The following interview was done with the fabulous TMcG (Tanya McGinnity) from the blog Full Contact Enlightenment. I’d give you a description and all that jazz, but the point to this round of the Article Swap is to get to know those in the blogosphere a little better. So without further ado…
PM: The most cookie-cutter of all questions, what and or how, did you get into Buddhism and meditation?
TMcG: I always felt that I was messed up from my first breath. I came out feet first and much too early. I grew into a short, nervous kid with thick glasses, buck teeth and divorced parents – all things that don’t bode well for an easy life.
As many ‘disaffected youth’ of my generation, I was seeking to escape from suffering in every way I could and never really came up with anything that could comfort me for any length of time. In university, through a philosophy class, I picked up a copy of “Siddhartha” and it blew my mind. Something just clicked and I felt like I had to dig deeper and investigate further. So many times, things fell apart in my life and I always looked outwards for the solution. So many times, I saw how I made things more complicated and more difficult by clinging, grasping or resisting and fighting. With Buddhism, it has a very non-bullshit approach for me to work on cleaning up my messes and not making things worse for myself – or others. It really helps me to better figure myself out and certainly provided me with a greater sense of responsibility and compassion – for both others as well as myself.
After university, I joined the Halifax Shambhala Centre where I set up a regular practice and became a bit more formally involved with Buddhism. After moving to Montreal, I continued with the local Shambhala group until discovering Nalandabodhi – the spiritual organization founded by Ponlop Rinpoche which has been my main study group for the past 4 years and where I’ve started to provide meditation instruction in the community.
PM: We’ve seen your blog, Full Contact Enlightenment, go through a couple “transformations” as it has moved from one platform to another. What changes have you seen and or intended with each move?
TMcG: I’m immersed in digital culture as it’s a big part of my 9-5 so I decided to starting a blog as a means to meet other Buddhists and share stories of the journey. It seemed to be a logical way to crowd source information, much like punk rock and riot grrrl fanzines were back when I was younger. Blogging was just an extension of this kind of self-publishing that I’ve always appreciated.
I started out on Blogger and gave myself a year to see if I would keep up with posting quasi-regularily and then if so, would splash out on a domain name and a switch to WordPress. Lo and behold, I did. I came up with the name Full Contact Enlightenment strangely enough after walking by a strip club where the doorman was trying to cajole people in by saying they offered full contact dancing. It seemed like such a strange series of words, as I usually think of full contact referring to sports. It just kind of followed from there that maybe the experience of enlightenment might have that same kind of “full contact” experience- whether getting sacked on the football field, sacked on the cushion or sacked…. well any where else.
In the future, I may change the name (depending on if inspiration hits) and I’m looking forward to a facelift. I’m pretty jealous of what you’ve done with your blog Nate so maybe I’ll hit up your designers for some help!
PM: You’re approach to the path is pretty straightforward. One of your biggest influences seems to be in the Dharma Punx realm, a la Noah Levine. What is it about this community that draws you toward it?
TMcG: Punk rock saved my life as a teen. It was the greatest thing to come into my world since it showed me that there were other people out there questioning things. Questioning authority. Politics. Labels. Society. This inquisitiveness continued onto the cushion, but I found myself surrounded by a sangha that was primarily composed of older, hippies – the first generation of Chogyam Trungpa’s flock. Nothing wrong with this, but there’s a lack of shared experiences that is missing. When you describe one of your meditation session’s like being in a mosh pit and then having a roomful of blank faces look at you not knowing your frame of reference. it can sometimes be hard to express yourself without self-editing.
When I read Noah’s writing, as well as that of Brad Warner, it helped me to see that people with a similar background to mine were putting it out there and able to teach the dharma in a way that resonated with my specific cultural context. The Dharma Punx and MBA Project community has some of the most amazing teachers (like Vinny Ferraro and Matthew Brensilver who currently rock my world through their podcasts) and I draw from them a great amount of inspiration.
I think that my teacher, Ponlop Rinpoche is pretty punk rock too and am anticipating his upcoming book Rebel Buddha. He has this teaching style that is just so honest, sharp and funny. Like laugh-out-loud funny. He might be the Seinfeld of Rinpoches! In addition to this, willingness to immerse himself into Twitter shows his engagement with the community and in watching a talk he gave to the LGBT community, he is open to healing the misinterpretations in Buddhism that have been made over the years with this group in particular.
PM: Noah’s approach pulls no punches, there isn’t much fluffy clouds and beauty in it either. Does this stripped down version of the dharma have a place today?
TMcG: I really believe it does. I was just listening to a talk that Vinny gave and he speaks of needing to poop during his meditation session and then discusses the pain he’s experiencing from his divorce. No fluffy clouds there! It’s this kind of reality that we live with as humans in this world and speaking of it with honesty helps us to relate to a new way of interpreting the teachings. A way that helps us with these kinds of modern problems.
I wouldn’t necessary say that Western teachers are ‘stripping down’ the dharma but rather explaining the core teachings in a way that makes sense to the Western experience.
PM: I know Noah hasn’t, but many folks nowadays, especially here in the “west”, are claiming enlightenment using a similar stripped down path. I’d love to hear your thoughts on folks claiming enlightenment, especially without a teacher.
TMcG: Oh gosh. From my personal experience, I’m always wary of those who offer an easy way of getting something. I’m particularily scared of those who are selling enlightenment through a CD or a weekend workshop. It’s like the ads for x-ray specs or penis growth cream. Maybe through some power of positive thinking you’ll get something out of it, but at the root of this need for immediate gratification is a sense of desire, wanting and a need for possessing something without truly working for it yourself. I guess you might feel like you attained something, but if it’s truly enlightenment, well that’s hard to say.
PM: Do you think having a teacher is necessary?
TMcG: I do. When I first started getting interested in Buddhism, I was reading a hodge-podge of books and dipping my toe in everything I could find, only to end up feeling overwhelmed and discouraged. A teacher helps you to work through these kinds of negative emotions that come up as a student and can help both when you get too proud or when you get too down on yourself. When I was wracking my head over some elements of the Mahayana teachings, it was so valuable for me to have someone there to help me mull it all over with.
Finding a skillful teacher that you can relate to helps out immensely- or at least has done so in my experience.
PM: Do you practice with a group up there in the great white north, meaning Canada of course?
TMcG: I’ve completed a Mahayana study program with the Montreal Nalandabodhi group and am now teaching meditation at an introductory level. Teaching has been a great opportunity for me to give back and help to spread the dharma. At first, I was scared to death, mainly due to my own feelings of inadequacy, but after my first session I realized that I love helping people to relax, de-stress, find themselves or work with whatever reason that brings them to an introductory meditation sesion.
I don’t sit regularly with a group, as much as there are many opportunities with Nalandabodhi, Rigpe Dorje and Shambhala to do so. I’m a solo practitioner in this respect and have a spotty record with maintaining a regular practice. I’m hoping a retreat will help to fix this and living in close proximity to Vermont and Karme Choling may be the remedy. The Online Meditation Crew is also a big support.
PM: Why start a blog? Why tell the world about the awkward moments we encounter with our practice? Why blog about all of our inadequacies and pit falls? Is there an upside?
TMcG: I fuck up sometimes. I blog and tweet about fucking up sometimes because I think it’s important to be honest. I remember when I first started practicing, I was the most upright practicioner. I’d prefer to die from exploding rather than fart in a meditation hall. I read an interview with Pema Chodron who spoke of being a really horrible meditator and it really helped to take the pressure off (literally). It helped me realize that I don’t have to put on a front as some kind of SuperBuddhist. I can relax. Be human. Work with situations.
To share our pitfalls publicly helps others who experience these kinds of issues. Counter to this, I think we as bloggers also need to share our positive experiences, without going too far off on an ego trip.
PM: Tanya, I enjoy reading your blog so I was psyched that the hat paired us together. Feel free to wrap this up with anything you like.
TMcG: I’m pretty happy to be matched up with you too and send thanks to the hat. Thanks for allowing me the space to share and for coming up with all of these great community-building ideas for the online sangha. *deep bow*