CONVERSATION WITH A NUN
December 2003 – January 2004
Who are we really, and to whom do we pray?
In our last issue, the conversation between Ven. Robina Courtin, free lance writer Lyn Siegel and psychiatrist Dr. Normal Safransky began with the Australian-born nun’s observations on karma and what life can be like for prison inmates – something she knows well through her work with the Liberation Prison Project. The story continues …
Q: With more and more people practicing mindfulness and working on these negative qualities, do you think human beings as a whole are becoming better people?
A: Not necessarily. Look at the world. More violence. Look at this country [America] alone. Look at the number of children born now who are experiencing incredible suffering: kids who are on drugs already by the age of five, kids with attention deficit disorder, kids who are violent, homeless kids. There are so many more children now with mental suffering. You could say that the human race is going downhill, couldn’t you?
Q: What is the point if things don’t get any better? Why bother?
A: If you’re alive, then you don’t have any choice other than to practice virtue, to make yourself a better person, to try to help others. It doesn’t matter what the outside world does. If I look into my mind from day to day, and I see that anger, jealousy, fear, and neuroses make me miserable, then do I have a choice? No. Even if I just want to be happy, not to mention helping others to be happy, then the only thing I can choose is to be kind and loving and patient and generous. Because they’re the things that will bring me more sanity and contentment. Then, when you’re doing the job yourself, you can help others do the same, one step at a time.
Q: Many people have an idea that meditation and embracing Buddhism will lead to calm and stillness, yet you’re clearly a high-energy individual who approaches a variety of projects at high speed.
A: I think there are some pretty clichéd ideas of what a good Buddhist should be like, and of what meditation is. The Tibetan word for meditation, gom, is “to become familiar.” “Meditation” refers to a series of sophisticated psychological techniques – Buddha didn’t use the word “psychological” because it wasn’t coined then – that enable a person to familiarize themselves with the positive, appropriate states of mind. To think that meditation simply calms you down is simplistic. You don’t need to sit looking holy to do that; you can just lie down and go to sleep.
There are many techniques to help us get a handle on our mind. A natural consequence of that – and this is the real point – is to have a mind that is more steady, more controlled, more happy, more wise, more clear, more loving, more proactive, more beneficial. That doesn’t necessarily mean being more “slow” or ”quiet.” The point isn’t just to walk slowly and look like you’re being this thing called “mindful?” His Holiness the Dalai Lama is renowned for talking fast and walking fast!
… Q: Do you ever find yourself at a point where you don’t feel like you have the strength to go on?
A: In a sense, all the time! When you learn anything, whether you want to become a carpenter or a skater, all the time you’re pushing yourself against your limits, aren’t you? You’re getting out of your comfort zone and you’re trying to become better and better at what you’re doing. And that’s sometimes very scary, very painful. You have to struggle all the time. I don’t mean struggle in a neurotic way. But, all the neurotic. That takes a lot of work …
Read the complete article as a PDF.