The Chat with Andrea Miller

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Ever wondered what it’s like to meet Thich Nhat Hanh? Hoping to start your own meditation practice or dip your toes into mindful awareness?

This week, we’re in conversation with Andrea Miller, author of the collection Awakening My Heart: Essays, Articles, and Interviews on the Buddhist Life (Pottersfield Press). It’s a fantastic and accessible selection of essays, articles, and interviews exploring the Buddhist life.

Andrea Miller is the deputy editor of leading Buddhist magazine Lion’s Roar and the editor of three anthologies for Shambhala Publications, including Buddha's Daughters: Teachings from Women Who Are Shaping Buddhism in the West. She's also the author of two picture books: The Day the Buddha Woke Up (Wisdom Publications, 2018) and My First Book of Canadian Birds (Nimbus Publishing, 2018). She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia, and her writing has appeared in a wide range of publications, including Prairie Fire, The Antigonish Review, Mindful Magazine, The Best Buddhist Writing series, The Best Women’s Travel Writing series, The Globe and Mail, Saltscapes, and many others. Miller lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with her husband and two children.

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Trevor Corkum: Awakening the Heart is a collection of essays, articles and interviews you’ve written over the past few years. Tell us more about some of the pieces in the collection and why you felt it was time to compile the work into a collection.

Andrea Miller: It wasn’t my idea to create a book; it was the idea of editor Lesley Choyce of Pottersfield Press. That said, I was immediately excited about the idea. Lion’s Roar is the type of magazine that people often collect in order to reread. But, all the same, magazines have a shorter shelf life than books. So, as a writer, there was a satisfaction in turning the material into book form. Also, I loved the process of choosing which pieces to include.

Since I wanted there to be a lot of texture and variety for the reader, I selected a mix of writing styles and themes, including interviews with people, such as Jane Goodall and Ram Dass, and works of creative nonfiction, such as my quirky exploration of deer—the biology and symbolism of this gentle, hunted animal and my relationship to them. But many of the pieces in Awakening My Heart are people profiles because I love writing them so much. I guess you could say I’m nosy. For me, there’s nothing like interviewing a person intensively and getting to the bottom of what’s important to them and what made them who they are today.
The first piece in Awakening My Heart is a braided profile of Hollywood’s Jeff Bridges and the influential Zen teacher and social activist Bernie Glassman (now deceased). The two friends wrote a book together called The Dude and the Zen Master, which is about the Buddhist themes in The Big Lebowski, and back in 2013, shortly after the book was published, I hooked up with them in New York. It was a riot. They were dropping F-bombs everywhere and goofing around, but at the same time they were heartfelt and unafraid to tackle life’s big questions. Both men spoke eloquently of their shared passion for feeding the hungry.

As for other people profiles in Awakening My Heart, I’m partial to the linked profiles of three Buddhist-inspired novelists, including the Nebula award-winning science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson. I think all good novelists are interested in the human condition, and they make things up in order to tell the truth—as they see it—about the world. Buddhist novelists have a refreshing perspective on what the truth is.  

TC: In the introduction, you confront one of the challenging (or liberating) truths about Buddhism head on: Suffering is inescapable. For those who aren’t familiar with Buddhism and its teaching, why is this an important concept and what can Buddhism offer us?

AM: Well, I should first say that “suffering” is the English translation of dukkha. But it’s not a perfect translation, as it gives the impression that Buddhists are claiming life is relentlessly excruciating. Though dukkha includes the excruciating, it also includes the stressful and the unsatisfactory—that feeling that things are not perfect. The truth of dukkha doesn’t mean that there’s no happiness in life. It’s just means that there’s no happiness that we can hold onto forever.

The truth of dukkha doesn’t mean that there’s no happiness in life. It’s just means that there’s no happiness that we can hold onto forever.

Look at the shiny, happy lives of your every friend on Facebook and know this: Just like you, they have problems that they don’t put in their status updates. Sure, maybe right now, their problems are minor, such as a lunch so blah that they don’t snap a picture of it. But Buddhism teaches—and simple observation proves—that we are all of the nature to grow old, get sick, and die. You and everyone you know are hurtling toward this same suffering, and Buddhism is no magic bullet to avoid it. Buddhism will not help elude wrinkles or hot flashes, cure cancer, or raise anyone from the dead. The gift of Buddhism is simply that it helps you look baldly at life and see it for the finite, imperfect thing that it is. And that somehow is a perfect gift.

The gift of Buddhism is simply that it helps you look baldly at life and see it for the finite, imperfect thing that it is. And that somehow is a perfect gift.

For me, the acknowledgement that there is dukkha—that there is suffering—is a relief. It helps me realize that I’m not alone in feeling that permanent happiness escapes me; this is not a personal failing. Moreover, knowing that everybody else is in the same rickety boat makes me feel more connected, open, and loving toward others. When we know that we all suffer in the same ways, it’s only natural that we have compassion for each other.

TC: One of my favourite interviews in the collection is your Q & A with Tina Turner, in which you discuss music as a spiritual practice, love, and Tina’s own Buddhist practice. As Deputy Editor of Lion’s Roar magazine, you’re often in touch with "famous" Buddhists, like Tina. What was it like to chat with Tina and what struck you about this interview?

The first interview I ever did for the magazine was with Yann Martel, and beforehand I was completely wound up that I was going to get to talk with one of my literary heroes. A colleague, trying to calm my nerves, told me not to sweat it. He said, if the person I’m interviewing is really all that they’re cracked up to be, they will not just be brilliant—they will be also be a good person. Of course, my colleague was totally right. (And, moreover, Martel turned out to be both whip-smart and nice.)

So famous people are just people, and—through having the opportunity to talk to some well-known figures—I’ve become less enraptured by our culture’s preoccupation with fame. But, truth be told, I’m not entirely immune, and the fact that I’ve interviewed Tina Turner gives me something of a thrill, especially when I’m in a mall or airport and I hear “We Don’t Need Another Hero” playing on the radio.

As you mentioned, Turner talked quite a lot in our interview about the spiritual side of music and sound, but sadly I’m not musically inclined, so some of her other points resonated with me more. I could relate, for instance, to what she said about finding healing and love in the natural world. The beauty of nature is a salve. It both soothes the heart and warms it. And I like what she said about all religions being essentially the same—they all tap into the same universal spiritual energy.

TC: In a trio of essays, you also write very personally and eloquently about several retreats you took with legendary Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. What was it like to meet and practise with Thay? What did you learn from him?

AM: At first blush, being on a Buddhist retreat seemed rather peculiar to me. There were monastics with robes and shaved heads, rituals and bowing, and extended periods of silence, including silent meals and walking. After a few days, though, it became clear to me that slowing down and paying mindful attention to each breath, step, word, and bite of food, is a much saner and happier way of living than so-called ordinary life.

After a few days, though, it became clear to me that slowing down and paying mindful attention to each breath, step, word, and bite of food, is a much saner and happier way of living than so-called ordinary life.

In fact, after my first retreat, which was held at the University of British Columbia, I was so changed that I ended up experiencing reverse culture shock as I reintegrated back into normal life. There was some sort of cosplay event getting started on campus, and everyone was running around in complicated costumes that they were worrying over. I mean this as no disrespect to cosplay, which I can certainly see the fun side of, but it struck me then that secular life is just as peculiar—if not more so—than contemplative life. If we look at our ordinary lives with the eyes of anthropologists, it becomes clear that we place a lot of importance on things that are not actually important.

After a few days post-retreat, I mostly went back to living in my usual, rushed way, and—not being any sort of stellar Buddhist practitioner—that is still mostly how I live now. However, since I’ve experienced the mindful energy of being on retreat with Thay, I can and do tap into it.

I remember Thay as having a very special presence—a calm bearing unlike anyone else I’ve ever met. He was also really warm and loving and even cracked the odd light joke. He had a feathery-soft voice, and seemed to be always wrapped up in a million brown layers of coats and robes and hats, even in the middle of summer. He was wonderful with children, like the ideal grandfather.

TC: Finally, for those who might be contemplating a meditation practice for the first time, any words of advice?

A lot of people give meditation a whirl just once and immediately decide they’re not capable of it because they can’t clear the mind of thoughts. So, before you give meditation a whirl, it’s really important to know that thinking is what the mind does and you are not going to stop it. In fact, if you sit down to meditate for the first time, you will probably have the sensation that your mind is suddenly jumping around like a two-year-old on a sugar high. But actually your mind in meditation is not producing more rapid-fire thoughts than usual. The difference is only that, in meditation, you finally notice the jumpy workings of your mind. Meditation is a process of getting to know yourself.

Another thing I should mention is the breath. In Buddhist-style meditation, you don’t try to control the breath—you simply follow it as it is. But some people find that in paying attention to the breath, breathing becomes laboured and self-conscious. (I definitely had this experience!) Paradoxically, the key for smoothing out the breath is accepting your jagged breath and refraining from trying to fix it. Know that everything is impermanent. Sooner or later, your jagged breath will settle.

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Excerpt from Awakening My Heart

At first blush, Buddhism didn’t appeal to me. I was twenty years old when introduced to the foundations of Buddhist thought and, for me at least, that was too young to appreciate the dour note on which the Buddha’s teachings begin.

The thing is, I wanted my spiritual life to be wrapped in ecstasy—or at least exuberance—and the other traditions I was familiar with seemed to have more of a knack for tapping into that. As I saw it, Christianity belted out its gloriously good news; Hinduism was a roaring party with all the most fascinating, colourful gods in attendance; and paganism was a deliciously earthy mix of wine, sex, and walking barefoot in the woods. So I compared all those sacred pleasures with the foundational teachings of Buddhism, the four noble truths, and I quickly looked away.

There is suffering. That is what I didn’t want to see. And that, according to the Buddha, is the first noble truth. Sometimes our suffering is extreme, but more often it is simply the nagging dissatisfaction we feel with our always imperfect world. When we don’t get what we want—exactly what we want—we suffer. Yet we also suffer even when life hands us what we crave. Usually it’s because, a week or a day or an hour later, we decide we want something else, something more. Sometimes it’s because, after we get what we want, we lose it or we live in fear of losing it.

When I encountered the four noble truths for a second time, I wasn’t yet thirty years old. Not so much time had passed, but it was enough. I’d begun to notice how the mind works, how life works—the pattern of it—and I saw that it was true. There is suffering. Though that wasn’t the love-and-light message I’d wanted, once I sat with it for a while, I realized that acknowledging the first noble truth isn’t pessimistic; it’s realistic. Suffering, or dukkha, is simply the way it is. Moreover, the truths don’t end there.

The second noble truth pinpoints why we suffer, that is, we suffer because we’re so stuck on what we want and don’t want, what we like and don’t like. The problem isn’t enjoying things, people, and experiences; we can and should fully relish the exquisite pleasure of a scrumptious risotto or our child’s soft, messy kiss. But the only thing that will really give us lasting happiness is if we don’t cling to that enjoyment—if we let it come and let it go. Of course, the tricky part is actually being able to do that.

Buddhism’s good news, the third noble truth, is that it really is possible to stop clinging and end suffering. Then the fourth noble truth is the recipe for making it happen, the eightfold path: wise view, wise intention, wise speech, wise action, wise livelihood, wise effort, wise mindfulness, and wise concentration. In a nutshell, enlightenment is rooted in developing wisdom, living ethically, and meditating.

I say this about enlightenment as if I know what I’m talking about, but believe me, I don’t. No one is mistaking me for a buddha; I’m not even a very good Buddhist. I was recently asked about my morning practice and had to confess that I don’t have one. Each a.m., I’m just trying to survive getting me and the kids dressed and out the door.

But what I do know is that even with my lackadaisical practice, Buddhism has given me a few more tools. The first time I truly realized the power of meditation I was on a long flight. I’m normally a nervous flyer during takeoff, landing, and turbulence, so much so in fact that I often find myself grabbing the arm of whoever happens to be sitting beside me. This one time, though, I decided to meditate simply because I’d finished my book. Twenty or thirty minutes later, we hit a rough patch and, while many other passengers seemed alarmed, I stayed effortlessly calm. I didn’t even realize until the plane was flying smoothly again that this was unusual for me.

From Awakening My Heart: Essays, Articles and Interviews on the Buddhist Life @2019 by Andrea Miller. Reprinted by arrangement with Pottersfield Press.

January 17, 2020
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