Meet Gary Gach, and read an excerpt from his new book, “Pause Breathe Smile: Awakening Mindfulness When Meditation Is Not Enough”

Interviewed by Marlena Trafas


an excerpt from “Pause Breathe Smile: Awakening Mindfulness When Meditation Is Not Enough”

Mindfulness is a way of going about the business of living. PBS provides a recipe for the whole, traditional mindfulness pizza. It consists of just three basic ingredients with which you can concoct your own practice: 

  • Intentional, conscious conduct for a healthy lifestyle (pausing)

  • Introspection and contemplation to calm and keep it real (breathing)

  • Insight and clarity for a harmonious worldview (smiling)

Add extra toppings, according to taste, along with your own special seasonings and spices. “Taste and see” (Psalm 34:8). 

There’s no preset progression for PBS, like 1-2-3. Each phase is complete in and of itself, and the three phases also interconnect, providing positive feedback for each other. For example, insight awakens us (smiling)so we see a bigger picture beyond our limited views. We’re not wishing things to be different from how they are, only to bump up against reality, over and over. An accurate worldview permits us to live in harmony with What Is. 

A worthy worldview needs to be put into action. At the root of such action is intention (pausing). Sound intention inclines us toward what’s nourishing and leads away from what’s harmful. We see how good it is to be in right relationship to ourselves and the world. 

Insight opens our eyes to What Is. Intention brings us into harmony with How It Is. Together, they support a practice of silent, intuitive contemplation of reality and possibility (with calm, conscious breathing). Such meditation can sober our mind, soften our heart, and awaken our soul. Space opens up for us. Here we can see our intentions and insights mirroring our mind-heart for us to investigate. Our practice has room to grow, as we continually learn in the light of our actual experience. More and more, we realize our true nature and become who we are meant to be. To realize and enjoy all this fully, ideally, we need the integral interaction of all three phases.



Editor’s note

Gary Gach is a writer, mystic, and meditator whose sprawling resume has taken him from a bookshop to an office to a hospital and he’s also done stints as an actor, teacher, stevedore, and typographer. His introduction to the world of mindfulness and mediation came in 1964 at a Quaker retreat. A couple years later he discovered Zen in Los Angeles at a little shop on Sunset Boulevard. He was trained in zazen by Dainin Katagiri Roshi and ordained by Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh . He has produced nine books including The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Buddhism and his writings have appeared in The Atlantic, BuddhaDharma, Christian Science Monitor, European Judaism, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, The New Yorker, Technicians of the Sacred, Tricycle, and Yoga Journal. 

He currently lives in San Francisco where he hosts a weekly Mindfulness Fellowship that is in its 10th year. Below he discusses meditation in mainstream western culture, the benefits of smiling, and how mindfulness operates in secular and religious circles. 

In PBS, “smile” refers to an expression of wisdom beyond words. For you, what is the meaning—symbolic or otherwise—of a smile representing wisdom? 

The books' other two key words – pausing and breathing – are more obvious. Three aspects of wisdom are referred to in the Smile section of the book: impermanence, interbeing, and nonself. Right now, I can think of three wise, practical meanings of mindful smiling. (Some call it "mouth yoga.") You can test each out for yourself. To do so, as you read these words, please give yourself a little gift, the gift of a smile, and consider:

  • Responsibility. A smile can gently encourage us to be aware of our ability make the best of what we got. And to remember that it's up to us. So, a smile empowers the wisdom of autonomy. Nobody owns our mind but us. Neuroscientists corroborate this, noting how a smile loosens our reactivity and activates the executive region of the brain. The word "responsibility" itself implies the ability to be responsive, rather than being reactive to sensations, feelings, and thoughts – like a crow distracted by every passing, shiny object as a possible juicy bug to gobble. Instead, our smile reminds us to savor and discern, from spaciousness and freedom. 

  • Simplicity of living. Living doesn't need anything extra. Seeking abstract meaning to life can be like trying to bite your own teeth. As a reminder, we can always connect with sheer joie de vivre, the joy of merely being alive. A smile can remind us to embrace this wisdom of the present moment, as it is. The simplest things are always present for most of us: Mother Earth beneath our feet, eyes that can see the blue sky, the air in our nostrils, a passing child's open gaze. 

  • Community. Evolution is a team sport. Science has been exploring an amazing, vital aspect of this. The grounding of our social intelligence as a species rests, in part, in our neurons' capacity to experience in our mind's eye what we're seeing externally. I laugh as I see you laugh. I'm sad when I see you weep. And sympathetic joy can generate community, as in the saying: "A thousand candles can be lit from one candle, whose original strength is not diminished." 

Beyond these three, others might find further examples and meanings of wise smiles. 

PBS seems to intentionally not focus on action, but rather on setting the intentions (pausing) and reflecting upon (breathing) our actions. How does this idea of activity without intention or reflection influence and/or undermine mindfulness and meditation?

One reason we practice meditation is to no longer sleepwalk through life. But meditation alone may not be enough. Without training intention (the conscious trajectory of action), meditation alone can be like rowing a boat but not getting anywhere, not realizing our boat is still tied off at the dock.  

Wisdom is realized in action. Reflective intentionality can make our wisdom come alive, and guide our open, penetrative awareness throughout our day. Turning on the tap, for example, I know water will come from far away, and is very precious. So, I set intention, breathe, and smile as I fill my glass – and enjoy the water in gratitude. 

How have mindfulness and meditation practices changed as they’ve been accepted by the mainstream western culture?

In the West, this means one doesn't have to go to a monastery for instructions to practice or authorization to teach, for instance. We also hold greater expectations of equal inclusion of women, as teachers and organizational leaders as well as practitioners. And some Eastern psychology now includes such concepts of Western psychology as "the inner child," and trauma. 

Social and political critics are adding their voices to the discussion, decrying what they see as neoliberal capitalism colonizing and privatizing mindfulness for its own ends. And our secular, consumer culture is naturally developing forms of meditation as a tool, such as an app. (Not that apps can't be good, but, personally, the way I'm coming at mindfulness is to offer it as a way of fully engaging in life, 24/7.)

As meditative culture adapts to our culture – our culture, is changing, in turn.  There's always reciprocity. Most interesting to me is how, through the growing adoption of mindfulness and meditation, we're witnessing in our fragmented, competitive, materialist, individualist society a reinvigoration of our natural capacity for love and understanding, reconnecting with our finest instincts, realizing our highest potential, for ourselves and others. 

Mindfulness seems to play an equally significant role in secular and religious circles. Why do you think that’s the case?

I see us as living in a time of emergent post-secularism. While there's still an excess of harmful intolerance around, I also see divisions between secularism and religion growing more permeable. One doesn't have to follow dogma or decree to make the spiritual real for oneself. Whether that's through centering, stillness, creativity, prayer, movement, arts, or bearing witness to social or environmental issues – this growing tree of contemplative practices has been flourishing for over quarter of a century without a name. Mindfulness might seem like a good banner, or semantic umbrella for it all. It certainly is showing up as a key player.

What common obstacles do people face when they attempt to live by PBS?

One of the most common obstacles is an attitude of seeking gain. The moment one approaches awakening mindfulness with a calculative mind, then even the least feather's width of separation is already set up between our self and our goal. It's like putting our palm out in front of our face, then trying to run after it and catch it.  

But this is a deeply ingrained problem. Gain-seeking is fed by the universal human tendency to always crave more, more, more – be disappointed – then crave all over again. A skillful antidote might be to take the path itself as the goal – that is, without attachment to outcome.

Another obstacle is time. If you're working two jobs to make ends meet, finding extra time for mindfulness can be daunting. On the other hand, some people think they can't afford the time, when all it would take would is a re-evaluation of priorities (always a good thing). 

Another hurdle concerns learning to practice in community, or with a teacher. There's a universality of suffering born from a sense of isolation. Yet Yankee culture tends towards "rugged individualism." Meanwhile, practicing the way of awareness in community can offer the greatest encouragement and support for blooming.

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