Bohemian Buddhist Review

Interview with Andrew Holecek

Find your 'sane asylum'
Q & A with Andrew Holecek,
 author of The Power and the Pain by Paki S. Wright

Q: The obvious first question is, what inspired you to write “The Power and the Pain”?

AH: I wrote the book because of my experiences in three-year retreat.  I kept asking myself “Why is this so hard?” and one day the title “The Powe Power and the Pain” just popped into my mind.  Then when I got out and started working as a meditation instructor, I saw yet again that anybody who seriously starts to work with their mind is going to come up with shadow material, difficult states of mind.  So I felt inspired to help. This kind of stuff is not talked about enough, and lots of people get discouraged, or quit altogether, when things get rough on the spiritual path.  They don’t realize it’s usually a good sign – they’re starting to wake up.  So I wanted to put up some new road signs, to keep people on the path.

Q: Is the book only for Buddhists?

AH: The book is not just for Buddhists, but it does use Buddhist doctrine and terminology, because that’s what I’m most familiar with.  Nobody has a patent on the mind, nor on the spiritual hardship that arises when we explore deeply into the mind.  Anyone who is willing to take a close look at themselves, through any contemplative tradition, through the many forms of meditation, can benefit from this book.  It’s a journey into the heart and the mind, which no tradition has a copyright on, but it is a journey seen through the lens of a student of Buddhism.
Q: Buddhism has the rap of being pessimistic, with all the talk about suffering and hardship, do you feel your book only adds to that?

AH: Buddhism isn’t pessimistic, as far as I can tell it’s realistic.  It seems to be pessimistic only because suffering is the nature of relative conditioned reality, and Buddhism is a description of reality.  I try to show that the nature of ABSOLUTE reality, where we want to go, is blissful, full of joy.  But in order to get to the absolute we have to start with, and travel through, the relative.  In order to find the joy we have to face the suffering.  So it really is good news at the end of the movie, but a little scratchy till we get there.  By understanding that, we are more likely to hang in there when it gets hard.  That’s the spirit of the book – to get to the good news, the happy ending, we have to be honest and face the bad news first.  I don’t see any other way, and neither did the Buddha and countless other spiritual masters.

Q: Can you comment on the difficulties of being a Western Buddhist and going against the grain of the worldly, materialistic mainstream?

AH: We need to bring the ‘curative awareness’ from our practice into our lives, to be aware of the difficulty, first, and then acknowledge what we’re doing and its challenges; keep in mind that in Tibetan, meditators are considered brave ones, or warriors [because we’re battling our own inner demons]. We need to bring light into the shadows.

The collective centers of gravity [of samsara] are ego-based, so we need to find like-minded people who are also on the path: ‘sane asylum’ sanghas, in other words, and take refuge in realized others. Since we're always practicing, in one mode or another – either samsaric or spiritual – we need to keep making an honest assessment of where we’re at and then come back to ourselves and our truth and our path whenever we get distracted.

Q:  Back and forth and back and forth and back and forth?

AH:  Exactly.

Q: Could you elaborate on a phrase you used in your book about ‘painful peers’?

AH: The phrase ‘painful peers’ refers to the loved ones in our lives who aren’t on the path.  When we really renunciate, family members (and friends) can really react, so in order to prevent ‘spiritual recidivism,” we need to practice maitri, or loving-kindness, towards ourselves.

Q: What about live-in relationships?

AH: Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche has said that it’s very beneficial to live with a spiritual friend because all the crap of our kleshas [afflicted emotions] comes to the surface; if we remain aware of the process, it’s an enormous gift, especially for tantric practitioners, because “adversities are the greatest wealth.”

Q: But of course this doesn’t mean staying in an abusive relationship.  Clearly we need to distinguish between normal and abnormal adversity.

AH: Absolutely.

Q: Can you talk about emotionality vs. spirituality?  I really appreciated your saying, contrary to a common mis-perception, that emotions are not taboo on the path.

AH: In order to develop equanimity, we have to allow ‘hellish circumstances’ to arise and learn to differentiate between what needs to be accepted and what needs to be rejected.  It isn’t emotionality that’s a problem, it’s uncontrolled emotions.

Q:  Probably my favorite chapter in the book was the one on “Hardship as Loss of the Feminine” because it cuts to the chase of our whole existential problem as I see it, if not our chances of surviving as a species, our sadly and completely out-of-balance world view.

AH: I debated with myself a lot about this chapter; several people I showed it to in draft form thought it was too explicit for a general audience, so I did a lot of editing and re-writing.  I had a dream about the three turnings [of the wheel of dharma] that created the template for the book as a whole, which more or less dictated what I had to say at the end. Feminism is making inroads in our collective consciousness -- we have more and more women politicians now, which is a very hopeful sign. But it’s only a beginning.

Q:  Just to re-phrase a bit, you mean about the world’s intoxication with clarity/skillful means/masculine as opposed to wisdom/emptiness/feminine awareness?

AH: Yes.

Q: How do you see the future for us as a whole?

AH: Because we are fundamentally pure and good, I’m cautiously optimistic about the benefit of our current crises – socio-political, environmental, etc.  The very urgency of our situation is waking people up.  The gradual will become sudden and when enough people awaken, we may create an environment in which lightning can strike, spiritually speaking.  The best way to affect our environment is our own purification, then the individual can become collective, which was Chogyam Trungpa’s Shambhala vision for an enlightened society.

Q: So where’s the joy exactly, how do we transform hardship into joy in the here and now?

AH: The joy arises when we finally see that the things we once took so seriously, so solidly, are just puffs of smoke.  Our painful emotions, our hardship, are all mere luminous emptiness, the dance of light and space. They don’t really exist.  They appear to exist, and we get lost in that appearance.  We lose the essence in the display.  Let me say that again:  we lose the essence in the display.  We get hooked on appearance.  (Which is why superficial places that run from reality, like Hollywood, Aspen, or the French Riviera, are so bewitched by appearance – how beautiful everyone and everything appears. Lovely and seductive on first glance, but shallow once you spend some time with it.  As they say: “Image is everything.”  Well, no it’s not – not if you want to be deeply happy.)  The path is about bringing appearance back into harmony with reality.  It’s about discovering the empty nature of all appearance.

Q: So that’s the joy?

AH: When we finally see the empty nature of everything that arises, mental or physical, it’s a huge relief, and a huge release.  This is the great bliss – the joy.  In Buddhist terms, the first bhumi, or ground of realization, is when we first actually see this.  It’s also called the path of seeing – we finally see emptiness.  The first bhumi is called “joyous” for just this reason.  When appearance is freed of existence, everything lightens up, and becomes joyous.  So the joy, how we find joy in hardship, is to discover the essence of hardship – of anything “hard.”  Which, again, is emptiness, luminous emptiness.  The “light” in “enlightenment.” The good news, therefore, is that if we take a very good look at things, especially anything hard, it melts. That’s joyful. 

Q: Even though I know this is a writer’s least favorite question, how would you sum up “The Power and the Pain”?

AH: The book is really about maintaining the right view. When we realize we’re in a nightmare, we need to relate to it properly, in other words, to acknowledge the fact that we’re still asleep and acknowledge the path, because awareness is always curative.