by Sean M. Madden
Mindful Living Guide
February 21, 2007
Last week, we published a poem by Don Munro which was entitled "Enough, Simply Enough". The posting includes a brief writer's biography as well. But, as one of my great teachers used to say during our course on the Upanishads, "A person is so much more than their résumé."
This is even more true of a writer's bio.
So, I sent Don some questions that I, myself, wanted to ask him, and which I figure MLG readers may also be interested in. Below are the fruits of this cyber-interview with Don Munro.
Before we get started with the interview, I would like to thank you, Don, for your daily, indeed, moment-to-moment support of what we're doing with Mindful Living Guide, both within the online realm and as we reach out beyond the web to engage with folk in person.
You have been a genuine source of ever-mindful support and inspiration.
Secondly, I want to suggest that if I happen to ask a question which may be too personal, to please feel free to skip any such question, and answer others only to the extent to which you are comfortable.
Without further ado …
Reading through your two blogs and your weekly "Waking Up" column syndicated by UPI's ReligionAndSpirituality.com, I am struck by your integrating, if that is the right word, your Catholic faith and your Buddhist meditation practice.
Is this remarkable? Or, has it always seemed natural to you that such apparent boundaries collapse into an integral whole, beyond the realm of our thinking, judging, and societally conditioned minds?
DM: I love the notion of openness — in meadows, skies, the ocean. I feel such great freedom and comfort when I swim in the sea, I guess because I feel immersed in its wilderness, the immensity of its energy. I’ve felt a thrill, too, emerging from the density of a forest, seeing the sky and a mountain meadow meet in unbroken union, listening to the wind run through it unchallenged. On an emotional and intellectual level, I think I’ve experienced the same kind of freedom whenever I can remember to cultivate and maintain an open mind … whenever I can stay awake enough to drop defenses and really be in the moment … to listen to what I am being told. So, too, with spirituality, I treasure the idea of openness and borrowing from different traditions to increase my awareness of spirit. I think that I have been blessed by good teachers, who have taught me to look beyond what I cannot understand in different traditions — and instead to identify what matters, our shared desire to know God or spirit or the all-knowing energy of our universe.
How did you discover, or happen upon, Buddhist meditation? Why were you first attracted to the practice? And, for how long have you been practicing?
DM: I’ve been studying meditation for about six or seven years. My struggle with myself, my learned self, is what brought me to Buddhist meditation. Very early, I learned some neurotic ways of thinking — the “all-or-nothing” path … the “worst-case scenario” way … the “judgment of self” trap. I was not very compassionate to myself. I learned how to scare myself, how to panic. A wonderful therapist and some damn good medication helped. And Carole, my meditation teacher, has helped me learn how to break destructive thought patterns. More profoundly, though, meditation practices like Vipassana and Tonglen and Metta have helped me learn how to be free. And what I mean by that is this: I was a slave when I merely reacted to what happened to me, and I was trapped when I tried to protect myself from pain. Now I am free — when I can remember that I can simply be with me, my joy and my suffering.
I love to read your writing in response to your meditation experiences. What can you share with us about this process of meditating and writing? Your meditation obviously informs your writing; but, I am curious as to whether, and if so how, your writing may inform your meditation?
DM: Thank you! My most rewarding meditation sessions are when I am at least partly successful at observing without judgment, and I can experience being, simply being. And I think that rubs off on my writing habits. When I dare to let myself be authentic or reveal things as they are — not as I wish them to be — I guess I strengthen my capacity to meditate. Maybe that simply means I fortify my ability to sit and be with myself. It seems like a very complementary process. They seem to feed off of and prosper from each other.
And, how does your formal meditation practice influence the rest of your day-to-day activities, say, in your professional capacity as a business writer?
DM: I think that meditating helps me bring clarity to my very frenetic, busy mind. It helps me add space to clutter. Does meditation help me write more clearly? I ask the question because I don’t know for sure, but it’s a good theory. I know that simplicity pays off in corporate communications. I’m often challenged to convert the complicated (marketing strategies, insular corporate-speak and jargon learned from MBA training) into simple yet effective messages — good, plain English that a company’s customers or employees understand. Not easy. Then again, sometimes meditating isn’t easy.
You write, too, about your experiences as a young boy being brought up in an Irish Catholic family, and of having been somewhat sheltered during "the 1960s — [your] first full decade". Can you recall your first moment of awakening, akin perhaps to Siddhartha's during his princely pre-Buddha days, to events, or truths, outside of your self-described cocoon?
DM: What a wonderful question; thank you. Again, I owe so much to my teachers, mostly my parents, for instructing me in how to put myself in another’s place — in order to truly feel compassion. And I owe a great deal to my Christian education — the nuns and priests who taught me about Christ’s love. I guess my first “awakening” to this compassion came as a young child. I can think of a time when we kids (there were eight of us altogether) were in the car, and, mom, at the wheel, would spot a “bum,” as they used to call them. Rather than deride him, she’d utter: “The poor soul; God help him.” Sometimes she might then talk with us about what possibly may have led this poor man to this state of existence. This was good training, and I learned to think beyond appearance and consider the possibility that another might be suffering. I’d like to say that I became the perfect model of compassion, but I did not — and I am not. I judge, I let my kleshas overtake me. But I try to remain aware. At least I have known the sweetness of compassion, and I can try and remember how good that felt and offer it to others. At least I am waking up — hopefully more each day.
Would you say that you are political, or perhaps politically aware or active? If so, how does this aspect of your being mesh with your moment-to-moment attempts to live mindfully? More generally, how do you reconcile the myriad (apparent) aspects of your life?
DM: I am politically aware — especially around issues of human rights and civil liberties. I don’t believe we can take them for granted; we have to stay awake to protect them. In fact, I joined the American Civil Liberties Union, spurred by my concern about the erosion of civil liberties due to laws like the USA Patriot Act. Not an activist, though. In fact, I hate to admit it, but I sometimes fail to stand up for the defenseless when, in conversations with friends or relatives, ugly jokes surface about someone’s race, religion, sexual preference. Isn’t that awful? I guess I’m afraid of being rejected. But sometimes I do summon up the bravery to open my mouth, and I think the best approach is to try and help the one shooting out offensive remarks to imagine what it would be like to be on the receiving end. I have personal knowledge of that pain. On the other hand, I am also greatly troubled by a tendency to reject the person whose viewpoints I find objectionable. That’s when Metta comes in handy, recognizing their basic desire to be happy … just like mine. This is what I try to remind myself during those times. Brother, it ain't easy.