July 31, 2023

A Q&A with Matthew Brensilver

Introduction to the Insight Meditation Path: A Beginner’s Weekend Retreat
September 2 & 3
Register here.

Matthew Brensilver, MSW, PhD, teaches retreats at the Insight Retreat Center, Spirit Rock, and other Buddhist centers. He was previously program director for Mindful Schools and for more than a decade, was a core teacher at Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society. Matthew worked as a clinical social worker, serving severely and persistently mentally ill adults and adolescents. He subsequently earned a PhD from the Dworak-Peck School of Social Work at USC where he was a Provost’s Fellow. His dissertation examined the mechanisms of risk and resilience in maltreated adolescents in a large, longitudinal study in South Los Angeles.
Before committing to teach meditation full-time, Matthew spent years doing research on addiction pharmacotherapy at the UCLA Center for Behavioral and Addiction Medicine. Each summer, he lectures at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center on the intersections between mindfulness, science, and psychotherapy. He serves on the Board of Directors at Spirit Rock. Matthew is the co-author of two books about meditation during adolescence and continues to be interested in the unfolding dialogue between Buddhism and science. For more info or to connect with Matthew, please visit his website.

In this two-day online retreat, Matthew will explore the foundational teachings of insight meditation as well as different approaches to meditation practice, orienting newer practitioners to the path. In this Q&A, Matthew talks with IMS Staff Writer Raquel Baetz about what inspired him to offer this retreat and the benefits of reflecting on the foundational teachings.


What inspired you to lead a retreat for newer practitioners?

My motivation stems from the depth of gratitude I feel to the path and the discovery that suffering becomes unnecessary through the cultivation of wisdom and love.

The nature of suffering is that it feels necessary in the moment. So, to discover a path that allows us to cultivate our heart-mind in ways that dramatically minimize the amount of suffering in the day-to-day rhythms of our life inspires incredible reverence and gratitude in me.

My aspiration is to share my confidence in the path and my hope that practitioners might live a life in which the Dharma feels very close at hand, so that no part of their life feels alienated from the realm of wisdom and love.

As a teacher, I appreciate the challenge of having to synthesize these different threads—along with the ways in which I’ve fallen in love with the path and my commitment to it—in a way that is digestible to newer meditators.

What can participants look forward to with this program?

We often live on the run from the texture of our lived experience and that leads to a sense of jaggedness, agitation, and alienation. With this program, people can look forward to a sense of coming home to experience. No matter what the experience is, pleasant or unpleasant, awareness is its own kind of homecoming, and this brings its own kind of relief.

The Dharma is a thousand forms of medicine. We have to find our own idiosyncratic way into it and then keep opening doors, discovering more and different ways that we are healed and awakened by the path.

What is the benefit of looking at the foundational teachings?

In this tradition, there are no secret teachings. It’s not that you master the Four Noble Truths and then you get to move on to the next set of truths. So, our work is to appreciate the layers of depth at which the Buddha transmitted the Dharma. The teachings are no longer hypothetical, they become real to us.

We recognize there is suffering, dukkha, that is woven into the fabric of existence. This can be known at many depths. As we look at the teachings from different angles, using different language applied in different ways, we appreciate how deep each teaching runs.

During the program, there will be time devoted to learning different approaches to meditation practice. Can you tell us more about this?

We will look at different approaches to meditation both as a taxonomy that’s been developed in the scientific realm, but also the traditional Buddhist taxonomy. We’ll examine some of the distinctions between meditative techniques and the ways in which some may gravitate more towards one practice or another. And there will be room for a lot of exploration of different ways of marshalling the attention.

The meditation instructions on the surface are quite simple, but they often take quite a while to sink into the heart and to feel trustworthy. My job as a meditation teacher is to anticipate all the ways practitioners make themselves wrong for what happens at the level of their own minds and to give them confidence that their mind is workable. The moralism that we often bring to our minds—the ideas we have about what our attention or emotional life is supposed to be like or what it means to be a good meditator or a good Buddhist—all can be known as objects of awareness.

The intensity of the human condition, rather than disqualifying you from a meditative life, is an encouragement to pursue it. This practice is humbling (not humiliating), and I have incredible respect for the power of certain habits of mind. We’re learning to step out of the moralism about the human condition that we tend to enter practice with and to begin to appreciate in a clear and non-aversive way all the different movements of our mind, learning what is conducive to peace and what tends towards suffering.

What would you tell a newer practitioner who may be curious but uncertain if this program is for them?

I will try to have fidelity to the historical teachings and to make them relevant for our lay lives. There will be a lot of time for dialogue and exploration and to bring the fullness of each participant’s experience.

Part of the confidence of the Buddhist path is that whatever you are bringing to the moment is practicable—there’s a way of folding into the practice the wide range of experiences that happen as people learn to sit. And the confidence that we can learn ways of meeting the particularities of our mind with wisdom and love.

If someone sees these words and there’s some interest that is evoked in them or they have some intuition that they have underestimated the capacity of their own heart, then they are warmly encouraged to join in. This will be a co-creation. We will abide in a field that is characterized by wisdom, love, and care and I hope that we’ll share something beautiful together.

Is there anything else you’d like people to know about this two-day online retreat?

I hope that it will be a playful weekend because, from one perspective, the Dharma and human life is dead serious. But from another perspective, our minds are funny. There’s a lot about the human condition that is funny. And playfulness is an antidote to egoic seriousness. The ego does not have a great sense of humor and playfulness is important as we begin to open to the fullness and intensity of the human condition. My hope is that there’s a sense of fun, exploration, curiosity, humility, and shared delight and that these themes animate our time together.