Gary Gach: Pause. Breathe. Smile. Spiritual Awakening as an Art Form
TS: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, my guest is Gary Gach. Gary is a writer, mystic, and lifelong meditator who has engaged in many roles: actor, bookshop clerk, dishwasher, hospital admin, office temp, stevedore, teacher, and typographer. Lay ordained by Thich Nhat Hanh in 2008, he has authored eight previous books, including The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Buddhism.
With Sounds True, Gary has written a new book called Pause, Breathe, Smile: Awakening Mindfulness When Meditation is Not Enough, where he explains the simple process of pausing, breathing, and smiling, and how it can water our innate seeds of awakening to help us pave our own path to total fulfillment and peace.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Gary and I spoke about the half smile, or slight smile, that he calls “mouth yoga,” and can help us take mastery of our own lives. We talked about the three aspects of reality that have the power to awaken us: inhabiting the space of impermanence or flow; inhabiting the space of interbeing, also known as our interconnectedness; and inhabiting the space of openness or selflessness. We talked about Gary’s first experience, at the age of 10, of what is known in Buddhism as “dependent origination,” and his view that many young people get this better than adults.
Gary also shared a teaching on how to read and write haiku, and he even offered a spontaneous haiku poem that was the flower of our conversation. And finally, we talked about the role of community in mindfulness practice, and how we can open to the community that we are already a part of and build community in ways that are natural to who we are. Here’s my conversation on Pause, Breathe, Smile, with Gary Gach:
Gary, you begin your new book, Pause, Breathe, Smile, with three mindful breaths and a half smile, and then you write that the rest of the book, 200 pages that follow, are commentary on this first three mindful breaths and a half smile. And I thought, let’s begin our conversation with what is really the pith of Pause, Breathe, Smile: three mindful breaths and a half smile. Can you take us through it?
GG: Sure. Well—and you know that it’s also a pause, and to have a conscious breath you’re already pausing. So, let’s do it. I’ve already paused our conversation, and as I’m doing it, I’ll say aloud what I’m doing, and I invite all the listeners to join us.
So, I’ve paused for a moment to return to my breathing. I have 23,000 breaths a day and they’re not always conscious. But now, I’m kind of taking a pause moment and breathing through my nose. I’m feeling the freshness of the air coming in, breathing out. I’m feeling the warmth of the air leaving my body. This is good. I’m gonna do this again. Breathing in, I’m feeling more of my body now. Breathing out, I’m feeling my body just kind of letting go. I’m gonna try this one more time. Breathing in, I’m feeling more space within and without. Breathing out, I feel calm.
So, I’m gonna give myself just a little gift, a gift of a half smile or a faint smile, however it appears to me, to sort of take this moment at heart. I’ve found that I’m able to master my mind and my body and my life with just a few breaths and continuing breathing with a faint smile. This does feel happier, somehow.
So, if I could do this—if anyone can do this throughout the day, I think it’s like a bouquet of flowers that speaks for itself.
TS: It’s interesting that you point out this 23,000 breaths that we have in a day. That number—I wasn’t familiar with until reading Pause, Breathe, Smile, and I thought, “That’s a lot of breaths,” imagining that the kind of mindful breathing you just took us through. Oh, you know, most of us maybe spend, on a good day, hundreds of breaths that way. But 23,000 breaths in a day, potentially.
GG: 24 hours. And I also learned myself, in writing the book, that if the lung were laid out, it would be the size of a football field.
TS: Now that’s amazing. Tell me what that brings up for you when you think of that image and using the whole lung.
GG: Just the enormity, you know. If the number of breaths is time and thinking about how much space is really involved with the lungs—time and space. Well, you know, those are different metrics of looking at it, but having just seen this for ourselves, it’s just so profound that breath is able to fill us fully, and also offer us a chance to let go, surrender to the present moment, and just rest in this amazing, natural process of breathing.
TS: Now, one of the things, Gary, that I wanted to talk to you about was this half smile—pause, breathe, smile. And of course, this is something I’ve heard about. I’ve heard about it from the Qigong tradition and other places, all the benefits that come from smiling. And you have this phrase, “gladden up,” which I thought was interesting.
So, what I wanted to talk about was how I have a mixed response to this. There’s a part of me that enjoys it and that I can feel the physiological impact of asking myself to do a half smile. Another part of me says, “Why am I making myself smile? Isn’t it OK if I have a sort of flat affect? Why am I pasting on a smile? Isn’t that, the sort of smiley face culture, fake?” That kind of thing. Tell me what you think about that.
GG: Good question. It’s kind of like mouth yoga. All it takes is one little muscle of, I think, 43 muscle groups of the face. Just one little muscle. And it could even be an interior smile, just feeling it within our face, not necessarily anything anyone would see. And Jack Kornfield reminded me when he was reading the book that it really is a faint smile, it isn’t necessarily a half smile. It’s just the slightest nuance or shading, of giving ourselves a certain gift that we have: that when we smile, we’re taking mastery of our own life, in addition to feeling happy. It’s a form of discipline, just like conscious breathing. We’re breathing, but now we’re consciously breathing. We’re already happy, but we may not realize that we have enough causes and conditions to be happy in the present moment. So, in the same way, it’s a reminder. It’s being mindful of our natural, true, state of ease.
And yes, the dopey half smile, “have a nice day” happy face, it’s not about that.
TS: So, you don’t ever feel like you’re kind of shifting your emotional mood out of what might be authentically happening when you say, “Hmm, where’s that half smile?” But faint smile is interesting. It’s subtle, but there’s a little difference in that.
GG: Oh, this is good. So, we’re going a little deeper into it, and as you’re saying this, I’m realizing, you know, I don’t know if one mouth is enough to say everything there is to say about a smile, but when I’m practicing mindfulness and engaging with a smile, whatever I’m feeling or perceiving or thinking is still there, but I’m embracing it more. I’m smiling at it. And I’ve noticed that this practice—you might try it yourself—that when I’m aware of my breathing and I’m aware of what I’m connecting with in life, like right this moment I’m looking at the clouds out the window, and I’m smiling at the clouds. And I breathe out, and I’m smiling at the clouds. And I breathe in, and I’m sort of noticing I’m making a more intimate connection with my environment, internally and externally.
I don’t know why that is, you know? It’s kind of amazing. But, it does seem so. Also, I mentioned smiling in terms of something that goes beyond words. I’m using “smiling” in the book to refer to wisdom. Just being with what is. And I guess the last thing I could say is, it really isn’t—it’s really a waste of time to practice this if you’re not being happy doing it. If you’re not really enjoying it, if you’re not—yes. If you’re not enjoying it, why do it? [Laughs]
TS: Very good. You talked about how you use smiling to actually point to wisdom. And there’s some very deep territory in Pause, Breathe, Smile that you cover, and I want to get right into it. You talk about how there are three aspects of reality that have the power to awaken us. And I wanted to begin right there and ask you, Gary, what is spiritual awakening to you? As a little bit of background here, I did a series once called Waking Up: What Does it Really Mean? And I interviewed 23 different spiritual teachers and asked them that question. What does spiritual awakening mean to you? How would you define it? And the thing that astonished me was that I got 23 different answers. And I thought, “This is really interesting. There’s not one answer.” So, I’d love to know, for Gary Gach, what is spiritual awakening to you?
GG: Well, this morning I woke and I gave myself the opportunity to pause and be aware that I woke. And when I was sitting with this, I was just doing nothing but being aware of my breathing. I was noticing a deepening in my breathing and a brightening of the wall, and the room, and the light coming up from the horizon. And then I was, at that period of my day, part of the whole awakening of everything.
I love that you don’t fix a particular image or definition to awakening. But I think at root, it does refer to a basic, natural process that we experience every day and that without making that metaphorical, but just really inhabiting that when we awake, do we awaken? Or do I get up in the morning and poor some coffee down my gullet like I’m a machine to get going and proceed to act like someone who’s sleepwalking through life?
Or, do I awaken when I awaken? I begin my day with my appointment with life. I embrace this mysterious, magnificent gift of life and want to be present to everything that happens so that I can show up when I’m present. And to me, that’s just kind of awakening. I don’t really have a, you know, a solid definition for it. There’s a little section in the book, in the back, that gives some more prompts, but I’m very much of the mind that when a person is able to feel for themselves, they know what awakening is, or they know how they want to awaken, or what they want to awaken in their lives or be awakened.
TS: Now, you talk about these three aspects of reality that have the power to awaken us, and I loved this section of the book. And I thought it would be worth talking about all three. So, the first is when we can inhabit the space of impermanence. You also call it “flow.” So, talk some about that, why you refer to impermanence as flow and what it feels like to inhabit the space of impermanence or flow.
GG: Great question. You know, I hadn’t really thought until you’ve asked me, why did I use other words than impermanence? Well, now that I think about it, impermanence is sort of the word that I was originally taught, I guess 40, 50 years ago when I was reading Alan Watts about uncertainty as a positive way. And now, I realize that that’s kind of like a negative definition—it’s not permanent. But to say it in a positive way, it’s flow.
And why it’s important to me is, I’m aware when I flow how I seem in harmony with everything else in life inside of me and around me that’s flowing; and that when I withhold and hold back and sort of like, want to stop and become frozen in some attitude or idea, that constriction separates me from life and it develops into a kind of suffering.
I think that the other word/phrase that I really like for this is not hanging on. The mystic British poet William Blake says, “The one who kisses the joy as it flies, lives in eternal sunrise.” And the reverse is, “One who bindeth themself to a joy, does the winged life destroy.” But one who kisses the joy as it flies, lives in eternal sunrise. So, for me, the sense of flow is not hanging on. Not trying to give it a label or fix it in any way, but just marvel at how many different things are flowing all at once. And also, be aware that if I try to pull away for some reason and hang on to any one thing, hanging on can be a hang-up. So I like that, too. Hanging on can be a hang-up.
TS: I wanna ask you to speak to that person, Gary, who might be listening and who says, “You know, conceptually I’m with you. I know everything’s changing, everything’s impermanent. But, there are times, like a time in my life right now, where I feel like I’m hanging on. Maybe it’s because I don’t want this person to leave my life, or I don’t want this situation that I’m in that I really enjoyed and that’s been so important to me, to change, or I have a fear about this loss in my life.” How can you help someone through applying the wisdom that you offer Pause, Breathe, Smile, who is truthfully—they look in the mirror and say, “You know, I am holding on to X, Y, Z”?
GG: Gosh, well that’s the first, hardest step. To recognize, “Oh, what’s going on here is this is about me trying to make things be different than they are.” And the first thing I say is, if a person says, “This is conceptual, I don’t really get it,” I say, “Well, let’s just try this with the breath.” The three things that I mentioned of wisdom in the book are all present in breathing. If I try to hold my breath, where does it come from, where does it go? I might get dizzy. I’m only capable of breathing because nothing stays the same.
So, to look at this just a little deeper, then once one recognizes, once one is kind of recognizing, “Hmm, I’m looking in the mirror and I’m seeing that my problem is about hanging on,” that shows us what we need to let go of. That when we touch the space or place of something that’s holding back, then we know what to let go of. And I think the trick that I’m learning myself—and I hope to be able to share with others—is that that moment of recognition and letting go is where we really deserve to do this in a kindly way, rather than “Oh my God, I’m hanging on, I’m doing it again, I’m such a failure,” et cetera; so that really the way to let go is to really embrace and smile at whatever it feels like in the body or whatever is coming up in the mind, and then let it go. And breathe into it and then let it go.
I hope for the person that’s out there listening, that that might be a good beginning.
TS: I think what it brings up for me is, when you say that smiling at whatever it is and listening deeply to my question, some ability to smile, even at our grief—because there can be a grief sometimes in letting people go. There’s a death in our life, something like that. I wonder if you can comment on that.
GG: Yes. Well, that’s the deep second mark of reality, that grief and joy are marbled together in our experience. And that to want to just have all the good and pleasurable things without encountering life’s inevitable pains and stubbing our toe on a rock, and our dear and near ones passing on—you know, that’s unrealistic.
So, another way of looking at how a smile isn’t necessarily a goofy chill pill or a happy face, but as a way of connecting, is to acknowledge that as human beings, we have all of these inclinations for suffering that sometimes are extra. And that when they are, the smiling at them and letting them go—smiling at them is like a heat lamp that can unknot the withheld energies of feeling and perceptions and thoughts.
TS: Let’s move on to the second aspect of reality that you write about that has the power to awaken us. You talk about inhabiting the space of interconnection or interbeing. And of course, interbeing is a word, at least that I heard introduced by Thich Nhat Hanh, and I know he’s someone that you’ve studied with deeply. Talk to us about interbeing and interconnection and what it means to you to inhabit that space.
GG: Hmmm. Yes. Interbeing is very profound, but I think the simplest way to picture it, which is how I first saw it when I was about 10. Can you visualize the yin yang, the circle that has the black and white, but they’re not even? One is sort of like chasing the tail of the other.
GG: Or another way to look at it might be a little more concretely, I was in the garden this morning and I was working with the flowers and also the earth. And I was thinking, “Gee, these beautiful, fresh, fragrant flowers got that way by coming through the dirt.” Another way of saying that is, “No garbage, no roses. ” Or as Thich Nhat Hanh says, “No mud, no lotus.”
The recognition that everything is interconnected is an ancient way of seeing the universe that the West is just coming to, I think. and interestingly that it’s beginning to seep into science, which typically looks at material world but with a hammer and then breaks everything down and then breaks down those pieces into little bits and labels everything. Whereas, the way of looking through the eyes of interbeing sees the connectiveness between all of these things. There’s no this without that.
So, interbeing is a very, totally liberating way of viewing, and it’s part and parcel of impermanence. Because if everything is flowing, then nothing can really stay in one spot long enough to be separate from everything else. So, everything is really becoming everything else. It’s all in a state of endless becoming and metamorphosis and change, so that everything affects everything else.
TS: Now, Gary, you mentioned that you had your first encounter, if you will, with the reality of interconnectedness when you were just 10 years old. What was happening when you were a young person?
GG: Well, I think it’s not, you know, it’s not something rare. I gotta preface this. I’m not trying to say that I’m special, but I had a direct vision—a direct perception, if you will—of interbeing, just looking out the window when I was in school. They were asking us to do something really boring like put your hands on your head and then your hands on your desk, and just busy work before the break. And I just looked out the window and I saw the house going up across the street, and the smell of the wood, and the sound of the hammering. And like, shazam, in an instant I saw the wood as coming from trees, which were lining the street, and the workers who were hammering away as having been fed by similar vegetation, and working their plans with a blueprint, which I saw somewhere on a table, which was made out of a tree.
And as this quickly unfolded in this instant, I saw that all these patterns within patterns had a kind of common pattern of interconnectedness. That everything was connected with everything else and that this was the ultimate nature of reality. And I was so excited. I felt like this was a piece of gold that I had discovered, and I put it in, you know in a jean—in blue jeans, there’s a little, tinier pocket above the other pocket, and I put it there so it wouldn’t get intermingled with all the everyday coins. And I didn’t know what it was. [Laughs] I mean, it was like “Wow, what is this?”
And then, it wasn’t until—I think it was two years later, that I was at the corner store and instead of buying a comic book, I had 35 cents, and I bought The Way of Zen by Alan Watts. And it was on page 35, I said, “Oh, this is what I saw. There’s a name for it!” In Buddhism, it’s called dependent co-arising. If this arises, that arises. It’s called dependent co-arising. And now, Thich Nhat Hanh calls it interbeing. And from that moment, I said “Oh, oh, this must be the way I vibrate with the universe!” And I became a follower of the way ever since. [Laughs]
TS: It’s so interesting that that happened to you as such a young person. I mean, it sounds like you were, you know, barely a teenager.
GG: No, no, no. But what I wanna say is that this is not special. You know, I teach haiku. And when I teach haiku to adults and kids, the kids get it and they write beautiful haiku. And the adults will ask these kind of childish questions. You know, “Can I say ‘I’ in my haiku?” And the kids have gone off to say, “Silk on velvet, the spring morning.” I think the child mind is maybe overlooked. It’s underestimated. And that when we return to our true nature, when we are really being true to ourselves, our inner child is still there. And it’s not childish, it’s just childlike. It’s like a flower.
TS: When it comes to really appreciating, in a deep way, interbeing, I think of the time we’re in right now, where there seems to be quite a bit, when it comes to political discourse, of divisiveness. There’s not a sense of connection between me and the person whose views are opposing, for many people. How do you think we could apply this realization to discourse with people who have very different opinions from our opinion?
GG: That’s such an excellent application of interbeing and I’m so glad you said it. And I’ll just elaborate a little from my side. I think it’s something that everybody can and could do reasonably to help heal and transform this incredibly divided, polarized kind of consciousness that we’re living with or in.
I was talking this week with some people that I hadn’t really known, and we went out to dinner so we could get to know them. And it was kinda clear that our political party affiliations were different. But we were agreeing about a lot of things. And I think that’s kind of a place to start, you know? That when we’re dealing with people that they think they’re separate from us and we think we’re separate from them, that we try to recognize a commonality, you know? That we’re all visitors on this planet and we’re all in this together.
And then to recognize the interdependence—hmmm, that’s often tricky. Because for me, I want the two parties or the two teams or whatever people are rooting, for one side to recognize “Hey, there’s another side.” You know? To recognize that when somebody demonizes somebody else in a conversation, one could ask, “Well then, who are we gonna live with if we can’t live with human beings?” Or to just reach them in a loving way first and say something common about human experience. Yes, they must be suffering too. And you just sort of plant a seed. I don’t think it’s necessarily possible to bring somebody to this way of seeing or this point of view, but it’s very skillful, I think, in overcoming the feeling like you’re dealing with a wall and you’re talking to the hand, and it’s just nobody’s listening.
I have great faith that human beings are capable of coming to a point of realizing what’s really important and then doing the necessary work of reconciliation. And that now, whether one’s taking a direct action approach or just gently planting seeds, is to keep that wider view at all times so that one isn’t frustrated and burnt out. Kind of recognizing that yes, everybody’s kind of suffering, and if we lightened up, everybody would have a better go at whatever it is that we’re invested in.
TS: OK, Gary, the third aspect of reality that you invite us to inhabit in your book Pause, Breathe, Smile, is selflessness. And you use an interesting alternate word for selflessness, “openness.” And I just loved that. I love that for the people who maybe don’t connect with selflessness—openness. So, tell me how you see those two as interchangeable terms and how we can inhabit this space of openness or selflessness.
GG: Yes, that’s a great question. Thank you. I guess it goes back to what we were saying about impermanence or flow, you know? Selflessness is kind of negative. It’s not-self, or self-less. Although someone who is considered selfless is considered to be—it’s a positive virtue. But openness, it’s more of a positive thing to begin with, that we’re just being open. So, that’s why I use both words, and I think the best way to see it is just in ordinary life situations where, “Yes, I was able to wad up the piece of paper and throw it in the trash can without thinking because I was being kind of open.” Or, “Yes, my breath is coming in and out of my body without me having to do anything.”
So, all of these three aspects of reality, which are potentially very deep and maybe more than a person can say about—you just might smile instead. But if you really wanna speak about them or if you consider them, they’re present in the present moment just in our breathing. Just in our moment-to-moment living.
TS: Gary, Pause, Breathe, Smile has a curious subtitle. The subtitle is Awakening Mindfulness When Meditation is Not Enough. When is meditation not enough? What do you mean by that?
GG: [Laughs] Good question, Tami. What I’m trying to get at there, is that a lot of people think that meditation is like a chill pill, you know? It’s a cozy cove where you can go and just kind of shut off everything in the world and be calm. There’s nothing wrong with being calm. It’s a very good and important thing. But calm is not enough for the journey of awakening.
Meditation is traditionally part of a menu that also includes what I call pausing, or intentionality, and considering the appropriateness of one’s actions. And, as we’ve been discussing, deep wisdom is kind of an integral package. So, calming, quietude, is not awakening, but you need that stability that you get with serenity as a base. If we have a good grounding, then we can do the next phases of discerning what would be good, and choosing appropriate ways to take action for ourselves and others.
So, I wanted to kind of plant a seed that awakening mindfulness is not just meditation. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but that it’s possible to take a deeper dive.
TS: Now, when you talk about having intentionality about our life, you write about how underneath intentionality is becoming clear on our motivation. What’s your motivation at this point in your life, when you get underneath the intentions around your day? What’s your motivation?
GG: Hmm. Motivation is what I think about from the get-go. Am I doing this to be happy for me? Yes. Am I doing it so others will be happy? Yes. Why? Well, if I’m just happy and other people aren’t happy, I won’t be happy. So, my motivation in this phase of my life has come to really wanting everything I do to radiate out of that sense of wanting all beings to be happy, safe, peaceful, thriving, and that whatever I’m doing is a part of that.
I think earlier in my life, I had a sense of my motivation was wanting to get really clear about stuff so I could participate in life adequately and properly. And I’ve recognized that I can’t really divorce myself from life and the world, and that my transformation of myself and any transformation of the world I’d like to see are interconnected. So, that’s my motivation.
TS: How could you help guide someone in clarifying their motivation, taking it deeper? I can imagine someone listening that says, “God, you know, my motivation is to like, make it through the day, make sure I have enough money in my bank account, and maybe clean my house so that it’s an uplifted environment. I’m not sure I’m getting to the deepest motivation of my soul at this moment.”
GG: Wow, that’s a great question. I wish I could [laughs] offer anybody a sense that their motivation is different than their intention. Their intention is to be free of bill collectors and to get through the day and so forth and so forth. But why are they doing that? I guess one way, I suppose, I’m just thinking aloud—that’s a good question. I think one way you might do that is just write on a piece of paper, “Why?” with a question mark. And then, throughout your day, look at that from time to time and ask why. Why am I doing this? What is my real, core, inmost aspiration in life for doing this? And if it’s not connecting with that, then you’re looking at your motivation and reevaluating it.
TS: One of the things that moved me, Gary, in reading your book, and I think helped me connect in a way—in a sort of subtle way, to you and your motivation for writing Pause, Breathe, Smile, was you wrote that the book itself felt to you as you were writing it, like you were writing an anonymous love letter. And I thought that’s so beautiful. That’s so beautiful that you were in that state as you were writing a dharma book. Tell me a little bit about that, writing an anonymous love letter.
GG: Gee, you know, every author really wants to be asked that kind of question. [Laughs] Not, “Why did Alice, on page 42, tell Roger—” but instead, “Why did you write this book?” [Laughs] I just love that.
I write without telling myself intentionally, “Now I’m gonna write a book.” As a writer, I’ve learned that sometimes my intention gets in the way. And that if I wake up in the morning and I find myself writing 32 rhymed ballad stanzas, I don’t stop and say, “Wait, wait, wait, I don’t write rhymed ballad stanzas. Stop, stop, stop.” That’s what’s coming through me and I accept it.
One morning, I woke up and I was writing some stuff. I still have it, it’s on the back of something. And I looked and I said, “Oh, this looks like a book.” [Laughs] And it continued like that throughout. It was just such a gift.
TS: Now, you mentioned, Gary, teaching haiku writing. What do you teach in terms of meditation—pause, breathe, smile, write haiku? Can you share your pith instructions for that?
GG: To me, haiku writing and haiku reading are verbal ways of connecting to the awakening mindfulness that we’re all capable of. And as such, it’s a very skillful way of using words to really get at that kind of ineffable kind of pollen, if you will. So, it’s a practice, I think, more than anything else. And I engage everybody to find themselves in the group that we’re practicing with, as if they’re studying a Zen koan, or as if they’re on retreat studying some teaching of contemplative practice, and allowing the possibility that a haiku may come, that it may spontaneously arise. And that when it does, we can observe, “Oh, I was capable of manifesting this unrepeatable flower that matches my comprehension and my expression of the nature of reality.” And I think if I try to say anything more about it, it gets further and further away from something that is already just one thin razor slice away from words.
So that’s the way I try to teach. I explain that haiku can’t be taught, and that they can’t even be written. That a haiku is just this unrepeatable perception that comes to us like an insight does, arising spontaneously from our connection with the very heart of nature.
TS: Is there a haiku alive in you at this moment, that is perhaps a flower of this conversation right now? I’m curious.
GG: Scooping up the full moon in the wooden water pail, I spilled it on the grass. Scooping up the full moon in the wooden water pail, I poured it out on the spring grass.
TS: I love it. I love it. It’s perfect. Spilling, I love it.
GG: One mouth is not enough to speak about these probative, insightful questions that you’re asking. And I gotta say, I’m still learning about this gift that this book is, and your questions are helping me get deeper into it.
TS: One of the things that you wrote about that I appreciated so much was you talked about spiritual awakening as an art form, and I think that’s relevant here in our conversation because you’re talking about and experiencing spiritual awakening as an artist—not as, you know, this dot connects to that dot, or, you know, one, two, three. It’s not mathematics, it’s an art form. I just wanted to say that I loved that part of how you teach and communicate.
GG: Thank you, yes. I think everybody has within themselves this creative power, and that when we overlook that when we’re talking about the spiritual journey, it’s such an important gateway that we can enter through and that can give us such fulfillment in our lives, and other people sharing it, too. And I think without it, yes, we’re sort of like, “Oh yes, I insert my big toe here and I twist and you do the hokey pokey, and you do it like this.” And it’s not like that.
And it’s very much that even if a listener to this program were to copy out a haiku, say, in their own handwriting, it would be different because it’s in their own handwriting. And that every person has their own, unique comprehension of the way things are and what their gift is to be a genuine person, intimate with life. And that that comprehension has with it, like an ember to a coal, forms of expression. And that when we process things through art, through language, through dance, through music, we get at them in a deeper way.
TS: Now, Gary, there’s an interesting Q&A section that you include in the book, and there’s a segment dedicated towards practice tips at the end of the book. And there’s a question that’s asked—”How much is being in community a part of the practice?” And the answer that you give is, “It’s not a part of the practice, my friend, it’s really the whole of the practice.” And that was a moment where I paused, and I thought “Gosh, you know, I think a lot of people are gonna have a lot of mixed feelings about that. I don’t wanna join a community. Really? That’s the whole of the practice? Can’t I just absorb these teachings, have my meditation cave, bring mindfulness into different parts of my life? Do I really need to be part of a community?”
GG: Boy, that’s such a great question. And I respond to it personally because I am that person that says, “I don’t wanna have to join the Boy Scouts. I just wanna read the book. I just wanna be happy. I don’t wanna have to go to a support group or any of that stuff.” I know that feeling really well in my own life.
And I would say to that person now, being who I am now, that you already are in a community. So, when I practiced this morning, sitting facing a wall, I was in community. You know? I heard the wild parrots at North Beach and I heard the crows, and there’s probably a film of bacteria that’s running across the floor, and people may go “Eek! I don’t wanna think about that,” but it’s true. We’re always connected with life. And that to practice in community and build community is one of the most important aspects, ultimately, I think, of the spiritual journey.
TS: What do you mean, Gary, by building community? What does that mean to you?
GG: Well, I—community building is a great—[laughs] that’s a good question. I really like that. Community building, like peace building, or just making, like making a haiku, is a wonderful art in and of itself, of bringing people together. Finding a space and holding the space with other people. This is a wonderful practice in and of itself. I think you and I, right now, are building a community. I’m very honored to be part of the Insights at the Edge community, and that our conversation right now, because we’re communicating back and forth and within this transformative journey, it furthers the community. It widens the community.
So, whether you say building, or making, or shaping, it’s another art that—it’s like one of those essential things, I think, like learning how to cook, maybe riding a bicycle, flying a kite. Building community. Without that, we can feel like we’re an isolated tiger on a hill. Or I think of those boys in the cave who were—the 12 boys who were recently trapped for 17 days. They came in maybe as separate people, but they survived because they recognized their community.
I think community is such an important aspect of our potential, that any opportunity we have to just build a community of two people by communicating, or three, or four, or more, it’s very much the practice.
TS: Gary, we started our conversation with three mindful breaths and a half smile. And I wonder if we can conclude our conversation in a similar way, and you can take us through it and maybe incorporate some of what we’ve touched on in the conversation that perhaps we can feel in a deeper way now?
GG: Yes. When I listen to the Goldberg Variations, which begins and ends with the same song, it never sounds the same, having gone through the whole process, right? Gee, I’d love to do that. OK, so I’m going to say what I’m doing and feeling, sort of as kind of a guided meditation, and invite you and our listeners to join us.
I’m taking a—still, I’m noticing my posture and correcting to make sure that I’m relaxed and stable and have a feeling of dignity and calm awareness. And I’m breathing through my nostrils, and I’m feeling the air coming in, just of itself. And breathing out. Smiling as it goes away to the edge of the horizon. Doing this again. Breathing in, feeling totally full, nothing extra or left out. Breathing out, feeling—having completely let go and feeling completely open. Feeling that open space before the next breath, and breathing in, breathing out, aware this present moment is a wonderful moment.
TS: Gary, I wanna thank you so much for the depth and beauty of your presence, and I especially loved the full moon in the wooden bucket and the spilled water. I loved it. Thank you so much.
GG: Thank you, Tami.
TS: I’ve been speaking with Gary Gach. He is the author of the new book Pause, Breathe, Smile: Awakening Mindfulness When Meditation Is Not Enough. SoundsTrue.com. Thanks everyone for listening.