Ben Connelly is a Zen teacher at the Minnesota Zen Center as well as the author of several books including ‘Inside Vasubandhu’s Yogacara’ and ‘Inside the Grass Hut’. His latest book, ‘Mindfulness and Intimacy’ looks at the importance of cultivating intimacy with ourselves and the world within our mindfulness practice. In an exciting new section for The Dewdrop, we are featuring an Author Q&A without Ben to find out more about what floats his writing boat.
How do you write?
Why do you write?
So far, my writing has been motivated by a desire to help people understand something I find healing and liberating. My first books were commentaries on ancient texts, Song of the Grass Roof Hermitage, and Thirty Verses on Consciousness Only. I really wanted people to be able to access and understand the wisdom of those texts. I’ve written some magazine articles pulling themes out of those texts, and my latest book came from some themes that coalesced in my mind, so from a conventional view was more my own thing.
What drew you to the theme of intimacy in your most recent book, Mindfulness and Intimacy?
A number of streams come together. My previous book Inside Vasubandhu’s Yogacara emphasized an ancient approach to integrating mindfulness, which is an object-based, discriminating mental activity, with non-dualism which collapses ideas of objects and discrimination and reveals reality in it’s wholeness. However that sounds kind of complicated so I wanted to frame it in an accessible way, hence Mindfulness and Intimacy.
Also, we see mindfulness being appropriated in to Western culture very rapidly. I want to be a part of making that appropriation one that is as universally liberative as possible. Integrating awareness of intimacy, interdependence and a focus on community is a means to counter the tendency of mindfulness to be presented as self-help that is mostly oriented to helping us get along with how things are. We live embedded, that is to say intimately involved, with systems characterized by white supremacy, patriarchy, trans and homophobia, Islamaphobia, Anti-semitism, environmental degradation, and economic exploitation. Mindfulness and awareness of intimacy as a matched pair can be a means to transform these systems of harm.
When considering intimacy, most people first think about their personal relationships. What other forms of intimacy do you write about and how are they important?
Anything that you think is part of you or separate from you, or that you are unaware of is something with which you are intimate. As Dr. King repeatedly said, “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” All things arise from infinite conditions, and each thing is part of the conditions that create everything else. I encourage practices that help us realize this intimacy so that our lives are transformed. The book works through many aspects of our lives: our bodies, minds, emotions, friends, lovers, communities, teachers, rituals, art, work, play, and a few more.
What aspects of your own life contributed to the themes in the book?
Mindfulness practices were fundamental in transforming my consciousness from one which produced tons of suffering into one which does not. I have a long history with addiction and mental illness and many years of recovery. Mindfulness practice helped me see, be with and transform a huge array of painful emotional tendencies. Intimacy has opened up my life so I find connection more deeply with my loved ones and folks close to me, but also in countless places where I never knew it was possible, at the grocery store, in a very tense meeting, with folks I used to hate or think were completely separate or different from me. I realize my kinship with the world more now and it allows me to meet the many sufferings of this world with joy and energy for offering something that I hope is beneficial.
Zen teachers often try and steer new students away from reading too many books. As a Zen teacher and an author, what is your advice to your students, regarding reading?
I think reading is great, but doing dishes, sitting meditation, listening to your spouse, giving away money, watching birds, eating well, they’re all good too. I help people find a balance, everyone’s needs on the path are different. Find a teacher and actually have a relationship with them, they can help you find your way.
Can writing be a kind of spiritual practice?
Everything can be spiritual practice! Also, I don’t know what spiritual practice is. In every part of your life and in every moment at which you are conscious you can be doing something healing and liberative. Slow down, see what’s here now, take simple compassionate steps. Keep going.
Which of your books has been the most gratifying to work on and why?
I loved them all, but the research on Inside Vasubandhu’s Yogacara was particularly powerful. Most of the writing on the subject was by academics and I wanted to bring Yogacara to people in a way that was accessible and practical. Learning about the material and taking it into my practice was and is still profoundly transformative for me. Mindfulness and Intimacy presents Vasubandhu’s vision in a way that is accessible to people of any or no religion and who are new to some of these ideas so it feels wonderful for me to be carrying it forward in a fresh way.