On the evening of September 26th, Dean Sluyter will lead meditation and discussion, via Skype, at 2219 Westfield Ave. in Scotch Plains. (Click here to see event listing.)
When Dean Sluyter talks about meditation, he is just as likely to mention Bugs Bunny, “Dragnet,” or spaghetti Westerns as he is the Buddha.
The author of Cinema Nirvana and The Zen Commandments, Sluyter brings a remarkably agile, culturally hip sensibility to lofty subjects like enlightenment. The result is a down-to-earth understanding that replaces intimidation with ease.
Sluyter began his own spiritual journey in the 1960s, when he landed in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district during the heyday of the counterculture movement. He studied with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, famed guru to The Beatles and other celebrities, and later traveled to India.
Somehow, Sluyter’s remarkable path led him to New Jersey, where he taught at The Pingry School for over 30 years, developing a course called “The Literature of Enlightenment” and introducing thousands of stressed teenagers to meditation. He also founded a few meditation groups (called “sanghas”) in New Jersey that continue to this day – including one at Northern State Prison in Newark.
The following is an interview with Sluyter, who now lives a stone’s throw from the beach in Santa Monica, California.
You have described your meditation approach as "natural." What does that mean? How is it different from other types of meditation?
Most forms of meditation attempt to control the mind and stop thoughts. People hear that and get discouraged, thinking, "I could never do that," and actually they're right. Thoughts arise and vanish naturally, like clouds coming and going in the sky, and the occasional breaks in the clouds are really accidents.
In natural meditation, we recognize that our awareness is like the sky, which by its nature is always spacious and undisturbed, even when it's full of clouds.
With a little guidance, you can learn to rest in that silent, skylike nature of awareness when you're sitting in meditation, and then, more and more, even as you go through the activities of the day.
How did you arrive at this particular approach? Why does it work for you?
I didn't arrive at it, I learned it. I became keenly interested in meditation and enlightenment (which is when that inner spaciousness becomes permanent) at about the age of 17, but I recognized that I had a hyperactive mind and would never be able to still it. I had the good fortune to encounter teachers who taught this natural approach in various forms: first Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who called it Transcendental Meditation, then a number of Buddhist teachers of the Dzogchen school, and then teachers connected with the Advaita lineage of India.
Do you need to be able to "quiet" your thoughts to meditate?
Nope. And it's a good thing, because, with very rare exceptions, no one can do that. The nature of the mind is to have thoughts, just as the nature of the ear is to hear sounds. Trying to still the thoughts is like rowing around on the surface of the ocean with an iron, trying to flatten out all the waves. In fact, all that effort just stirs up more turbulence. The whole thing is so exhausting that, every once in a while, the mind might get too tired to think, and then you congratulate yourself for being a good meditator — and that's your next thought!
The good news is that you can simply sink into the silent depths of the ocean, which is always resting in its own vastness, and just let the waves roll on without you.
If someone cannot make it to the meditation session, what is the one book you would recommend they read to get a better sense of the practice?
People asked me this question for a long time, and I couldn't find a book that set it all out in clear, plain language. So I wrote it myself, and called it "The Zen Commandments." I also made a guided-meditation CD called "Just Being: Natural Meditation." [Sluyter’s books and CD are available from Amazon and at deansluyter.com.]
Is meditation a religion? Does it require or encourage a particular set of beliefs?
No. For centuries, it has been practiced by people of all religions. Actually, I'm not fond of the word "meditation," because it sounds like something complicated that we have to do. Natural meditation is not really doing, it's being, so it comes naturally to people no matter what their beliefs might be. Beliefs are thoughts. This is on a much simpler, deeper level, the natural openness that underlies all thoughts.
Why did you start a meditation group at Northern State Prison? What is it like to meditate behind bars?
I started teaching at Northern State in 2005 at the request of some inmates, going in every Thursday night till I moved to California in 2010. I still go in a few times a year, whenever I return to New Jersey, and I correspond with some of the men there and in a few other prisons. It's an amazing experience — which, by the way, I'm writing my next book about.
Most of the men I work with have been surrounded by violence their whole lives, and they live in an environment where, for their personal safety, they feel the need to project a macho toughness at all times.
But over the years I've watched their armor melt. I've seen them blossom into some of the most caring, compassionate people I've ever known.
Some guys have told me how grateful they are that they were locked up, because in their world they would never have encountered these teachings any other way.
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