You won’t find a mention of social media, home decoration, sloppy New Year’s parties, or bosses that micromanage in most major religious texts. As far as many conventional religious teachings are concerned, we still live in a time without running water. How, then, do we bring these ancient teachings of wisdom into our modern daily lives? Lodro Rinzler is the author of six books that deal with exactly those types of questions.
Lodro offers many practical ways to bring mindfulness and meditative principles into contemporary times. These books include the best-selling The Buddha Walks into a Bar…, the award-winning Walk Like a Buddha, The Buddha Walks into the Office…, Sit Like a Buddha, How to Love Yourself (And Sometimes Other People) and Love Hurts: Buddhist Advice for the Heartbroken.
Aside from dishing practical advice, Lodro was the co-founder of MNDFL – New York City’s premier meditation studio. MNDFL offers something of a sanctuary within the city’s hustle – somewhere to experience quiet, focus, and peace – all in a setting inspired by greenery and nature.
Mr. Rinzler was kind enough to set aside time recently to answer some of my around-the-world questions. We covered topics such as personal growth, careers, managing our relationship with money, character, success, and of course: suffering. The full interview is presented below, and has been edited for clarity and length.
Rob: In your book “The Buddha Walks Into The Office”, you’ve talked about thinking less about:
What do you want to do when you grow up?
…and instead asking the question:
Who do you want to be when you grow up?
So: who did you want to be when you grew up?
Lodro: As a kid I actually did have an interest in writing. I didn’t know what I wanted to write. But then, as I got involved in longer meditation retreats at about 17 or so, I thought: Well, there’s something here… I don’t want to do anything else.
Fast forward a bit: There’s actually a real moment when my current wife and I went into this sort of cabin retreat for a couple months.
I put all the things that I was currently doing up on the wall: I was writing for mainstream magazines, my first couple books had come out, doing some online courses, and so on. I looked at a bunch of the things I was doing, and asked: what is the theme here for me? And the theme was: I feel like meditation helps people, and I’m trying to make meditation accessible.
It sounds silly but once I identified that arc of “meditation helps people, I want to help people, I can make it accessible”, then I asked: what are the skillful means to do that?
It meant that some of the magazine writing that had nothing to do with meditation fell by the wayside. That freed up some more energy to do other things. Often, when people talk about their arcs around work, there’s this idea of a straight trajectory… and that’s not necessarily true for me.
There are things that I did, starting out, that evolved and grew – while some fell by the wayside. It wasn’t like: here’s my win and then my win and then another one. There are things that had the best of intentions and helped people at the time, and then there’s other things. It’s just our continued evolution.
The arc, once identified (meditation helps people, I want to help people), was the clear delineating moment for me. Now, let’s just figure out what that means and if something does fall by the wayside, that’s not a big deal. It’s not like I’m a failure.
Rob’s Note: In re-reading and editing this interview I couldn’t escape the feeling that the original question remained unanswered.
Who did you, at a core and fundamental level, want to be?
For me (and probably many others) the answer is simple: I want to be a good person. It may sound like a vague and generic aspiration, but it’s what lies at the foundation of my mind and which I feel at a very low level: a desperate longing for goodness and ultimate approval.
I’m still working on answering the question of what “being a good person” even means. It may be worth deconstructing this “generic aspiration” into at least a few concrete aspects and qualities. For this, Lodro offers a Mandala exercise which you can find here:
I really wanted to hear Lodro’s equivalent – perhaps you could say he wanted to be a helpful person – but in the hustle of the moment, I fell back into a default reaction: don’t rock the boat, try and summarize (the means may change, but the mission remains), and move on. And here I am, still clinging to the way I wanted things…
Rob: What balance did you find between making meditation accessible, and having a for-profit studio? Some say meditation has to be totally free, and made available to everyone… all while living in a consumer society. Why not become a monk and host retreats?
Lodro: On the monastic side: I did a very short stint as a monastic when I was 17 years old, and it really got me interested in studying deeply. I had a moment of thinking: Oh, this is what I want to do.
A year later, I was at a Buddhist retreat and was given an audience with a very wonderful teacher: Khenpo Tsültrim Gyamtso Rinpoche
I said: “I might not go to college. I’ll just stay here and I’ll practice the Dharma. It’s what I want to do.”
Rinpoche, normally speaking through a translator, turns to me and says:
…then he turns back to the translator, and continues. Basically, the message was: you should be out in the world. You should actually go help people.
His opinion is that we need people out there doing things. We don’t need people hiding out at Dharma centers, thinking that “out there” is scary, staying in this little bubble. This “hiding” is not everyone’s intention, but it was certainly a trend in that moment of time that Rinpoche was aware of. So, I was pushed to go do things.
Lodro: On the money side: I think every meditation teacher needs to look at their relationship with money. Thankfully, I have a lot of meditation teacher friends, and we’ve talked about this a lot. For example, my wife is a meditation teacher, and she was asked to offer a program, but the speed at which she was being asked to offer it made it seem like it was motivated by money. She said “No, I want to do this at my own pace, I want to do this right, and I want to feel good about it.”
So these conversations are important. We need to stop and ask: “How is money impinging on what I’m doing, and taking the lead?” versus “I want to help people, and if people want to offer something, that’s cool.”
On a personal level, I will often look at something like a corporation and accept money for me to go and give a talk… but that means I now can go to a university down the road, that can’t pay me anything, and do one for free. It’s not quite Robin Hood – but just noticing when someone has resources and doesn’t mind spending, versus noticing someone who really can’t afford it.
I run an online Buddhist Immersion program, and it’s five months long. Some people who want to be with me multiple times in a month have paid as much as $1350 for this five month program. And someone else paid $37.
That person, who’s on disability and really could not afford more than $37, did the whole program, and enjoyed every minute of it… and continues to connect and be part of my online community.
There’s two aspects here. Teachers have to be willing to have conversations in the finances and say “Here’s what I’m worth, and also I’m flexible.” The flip side is really asking for a lot of bravery in the clients, to say “Okay. I’m hearing that message, and I’m going to actually say I need to do a payment plan because of XYZ reason.” There has to be a sort of bravery in the clients, which is not great – I don’t always love having to rely on that – but I’m putting it out there that I’m flexible on what my time is worth.
I’ll give you an example. There is a marketing company that has asked to meet with me, and are basically going to be asking the same questions that you’re asking, to different degrees. I was like… you could probably pay me. On the other hand, obviously I would never charge you for just having a simple conversation like we’re having.
So it’s a matter of figuring out this balance between an individual client’s resources, the value of time and wisdom, and our own desire to make it really accessible.
For MNDFL, prices were listed on the website: classes, etcetera. Then, just to balance it like once a month, we said: “Hey, it’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day – we’re doing free classes!” Or, it’s Valentine’s Day, and so on… we looked for a lot of opportunities to be able to reach people with any barriers and let them come to class for free.
We were even experimenting with classes in Spanish, because we knew that sometimes language was a barrier for people. We had special POC groups, and LGBTQ groups, and different things to encourage community and diversity. We offered those kinds of things as much as we could, and sometimes with mixed results – a lot of times it turned out the class was smaller than expected – and that was fine, because we really wanted to encourage community.
Lastly, there was always a promo code available, so that if you couldn’t pay full price, then you could use the code for a discount.
What you’re pointing out is a really interesting challenge: I’ll say one more thing about it. The way the Buddha existed is because there were these kings and royal patrons that were like: “Hey, if you teach me and my kingdom the Dharma, you can live on my land, I’ll feed you, and provide whatever else you might want.”
The de facto version of this in the West has been: “Hey, let’s start a bunch of non-profits.” It looks outwardly sustainable, like we’re all contributing little membership dues, but I’ve been on the board of multiple versions of these Buddhist nonprofits. I know for a fact that it’s really the same model: where everyone is contributing a little, and then there’s this huge 100 to 500 thousand dollar gap at the end of the year, which one to five wealthy patrons end up covering. Those patrons made their money in whatever way people make a lot of money in our world: Business, finance, and so on.
There’s a lot of weirdness around that kind of thing. So, I don’t know if there’s a great model, but I think the more that I do stuff online, where the overhead is less than brick and mortar, there’s a lot more flexibility. People can make offerings, and I can just say “That’s great!” That’s the best position to be in: an individual, online… as opposed to an organization that has to pay rent, and juggle staff, and all these things that add up. With online content, whatever you can afford to pay is good. And that’s been really helpful.
Rob: When you were founding your first organization, the Institute for Compassionate Leadership, you committed to having one hundred and eight one-on-one conversations with leaders and mentors to help guide you in your effort. What were those conversations like, and what sort of questions did you ask?
Lodro: At first the conversations started very open-ended, and then they started getting more and more specific. I went from “Hey, I’ve got this random idea of joining these three things: Meditation, community organizing, and practical leadership skills.” gradually through to “I’m thinking of offering XYZ in ABC format.” Even though I designed and shaped the curriculum, I do feel like a lot of those conversations informed it.
Then, once I got past the 50 or so mark, the dynamic shifted from: “Oh, that’s an interesting idea, you’re going to be doing coaches.” to: “You know, I know someone who’s a meditation coach. You should talk to them.” It became a sort of resource-gathering, as opposed to those very open-ended conversations at the start.
Some of the conversations just fell flat on their face. “Great, thanks for your 15 minutes of advice.” (none of which was relevant) – type of thing. And that’s fine, you know, but some of them were really, really good leads. It was 108 sounding boards, with what started as a vague idea, then got more and more specific as time went on. By the time all 108 conversations were done, everything was fleshed out and it was very clear what the Institute was going to be.
Rob: That’s awesome. Do any of them stand out? What was the biggest lesson you learned through that process?
Lodro: No, I mean it’s funny because a lot of things that ended up happening were more relationships – it was such a relational type of thing. It wasn’t transactional, like: “Oh, you’re a coach. I want to hire you as a coach.” It was like: “Oh, it’s so great that you’re doing that work, and I’d love to learn more about it. What systems are you building around it?” and then the take away was: “Oh, I want to keep spending time with this person.”
A lot of friendships blossomed. A lot of good, close connections formed – people that I’m still very close to – and I think that level of openness, just walking in and saying: “I don’t have something I want from you. I just want to get to know you.” has led to more long-term growth.
Rob: What advice would you give to someone looking for a formal teaching relationship? For example, someone who’s gone to MNDFL, is taking classes, wants to deepen their practice, and is looking for resources outside of strict monastic study.
Lodro: I think we’re at this point in the meditation world where there is this giant group of people who’ve tried meditation through YouTube, Calm, Headspace, 10% Happier, all these apps, or something like MNDFL and other meditation studios. At a certain point, you’ve learned it. You’ve learned the technique and some other things and the question is… now what?
This is actually why I started that 5-month Buddhist Immersion online program: because for me, the answer to “now what?” is an introduction to the whole philosophy. Let me take you through the Three Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma as taught by the Buddha, or for other people it would be something different.
In the past, I would say “Go find a tradition, take an Insight Meditation retreat, or go to Shambhala, or find a local Zen center and check out their six-month offering.” Nowadays, I’m more saying “Go find a mentor.”
In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, it talks about three types of teachers… one of them is the instructor: someone that sits at the front of the room and leads the meditation. They may not even know your name, they’re just offering instruction. Another is the capital-T Teacher, the Guru, which is becoming increasingly unpopular in the West. People are saying: “I actually don’t want to surrender my ego and put myself in the hands of someone who may or may not actually be enlightened.”
In between these two is something that I think will become really popular in the West, which in Sanskrit is called Kalyāṇa–mitratā – a spiritual friend.
When I’m meeting with people one-on-one, that’s my role – a spiritual friend. It’s not like I’m saying I’m enlightened, because I’m not. I mean, I’m a very fallible human being… but I’ve also been practicing meditation for 30-plus years. So, I can speak from that level of experience, and what I say is hopefully helpful, but it’s a different dynamic. I’m not saying: “Here’s what you ought to do. You need to do X, Y, and Z.” That’s not my role. My role is to suss out what’s going on, and offer perspective and suggestions.
I think that mentorship model might actually be something that could really thrive in the West: finding teachers – it doesn’t have to be just one teacher, it could be more than one – finding teachers that you are into.
For example, I study with Venerable Kilung Rinpoche, and go on retreat with him… I also study with Sharon Salzberg, and also learn a lot from angel Kyodo williams Sensei… even my friend Susan. Some of these people are peers, and some of them are further down the path than me, but we all have different focuses and have to learn from each other. Sometimes, just by co-teaching with them, I’m learning.
So, there’s a lot of different ways of finding support, and I don’t think it always has to be one instructor – it can be a mix.
Rob: How do you formulate that request?
Lodro: It’s reaching out to someone that you have a connection with, saying: “Hey, would you be willing to work with me long term? What does that look like for you?” It’s interesting, with the money conversation there’s a similar kind of bravery, a willingness to put yourself out there. You ask the teacher: “Will you meet me where I am? Will you meet me in this conversation?” It’s not a conventional thing that happens in our society, but most of the time people are enthusiastic and helpful.
Rob: On a personal note: Which character trait are you most proud of, and why?
Lodro: I think I’ve gotten kinder over time. The world needs kindness of course, but there’s also some element of progress to be proud of there. I grew up meditating, and teaching, from a very young age. A lot of the influences I got were from people that were like: “You must cut through ego” in this really strict way. That’s just not been my style, and trying to “dominate” the mind was not good for me.
I figured that out pretty quickly, and softened up, but it took me longer to figure out the skillful ways to just be in relationships, and try to support people without trying to fix anything. I mean, the view when working with students, of course, is that everyone possesses basic goodness. They actually have their own Buddha-nature already inside them. They can actually manifest what they are, which is innately whole, complete, good as-is… so why would there ever be any need of fixing them?
So if I take my role – not just in meditation-student relationships, but in my entire life – as reflecting back other people’s basic goodness, then that’s a really good thing. That’s the sort of kindness and connection I’m proud of.
Rob: I like what you mentioned about being really strict and “cutting through ego.” That’s something I’ve always struggled with: very black and white thinking, seeing things as an all-in or all-out kind of thing. Tempering that is something I’m working on.
So, on a related note: Which character trait is your weakest, and how has this hurt you?
Lodro: Patience. I really struggle with patience. It’s gotten to the point where I have to laugh at myself.
I’ll give you an example: I was once waiting for an agreement from my business partner for MNDFL. It’s a perfectly lovely business relationship and all these things, and yet I’m like: “WHY ISN’T SHE SENDING IT YET?” There’s no logic to it! It’s just something that I have a chance to be impatient about. I notice that well up in me. I do have to laugh at myself; like, “Wow, even after all these years.” Even temporary delays, and things happening in people’s lives, it can all still lead to unskillful behavior. It could lead to me nudging: “I know I wrote you yesterday, why haven’t you done XYZ?” It’s silly! I think that if I don’t look at that impatience directly, regularly, then it can actually spin out and could be really hurtful to people.
Rob: Who are your top three heroes, and why?
Lodro: It’s funny, I was asked recently to go do jury duty, and they did all these questions for all of us, and one of them was: “Who’s your hero?” It was fascinating to see a cross section of the neighbourhood within which you live, and everyone’s answers. I was sitting next to a young woman, who was barely of age to vote, and to be on the jury, and she was like: “Harry Styles!”
I worked on the Obama campaign for a year, and have watched and admired his work for a number of years. Of course, he is a fallible human being, but I’ve seen him behind closed doors, and the way that he has acted. He leads with a sense of vulnerability, and knows that that is a strength, and I really admire that particular aspect of who he is: his willingness to be vulnerable.
When the shooting in Newtown happened, he gave this beautiful speech, but then he just started publicly sobbing. On national television. He says that he’s also a dad, you know, and that he can’t imagine what these people are going through – that this is horrible, a nightmare. And I thought: “This is the guy for me.”
So, him… and… What an interesting question, it’s not something I often think about. I wish that I could list a bunch of meditation teachers, and be like: “That’s my hero!”, but I also feel like they are all working with different stuff. And I’m also very aware that there is a tendency for us to put people on a pedestal in the Buddhist world. I don’t think it’s healthy. I think it’s okay for us to say I admire certain things about certain people… and also see that they have a shadow side.
For example, I could say Venerable Kilung Rinpoche. I think to some extent he is a hero of mine. He’s done really beautiful work in terms of helping nomads in Tibet. Some of the babies there get a distended belly from drinking Yak milk, which isn’t actually that healthy. He’s been going out there, getting in the weeds and really helping people. Stuff like getting baby formula to babies. I mean, for this High Lama to just be out there, in the field… I admire that ability to be on the frontlines of suffering, and not to get overwhelmed by it. However, I’m also trying not to get overly emotional about my teachers.
Ellen DeGeneres comes to mind. She had suffered such a hardship for just being herself: coming out at a time when it was not popular to do so. She wanted to just be herself on television, and her show got quickly canned. The message coming back was that it’s not okay do that. There was this period where she shrunk out of the public eye, and went incognito, basically going: “Well, all right. My career is over. I’m gonna have to figure something else out.”
Then, somehow was able to say: “Actually, no, I’m not going to just hide who I am. I know I have something to offer.” She then started working again, getting these occasional calls and saying: “Okay, I’ll put myself out there again.” All this despite that incredible amount of hurt that she had suffered. There’s so much resilience and strength in that sentiment. I truly believe that she’s the sort of person who’s like: “It’s my job to make people happy. It’s my job to actually bring Joy to the World, and I’m going to do it in the most skillful way, and hurt as few people as possible.” Maybe the news will prove me wrong tomorrow, but she’s wielding the sense of celebrity with a sense of real responsibility.
Rob: I’m so glad you brought up the point of “Everyone is human, putting people on a pedestal isn’t particularly helpful.” But, you also mentioned vulnerability: when people recognize that they are only human, and that they have suffering, and bring it forward. Where is that line: between using your experience and suffering as a tool, versus being a victim, being defined by your story?
Lodro: It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing. I don’t know if you got into my book “Love Hurts” at all, but that was such an interesting book to write because it’s probably the most vulnerable one I’ve written, where I talked about a period of my life, between 2012-2013, where my life really fell apart. Where I was, you know, suicidal. You wouldn’t expect to hear that from someone who had been teaching for a few years before that. My life was uprooted.
There’s a line that we use when we do the MNDFL teacher training, which I think is really helpful: “We speak from the scar, not the wound.” I can talk to you about that period of time, because I’ve really looked at it, and worked with it. For example, if I talk about the death of one of my best friends, the grief is still there – but I’m speaking from a scar, not a wide open wound. It doesn’t feel the same to me talking to you right now, as it did the day after he died.
There’s healing that has taken place, and because there’s healing, there’s learning. I learned a lot about grief. I learned a lot about confusion, about heartbreak during that time – and because I learned something, I can help share. But at that time if you had asked me about it, I wouldn’t have been able to. Does that distinction make sense?
Rob: Absolutely. I can relate to your answer, and actually recognize that it’s still an area where I have work to do. I feel like a broken record when I bring that sort of stuff up, but to what you said about feelings changing: for you, they feel different now. For me, they still feel very much the same. That’s the signal: there’s still something there that I need to revisit.
Thanks so much for your time.
Lodro: My pleasure.