Rolf Gates: How Spiritual Friendship Allowed Me to Exit the Cave of Craving

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Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Rolf Gates. Rolf is a leading voice of modern yoga philosophy and practice. He’s the co-founder of the Yoga, Meditation, and Recovery Conference, a teacher at Spirit Rock Insight Meditation Center, and he’s also on the advisory board for the Yoga Service Council and the Veterans Yoga Project, a former addictions counselor, and U.S. Army Airborne Ranger, who has practiced meditation for over 25 years. Rolf brings his eclectic background to his practice and his teachings.

With Sounds True, Rolf has released a new audio program called Meditations from the Mat: Practices for Living from the Heart, where he teaches about the fundamental skills of being, from the mat and into the world. In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Rolf and I spoke about how just one caring person can increase our resiliency, and the many gifts that can come from spiritual friendship.

We also talked about how Rolf learned to soothe himself and care and calm himself through the practice of yoga and through managing contracted states in the body, and how from this, he learned that if the body lets go, the mind will also let go. We also talked about the surprising and life-altering power of prayer and grace, and how this has led Rolf to a commitment to living in gratitude, and listening to the whispers of the heart. Here’s my conversation with Rolf Gates.

Rolf, I wanted to begin by talking a little bit about you. You have such an interesting background to me, and came to spiritual practice through a circuitous route, if you will. What I learned is that you came to spiritual practice through your recovery from addiction, and if we could begin talking about that, what was going on in your life, and how you first discovered yoga and meditation.

Rolf Gates: Well, let me see. I got sober at 26 years old, so on a physical level, I was quite healthy. I was in the military and serving overseas, and so I had physical health. But mentally and emotionally, I was kind of like in end-stage addiction. I had extreme mental and emotional malaise. Emotionally, that meant that I was really … Life was very, very difficult, and I was just making it through the day. Kind of worst-case scenario. Then mentally, I was starting to have some deficits. I used drugs and alcohol for 12 years, and they were formative years, so like 14 to 26.

I was starting to have things like aphasia. I couldn’t remember [where] I put keys down—I know everyone has this problem, but it was really bad. I’d forget what I had done in a room. If I went from one room to the next, I’d forget what I had done in the past room. I was starting to have some significant mental difficulties. So I actually—the toll of that, juxtaposed with an overseas military assignment—I sought help, and I went to counselors and was assisted and sought help for my addiction.

I think from the beginning, it was not an issue of getting enough sleep or eating properly. It was about dealing with the mental and emotional turmoil that a human being can create in her own life. And then how do you treat the turmoil of being human? So I went to counseling for a little while, and it just wasn’t really going to do much. But the counselor recommended I go to a 12-step meeting with this person that he knew. That was kind of the beginning. This guy picked me up at my apartment, and took me to a 12-step meeting in Frankfurt, Germany.

Right off the bat, the connection with another human being on that basis of “I’m here to help you with this problem that you’re having”—which isn’t in form, it’s a problem of mental and emotional suffering, you know, mental and emotional anguish—that, right off the bat, was a game changer. No one had ever shown up in my life before, to help me with that. I’d been kicked out of several schools in high school. I went to four schools, ultimately, all due to drugs and alcohol. No one ever was like, “Wow, you seem to be having trouble with living.”

So from the start, a 12-step program is a spiritual community dedicated to dealing with the phenomena of craving. So you know, 27 years later, I’m a big time Buddhist meditation person, and the Four Noble Truths are huge in my life. I’d started with just entering the spiritual community in Frankfurt, it was a church basement in Frankfurt, where 20 people were recovering from their addictions through kind of a spiritual practice.

So for me, at 26, I didn’t have any real filters. I didn’t think of a 12-step program as being explicitly spiritual. I didn’t think of that as being, oh, well, that’s an interesting choice. I have this problem. Instead of dealing with it with medicine or some sort of Western professional approach, I’m just going to go to a gathering of individuals and talk about our stuff and pray. You know? I just didn’t have an opinion about it.

But that summer, I began what I think of as spiritual practice in earnest, meaning learning and applying spiritual principals from people who have more experience than I do, then doing that learning process in the context of a spiritual community that is living in adherence to spiritual principals. So 12-step programs have the 12 principals of practice, but they also have the 12 traditions. So they have their … There’s a spiritual context and spiritual precepts that communities operate under.

So I was able to go into a safe space to do spiritual work with other, you know … I had the three jewels. I had essentially the hope of the Buddha nature—you know, the hope of sobriety—I had the teachings, and I had the sangha right off the bat. And I was all in. I think being an athlete and being in the military had taught me to enjoy being a part of a team and being a part of a group of people who had a purpose. You know, we have a purpose. We’re a football team.

A 12-step program had a powerful sense of purpose, which was putting days together of sobriety, and I just loved it from the start. So that’s how I got started.

TS: One of the things that really touches me about your story is how it was one person, one counselor. And how you felt that person take a real interest in you for the first time. Someone really cared about you and your path and what was happening inside, on the inside for you, and how that made such a difference. That touches me. It shows me the importance and potential that one person can have in another person’s life.

RG: Oh, absolutely. My wife went to Harvard School of Education, and it’s interesting because I didn’t realize I was paying attention while she went through it, but I picked up a few things from her process. And one of them was a resiliency study, which says that it just takes one person to show an interest in someone for there to be kind of like a … It’s the second indicator. They have a couple things that when they looked at who becomes resilient, who rises out of the muck and the mire—sadly, the first indicator is appearance. People tend to treat people better, depending on their appearance. So how you’re treated is going to be determined to some extent by how you look.

The second indicator of resilience—this is according to Harvard; I don’t have any proof of this—but the second indicator is [whether] someone in your life, doesn’t have to be a parent, but did someone in your life see past the superficial and see some potential in you? It was more than one person for me. I had a high school wrestling coach who was that person, and I had a math teacher at one point. So I had certain people. But absolutely one of the takeaways for me is that we can make a difference in each other’s lives. Kindness and compassion go a long way.

TS: Now you mentioned, Rolf, that when you went to this 12-step group, that they were looking at craving, and how craving runs our life. You drew a parallel to the Four Noble Truths in Buddhism. And I’m not sure that all of our listeners were tracking with you on that. So talk to me about your understanding of craving, and how that was both addressed through 12-step work and through your Buddhist studies.

RG: Well, actually it’s in the Yoga Sutras as well. In the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, that’s the first text, and in many respects … There’s really two texts in the 12-step world that I’m familiar with, and I feel like they kind of inform all the rest. There’s some ridiculous number now of 12-step programs, I think like over 250 12-step programs for different types of issues. But there’s two primary texts, and the first one was written in the ’30s, and it’s called the Big Book. And in the Big Book, they talk about the phenomena of craving.

The spiritual practice of someone in a 12-step program is meant to address the phenomena of craving. So that’s where that phrase comes from. The phrase “phenomena of craving,” is right out of the Big Book. Then many years later, I’m taking Buddhist studies, and I’m looking at the First Noble Truth, and the Second Noble Truth. There is suffering: First Noble Truth. Suffering is caused by … There’s a number of interesting interpretations of what the cause is. One term is clinging. And then another term is tanha, or thirst. Another term is attachment. Another term is craving. And craving is used—and at least where I studied at Spirit Rock—craving is used as much as any other term. And attachment, to me, is often … Attachment is the intellectual and then craving is the fault. Because of the intellectual attachment, there’s this embodied craving for an outcome, or to avoid an outcome.

But it was interesting to me that … It took me many years. I was aware on a first-hand basis of what the phenomena of craving was as an addict. It completely and utterly called the shots for me, when I was in active addiction. I was fully aware that it was the phenomena that I needed to either escape or die from. And that that’s what spiritual practice was for me.

In the summer of 1990, that was the question. Will I be able to find a way out of this condition of a highly practiced attachment to getting wasted, basically? Will I be able to escape that condition or not? And the way I’m going to do that is literally through the practices that were being shared with me. Among the practices was sangha. So probably one of the most powerful antidotes to the phenomena of craving is spending time with others. Spiritual friendship, which is another Buddhist concept.

The Buddha was asked about what’s the most important thing. This is one of those stories that we have no proof of, but a story that I’m told is that the Buddha was asked what’s the most [important] component to the practice, and he said spiritual friendship. And without question, what you were alluding to with that gentleman, was that I was in the space of spiritual friendship. I have this image of being in his car—he picked me up in Freiberg, Germany, and we went down the Autobahn, it’s about a 25 minute drive to Frankfurt from there—and being in his car, as he’s telling me about his life.

He went to Vietnam at 17 and spent the next four years in Vietnam as a soldier, and then went on to be a Special Forces guy. He was at the end of his career. They had put him out to pasture, so he was a combat medic whose job was now just taking the blood pressure of the division commander, of this general—kind of like the CEO of our unit. Literally, it was his whole job. He basically was the personal physician to our division commander, because he’d been such a storied soldier that they were just letting him have an easy job at the end of his career.

He was filling me in on this, and I was just sitting there in the comfort and ease of his welcome. Like I was welcome in his car, you know, and I was welcome to his time. I was welcome to his attention, and I was welcome to whatever kind of benefits that his community could offer me. And he was going to make that available to me. There was this kind of spiritual friendship that to me is … If we’re talking about how people leave the cave of craving? A big step out of it is into a spiritual friendship.

That’s what happened. I kind of left the door of my addict’s cave, and stepped into this guy’s car, and into friendship. So yes, absolutely, I think that there’s so much that we can do for one another, just through kindness and compassion.

TS: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I want to talk a bit more about craving as a driver in our experience, because I think when people think of addiction, you know, it’s extreme. I have to have that cigarette or whatever it might be. I have to have it. I have to have it. How can each of us identify where we’re being moved in that kind of automatic-pilot craving type way in more subtle parts of our life? In more subtle ways?. How is craving really running our life?

RG: Well, I think that’s why a mindfulness practice can roll out a couple different ways. I’ve been a part of three different mindfulness practices, and I kind of describe the effect they have, in terms of how we become aware of the more subtle aspects of craving in our lives. You can start to see how … And then there’s an interesting phenomena that right behind craving comes delusion. So I’ll talk you through that, quickly I hope.

TS: Sure.

RG: In a 12-step program, you examine … What happens is you sit down. Nothing is asked of you. You know, you just sit down and you observe. Then people share honestly about their experience of craving, and how craving ran their lives. So it’s very similar, if you think about a meditator. A meditator is sitting still and doing nothing, and she’s watching her mind. That doesn’t take immediately, but once she’s been doing it for a while, she can literally watch the phenomena of craving and how it’s running her life. She can see how her thoughts move, and how once she gets attached, things get revved up. So a meditator is sitting and watching the phenomena of craving.

But what happens in a 12-step program is, you take someone who’s like … This person is homeless and heroin addicted. They’re not in a position to go on a meditation retreat, but they can sit in the back of a room and listen to people talk about how craving effects them in their personal life, in their financial life, in their romantic life, in their addiction life, right? They can talk about and they can listen. “Wow, so that person and the phrases identified don’t compare.” So you’re sitting in the back of the room, and you’re looking for points of identification. “Oh, I’m like that, too.”

So the way that people share in a 12-step program is they explain what it was like, what happened to change it, and what it’s like now. So you listen to both the problem and the solution, over and over again. In an hour meeting, you can hear 20 people identify the problem and identify the solution, and how it’s playing out in their everyday life. So it’s an incredible education, right? So that would be a mindfulness practice, 12-step style.

From there, I went to my yoga mat, and you kind of hear … I’m a yoga teacher, so as much as I’d like to think that my cueing is extraordinarily creative, it’s extremely repetitive, actually. You do the same poses day after day. You’re being cued to breath day after day. There’s not a lot of variance actually. So you have a chance to watch how you habitually react to things, and kind of what’s onward-leading and what’s problematic.

On a yoga mat, you find not so much craving, but attachment. You know, wanting the pose you had yesterday, wanting the practice you had yesterday, wanting the teacher you had yesterday. Not wanting the experience you’re having right now. And you start to see how, in a different way, you’re observing how attachment makes your intention kind of impossible. You can’t go to yoga and have the class that you wanted and be attached at the same time. So it’s a very, very different process.

It’s really about having several years of frustration. Like, why do I come to class? And one day it works and one day it doesn’t. Eventually, you realize it’s not really the teacher or the poses, it’s the phenomena of craving and the phenomena of attachment. You either can learn to let things go and be one with what is, or not. That’s got to be a determinant for yoga practice. But I think the real formats for me have been both … The 12-step program was obviously brilliant, right? You have people from all walks of life speaking honestly about their experience. So you have this plethora of opportunities to hear your own story. And you hear your story over and over again.

Then the thing about … What yoga did for me was teach me how to calm down. Sitting in the back of the room, I was kind of like a road map of what happens when someone has untreated PTSD. I had been medicating PTSD with alcohol, then I went to sugar. Sober, I was like sugar, caffeine, conflict, obsession … I had no way to self-soothe. Going to a yoga mat, I learned how to relax and breathe, and to be in my body in a way that was skillful. To do a yoga pose, you have to know where to be soft and know where to be strong. You have to learn an economy of effort and efficiency. You develop … You change your set point of what is the physical status that you want to be resting in.

One of the problems with PTSD is you become … My blood pressure when I was 28 years old was 140 over 90. At 50, it’s 120 over 74. So at 28, I was accustomed to this incredibly stressed-out physical/mental status. I didn’t know. You literally don’t know what you don’t know. You’d have to take my blood pressure to tell me, “Dude, you’re kind of wound up.” The years on a yoga mat taught me to recognize, not so much in … When I think about attachment or craving, I’m thinking about a mental fixation. Whereas what you’re encountering on a yoga mat is the physical consequences.

[When] you move into a mental fixation, your body becomes rigid, your breathing becomes shallow. The repetitive nature of the cueing in yoga gets you into that reaction, and you’re dealing at the level of the body and the breath—not the mental fixation, but the physical reaction and how to manage the physical reaction to craving, directly. What’s funny is that with yoga, you learn that if the body lets go, the mind lets go. That takes a long time. It’s not like you learn that on day one. But the mechanics of the success people experience in yoga is that they’re learning to let go with their body.

As they learn to let go with their body, they’re learning to let go with their mind. You can see how that, for me, that process was a bridge to meditation. So I was like halfway there. When I sat down on my first retreat, I could manage, you know, nine days in silence, doing sitting and walking meditation all day, because I had done 10-15 years of yoga. So I’d learned how to—now of course, meditation it stepping it up a lot, to go from 90-minute yoga classes to nine-day meditation retreats is a big step—but I’d learned how to manage contracted states in my body.

I’d learned how to manage my body when I was tired or when I was excited or when I was angry. I’d learned how to calm myself down. I learned how to settle myself. And I learned how to be my own best friend. The other thing that happens on a yoga mat … When you’re in an AA meeting, your attention is on the people around you, and you befriend your community. On a mat or a cushion, you’re befriending yourself.

I’d started to learn that on my mat, and I kind of completed that education in silence on a meditation retreat. So just to kind of put a bow on that, all of these practices, whether it’s a 12-step practice, a yoga practice, or a meditation practice, you’re developing a connection to the subtle aspects of your experience. You don’t have to wait for a divorce or bankruptcy before you notice that something is wrong. You know, you start to notice the tone of your voice is changing in a conversation. Or your breath is getting contracted. Or just your thinking has moved from appreciation to judgment.

You start to see yourself. In a 12-step program you can recognize yourself in others. You can recognize your patterns. On a yoga mat or a meditation cushion, you’re recognizing your patterns directly. You’re getting a chance to see what the consequences are. You know, this is the cause, what is the effect?

TS: Is that what you meant by how underlying our addictive patterns is delusion? Delusion underneath ….

RG: Oh, yes. I have this guy in my life who is the first Buddhist monk in Uganda. I can’t pronounce his last name, it’s got about seven vowels in it. But he’s known in our community as Bantai, which just means friend. He has a community that he’s leading in Uganda, and he has two other monks, so there are three of them now. He has quite a story. But I worked with him for the first time last summer, and we’d have our breakfasts together. He explained to me how there are three basic unskillful mind states—like the primary colors of suffering— greed, hatred, and delusion.

Greed or hatred have to be present first, then delusion happens. So you’re either in wanting or not wanting. If you observe, you can be in not wanting or wanting for about two or three seconds before delusion happens. Delusion is thinking that which will make you unhappy has the power to make you happy. Right?

So you’re walking into Starbucks to get your healthy beverage that your spiritual disciplines have outlined for you. So, I will now have a green tea with almond milk. You’re walking in, determined to adhere to your vows, and you cruise past the glass counter and there’s this muffin, you know, which is nowhere in your spiritual commitments, a blueberry muffin. But you have this habitual liking of blueberry muffins, and so you’re triggered into wanting. If you don’t have a practice that allows you to deal with the acorn, you end up with an oak tree. So the acorn’s just this subtle whiff of, “Gee, I’d like a blueberry muffin, maybe.”

And if you hold that for about two seconds, what Bantai taught me was, delusion starts to happen, which is like … That’s the explanation machine. You know, it’s really good for me to have this blueberry muffin, because it’s just time. It’s been too long. I actually didn’t have a good breakfast. There are some healthy carbs here. There are blueberries. Blueberries are healthy. Delusion convinces us that that which makes us unhappy has the power to make us happy. It only arises in the presence of wanting or not wanting.

Another factor here is developing enough awareness that you can deal with the acorns as they arise. Those faint irritations. The person in front of you is driving a little too slow. For me, if I just stay in my irritation for almost two blinks of an eye, I will start to rev up into a full-blown unskillful mind state about this person, who’s wrecking my world. So I need to be very present—feel that faint whiff of irritation and start to get back into my body and into my breath, and into my intention. Or I’m going to go into delusion, where I’m like, “You know what I need to do right now? I need to pass this guy, and I need to educate him. As I pass him, I should probably honk at him and glare, so he will know that he’s ruining the world driving 37 miles an hour. He needs to know this, and I’m here to help him with that.” And that’s going to make me happy.

In the odd event that I would actually do that, it will not make me happy. You know, I’ll pass the guy, and then I’ll have guilt and shame. But delusion comes after. First is the wanting or the not wanting. There’s the subtle craving. Then there’s this part of us that says you should probably just go ahead and get what you want, you know. It’ll make you happy.

TS: Good. That’s very clarifying. Thanks, Rolf. Now here’s one of the things you said that I thought was very interesting. That in your yoga practice, you learned how to manage contracted states in the body, and that as a result, when you went on a long meditation retreat, you’d already had this great training from yoga that made meditation more accessible to you. So tell me about learning to manage contracted states in the body. I think many people have experience of going to a yoga class and they’re fighting against their contractions. How do we do something different?

RG: Yes. If you think about what’s happening … I think I’ll just jump in. The image I have is [of] me, literally, at this first retreat. So I’m in Barre, Massachusetts, and it’s in March. As far as I can tell, these guys are just ringing the bell. It’s 45 minutes of sitting, and then they ring the bell, and it’s 45 minutes of walking. There’s virtually zero instruction. It’s like I’ve missed the memo or something. This is my first experience of being on retreat. And left to my own devices, I was forced to look at, well, what are my devices? You know, what have I learned that I can rely upon, going through what felt to be leaping into the deep end of Buddhist meditation.

What I had learned was how to relax and to breathe. When you’re in a yoga practice, what I’ve found … I went to yoga having been an athlete, and there’s all this striving and proving. So striving and proving are these contracted states of wanting that we rev up into, and we’re conditioned. If you do sports in the United States, it’s definitely about winning and losing and improving. So I’d hit my yoga mat, and I’d be, “OK, here I go. I’m going to win yoga.” It’s becoming aware of, “Wow, your intention right here is to win or to prove or to get.” It’s, “How do I back off of that and breathe and relax and receive?” It’s moving from a place of getting to a place of receiving.

This was definitely being taught explicitly in the yoga classes I went to. I went to Kripalu back in the day, and there’s people like Stephen Cope, very intelligent yoga teachers. They were teaching us how to connect and to receive. How to connect to your own felt experience, and how to receive the fullness of it. We can’t really be in striving and proving, and connecting and receiving at the same time.

So there’s this process of recognizing: What’s your intention here? How are you meeting this moment? Then coming into a skillful intention. But then also the mechanics of a … So, if I want to receive the taste of soup, I have to stop, my breathing has to slow down, my mind has to get clear. I have to place my attention carefully on my tongue. There’s some mechanics here of receiving a taste of soup, or receiving the experience of an inbreath, or receiving the experience of an outbreath.

I was being taught all of this. Basically replacing habituated conditioning, striving, and proving with an intentional state of connection and receiving. That had gone on for years. Every single time, it didn’t matter what pose I was in, the question was: What’s your intention? Is your intention here to prove something or is it to connect to something? If your intention is to connect, how do you receive the experience you want to connect to? What do you have to do? How do you participate in this moment in a way that allows you to feel the breeze on your skin? Or feel the breath moving through your chest? Or feel the way that how your feet meet the floor is affecting the way your hips are? How do you receive this, not from a place of judgment, but really from a place of appreciation and connection?

So that training had been going on forever. I feel like I’d had at least a decade of that kind of training just the way I was describing it. I’d been a student of that. Basically, how do you connect and receive a moment? How you connect to a moment? How you receive the sweetness of it? Instead of doing it on a walk in the forest, you’re doing it in a series of poses. But then the implication is you can do it on a walk through the forest.

So when I went to meditate, I found myself immediately trying to strive and prove and win meditation. And I’m like, “Wow, I’ve been to this party before.” I want to strive, prove, and win. OK, I’m going to connect and receive. I’m going to move from striving and proving to connecting and receiving. And I’m going to do so with the intention to learn and to understand and to grow in wisdom and compassion. That had been taught to me in yoga.

There’s just a whole another deal happening when you go from a two-minute yoga pose to a 45-minute meditation pose. So there’s a whole another curriculum available, but you can access that curriculum with the training you get in a good yoga class.

TS: Now, you said this other key sentence that I really love. If the body lets go, the mind lets go. And one of the things, Rolf, that I love about your work is that you help people translate and transfer the skills that they learn in yoga and meditation, on the cushion and on the mat, into their life. I’m curious if you can share more how you work with the body letting go in the midst of our everyday life, so that the mind will let go when difficult things happen. You gave the example of being in the car, but there are all kinds of ways that we notice our body is clenching up for various reasons. In a meeting, in personal experiences, etcetera.

How do you help the body let go, so the mind will let go?

RG: Well, a lot of it is just programming the central nervous system. If you think about PTSD, which was kind of my presenting issue … For a long time, I was like, “I was an addict.” And today I see myself as someone who was traumatized and was medicating with substances. Then when the substances left, I still had to deal with the trauma, and that’s been my yoga and meditation story. So for me, what I’m doing in yoga and meditation is reprogramming my central nervous system to a new set point.

I had a set point of hyper-vigilance. I would say that there were a couple things that I needed to survive in my PTSD chapter. One was hyper-vigilance, really knowing what was going on around me. My parents were definitely potentially dangerous, so I had to keep an eye on them. Then my siblings were in danger, so I’d kind of keep an eye on them. Then when we left the house, it was a violent world I lived in, so I needed to keep an eye on everybody else.

So there was this kind of hyper-vigilant thing happening. But then the way that I responded to the threats was to move into a place of violence. Like I will definitely … If you threaten me, I’m going to go code red here. So not only was I hyper-vigilant, but I had this kind of willingness, and I was prepared to do violence at a drop of a hat. I actually lived in an entire community of people—I was in Boston during the busing—and the entire city was living that way. It wasn’t just a family dysfunction thing. I lived in a city that was predisposed to violence at a drop of a hat.

So if you wanted to get by, you needed to have this revved-up state. Sobriety, as I was understanding it, was about a life of devotion and gratitude and service. So there was nothing in the bylaws of sobriety that had to do with overwhelming violence at the drop of a hat. So a life of devotion, gratitude, and service really wasn’t going to be served by being hyper-vigilant and ready to do combat, literally mentally preparing for combat.

I had to retrain what my central nervous system was there to do. So to me, to understand how we can roll through our day and notice that subtle tension arising, and stop, relax, breathe. For me, I literally … I just did it a second ago. I let go physically, and I wait for that physical release to become a mental stillness.

It’s a little bit like [when] you hear a bell ring, and there’s the onset of the sound, and then there’s the peaking of the sound, and then there’s this vanishing. There’s this arc of a sound, if you listen to a bell. To me, it’s very similar when you relax the body—that’s the striking of the bell. You can watch that stillness go through, from the physical to the breath, from the physical body to the breath, to the mind, to the emotional body. You can kind of watch the stillness come in. This is a sensitivity that you develop over time.

For me, 12-step programs kind of taught me to be honest with myself. To be honest with myself, I was highly agitated. So going to yoga classes in these sweet smelling rooms with this gentle flowing music and gentle words, was ideal. I’m like, “This is a good place for an agitated person to be.” So I would just check in to Kripalu, which is this yoga center in the Berkshires, for a week, just to let them calm me down. I didn’t know I was going to be learning any skills, I just thought I should be there. I should be in a calm place, you know? Then listening to what they were saying, and applying the teachings, I learned that I could calm myself down.

So there’s this process of learning how to calm yourself down. As you learn to calm yourself down, that becomes what your body is acclimated to. Then you can notice, “Wait, there’s a dissonant energy here. I’m not actually comfortable with a lot of judgment, or a lot of striving, or a lot of proving.” There are energies, there are mind states and physical states that you’re no longer comfortable with, and when they arise, they become red flags. “Wow, this is a state of consciousness, this is a state of physical being that is inconsistent with how I want to be in this moment.” I’ve learned how to kind of talk myself off the ledge, and how to come back into my breath, and back into my body. I think that if you look at the teachings of an ordinary yoga class, and an ordinary meditation class, and you follow them logically, you look at the arc. What’s happening is the person is first showing up and getting settled and calmed, and they learn how to settle and calm themselves, then eventually they realize that when they get unsettled, they can settle themselves.

Actually, what’s interesting is that wisdom and compassion kind of live in a settled place. We are going to put our best foot forward when we’re settled and connected. Yoga and meditation deliver nothing if not the state of settled connectedness. So yes, today, that’s my aspiration. I live in Santa Cruz. It’s a beautiful town. There are trees. There’s sunlight and everything. I have these children and a dog and a wife and friends.

I want to be settled and connected with them. I’ve learned how to be settled and connected with them, and so I spend a little time on my mat and my cushion, but then I spend the rest of the day with the intention to be settled and connected. Because it’s going to be a great way to treat myself, but also, when I’m settled and connected, I can be the friend, or the husband, or the father that I want to be.

TS: What does it feel like inside, if you can describe it in real feeling, somatic language, when something happens and you feel triggered, and you notice it, and you go, “Yep. I’m triggered.”

RG: Right off the bat, my body tightens up. It’s like that feeling of—most of us belong on one side of a political divide these days—driving in a car and the wrong bumper sticker drives by, the one that mocks your political beliefs. That feeling in your body. Or the wrong topic comes up. It’s just kind of that gripping that comes. That kind of internal gripping would be how I would describe it. What’s going to happen next? I physically grip. I physically contract, then my mind contracts.

It’s probably the other way around. It’s probably the mind is moving so quickly that I don’t notice the contracting of my mind, but I can feel it in my body and my breath, the moment it happens.

TS: And what about for that person who says, “OK, I know what you’re talking about, but I have a very busy life. There’s a lot that’s being demanded of me. I notice that that’s happening, but I don’t have the time to go do a 15-minute practice. I’m in the middle of something.”

RG: Well, it happens quickly and it can dissipate quickly. That’s the good news around impermanence, is that as bad as a mind state can be, in terms of a contracted state of anger or desire or delusion, if you watch, it only takes a few seconds for us to get revved up, and it really only takes a few seconds for us to get settled and connected again. So it’s not a thing that’s going to take 15 minutes. You can get triggered in a breath or two, and you can get un-triggered in a breath or two, depending

Occasionally there are extreme circumstances where something happens. I lost my uncle 10 days ago. That’s not something I’m going to breathe out of in a breath or two. It’s going to have a lingering effect. But ordinary triggers—“She’s up! She’s down!” or like a business, “Hey, good news! Hey, bad news!”—even that stuff. Reacting to good news or reacting to bad news. When it’s something that’s not life and death, when it’s just business stuff, or it’s just plans going awry, you can breathe your way out of that reactivity, really, in a breath or two, once you’ve been training. You don’t have to live according to the ups and downs, the duality. Your inner life doesn’t have to track your outer life. Your inner life can be somewhat independent of it.

There’s another piece here: there’s the intention. The “why” of it. It’s nice if what I’m teaching or what I’m practicing nets out to an easeful way of life, but the purpose of this easeful way of life is that I carry responsibilities. I think as an adult, the longer you live, the more impact you’re having in other people’s lives. So I want my behavior to be in support of the highest good of my children, or my wife, or my friends, or my students, or my colleagues.

I want my behavior to be skillful, and there is a direct correlation between how we’re being in our body and how we’re being in our mind. There’s a direct correlation between our mind states and our behavior, our behavior and our consequences. So in some ways, the body and the breath are like this canary in a coal mine, letting us know if we’re heading down the path to freedom or the path to suffering. If we’re in an easeful, connected place, we’re going to be in a wise and compassionate place. If we’re in a contracted state, we’re probably just going to be unskillful. That’s the best term for it.

We’re probably going to make decisions that are not taking into account everything that we know to be true.

TS: Now a couple of times, Rolf, you’ve talked about the importance of intention. I know your latest book is also Meditations on Intention and Being. I’m curious, do you have an intention that’s, “This is my intention for my life, my intention statement.” Or is it different in different times? Like, “For this practice, my intention is this.”

RG:I think that essentially, there’s this intention that is at the heart of 12-step programs, that I imbibed at an early age. It’s my overarching intention. When you boil down the 12-step program belief around sobriety, someone who is sober is sober by the grace of God. This is their belief—the phrase is that “Sobriety is a free gift.” It’s an unmerited gift. It’s not like you are sober because you are special. It’s literally the nature of things. It’s the nature of grace, that grace has entered your life and gave you sobriety.

Whether that sounds like a logical statement or not, that was my experience, that I was the beneficiary of a free gift. I was given a second chance at life. I was in a community of people who believed the same thing, and so I would see that mirrored. Not just that they would say that, but I could see that to be true in their lives. That these were people who were coming out of their sick beds and getting on with life; it was remarkable. And from that position, basically the intention of a sober person, as I understood it, was gratitude. [It] was to live a life based on gratitude. If I were to boil my intention for my day down, I have this almost spiritual duty to express my gratitude for the gift of sobriety. Then the thing that you see in 12-step programs is that it’s people helping people. So [as] you identified early on in this conversation, there is a basic capacity that each of us has to make a positive difference in each other’s lives. So you’re given the gift of sobriety and then you’re given the awareness that you can make a positive difference, just by being kind and compassionate.

We’re going to have to do something all day. You know, you get sober and you realize, “Well, I now have about 18 hours a day to do something.” You’re being given the gift of wisdom and insight, in the sense that, “Well, I’m going to fill my day with service to others. I’m going to be a good friend. My friendship is going to be sincere. I’m going to be a sincere partner. I’m going to be a sincere parent. I’m going to be a sincere professional in [my] field.” I mean, it was wonderful. I had friends who were sober cops, and sober firemen, sober nurses, and sober teachers, and sober doctors, and businessmen, and they were all meeting their life with this sincerity that wasn’t predicated on any sort of greed or hatred, but on gratitude.

So that made a huge impression. And basically, that was my intention. The role of that is perfect, because it creates this benchmark of like, well, this is your intention. How’s that working in your relationship to your son right now, who is home sick? Or your dog? Or your colleague at work? Are you bringing that awareness and that intention into how you’re showing up for these relationships? From that, you start to ask, “Well, how do I get better at relationships?”

Well, you get to your yoga mat, and you get to your meditation cushion. Those will be things that will help. Then you can spend time with people who are more knowledgeable and who have a level of wisdom and attainment that could support you as you make your choices. So there’s steps you can take. Once you have an intention, then you have the means to determine the next right thing to do. How do I embody that intention?

I think that’s where it came from. Yoga and meditation I’ve been more … It wasn’t like I found my intention there. They were places I could go to embody my intention, to learn how to embody my intention.

TS: Now I just do have to ask you one question about this. You know, when you talked about living from gratitude, and being a good friend and a good father and a good husband, that was all very moving to me. Before that, you were saying that your sobriety was a gift, and that was why you felt this life of gratitude, I thought to myself, “Well, was it a gift, or was it Rolf’s discipline and Rolf’s good heart that said, ‘I care about life and my ability to give’?” I mean, it’s a series of choices that you’ve made, yes?

RG: Well, yes. You have to be in the bottom, an addict’s bottom. Yes, once I was sober, there was some sort of essence to me. I think there was a Rolf in there that responded with great enthusiasm to the notion of going to meetings and being of service, right? So let’s give that self some credit. But this is one of those things, too, that it’s really about a person’s experience, and what’s true in their experience.

In my experience, I was in a state which is impossible to describe, other than suicidal combined with a suicidal level of despair and depression, a state that I could not possibly get out of on my own. I went to a meeting, and they gave me a book, and I read the book. It said that if you have that problem, try prayer. I tried prayer on May 21, 1990, and the desire to drink was lifted in a decisive way, in the blink of an eye. I got on my knees in a state of suicidal despair, and I got up, knowing I wasn’t. Something had happened.

I’ve had this galvanized, motivated, more-than-enough desire to stay sober ever since. I was like, “I’m good.” I remember being two or three months sober and being like, “I want to drink alcohol like I’d want to drink Drano.” That happened not because of my own efforts, but because of the power of prayer. I guess my effort was I read the book and I found the instructions and I prayed, but I had no idea what I was doing.

Conversations like this are difficult for me, because there are countless people who have been ill and they prayed and it didn’t work out for them. Or they have loved ones who had tremendous virtue, and they died of their addiction. My sister died of her addiction. My best friend died of his addiction. So this idea that you pray and everything’s OK can seem controversial, but I’m simply being, trying … My effort, my desire here is just to be honest. The first moment for me on my spiritual path was that I was in a fatal mental spiral. I get down, I pray, and I get up, and I know it’s going to be OK. I can go about my business at this point. I never … In the 27 years I’ve been sober, I haven’t had the desire to drink. I just had the desire to live with skill. When I started, that was a tall order. I had no training in it.

For me, this conversation is really about what communities have helped you live skillfully over the years. It started with a 12-step [program]. I learned how to get dressed and go to work and have a life of ethical principles.

Then in yoga, I learned how to do all the caring that didn’t … I mean, I spent my first two years in an orphanage. I had what’s called institutionalized infant syndrome. So I’d had very little holding or soothing in my life. Yoga taught me how to hold myself in a place of ease and contentment in the present moment. That was a large learning.

Then meditation has been the place … I basically was able to befriend my physical, energetic, and emotional bodies in yoga, and I’ve been able to befriend my mental body in meditation. In meditation, you learn to make a friend of the mind. You’re not defeating it. You’re not telling it to shut up. You’re befriending it. Like, “Look, we’re in this for the long haul. So let’s work together here. Let’s not blame you for being the conditioned human mind. Let’s just work with you.”

TS: Rolf, there’s one note I want to end on, which is your new program offers a set of teachings and practices for living from the heart. One of the comments you make, one of the teachings in that program, is that our minds scream and our hearts whisper. When I heard that, I thought, now that is a very true statement. I’d love for you to leave our listeners with some ideas on how they can hear their hearts whisper.

RG: Yes, it’s beautiful. It always rests. It always touches people. It’s not my quote. I got it from somewhere. I’ll probably know who the author is at some point. I think that all spiritual practice comes down to that basic statement, that there is this whisper of the heart, which will guide us truly.

Now the screaming mind, I think, has to be respected, because it’s reacting to the chaotic nature of life and to the many difficulties and disappointments that we’ve experienced in the past. It just doesn’t … Its job is to try to keep us safe. So it’s reacting in that fashion. It’s just there to keep us safe. Make sure that we tie our shoes and get to work on time. Then the heart has this connection to something, to the deeper meaning of our life, the deeper meaning of this existence, the deeper learning path that we’re on. We want to have a foot in both camps. You want to have a foot in that part of you that knows that you need to get up at 6:30 and get out the door by 7:15. That’s important, too. But that’s not going to guide you into skillful living. That’s just going to get you to the place where you need to be on time.

Then there’s this other part of us that can, when we’re listening to it … We reach the capacity, we reach the potential we were born to reach. I’ll leave you with basically three things that have made a difference. They’re straight out of Buddhism 101. There’s having teachers who have done this longer, who we can look at and be like, “Wow, I’ve watched this guy in action, and he’s someone I can learn from. He’s someone who’s living the way I want to live.”
So when I think about a teacher, I’m thinking about someone who’s basically living the way you want to live. That means how they’re … not just their house and their job, but how they’re being with the people in their lives. So, having a teacher.

Having teachings that remind us of the heart. The Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu is one of my favorite little … It’s a small book, but it just reminds me of the heart, day after day. Having teachings that remind us of the heart.

Then finally, having a community where listening to the heart’s whisper is the priority. It’s not one of the priorities, it is the priority. I think that we need each other. They say a teacher reminds the student until she remembers. I think one of the biggest reminders is this spiritual friendship and spiritual community. We step into these communities, into these friendships, and we remember. We remember the whisper of the heart.

TS: Very beautiful. Thank you so much. I’ve been talking with Rolf Gates. He’s the author of the book Meditations on Intention and Being, and Meditations from the Mat. And with Sounds True, he’s created a new audio program on practices for living from the heart. It’s called Meditations on the Mat. Rolf, thank you so much for just being so straightforward and helpful in this conversation. Thank you.

RG: You’re welcome, Tami. It’s so great to be here.

TS: many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.

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