Interview by Kirsten Mowrey | Photographs by Joni Strickfaden
We are a community of meditators. In the last Crazy Wisdom Community Journal there were listings for 25 different organizations offering meditation. Many more people practice as part of church, temple, or mosque prayer time. Some meditations are specific to cultural or religious traditions, while others do not require membership to participate. Mindfulness is now a trending topic, prompting articles, videos, social media threads, and books to be available. The Ann Arbor community has been at the forefront of embracing such trends for the past 45 years. To get some local history about the slow and steady rise in Ann Arbor’s interest in meditation, as well as a sense of what it means to be a longtime meditator, I spoke with Elizabeth (Libby) Robinson, part of the Ann Arbor Center for Mindfulness.
Libby, a retired researcher from the University of Michigan, has been living in Ann Arbor since 1970, leaving only to teach at Buffalo and Case Western in the early 1990’s. After retirement, she and her husband moved from their longtime home on White Street to the West Park area. I was able to catch Libby for an interview at the new Westgate branch of the Ann Arbor District Library, where we conversed in the large exhibit room while visitors perused the art.
Kirsten Mowrey: Libby, thank you for speaking with me. How did you get started in mindfulness meditation?
Libby Robinson: You’re welcome. I was in my mid 30’s and really wanted to learn meditation because I was pretty troubled emotionally and not in touch with what I really wanted to do and how I felt about things. I certainly had zip piece of mind, or very little. I tried to learn meditation through a book — that didn’t work very well. I tried to learn it by hanging out with some of the groups in Ann Arbor that I knew about, but they were very guru focused. I just wasn’t comfortable with a guru, the stories I heard about gurus; they felt very cultish to me.
Kirsten Mowrey: So your mid-30’s would have been the late 80’s?
Libby Robinson: No, late 70’s (laughs).
Kirsten Mowrey: When you say gurus, you mean like Ram Dass or Osho?
Libby Robinson: Not Ram Dass, though his book was really helpful because that’s where I found out there are lots of different kinds of meditation, not just one type. That was helpful for me — oooh there are lots of different ways of doing this. The Meditators Guidebook, I think is the name of it, I really recommend it (Journey of Awakening: A Meditator’s Guidebook, Bantam, 1981). My brother was at the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts, at that time. He was there for a three-month retreat and after that he got hired as a staff member. I learned about IMS and a little bit about the kind of meditation they taught, the people, and the teachers — they were called teachers, they weren’t the guru who must be obeyed at all costs or whatever, so I thought, OK, go check it out. So I signed up for a one-week silent retreat.
KM: For your first one?
LR: First one ever, right? Right, and it was scary and wonderful and I didn’t like the teacher and I broke silence by calling my husband and having an argument with him. When I told my teacher, she wasn’t supportive because I’d kind of created this situation myself. But I learned so much about my mind. About these — mental traps, cognitive traps, stories — that we get caught up in. And one of my big insights — that’s why it’s called insight — was how these emotional states will come and then they are gone and you can have a totally different mind state. Becoming aware of how temporary our mind states are, unless of course we hold onto them and define our inner selves by them. Ruth Denison — she was my first teacher, she’s a real character. I got home and started meditating 45 minutes a day and went to another retreat a year later and have been going to retreats every year or two ever since. Insight Meditation is also called mindfulness or Vipassana and what I was learning was American Vipassana and that’s what I’ve practiced ever since. Initially I couldn’t find anybody in Ann Arbor who did it and I was just by myself.
KM: So from nothing, then daily meditating for 45 minutes?
LR: For about five years, pretty solidly. In 1984, I started the M.S.W. and Ph.D. program here at U-M. It was while I was working on my dissertation that my practice went through a hiatus, shall we say. It was hard, because I would, over the years, keep trying to connect with other people. I would find out there were groups of other people sitting in this tradition and this approach but they weren’t open groups and they weren’t taking in any new people. So I was still just sitting on my own. I’m sure that affected my practice. It would have helped to have been part of a group.
KM: Local groups such as Deep Spring and Insight Meditation Ann Arbor, are those groups open?
LR: Those groups are open now. We have a bunch of groups that are open; there are drop-ins all over the place now.
KM: When did you start to see that changing in Ann Arbor?
LR: Good question. Probably in the mid 80’s, I think. I met Barbara Brodsky at a retreat. She and I and a couple other people started a group and then I dropped out, but that’s the group that went on to become Deep Spring. When I got my Ph.D., I took a job on the faculty of SUNY Buffalo. I continued to meditate, continued to go to retreats.
KM: So your practice became regular again?
LR: Yes, a bump and then reestablish. There have been periods all along, these 37 years, of not doing much meditation, daily meditation, and then getting back into it, rededicating myself to it.
KM: 37 years is a long relationship!
LR: That’s true.
KM: What has it taught you? Especially with coming and going.
LR: Oh so much. The more you do it, not just the more insights you have, the more you can cultivate that sense of peacefulness and compassion. I really appreciate, over the years, how important cultivating compassion and non-judgment is, because I’m very hard on myself and very judgmental. That’s a mental habit that had been established even before I got into meditation, and when those thoughts come up, I don’t take them as seriously. I’m more likely to say, “Oh, there’s that thought again, that I’m not good enough, or that nobody likes me,” or whatever, and knowing that it’s not necessarily true and that if I wait, it will probably disappear. That persistent thought will disappear.
KM: Arises, blossoms, and fades.
LR: Right, right, not holding onto it and not allowing it to define who you are, who I am. “Oh, there’s that thought,” and maybe it’s not a thought about you, maybe it’s a thought about other people. I like to tell the story in my classes, at my first retreat, I was standing behind somebody in line to get tea, and she was making her tea in front of me and she was doing it wrong (chuckles). And I was going through this whole thing in my head about how she was doing it wrong and she must not understand about tea and when the retreat was over I was going to tell her how to do her tea right. And I suddenly noticed — mindfulness is all about noticing — what I was doing and laughed at myself. I mean, I was embarrassed too, I think, but laughed at this ridiculous judgment that was going on in my head. A lot of it is letting go, letting go of judgment.
KM: When did you make the transition to teaching?
LR: In the early 2000s, I was working here at U-M in the Psychiatry Department as a research fellow and I’d gotten a National Institutes of Health grant. My research was about whether or not spiritual and religious change plays a role in people recovering from alcohol. That’s what I was funded to investigate; it was just a longitudinal survey. John Greden, the head of the department, met with me and he thought I should do an intervention, a spiritual/religious intervention (as part of the study). I said “Ack! Well, the only one I could think that I would be comfortable doing, because I’m definitely not into proselytizing — was teaching meditation.” He said, “Do you know about mindfulness based cognitive therapy and depression by Segal and Teasdale? Why don’t you try that?” The department paid for me to go off and I got trained in mindfulness based cognitive therapy, mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) and the teacher development intensive.
In 2003, I started teaching. Initially it was a very casual thing. I started a class at Chelsea Arbor Treatment Center, which no longer exists, but which used to be an outpatient treatment center for people with addictions. I was a part-time clinician there and I taught it to some of the other folks I was working with. In 2007, I offered it to anybody in the department [of Psychiatry] and I taught it three times. Faculty, staff, fellows, anybody who worked there — and I offered the eight-week MBSR class. I learned a lot. I hope that everybody who took it got something out of it. I know that some of the people who took it went on and are part of the Ann Arbor Center for Mindfulness. I don’t know that it was their first exposure. I’d keep trying to find other people who taught mindfulness [in the area].
KM: At this point Deep Spring existed?
LR: Yes, Deep Spring existed at this point and I would go there sometimes on their Sunday morning sits.
KM: You’ve been teaching now in a university setting and private setting.
LR: And community. I started teaching in the community to anybody who wanted to in 2010. I rented space at the Lotus Center, they have a nice classroom space there, and I’ve been teaching three to six classes a year ever since.
KM: As you’ve come into teaching in different communities, what do you value in a teacher? Ruth, your first teacher, you didn’t like.
LR: Well, that was my stuff.
KM: Right, your first introduction.
LR: I think a mindfulness teacher, first and foremost, has to have a strong personal mindfulness practice. A pretty solid experience with meditation using mindfulness approaches. For a while, not just six months or one class, and retreat experiences need to be part of that: going to week-long silent retreats really cracks that open and lets you see your own mind traps that you get into and softens them. Which is an essential part of what we are trying to convey to other people, and I think you need your own personal grounding in that. If you are teaching one of these mindfulness based interventions, you need to get trained in that, whether it’s mindfulness based cognitive therapy of depression, or the granddaddy of them all, MBSR, or one of the newer ones that’s out there now. Some of them have nice, well written up curriculums that you can find in books, but there’s nothing like going to a training and getting to work with someone — advanced trainings too if you can. Susan Woods does a lot of trainings, [and] there’s an open ended discussion at the end of a meditation about what people have experienced, what they noticed and how does that relate to their well-being. The training is really important and then teaching: How much teaching has this person done? Is this their first class? I’m so different from that first class I taught; I think back now on that and I go (makes a face) “ewehh.” You know, so, the more you teach, the more solid your understanding gets about how to convey this approach, which is so different from how we typically go in the world.
Mindfulness isn’t for everybody and every mindfulness teacher is going to be different and it’s worth checking out — Is this somebody that I can learn from? Even my first teacher, whom I didn’t like, I learned so much from her. And that is more important than I felt irritated with her and felt she put me down — that’s my crap. I learned so much from her, so that’s the question: What do you learn about your mind? Are you more liberated from your mental traps when you do these things, when you practice this way? When you learn from this teacher? When you read Jack Kornfield’s books or Sharon Salzberg’s books or listen to one of her recorded podcasts or guided meditations. That’s not a bad place to start: listen to Jon Kabat-Zinn on the web or Jack Kornfield or Sharon Salzberg. They are wonderful teachers. That’s your practice, for five minutes a day you listen to one of them.
All my original teachers, my Vipassana teachers, are Buddhists. What they are teaching are the teachings of the Buddha: the dharma, the sangha. Whereas, these mindfulness based interventions are secular. There’s actually this whole interesting conversation going on within the Buddhist community: Can you have Buddhism without Buddha? Secular Buddhism. There are some people in the Buddhist community who see the mindfulness movement as antithetical: “They aren’t teaching ethics, they aren’t teaching compassion.” I do, it’s more subtle than “thou shalt not”; it’s more what cultivates compassion and friendliness and how do we do that and strategies for doing that. To me, it’s never been about beliefs, whether you are Vipassana or not, it’s about the practice and you don’t have to believe Buddha even existed, you don’t have to believe in karma or reincarnation or any of that kind of stuff. It’s not about beliefs; it’s not about ritual. There are other branches of Buddhism that are much more focused around ritual and beliefs. But mindfulness and Insight Meditation and Vipassana, they are all kissing cousins.
KM: I’m curious about origins of the Ann Arbor Center for Mindfulness.
LR: Initially we started out as a teacher support group. I was desperate to have some support for teaching from other people who were teaching. It was me, Lynn Sipher, and Julie Woodward got together once a month and talked about teaching. We started attracting people who were psychotherapists and then somebody had the bright idea, “Well, let’s have an event. Let’s bring in…” I forget. We started having these events, [and] organizing these events. We realized we needed to organize ourselves. Gradually, it got bigger. It kinda got too big. We’re down to about ten people who are really committed to working on creating an organization that fosters mindfulness and fosters the cultivation of mindfulness.
What the group is about now — besides getting ourselves organized — we still have a monthly teacher support group and we do presentations now, on the self, compassion, or mindful yoga. [We want to] broaden it out and invite people to join us. We’re becoming a nonprofit, I think we’ll be a membership based nonprofit, that provides quality teaching and mindfulness strategies, to the public, specific populations, the medical school, or a business if they want it.
KM: How did you come to teach in Flint in February of 2016?
LR: I was approached by somebody from U-M Flint who had gotten a grant and she heard from Jesse Jackson at Institute of Social Research that I taught mindfulness. The first people she’d approached didn’t work out. I was happy to do it, to go up there and teach MBSR. The population that they were focusing on were people who had somebody in the family who was incarcerated. We taught two classes (MBSR class format is weekly for eight weeks). I brought in another teacher, which I’m really glad I did. Patrice (Trice) Berlinski, who lives in Fenton, she’d had some experience and most of her experience was teaching to kids. Which was really great, because some of the people brought their kids, their little kids.
KM: The study was open to any family member?
LR: It was supposed to be adults, but you know how it is, you might not have the funds or access to someone who can babysit the kids, so what are you going to do — make sure they don’t get into trouble. It was kind of interesting, we had kids 8, 10, 12 [years old] who were in the group and Trice was great at using analogies and metaphors that helped them kind of grab — understand what we were talking about.
KM: So you kept to the format, and still did the class as a big group?
LR: In the second group, there were kids. [We had] two classes, one on Thursday nights and one on Tuesday nights. Ahh, it was intense. We were teaching this in the midst of the water crisis, and that was a dominant stressor for everybody. That was actually a bigger stressor in many ways than having a family member who was incarcerated.
KM: Did people mention it as a stressor?
LR: They always talked about it all the time, at many classes the issue of the water came up.
LR: How did you & Trice address it, if you did?
LR: We talked about it. It was part of what people were experiencing at that point. How do you — you know, mindfulness isn’t just about putting up with stuff that is annoying or disheartening, or where you’re being abused, it’s also about, “This is going on. This is not good for me. How can I strategize around how best to work with this?” They were all very involved, in the public meetings, a really interesting bunch of people and doing what they could about it, using bottled water. I remember someone else in a class once asked me, “OK, so we work with anger in this way?” We’re not trying to pretend the anger isn’t there or that injustice isn’t there, but more like, How can I best respond to this situation? And for some people, because of all the other things going on in their lives, they are doing the best they can to get one foot in front of the next and make sure there’s clean water and food in the house and things like that.
[Mindfulness is] more of a clearing out. I think it allows us to clear out the barriers to effective action, the barriers within ourselves. You know, if I am so angry that every time I see officials I blow up at them, that’s not going to be as effective as if I can come up with a response that allows me to connect with them and [I’m] more likely to come up with a creative solution to the situation if I’m not caught in my own reactivity about something.
KM: How was the class received by the participants?
LR: It’s like any class; it’s a mixed bag. You know, some people got a lot out of it. This one woman was so proud — her blood pressure was dropping and it had been very high. Some people are like, “What’s this about?” Everyone was very respectful and open, and it was obviously hard for people to [physically] get there. It’s very different from a regular class because it’s a research project; people were paid to be there. There was data collection on the first day and the last day people filled out questionnaires. Later, Trice and I, when we were talking about it, [realized] it would have been really helpful if one of us had been a person of color. I think that would have given some authenticity to it, for them. I think it was hard for people to see, “Well, what does this have to do with my having a family member who is incarcerated?”
KM: Does the Flint experience relate to the Center of Mindfulness at all?
LR: Not obviously, although I think broadening ourselves in terms of bringing in people of color and LGBT people. Making sure that we’re not just a bunch of white middle class women, I think that’s important and figuring out how to make that happen.
KM: Who is your typical mindfulness student?
LR: In Ann Arbor?
KM: Or classes.
LR: I’ve had retired people in current classes. I’ve had graduate students. I’ve had people who are working, people who are disabled, people with lots of physical problems and physical pain.
KM: Any people of color or LGBTQ people?
LR: LGBTQ, yes, not that many people of color.
KM: There was an article in the May/June 2016 Spirituality and Health magazine about meditation, suffering, communities of color, and meditation being more accessible.
LR: Yeah, it does. People whose finances are stressed, whether black or white, are going to have a hard time coming up with four-hundred bucks for an eight-week class. They may not have health insurance that will cover it.
KM: Is the financial the sole barrier?
LR: No, I don’t think that’s the only barrier. I think another barrier is that it’s a white people thing. I think another barrier is there’s a lack of reaching out, of connecting with people of color on our parts. There’s now a drop-in group in Ypsilanti, at the Michigan Avenue Library. It’s still getting established; it’s not well publicized.
KM: Is that sponsored by the Ann Arbor Center for Mindfulness?
LR: No, it’s an offshoot of the Thursday night drop-in group that goes on at the Lotus Center. The Lotus Center Thursday night Ann Arbor open meditation is a drop-in group that is unrelated to Ann Arbor Center for Mindfulness. At this point in Ann Arbor it’s the Wild Wild West.
KM: There are many groups and you are with a couple of them.
LR: Yes, there’s Mindful Cities, which Lynne Sipher and others have started, where the focus is beyond mindfulness, social justice and other issues.
KM: What do you think about apps that have you breathe?
LR: Well, people may find those helpful. I’ve never tried them, so I really can’t say. You know, it’s all about — does it reduce suffering? Not like putting a band-aid on it, like having a drink or smoking some weed, but does it genuinely reduce suffering? Does it foster greater well-being and happiness?
There’s this emphasis on what is wholesome — the Buddhists would use the word skillful — what is a skillful response? If it works great, if it’s a pain in the ass when it goes off, maybe you need a different strategy. Try something else. There’s no hard and fast rule with this. A really busy working mother with three toddlers is going to have a hard time finding 15-20 minutes to meditate, so maybe just taking two minutes, after she drops off the kids for daycare, noticing the breath — not even manipulating the breath, not even going into the big deep breath, but just sitting there and noticing. Then putting the keys in the ignition and going on. Or spending time to really do one thing at a time for two minutes, those kind of informal kinds of mindfulness can be really helpful.
KM: Thanks, Libby.
LR: You’re welcome.
Information on the Ann Arbor Center for Mindfulness is available at www.aacfm.com.