Quest for Truth: Conversation with Rod Owens

by Ben Painter and Jon Luke Tittmann

Motivated to learn what mindfulness really is, two iBme interns set out on a humble quest for truth and deeper understanding. In this series, they share what they learn along the way through encounters with leading mindfulness teachers.

Energized by our conversation with Sharon Salzberg, we were excited to continue on our journey to unearth more of the many meanings of the word mindfulness. Our next stop found us at the iBmemindfulness teacher training for an interview with Rod Owens — another one of our role models.

By this point in our journey, we had begun to get a glimpse of the vast amounts of knowledge, experience, and wisdom that are contained within the word mindfulness. We were also gaining a deeper sense of what the practices of mindfulness and lovingkindness actually entail.

The one question that most interested us now? How might these practices apply to our everyday lives? Particularly, what are the social implications of mindfulness and lovingkindness?

A co-author of Radical Dharma: Talking Love, Racism and Liberation and a Buddhist teacher with many years of experience with community service and social activism, Rod was the perfect person to help us explore these questions so we could expand our understanding of mindfulness.

By this point in our quest, having interviewed two other teachers, we knew where to start. Seated across from Rod in the living room of a high school dormitory, we asked: “What is mindfulness for you?” As Rod began to reply, we felt a familiar sense of curiosity and vitality run through our bodies; we were eager to hear what he had to say.

“Mindfulness is paying attention to who and what we are and all of the things that have shaped us.
And we’re able to just notice that and accept it.”

A couple of things immediately struck us about this definition. First, this definition acknowledges the person behind the practice; that is to say, yes, mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way, as Joseph said, but now that particular way of paying attention acknowledges who we are and how we have become who we are. This definition stood out to us, especially in light of the concept of “no self” which often gets tossed around in conversations about meditation practices and Buddhism. Maybe we actually need to have a deep sense of who we are and the forces that have shaped who we are before we can begin to engage with the concept of “no self.”

Rod also emphasized that acceptance is a big part of mindfulness, but often times “acceptance is really … misunderstood.”

“Acceptance doesn’t mean condoning or celebrating. Acceptance means … you’ve accepted that this is happening and this is there. And once you’ve been able to do that really profound work of accepting then the space opens up for you to decide how to handle the moment.”

Rod’s definition of acceptance resonated with the discussions of acceptance that we had had with Sharon and Joseph. We found ourselves particularly intrigued by the idea that even when you accept what is happening in a given moment, you still have the space to determine how you will respond to that moment. Acceptance here is not inaction; rather, it is the acceptance itself that allows you to respond to a moment with wisdom, with mindfulness, with compassion, for yourself and for those around you.

“Each of us becomes an ally for one another in doing the practice.”

These definitions of mindfulness and acceptance have manifold implications for engaging with the world around you and even building communities. Rod addressed this directly:

“I like basing [mindfulness] in conversation with community because it’s a way for us to counter these strands of intense individualism in America. Yeah, you’re doing the work for yourself on yourself, but you’re doing it within a container of people, [and] you rely on one another [for] support … in doing the work. That’s why doing retreats are so important because each of us becomes an ally for one another in doing the practice.”

The idea of building a community to support our meditation practice felt very familiar to us. From our experiences on iBme retreats and others, we knew the importance of having a people surrounding you and helping you build a safe space, even when you aren’t talking and you’re so intensely focusing on your own experience.

Rod continued to say that the support of a community can come in many different forms; sometimes someone might “[offer] you a practice that you’ve never thought of;” other times, people might exemplify “what it means to practice and what it means to be a contemplative person;” in fact, sometimes it could even be that someone sitting next to you is bothering you and “getting on your nerves” — but this will just “call you to practice harder [in order to] understand and to empathize more with this person.”

Regardless of how people might help you, the important takeaway is that communities, or as Rod put it, “communities of love,” can provide a profound and safe space for individuals to do the even more profound work of discovering who they are. The cool part is that as we practice and become more “authentic to who and what [we] are,” those “communities of love” can become stronger and more loving. Rod adds, “These communities of love I see as radical because these communities of love … [generate an] unconditional love.”

“The practice has to be deeply embedded in our bodies and minds.”

By this point in the conversation, a few answers to our initial questions about the communal and social implications of mindfulness were forming. Rod was wise and clear: “The practice has to be deeply embedded in our bodies and minds … then that’s a root, a foundation, that we can actually carry into conversation with these larger issues of justice.”

This idea seemed to tie back into mindfulness and acceptance as practices that not only help us to “develop present attention and awareness, and to know what you need and how you need it” but also help us to begin opening up the space for responding to and engaging with the people and the world around us with both wisdom and compassion.

Before we knew it, we had been speaking with Rod for over an hour — time always seemed to fly by during our conversations. Rod bestowed us with a wisdom that left us with greater clarity but also hungry for more answers. Each conversation did.

At the end of our summer journey, we had absorbed so much and wanted to continue learning more. As we reflected on the fact that while Rod, Sharon, and Joseph all had unique things to say and different points of emphasis, we also saw themes emerge that tied all of what we had been learning together, and one that stood out for us the importance of love and acceptance.

*****

Read Ben and Jon’s other Quest for Truth posts:

What Is Mindfulness Really?

A Conversation with Joseph Goldstein

A Conversation with Sharon Salzberg

Jon Luke Tittmann is a senior majoring in English at Bowdoin college. He began practicing meditation as a highschool student under the guidance of Doug Worthen, director of mindfulness at Middlesex School.

Ben Painter began practicing mindfulness in his high school years under the direction of Doug Worthen, director of mindfulness at Middlesex School. Ben, a senior at Bowdoin College studying government and visual arts, is passionate about spreading meditation and is co-founder of the mindfulness club at Bowdoin.