Interview with Gail Iverson
What brought you to mindfulness meditation?
In the mid-1970’s, I moved to a rural community in Minnesota. I was interested in meditation but at that time in rural areas there were not many opportunities. One day I was looking in the paper and there was an ad that someone was coming to give a lecture in a town 15 minutes away on Transcendental Meditation. I went there and about ten people showed up. It was $300-$400 for the instruction. I wanted to learn so I signed up. It was mantra meditation. The instruction was to practice for 20 minutes in the morning and for 20 minutes before supper every day. For ten years I was very consistent with the morning practice but not so much with the evening practice.
But then I realized I wanted something more than just a calming practice; I wanted something transformative. At that time, we had a few friends in a book club reading various spiritually-oriented books. A friend sent Joseph Goldstein’s The Experience of Insight and this was the type of meditation/spiritual practice I was looking for. Around the same time, my sister, who worked at the Humphrey Institute, got a flier that Shinzen Young, an insight meditation teacher was coming to give a lecture in St Paul. A few of us went over and listened to it and what I understood from the book was confirmed by what he said. He came to Minnesota four times a year to lead retreats. I signed up for the next retreat and I’ve kept on practicing since then – 1987.
What type of work do you do? How does mindfulness support or affect how you do your job?
I am an office manager for manufacturing sales representatives. We sell electronic components to original equipment manufacturers. In terms of mindfulness, you can use it anywhere. Actually, the way things work out, my job is contained within 40 hours of work and it’s not exhausting of my energy. I have energy to do a lot of other activities, mainly directed at participating in activities at Common Ground.
In terms of this practice in relation to work, I’d say over the years, I’ve become much more conscious of the importance of harmony. My relationships with my co-workers and my boss are very harmonious. I think it conserves a lot of energy. I feel a lot of warmth towards them and a lot of gratitude too for having a job.
Working in a commercial environment
Before I had this job, for eight years, I was an administrator for the Vipassana Support Institute, organized meditation retreats and classes led by Shinzen Young who was the head of the Institute. I’m grateful because it kept me so close to the practice. The whole thing in the practice is not to exclude anything. Being open to whatever our experience is. You just practice with any circumstances that arise. So it’s not a conflict. As human beings we live in a dualistic world. But it’s useful to know that when that push and pull comes up, there’s that choice–no matter how weak my resolve might be. I still know there’s that choice and I don’t have to meet it with resistance. When reactivity arises, I know to recognize that just as that – it’s reactivity. The point is just to have as much acceptance as I can.
There’s no circumstance that isn’t an opportunity for applying the teachings. That gives a lot of meaning to whatever I’m doing, entering financial information or whatever routine I may be bored with. All of it can be included.
How did you get involved with Common Ground?
In 1987 when I started to practice, there wasn’t a Common Ground at that point. But there was a group called TCVC. And so I was one of the founding members of that organization. I moved to Los Angeles in 1992 and came back to Minnesota in 2000. I was looking to get involved again, in a community here. I didn’t know about Common Ground and didn’t know of its existence. I was taking a walk one day and I saw the building. There was a box with newsletters and I picked up a newsletter. It was very cool to live a few blocks away from the center. So I started to sit there. At first, I mostly came and sat in the mornings, especially Sunday mornings, and after a while I filled out one of the volunteer sheets. Mark called me up and gave me some volunteer activities to do. That was probably in 2003. One of my first things was when Mark went on a retreat, I answered emails and phone messages. That felt really good, like a nice way to support the center. After a while I was asked to be on the board, to be the chair of the board.
What advice would you give to a novice meditator?
Keep coming back. Start again. Start again. I think back to when we do introductory classes – one of the things that is introduced is five hindrances and one of them is doubt. Doubt is a really powerful hindrance. So I think it’s important to really have an awareness of this so you can see it. It can be very sneaky. So often times our practice just starts fading and we don’t even notice. So really imprint that on the mind that this is a common scenario. I do the intro workshop once a quarter and it’s really common for people to say, I started this practice ten years ago and now I’ve come back again. It’s just sad – that ten years could have been productive time to practice. And if you find yourself slipping away, have friends you can talk to–or talk to Mark or some of the people who have been practicing for a while to see if there’s something that can get you re-motivated.
End suffering. That is what Buddha said. Life is fragile. If we put all of our energies into attempting to develop some sort of security and safety based on impermanent conditions of our life, in the end, we’ve put all this energy into developing these things that are not going to last. And we are sad when they don’t. But it isn’t sad if we can have a bigger container for our life.
It seems like every meditator has one hindrance that challenges him or her more than the others. What is it that you find the most challenging?
One of my ways of coping is denial and delusion. In some ways it brings some comfort but then, of course, it’s not a good refuge. But I’d say it took me a long time to really even see that as a condition that was arising. Now there’s more awareness of it. When I see it, I can laugh about it in a way. And then there are things that are to be revealed that I haven’t seen as problems yet.
The other thing that I have seen over the years that I did not recognize for a long time is indifference or apathy–complacency. I really justified that as I mistook it for equanimity when in fact what was coming up was indifference or apathy or complacency. I was on a retreat and I was experiencing a lot of these hindrances. And finally I saw, this is apathy, this is indifference and I was really happy to see that. Whenever things aren’t seen, they will keep persisting. That’s not to say it no longer arises but on more subtle levels. The practice reveals things to us that we would otherwise not see, things that keep us stuck and less than happy and peaceful.
And finally….what’s your favorite dessert?
I’m an equal opportunity cookie consumer. On a recent retreat with Steven Armstrong and Kamala Masters, the teachings were encouraging us to be continually mindful and to be aware of attachments. Eating was a good place to examine those. I was eating a cookie, and when I was paying attention, it wasn’t actually so good–it was so sweet. It was really sweet. For the rest of the retreat, I wasn’t interested in dessert. I noticed I was standing in line and I saw brownies. And I thought, “mmm, brownies” and I noticed, “ah give me the brownies,” and I remembered the cookie and thought, the brownie is probably the same experience. I haven’t given up cookies though. I still eat them. I just don’t eat an entire package like at one time in my life.