THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH YOU
Integral Yoga Magazine: How did you get into Zen?
Cheri Huber: The Buddha said that there were two ways to be drawn to the path of awakening: through intelligence or having suffered enough. Mine was a kind of hybrid, because when I was very young I was extremely troubled by this world we live in. I looked around and felt, "Wait a minute folks. We are rocking around on this clod of dirt—no idea where we came from, where we are going, or what we are doing. I'm supposed to get an education, find the right partner, have kids, and save for retirement? Come on!" [laughs] But, that didn't stop me from attempting to follow the program! A while later I got to the "suffered enough" part. I did the Peggy Lee thing: "Is that all there is?" If this is all there is, I don't want to play. Nothing about it made sense to me.
I decided to see if anyone had a good answer. After exploring philosophy and most religions, I read the first page of D. T. Suzuki's book on Zen and realized I had no idea what he was talking about. But, I knew that he knew what I wanted to know. He wasn't having my life experience! [laughs] This was the late '60s and there weren't many books I could find on Zen. I did find a Soto Zen roshi at a small monastery in the mountains of California, went there, and essentially never left. I was really listening and this was what I was listening for. For so many people, a practice is an incomprehensible thing. For me, it was a matter of falling in love. Love at first sight. I fell in love and it has only increased. I feel more in love now. It's like a relationship that really works. It's not starry-eyed and I'm totally committed.
IYM: You include Yoga classes at your retreats?
CH: Yes, all our retreats include Yoga. We even offer exotic Zen Yoga retreats in places like Italy, Mexico, and Costa Rica. People come because they want to be in those lovely places, but they also get an introduction to meditation and Yoga practice. In Zen, our understanding is that the body and mind are one. Not that they heavily influence each other—they are one. One is visible, one is not. We know the truth of that from both disciplines. It's seems that often in the Hatha Yoga tradition, meditation is not encouraged. Many don't like to meditate because it's hard. It's hard because we don't understand what it is. You don't sit to have a contest with how you will clear your mind. You get in touch with what's going on right now. One of our books is called, How You Do Anything is How You Do Everything. As you know when you're practicing Yoga, your whole life is right there—emotional, mental, physical, spiritual. It's the same with our Zen awareness practice—what is going on with someone in their sitting practice tells you everything about what their whole world is like.
IYM: Do you see a conflict between spiritual practice and psychotherapy? You've written a lot of books that get people asking if you were trained as psychologist.
CH: My writing sounds that way. But, what I say all comes just from sitting practice. The place where I see a difficulty between these traditions is that we don't want to use psychotherapy to reinforce a false ego structure that spirituality is attempting to dismantle. What's wonderful is that in the U.S. there is so much merging of the traditions. So many are doing psychotherapy that is informed by their own spiritual practice. It's not that they are encouraging people to identify with the false cultural ego or saying, "Well you need to forget you and all that happened—just live chakras four through seven and let's put one through three out of business. We'll just go up in our heads and 'OM' around in life." Neither approach is effective. The bridging is in sitting still and watching what arises in the moment—paying attention to all of it—not believing any of it and not taking any of it personally.
There's one thought nobody is ever going to get past: when will there be no thoughts left, when will I clear my mind? When will we realize that "no thoughts" is not progress? Our practice is acceptance. It's a subtle thing. I include anything as practice that is focused on being present and conscious. In awareness practice—this is heart of what Buddha and every spiritual leader got to and tried to communicate—the little self (who you think you are) is not who you are. You have to recognize and realize who you are in order to bring compassion to the illusion of the separate self/ego you thought you were. It's a case of mistaken identity—no wonder we are struggling!
IYM: Is that how we get to self-love?
CH: As soon as you have an experience of who you are, you can look at yourself, this ordinary human being, and say: "How can I release you from this burden that you have been carrying that is not yours to carry?" In the Yoga tradition you have the small "self" and large "Self" and that's what we are talking about. The Self brings unconditional acceptance but the little self can't do that. I don't ever talk about self-love. I think that is the creepiest term. The ego is going to love the ego? No one needs that. I talk about the world we live in as an egocentric, karmically conditioned world. That is what society is. It's ego. Everything in the outer world—and most of what goes on in the inner, sadly—is in support of egocentric karmic conditioning: "I worry; I'm afraid; I think I need to control everything; I need insurance against everything. I need enough to live forever in a style to which my ego is determined to be accustomed." It's a fear-based, fear-driven world. Buddha said that greed, hate and delusion are fueling the world of samsara [illusion]. That is what we are up against.
IYM: You have said that "spiritual practice doesn't begin until the beatings stop." What do you mean?
CH: When I was a little kid, I was trying to do what my parents wanted and get my needs met, while still being good. I went to school and dealt with peers, teachers, and tried to be good. As a teen, I tried to get my needs met and didn't care about being good. As an adult, I needed to get my needs met but I had to be more functional. Every moment, every breath—if we are not careful—will just turn into self-hatred. "There's something wrong with me that needs to be fixed in order for me to be all right." Then, I get on a spiritual path and I bring all that same process to my spiritual path. Now God is the parent. My spiritual teacher is enforcing the rules and I'm still trying to be good. Nothing has changed from preschool. Nothing has changed from my same self-hating model. I'm still dealing with my parents. I have just made God or the teacher the dominant parent and now will project my childhood conditioning onto those authorities and believe they think about me what I have been conditioned to think about me.
Imagine that the spiritual teacher is saying, "This is the way to be," and if a student is listening from the little self, it turns into "There really is something wrong with me." There is your teacher, this unconditionally compassionate and accepting being who is saying: "This is what spiritual realization looks like," and you are running it through your childhood conditioning, concluding, "I have to become more rigid, more controlled and beat myself up until I get there." Failing to notice that creates a whole journey into unconsciousness. The secret of it is as simple as conscious, compassionate awareness. The only way you can be kind to that little self is if you are at center.
IYM: How do we get beyond beating ourselves up?
CH: Paying attention is all we need. The first time I heard a Zen teacher say, "When someone gets to the hard places, we send them to therapy," I could not believe it. The Buddha was the first therapist. Awareness practice is the therapy. The same is true in the Yoga tradition. This is very difficult to get because we are so deeply conditioned to put self-hatred in charge of shaping us up when we need to look to compassion to guide us. The first giant step is realizing the difference. There are actually two distinct realities that people are going back and forth between and they can’t recognize the difference. The two realities of the little self and the big Self are like two rooms—one with the lights on and one with the lights off. When we are in the room with the lights on, everything is fine. When we are in the room with the lights off, everything in life is the same and nothing is fine.
What it means is this: "I need to be a good person but I'm not a good person. I need to fix or improve myself to make me the good person I should be." That whole system is flawed and false. Because the difficulty is not that you are a bad person, but that you think you are a little ego. The practice is to move into that centered place, the big Self. Of course, this can be a difference between Buddhism and Hinduism, as there is no deity or nothing separate in Buddhism, but it's the same place inside. Whatever your tradition is, that place inside—whether you call it God, or center—is the same. Being with that is the practice.
IYM: You have another great book titled, There Is Nothing Wrong With You: Going Beyond Self Hate.
CH: That book is about all this. We have an eight-day retreat which takes people through this process of what happened through socialization and how to make that switch from the little "self" to the big "Self." The little self is egocentric karmic conditioning and wants to be in control of your life and that's the spiritual struggle. Anything we approach that takes power and control away from the ego is like running into a buzz saw. When we are sick to death with what egocentric karmic conditioning is doing, we will do anything to get out of it. We'll meditate, we'll go to Yoga class and, as we do our practice, suffering begins to diminish. Then we think we can drop our practice and go back to doing things our ego wants to do and we head right back down the path of suffering.
The secret is this: pay attention enough to get that you are dealing with a process that is not random and is as old as the world. These thoughts in our heads are self-hating. Hating and blaming others is the same as self-hatred. Judging me and judging you are two sides of the same duality and most of us go back and forth between these in our lives. This is all ego-maintenance. But, we can step outside to view it rather than be it. We don't need to change anything—we just need the lights on. The easiest way is to step into a room where the lights are always on—coming back to present, coming to center—this is an actual movement. We know that movement. Until people get it that it's a practice and process, they call it "grace." It seems accidental. "I was just going along and suddenly I was in well-being—I didn't do anything. Then, I was walking along and suddenly I felt terrible. I didn't do anything." When you do an awareness practice it takes out the mystery and confusion—but not the good mystery!
IYM: Many on the Yoga path think that a practice is taking a Yoga class once a week.
CH: That's not just in Yoga—it's alive, well and rampant in the Buddhist world as well. I no longer encourage long, silent retreats because so many people say things like, "I'm doing four ten-day sitting retreats a year and my life's not changing." Sitting for an extended period of time will not necessarily change your life. It may teach you about pain. But if there is no realization that the body and mind are one, there is a gap. We have to be integrated—we have to bring our whole life into our practice. There is not a single moment in a single day that we can go unconscious without consequences.
IYM: You founded some wonderful social service projects. Please tell us about the Africa Vulnerable Children Project.
CH: Our desire to assist in Africa springs directly from Zen awareness practice. It is our experience that learning to turn compassion and unconditional acceptance towards oneself creates a deep sense of joy and peace. It is from this place of profound well-being that one is called into the world to assist where assistance is needed—not because there is something wrong or something to fix, but rather because we are moved to participate in life with our fellow human beings. We are passionate about this work. We have a whole community in Zambia, Africa working with us to assist people there in dealing with some of the devastating problems that Africa is facing. We feed people and more important, help them to come up with ways to feed themselves. We have adopted a school and so we do fund raising for them so they can make needed improvements. This year we are starting a sewing cooperative and a health clinic for those who otherwise would never be able to see a medical person in their short lives. I am trying to take more and more Americans with me there on retreat. The main reason I do this is because then they get to connect with the people and then they can say, "I know these children. I don't want them to starve!"
IYM: You also have an interfaith project in Assisi? Why Assisi?
CH: I feel that Assisi is such an international symbol of peace. People come from all over the world to visit Assisi. So, I felt it was a natural place. During a retreat in Italy in 2003, I had the vision for an International Peace Center and the current vision is to purchase a building in Assisi. The center would offer a deep experience of peace and displays on peace efforts all over the world, present and past, from all faiths and traditions and from no particular faith tradition as well. Visitors could browse through the peace resources and participate in a variety of peace practices. They would leave knowing that place of peace within, carrying with them information that might help them take their next step toward peace.