You’re looking for some fundamental answers in your life but are not the granola type who sits around in woolen socks cherishing a cup of chamomile tea? In fact you are sporting a bunch of tattoos, curse like a sailor, and in general have a rebellious streak in you? Well, welcome to Dharma Punx – not your mother’s meditation class. We talked to Josh Korda, who has been teaching meditation with Dharma Punx in New York City for the past eight years.
Josh Korda: I met Noah shortly after he moved to New York, perhaps in early 2003, though it may have been late 2002. I know it was before the publication of his book “Dharma Punx.” He was looking for people to help him start a Buddhist community in New York that actively reached out to, and addressed the needs of, historically underserved communities. By that point, I was a long-term practitioner who felt very frustrated in finding a community within which I would feel understood and welcome. (At that point, having tattoos meant one felt rather unwelcome at most Buddhist sitting groups. The looks one received were less than warm and enthusiastic.)
S2S: How is Dharma Punx different from other Buddhist meditation groups? What is the punk element in Dharma Punx?
Josh Korda: As someone who grew up in a family where Buddhism was practiced—in the late 70s we were outside the box—and attended many different communities over the years, I was tired of feeling like an outsider in other communities that were homogenized in the extreme; some Buddhist centers in the city appear to be gatherings of therapists; everyone is successful, nearing retirement, wearing flowing chenille outfits and stretch pants. In the 80s I often had died hair, always wore black leather jackets and jeans with tattered t-shirts, used my share of narcotics and listened to punk (or free jazz!). I wasn’t entirely welcome in most places.
S2S: Who is attending the Dharma Punx meditation and dharma talks?
Josh Korda: We’re fortunate to have the most heterogenous community I know of; a large and vibrant LGBT membership, significant and growing attendance by people of color, a great deal of young yoga teachers, activists from the Occupy movement, punks and a large number of recovering alcoholics and addicts.
S2S: You come from a Theravada Buddhism tradition. How is it different from other forms of Buddhism?
Josh Korda: There are numerous slight differences between Theravada and Mahayana – too many to list in detail (find out more here). The differences between the Theravada and Mahayana schools are subtle enough that many of our members practice in various communities. The Pali canon, the scriptures central to Theravada practice, tend to be step-by-step instructions that are simple to follow; Mahayana sutras, in my experience, tend to be more abstract and philosophical.
S2S: What are some of the misconceptions about meditation?
Josh Korda: Probably the greatest misconceptions are that 1) it has to be done in complete silence, with only a timer to let us know when to stop and 2) that its about getting rid of one’s ideational cognitive content. Neither is true.
1) its appropriate and helpful to listen to guided meditations whenever they’re helpful, which I’d certainly suggest for the first couple of years of practice. There’s an unlimited supply of guided meditations available for free download on the internet (see Tara Brach and dharmapunxnyc). Dharmaseed and Birken are excellent resources for dharma talks. Once we’ve ingrained the form of a meditation by listening to it over a period of time, then we can easily practice in silence.
2) the Buddha taught that directed thought and evaluation have important roles to play in meditation; without them we’re incapable of reaching the first Jhana, or deeply pleasant state of meditative absorption. So long as our thoughts are not producing needless stress, and concern themselves with actual events—such as the breath, body, etc.—rather than escapist fantasies and memories or speculative thoughts—then they can play an productive, even essential role in developing a rewarding practice.
S2S: You yourself have suffered from addiction and are strong promoter of meditation as a tool in overcoming different kinds of addictions or cravings. How can meditation be helpful?
Josh Korda: Alcohol and addictions are essentially an attempt to replace meaningful connections with empathetic people in our lives with numbing substances. The schematic is all too predictable: early in life we find certain emotions (such as anger, fear, sadness) or desires (sexual longings, creative impulses) aren’t tolerated or mirrored by others, and so we learn to repress these unwanted experiences. In later life, as we feel the arising of the repressed, we turn to drink, drugs, shopping, sex, gambling or food as a way to numb and continue the repressive regime. In meditation, however, we learn to allow our sadness or other reposed content to arise, and we observe it somatically. In essence, meditation can begin the process of transforming our relationship with inherently human feelings and emotional energies.
S2S: How do you know what kind of meditation is the right one?
Josh Korda: The right meditation would have at least two characteristics:
1) It should be able to develop a state of ease that provides relief from the momentum of busyness and the obligations of daily life. In these breaks we can develop new priorities and view the dramas we’re caught up in from a different perspective.
2) Meditation should also provide the capability to sit with moods and emotions we would generally avoid. For example, the ingrained tendency to escape loneliness by turning on the TV, or running to social media channels. These avoidance strategies do nothing to address loneliness which needs to be attended to; its only through bringing mindful awareness of the emotive content of loneliness, sadness, boredom, frustration and on that we can begin to lead fully integrated lives.
S2S: I personally find it most challenging to stick with a routine. In order to receive the full benefits from meditation is it necessary to meditate every day? How can it become second nature?
Josh Korda: Yes, its fundamentally important to develop a routine, which will make the process ingrained. A region of the brain, the striatum, records habitually repeated actions; this is the mechanism that allows us to develop habits. If we don’t want our meditative practice to be a struggle, its important to make the circumstances routine: the same time of day, place, etc. The striatum is very tuned into location and time.
S2S: Besides drawing from Buddhist scripture, a lot of your dharma talks also cite scientific findings about the mind. What do you find most encouraging in recent neurological studies?
Josh Korda: Buddhist practice and contemporary neuroscience fit together neatly, in that so many of the Buddha’s insights are verified by fMRI and clinical research. I would recommend the work of neuroscientists like James Austin and Joseph LeDoux to start with. In short, there’s reams of clinical evidence documenting the mental and physical benefits of a meditation practice. Additionally, new studies are demonstrating the role of mindfulness in the treatment of trauma and PTSD, hypomania and numerous other personality disorders.
S2S: What books would you recommend to a novice to meditation who would like to know more about the health benefits?
S2S: In your very inspiring New Year’s message you point out that one key to contentment is the understanding that “what really matters in life is how we react to situations and circumstances, rather than the situations and circumstances in and of themselves.” Yet, many of us feel that we are stuck in self-defeating thoughts and behavioral patterns. Can we re-program how we react?
Josh Korda: Yes, absolutely, if we couldn’t change our reactive patterns, the human condition would be an entirely hopeless one. But we know from the brain’s capability to rewire itself, via neuroplasticity, and reams of clinical research into work with people stuck in various attachment styles (intersubjective patterns that govern our relationships with others) that change is very possible. Unfortunately, changing from patterns is not an intellectual process; we can’t think our way out of patterns, as the neural systems involved are pre-conscious and aren’t linguistic by nature. We have to incrementally demonstrate to these regions—especially the internal working maps of the right hemisphere—that new ways of responding to life are possible. It’s a slow process, one that often benefits from work with a buddhist teacher or therapist.
S2S: What other strategies would you suggest for finding contentment?
Josh Korda: In addition to meditation, I highly recommend relational practice with other practitioners (i.e. developing allies with whom we can express our emotional experience) and self-soothing strategies. Self-soothing is akin to early childhood transitional objects (like security blankets or toys), basically behaviors that calm us down so we can experience life without the need to seek addictive avoidance strategies. Self-soothing strategies can be taking a hot bath, riding a bike, yoga, gardening, playing an instrument, savoring a cup of tea: anything that focuses the mind away from what’s known as default mode processing, or self-centered thinking that leads us towards stressful speculation about the future.
S2S: You have stated that ” the world is constantly pushing us in the wrong direction, towards that which makes the flow of capital run smoothly.” We all have to make a living and many people hate their jobs but feel that they don’t have any or very few options. How can one resist this constant pull of capitalist forces, especially in a highly competitive and expensive metropolis like New York City?
Josh Korda: It’s certainly a given that, in post-industrial 21st century capitalism, especially in a country where the safety net is being dismantled by right wing ideologues, that surviving alone can be a struggle. Given how isolated we are in modern work, sitting before computers charring out content, its easy to be ensured by workplace dramas and deadlines. But in the long run these dramas are meaningless; no one on their deathbed looks back on life and remarks “oh, i’m so glad i met all those deadlines!” Its important to cultivate a spiritual practice that allows us to step outside the mundane stories and look at the larger picture: Is this really important? Will my life really end if i don’t get this done? Does what other people think about me really matter that much?
S2S: In addition to your weekly dharma talks and work as a visiting teacher at ZenCare.org, a non-profit organization that trains hospice volunteers, you are also a one-on-one mentor or counselor. What are some of the most common problems you have encountered and how long is the average period you spend with those who seek your advice?
Josh Korda: The struggles are really too varied to summarize. To be extremely general, fear of abandonment and the defensive strategies that develop in life to protect us from rejection or shame is certainly a popular theme in the human psyche. Much of the work lies in unpacking and dismantling the defense mechanisms we employ that provide the illusion of safety, but actually leave us armored, suspicious, isolated, alone, mistrusting in others. There is no average; the work lasts a different length for each person I work with.
S2S: Besides your great insights, what I especially like about your dharma talks is your humor, self-deprecation, and the occasional drop of the f-word. One of the funniest moments was when you confessed that you hate weddings so much that at one wedding you actually told the people seated with you. Later while recounting the story in a dharma talk, a woman in the audience responded that she is glad that you are not her friend. What is it about weddings that you dislike so much?
Josh Korda: Yes, though she was joking, as she is actually a friend! I tend to dislike settings where pro forma small talk and rigid behavior is expected. I don’t care about how people’s drives (to the wedding) went, what they do for a living, what the weather is like back home, where we’re expected to display appropriate emotions: “oh, look how beautiful the bride is, etc.” Frankly, I prefer to hear the difficult emotionally messiness that arises from conversions where honesty is privileged over propriety. Alas, in some important life events—such as weddings, funerals, job interviews—we’re trained to become stiff and performative, repressing our authentic selves in favor of producing for consumption the same old expected comments. I suspect your audience in Berlin won’t have a clue what I’m on about…
Mondays, 7pm–8:30pm w/ Josh
97 GREEN STREET, GREENPOINT, BROOKLYN
Tuesdays, 7pm–9:00 pm w/ Josh
LILA WELLNESS CENTER
302 BOWERY #2 (3RD FLOOR), BETWEEN BLEECKER AND HOUSTON, MANHATTAN
Sundays, 6pm–7:30pm w/ Josh or Melissa
112 N 6TH STREET, WILLIAMSBURG, BROOKLYN
All classes feature dharma talks and guided meditation.
Classes are offered without charge, supported by donation only.