“Awakening is NEVER What You Imagine It Is Going to Be”
Dr. Hall is founder and director of El Dharma based in Todos Santos, Baja, Mexico (www.eldharma.com) that offers dharma talks and guided meditation, and 5-day silent retreats in the Vipassana tradition also known as Insight Meditation. Dr. Hall is also an ordained Buddhist priest and meditation teacher and has been leading retreats since 1980. He is currently on the Teachers Council of Spirit Rock Meditation Center–a Buddhist meditation center based in Marin, California.
Dr. Hall was born in Lyons, N.Y. February 8, 1934. He received his BA degree from Hamilton College in 1955 and his MD degree from University of Buffalo in 1959.
He completed an Internship at St. Marks Hospital in Salt Lake City 1960 and residency in psychiatry at Letterman Hospital, San Francisco. He served as a Major in the US Army Medical Corps from 1960-1966
Robert completed his residency in psychiatry in July 1963. He practiced psychotherapy in Marin County, California until November 2001 when he retired from practice and moved to Todos Santos, Baja California Sur, Mexico where he makes his home today.
While practicing psychiatry in the San Francisco Bay Area, Dr. Hall earned an international reputation with his innovative and pioneering work in somatic/body oriented therapies. In 1970 he co-founded the Lomi School of Somatic Studies located in Santa Rosa, California. In 1989 the Lomi School developed into the Lomi Counseling Clinic, a public agency dedicated to offering low-cost psychotherapy and supervised training for licensing of Marriage and Family Therapy practitioners.
He has authored numerous articles, forwards to books on consciousness, and has lectured at many leading universities, including the Universities of Berlin, California, Florida, and Hamburg, Germany. He is frequently a keynote speaker at conferences on spiritual practice and therapy modalities. He is currently writing a book of memoirs.
Robert Hall is also a published poet and performer. His book of poems, OUT OF NOWHERE, was published by Running Wolf Press in 2000. He has given numerous public readings of his work, and with musicians he has performed three spoken-word and music concerts. He has released two CDs, OUT OF NOWHERE and WHAT A MYSTERY, in collaboration with musicians Brian Hand and Teja Bell. He recently published a volume of transcribed Dharma talks and poetry entitled Buddha Now (English/Spanish).
Dr. Hall currently makes his home in Todos Santos, BCS Mexico, with Alvaro Colindres his partner, companion and personal manager.
In January, 2011, Dr. Hall will co-lead a retreat called “Meditation and Movement.” Further information is at the end of this article.
Q1: Robert Hall, Welcome. Thanks for taking this time to chat with me. To start, could you tell me a bit about your background?
I’m a psychiatrist by training. I was in the Army for almost seven years. After that time, one of the reasons I left is that I came under the influence of a legendary teacher who was now a legend. He is the father of Gestalt therapy, Fritz Perls. I became his apprentice in 1967. I was already a psychiatrist at that time. The influence he had on my development was very profound.
My family and I lived in Big Sur, California. I studied with him at Esalen Institute. My professional life was formed through that relationship and another with a great teacher who was there at the time, Ida Rolf, the founder of Structural Integration, or Rolfing.
I was apprenticed to both of them simultaneously. They chose me. When I met Fritz Perls he was just beginning to become famous. After that that he became very well-known. I ended my apprenticeship with him because he asked me to begin the San Francisco Gestalt Institute. There was already one in New York and one in Los Angeles and one in Cleveland. I started the San Francisco Institute. At the same time I started a private practice in Rolfing and Gestalt. I did Rolfing during the day and Gestalt groups at night.
Then I found I had a spiritual need. Through strange and unusual circumstances I met a spiritual master and traveled to India to spend time with him. That became another aspect of my training. My mainstream psychiatric training was practically useless. My real work began after my residency in psychiatry. My teachers were Fritz and Ida and Charan Singh in India. I had several more teachers after that, one of whom was Chogyam Trungpa, the Tibetan lama who started the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado.
Around that same time I met Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield and became really good friends with them. I started teaching Bodywork at their retreats. I had been really interested in meditation since 1969. By 1974 I was very involved in meditation for long periods of time…retreats up to a couple of months.
During this time my reputation grew because I was working a lot. People came from Europe. My friends and I started the Lomi School, and people started coming from Italy, England, and Germany, which led to my teaching a lot in Europe and South America. I became quite an international kind of guy. I traveled a lot. I also had my private practice at the same time.
Over the years with the Lomi School being so active, I accumulated a lot of students. I am somebody who has integrated Eastern Spiritual practices with Western psychology and Western-oriented Bodywork.
From the very beginning my main interest is the notion that human awareness is what heals human suffering. I’ve been involved in what I think is a worldwide movement called the human potential movement.
Q2: How did you become aware of your spiritual needs, and what were they?
I was very successful after my time with Fritz. We had a seven-bedroom house in Mill Valley, California, with a swimming pool and a tennis court. We had three children and I was working all the time trying to achieve “The American Dream.” There were so many people wanting to work with me that I had a waiting list over a year long.
I think I burned out very quickly. I became quite depressed at the height of the success I was experiencing. It was like: ‘is this all there is? Am I just going to keep working like this?’
I wasn’t aware that I had spiritual needs, but I was aware that I felt empty…I needed some motivation in deepest self to be happier. I wanted to be happier.
Spontaneously, much like I met all of my teachers, I went to visit a friend in Mill Valley. But he wasn’t home. I went inside, and sat down in his living room. I was waiting for him to come home. There was a piece of paper on the floor. I picked it up and started to read it. I think it was a print out copy of a talk my spiritual teacher had given. While I was reading this, I heard his voice saying the words. It was a very profound experience. I recognized the teaching as having some kind of profound truth for myself. I took the paper home and showed it to my then-wife. She recognized it right away. She said: “this is it, isn’t it?” There was a phone number to call at the bottom of the page.
By the way, my friend didn’t know where the paper came from he had never seen it, ever. It wasn’t something he would keep in his house. We had just moved into this seven-bedroom house. The house next door was intriguing to me. They had a big geodesic dome in the backyard. In those days that was very interesting. I wanted to meet those people because of the dome. I telephoned that number and it was that next-door neighbor.
He welcomed me and invited us over. He had just come back from India where he had spent three months with my teacher, my spiritual master. I began to be more interested in the study of the teaching. Within six months Alyssa and I were in India. We were there for four months or so. It was incredibly life changing.
When we came back, my friends and Alyssa and I started the Lomi School. The Lomi School formed around us; it just started organically. We were enthusiastic about teaching people and sharing what we were learning: meditation, Bodywork, Gestalt therapy, Rolfing. It was quite an amazing time. Before long, people were calling us “the Lomis.” Then it became the Lomi School and it grew into a residential school. It grew very rapidly.
Q3: Does Lomi refer to something in particular?
It does, but nothing of importance. My nickname at the time was Robert Lomi-Lomi. The reason for that was that my partner Richard and his wife who started the school with my wife and me had gone to Maui on a vacation. He was kidding me about the work I did being with some kind of massage. We passed a place that said “Lomi-Lomi Massage” on the front. He said: “That’s what you do!”
We were joking about it. People started calling me Robert Lomi. It caught on. It never had anything to do with Lomi-Lomi Massage except in that tangential way.
I have regretted it this whole time. I don’t think it is an appropriate name, but it was branded quickly.
Q4: Was it when you went to India that you were you introduced to the study of Buddhism?
No. I hadn’t met Buddhism yet. I went to India in 1970. It would be four years before I was introduced to Buddhism. I began meditation of a different kind, which is the meditation I still do. It is a meditation on inner sound. The path I was initiated into is a devotional one, a Bhakti path. Bhakti means devotion. I was very much a student on that path in those pre-Buddhism years. We were fundamentalists. We were strict vegetarians. We meditated at least two-and-a-half hours a day; we didn’t allow sex outside of marriage. We were pretty strict.
Over time we loosened up. So by the time we were involved in Buddhism in 1974, which is when I met Joseph Goldstein, we were already meditators on a deep spiritual bent. Buddhism fit us. It blended with us easily.
Q5: Joseph Goldstein is one of the best-known Buddhist teachers. How did you meet him?
He came back from India in 1974, having been there for 10 years with his teacher. While traveling he hurt his back lifting a suitcase. He got to Mill Valley and his friend John Travis, who is a colleague of mine, brought him to see me to fix his back. At that time I was known as the person you go to when you hurt your back. The Lomi guy. He brought Joseph to me and we became fast friends immediately, and have continued over the years.
Joseph was going to Denver at the invitation of Trungpa. He and Jack Kornfield were to begin teaching that summer in Boulder. I went there to spend time with them. That’s when I met Ram Dass, Alan Ginsberg, and Gregory Corso…the whole shebang.
For five summers after that I was teaching Gestalt at the Naropa Institute. I continued doing retreats with Joseph and Jack for many, many years.
Many years ago, Jack started training programs for dharma teachers and I went into one of his four-year programs. That’s how I received empowerment to teach Vipassana (Insight) meditation. That must have been in the 1980’s.
Q6: So what is Buddhism?
First of all Buddhism is NOT a religion. It is classified generally as a religion, but I don’t think it is. It has nothing to do with belief or worship. It has nothing to do with the idea of being saved from anything. It is a very systematic, precise teaching on how to live as a human being with as little struggle as possible, and how to awaken to the deeper meanings of one’s own life.
The ultimate purpose of Buddhism is to realize freedom from the conditioned mind. Freedom from suffering totally. It is a teaching, an instruction, and a method. It isn’t a belief system; it is akin to a philosophy. But it is also more than a philosophy because it is also a method, a very precise method.
When you study Buddhism it is a lifelong process. But it is fascinating how it renews itself. It is constantly opening to deeper and deeper meaning.
Q7: Aren’t there different types of Buddhism?
The original Buddhism is Theravadan Buddhism, the teachings of the elders, which is what I am empowered in, originated in Southern India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam. Later an offshoot was Mahayana Buddhism, which traveled to China and Japan. In Japan it became Zen.
In northern India another school arose and moved into Tibet and became Vajrayana Buddhism. Those are the main branches at this time.
The clothing and costumes are different but the core teachings are all exactly the same. Zen is famous for being the most austere and non-intellectual of the teachings. It has a great beauty that way.
Buddhism has evolved from a dualistic teaching that the Buddha taught. When he had opportunities, depending on the people who were listening, he taught a non-dualism kind of Buddhism. Over the centuries it has evolved into more and more of a non-dualistic teaching.
Q8: Can you describe that a bit more?
Our conventional consciousness is colored by the fact that we see the world as separate from ourselves. That basic way of understanding is a lens of separation and individuation. That’s dualism.
Non-dualism is the realization through the experience of the practice that ultimate reality is non-dual. There is no separation. Separation is delusional. The Buddha’s position was that human kind is suffering because of its ignorance; the ignorance of not knowing who we are. He called this separation “wrong view.”
Q9: Buddhism is famous for its Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path…things are numbered and ordered. It makes the 10 commandments seem simple.
A: He (The Buddha) did that with a wise intelligence. He wanted to ensure the posterity and consistency of the teachings. It was given verbally. It wasn’t written down until hundreds of years after his death. I think because of all those lists it has stayed in people’s awareness.
Q10: How and why did you open a meditation center here in Todos Santos?
Well, I DIDN’T open a meditation center in Todos Santos. I had no intention of doing so. I just started doing some teaching. Alvaro (Robert’s partner) and I came here to establish a way of life here. In the first five or six years we started organizing five to seven day silent meditation retreats at Alegria. We leased it and people came from the States, mostly. There wasn’t much interest from the community. We organized 16 such retreats.
But early on, I started doing Sunday morning Dharma talks. They have always drawn people, sometimes over 100. But I never had intention of having a spiritual center. In fact, I have tried to avoid that. I don’t want to be responsible for any kind of physical plant, any kind of organization where there is likely to be a political flavor—and all organizations are political. I’ve avoided all that.
I am only interested in teaching dharma. That approach has served me well. Most of my teaching now is in mainland Mexico. I am enjoying that. I am having a whole rebirth of my teaching career.
Q11: Who comes to your retreats in the mainland?
Mexicans. Particularly educated middle class and upper-middle class Mexicans. This is a very interesting, awake, bright, enthusiastic population seeking awakening and understanding. It is quite exciting for me to see this. Mexico is beginning to stir and awaken spiritually. We have full retreats in Puebla, San Cristobal, Mexico City, Cuernavaca and others.
Q12: That’s amazing in this strongly Catholic country.
The Church has become, well, what it has become—a stagnant body. I don’t think it is a very vital organization at this point. It is in decline for many reasons. I’m not anti-Church, I’m just not interested in it. I’m not interested in any kind of religion, actually.
Q13: Do you see people attempting to be Catholic or Christian and Buddhist at the same time?
Yes. Buddhism has that wonderful quality of being able to be applicable to whatever belief system you come upon, because it isn’t one. It depends entirely on self-discovery.
Q14: To what extent are Buddhists atheists?
I don’t know. An atheist is someone who does not believe in God, or who has taken a stand on that. I don’t think they are atheists. I think they are agnostics. It isn’t an issue with them. Buddhism isn’t a theocratic approach to life; it isn’t a theology. Buddha doesn’t speak about God at all. In fact, he didn’t speak about metaphysics of any kind, at least not at any great length. He wanted to avoid all that and focus on what can be experienced directly.
Religions are based upon belief systems. Sometimes people have direct experience, but I think usually it is dogma that attracts people.
Q15: Let’s talk about the intersection of Buddhism and Western psychology.
I’ve probably been involved in that integration as much or more than anyone and the movement of Buddhism coming to the West. Jack Kornfield and I both have been very influential in that blend. What Western psychology has contributed to the movement of Buddhism is a deeper understanding of emotions, personal history, conditioning, and behavior. It has allowed much more acceptance in Buddhist circles of the experience of deep emotion. Western psychology has also contributed a lot to the understanding of the mind from the perspective of defense mechanisms: projection, introjection, sublimation, and denial. I think it has added a lot, it has colored Buddhist teaching.
Q16: What is the “goal” of Buddhism? Is it to achieve nirvana?
That word has different meanings depending on which Buddhist scholar you are talking to. The simple goal of Buddhism is to become free of the mind. To become free of concepts and delusional buying-into-the-appearance of things. It is to become awakened. It is to become no longer oppressed by habits of mind.
Q17: And how does one know when one is awakened?
(Laughter) That isn’t a question that would even be important! First of all it is a dualistic question: “How would one know?” There isn’t anyone there when it happens
Awakening is the absence of a conditioned self. At that point, discussion gets tricky. The Western mind can’t grasp it. The Western mind comes at the issue from the intellectual point of view, the linear-thinking mind. It is incapable of understanding. Awakening is NEVER what you imagine it is going to be. It is unimaginable. It’s fun to talk about.
Q18: I have heard stories of people who have experienced spontaneous awakening.
Yes, but they’re not so common. Spontaneous awakening is fairly rare. I think MOST people experience awakening in gradual steps over time, with a lot of hard work. It doesn’t seem to be granted frivolously.
Q19: This leads us the question of karma and rebirths…another difficult concept for Western minds to grasp.
I don’t speak of it at all. I don’t think you’ve ever heard me mention karma or rebirth in any of my talks or on any retreats, simply because I am going to speak about only what I know; to be honest. I don’t know anything about rebirth truly. I think it is very likely correct, along with karma, but I don’t have a personal experience of a certainty of it. Therefore it is not interesting to me other than as an intellectual exercise.
Q20: Buddhists don’t seem to evangelize their practice in the way of some other traditions.
Isn’t that wonderful? I think that’s really a breath of fresh air. Christians could learn from it. I think Buddhists understand that in order to really become a practitioner you have to be profoundly motivated and be willing to encounter many, many obstacles including despair and discouragement. Buddhists are quite aware of the hardship that comes from being on a path and I don’t think it fits to evangelize people. It is something that one comes to out of one’s experience. The longing for freedom and awakening comes from deep within. It can’t be taught or suggested. You can recognize when someone talks about something that resonates for you, but Buddhists don’t prostheletize because they know that won’t work. It has to come from a deeper place.
Q21: One of the core practices of Buddhism is meditation. What is meditation physically, emotionally, intellectually, and why is so important to Buddhism?
It’s always been core to any of the Buddhist teachings. The meditation the Buddha taught is the same one I am teaching. The whole notion of awakening, of being free of suffering is dependent upon the development of awareness. And the development of awareness is dependent upon a close examination of “how it is”. What is actually happening, rather than what one THINKS is happening, or what one has been TAUGHT about the world. A personal exploration of one’s experience requires a focusing of attention, a non-distractive atmosphere, and a highly motivated attention, because it is not easy.
Meditation is core to Buddhism because it is the method whereby people begin to have experiences that bring faith that is based upon experience, not belief.
There are three aspects:
1) Meditation practice
2) The Eightfold Path
3) And the practice of generosity
Q22: So let’s go into the Eightfold Path. What is it?
It is a suggested way of living your life. It isn’t a commandment. If you follow these directions you will find that it works. In brief it is:
1) Right understanding, which means, a basic understanding that the world is impermanent. That everyone is suffering. There is no real separation, no real separate self.
2) Right thought, which means the notion of having discipline in one’s life to carry out the suggestions and practices
3) Right action means not harming. It is not only not killing, but not harming through sexuality, stealing, physical abuse, abuse of intoxicants.
4) Right speech, which means not harming through the device of speech, not telling lies, dissing people, not using false speech
5) Right livelihood, which means making your living in a way that doesn’t contribute to the suffering of the world
6) Right effort. It is necessary to put some effort into this practice in order realize anything back. You don’t get anything through superficial perusal
7) Right concentration
8) Right mindfulness
Right mindfulness and right concentration are the actual practice of meditation. The two of them combine.
Q23: OK, a person could practice for some number of minutes or hours per day go on retreats. How does one choose what works?
I don’t know if one does select. One gets selected. You begin on a path when you follow your personal interests. If you have a personal interest in self-discovery through observation, meditation will probably appeal to you. If you have an interest in being a good person and living a good life, the precepts will appeal. Different things appeal to different people. Some people find the whole thing intellectually interesting and don’t do anything. That’s probably the least desirable way to look at it.
What I have found is that the more time and effort you spend, the power of the fascination becomes stronger and stronger. At my age, after all these years of being on the path, it is my entire life. It is my highest priority. It is what interests me about being alive.
Q24: How frequently go you meditate?
All day. I don’t any longer divide meditation into periods of time. I spend a lot of time alone, particularly in summers. By meditate I mean I don’t necessarily sit with my eyes closed. I may just be observant and attentive to sensations, emotions, and observations. I listen a lot. It is very interesting to listen deeply. Silence is amazing.
Q25: What happens on a retreat?
We take sanctuary in the three jewels of Buddhism: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. The Buddha signifies the basic intelligence of everyone. The Dharma is the teachings. The Sangha is the community of practitioners. The retreat is mostly in silence with meditation periods.
Q26: What do we know about the Buddha as an actual historical person?
Very little. Only what is written in the Suttas. If you study the Suttas you get a sense of what an extraordinary being he was. Also helpful to me was seeing that he was a man and that he had his foibles, like all men. But he was also a very unusual man because he awakened and recognized that he was awake.
Q27: Would you consider spiritual teachers in other traditions as awakened? Jesus? Mohammed?
Oh, yes. I don’t think it has anything to do with traditions. I think it has to do with the destiny of humankind. I tend to consider evolution to be the evolution of consciousness. I see that spiritual practice as part of that evolution. People who are awakened are very different from those who are not. There is no
question about that.
Q28: Countries that are strongly Buddhist have some of the worst atrocity records. I think of Cambodia under Pol Pot…
Usually those atrocities are not perpetrated by Buddhists. They are perpetrated by people who don’t practice. You don’t find terrible violence among people who really practice Buddhism. It would be very rare. In fact, for the monks in Burma (Myanmar) to take to the streets was an indication that they had been horribly, horribly oppressed by that government.
Q29: As a young boy one of my first introductions to a Buddhist person was a monk who immolated himself on the streets of Saigon during the Viet Nam War…very sad, of course.
But also incredibly impressive. The sadness impressed me, of course, but then I also realized the self-discipline involved had to have come from many years of strict practice.
When you meditate for long periods of time you may go through long periods of difficult physical, mental and emotional pain. You know that this guy who immolated himself has gone through lots of pain and this is just another phase of it.
Q30: Are you of the school that says, “Go into the pain” when you feel it in meditation?
Yes, generally I am. Joseph (Goldstein) is the epitome of that. He’s a fundamentalist. When he first started teaching, he taught not moving. That’s the way he learned. It’s not for sissies. People think: “Oh, meditation. You just sit quietly.” In reality, sometimes it is an ordeal.
Q31: Let’s talk about the mental part of the ordeal: monkey mind, where one’s mind jumps around.
They all do. That’s the natural state, the conditioned state. It is the job of the thinking mind to keep producing continuous thought. Then the ego self identifies with those thoughts. One gets a life full of concepts and appearances, with only rare insights into reality.
Q32: You are not your thoughts…
Exactly. The vast majority of people in this world think that they ARE their thoughts. But to really discover from personal experience that you are not your thoughts is a PROFOUND turning point. You realize that you don’t have to pay attention to them. You don’t have to believe them. When that begins to happen you are really starting to practice. You begin to see that you can live without all of that.
The ego mind is mostly critical, negative, and destructive.
Q33: We’re hard-wired that way, aren’t we?
We are. Why? Who knows? This is not a heaven world.
Q34: Is there anything we haven’t covered that you’d like to mention?
One thing that is important to me is that people who become involved in the practice—not necessarily in the philosophy, but the practice—inevitably become non-violent, gentle, loving people. People who tend to avoid chaos and confusion, and are drawn towards kindness and love.
That’s been my experience for forty-some years now that I’ve been practicing. The major importance for me is that I’m a kinder person I think I have become.
Q35: It seems like such a simple concept: kindness, kindness….
It’s very profound though. When I heard the Dalai Lama say “My religion is kindness” I knew exactly what he was talking about.
ABOUT THE MEDITATION RETREAT:
WHAT: “Meditation and Movement,” a 7 day Vipassana retreat co-led with Richard Strozzi Heckler, co-founder of the Lomi School
WHERE: Serendipity, Todos Santos, Baja California Sur (www.serendipityventures.com)
WHEN: January 16-23, 2011
If Registered by October 31, 2010
All-inclusive 7 nights room and board/meals for residential (out-of-towners): $950 USD (double occupancy) $1350 single occupancy Starting with a dinner on Sunday 16th. Saturday Sunday 22nd and 23rd Breakfast only.
If registered after November 1,2010…. add 10 %
Locals Retreat / meals only $350 USD
Interviewer Mike Brozda has been a practitioner of Vipassana (Insight) Meditation since 1996. Recorded and transcribed August, 2010.