Carrie Coe Phillips is a 23-year experienced art teacher and a ten-year experienced meditation teacher. She’s been a meditator since high school and a Buddhist since her college years, and her insight comes from a deep well of knowledge, reading, tutelage and of course, spiritual practice. She is a beautiful friend of mine, too.
I interviewed her several times this year. Here is part of our conversation.
Mollie: How did you first become a Buddhist?
When I was a teen I was in a very troubled environment. I wanted to run away but I was smart enough to know I didn’t want to end up in a ditch. I had a friend whose mom had a safe-feeling home. In that family the aunt was a TM (Transcendental Meditation) trainer, and I watched as they all started getting into meditation and becoming even closer as a family. I took the training and found it was very simple. From then on, I never went back.
I did TM twice a day for twenty minutes for four years solid. It launched me into the next phase of my life in a way I could never have predicted. It helped me get to college and start earning my own money. It also helped strengthen my self-concept as an artist, and to deal with my mother.
For example, one day my mother (who didn’t like me meditating) burst into my room and got right into my face screaming. But because of my practice I was able to just open my eyes and watch the experience. Eventually she stopped, and ever since then things were different between us.
Other curious ways that TM helped me as a trouble teen: I left harmful friends; gained kinder, more positive ones; my grades drastically improved; I developed as a painter to the degree that knew I was an artist and would pursue it as a vocation; without guidance from others, or financial help, I managed to earn save and direct myself into a good college.
Most importantly, the meditation taught me to stay in my family home environment until it was the right time to leave. I turned my bedroom into my art studio, developed my interests and relationships and gained some self-control. To stay at home was to change my experience from the inside.
Mollie: Why do you like Buddhism? What makes it better for you than a more open-ended approach to spirituality?
Carrie: I like it because it goes right to the root of the problem. Some spiritual systems try to prescribe cures for every different thing that ails you. But there are only so many fixes. At some point you just have to get down to the root. Buddhism does this. It addresses anyone, no matter where they’re at or how unique their circumstances are.
Buddhism is a very simple but very profound thing. You can describe it in just a few words, and then you can spend a very long time trying to figure out what those few words mean.
Mollie: In Buddhism, are there rules for inner peace?
Carrie: Somewhat. In Buddhism there is a progression of truth, each stage of which is revealed to you when you’re ready. This is still relative truth, and it is the path to enlightenment. If we were already enlightened, there would be no need for this path; however, from where we are it is quite valuable.
As far as following rules in Buddhism, it’s not a contract or deal. There are rules to follow like guidelines. Relative truth is the path and we recall the ultimate until the relative is no longer fully operational. Grasping and fixation just drop off by themselves if you don’t give up.
There is a quote from Padmasambhava, who Tibetans refer to as a second Buddha: “Keep your actions as fine as dust and your view as vast as the sky.” This means that we carefully follow the guidelines while also holding onto the vast view, which is ultimate truth.
Mollie: What is the ultimate truth?
Carrie: Good question. The ultimate truth is emptiness. It’s not a void–not nothing. It’s just an emptiness. There are elements of love and compassion to it, too, and wisdom, which is the ultimate compassion.
Mollie: And what are the rules for inner peace?
Carrie: “Do no harm, do good, train your mind thoroughly.” This is one of my favorite quotes of Buddha because it outlines the path. Of course we practice all three from the very beginning. But hidden here, also, is the path’s three vehicles. “Do no harm” refers to the set of beginning or foundational teachings and guidelines from the Buddha that refer to daily habits of life and mind. “Do good” is a different group of teachings that focuses on others. It is a more expansive view of your practice and of the world. “Train your mind” refers to a third group of more esoteric teachings that focus on yet other methods for reaching enlightenment.
Mollie: If someone is interested in learning more about Buddhism, where should they start?
Carrie: It doesn’t hurt to start with meditation. Meditation is the heart of Buddhism. One thing I would point out, though, is that if you’re using meditation just to feel better, it’s not Buddhism. There’s nothing wrong with doing that, but for Buddhists, meditation isn’t meant to be a way to feel better, or calmer, or to relax. The intent is to wake up, increase your awareness. To let the mind unfold and show you its natural stability, its natural clarity and insight. With that, with time, there is an opening of the compassion, of the heart, and struggling does eventually abate.
Mollie: So why meditate, then, if not to feel better?
Carrie: Many many people these days come to meditation to feel calmer or better. More come to it or to Buddhism out of loss or grief. Generally speaking, seeing your own dissatisfaction is enough to begin meditating.
I can say that with meditation you will feel calmer, better and more aware of everything, including your environment. Some find their clairvoyance, but these are fringe benefits.
Why not set out with a greater motivation than feeling better, though–the motivation to wake up to your world? Meditation is a path of realization.
We meditate to know the truth. We do it because we suspect there might be more to life then then what we presume.
What books or other sources do you recommend?
Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism and other books by Rinpoche are excellent. No one says it like Rinpoche does.
Sakyong Mipham also has a very good and complete book on learning meditation called Turning the Mind Into an Ally, and also the book Running with the Mind of Meditation.