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Yvonne Rand Main Page

An Interview with Yvonne Rand by Dayna Macy of the Yoga Journal in the Sangha-E! newsletter (on women's issues)

Sorry - undated, but she says herein that she's almost 70 and she turned 70 in 2005. - dc

Everything changes. This truth is so fundamental to Buddhism, it's known as the First Noble Truth.
Yet despite knowing this, some of us are surprised, and disturbed, when our faces and bodies change. Though men may feel the sting of age, our culture is particularly hard on women, many of whom derive a sense of power and identity from their looks.
Beauty and aging are only one layer of a more complex web. Aging is a prelude to dying, while clinging to youth is one way of obscuring the truth of impermanence, and an impediment to waking up.
On a rainy spring day from my home in Berkeley, Calif., I spoke with Yvonne Rand -- a preeminent American Buddhist teacher -- about women, aging and how to grow older authentically and powerfully as our faces and bodies change.

Yvonne Rand is a meditation teacher and lay householder priest in the Soto Zen Buddhist tradition. She began her practice and study of Zen with Shunryu Suzuki Roshi in 1966. Her other principal teachers and mentors have been Dainin Katagiri Roshi, Maureen Stuart Roshi, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and the Venerable Tara Tulku. Her primary practice path is Zen, augmented by practices and teachings from the traditions of Theravada and Vajrayana. Here's what she had to say.

Q:  We are bombarded daily by images in the media that youth and only youth is beautiful, powerful images that can greatly affect how we perceive ourselves. What can we do to move beyond them?

Yvonne Rand: There is a certain amount of bombarding from the culture that one has some choices about. For example, I just don't watch television and I don't read most magazines.

Q: Do you feel disengaged from the world because of this?

Yvonne Rand:  No, it's not a disengagement from the world, but a disengagement from marketing, from propaganda. A disengagement from being told about how the world is, and instead, placing significant priority on direct experience.

Q: What are some of the Buddhist teachings on impermanence that are useful as people grow older?

Yvonne Rand: The possibility of the alleviation of suffering in the Buddhist tradition has to do with focusing on what are called the three marks.  The fact that there is suffering, that everything changes, and that there is no permanent, solid self.

Q:  Then who are we?

Yvonne Rand:  Well, we're not permanent and solid, but that doesn't mean there isn't a self.  There's a self, it's just not the self of the sort we think exists.  Meditations on impermanence can be a kind of access point to the experience, not the intellectual understanding, but the actual experience of no solid, permanent self.  When we understand that all there is is coming and going, that in itself brings about significant lessening of suffering.

[In Buddhism, there is also] a very clear graduated path for studying the mind and training the untrained mind. The untrained mind is one that is conditioned, and is flooded with both the mental and physical consequences of reactions. Our reactive patterns arise from the early conditioning from our family of origin, and from the conditioning from our society.

Q:  Why do you think some people feel sadness or fear when their faces and bodies change?

Yvonne Rand:  Change is inevitable. And resisting this inevitability can cause intense suffering.  I mean, what can we do?  Well -- there's a lot we can do these days about wrinkles and sagging, but even those medical procedures are not without suffering.  And, you know, the bottom line is that when we resist change, we are poorly prepared for our own dying or the dying of those dear to us.  And that means that we are far more likely to die in a fearful state of mind than we are with a calm and happy mind. And that's a huge difference.

For me, I learned a great deal on how it was possible to die as a consequence of sitting with Suzuki Roshi in the last few months of his life, and then subsequently sitting with people over the years as they were dying.  And I got to see the difference between turning away from impermanence and turning towards it.

Q:  What is the difference?

Yvonne Rand:  Well, my mother, for example, was the polar opposite of Suzuki Roshi.  I remember when she began to age, she was very upset. And I said to her, did you not ever know anybody who got old?  And though she said yes, she said she never thought it would happen to her.  She was very fearful and suffered incredibly in an effort to control what she couldn't control.

I know somebody who died of metastasized breast cancer when she was 57. And she had the body of a 20-year-old. She'd had a lot of cosmetic surgery, and she was very beautiful.  And the doctors were just gaga over this beautiful woman to the point that in some cases they weren't always to attentive to what was going on for her as she was closer and closer to dying. And dying was very hard for her because even though she was very beautiful, she was dying.
Q:  Of course, we all are.

Yvonne Rand:  We're dying all the time.  We have the minor dying when we go to sleep and a kind of minor birth when we wake up.  We have a kind of minor dying when something ends, you know when you and I hang up the telephone, or when someone we love comes to visit and then goes away. These are minor dyings and if we don't turn away from them we begin to be more open to the joy and beauty of experience that's not separable from sadness. Joy and sadness are not separable.

Q:  I see a great expenditure of energy in both younger women and older women to maintain a fixed state of beauty.  And it's an interesting choice to make because that's an allocation of energy that could possibly be used elsewhere.

Yvonne Rand: there's something heartbreaking for me when I see someone older who is trying to look younger. There's a huge amount of suffering in resisting the fact of change.

[But grasping can come in many forms]. I had an incredible experience with a particular rose that grows in our garden. Someone had made a bouquet of the honey colored blossoms and put them in a white milk pitcher.  And it was just unbelievably beautiful.  And I ran to get the camera to take the picture.  And in the middle of it, I stopped myself and realized, oh, grasping.  So instead, I let the bouquet sit on the altar, and as the roses began to fade, the petals fell off. We let it stay for a month. That was pretty interesting.

So there's this impulse to capture, to grasp, to hang on to, that comes out of our conditioning to grab and grasp.

I think that [a lot of people, because they're afraid, have] that impulse to freeze a moment, to hang on to something that delights us, instead of experiencing the delight that includes the momentary nature of whatever it is that delights us.

Q: What if someone looks in the mirror and says well, my aging has caused me to suffer so if I change my face or body, I will alleviate the cause of my suffering?

Yvonne Rand:  I don't think it's an accurate statement.  I think it's that tendency to say that my suffering is caused by something outside and not recognize that the suffering I experience is happening in my mind.  It has to do with my reaction to the wrinkles, it's not the wrinkles themselves. It's my reaction to them. And the difference between reaction and response is huge.

Q:  And how do you feel when you look at yourself and see yourself change?

Yvonne Rand:  Well, I use that as the occasion for returning to [the fact that] everything changes, nothing remains the same, including skin.  I mean, I've actually done meditations on hair, nails, and sagging skin -- taking on as a focus for noticing change where I might want to turn away.  Okay, for the next week or ten days I will bring my attention to standing in front of the mirror and noticing, bringing attention to oh, sagging, impermanence of the body.  And I won't linger with that attention on sagging long enough to get caught with storytelling about it.  I'll notice and come back to the present moment by bringing attention to the alignment of the head, heart center and hara, and the breath.

Q:  What would be an example of getting lost in storytelling?

Yvonne Rand:  Look at that belly sagging. Oh I need to exercise more. I am such a slob. Why am I so lazy? What's wrong with me. I'll never change.

Q:  Oh right. The Judge.

Yvonne Rand:  Yes.  And for Americans, habitual judgment is very, very dominant. Every Asian teacher or Buddhist teacher I've ever talked to has commented on how fearsome we seem to be in this culture with respect to judging ourselves and everything else.  You know, self judgment directed towards oneself that gets projected out.

And it's a significant hindrance to the cultivation of one's capacity to be present.  It's a very serious obstacle. Some years ago during some of the mind/science meetings at Harvard with his Holiness, the Dalai Lama, his Holiness had a very hard time believing how pervasive judgment is for us Americans. It was like, how can this be?

Q:  What is the foundation of fierce judgment?

Yvonne: I think it's essentially based on fear.  If you drop deep enough under a judgment, there's fear.

Any reaction, if it's deeply set, has become a habit.  And it's important to understand that the very nature of a habit is that it's tenacious.  So dismantling a habit requires some willingness to see the pattern and to then doggedly and determinedly keep noticing and coming back into the present moment.  Because if you notice the pattern and linger, you're going to get caught in the storytelling and that re-energizes the very reactive pattern that you're seeking to dismantle.

Q: Does becoming enlightened mean that you don't have reactivity?

Yvonne: Yeah, I think so. My experience being with people who are significantly awake is that they are people who are sublimely present.  And presence and reactivity don't go together.

Q: What does it feel like to be in an enlightened person's presence?

Yvonne Rand:  Vastly spacious. It's one of the reasons why I say to various people I practice with if you ever have a chance to take teachings from his Holiness the Dalai Lama, please do so that you will have the experience of what it's like to be in the presence of someone who is deeply awake and present.

There's a word in Tibetan called kundun, which means "The Presence." And, you know, one of the extraordinary experiences as a Buddhist practitioner is to be with practitioners who have cultivated significant capacities to be awake, to be fully present. It's a way of having a taste, if you will, for what you're aiming towards, what you're seeking to cultivate.  And I think having that taste experientially is incredibly useful.

Q: What are some other classic meditations on impermanence?

Yvonne Rand:  That  death is inevitable; that death can come at any time; meditating on the actual dying process, or what I call my dress rehearsal; and the  meditating on what happens after one dies.

There's another meditation recitation called the Five Remembrances. "I am of the nature to have ill health.  There is no way to avoid having ill health.  I am of the nature to grow old.  There is no way to escape growing old.  I am of the nature to die.  There is no way to escape death.  All that is dear to me, and everyone I love is of the nature to change.  There is no way to avoid being separated from them.  My deeds are my constant companions.  My deeds are the ground on which I stand.  I am my own protector."

Q:  What do you find joyful about growing older?

Yvonne Rand:  Well, I have some sense and some degree of cultivation of the mind.  I'm grateful for each day and what comes.  I actually have a vivid sense of impermanence.  You know, I'm not that far away from 70. So, a sense of the impermanence of this body and of this life is quite vivid. And for that I'm quite grateful.

I do not put things off as I did when I was younger.  And the result is that I have less that I regret.  To live without regret is quite sweet.
Dayna Macy is the communications director of Yoga Journal Magazine. She is a writer and musician, and lives with her family in Berkeley, CA.