Full transcript (edited slightly for clarity)
Gabriela: Good day, everyone. Welcome to the Labyrinth Podcast of Copper Beech Institute in West Hartford, Connecticut. My name is Gabriela and I am a grant writer at Copper Beech Institute. I am here with our founder and Executive Director, Brandon. How are you doing today Brandon?
Brandon: Great. It’s great to be have this conversation here today.
Gabriela: Awesome! It’s great to be here together. Today we are planning to have a conversation about living presence and what it means to live with presence. I guess we’ll just go ahead and jump right in.
Brandon, you are someone who is passionate about teaching people the tools they need to cultivate a deeper sense of presence in their lives. I'm personally curious as to where this calling comes from and whether or not you were always interested in these types of practices.
Brandon: In my early life, back in college, I can remember having a clear desire to be of service in some way, though I didn’t know exactly what that would entail. I studied medieval theology and got really interested in the ways in which, over time, people have responded to what they sensed as a kind of call from Beyond, to be of service to others. I spent some time studying to be a Roman Catholic priest but left that with a clear desire to have a family and to be married.
When I was in Divinity school and graduating, I recognized that journeying with people in the spiritual life was something that absolutely excited me. I found in myself this capacity to really be with people through the joys of life, through the hardships, through some of the deepest, most painful experiences. And I began leading retreats right after graduating from Yale Divinity School. I found that people were so willing to search inside their hearts to really ask the deepest questions that they could ask about their purpose, about how to work with pain, about how to feel deeper joy, how to feel more connected to the people around them. And as I began at work I just felt something in me come alive. I guess I have a heart for people who want to be the best versions of themselves and also be of service in the community.
So for almost 20 years I have been leading retreats and accompanying people in contemplative practice. I’ve learned likely far more than I've ever taught from the people who have been brave enough to come on retreat and give time and energy to their own growth.
Gabriela: Thank you for sharing that. You touched on this a bit in your answer just now, but I guess I’m curious as to what, in your mind, does it mean to “live with presence”? We use that term a lot but I don't know if we actually think about what it means.
Brandon: Yes, thank you for this question. In the world of mindfulness and meditation practice we often speak in code, and then we often think we know what we're talking about when we use these code words.
The way that I like to describe living with presence is living wholeheartedly. I think many of us have had the experience at one point in our lives of doing something halfheartedly, where our whole heart wasn't in it. As I look at my own life, I'm trying more and more to live with the kind of integrity that whatever I do and whoever I'm with I'm giving my whole heart to at that very moment.
So many people, as they go through life, feel a kind of disconnection from the people around them, a kind of disconnection from their work. There is a kind of chronic worry that many of us carry around and a kind of incessant projection into the past or into the future, so much so they were actually were missing our lives. This is actually how I came to mindfulness: I realized I was spending much of my life driving towards some goal in the future or rehashing some events in the past while really missing the people and the experiences that were right in front of me. So living with presence is my way and many people's way of describing living with a whole heart and being fully invested in whatever is unfolding right now. And this can be really challenging because, sometimes, what’s unfolding right now is really hard and really heartbreaking and stretches us to the limits of what we think we can inhabit.
So I don't use this word “presence” lightly. This is probably the most courageous thing that we as human beings can do: to show up for our lives. Because what we experience can be joyful and wonderful and loving and blissful beyond imagination, and it can lead us to the point of real heartbreak and deep sorrow as well. So this life of presence, this life of mindfulness, is the whole enchilada. You get everything. That’s what we sign up for when we practice.
Gabriela: A question that I have to follow up with that is this: given that living with presence is not necessarily a guarantee for happiness or constant gratification, why do it? Why bother, given that, as you said, it can lead to intense heartbreak?
Brandon: Yes, it’s a great question. We talk a lot in most of our programs here at Copper Beech of the real risk factors, if you will, of this type of practice. We open ourselves not only to the great joy but also the sorrow. So why do that? Because it's part of the human experience, and to ignore parts of our experience is to miss out in fully knowing who we are.
I believe deeply that the capacity to which we know joy is the capacity to which we also know pain. So our ability to know pain and to know discomfort actually deepens our reservoir of joy. Joy and pain are not opposites; they’re companions on the journey. The work we do with living presence, while on the one hand opening us to a kind of attunement to the pain in our hearts and around us, paradoxically enables us to experience deeper joy.
This is the great paradox: you don’t get one without the other. So if you want to be happier, then you’ll have to entertain the whole human experience, and that means knowing pain as well. But even more, all of this is in the service not so much of joy but of love. Any of us who’ve been in love or glimpsed this, when you love someone you’re quite willing to endure discomfort and pain. And actually, our ability to move through some uncomfortable and painful experiences actually deepens our ability to connect with someone else at the heart level.
So why do a practice that potentially opens us to feel more pain? Well, because it will enhance our experience of joy even more and enhance our ability to live lives of love and service and compassion. And that’s what we at Copper Beech Institute have dedicated ourselves to doing.
Gabriela: Thank you for sharing that, that was an incredibly beautiful and helpful framework for those of us who are interested in developing a practice of mindfulness but are constantly hearing through media and other avenues that mindfulness is primarily about stress reduction, rather than about this deeper calling towards connection and love and a fuller human experience.
Brandon: Yea, this is a double-edged sword for those of us who think deeply about mindfulness. On the one hand, it’s problematic that this practice is tied to so many goals and objectives and I’m often quite concerned that there's a kind of spiritual materialism in the air that offers a kind of false promise. As you said, “practice, and then you get something,” whether this be bliss forever, you lose weight, have great sex forever, get a pay raise at your job… I think there's been some very interesting research and neuroscience around the many health benefits. So without in any way discounting those, I think we need to be very careful about the kind of quid pro quo logic that's in play and a lot of a mass-market marketing of mindfulness that centers on “I’m going to do mindfulness to get something.”
On the other hand, what gets people in the door is what gets them in the door. I think all of us are suffering in a profound way and at every level. This is something I’ve glimpsed here at Copper Beech: whether we’re working in the jail with incarcerated folks, or homeless folks, or people who are survivors of trauma, or executives at Fortune 100 companies, or athletes in the NFL, there’s suffering in every level of society. And these practices can help us meet the pain that we experience more courageously and more gracefully. So whatever brings us in the room to practice mindfulness can serve us, even if what we initially learn is that there’s some work to do here, that there’s some effort in mindfulness before we experience some of the benefits, whatever those might be.
Gabriela: Something you mentioned is “whatever gets people in the door is something that serves them.” I’m wondering, once people get in the door, what are some of the practices that they might find helpful to cultivating presence. At Copper Beech, once people get in the door we have retreats and workshops and other resources that help people learn how to live with more presence, so what are some of the ways that you practice and that you have taught people on how to live with more presence?
Brandon: We are at a really interesting and beautiful moment of history in which the contemplative practices which were once hidden away in monasteries of various religious traditions are now being shared so freely and widely in our world today. At Copper Beech Institute, we have several practices that have become a kind of center of gravity that keeps us grounded in our practice as we seek to live with greater compassion and love and presence.
Certainly, seated breath meditation has been for me in my life absolutely transformational. In my early days of practice, I remember realizing that this seemingly endless stream of commentary in my mind, this parade of thoughts and judgments and opinions which I had understood as rock solid truth, the truth about who I was, began to begin to break up. I remember realizing — and many people have had this kind of awakening in meditation — that I am not my thoughts, that I am not my thinking, I am not my opinions. And I realized that I had spent two decades of my life really attached to all the things that I was thinking about myself, about my world. So seated breath meditation has become a very important part of my life and at the foundation of Copper Beech Institute.
Walking meditation too — some people are kinesthetic learners and learn through movement. Very gentle yoga has also been very healing and transformational. The practice of mindful eating is also an important part of daily life for me and here at Copper Beech Institute.
Also, the practice of mindful listening — listening really to understand what our partner is saying. I can remember an early conversation with my wife when we were newly married, some sort of heated conversation, probably about the correct and incorrect way to load a dishwasher (an idea that I was very attached to twenty years ago). And I remember my wife Susan saying to me, “are you listening, or are you waiting to talk? Are you formulating your response while pretending to listen?” I think some of the deep fragmentation and the bitterness of our political climate right now stems from a real inability to listen to understand one another, not to to persuade or change one another's minds but to really understand where we're coming from.
So in most of our programming, but especially in our upcoming Living Presence course, we talk a lot about the power of just witnessing another human being and listening to understand. Something that is so dear to my heart is that coming to a course like Living Presence feels initially like this gift we’re giving to ourselves -- this time and space to practice, to be in community of people who are thinking deeply about compassion and presence and love in the world. But ultimately we believe that our presence in a course like this is our gift to the world because we emerged with renewed energy and deeper commitment for compassion, for presence. We know we need to be the change we want to see in the world, for it starts with us. While on the one hand this course feels like a deep gift to the people who are in it, it also is a way for us to begin to shift and transform the culture which is desperately in need of connection and compassion today.
So seated meditation, walking meditation, gentle yoga, body-scan meditation, mindful eating, listening… These are all really dear to my heart and these are the things that we will spend six weeks practicing together, exploring in conversation and in practice.
Gabriela: For the Living Presence course you just mentioned, should someone be interested in learning more about it and potentially signing up, how can they do that?
Brandon: They can sign up on the Copper Beech website, www.copperbeechinstitute.org, and we’ll welcome them into our group.
What I really love most about starting a course like this is that it’s an opportunity really to form community and friendship. It always warms my heart to see the way in which participants in class will connect with each other on Facebook, will go out to tea, will come and walk the Labyrinth together well after the class is done.
We don't wake up to the full depths of our humanity alone. We need one another. We need friends, we need companions on this contemplative or spiritual journey. And what’s sorely missing in our culture today is places for people to come together and ask the deep questions of life and to practice our way into being more fully alive. This is the great delight: in classes we laugh together, we cry together, we get confused together, we get challenged together, and I think this relational aspect is, for me, the most energizing. So I’m exciting to start the course together in a few weeks with a new community of souls.
Gabriela: Reflecting on what you just said: it sounds like, whether it’s a course on Living Presence, or a retreat, or a daylong workshop, what we at Copper Beech are trying to offer — and I think many other spiritual and contemplative communities across the country and the world are trying to offer — links back to that point about community and connection. This goes to your point about how, in today’s world, we live in such disconnected ways and disconnected lives; we’ve been cut off from certain experiences of what it simply means to be human. To me, it almost sounds like what you’re saying is that these courses and retreats are opportunities to re-become human again, in a way. And living with presence is a way of remembering our humanity.
Brandon: I love how you’ve articulated that. You know, I think it’s so important in our lives to have a mirror in one another. Our deepest growth happens in community with other people. What develops over time, even in a short six-week class, in friendships or partnerships or married life or any form of committed relationship, is that we have this opportunity to be seen (which is one of our deepest needs as human beings, to be accepted as we are) and then for another person to symbolically hold up the mirror and mirror back to us who we are at that particular moment in time, with all of our beauty and our strengths and our gifts.
Sometimes we’re really unable to see the fullness of our light. Many of us struggle with not feeling worthy enough in various aspects of our lives. It’s the gift of having a relationship that can mirror back to us our beauty, our gifts, our potential.
And also, it takes some courage to see this, someone can also mirror back to us our growing edges and the places we’re not so keen to look at, like the fact that we create pain for ourselves and for others. All of us have blind spots, and by definition you can’t see your own blind spots so we need one another to, with great compassion, help us identify what those are and grow. So growth happens in relationship.
You could hop online and take a course by yourself, and many of us practice mindfulness 90% of the time alone. So a course like this is a great way to come together and as you said, Gabriela, to practice becoming human. I think the great insight of contemplative communities is that we become more human, more compassionate, more present, more loving, through some kind of practice.
We get only so far by an act of the will. “I want to be more loving!” That's a wonderful intention, but it remains just that — an intention and an act of the will. It’s sort of akin to saying “I want to be a really great football player and play in the Super Bowl.” But without years of practice it remains just an intention and it becomes sort of a conceptual wish. Our deepest belief is that we practice our way into presence, into anything human really. So that’s the opportunity at Copper Beech and any of our programs, it’s that we can live into the fullness of our humanity through some kind of shared practice together.
Gabriela: It’s a gift to know that, through practice, transformation is possible; that just because we wanted transformation for so long, but haven’t found a way to do it, doesn't mean it's impossible. Given the tools and resources and guidance from people who have actually been able to achieve and cultivate transformation, others can learn them too. That’s a gift I think Copper Beech offers: the opportunity for people who want to transform but don’t know how to be in conversation with people who have really practiced these practices (for lack of a better word), which have been around for thousands of years but hidden away. What a gift to have a center in West Hartford, Connecticut that can be a seedbed for that kind of growth.
Brandon: I think we see a lot of folks — and it’s so exciting for me to be able to welcome folks at this moment in their growth — who perhaps have been doing a lot of reading or a lot of introspection. They’ve perhaps read two or three books on mindfulness, but are really ready to embody, to practice, and to be in community with others. We’re often welcoming folks who are joining a community of practice for the first time and really being intentional. That’s exciting.
We also have many seasoned practitioners who’ve been at this for many decades, but what we’ve been able to do is create a real space of warmth and hospitality where we can just be real with one another. That seems to me a really important part of Copper Beech Institute. We do our best not to throw around jargon, to be really practical, and to create a space where people can be absolutely honest about their struggles, about what doesn’t make sense, about their skepticism about mindfulness.
As we’ve been talking about, if you look at the way in which mindfulness is portrayed in the media there’s plenty to be skeptical about in terms of all the promises folks are making about the practice. So there’s a kind of ordinary-ness that I think is a hallmark of our conversations here. We’re not selling anything here, and we don’t need to. The possibility of living a full life sells itself, right? And all of us, when we’re ready, realize we want that.
Our teachers are folks who are not pretending, who are really willing to be radically honest about everything that comes with being a human being. And I think that’s what people are looking for in contemplative or spiritual leaders these days. There’s so much distrust, there’s so much skepticism, we just want people who are willing to tell the truth about their experiences and make space for the truth about whatever anyone else is going through. So I’m really thankful for our community of teachers who embody all of that.
Gabriela: Thank you so much, Brandon, for that share and the testimonials that you’re giving about this practice. I’m wondering, as we start to close this conversation, if there’s anything that you would like to share further that hasn’t been said yet in the conversation — anything about the Living Presence course or contemplative practices more generally?
Brandon: Another hallmark of our teaching here at Copper Beech is we love poetry — we love to speak from the heart. If there’s something that seems to define our approach, it’s that we’re heart-centered folks. We care really, really deeply. So all we’re really trying to do is create a community of people who care, and I think that’s what folks notice when they come here. So I wonder if I might end by just sharing a poem.
Brandon: I’d love to end by sharing a poem by Danna Faulds, who seems to really glimpse the essence of practice. This poem is called Allow.
I notice that in my own teaching of mindfulness I work a lot with our impulse to control and to manage. Many of us have the idea that if we just controlled life enough, if we just wrestled it down and choreographed our life and were able to control all the people who come in and out of our lives, that we would be happy. And so what I notice coming up for me in my teaching is working with this impulse that many of us have to control and this false belief that if we could just manage everyone and everything and choreograph life, that somehow we would be as happy as we would like to be. And this poem, Allow, invites us into another way of imagining how we can move through life without the kind of management that we spend a lot of energy with.
And so the poem goes like this:
Allow, by Danna Faulds
There is no controlling life.
Try corralling a lightning bolt,
containing a tornado. Dam a
stream and it will create a new
channel. Resist, and the tide
will sweep you off your feet.
Allow, and grace will carry
you to higher ground. The only
safety lies in letting it all in –
the wild and the weak; fear,
fantasies, failures and success.
When loss rips off the doors of
the heart, or sadness veils your
vision with despair, practice
becomes simply bearing the truth.
In the choice to let go of your
known way of being, the whole
world is revealed to your new eyes.
Brandon: It’s been great having this conversation, Gabriela, thank you so much for making the space.
Gabriela: Thank you, Brandon, for sharing that poem and for all of your wisdom, insight, and stories about the practice, Copper Beech, and a whole lot more.
For those of you listening in, it’s been great to be with you today. Once again, Brandon will be offering a course titled Living Presence starting in the month of October for six weeks. If you’re interested in learning more or signing up for it, you can visit our website at www.copperbeechinstitute.org and you’ll find more information there. It’s been a wonderful time, and we hope you have a great rest of your day.