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What we get from each moment depends on the attention we give it, and the quality of our experience reflects the quality of our awareness.
--Roger Walsh

What Does It Mean to Live Wisely and Well?

--by Awakin Call Editors, syndicated from docs.google.com, Jan 17, 2019

What does it mean to live wisely and well and what does it take? How can we cultivate qualities such as love, wisdom, kindness, and compassion?”  Our guest today, Dr. Roger Walsh, addresses these questions. A man with an eclectic past, Roger has explored contemplative life as a professor, physician, therapist, celebrated author, spouse, spiritual practitioner, and inquisitive human being.   He is a former circus acrobat, as well as a record holder in the fields of high diving and trampolining. Roger claims to have no final answers about life and meaning; yet through a combination of spiritual wisdom and practical tools, he offers hope and healing for us all, individually and globally. What follows is the edited transcript of an Awakin Call interview with Roger Walsh. You can access the full recording of the interview here.

Roger Walsh: Good morning.  In my study of psychology and contemplative practice, I’ve seen that intention is key.  Before any undertaking, we ask, “what is this for? The more we deeply reflect on this question, the more we notice that an aspect of any spiritual undertaking is serving the needs of all.   So let’s take a moment for a dedication. Let’s feel into our deepest need or want. Let’s recognize the underlying aspiration to serve. Let’s set the intention that our time together will support this aspiration.

Aryae Coopersmith:  Beautiful.  So with that intention, let’s start with a quote I have from you:  "Contemplative practices are not merely to induce altered states but to induce altered traits." Or as Houston Smith so eloquently put it, "...to transform flashes of illumination into abiding light.” Can you say a little bit more about what this means?

Roger:  One of the delights of any contemplative practice is if we do it long enough, we have peak experiences.   We feel emotions such as love, compassion, joy, and ecstasy. We also tap into deep aspirations, such as the motive to actualize our capacities to become more of what we truly are.  These inner experiences are wonderful; but they are not the final goal.

The hope is, that if we immerse ourselves in these kinds of experiences, they will become part of our personality. The altered states will become altered traits. The peak experiences will become a more enduring plateau, a way of being and something we can share with others.    

Aryae:  How does that actually work? lf I engage in a meditation, for example, and if I experience  an altered state, what is it that takes me from the altered state to the altered trait?

Roger: There are several things involved. We can stop and appreciate the altered state.  We can immerse ourselves in the experience and rest in feelings of joy, love, or devoted service.  We can explore what it feels like to have this altered state, to have a wave of compassion arise, real caring and concern for others filling our being.   We explore how it feels in our body, heart, and mind. In that way, we transform the experience to insight. We gain a deeper understanding of the experience and its implications.   

Aryae: So what you're saying is to take the time to pay attention and give that experience a larger presence in our lives.

Roger:  Yes.  In some ways, this is an antidote to our contemporary lifestyle which is so busy.  We may have many positive experiences; but certain ones really deserve to be honored and mined for their potential impact on our lives.

Aryae:  Some people say that these experiences come as a result of practice.  Others say that they come as a gift of grace. 

Roger:  I don't see a conflict between those two ideas.  There is a saying in both Hinduism and Islam: "The winds of grace are always blowing but you have to raise your sail.”  Also, “Enlightenment is an accident but meditation makes you accident prone."

Aryae:  Earlier this week, we spoke about how spiritual practice relates to our current planetary and social crisis. Can you say more about this?

Roger:   If we step back and look at our contemporary world, we see that this is the first time in human history where every major threat  - overpopulation, ecological degradation, weapons of mass destruction -- is human-caused.

This suggests that in addition to the military, political, and economic forces that create problems, at some level these situations are an expression of our individual and collective minds.  What we call our global problems are actually global symptoms. They are symptoms of  individual and collective psycho-pathologies and spiritual-pathologies. They reflect the conflicts within us and the conflicts between us.

If we're going to truly heal these great issues, it's going to require both outer and inner work.  It's going to require economic, environmental, social, and political interventions. But at a deeper level it requires that we investigate and heal the psychological and spiritual dis-ease which created these problems in the first place.

That gets us into the question of what kind of practice combines both inner and outer healing? Karma yoga, from the Hindu tradition is one way.  This is the yoga of work and action in the world. In other words, we use activity, work, or service as spiritual practice. We go into ourselves to go more effectively out into the world. And we go out into the world, to go more deeply into ourselves.  

Aryae:   Can you say some more about Karma Yoga?  

Roger:  Sure. Let me give a little context first.  Yogic traditions of India have 4 main kinds of Yoga. There is yoga of Bhakti, which is Love. The second practice is Jnana Yoga, which is the path of insight and wisdom.  There is Yoga of Meditation and Contemplation; and finally there is Karma Yoga, which is for those who are householders, those who work in the world. In Karma Yoga, one takes whatever one is doing and transforms it into practice.  

The classic Hindu text on this is the Bhagavad Gita.  The essence of the practice is three-fold. First, in any major activity in the world, one first offers it traditionally to God.  One can also offer it to any transpersonal goal or aspiration. As long as it is something bigger than your little ego. Second, one does one’s work in the world as fully, impeccably, and wholeheartedly as one can. And third, we release attachment to how our wholehearted work turns out. That is the knife’s edge that makes it such a powerful practice.  Attachment is very different from aspiration. We can aspire to doing  good in the world. But as soon as we get attached to the outcome, we suffer.  We get fearful if we think our work won’t work. We get angry at people getting in our way. So those are the three core elements of the practice.

Aryae:  Roger, how did you set forth on your spiritual journey?

Roger:  I came to the U.S. from Australia on a Fulbright scholarship.  I arrived at Stanford to do my psychiatry training having finished medical school in Australia. I immediately went into culture shock. Going from Australia, which was a somewhat conservative anti-intellectual sexist community, to California in the 70's was quite a transition.  I went into therapy myself, and had the good fortune to work with Jim Bugental, who wrote a number of books on therapy. I thought it would be an interesting few weeks.

Two years later I staggered out of therapy with my entire life turned upside down.  I had discovered an inner universe as vast as mysterious as the outer universe. From there, I began exploring the many "isms" of California. To my great surprise I found myself doing things like chantings and meditation. I couldn't figure out why the hell I was doing these things because I thought religion was the opiate of the masses.   Yet, these practices seemed to help. Then one moment as I walked across the living room floor, I discovered that at the contemplative heart of the great traditions are sets of practices for cultivating qualities of heart and mind.

I saw the depths behind the conventional, institutional structures of the world’s religions.  I realized contemplative practice as a roadmap for transforming and maturing ourselves to develop the capacities of the great sages and saints of history. 

These practices are available to us all.  Fifty years ago meditation was some esoteric thing that weirdos did.  Yoga was virtually unknown. But now, not only do we have an influx of powerful practices from the east, we also have contemplative practices from the west.  So for the first time in history we have a variety of practices for cultivating beautiful qualities such as love and compassion, or aspirations such as service and altruism.   These depths are most satisfying and rewarding to us as individuals and they are most needed for our social and planetary survival. 

Aryae:  Was it this discovery that turned into your book, Essential Spirituality?

Roger:  Yes. In large part, the book Essential Spirituality is subtitled “The 7 Spiritual Practices To Awaken Heart and Mind.”   This was my attempt to unearth the shared practices of the world’s traditions.  I held several questions prior to writing the book: “What do the contemplative practices of the world have in common?  What do the saints and sages recommend? What capacities of heart and mind do they suggest we cultivate? And how should we practice?" 

In the research I did, it seemed like there were seven core qualities of heart and mind that these people recommended.  They recommended that we live ethical lives, where we seek the welfare all beings. They advocated emotional transformation: reduction of destructive emotions like anger and fear, coupled with the cultivation of positive emotions such as love, compassion, and joy.  They recommended cultivating attention, focusing on that which really matters. Also, refining perception, being able to see deeply into ourselves and others, to notice the nuances of life. Then there's the practice of wisdom, of insight, and understanding. And finally all these practices culminate in service.  Service is both a goal and a means of spiritual practice. 

Another thing that really stood out in the three years of writing about the seven essential practices was that all the contemplatives said if you want to develop qualities like ethical living, or generosity, or patience, spend time with people who embody these qualities.  Consciousness is catchy. We become like those we are around. All the sages emphasized the importance of like-minded community.

Aryae:  Wow.  So the importance of community became obvious to you.

Roger:  Yes.  And being in community may be a fluid thing.  The ideal may be to find communities of like-minded  people and spend time with them. But to also take time for withdrawing, reflection, and solitude, part of each day, or one day each week.  Or perhaps it will be a week each year. The combination of alone time to go deeply within and community time to share and connect is very important.   

Aryae:   Thank you.  I have another question for you.  As spiritual practices become more mainstream, is there a risk of “spiritual materialism?”  For example, there are people who teach mindfulness practices to help people “get ahead” in the corporate world.   Is there a balance between “spiritual materialism” and valuable practice? 

Roger:   We must look at motivation and ask why am I doing this?  Motivation is often mixed. So maybe I'm writing my next book. I hope it will get some valuable ideas out in the world.  But there’s also motivation like “gee I hope it really gets out there and I get some recognition…” When we look at motivation we recognize our humanity.  There may be contaminating motives in our noblest aspirations. But we can try to make sure that we use our spiritual work to transcend our egocentric motivation.

A bigger general question may be around seeing spiritual practices being co-opted by the mainstream and asking, is this good, and if so, how do we know if it is good?  We don't really have any data on this yet. So being mindful might allow you to be a better salesman for example. The question is, what else will mindfulness do? Will spiritual practices shift motives and help people look more deeply at their lives? My hope is that spirituality will have those effects as well. 

Aryae:  As you're speaking I'm thinking of a subversive purpose - there might be the overt purpose of helping people be better workers; but then there might be a subversive effect where people start asking questions like how do I lead a better life? 

Roger:  I think that's very well summarized, Aryae. You've exactly got it.

Aryae: Roger you've been involved in many different kinds of research projects in spirituality. I'm curious about what projects hold the most excitement for you right now. 

Roger: At the moment I'm feeling very pulled towards the exploring the cultivation of what have traditionally been called "virtues" - qualities such as love, compassion, altruism, wisdom. I'm interested for a number of reasons.  One is just a personal pull; but also there’s a pull from a larger perspective... In the West we've thought of virtues or qualities such as love, as something that just happens to you. We have a Hollywood version of love. If the right person says the right thing to you and looks the right way, then you feel love.

That is only a partial perspective on love.  Really, love is one of the great arts of human existence.  There are practices we can adopt which will create a stronger and more resilient love - the agape of Christianity, the metta of Buddhism, the ren of Confucianism.  These “loves” are all encompassing. They embrace all life in an ecstatic unconditional care that wishes the welfare of all beings. To give a quick example - when I began doing the practices for cultivating love, kindness and compassion,  it was the most ecstatic month of my life. I was living in a little cell so small I could reach out and touch the walls. Yet I was developing feelings of love for everyone. Our culture underestimates the power of developing and practicing virtues such as this. 

Aryae: Love is a virtue. Wow.  I think most of us tend to think of love as an altered state. You are really talking about love as an altered trait. 

Roger: Yes, and there are practices for that kind of transformation from state to trait.  My wife and I did a book, "Accept This Gift: From a Course in Miracles.”  One can begin by simply soaking in some of these ideas.  And in Essential Spirituality, there's a whole section on cultivation of love.  

Aryae:  So, the idea of virtue is very interesting. This is a very old idea, going back to the Greeks, Christianity, and all the spiritual traditions.  Besides love, what are other virtues that have shown up for you as particularly important?

Roger:   Joy is a virtue.  When we are joyous, we are likely to be kind, ethical, and altruistic.  We’re more likely to evoke joy in others. Compassion is a key virtue. We tend to mistake compassion for pity, but pure compassion is love and care. Wisdom is the great insight virtue.  There is a wide range in virtues. Any motive or motion which is benevolent is probably a virtue. 

Aryae: I'm thinking that in my public education, we didn’t talk about virtues.  I'm trying to imagine if children were educated in virtues what a difference that might make.   

Roger:  I think you just touched on something important, Aryae.  Most of our education system is about making a living and not about making a life. And that needs to change.

Pavi Mehta: This has been a very fascinating conversation.  We have a caller in the queue... 

Caller 1: It's so hard for us to see people as humans and realize that everybody has a story and a reason. How do we help one another become willing to explore our own shadow; and then see the “other” as human? 

Roger: Oh my, that is a very beautiful question, one of the great questions of our time, particularly in the midst of our current divisive social and political scene.   If we are really angry or hateful towards some group, that's a good signal to look at ourselves and see what aspect of myself does this group represent that I'm unwilling to see in myself?  That's an initial step. Secondly, we recognize that it’s becoming “acceptable” to dehumanize others. This is a defensive way of being.

For each of us right now, any work we do on ourselves will tend to heal the shadow.  We can’t underestimate the difficulty of healing of our shadow. Just to recognize it is a big step.  Another key practice is to go into the world to delegitimize the dehumanization of other people. Anything we can do to relate to others in more humane ways makes a contribution.

Pavi: Wonderful, Roger. Can you talk about the teachers and role models that you have held in your own lives at different stages?

Roger:  A lifelong inspiration for me is Mother Teresa. In the 80's, I went to Calcutta to work with her.  I was both touched and horrified. I was horrified by the amount of suffering in Calcutta at that time.  I found it very difficult because I had not yet developed the compassion and equanimity that is essential for that kind of work. To be with Mother Teresa herself though, was very inspiring.  Mother Teresa and her nuns would spend part of the day in prayer and contemplation; then part of the day helping the sick and dying. That combination was powerful.

Then, my therapist Jim Bugental, opened a universe through me as I have described. There have been a variety of other teachers.  The first one was Ram Dass. Then a variety of other teachers from other traditions: Jack Kornfield from Buddhism, Thomas Keating in Christianity; A Course in Miracles.  A Course in Miracles is very explicit on using community and relationships as one's practice.   My wife and I practiced the Course together and wrote the book I mentioned:  Accept This Gift - Selections from A Course in Miracles.  

Pavi:  I’m interested in the story behind the books you write with your wife. 

Roger:   My wife and I were fortunate in that we were both writers and psychologists.  It felt natural for us to work together, so we edited books on Beyond Ego: The Transpersonal Vision, a collection of  articles on the interface of psychology and spirituality.  We also edited some books from A Course in Miracles because we loved it so much.  Both of us developed our favorite quotes and thought wouldn't it be wonderful share these in books?  A Course in Miracles can be rather intimidating. So for many people, Accept This Gift is an entry point.

Pavi:  For those listeners who may not be familiar with the terrain of A Course in Miracles, how would you describe it?

Roger: The course is a collection of three books.  It is the core of the great traditions expressed in Christian language and metaphors.   It is certainly not traditional; it is much more a contemplative practice for living in the world. The actual practice consists of 365 lessons, one for each day of the year.  Each lesson offers a thought to reflect on and bring to your day. 

The first lesson is "nothing I see means anything."  This is the introduction to the recognition that we are the authors of our experience. We are the people who are responsible for our lives.  The Course gradually builds a thought system that transcends our general egoic consciousness and brings us to a place of greater love and compassion.

Pavi: You know, it reminds me of something you said in another interview:  "In my understanding, systems of thought and belief are hierarchically ordered and it is possible to unearth deeper and deeper presuppositions in such systems. The presuppositions themselves can become objects of awareness rather than filters of awareness. Contemplative practices are ways of bringing these presuppositions into awareness and transforming them from things we look through to things we look at.  And this makes it possible for us to modify them."

Roger:  That is so key because our thought systems are how we create our world.  If we can bring awareness to our thought systems, then we can go from being victims of our unconscious thoughts to being creators of our thoughts. That is certainly something that A Course in Miracles and other contemplative practices aim to do.

Pavi: It is so powerful when you get a glimpse of that.  Let’s go to another caller in the queue.

Wendy:  What an incredibly rich conversation!.  I appreciate everything you said about the virtues of love, joy, and compassion.  And I'm wondering, how do we practice these virtues in a way that is balanced so that we don’t burn out. 

Roger:  Good question. First, let's just acknowledge the reality of our super busy, sound-byte driven lives. Balance is a core challenge for all of us.  

However, we all have inner wisdom.  If we just take some quiet time, we can recognize when we are out of balance.  If we go deeper, we will become aware of the specific ways we are off balance. Maybe it is a feeling of tension.  Maybe it is the feeling being in our head too much. Maybe we recognize the need to spend some time with loving people.

We can add to this insight by engaging practices that sensitize inner awareness and wisdom -- practices like meditation or mindfulness.   It can also be valuable to talk with wise friends, to reflect on balance and optimizing the various parts of our lives. There are also tools like journaling, putting what we’re feeling into words.  Those are some of the things that can help.

Wendy: Thank you so much. 

Pavi: Another question: You were a circus acrobat. You also held a world record for high diving. It seemed that at a physical level, you were operating at with a rare level of excellence and grace. Do  you see any connections with your past accomplishments and what you are doing now?

Roger:  The story is that as a kid I was physically totally inept. I was skinny and weak.  I was nicknamed “Feeb,” short for feeble. I was hopeless at sports and in Australia, sports were everything.  In my early teens, I got on a trampoline and was good at it. I just loved acrobatics and trampoline, so in my typical way...I really overcompensated.

This led to diving.  As an adolescent, suffering from testosterone toxicity, one risks their life doing things.  I dove off a bridge. It was the highest dive anyone had done at that time. I survived and it was a valuable thing for me to do.  I’m certain that my past helped me develop some skills in my current path that I would not have had otherwise.

Pavi: Maybe it’s about the physicality and body awareness in sports translating  into a more embodied spiritual practice.... Let’s discuss another important aspect of your work which is the eight pillars of well-being. Can you speak about your research for our listeners? 

Roger:  I think one of the central themes of my work is around how can we live most fully?  Part of the answer is health and well-being. I work as a psychiatrist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California.  It has been deeply distressing to me to see, with the current medical-economic climate, how much of the primary emphasis of mental health now is on drug treatment.   We overlook the psychological, spiritual, and lifestyle elements of mental health.

It took me some years to do so, but eventually I was able to compile literature to demonstrate that lifestyle has an enormous impact on mental health. For example, exercise and a vegetarian or pesco vegetarian diet, are enormously helpful for mental health; quality relationships and community; nature; service; spirituality and contemplative practice.   All of these things are not just nice ideas. They are enormously helpful to our psychological and physical well-being.

Pavi: And there is a documentary that will be coming out shortly?

Roger: Hopefully so. We have a website: www.8WaystoWellbeing.com   We are trying to get money to complete a documentary looking at bringing these to a PBS audience. 

Pavi: We have another caller in the queue.

Caller: Can you say a little bit more about the workout, the challenge, and the benefits of applying everything you've talked about today in our closest relationships?  

Roger: Yes!  To the extent that one can bring these practices and intentions to one's intimate relationships, they transform the relationships.  Then the relationships become vehicles for shared well-being and awakening. So it is really important.

It is valuable to have an explicit agreement with your partner or community, that the relationship is not only about coming together and having a good time. It is also about growing and serving each other. If that is explicit, it sets a different intention.  It gives you permission to be authentic, open, honest, and to get helpful feedback. So that is the first thing. 

Sharing a spiritual practice can be helpful.  It can be valuable to take time just to be quiet together. It can be valuable to have an emergency technique agreed on. That is if you get into trouble, if there is anger arising or fear, whoever recognizes what is going on has permission to say, "Let's have a time-out.”  Then take a moment to become quiet, and see what we really want to emerge in this moment.

Pavi: Wonderful. I feel like we could go on talking for hours, but we are at the end of the call. We do have one last question to ask you, Roger. How can we as the Awakin’ and the extended Service Space community help further your work and mission in the world?

Roger: Oh, thank you very much. That is a beautiful question. Well, first you can continue to do what you are doing, that is serving and contributing. And I would just ask that you deepen your own inner work and practice as much as you possibly can, knowing that anything you do to deepen your own insight, understanding, wisdom will benefit us all.

Pavi: Just as you opened our call with a dedication, would you do us the honor of closing with a dedication?

Roger: Yes, I'd love to. What a gift it was to share this time together.  May all that we have learned serve the growth of all benevolent qualities within us, bring  the love and joy and compassion and wisdom that we aspire to, and make us ever more effective instruments of service for the welfare and awakening of all.


Syndicated from Awakin Calls, a weekly interview series and community podcast that highlights the work and inner journeys of individuals who are transforming our world in large and small ways. This interview was edited by Bonnie Rose. She is the Senior Minister at the The Ventura Center for Spiritual Living. Their mission is “be love, share love, serve love.”  Bonnie also encourages greater love in the world through her blog, www.dailybeloved.org.     


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