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Robert Waldinger, MD is a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, a practicing psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and a Zen teacher and practitioner.For the last two decades, Waldinger has been the[…]

Delve into the teachings of Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist and Zen priest, as he explores the essence of Zen Buddhism.

Waldinger, who directs the long-running Harvard Study of Adult Development, discusses how Zen can help people discover the transformative power of impermanence, mindfulness, and the art of relieving suffering. He shares practical wisdom on cultivating loving-kindness, maintaining a beginner’s mind, and fostering fulfilling relationships. 

Whether you’re seeking inner peace or navigating relationships, Waldinger offers practical guidance for a more fulfilling existence.

ROBERT WALDINGER: Zen emphasizes community. It's called 'Sangha' in the Buddhist language, and it's really the idea that we practice learning about ourselves and each other by being in relationships with each other, both during meditation sessions and out there in the world.

I am a Zen practitioner. I'm actually a Rōshi, a Zen Master. It's a big part of my life, and it is an enormous benefit in terms of how I think about my own life, other people's lives, how I think about my research, and how I think about working with patients.

I would rate the concept of impermanence as, number one, as the greatest hit of Zen Buddhism. Basically, the idea of everything constantly changing. There's nothing to hold onto in the deepest sense.

And that, on the one hand, that can be scary; on the other hand, it can be an enormous relief because we tell ourselves so many stories about who we are, and who we're supposed to be, and how the world is supposed to be, and when we really know the truth of impermanence, we let a lot of that go.

Once we realize that everything is always changing, it helps us be more compassionate to other people because we realize that they are also dealing with all the complexities of a self and a world that's constantly changing.

The Four Noble Truths are perhaps the most iconic teachings of the Buddha. They start with the Buddhist statement. Now, it's often said that, "The Buddha was teaching that you could get to a point where you never suffer anymore." Zen does not teach that.

Rather, what we can do is learn to be with what's unsatisfactory in life, learn to be with unhappiness, even be with pain in a way that makes it more bearable, in a way that doesn't layer on the optional suffering being the stories we tell about how unfair it all is.

For example, that I have back pain or how unfair it is that I've got a cold today—that all of these things are workable. It makes me a little less likely to blame other people for what's going on in me, and that can be hugely helpful.

When we talk about harmony in relationships. The best definition I know of mindfulness is simple: So right now, for me, that's talking with you. That's the feel of the chair on my back. It's the feel of the air on my skin.

You can work on your mindfulness right this moment, by simply paying attention to whatever stimuli are reaching you. It might be your heartbeat, it might be your breath, it might be the sound of the fan in the room—anything. And simply letting yourself be open and receive whatever is here right now. And you can do that in any moment.

Buddhism talks about the idea of attachment. It's really about holding on tightly to a fixed view of something. Zen teaches that unsatisfactoriness is always there in life, and that we do have preferences, but that what we can do is to insist less that the world be a certain way.

In other words, to insist less that the world be a certain way. I mean, think about in relationships, how much we try to insist that someone else be a certain way that we want them to be, and how much less we suffer if we let that go.

And just assume that that person is allowed to show up in the world as they are, and we are allowed to show up in the world as we are. So this idea of relieving suffering is in Zen, the idea of being able to face towards suffering, looking at it, and living with it in a way that hurts less.

There's a concept of Metta, loving-kindness, in Buddhism, and there are a couple of different ways that it's talked about. One is an explicit skill that we can cultivate. You can do a loving-kindness meditation where you think about another person and you say to yourself, "May you be happy, may you be at peace."

And you do that over and over again, and you come to feel differently about the other person, including about people you don't like very much or you're angry at. So there's that way of actively cultivating a skill.

There's another way, which is simply by becoming more and more aware of your own pain, your own anxious, angry thoughts, your own difficulties. Because what happens when we become more aware of that through meditation, for example, is that we become much more empathic toward other people.

And naturally, that kind of loving-kindness arises, where we see an angry person and say, "Oh, I wonder if that person is having a terrible day," rather than immediately reacting with our own anger. And so that's a different way to cultivate loving-kindness, but it happens pretty reliably through meditation.

And finally, there's a wonderful teaching in Zen about Beginner's Mind. The idea that we let go of all the stories we tell ourselves that we're so sure of. Having a beginner's mind really helps in relationships because it allows us to be curious, it allows us to say, "Okay, there's so much I don't know about this person, let me watch closely. Let me notice what I haven't seen before about this person. Let me find new ways to interact with this person."

And that brings a kind of freshness and openness to relationships that can otherwise easily get stale. Shunryu Suzuki was a Zen Master who had a saying that I love. And what he meant by that is when we can remain open to many possibilities, rather than being so sure that we know what's what, that we become open to surprise, open to new ways of experiencing ourselves and the world, that make us suffer a great deal less than when we are so-called experts.

And the older I get, and the more people call me an expert, the more aware I am of how little I know.