt them. So, and then he would say, I’m pointing out your ego. And for those of us that were looking for somebody with magic powers, we thought he was really quite something. And there wasn’t much Dharma around at that time, Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein hadn’t started teaching in the states yet. And I fell hook line and sinker. I’d lived in Europe for two years and I went back to Europe and set up a lecture tour in 10 different cities for him. And you know, London, Paris, Berlin, all over the place and we gathered 25 students and we rented a chateau in France for a one-month retreat, which helped people a lot. And also, was a little weird. But I was there, I was with him for five years until his teacher, Mahindra, very famous teacher came. And as soon as he came, I realized, oh, I can leave him, I don’t lose the Dharma, so then I left.

Robert: But and then I took a took a long time to heal from that and I learned a lot. And he truly did have a narcissistic personality disorder and was tragic for him. It was a small group, you know, maybe, I don’t know, really, 8 or 9 or 10 of us were in the close circle and then people came in did retreats, and they, some people saw what was happening and said, I’m out of here. People who were more streetwise didn’t stay.

Christiaan: Yeah, and yesterday I had a talk with someone about, again, enlightenment but also with Greg, we talked about meditation retreats, and also about teachers. And so, central for me is to remember that they are humans and to remember that humans are not outside of the laws of, you know, psychology and how the brain works and these kind of things and for me, that was so helpful to realize because for so long I was looking for, I don’t know what I was looking for, a superhuman someone—

Robert: Someone who is perfect, a Buddha who was, who didn’t fart. You know, who didn’t have need and I don’t know maybe the end of the Arhat ideal. I went to Burma,1979, 78 and I spent a week with [inaudible] who was kind of like the Dalai Lama of Burmese Buddhism at that time. And he was old, he was 82 years old and he lives in Rangoon and he came down to, what’s the capital? No, he lived in upcountry about 300 miles north. He came to Rangoon and he had a temporary monastery and he got up in the morning at around 5:30 with the rest of us and then there was chanting and then we went out on alms round, and he started at like 6:30 or 7 o’clock meeting with people. People would line up outside. From then until lunch, he would meet with people and then it’d be an hour break or an hour and a half of lunch. And then from 1 o’clock until 9 o’clock at night, he counseled people, they came in and they came in, he did that for three months.

Christiaan: Wow. 

Robert: And that was all he was, he was this, and the story was that he was 12 years old or less. And he went into a cave where he stayed for 28 years. People fed him, but, and he came out, he became he became the Tonkula, which is the place, sirdar, means honored. And he became pretty different. And then there’s this–. So, anyway, but that’s not who I am and that’s not who most western teachers are, we’re kind of ordinary human beings who have devoted some time to do some cleaning up of our act, and maybe who understand something about freedom and therefore love and compassion. And that’s, but, you know, I’d like someone who would come along and pat me on the head and say, “boy, you’re free”. I’d like that. So, of course, we go looking for that, I think, some of us.

Christiaan: If people love what they hear, and they enjoy your teachings, where can they find more? How can they get in contact with you? 

Robert: I have a website, surprise. Robertbeatty.com, BEATTY.com, the meditation centers, Portlandinsight.org. I do meet with people over the net, to do that my phone number and everything is on the website. And also, I have hundreds of hours of YouTube, if you go on YouTube and look for Robert Beatty meditation, our Sunday morning broadcast goes up there every week and you can tune in Pacific Standard Time at 10 am, I know go to the website, Portlandinsight.org and there’s a link there and you can tune in to the Portland insight meditation community Sunday meeting. 

Christiaan: Perfect. 

Robert: Oh, and I should say this. And my book is going to the publisher in the next, about a month, and there will be a book, I will be a published author. 

Christiaan: That’s really cool, real short. What is the title of the book or what’s it about? 

Robert: Mindfulness, shockingly, mindfulness for a happy life. Modern perspectives on ancient teachings. 

Christiaan: Looking forward to reading that. Thank you so much for joining me on the podcast. It was a pleasure talking with you. And I learned so much and I’m sure our listeners are very inspired to keep up their practice or start. 

Robert: I hope so. 

Christiaan: Yeah. Thank you so much. Have a good day. 

Robert: The listeners can’t hear this, but I am bowing to you. 

Christiaan: I’m bowing to you too. Thank you so much. 

Robert: May all beings benefit from this conversation we had together.

Want to know more?

If you would like to know more about Robert, visit his website here: http://www.robertbeatty.com

I would love to hear from you what your experiences are after listening to this podcast. Simply comment here, write me a message on our discord community or place a review on our iTunes page.

Warm regards,

Christiaan

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Christiaan Neeteson
Christiaan Neeteson
Christiaan is passionate about building a supportive, healthy and positive community. He hosts the podcast, creates meditative music and is the co-founder of Project Mindfulness.

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