'I don't feel fear. I don't worry. I don't recognize
Dr. Stephen Fulder, one of Israel’s leading meditation teachers,
explains how to find calm in a chaotic, threatening world, and
admits that he, too, sometimes experiences anxiety
Ayelett Shani | May 13, 2022
Tell us about yourself.
I’m British, I grew up in London and in Oxford. In the past I was an
academic, I have a Ph.D. in molecular biology, but fortunately my academic
career led me to a different place. In 1976 [the year Fulder turned 30], I was
sent to teach chemistry at a university in India. India astounded me. All the
crazy sadhus – the spiritual teachers, ascetics – on the banks of the Ganges. I
learned so much there, especially about the way spirituality is integrated in
our everyday life. On the street.
Was that your first encounter with Buddhism?
Yes, and it was jolting. Riveting. A new world opened up to me. I went on to
study meditation and spirituality, delving into it very deeply.
How did you end up living in Israel?
I came in the wake of my wife, who’s an Israeli. After we were married, we
decided to move to Israel and live in Clil, a community in the north that was
taking shape at the time – a new community and society with a vision based
on the principles of Mahatma Gandhi, and on sustainability and ecology.
Living in Clil made me want to put down roots in Israel, and I brought the
Buddhism with me. I think I was a lone figure in that sort of landscape back
then, maybe the only one. I went on studying and going on retreats in the
East and in the West, I founded Tovana [the Israel Insight Society], a large
organization involved in Buddhist practice in Israel, and I’m still here.
Learning. Teaching. Writing books.
We’re sitting in your lovely study in Clil, in the heart of nature, with trees
and wildflowers visible from every window. It’s an ideal platform for cultivating inner peace. So far from the everyday experience of most of us.
There’s no doubt that external conditions, like the nature surrounding Clil or being secluded in a monastery, can help, but let’s get back to the base: Inner peace does not depend on conditions, it exists within us, but we simply don’t know how to connect with it. Clil is not a paradise; the paradise exists within us. I built my kingdom in Clil because of my inner world and because of the paradise within me. I did not create the conditions for inner peace. On the contrary: It’s my inner peace that created my commitment to Clil, to nature, to my vegetable patch, where I have been growing my food and my medicinal herbs for the past 30 years, and that fills me with joy. You can do it, too. My inner world looks more like a junkyard for cars. In Mexico. You can grow plants in Tel Aviv, on the windowsill, and experience tranquility just like someone who lives in Clil. The conditions aren’t important. What’s important is what we choose to do with them. Our inner-ness and outer-ness are intertwined. We build our world and our surroundings in accordance with who and what we are, within us. If we are anxious or dependent or restless, that is how our world will look. And when we look at it we’ll tell ourselves: “That’s awful, that’s a place that’s so hard to live in.”
Don’t you think that the world is becoming a place in which it’s more difficult to live, objectively? That the pace [of life] is intensifying?
Yes, I agree. I think we are living in a complex age; in many senses we are seeing the collapse of civilizations. It’s starting to close in on us – we are beginning to grasp that we were complacent, that we thought we could do whatever we wanted and be oblivious to the consequences of the lifestyle we chose, of the disastrous results of the consumer society. We live in hard times and we encounter unprecedented challenges every day. We are eradicating the planet’s resources and are incapable of stopping. We are trying to cope with viruses, with social schisms and polarization, with conflicts, with changes in the climate. The uncertainty is infinite, the concern is great, because we feel that we really have nothing that we can actually lean on. So we have to ask ourselves whether we intend to sink or swim.
We also need to ask ourselves what tools we need so that we can be happy, stable and experience inner resilience. So that we can feel like a child who goes hiking in nature with his or her mother. So we can see the “other” and feel compassion and caring. Mindfulness practice can be a helpful tool in these times, because although we can’t control events, we can change the way we cope with them. When we are awake and aware, we are capable of noticing our patterns of behavior and our habits, of reducing our automatic responses and projections – we are constantly projecting things on each other. Consider, let’s say, that you’re sleeping and dreaming that your life is in danger, and then comes the moment at which you start to wake up, and you say to yourself: “Hey, but it’s just a dream and I’m in control of it, why do I need to continue [this way]?” Sometimes the nightmare is the reality. This room is also very far from another room in which I was sitting just a couple of weeks ago, during the terrorist attack on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv. We were told to move away from the windows. The feeling of threat and the insecurity are part of the fabric of life in Israel. Every living being – person, ant or dog – will always conduct a relationship with fear and insecurity. There is no way that we can escape coping with fear and insecurity, our brain is built like that. Vigilance stemming from the desire for survival is the background to the existence of every living being, but it is the raw material from which we start to build our life. Do we want to build our life on fear, to allow it to be present in every aspect of our life, to consume increasing quantities of it via the media? There will always be threats. Even the most devout Buddhist needs to move away from the window when an armed terrorist is wandering around freely. That is the basis, but how shall we behave in the face of fear? Shall we let it manage our life? The choice is ours. We can choose to be in a different place. A place of refuge, in which we can feel comfortable and quiet, maybe even happy.
Mindfulness. We can choose what to focus on and what to pay attention to, and we need to ensure that our attention is not stolen from us in favor of the world of the social media, worries and anxieties. Our worries and anxieties receive validation from society, from political leaders who speak to us in the language of problems and existential crises, and intensify them exponentially. That is the social and political discourse today, but we can and should take responsibility for our inner discourse. To decide that we are placing two things at the top of our order of priorities: first, the ability to feel at home within ourselves, to feel stable in terms of our consciousness and our awareness. The second thing is preparedness. When we come up against a difficulty, when fear looms, we want to be capable of looking at it directly and saying: This is just an experience. It’s not the absolute experience of my very existence, only an experience that comes and goes, like our other experiences, and I am ready for it. Naturally, we will sometimes need help in order to deal with fear – whether by means of meditation or psychological help.
Perhaps you could explain what you mean when you say “mindfulness.” You know, the term has become a total cliché. Indeed. Mindfulness is a cliché. The penetration of mindfulness in the West was rapid and sharp, and not by chance. I still think it’s effective, I believe that some of the millions who practice mindfulness understand that it’s only the gateway, that the practice brings them to a place at which they say to themselves: What is this thing? I’m curious, I want to know what else there is. I will define it through what it is not: The opposite of mindfulness is to live on automatic pilot. When I think about mindfulness, I think of wakefulness, of opening our eyes. The word in Pali [a Buddhist language] is sati, meaning “to remember.” To remember to be present in life, fully, and also to remember places within us we have already forgotten: inner peace, stability and security. Another word that is used in this connection is appamada. That was the Buddha’s last word to his monks, before his death. Appamada. To be awake, to be very meticulous about choosing the things to which we will devote our attention. Mindfulness has an agenda – it’s not only to pay attention, it’s to pay attention to what can help us and to what can help our community and the entire world. That agenda, which is implicit in the word appadama, is always forgotten.
Chickens and boars
You said earlier that our experience in the world needs to be or can be like that of a child walking with his or her mother out in nature.
Yes. We have that possibility within us. We have simply forgotten it.
Is that your experience in the world? Certainly. Really? When you wake up in the morning, you feel like a child going for a hike in nature with your mother?
When I wake up in the morning, I wake up with the world. I don’t wake up with the feeling that the world is against me in one way or another. The world and I wake up together. Birds sing to me and I sing to them. I talk to my chickens and they answer me.
But again, that’s your life. Don’t you think that mindfulness is a type of privilege in the overly full and intense life most of us lead? No. I think that each person can find what is suitable for them and for the situation they’re living in. Spirituality is for everyone. Everyone can do it. A little child can do it. Everyone has the right and the possibility to look anew at their life, with fresh eyes.
Perhaps you can try to explain the presence of mindfulness in your life.
At the moment you are interviewing me. You are listening to me and thinking about the next question. Maybe you also have reservations about my previous answer. I can be focused on that, to think to myself that I need to say something smart, that maybe the previous answer wasn’t successful enough. But that is the narrative at only one level – so many things happen in the meantime. You are listening to me and tilting your head. I am moving my hands, feeling their weight on my body, hearing the wind blowing outside, listening to the silence behind the words. It’s possible to remain in that place. That is a choice. If you are hurrying to work in the morning and you have to wake up the kids and you are stressed – take a minute and say, “Hello, stress. I’m with you.” The morning is chaotic, the kids are screaming. You’re with them. You’re listening to them. What do your kids say? You look them in the eyes. You open the box of the here-and-now. It sounds like a little, but it’s a start. If we move by even one degree in a particular direction, after a time, we will arrive at another place. The most important thing is to be available to encounter your life as it is. What is happening? What is really happening there? Simply to be authentic. That’s all. There’s no need to go to a retreat or a monastery. Each of us can be there.
Are you aware of the great difference between your experience in life and the experience of most of us? Yes, but that’s because I’ve invested so much in it. What about anxiety? Are you anxious sometimes? Maybe, sometimes – at very low doses. How is your anxiety manifested? It’s mainly, “Will I manage to catch the train to Tel Aviv on time?” That’s it? Yes. “Am I late?” Behind that thought there may be a little anxiety. It’s in absolutely homeopathic doses. And fear? I don’t feel fear – or, at least, that is a feeling that does not arise within me. Worry? No. I don’t feel worry. At all. Some time ago I went outside, and there were a lot of wild boars there. They were milling about and digging in the earth. It looked as though they were enjoying themselves very much. I think there was a moment when I felt my gut – when I thought: Is it right to march now into a herd of rampaging boars? And then I thought that they also need our love.The boars? The boars. And then that unpleasant feeling melted away. It wasn’t fear. It was perhaps more like a kind of mild flutter, of disquiet.
Do you think you also experience time differently? Yes. I don’t really recognize time. I’m 75 years old. For me that is a completely meaningless number. If someone were to ask me what the time is or how old I am, I would answer, but beyond that I have no connection with time. It is unrelated to me. It seems like something fictitious to me.
You live outside of time. Yes. I am willing to recognize time as belonging to a consensus, as something we all need in order to function; it’s nothing beyond that, it’s not experiential. I have a Google calendar. I knew you would be coming at 11 o’clock. That’s a thought: I understood that at 11 o’clock, I needed to do something. That’s it. There’s no more than that. That thought doesn’t control me, it will not determine my behavior, I am not a puppet of thoughts, and thoughts don’t pull my strings. That’s how I feel about time, too: I don’t need it in order to control my consciousness.
That’s also a type of privilege. My life is all about time. I always need to be in all kinds of places and do all kinds of things. I can’t imagine myself living outside time. True, but you don’t need to subjugate yourself to time. You can think of it as something purely functional. Think, let’s say, that you’re driving a car. You don’t have to think while you’re doing it, “I am the driver, I am driving, I need to concentrate on this now, I have to think about what I’m doing, what the others are doing.” Does the digestive system inform us, “I am digesting now”? No. You can let life happen. It happens in your heart and in your existence, and when we let go of the pressure to control, other pressures, such as those relating to time, can disappear.
Yes. But still, people who aren’t spiritual leaders don’t live like that, don’t feel that way. Which is why we need to do it actively. It’s more a matter of intention, which everyone can cultivate, irrespective of the conditions of their life, and then gradually things happen in life that enable it. It’s what’s known as “inclining your mind in that direction,” to redirect, gradually to understand what our compass is saying. Sometimes suffering and difficulty help us in a strange way. We get up in the morning and tell ourselves, “I can’t go on anymore.” In a year-long course I taught online, one of the students, a young person, was about showing up each week. Only after a year he told me, “You know, I’m in a wheelchair and I didn’t tell you or anyone here during the whole year, because you can only see my upper body.” A young fellow who was injured in an accident. He related that he’d had two very difficult years in which he’d tried to get used to the idea that he was disabled, that he fought against that knowledge and was miserable. And then one day he got up and said to himself, “I am going to be free of this situation, I don’t intend to be a slave to a mind that tells me I am disabled. I want to be who I am now.” I admired him so much for that. For the truth, for that transformative moment, for the compassion toward himself and toward others. So, yes, sometimes suffering only pushes us to the right place, to a place where we feel that we no longer want to pretend that things are going on as usual. I always say in jest that if humanity were to become extinct, the inscription on the headstone should be, “Died because of business as usual.”
‘A 75-year-old breath’
What do you think about aging?
When I breathe, is it a 75-year-old breath or only a breath? I feel good at my age. I feel that all the ages are bound together. Sometimes I’m a functioning adult, sometimes a child, sometimes a grandfather or the elder of the tribe, and sometimes a grandson. Aging is a viewpoint. What happens in practice is a constant change that we interpret as movement in one direction – down the slope of the hill. Part of that is the fault of society, which views aging as an illness and not an opportunity. Of course we lose abilities as we age, but it’s a tragedy only if our mind is controlled by the desperate need for things to be different from what they are. Our organization Tovana holds learning sessions for older people. For the most part they come when they feel exhausted, despairing or rejected. We teach them to listen and to appreciate the moment, as it is, not through the lens of who I am, how elderly I am and what my problems are. The participants report that to sit under a tree and listen to birds singing allows them to let go of the narratives and outlooks that caused them so much suffering.
People ask you questions all the time. What is the most frequent question? The most frequent question is “How can I accept myself as I am?” It appears in all kinds of forms. For example: How can I change? How can I fix things? I reply that the first thing is to understand what it is that we lack. With the aid of gentle mindfulness, to examine the hole we are trying to fill and determine what is missing there.
Have you seen a change in the questions people ask you from before and after the corona pandemic?The pandemic undoubtedly sliced through the illusion of “business as usual” – and when business is not as usual, there is a choice to be made: between being miserable, or trying to understand what I can do to improve my life in this given situation. The virus forced people to choose, and many chose to wake up, but at the same time, it brought about much suffering. The fear and insecurity people felt generated obsession, rage, social polarization, distress and even insanity. Think about the debate over the vaccinations, for example. People who were vaccinated became the devil, and people who weren’t became the enemy of humanity. Those phenomena are products of fear and of the extreme situations of consciousness to which it leads. Those are the types of damage we see in society now.
The virus forced us to cope with our vulnerability – we don’t like to feel vulnerable. True. One of the gifts of Buddhist thought is that vulnerability is not an enemy but a friend, a partner. We need to want vulnerability. We live in an illusion, cover up our vulnerability with the pretense of controlling the universe – and we cannot control the universe or control our body. This could be a better world if vulnerability were our point of departure. If we were to acknowledge it. If we sought to understand how to live with it instead of denying and resisting it.
The American social psychologist Brené Brown, who studies emotions, maintains that we need to transform our vulnerability into strength. Totally. Vulnerability helps us live the moment. It’s the name of the game. We are here, within this body. Everything is temporary, we should live the truth. We need to understand that we are vulnerable, that we must help each other. We need a great deal of compassion, for ourselves and for others. To scatter compassion wherever we go. It is essential to intertwine mindfulness with good-heartedness and compassion, toward ourselves and toward others; to be soft when it comes to difficult thoughts and experiences or problematic relationships, instead of plunging straight into friction, guilt or accusations.
But wait a minute – what do we do with the anxieties? Because fears and worries are such primary emotions, it’s difficult for us to subdue them, and we buckle under the feeling that our whole life consists of coping with one problem after another. It seems endless. In Buddhist tradition there is sophisticated and effective training that shows us that there is a place within us that we can rely on, that is not hostage to external, uncontrollable circumstances. It’s called “finding shelter,” and the idea is that our true shelter is awareness and a deeper path by means of which we see things. We are always at home in our lives, and when we truly succeed in feeling that, we also understand that the meaning of difficulties is that we are free people who confront them – not that we are like scattered leaves that crumble at every challenge. Uncertainty and insecurity are basic parts of our life. The question is whether we know how to dance along with uncontrollable circumstances or are in a constant struggle with them. The hope-filled message for all of us is that we have the ability to stop, to collect ourselves, to wake up and to encounter our life again, like a friend we haven’t seen in a long time. Even if it’s for brief moments during the day, those are the moments that imbue us with the strength to encounter things as they are.