Five Questions with Michele
1.) The world indeed is a messy place with school shootings, terrorism, political and religious division—not to mention trying to get ahead of our frantic schedules and demands placed on us by ourselves and others. How does one even begin making sense of such a mess that our lives and the world are in?
Michele: I think it’s important to start by understanding that happiness, and suffering, begin within each one of us, not in the world outside. This isn’t just a cliché but a verifiable truth. For example, you could be vacationing at a beautiful beach resort, but if you’re suffering from depression you will not feel happy. On the other hand, there have been cases of people serving life sentences in prison who nevertheless enjoyed happiness. When we repeatedly go within to cultivate a sense of peace and wellbeing that is independent of outside phenomena, it starts to create a deep internal confidence, then we don’t get as shaken by the horrors of the world. Sometimes there is the misconception that working toward inner peace makes you callous or indifferent to the suffering of others, but this is not the case! Compassion is a natural byproduct of true peace. But along with that comes the wisdom to know the proper sphere of action in which your efforts will be most effective, and where your compassion might be better in a passive role.
As for our busy and demanding lives, a good meditation practice increases energy and focus for maximum productivity. It also gives us the clarity to know what changes we need to make so that we’re not constantly stressed out and overwhelmed. We all have a responsibility to set up our lives in a way conducive to our own happiness, because only when we are happy inside ourselves can we start contributing to the happiness of the world.
2.) What first drew you to explore mindfulness and how does meditation help you maintain a sense of peace and order?
Michele: I came to the practice of Vipassana Meditation—an ancient technique of mental purification taught by the Buddha—through a chance encounter with a stranger on the train. He was just leaving a silent retreat in Jesup, Georgia, and what he said intrigued me from a journalistic standpoint so I decided to go there and write about it. I had no idea it was going to be my path for life! Vipassana has helped me immensely by providing a direct, practical, concrete method for self-improvement free of mysticism or religious beliefs. It’s simply a tool to help overcome the unproductive habit patterns we all carry in our minds, like anger, depression, anxiety, egotism, greed etc. When those are gone, happiness naturally arises. It’s a universal practice that works for anyone who sincerely undertakes it, regardless of religion, cultural background etc. And when you have something that gets results, a sense of peace and order is derived from that alone, even if there’s still more work to be done.
3.) What exactly is a bodhisattva and can we become one while maintaining our individual religious beliefs?
Michele: In Buddhist tradition, a bodhisattva is a being on the path to becoming a fully enlightened Buddha. In order to fulfill this mission, the person has to practice such qualities as generosity, loving-kindness, truth, tolerance, wisdom, determination and strong effort. Now, whether or not someone is a Buddhist or believes in a bodhisattva and the concept of enlightenment, these are good qualities! Someone could be a Christian or a Muslim or any religion or no religion at all. If they are practicing kindness, if they are full of love and goodwill toward their fellow beings, then they are fulfilling the message of Jesus and all the great prophets, as well as the mission of a bodhisattva, whether they think of it in those terms or not.
We all just want to be happy and live good lives; that is the common thread. But unfortunately today there seems to be a big disconnect between religious beliefs and actual on-the-ground ethics. In the Buddha’s teaching, wholesome actions lead to happiness, and unwholesome actions lead to suffering, both for ourselves and others. This is so simple! We shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking we can act however we please, harming others in order to achieve our own gains, then somehow still be happy. People who act this way are suffering deep inside, even if they have all the money, power and fame. So the work I’d like to do in this connection is present a set of universally beneficial ethics based on the principle of “wholesome actions lead to happiness,” especially to children, in hopes this will contribute to a brighter future for us all. I want to make ethics awesome again.
4.) How do awareness and meditation help us be more creative and empathetic?
Michele: Meditation is the methodical practice of clearing away debris in the mind, so to speak, and opening it up to positive qualities like creativity, empathy, insight, and so many more. Meditation masters attest that the natural characteristic of the human mind is extremely powerful and radiant, and science essentially confirms this by acknowledging the tremendous untapped potential of our minds that we ordinarily never use. All we need to do to access that state is clean out accumulated garbage. This includes resentment, bitterness, fear, trauma, all the junk built up during the course of a life that will inevitably contain suffering in one form or another. A good meditation practice helps us find the place within that is free from all that; and awareness, or mindfulness, is the present, balanced state that can be carried through all our daily activities. It’s a fairly simple concept—but extremely difficult to practice! Fortunately, even modest success on this path brings priceless benefit.
5.) Do you ever feel others look down on you or think you’re weird for your spiritual beliefs and practices?
Michele: When I first started going to the Vipassana Meditation Center, some of my friends were concerned thinking it was a cult. They even teased me about being a “hippie pacifist Buddhist tree-hugger” etc. But there was no way I could fight back because that would just make me a hypocrite about the inner peace I was supposedly developing! So I continued on my path alone. But a few years later, no one was naysaying anymore. Now people respect what I study, even if they don’t want to try it themselves, because they see that not only it doesn’t harm anyone, it has actually made me a better person.
Thanks to positive press from celebrities like Oprah and the Dalai Lama, the misunderstandings about meditation are starting to get cleared away as people realize that it’s not a religion, much less a demonic cult. It’s merely a system of mental exercise that improves wellness, much like a physical workout strengthens the body. I want to be crystal-clear that this can be added to anyone’s toolkit because it doesn’t conflict with existing spiritual beliefs—whatever religion you are is fine! Meditate to understand yourself, become a better person, and live a happier life. For me, Vipassana has been the ultimate game-changer in the pursuit of happiness—I’m not 100% there yet, but I have a clear path and that makes all the difference. I can’t praise this practice enough.