September 19, 2022

A Q&A with IMS Teacher Rachel Lewis

Rachel Lewis will lead Wise Attention: Meditation for Experienced Practitioners, an online mini-retreat on Sunday, October 23 from 9 am to 5 pm ET. Here, IMS Staff Writer Raquel Baetz talks with Rachel about how she got started meditating, how arranging music is like dharma practice, and how wise attention allows us to reclaim agency over our lives.
Register for Rachel’s Wise Attention online mini-retreat here.


You began meditating while doing your PhD in nuclear astrophysics at Yale. Why did you start meditating at this time in your life and what drew you to the Dharma?

I had a great supervisor who was a lovely, creative, supportive human being. The world of academia, especially grad school, is challenging but I had good conditions around me. I had wonderful friends and interesting activities outside of my academic work. I felt like everything outside me was fine. And yet I was completely miserable.

So, I realized it must have something to do with what was going on inside of me—that I was making things harder than they needed to be.

I had a roommate at the time who was a meditator, and I saw how it affected the way he showed up in the world. It made me curious because he worked really hard, but with a sense of ease. So, I wondered, “Is there something here that I could learn?”

I came to my first retreat at IMS in 2003. During the retreat, one of the teachers said, “It’s now day 4 or 5, and you’re probably noticing that instead of a lot of random thoughts, the mind has picked its top 2 or 3 thoughts that it keeps coming back to.” And I thought, “How do you know what’s going on in my head?”

That moment created a lot of faith for me in this practice. I thought, “Maybe I don’t need to figure out how to be happy all by myself. Maybe these teachings can help me to relate more wisely to the challenges of my life.” That faith has kept me orienting to this practice over and over for 20 years.

That question—“How am I making this harder than it needs to be?”—is a real touchstone for me in practice and in life. When you’re doing something challenging, is there a way you can relax into the challenge instead of seizing up around it?

My practice supported me in leaving a career that wasn’t the right path for me. That transition was sort of like death because I’d built this whole identity around the idea that I was a physicist. Having the practice to help me stay steady during a devastating loss of identity was really important.

You also arrange music, including a choral arrangement of the Quan Yin chant taught by Thanissara that was played during the graduation ceremony of IMS’s most recent teacher training program of which you were a graduate. Is there a throughline between your areas of interest—science, music, the Dharma, etc.?

For me, arranging music is an ancestral inheritance. One of my first memories is harmonizing with my Dad when I was about 3 years old, singing songs at bedtime. My grandfather, great grandfather, and step great grandfather were all band leaders in addition to being coal miners. I think I feel like my inheritance from those ancestors is the feeling that the music on the page, or that somebody has taught you, is just a starting point and you can find your own way to make it come alive.

A lot of people ask me about the connection between science and my dharma practice, and people can make assumptions about that. For example, they might say, “Because you’ve learned a lot of stuff in a very technical way, you must have the sort of mind that wants a very elaborate map of how everything works.” But I really feel like my music life is more connected to my dharma life in some ways. It’s the sense that you have these basic instructions and then it’s up to you to make them come alive and just see, “Oh, a little bit more emphasis here would make the whole thing come together, or no, too much effort. Let me be more harmonious.” So that sense of exploring experience from the inside, I think, is something that comes from making music.

“Exploring experience from the inside”—is that one of the reasons you chose Wise Attention as the theme for this mini-retreat?

It comes back to this question of “How am I making things harder for myself than they need to be? How can I address my attention so that I’m not adding stress to this situation?”

For most of us, most of the time, we tend to assume that if good things are happening to us, we should be happy. And if bad things are happening to us, of course, we’ll be stressed and unhappy. So, when there’s something pleasant, for example, an innocuous pleasure like a beautiful flower, our attention goes all the way out to the flower, and we are sort of lost in the thing out there, and we lose sight of the fact that the experience of seeing is going on.

We can reclaim a lot of agency by changing that camera angle—by looking at, “What is the experience of seeing like for me right now?” There may be a feeling of excitement and uplift because that flower is so beautiful. And then the mind may get active with thoughts of how I could have flowers like that in my garden, and my friends will come over and visit. And before I know it, I’ve got this whole fantasy going on—all from not paying attention to how we’re paying attention to the flower.

If we can stay grounded, knowing what’s happening (e.g., seeing), we have more of a chance of staying present in our lives without adding all these exhausting mental proliferations that sap so much of our energy as we go through the day.

Also, we want to look at the mental qualities we’re cultivating. A big shift in practice happens when you really get that. What’s happening out there is important but so is how you’re relating to it. And we can use even difficult situations to cultivate beautiful qualities of the mind like patience, energy, and persistence.

Even when you’re in situations that are a bit ambiguous, for example, for those who have been on retreat, that first sit after lunch, there can be a lot of sleepiness there. And if there’s unwise attention to the sleepiness, it can get stronger. You might think, “My mind’s so dull right now, it’s really cozy and dark in here…” and before you know it, you’re falling asleep.

So, you can notice with wise attention that there is some sleepiness and stay curious about it, and not get so lost in it, and you can also pay attention to any little capacity for energy. “Can I sit up a little straighter? Okay, that brings a little bit more of a sense of vigor into the body. Maybe the mind could also be a bit more vigorous right now? Okay, yeah, even though there’s a kind of heaviness in the body, there can still be the sense of active engagement with this moment. I’m not at the mercy of this sleepy mind state.”

That shift is such an important area of practice, and that’s what I’m interested in exploring with folks in this mini-retreat.

The mini-retreat will also explore the practice of yoniso manasikara or nurturing attention. What is this and how is it done?

Yoniso manasikara is often translated as wise attention. But the word yoniso means womb, birth canal, or source of life. Manasikara means attention right down to the root of things. You could call it radical attention. But I also like the phrase “nurturing attention,” because it gives us another pointer to this agency we have. “What is it that I am nurturing with my attention right now?”

For example, say you are getting really fixated on how your office mate has this little cough sound that she does, and that’s all you can see about her—this irritating noise she habitually makes. What you are nurturing with your attention is irritation.

But what if you were to direct your attention to something else, something more neutral, or something pleasant? It could be about your office mate, or it could be about something else. It’s another pointer to this idea of agency that I keep coming back to. “What am I doing with my mind? Do I want to keep doing it?”

What else should participants look forward to with this mini-retreat?

I’ll give some instructions around different levels of working with this quality of attention. First simplifying the attention, relaxing into the present moment, and then looking at some of the other ways of working more deliberately with how we’re pointing the attention and what it’s like to pay attention, so we’ll have those instructions kind of interspersed through periods of sitting meditation. We’ll also have some periods for self-directed mindful movement, including walking meditation practice.

These mini-retreats are an opportunity to interact with someone who has some information about things that you might be curious about. I don’t always use the word “teacher” to describe myself because I’m here as a fellow student of the Dharma. I really love this and the potential for freedom that it brings. And we have this chance to explore together. And maybe I have some information that will be helpful to people, and we can explore together how to hold situations differently.

A rhythm of stillness, talking, interaction, and movement will unfold over the course of the day. Practice like this is helpful because it gives a chance to develop some continuity of mindfulness; to undercut this idea that mindfulness is something that happens only when conditions are just right, for example, sitting on your meditation cushion. Mindfulness is something that happens when you’re eating, walking, and washing your hands. No activity is excluded from the field of mindfulness.