Tami Simon: You’re listening to “Insights at the Edge.” Today I speak with Cheri Huber. Cheri Huber is the founder of Mountain View Zen Center and the Zen Monastery Practice Center, both in California, and the author of 19 books, including, When You’re Falling, Dive: Acceptance, Freedom, and Possibility and the new book, What You Practice Is What You Have: A Guide to Having the Life You Want. She is the founder and director of Living Compassion, a nonprofit organization dedicated to peace and service. With Sounds True, Cheri has released the audio series, Unconditional Self-Acceptance: The Do-It-Yourself Course.
In this episode of “Insights at the Edge,” Cheri and I spoke about how your life is what you give your attention to. We also spoke about how to work constructively and compassionately with what Cheri calls “negative voices in the head,” how depression is linked to self-hatred, and also what a compassionate approach to self-discipline might actually be like. Here’s my conversation with Cheri Huber.
Cheri, you’ve written close to twenty books, and I’m curious: If you were able to describe the key themes that run through your books, what they would be?
Cheri Huber: Well, the books are all designed to support people in the process of waking up and ending suffering, and they’re really kind of a road map of where I’ve gone with this.
As I went along, I had a growing sense that the main thing that was happening for people was that they were not allowing themselves to end suffering because they didn’t feel deserving or worthy of that. And so, about halfway through the books, I wrote Regardless of What You’ve Been Taught to Believe, There’s Nothing Wrong With You. It speaks to the self-hatred that so many people live with, the voices in the head that focus on what’s wrong in life and what’s missing. And mostly what it always comes back to is something the person is doing wrong that’s the cause of everything that isn’t working in life.
That was really a turning point. Since then, most of what I’ve done has been focused in that direction: assisting people to recognize what goes on in their head, recognize that there’s a conversation in there that’s not a supportive conversation for most people, and that there’s a way to extricate ourselves from that conversation. At this point, pretty much all my work is focused on going beyond the limitations of a conditioned mind, being able to step into the freedom and joy that life actually is when we’re not giving our attention to a conditioned, egocentric reality.
TS: Now, I know one of your books actually carries the title, There Is Nothing Wrong With You, and I remember when I saw that for the first time, I thought it was such a powerful teaching. Just that sentence, “There’s nothing wrong with you,” I can imagine people listening and saying, “Well, let me tell you the list of what’s wrong with me.”
TS: I mean, “I’m overweight, I’m getting old, I don’t have as many friends as I would like . . . I could go on and on.” What do you mean, Cheri, “There’s nothing wrong with you”?
CH: Yes. Well, since that book came out, I’ve gone the next step, which really kind of pushes people over the brink, which is: There’s nothing wrong! Period! Not only is there nothing wrong with you or me or them, there’s nothing wrong with it. There are lots of things we don’t like, mostly because we’ve been conditioned to believe that there’s something wrong with them, and we get stuck in that loop a lot. But the fact that I don’t like something or that I would prefer that something be another way is not the same as “It’s wrong.”What I speculate is: It seems to me that what we’re doing here is answered rather perfectly by, “This is our best opportunity to choose compassion, no matter what.” And of course there’s no more intimate experience of the need for compassion than with ourselves. We know ourselves better than anyone. We know most intimately and clearly what has happened to us, how we’ve been hurt, what we struggle with, and the voices in the heads. And so, if we can extend compassion to that human being that we know so well, we have a possibility of recognizing what goes on for all human beings, and the compassion simply grows. As it grows to include human beings, it grows to include the rest of life and this beautiful planet that we live on.
TS: You know, as I’m listening to you, it occurs to me that you believe—and I’d love to hear your take on this—that our suffering is a choice in some way, a choice we’re making and a choice we could stop making if we wanted to. Is that correct?
CH: Well, yes, although we could have a whole discussion on choice. But it is my experience that it’s something we’re doing, that it’s an action. Suffering is an action. It’s something that is added to life, and so we can stop doing that anytime we want to.
Now, of course when we say that, it sounds like I’m presenting something that I think is easy, and I don’t. I think it’s simple, but what people have to be willing to go through in order to drop suffering is impressive.
The way I talk about it is that pain is inevitable. We’re in form, and pain is inevitable for all sentient beings. It’s just how it is. Suffering is what happens when we want something to be other than what it is. The moment we kind of step outside of life and move into that oppositional position, the moment we have a better idea about what should be going on, I’m in resistance to how life is and I’m going to suffer as a result of that, and I don’t need to do it! So much of the agony that we go through as human beings is a result of listening to a conversation in the head that says, “No, this is not OK. This is not right. You should be this way. They shouldn’t. That shouldn’t. It’s wrong.” Without that conversation, the suffering really does just fall away.
TS: So what do you suggest to people when they have that conversation in their head?
CH: Well, that’s why I’m so excited about this new book, What You Practice Is What You Have. For years, until people just started rolling their eyes every time I would say it, I would tell people: the quality of your life is determined by the focus of your attention. So whatever your attention is given to, that’s what you’re going to have as your life. When people stop and look at it a little for a couple of minutes, they can actually get it!
You know, if I give all of my attention to worrying, my life is going to consist of worrying! We’re taught to believe that if I worry enough, I’m going to hold all the bad stuff at bay, and nothing bad is going to happen to me. And it feels like control, but really all I get is a life of worry, and stuff still seems to happen to me at the same rate. So people can get that if I’m focused on “I’m too fat,” then my constant life experience is that I’m too fat! You know, I could be somewhere where it doesn’t even matter what I weigh, and my life is still being made miserable because my attention is focused on a voice telling me I’m too fat!
So attention is the secret. It’s the key to the whole thing, and when we learn that, when we can direct our attention to where we want it to be instead of where conditioned mind takes it, hijacks it in order to maintain its position in the universe, we begin to realize that—this is back to the “choice” word—we really do have a great ability to decide what our life experience is.
For instance—and this is tried-and-true for spiritual types for as long as we’ve known about spiritual types—if you focus your attention on gratitude, on everything in your life that’s working, everything you’re thankful for, there aren’t enough hours in the day to get through the list of things that we are thankful for. Of course, focusing on what we’re grateful for is a quick trip to feeling good. There’s just no doubt about it, because it feels good to be thankful and grateful. If I have all of this wonderful stuff in my life but it gets no attention, if gratitude never gets any attention because all my attention is focused on whatever conditioned mind is presenting as the current “what’s not OK,” we can see the difference in how my life is going to go.
For most people, you get through the day, and just about everything worked! You know, OK, the plane was 20 minutes late. It didn’t crash! Maybe the car didn’t start. I have a car! I know a mechanic! On most days, for most people, the vast majority of things are going their way, but conditioned mind will focus on the one, two, or three things that it presents as not perfect. And that gets all the attention, and the person is miserable and actually living in a delusion that life isn’t working.
TS: Now, Cheri, I’m wondering, right here at this moment, if you could share with our listeners, if you’d be willing, a practice they could do when their conditioned mind is telling them that something’s wrong, either with them or with the world. How could I interrupt that right on the spot?
CH: This is the thing that I am most excited about! I swear I am praying for a revolution!
TS: OK! I’m praying with you!
CH: All right! The practice—and it’s explained in this new book in great detail—but the practice is one of self-mentoring. And the thing that is revolutionary about it, I think, is that it is done with a recording device. What people are being able to do is to have a relationship, via this process that we call mentoring, where you access the wisdom, the love, the compassion inside of you that actually is the animating force in your life. You access that, and begin to relate to that mentor through a recorded conversation.
For instance, just with what we’re talking about: I get to the end of the day, and those voices are beating me up because I said something stupid in a meeting. Of course, we’ll never know whether it was stupid or not, but they’re beating me up as if it is. I can do a couple of things, just to change my energy, I can focus on everything good that happened during the day. I pick up my little recording device, and I talk about all the smiles I gave and got, every indication of kindness, all the good news that I heard, somebody who looked great today, all of that. I could go through a list of all the things I’m thankful for that happened during the day, and all the things I’m thankful didn’t happen. So I’m changing that energy.
Then I can say to this recording device—it can sound crazy, but it actually works!—“I had this experience at work today: I was in a meeting, I said this thing, suddenly there was this paralyzing self-consciousness and the voices were telling me how stupid it was! And of course, when I looked at people, what I’m projecting is they thought it was stupid! I plunged into this . . .” OK?
Now right there, you can just turn it off after you’ve described the whole thing. You hit “Listen,” you hit “Play,” you listen to it, and this is the miracle part: what will arise is the wisdom, the kindness, the compassion, that the person in that situation needed to hear. It’s like walking around with a combination of the Buddha, Jesus, your most loving therapist counselor, and a best friend who loves you unconditionally. That’s who you have access to anytime, day or night, when you’re being besieged by all of these forces that are trying to make your life miserable. It’s access to all the good stuff, because you can just focus constantly on how great life is and how beautiful it is. Because it is! It’s not a Pollyanna thing, but instead a real focus on everything that’s good and beautiful in life and in the world.
By the way, that tends to give us the strength and willingness to address the issues in life that we find to be a problem, things that we’d like to change. Maybe instead of being demoralized at the end of the day, I’m feeling energetic, and so I’m going to go volunteer at that homeless shelter, or I want to do some work for, in my case, people who live in a slum in Africa. And there’s energy to do that because I’m uplifted rather than beaten down by voices all day long. I have access to all of that wisdom and kindness that supports me anytime I want or need it. It’s a great thing.
TS: Cheri Huber has created what she called “a retreat in a box.” It’s a series of guided practices and teachings on Unconditional Self-Acceptance, available through Sounds True.
SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.
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