Amy Gross was a majordomo in the pressurized magazine world. Vogue, Elle, Mirabella, and her last stint was editor in chief of O, The Oprah Magazine back when it was a must-read mag. While going to shows and glitzy events, she always took time to sit. Then in 2008, she quit the glam world and devoted herself to mindfulness meditation full-time – doing silent retreats, teaching Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, and writing about it. Gross remains awed by the brilliant way we can retrain our minds to free us from the kind of reactions that make for stress and suffering. And she knows what she is talking about.
Kathleen Kraft sat down with Amy to get to know how this practice can teach us to live better, more fulfilling lives.
Kathleen Kraft: Tell us about your background as an editor and how you got into mindfulness meditation.
Amy Gross: I became interested in meditation in college and started reading books like Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. I liked the space these books created in my mind. In the 60’s and 70’s, I wrote about new age stuff – some of it woo woo but also some of it substantial; and I became interested in Vipassana meditation—it was the blend of the psychological and philosophical that was attractive to me.
At O, I brought in articles about how people could reduce their suffering. This was one of the joys of the job—bringing the wisdom of others to so many people, which is what I also love about teaching, though with teaching it’s more immediate… thrillingly immediate.
KK:What is the mindfulness practice you teach?
AG: There are four formal practices - sitting meditation practice where your eyes are closed and you’re sitting still, paying close attention to what’s going on in your awareness. Then there’s the body scan, which is directing your attention through the body, a skill that’s useful in the world because it develops the sensitivity to your bodies reactions. Ah, here’s the thought and here’s the body sensation that evoked it. Think it of it as body radar - like when you’re waiting for a doctor’s report, catastrophizing that it will be terrible. Also, we do mindful yoga, which is not interested in the perfection of a pose, but developing the awareness of being in the body in the here and now.
Suffering comes from the stories we tell ourselves – our interpretation of what is happening. Meditationpractice changes this.
KK:You’ve cited a Tibetan teaching that describes our thoughts as clouds passing by in the sky as a way to look at being in the here and now.
AG: Yes, the sky is our awareness and thoughts and emotions pass through the space of awareness as clouds do. The feelings or clouds don’t stain the sky--they’re ephemeral. It’s that sense of “These are just reflexes “rather than “I am an angry person” or “I am an anxious person,” and so on.
KK: What if the thought or feeling is happy or pretty? A cloud that captures the eye, the heart.
AG: Right. So everything is unpleasant, pleasant or neutral. We find many ways to deal with unpleasant. The untrained mind tried to push away or spin a story about the unpleasant. The pleasant we grab onto… “I want a lot more of this.” The neutral we get bored with and we trip off into fantasyland.
The danger of the pleasant is getting attached to it. When people say that was the best meditation… I tell them to be careful because next time they’re going to try to go back to that. To me the mindfulness pose is open-handed, receptive to anything that rolls in and out. Another image we use is being on the banks of the river and it’s all going by.
KK: Mindfulness meditation is also known as Insight meditation.
AG: Yes, that’s what happens—these insights: Oh I see there’s anxiety about the anxiety. There’s fear of the fear. Once you realize this, the fear that’s wrapped around the fear can dissolve, and the cramped fear can open up.
KK: Tell us about the silent retreats, how it was for you initially and how it’s changed for you over time.
AG: You start meditating at 5:30 in the morning at Insight Meditation Society, a retreat center in Massachusetts. There are two meals a day and a light supper called tea. You are meant to be practicing being mindful, being here, rather than being lost in thought. It’s very intense, a bit of a roller coaster with highs and lows, and even after 20 years I can’t be sure how it will play out.
Another image—it’s like going into the cave of your mind. You’ve hidden pain, shame, embarrassment, hopes, dreams, and failures—all this stuff you don’t want to look at. Things get uncomfortable, so you want to reach for something to eat or have somewhere to go or someone to communicate with, and you realize there’s nowhere to go so you learn how to go into it. You surrender, and you realize the surrender is a relief.
KK: So it ultimately leads to a self-forgiveness?
AG: Yes, absolutely. And the forgiveness starts when you first sit down to meditate and the mind wanders, and you’re caustic with yourself for it, but you learn that’s what the mind does, so you forgive yourself. Packed right into this is compassion… You see other people and their suffering because you’re less caught up in yourself.
KK: How has meditation changed you?
AG: I’m much happier. When I was younger I would have said only idiots are happy people. I was reading Sharon Salzberg, who wrote Real Happiness and Real Happiness at Work, she defines happiness as a resource, resiliency. I can handlle things now that would have spun me into a vortex of despair in the past.
KK: Advice for the newbie meditator?
AG: Get yourself into a class. You need a teacher. More and more resources are being made available online, but there’s nothing like contact with a person and a community. And it’s really easier to do it in a group than alone.
KK:Jon Kabat-Zinn, who started the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program, was talking about the 8-week meditation program in the English Parliament and how a program like that would be beneficial for Congress.
AG: There isn’t a population that wouldn’t benefit from this because at its most basic it interrupts the stimulus-reaction “sandwich” that happens mindlessly –automatically. Mindfulness is a new mental habit that creates a space between a stimulus and what happens afterwards. In that space, we have time to figure out the wise response.