Tony Wiederhold is a meditation teacher and yoga instructor who mainly practices at the Indianapolis Zen Center in Indianapolis, USA. Tony practices a simple sitting technique and invites others to sit with him. Clay Hamilton interviewed Tony in winter 2019.
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Briefly describe yourself as a meditation teacher.
The short answer is, I don’t think of myself as a meditation teacher. I’m a man who has spent a lot of time sitting very, very quietly with my wounds, habits, bullshit, and narratives. When I sit very, very quietly and let my body unclench, I feel lighter and see the relationships between things more clearly. “Teaching-to” isn’t my style. “Practicing-with” is. I hope that people find me a reassuring, friendly presence. I’m a regular person who has his struggles. I hope that people who practice with me realize that they can practice, too, and that they belong here. I have yet to meet someone who has come to practice because everything is going great in their lives. I hope that when people practice with me, they feel like they can be themselves, no matter what their circumstances.
I live in Indianapolis, Indiana in the USA. I practice four days a week at the Indianapolis Zen Center (indyzen.org and on Facebook,) a part of the Kwan Um School of Zen founded by the late Korean zen teacher Seung Sahn.
Yoga is an entry for a lot of people. I lead a gentle class on Saturday mornings. In the warm months, I hold it at the Virginia Fairbanks 100 Acres Art and Nature Park. We walk in the woods near before class. Lots of people from all walks of life come and practice under big shade trees next to a lagoon. A birder in the group identified songs from 28 different birds during one class. A lot of people stay to sit after yoga. We practice compassionate listening in dyads after sitting, then have group discussion. In the cold months, we move the whole thing into the Indianapolis Zen Center.
Once a month, several of us volunteer in the hunger relief kitchen at Second Helpings, a local non-profit that receives donated fresh food and prepares and delivers over 4,000 hot meals to agencies that serves people in need in the area. People bring their family members. It’s lovely to practice together and work together. There are a lot of ways to do these two things. Every bit counts to make the world a kinder place.
How did you first learn to meditate and why/how did you become a meditation teacher?
I learned the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment from a book given to me by the head monk at Chua Quang Minh, a Vietnamese Pure Land Buddhist temple in Chicago in the late 1980’s or early 1990’s. I was somewhere between 8 and 12 years old. Memory is so unreliable. I attended this temple with my mother a couple of times a month. She, along with my brother, sister, and dad escaped Vietnam during the fall of Saigon in April 1975. The temple was important to her, as it was to every Vietnamese there. They all survived several wars (three in my mom’s case.) Anyway, as the story goes, Gautama sat under the bodhi tree, where he was taunted and tantalized by Mara with all manner of terrors and delights. Seeing through all of these things, Gautama realized enlightenment and became Buddha. I don’t remember what exactly about enlightenment was appealing to me at the time. I had to be a little adult in the family due to various circumstances. (I remember wondering what the point of life was. Expressing these questions to my primary school classmates led to Christian adults asking me to join their churches.)
I sat for the first time on a hot summer afternoon in the grass under a tree in the front yard. I remember the blue sky, the white clouds, and the fuscia-colored annual blossoms Mom had planted around the trunk. I stood up after some minutes and didn’t sit again for another 20 years or so. What led me to a consistent meditation practice was that I realized that I was kind of mean; not in a physically violent way, but in the way I spoke to people and treated people. I knew that this meanness made people feel bad about themselves, humiliated even. At some point, it became clear to me that I was making people’s lives worse and making the world around me worse. I didn’t like that. I came to realize that this meanness was coming from a combination of unhealed emotional wounds and deep-seated habits. Meditation brought these things to light. Sitting quietly, I started to understand the connection between my wounds, habits, word choice, physical reactions, emotional reactions, memories, stories I tell myself, and the way I relate to other people. I learned how to be with people, hear what they are saying, and be a mirror. I came to know that caring about other people’s pain and being there for them – loving them as whole people – healed all involved.
A regular meditation practice led me to not only encounter an important teaching, but to be ready for it. A couple of years ago, I took my mom to our old temple in Chicago. We both live far away and hadn’t visited in ten years. The temple was quiet between services. While mom was visiting with her old friends, I slipped off my shoes and stepped onto the old red carpeting in the Buddha Hall. I had it to myself. Incense perfumed the air. As I took a seat in the back of the hall, I noticed something for the first time: a ribbon of text painted above the big, golden statues. The text on the left was Vietnamese. English was on the right. The English read, “Not to do any evil, to cultivate good, to purify one’s mind. These are the teachings of the Buddha.” I grimaced when I read those. After all, what are good and bad (or evil) but what you like and don’t like? Then I read the Vietnamese: “Stop doing cruel things. Strive to do all of the works of healing. Keep your mind clean. These are the words of the Buddha.” In that moment, everything made sense. Cruelty is how I harm others. Cruelty comes from pain inflicted, from unhealed wounds. When I heal, I stop being cruel and I stop harming others. When I create conditions for others to heal, I help to destroy the conditions that lead to cruelty and I can show others how to heal and help others heal. Keeping the mind clean allows me to see clearly. Seeing clearly is how I see the cruelty we inflict. What if we thought of our actions not as good vs evil, but rather as healing vs cruel? What if we saw people not as good and evil, but as healing or wounded? What if instead of world peace, I made world healing a goal?
A lot of conditions had to be in place to receive that teaching. It is true: when the student is ready, the teacher is there. Teaching is all around us. Establishing a meditation practice is how you get ready. A Hindu Swami named Pratyabodhananda once told me, “You’re either ready, or you’re getting ready.” He’s right.
I didn’t set out to become a meditation teacher. It just sort of happened by inviting people to sit with me. After we sit, we share. People keep coming back to sit with me and work together with me. It’s lovely to be part of the beautiful community that has formed. I feel like a villager. A lot of people are thirsty for real human connection. A lot of people are hurt. A lot of people need a quiet space where they can just sit with all of their stuff and be accepted. I’ve found meaning in life by helping with all of these things.
What types of meditations have you studied or practised, and what method do you mainly use or teach now?
My personal practice is Just Sitting. I sit still on a cushion facing a wall, let my legs be heavy and lighten my posture, and look. When I notice tension, I allow it to unclench and readjust my posture.
In group settings, before Just Sitting, sometimes I guide some short progressive relaxation and body scans. I found it helps people who are not used to sitting to settle down and be more aware of sensations in the body. That said, I’ve also found that even people who have never meditated can sit for 30 minutes when in a group setting, and that they are both surprised and empowered afterwards.
At the end of my yoga classes, I guide a short compassion practice where I first invite people to reflect on their week and see who floats to mind. I invite people to recognize everything that comes with thinking about this person — memories, stories, feelings, emotions, and sensations — and wish them well if they like.
May you be happy.
May you be free from suffering.
May you know peace.
We repeat this with people in the room, and finally ourselves.
After sitting, I facilitate dyads. This is a relational mindfulness practice that I learned in a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction class a few years ago. People in the group find a partner. Person A gets three minutes to express whatever they like to Person B. (I usually leave this open ended, but it is possible to set a theme.) Person B’s role is to hear without responding, hold space for Person A, and notice how the words land. After three minutes, Person B gets 90 seconds to tell Person A what they heard. This isn’t meant to be a transcript, but rather what came across. After this, the roles switch. We invariably have rich group discussions after the dyads. I’ve seen people blossom over time from these practices, including myself. Practicing the skills of Person B has strengthened every relationship in my life.
I’ve tried a variety of other meditation techniques. When I was starting as an adult, I used the exercises found in the clear and concise Meditation: A Journey of Exploration by Swami Tadatmananda, and American-born Hindu swami at the Arsha Bodha Center in New Jersey. What I found, though, is that they are all different ways to get to Just Sitting. Doing a meditation technique is still doing something other than Just Sitting.
Is it more useful for people to know many meditation techniques, or to learn one/few and focus efforts on practising that one?
I think that there is nothing like Just Sitting. When you’re doing something other than Just Sitting, you are Sitting and Doing, which is not the same thing.
What do most students struggle with or get wrong?
The biggest obstacle is sitting down in the first place. A lot of people who are interested talk themselves out of doing it or don’t make space for it for one reason or another.
The next biggest obstacle is being stuck on some idea about what their meditation experience is supposed to be. For example, people might have some notion that it is supposed to be stress relief or that they are supposed to be concentrated or they’re supposed to bliss out and if whatever they think ought to happen doesn’t there is something wrong with them. That’s rubbish. Meditation is practicing being honest to yourself and seeing things clearly. It is not-pretending. Maybe those things happen. Maybe not. There is no supposed-to. Sometimes it’s easy. Sometimes it’s damned hard.
Another major obstacle is not practicing diligently and daily. This is a variant of the first obstacle above.
What important aspect of meditation do you find yourself teaching over and over again? Is there a phrase or message or quote you repeat to students again and again?
Sit, allow any tension you feel to soften a bit, allow legs to be heavy and lighten your posture. Remember to do that every so often. I like to remind people that literally anything – sensations, feelings, impressions, emotions, memories, thoughts, etc. – may appear and that it is ok, but that these come from somewhere. You may relieve yourself of the responsibility to have a particular type of experience or outcome. Let it unfold.
Describe your ideal meditation session (location, length, outcome, etc)
People are sitting with me.
What do you think about guided meditation vs non-guided self-practice? Is one better or preferred, or does it depend on the individual, their goals and how much experience they have?
I don’t consider the forms of guided meditation I’ve witnessed or tried to be anything like Just Sitting. They aren’t two types of the same thing. They are not the same thing. So, I recommend everyone try Just Sitting. It is simple and easy to learn. The benefits come from practicing it every day, over time, with diligence and radical honesty and practicing it with other people as often as possible. That said, I think any practices that lead to stronger social bonds is beneficial.
What do you think about meditation retreats (what form, how long, any advice)? What if someone can’t afford the financial or time commitment of a retreat, do you have any recommendations for them?
I’ve learned a lot of things about my habits, attitudes, and behaviors in silent retreats. That said, I think it is more important to practice every day. It’s not necessary to go far away or spend a lot of money. I have spent a lot of money on long silent retreats that were Definitely Not Worth It. I recommend joining a practice group where you are and doing retreats with the people in your group. We have 1-day silent retreats the third Saturday of every month at the Indianapolis Zen Center that cost $30 and include vegan lunch. Longer retreats combine continuous silent practice with a media/electronic device fast, which has other benefits.
What advice do you give people who struggle to maintain a consistent practice?
Find a group of people to sit with. You can find them through your favorite internet search, Facebook, or meetup.com. Talk a friend into sitting with you every day for a month. Recently, I started using the free Insight Timer app, even during group sits. It’s neat to see how many people have meditated with me. I send and receive thank you notes to people in my city, and occasionally to people in other places.
Practicing with other people is Very Important! There’s a reason why sangha, or community of practitioners, is one of the Three Jewels of Buddhism, right after Buddha and Dharma. It is that important. We need each other.
Other tips: go to bed as early as possible, drink water, eat well, and be open to reorganizing your life to make practicing easier. Finding a practice buddy or meditation group will make all of this easier, though.
How can readers get in contact with you or find out more?
Come practice with me at the Indianapolis Zen Center, or message me on Facebook, either through my personal page or through my non-profit page Indy Community Yoga. On Instagram I’m @reflectability. You can be my friend on Insight Timer, too.
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[This interview is an extract. You can read Tony’s full interview, plus 29 more interviews, in the book How Do You Meditate? Interviews with 30 Meditation Teachers. Available from Amazon.]