What is a meditative life? What might that look like? Is it possible? Today a series of interviews begins with people who have found a meditative way to live their life.
For a long time I tried to live my life in a more meditative way and I often found myself frustrated. But at some point looking back I noticed that my days had become more meditative. Still, I couldn’t really see exactly how that had changed. This is why I’d like to go on a little tour of discovery here over the next weeks. To begin, I want to introduce you to Tony Sager.
Tony started practicing meditation in 1978 in a dedicated way and some years later was ordained as a monk in the Zen tradition. For 22 years he lived, served and practiced internationally in this way. After that he lived for two years as a layperson at Upaya Zen Center, a socially engaged Buddhist community in Santa Fe, New Mexico. At that time he started working in a hospice context for three years, which led him to study counseling and obtain a Master’s degree and licensure. Now he works as a well-respected mental health counselor at a therapy firm, out in the world with the rest of us “normal” people. Tony is also a senior dharma teacher in the Kwan Um School of Zen.
It’s easy to assume that for someone with his history it’s much easier to live in a meditative way than for the rest of us. Yet perhaps we might be able to see something that is valuable for ourselves in how he does it. How does someone like Tony approach his normal daily life, his work and his challenges? How does he practice now compared to his earlier life?
Tony says that his life is quite simple. Since he works many hours a week with people and talks a lot in the course of his work, he loves to spend quiet time in the evening and on the weekends. He loves exercise, especially biking and hiking, and enjoys being with friends and loved ones.
Tony has a kind energy and presence that I find inspiring. I was surprised to hear that he sees not just his early years as a monk as strong and deep practice, but equally so the years as a layperson in the Zen center as well as in everyday life as a professional counselor. According to Tony his practice “just changed.” Formal practice lessened when he left the Zen center, but informal practice “became very strong.” Here is his mix:
Formal practice. Daily morning sitting meditation and occasional retreats (Zazen, chanting), are still foundational for him, because “it makes such a difference!”
Informal practice. Practicing mindful awareness while driving, working, in all activity. This is much like sitting practice but within everyday life experience, coming back to the present again and again. One of the supportive key elements is connecting with the breath.
Coming back to now. This is a key for Tony, the practice of mind and body coming together. “Really just coming back to what is in front of me, what is now.” Tony says that when mind and body come together “you are aligned, you know it, feel it, you are there. No separation, no wall between you and your experience: you are free.” There is a “completely open feeling of presence, you are there, present, no separation, no inside and no outside.” This is something he comes back to many times during his day.
Key intervention. If energy goes up, reactivity and fear follow. Come back to the breath, really look at the situation, really listen to what is going on. There can be thoughts like, “Oh, I’m not getting this,” “I don’t know what to do,” “I’m stuck.” But we can learn that “it’s nothing to freak out about, get fearful about.” The energy is just a sign “to take a better look, maybe ask some questions.” Again, as Tony says, his approach to life is simple. And I think this is a great strength of it.
I hope some of these points have inspired you. I love the simple approach of “everyday Zen.” Next week the second part of his interview follows. There we’ll talk about how he uses these concepts and practices in his work as counselor.
Have a good week!