Rick: Welcome to Buddha at the Gas Pump. My name is Rick Archer. I’m out at the Science and Non-Duality Conference in San Jose, California, where I’m conducting a series of interviews with conference presenters. And my guest now is Dr. Gail Brenner. And I will read the whole little bio here that she sent me, because for those who listen to this on the audio podcast, they might not know anything about her, they might just start listening, and this is a nice summation. Gail is a clinical psychologist and author in Santa Barbara, California, who joyfully speaks from her own experience about the possibility of moving from common everyday problems to living in the deepest acceptance and peace. Problems are seen as opportunities, the illusion of the separate self as a doorway to enduring happiness. Stories are honored, while fierce and loving investigation invites their dissolution. She has special expertise working with older adults and their families, bringing clear seeing and compassion to the transitions of aging, death, and dying. She meets with people both individually and in groups, and blogs at gailbrenner.com, where she invites readers to see through the confusion of separation and discover reality, which is true, alive, and undeniable. Her core offering is to bring non-dual understanding to the moments of suffering in everyday life. She is the author of “The End of Self-Help: Discovering Peace and Happiness Right at the Heart of Your Messy, Scary, Brilliant Life.” So was your life messy, scary, and brilliant? And that’s what inspired you to write this?
Gail: Absolutely. Isn’t everyone’s?
Rick: Well, some men live lives of quiet desperation. So they’re bored out of their skulls. And others, there’s a lot of drama going on.
Gail: That’s true.
Rick: So give us kind of an overview of, you know– It’s always nice to have kind of the biographical sketch, and people complain when I don’t ask for it. They want to know, who is this person, and how did they get to where they are now? So let’s kind of do a little bit of a chronological thing for a few minutes.
Gail: Okay, sure. Well, I think like everyone, I ended up coming out of my childhood with some garden variety suffering. I didn’t have a terrible childhood by any means, but I was always on a search for happiness as long as I can remember. And I had this quality that was–for some reason I was born with– which is being very curious and not taking anything for granted. It made me a really difficult child to raise because I was constantly asking questions and rebelling and wanting to know things in my own experience. And I was brought up in the Jewish religion and saw a lot of hypocrisy there, which sent me away from it and still searching for happiness. I am a therapist. I was in therapy for 15 years. And as I look back now, that did very little. I call myself a refugee from therapy. It did very little to actually help me. And things started changing when I discovered Buddhism and meditation, which was about 20 years ago. And what changed for me was that with meditation you develop a new relationship to your experience. So rather than being completely caught up in stories and feelings and the narrative that you live your life by, I started observing that. And that was–I don’t define myself as Buddhist at this point, and I’m not in that community– but that shift was totally transformative to me, to be able to look at your experience. So I saw that all that therapy from the past of trying to look at my past relationships and move the pieces around so that things would feel better really wasn’t the way to go for me, and I find for a lot of people. So I kept searching and looking for really understanding the truth of who I was when I realized I wasn’t all that–the thoughts and feelings and conditioned patterns that were– I could finally see–were causing suffering. And I kept looking and searching and going to teachers and finally really exploring deeply in my own experience to see what’s true.
Rick: When I hear the phrase “problems or opportunities” I immediately zoom out to the notion that it’s all the divine play, and I mean that this is not a dumb universe on any dimension. Everything is intelligence interacting with itself, consciousness interacting with itself. So the world is my guru and anything that happens is happening ultimately, if we can kind of see it in the proper perspective, as an aid to growth and evolution. There’s sort of an evolutionary trajectory that we’re following, even though it may seem to meander a lot, but, you know, everything is ultimately for the best. Everything God does is for the best.
Gail: It’s absolutely the truth, and, you know, at a conference like this we all kind of have this common understanding around that, but, you know, when you’re 15 and–
Rick: You don’t see that.
Gail: You don’t know that, yeah, and you’re just confused and trying to find your way.
Rick: So you seem like a pretty happy person now. Did you go through hell and high water to get here? I mean, you know, all this self-discovery and exploration and so on that you just referred to, was there a lot of, you know, faults, tangents, and, you know, wasted time? Or in retrospect, does it all seem like it was well and wisely put, and whatever you needed you got, even though at the time it may not have seemed that useful?
Gail: Yeah, I would say things happen exactly when they needed to, and, you know, so when I– I was around 40 when I–that shift happened when I started meditating, and I probably wasn’t ready for it before then, so there is a great acceptance about how the path unfolded, yeah.
Rick: And so how long have you been meditating now?
Gail: Well, I don’t actually–I don’t have a specific meditation practice anymore.
Rick: You just did it for a while?
Gail: And retreats and meditation retreats.
Rick: And why did you stop doing it if you don’t–
Gail: I didn’t stop meditating per se. I stopped–there was a time when it was very important to me to have a formal practice and to sit down for an hour every day and have that be a part of my regular routine. I eventually got away from that. I felt like–a couple things. Sometimes I meditate when I feel like it, and it’s fun, and it became something that I–I got to the point where it didn’t– I didn’t want it to be something that I felt like I had to do. I wanted it to be–I wanted to do everything because I got some kind of joy out of it. So I didn’t want to have that, like, hard-driving push within myself, and so it fell away. I didn’t stop meditating, but it started falling away on its own.
Rick: Yeah. I have a friend who watches all the BatGap interviews and critiques them, and, you know, she’s always saying, “Well, you know, you’re going to reach a point where you really don’t need to meditate anymore because you have derived everything you could possibly derive out of meditation. You’ll be in a completely–the mind will dissolve. You’ll be in a completely settled state of pure awareness, and the meditation or non-meditation will be the same thing. You–it won’t be able to be enhanced.” So, in other words, she’s referring to a state of enlightenment or realization, and she feels that she has reached that, and like you, she says, “Well, once in a while, spontaneously, it’s kind of nice to sit down and do it, but it doesn’t matter whether I do or not.”
Gail: Formally speaking, but meditation is about awareness. It’s about being aware of your experience in the moment, not only the objects that are arising, but also the consciousness that they arise in, and, you know, experiencing that and being that, and that’s happening very frequently. So people have talked about that being the abiding meditation and not a formal practice per se. So, I think what happened, now that you’re asking these questions, is the formal practice started falling away when it started getting more integrated in my everyday life.
Rick: Yeah, and I kind of want to–I was sort of asking Stan Grof this kind of question towards the end of his interview, because in my way of seeing things, any sort of practice should have kind of lasting influences. Like, if we eat food, for instance, it goes and takes a process of days, weeks, probably, before all the food is fully assimilated and turned into whatever it needs to be turned into. And, you know, there’s a kind of a permanent benefit from having eaten food. And so with meditation or other types of spiritual practice, I would expect, if they’re effective, that each practice, each sitting or whatever, is adding one more kind of layer to the cumulative influence that is building over time. And that, well, it even says in the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna asked Lord Krishna, “What if somebody falls away from the practice? Does he not perish like a broken cloud?” And Krishna basically says, “No,” whatever–no effort is lost and no obstacle exists, and whatever benefit you gain is–you’ve got that under your belt. And even if it’s a matter of picking it up again in the next lifetime, there is a sort of a–you’ve moved along on the course of spiritual evolution. So for some reason I’m asking you these questions. So how does that resonate with you? Why am I asking you these questions?
Gail: Well, it makes me think about practices that–I’ve gotten great value out of the regularity of certain practices in my life, meditation and other things, where you just do it. No matter what, even if you don’t feel like it, you just do it. But I think that has its pros and cons.
Rick: You become habitual and rote.
Gail: Yeah, exactly, and you’re not alive in it. So although that can–it can be useful, too. So there’s no one answer, you know, do practices or don’t do practices. I think what’s most important is that we’re conscious about how we’re doing that and what that’s bringing to us and if we want to continue or not.
Rick: I may have taken you off on a tangent with all that. For some reason it came to mind. But primarily, I mean, you’re a therapist and you’ve written this book, and you want people to learn how to see problems–see opportunity in problems and see– and so as a therapist, if someone comes to you and they have this, that, and the other problem, how do you help them use those problems as catalysts for growth?
Gail: Well, if they’re coming to me, that means they’re interested in being at least happier, if not knowing abiding happiness. So that’s a wonderful starting point. And what I help people understand is what is the nature of the problem. So if someone comes to me and says, “I’m depressed,” I want to know what is that experience of depression for them. Because depression is a label, and it can mean all kinds of things, and it can represent an array of experiences. So I want to get down to it, like what is the thing in the moment that’s giving that rise to that label of depression. And I find that the more I help people really hone in on their direct experience, the feelings, the bodily sensations, what story is running in the mind that’s causing the problem, then we have something to work with to be able to find freedom from all of that.
Rick: So let’s get even more specific. Let’s say I’m depressed.
Rick: And I come to you, and life is a drag, and I don’t see any–I’m maybe even feeling suicidal, and I can’t get out of bed in the morning, and whatever. How do you help me work through that? And I presume you’re not the type that’s just going to prescribe drugs, which of course billions of dollars worth are sold in this country every year. How do you help?
Gail: Well, the beginning part is asking a lot of questions, like, “Are you always depressed?” “What is that experience of depression like for you? How does it feel in your body?” which is really important. And it’s also very essential to know what’s the story running, what thoughts are going through this person’s mind, and not just the thoughts but the stories that they’re living their lives by. And it might be an identity of feeling inadequate, or it might be that they’re stuck on some conclusions that they’ve drawn about themselves from things that have happened in their past. So I really want to identify all of that so that we’re very clear about what the problem is.
Rick: Okay. And do people usually have answers to those questions?
Gail: Yeah, they know. When you start asking–like, most people are not very attuned to their bodies, but when I ask, “How does that feel in your body?”, there’s almost always an answer. Sometimes the answer is, “I’m blocked from my body,” but that’s a valuable answer, too.
Rick: Do you think that every–well, I think it’s kind of a scientific fact that every psychological state has a physiological correlate, and that would include every emotion, every–whatever, every perception. So would you say that, as a general rule, attunement to those physiological correlates, if we can become aware of them, is a means whereby we can heal the physiology in order to heal the psychology?
Gail: Absolutely. Yeah. And I think it’s a key turning point to realize that any emotion is really about the physical sensations. So in our culture, we make a lot of emotions–I feel sad, I’m embarrassed, I feel afraid, panicked. But to go right to the physical sensations, it’s actually a shortcut to really getting to the core of the feeling and not only getting to the experience of it, but that offers the opportunity of being free of it. Because it’s not just the sensations arising, it’s the being aware of them, and it’s the space of awareness that welcomes these sensations. And knowing that space of awareness and having that experience of– your mind might say, “This is going to be so painful,” but you do it anyway, and you allow yourself to just feel whatever is there. There’s a great relief that people experience when they start welcoming those sensations.
Rick: A lot of times I feel that if there’s something going on, that I don’t necessarily have the ability to plumb the full depth of the physical sensation. Let’s say as a case in point, let’s say you feel sad, and you feel like, “Wow, it would actually feel good to cry.” Some grief of some sort, but you can’t get it out. It’s like when you’re sick and you can’t quite vomit or something. There’s a blockage, and you feel like the physiology is agitated, and how can I actually get down to the root of this thing? I seem to be blocked by some tumult in the physiology.
Gail: Well, I would advise in that case to not try to be different than you are, not try to make yourself cry or try to get to the bottom of it. Just welcome what is as it is. There’s a great–with a friendliness, I like to say, just as it is. So if there’s a thought, “Well, I want to be crying now. I don’t want to be just feeling this blockage,” that’s a thought, and that’s resistance to what’s actually happening. So the medicine for that is to let that thought go, to not give that content of that thought a lot of attention, and to just allow whatever physical sensation is there, it’s not wrong. It’s impossible to do it wrong if you welcome what is as it is.
Rick: Can you end up–I mean, is there any end of physical sensation? You could spend your whole life probing physical sensations. Do you distinguish between kind of little subtle things here and there that you might resolve if you put your attention on them long enough, but there’d be no end of those, but between those and the stronger things that really should be attended to?
Gail: It’s all–I don’t discriminate that because I never know. Like maybe this subtle little thing holds some treasure. Maybe there’s something underneath that when you give your attention to that. So I wouldn’t discriminate between one kind of physical sensation or another. It’s really just what’s here right now in this moment and welcoming that.
Rick: Okay, so people come to you maybe once a week or something as a therapist. Do you send them home with the instruction to sit for half an hour every day or something and tune in to physical sensations?
Gail: I don’t give them instructions like that. We practice it in the session, and they get the idea of what to do. But I don’t like to give certain prescriptions so that people feel like they have to do that.
Rick: But would you encourage them to sort of spend time with it?
Gail: I encourage them to do that.
Rick: Yeah, if they feel inclined.
Gail: And I definitely tell them the more they do that outside of that hour a week, the more benefit they’re going to get. So I put the ball in their court, and I try to inspire them and light the fire because what I know in my own experience is that the more that fire is lit in you, the more results you’re going to get in terms of your own healing and your own freedom. And you can’t give that to somebody, but you can take them to the edge. You can invite them and inspire them.
Rick: Do people ever inadvertently open up a Pandora’s box?
Gail: I don’t think there is a Pandora’s box. They might think that they’re doing that, but I don’t think there is such a thing as a Pandora’s box.
Rick: That’s probably the wrong metaphor because in her case it was like all the evils of the world came out of the box and the lid couldn’t be put on again, and it was a never-ending sort of gusher. But I’m thinking in terms of like, there’s some kind of upset or something, and you’re sort of finding the physical sensation that correlates with that, and you begin doing that, and the next thing you know you’re rolling on the floor sobbing or something. There was some big thing hidden there that you didn’t even realize.
Gail: That can happen. What happens more commonly with me, though, is that people are afraid to go. They’re afraid there might be a Pandora’s box. So that makes them fear allowing that emotion or bringing their attention to it or moving toward it, leaning into it, as opposed to avoiding it. So there’s way more avoidance of it out of fear, which means they don’t actually know if there’s a Pandora’s box or not. It’s just a fear of that. But what you describe can happen, and it actually happened to me once when I was working with someone, I was the client, and something got triggered, and then it got bigger and bigger, and I was–it actually wasn’t too long ago, and I was very, not phased by it in a certain way and actually glad that what’s there got uncovered.
Rick: Yeah. Is there any end to it?
Gail: Again, that doesn’t matter to me. Like, what is the end?
Rick: Well, I mean, can we ever have a nice, totally clean house, or is there always going to be piles of dust here and there that we’re going to keep discovering?
Gail: Conditioning runs deep in people, but that doesn’t mean that you need to keep going to therapy for your whole lifetime or always bringing your attention to these objects of suffering. For me, it’s about knowing your true nature, living as that, enjoying yourself, and then seeing when these patterns arise, if they do, and seeing that as that’s happening and saying, “No, thank you,” to that, and then there you are again living in the unfolding.
Rick: Well, it’s interesting you should mention true nature, because so far this conversation has been kind of about–it’s kind of psychologically, sort of about dealing with emotions and roughnesses and issues and stuff like that. And the thing I asked a minute ago is that it seems like there could be no end of that, but true nature is a different matter, and that would ultimately be the goal of Buddhist practice or other types of spiritual practice. Is that kind of your orientation as a therapist? You know, maybe that’s not how people are initially motivated when they come in, but would you eventually like to bring them to that horizon?
Gail: I hold the space for that. Absolutely, because that’s the ultimate healing, to know that you’re not the separate limited self, and to really not know that with your head, although that’s part of it, but to know it palpably in your own experience and directly. And so I hold the space for that for people and am continually inviting them there.
Rick: So hold the space means you kind of make that a–
Gail: It’s there. It’s possible.
Rick: It’s a priority. It’s part of the–
Gail: And I’m also like thinking, I’m looking for my openings when I’m working with somebody, like where can I invite them into that directly?
Rick: How many people have you worked with since you’ve been doing this? Hundreds?
Gail: Hundreds, yeah.
Rick: And of those hundreds, do you feel like a certain percentage or something, a fair number, have settled into what we would call true nature?
Gail: It’s a process.
Rick: It’s more of a rare kind of–
Gail: From my experience, it’s more rare.
Gail: Especially for people coming for therapy. You know, if people are coming for guidance and they’re already interested in that, that’s a different story.
Rick: Do you kind of see true nature–and I think we all know what we mean by that term– as the ultimate solvent? In other words, if one can land there, then things can get dissolved much more efficiently than if we’re kind of not there.
Gail: You know, I like these devotional terms like “liberation,” and I love that, and “surrender.” I love that because it’s true, and it’s the ultimate medicine. And when you say solvent, it dissolves these troubled, congealed thoughts and feelings in the moment. It’s not like they never come again, because they might, but then awareness, which is really love, because it’s everything, it’s the medicine. It’s the true medicine, and there are no expectations around it and no ideas about what it’s supposed to look like. And, “I shouldn’t feel this way because I’ve already had that experience,” and it’s not my view of it and it’s not my experience. It’s really a dynamic, unfolding, alive experience of now with whatever arises, with no expectation.
Rick: Now, I had like six interviews and three panel discussions and my own talk to prepare for when I came to SAND, and I confess that I didn’t have a chance to read your whole book. So with that in mind, help me out here so that I don’t miss some important things. I mean, kind of think of your book and the points you bring out in it, and let’s be sure to discuss anything you consider important.
Gail: Yeah. Well, I’ll start with the title, which is called “The End of Self-Help.” And then the subtitle is, “Discovering Peace and Happiness Right at the Heart of Your Messy, Scary, Brilliant Life.” So “The End of Self-Help” means the discovery that there is no self that needs help. You know, when we come to self-help, we think we don’t have something we need, or we need to read the next book, or there’s something missing here that if I find it in that next workshop or from that next teacher, I’ll finally be happy. And it’s “the end of self-help” because you know that you’re not that broken, damaged self who needs to be helped. And what you do know is you know you’re not limited and separate. You know yourself as the fundamental ground of being and the source of everything. So “the end of self-help” means you don’t have to engage in self-help activities and you know who you really are.
Rick: Yeah. Well, that’s well put and very important, I think worth reiterating and dwelling on for a bit more because, I mean, think of the so-called self-help industry. And it’s this vast thing.
Gail: It’s $10 billion a year.
Rick: $10 billion a year.
Rick: And it’s been going on for decades.
Gail: Yes, it has.
Rick: Ever since, I don’t know, I remember some stuff back in the ’70s. And I wonder if, well, it seems like there’s no end to it and that ultimately it’s not going to be satisfying because it doesn’t get you to the point where you actually know who you really are.
Gail: That’s right.
Rick: Or what you really are.
Gail: That’s exactly right.
Rick: So you’re kind of polishing up a false sense of self for–
Gail: And moving the puzzle pieces around and, yeah, you come up with a better life story.
Gail: But you’re still living by the story and you’re still not completely free.
Rick: Right. Kind of like a better dream.
Rick: But you’re not waking up.
Gail: Exactly. Exactly.
Rick: So, okay, so keep in mind now the book, the way you’ve structured all your thinking in laying out this information. So take us on to the next point.
Gail: About the book.
Gail: Yeah. So in the book I talk about very specifically how we suffer because my view is that in order to know who we really are, we need to really understand how we suffer and become experts in that. So it’s about taking the microscope–
Rick: You’re Jewish, right?
Gail: By birth, yeah.
Gail: What makes you say that?
Rick: Well, because Woody Allen would have a thing or two to say about suffering and really coming to understand– there’s this sort of stereotype that he’s turned into humor.
Gail: Yes, right. And not that you wallow in it, but to really know it, to understand it, meaning, where does your attention go that makes you suffer? So in any moment, if you’re suffering, meaning if you’re not happy or if you feel like something’s missing, you can stop and look, where’s my attention going right now? And you’ll find it’s going into some unsatisfying thought pattern or it’s going into some realm of feeling that you have some uncomfortable story about. And so beginning to understand where your attention goes is essential to finding an end to suffering because, when you– like going back to depression, if I say, “Well, what do you think about when you’re depressed?” And then I’ll hear a long story about, you know, what happened in childhood or what’s not going well. No wonder the person feels depressed. It’s not surprising at all why we suffer when we know where our attention is going. But when we–and that provides the opportunity of finding the end to suffering because if we focus our attention on those thoughts and feelings that create that feeling of suffering, we can also focus our attention somewhere else, which is in the being aware, the awareness.
Rick: Yeah. You’re probably familiar with the work of Byron Katie.
Rick: Yeah. Does that resonate with you in terms of a nice way of not arguing with what is and not sort of creating suffering out of that which we have? Go ahead.
Gail: I really like her work and I love that she’s helped so many people. It’s become so widespread. I’m going to say I differ with her, maybe add a little twist to what she does because she counters ideas. So if you have the thought, “I’m inadequate,” she’ll say, “Is that true?”
Gail: And I have a different perspective on thought, which is to look at the nature of thought, of what it actually is. So that thought, “I feel inadequate,” it’s really a string of words and those words are actually sounds. And if you take away language, which is actually conditioned, very conditioned, but it’s conditioned, and you take that away from those sounds, you just have sound. You don’t have a meaningful phrase that actually defines who you are. So I think that that understanding of thought in that way can be really beneficial for people to bust those identities that are so limiting and bring suffering to our lives.
Rick: But can we really take away the meaning of sounds? I mean, if I say, “I am inadequate,” or “I am the egg man,” or something, I mean, it means something and you’re not just hearing sounds. You’re hearing meaning. If I say this in Japanese, then you’re hearing sounds and not meaning. But if we understand the language, we’re always going to get some meaning.
Gail: Hearing the meaning is one thing. Taking that meaning to be true and using that as an identity for who you are is another. So, you’re right, the meaning itself isn’t a problem. But taking that meaning and taking the fullness of who you actually are and putting that label on it and thinking that you’re small and limited and shrunken, that’s problematic. Because that’s where suffering is.
Rick: Yeah, no, I get that. It also is–you were talking about true nature a little while ago– if anyone’s defining themselves as inadequate or any other labels we could apply, it’s certainly a very inappropriate or inaccurate thing in terms of what we actually are.
Gail: That’s right.
Rick: We’re much more vast.
Gail: Yes. And that’s what I want to offer out and invite people, because especially people in a place like this are very interested in that and want to know that. So I think that understanding of thought can be helpful.
Rick: Okay. So I think we’ve covered that point. Take us to the next point. I’m cheating because I didn’t do my homework. So in the book, think about what you’d like to lay out.
Gail: Yeah. And so I also talk a lot about feelings. And we’ve done that to some extent here, that there’s this story of a feeling. And this is in the spirit of becoming experts in how we suffer, that when we put our attention into the story around that feeling, there’s a lot of suffering in that. And then seeing the label of the feeling, which is also language, which can give it meaning and identity, like I’m a person who feels anxiety or I feel panicky a lot of the time. You know, there’s a truth to that, but the deeper truth is the physical sensations around that. So there’s a lot, again, a lot of work in bringing attention into the body.
Gail: So it’s really what I write about in the book, it’s unwinding all of this. And very specifically, I talk about different practices and there are guided meditations people can find on my website to support them to be able to subtract. I think of it as a sacred subtraction where we take these identities that we hold about ourselves and we subtract, we look at, okay, these thoughts, these feelings, these bodily sensations, and we understand eventually that this occurs, they arise in this field of spacious awareness. And then there’s a peace that comes with that.
Rick: Yeah. Incidentally, at some point, I’ll invite audience questions. So if you have any questions, keep them in mind and we can do that. Okay. So, yes, please.
Gail: I can also apply this to relationship because that’s a topic that a lot of people are concerned about. And that gets to the living of this. So we realize our true nature, which we hear about a lot today. And then the question always comes up, how do I live this? And relationship is one place where people often have questions about that.
Rick: The biggest button pusher there is, really.
Gail: Isn’t it really? Yeah. And it allows–it’s also an opportunity. As you said, problems are opportunities. It’s a beautiful mirror to show us where we are stuck. And it’s also a beautiful way to celebrate when we can just be joyful in relationship. But from the non-dual perspective, relationship is no different than yourself. By realizing your true nature, you know that everything is you. And not you like you, Rick, me, Gail. It’s not at that level. But at the pure essence of being, it’s the same. And there’s no division and no separation. So in that understanding–not that you live knowing that in every second of life and, thinking about it all the time– but it informs relationship tremendously because there’s a resonance then and an empathy and a curiosity, and a moving forward, which I feel like I want to do that now, rather than separation. And when the separation comes, which it does, it can be seen and investigated and moved through. And then the relationship can flourish.
Rick: That’s nice. I mean, it’s funny because we’re having this whole conversation as all of us have all conversations from an individual perspective. You know, I do this, and I feel that, and I want this, and yada yada, but if we actually zoom out and think about it, it’s all consciousness and it’s all the divine interacting with itself.
Gail: That’s right. And when there’s that heart resonance, you know, the words don’t matter.
Rick: Yeah. And so if we actually do become grounded in our true nature, what that really means is not that there’s a Rick true nature and a Gail true nature and so on, but there’s–true nature is universal. You and I are actually fundamentally the same thing, same person. You know, although person has an individual connotation, but it’s really just one thing interacting with itself, showing up as Rick, showing up as Gail, and so that whole thing about loving your neighbor as yourself, as yourself really means being able to know that your neighbor is yourself.
Gail: That’s exactly right. Yeah. The metaphor, which I’m sure you’ve heard a million times, the wave in the ocean can be really useful here, that it’s all ocean and then each individual wave forms for a temporary amount of time.
Rick: Yeah. Do you have anything besides just, not that that isn’t powerful, but besides just sort of feeling physical sensations in your toolkit to help people come to true nature and resolve– I mean, do you use other modalities as well, or is it just basically that’s the key, that’s the core is feeling?
Gail: It’s understanding the nature of thought because thoughts are very powerful. And so when we understand, when we really understand the nature of thought, we can see that most thoughts are not helpful, they’re not true, they’re not truly representative of what they seem to say they’re representative of. Also, understanding feelings. But more than all of that, it’s the exploration of who we really are, the knowing of our, of that awareness, that consciousness, recognizing the moments of joy that just pop out out of nowhere, or beauty, or just pure being and aliveness, just allowing that to be, for your attention to go there often and experience that.
Rick: Yeah. There’s a lecture I once heard in which the theme was that, it was sort of written for business and it was that routine work kills the genius in man. The sort of, the humdrum routine, you know, 9 to 5 thing we have to do, it sort of builds up layers of conditioning that squelches our true nature, that squelches our innate creativity and all that good stuff.
Gail: Creativity is not about conditioned thinking.
Rick: Right. It’s quite the opposite.
Gail: So there has to be some crack in that thinking for that beautiful, creative opening to come through.
Rick: Yeah. And yet we constantly live life through routines of various kinds, the same spouse, the same kids, the same job, the same everything. And in a way, routines are nice because they increase efficiency. I mean, if you had to sort of learn how to brush your teeth every day, or how to cook breakfast, it would be very time wasting. But on the other hand, there is this sort of repetitiveness of many, many things we have to do that creates grooves, deep grooves in our nervous systems, in our psyches. And so I’m kind of thinking that maybe this–part of the trick is to do something so as to dissolve those grooves a bit and to incorporate true nature into life in such–so profoundly, so stably that grooves are never formed anymore, even though we may be doing routine, repetitive things. It’s kind of a long-winded question, but there you go.
Gail: They form because they’re useful. The ones you’re talking about, it sounds like the useful ones, like brushing your teeth.
Rick: Well, even the un-useful ones. You know, you go to a job you don’t like or you’re in a relationship and there are certain trigger points or certain annoying habits that you and your partner are getting more and more annoyed with as time goes on, there’s greater and greater resentment built up over certain behavior traits and stuff.
Gail: This is where the living of our true nature, the living of the truth is so, I want to say, useful. I mean, it is the truth. It’s fresh. You know, the reason these things feel routine is because our minds are convinced– we keep doing them and then we go, “Oh, I’ve been doing the same thing over and over.” Every moment is completely fresh. If you take the mind out of it, then there’s nothing there that says that this has happened before. The only reason something feels routine is because there’s a memory around it, and that’s mental or it could be conditioned in the body, but it’s of conditioning. It’s not of the unconditioned. So, what’s unconditioned is that every moment is fresh. A same moment cannot occur twice. It’s impossible because reality is timeless. So, in that relationship groove, and I think that’s a good example, you have the same fight, you know what your partner is going to say before you even start the fight. You have your scripts. Every moment offers an opportunity to go, “Wait a minute. This is condition. This is same old, same old, and how can I bring the freshness to this moment?” And it can open all kinds of possibilities because every moment is filled with potential. We just think that it’s not because our minds have told us that it’s the same old groove. But when we realize the potential for anything to happen in this timeless reality, you face your partner with fresh eyes, and who knows what’s going to happen.
Rick: That’s really such an important thing. There’s a kind of a Vedic metaphor or analogy where, you know, you could take a stick or some kind of tool and make a line in stone. It’s hard to make the line. You can’t even make a very deep line, but it’s etched in there and it could last for thousands of years. Or you could make a line in sand. It’s easier to make a deeper line, and it’s not going to last very long. Or you can make a line in water. You can make an even deeper line, and that’s not going to last very long at all. Or you can make a line in air. You can make a line of any depth and it immediately is gone the minute you make it.
Gail: It’s gone. No residue.
Gail: No residue.
Rick: So it’s meant to sort of relate to the conditioning thing, and very much related to the nervous system and everything where the significance of the greater depth of the line as we go along is that you can actually experience things much more fully and completely when you’re free of the clutter that you seem to be attempting to clear up and the senses are more open and the heart is more open, and so experience actually becomes richer. And one might think that that would be more overshadowing, but it’s not because we have that vastness of awareness of true nature, which enables experience both on the one hand to be much more profound and deep and on the other hand not to condition us, not to create habitual patterns as we go along.
Gail: Right. And the seeing of that is so beautiful, because you’re no longer stuck. If you feel stuck, there’s always the opportunity. This is the thing about reality. It is. It is the fundamental nature of everything right now and always. So there’s always that potential to return there.
Rick: The word forgiveness comes to mind too, like with regard to relationships where, you know, something happens, and, if you hang on to it, then it becomes like permanent.
Gail: You’re creating a history.
Rick: Yeah, a history.
Gail: That you’re repeating in your mind.
Rick: Yeah. You know that Zen story about the two monks who come to a river and there’s a pretty lady waiting to cross and the older monk picks up the lady and carries her across and then they keep on walking. And after an hour or so the younger monks can’t contain himself anymore and he said, “We’re monks. We’re not supposed to touch women. You picked her up and carried her across the river.” And the older monk said, “Oh, I put her down on the other side of the river. Are you still carrying her?”
Gail: Yeah, exactly. That’s a great teaching story because it shows how we hang on to troubles and they eat at us and become these well-worn grooves in our bodies and our minds. And then it also shows the possibility of just the done, letting go, finished, no residue.
Rick: Jesus said, “Except ye be as little children, ye shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.” And so, what are little children like? They’re like clouds passing through the sky. One moment it’s stormy, the next moment it’s clear. The child doesn’t sort of, “Give me my toy.” And then, “Okay, here’s, I’m onto this.” So, there’s this sort of innocence and freshness, just what you were saying, that freshness of just living in each moment fully and not sort of clinging, hanging on to the moment that happened a little while ago.
Gail: And what happens is you get out of this tunnel vision because these conditioned habits are, they create a sense of tunnel vision. And we don’t have access to space and we only think about things in one way. And it’s extremely limiting. I’m sure we all know that in our lives. That’s what we do as humans when we don’t explore the mind and the feelings.
Rick: So the theme that we keep coming around to here over and over, and it’s good to maybe just point it out, is deconditioning and also developing a style of functioning in which new conditioning doesn’t get etched into us. Kind of a, gaining the capability to maintain freshness each moment and not carry any excess baggage with us into the next moment.
Gail: Absolutely. And it takes awareness. Yhat’s the key, just being aware of what comes up in any moment and seeing when something starts to grip or take hold. And we know it. Once your awareness gets very precise, you can see it and feel it. You feel it. I just feel it in my body, first. Like if I’m working with a client and I notice I’m clenching my fist or there’s some kind of tension, I’ll recognize that, and just kind of check in and see if that means anything or just be aware of it. That’s important.
Rick: Why would you be doing that? Something of your own that’s coming up or maybe you’re picking up something of the client’s?
Gail: It could be anything. So I want to check, am I reacting to something this person has just said or, so I’ll just kind of, just do a little, you know, two-second check-in inside and see what that is.
Rick: Nice. Well, I think we’ve covered that point pretty well. What else is in your book that we want to discuss?
Gail: Well, I guess I want to say more about the actual living of this truth because that’s a question that people often come up with. And I really don’t think that you need to know who you are and reach some awakened state. I think that sets up a lot of trouble for people and the potential for a lot of frustration that you can start right now just, you know, setting your alarm clock when you know you’re going to be in a conversation with your partner to go off so that you can say, oh, that means I want to be fresh right now. And I don’t mind people doing those mechanistic kinds of things to return to truth, to be kind, to institute that into daily life, to–if you’re stuck or unhappy, how can I do this in a different way, to bring a freshness to everything? I think that those kinds of questions and inquiry and play and experimentation can really be helpful because ultimately when we are different, our bodies are different. When we–if a conditioned pattern has truly been shed and we see through it, the body starts to relax so that it actually feels different in the body. So I often invite people to go out in the world, we’ll come up with some kind of experiment that’s appropriate to whatever they’re working on, to go out and do something different and feel it in the body how that feels different when you do that thing, relate to somebody in a different way, for example. And that feeds back, we get that information back like, oh, my body doesn’t have to be in this tight ball. I can do something different or I can, when I behave in a different way, I can feel that resistance and that helps to open things. So there’s lots of ways to work with it.
Gail: We all know our true nature. Whether we think we know it or not, we all know, you know, a moment–
Rick: On some level.
Gail: At some level. You see a child playing and your heart sings or, your dog or, you just, we know that at some level, even if it’s just for a split second. So it’s recognizing those moments and knowing what they really are.
Rick: I think children and dogs remind us of our true nature and that’s why we love them.
Gail: I agree.
Rick: You know, they’re so innocent. You look in it, I mean, dogs give you such joy because they’re just such innocent beings.
Rick: They’re not all– Does anybody have any questions they’d like to? Oh, a couple. So for questions. Oh, he has another mic. Great. He’ll run around with a question mic. So raise your hand if you have a question and this fellow will take it. We can’t get you on camera really, but we’ll hear the audio. Q1; I wonder how you work with couples when one of them is open to spirituality, meditation, et cetera, and the other is not interested in all this.
Gail: Yeah. That’s not an uncommon question. Yeah. So people in relationships often come up against that question. And what I would recommend is that your journey is ultimately your own journey. So there are plenty of opportunities to walk your own journey in a relationship with someone who’s not interested. So, for example, if you’re with someone who isn’t so interested in these matters that we talk about here, that might bring up some kind of reaction in you. And so that’s an opportunity for you to explore what that reaction is and how can you find your way to peace even with those kinds of thoughts and feelings there. And then the modeling of it. When you know who you are and that begins to infiltrate into your behavior and you become softer, and kinder, that models for everybody who you come in contact with what it’s like to be not so caught up in the identified mind. And so that, again, becomes your journey of your own opening. No question, it’s easier, I want to say, when you have a partner, which I happen to have, who’s interested in that investigation as well. And it’s different. I wouldn’t say easier, but it’s also different. But that doesn’t preclude you from doing your own investigation, from knowing yourself, from bringing what you discover about yourself to that relationship.
Rick: Obviously since you’re here at this conference and you’re the one who asked this question, I would presume that you’re the one in the relationship who’s interested in this stuff and your wife isn’t. But in my own case, my wife and I met at the international headquarters of the TM movement in Switzerland in 1975 and we did all these intense courses and everything for years and years and years. And I still meditate three hours a day or something and she doesn’t meditate at all anymore. I sit in the evenings and read spiritual books and she has headphones on, she’s watching some interesting stuff on TV. And that’s not trivial. She watches all these shows about people who are living kind of challenging lives, like “The Little Couple,” and shows like that. And she feels like she learns life lessons from all these situations that she’s not going to run into in so-called real life. And my attitude is, great, whatever floats her boat. I don’t care if she meditates or what she eats or anything else. She gives me that kind of latitude. She knows that this is something I love. And initially she just thought it was kind of a stupid thing and she’s never actually listened to one of my interviews. But now she spends hours a day helping and scheduling guests and working out all kinds of practical details. And she’s just caught up in my enthusiasm and realizing it’s a good thing. I guess the point of the story is that if we have a really tolerant attitude and let people be who they are, and not try to make them like us, then it might work.
Gail: I want to definitely follow up on that point because part of the problem in these relationships where one person is interested and the other one is not is you want the other person to be different so there isn’t this acceptance. And that’s an edge maybe for you to kind of experiment with about accepting your partner just as he or she is and look at those resistances that come up within yourself. Yeah, beautiful story about how your relationship has evolved that way.
Rick: And we have obviously mutual interest, too. We love our dogs and we like camping and all kinds of things. Another question? This woman.
Audience Question: I work with the elderly, and I think I heard in the introduction that you do a lot of work with seniors as well, so I just wanted to know more about that.
Gail: I’ve done a lot of work in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, and it’s a different–in a way, a different kind of work. These aren’t people who are trying to discover their true nature, but they kind of come to that investigation naturally because of the end of life. So I have loved that work of just being with people and in their challenges, and there’s a lot of resistance in aging, as you probably know if you work with the elderly, that they start getting disabled or limited in some way, and there’s a great frustration around that and a nonacceptance and resistance to that. And the facilitation of that is a beautiful–of the opening around that is a beautiful practice. Plus, I noticed with the elderly stories, what we hear in a place like this is, “The story isn’t useful,” and I’ve talked about that a lot myself, and, that we shouldn’t live in our story. Elderly people who haven’t done these kinds of investigations that we talk about here, they’re consumed in their stories, and they like to tell their stories. And I think there’s a way that people are resolving some issues from the past by telling the stories. I’ve seen that happen, and so in a way it’s a different kind of work, but it’s the same in the essence of meeting people exactly where they are. Yeah.
Rick: Do you have a question, Chris?
Audience Question: Yes. I was wondering if you’re a Gurdjieff student. The levels of awareness you were discussing and the techniques you were talking about for becoming present are very Fourth Way.
Gail: No. c; That’s Fourth Way.
Rick: She ain’t. Any other questions? Okay. Well, I got the five-minute signal a few minutes ago.
Gail: There’s somebody in the back.
Rick: Oh, in the back. I didn’t see. I’m sorry.
AUDIENCE QUESTION: Maybe this is not quite a question. I just wanted to add something about when your partner does not have–whatever relationship, in relationship with the other person–does not have the same interest as you have. I have a comment about it. That is, probably the unhappiness is coming because I am craving for their acceptance. If I don’t have that craving, why should I need acceptance from somebody else? If I give up that craving, I think it won’t bother me.
Rick: Yeah. There’s a Bengali saying which is if no one comes on your way, then go ahead alone. And that’s not to say you should leave your partner but just pursue your interest whether or not the partner is–
Audience Question: And because in my family, nobody is interested in what I am interested.
Audience Question: But it doesn’t bother me as long as they let me do whatever I do.
Rick: That’s a good attitude. Live and let live. Okay. Any wrap-up points you’d like to make, Gail? Something to leave people–some final thoughts to leave people with?
Gail: What I want to leave people with is, again, to not think that there’s some enlightened state that you either have attained or have not attained. I think that that throws a lot of people off and causes a lot of frustration because especially if you think you haven’t gotten it. But even if you think you have, there could be some problems in that. too. So it’s really about the unfolding of every moment. Consciousness is timeless. It’s here. It’s always here, which means that the knowing of that is in your conscious mind. It’s always possible. So any time you feel stuck or contracted, there’s no problem with that, but you can bring your power of awareness and observation to that and find your way to peace in any moment.
Rick: Thank you. That’s a nice little wrap-up point. So your website is gailbrenner.com, and I’ll have a page on the BatGap site with information about you and a link to that website and a link to your book on Amazon and that kind of thing. And people can get in touch with you through that. Do you work with people over Skype or anything? Or do they have to come to Santa Barbara? Okay, you work with people over Skype, so people can get in touch from anywhere. And this interview is part of an ongoing series of interviews. By the time this goes up, there will probably be about 320 of them or something up on the website. So if you’d like to explore some other ones, go to batgap.com, B-A-T-G-A-P, and go into the past interviews menu, and you’ll find four or five different ways that they’re categorized. There’s also the donate button and the e-mail sign-up thing, so you can be notified of each new interview, and a number of other things if you explore around the website. So thanks for listening and watching.
Gail: Thank you.
Rick: Thanks, Gail.
Gail: Pleasure. [applause]