Spirit Rock: How were you introduced to Theravada Buddhism?
Nikki Mirghafori: About eleven years ago I was introduced to Theravada Buddhism. I had an illness that was not properly diagnosed. So for about a year I was very ill and the doctors thought it was mono, and then when the symptoms kept going on and on, I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue, for which treatment options are usually limited and ineffective. I felt exhausted for a long time and towards the end of that year, I was desperate to try anything. A friend of mine who had done a couple of silent retreats told me that they were amazing, rejuvenating, and out-of-this-world experiences. I was willing to even sit in silence for a week if it helped my body recover! So my friend took me to Insight Meditation Center (IMC) [in Redwood City, CA] for a couple of evenings when Gil Fronsdal was teaching. I sat with Gil at IMC and then this kind friend, to whom I have a great debt of gratitude for introducing me to the path, took me for a daylong at Spirit Rock that was basically Vipassana 101. By the end of that day, my mind was quieter than it had ever been in my entire life. It’s as if a door, a window, had opened into a world I didn’t know existed. Soon after that I did my first ten-day retreat at Yucca Valley in 2003, with Jack [Kornfield] and company, and I was really lucky to have my first retreat be in the desert, and to have Jack as one of my interview teachers. So I was, as a complete newbie, very lucky. Very lucky. And the retreat was just amazing and again it really opened my eyes to a whole new world. So that’s how it started.
SR: How did you then become involved with Spirit Rock, after the retreats?
NM: I continued to do many retreats at Spirit Rock over the past decade. Most of my retreats, actually, have been at Spirit Rock. In terms of number, yes. In terms of length, no, because I’ve also sat at IMS quite a bit, especially at the Forest Refuge.
SR: So from those experiences you were inspired to continue on with teacher training?
NM: Right. Actually, Spirit Rock has been one of my spiritual homes because I’ve done so many retreats there with various teachers, both Western teachers and also some Eastern teachers, including Ajahn Sucitto and Tsoknyi Rinpoche. Whenever I come back to Spirit Rock, it feels like I’m coming home. Whenever I walk in to the upper meditation hall, it really feels like I’ve come home. My nervous system completely relaxes.
SR: Tell us about your teacher training experience.
NM: It’s just been absolutely wonderful and I feel so grateful to be held in this way and to be a part of it—just absolutely impressed and delighted. I’m grateful for the teachers and the teachings, and all the teachers who are involved with the teacher training program are amazing, and are going above and beyond expectations. The curriculum is very thorough—not only the way the teachers are conducting the pedagogical teaching, but also the way we are being taught by example. The way they hold the space is really inspiring. They are very sensitive to the needs of the group and to the group sense, in general. So I’m learning, not just pedagogically, but also by example. And I'm also really, really delighted and impressed and in love with my cohorts. There are 26 of us and every single person is impressive and beautiful through and through. And we’re all having a wonderful experience together. The teachers have a great part in building a group that can trust and depend on each other, as well as hold each other accountable as we step into teachings and also draw on each other’s resources and support. So it’s a really beautiful program and conducted in a wonderful way. I couldn’t speak about it more highly.
SR: How does your spiritual life influence your professional life?
NM: I think both my spiritual life has influenced my professional life and my professional training has influenced my practice. I’ve been an academic research scientist and have been working at a nonprofit institute that’s affiliated with UC Berkeley’s Computer Science department for a long time. That’s where I did my PhD dissertation, and then later I went to Silicon Valley and came back to become a staff research scientist at the same lab. So my role has been more to supervise and mentor PhD students and postdocs, lead research projects, and to co-teach graduate level courses. An example of how my spiritual life has influenced my professional life is that I’ve been starting all my research meetings with my students with meditation. We meditate for five minutes at the beginning, and then we have a check-in, where everyone is invited to share what’s going on. I want them to know I’m not just concerned about their growth as researchers, but as human beings. How are they doing? What’s going on in their life? Is there something that’s affecting them? So I’ve seen myself as a mentor, not just for their professional development, but for their development as human beings. And I would say that that’s directly influenced by my practice, to care for the whole person, for the whole being. My practice has affected and influenced the way I interact with people, and helped me in dealing with disappointments, surprises, stressful situations.
An example of the way my training and career as a researcher has influenced my practice is that as a scientist there are a few qualities that are key for doing research, including curiosity, investigation, as well as perseverance—not to give up when the answer doesn’t reveal itself. These professional trainings and attitudes of a scientist have been instrumental in my practice.
SR: Can you speak a little about your study with Venerable Pa Auk Sayadaw?
NM: I studied with him at the Forest Refuge [in Barre, MA] the two times that he came there. For a total of six months, I sat with him. And he is a most amazing human being and teacher, and I hold him in highest regard. I have a lot of affection for him as a teacher and a lot of metta and devotion, even though as a scientist, I’m not a devotion-driven person. He’s an amazing human being and brilliant—very thorough in his teaching. He demands a lot from his students, and yet he is filled with so much metta that is completely palpable. He’s very inspiring and I feel so lucky for my good fortune to have been able to study with him.
He really wanted me to ordain and become a nun. Pretty much every day I would go for an interview and he would make a cutting gesture on his head and say, “You must shave; you must shave.” he would say. And then one day he didn’t do it. So before I got up, I said “Sayadaw! Sayadaw! You forgot something today! You forgot to tell me to shave my hair and become a nun.” And he burst out laughing.
SR: That’s sweet.
NM: Yes and another story just came to mind from when I studied with him for the first time in 2008. So again, multiple times I would go to sit with him, and during the interview he would say, “You must teach Dhamma. You must teach Dhamma at the university.” At that point, I had no intention of ever teaching. Since it wasn't appropriate to say ”no”, I would say, “Thank you, Sayadaw, but you know I’m a computer scientist. I’ve been trained as a computer scientist and I teach computer science at the university.” And so again, a few interviews later he would say, “You must teach.” So he’s the one who planted the seed for me to become a teacher. He really changed the direction of my life, both personally in how he taught me, and in helping insights arise that may not have arisen otherwise. This was done through his teaching, through his real caring, and mentoring. He mentored me as if his life depended upon my liberation—that’s the level of commitment he had. He had complete commitment and trust in my ability and was committed to my awakening and liberation.
He changed my life in both my personal practice and also by planting the seed of sharing the Dharma, which I never thought I would. So it’s really because of him that the wheels slowly started to churn and turn in that direction. Again, I still had no intention of ever teaching, but what happened was that a few years later, I wanted more community. I wanted to practice within community, and considered the DPP (Dedicated Practitioners Program). A friend of mine, who was very familiar with my practice at that time, said, "In terms of community, DPP will be good for you, but in terms of content, your practice is past that point. Something that might be interesting to you, especially since you’re an academic, is a new program at UCLA, the MARC [Mindful Awareness Research Center] program." And as it turned out, the UCLA program was a teacher training program with a significant teaching requirement. And hence, my teaching career in the Dharma began.
The UCLA program was great for community and provided wonderful training in sharing the Dharma in a secular context. As part of this program, I began to teach six-week mindfulness courses, and learned that I really enjoyed sharing the Dharma through teaching. And then about a year after that I went through the Stanford-CCARE [Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education] teacher training program. CCARE investigates methods for cultivating compassion and promoting altruism within individuals and society, and has developed a wonderful eight-week Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) course.
This course both draws from Buddhist practices in Theravada in terms of metta and compassion cultivation practice, as well as tonglen from the Tibetan tradition. The class has a cognitive aspect of helping the students reframe and see common life situations from a compassionate perspective of common humanity, both for themselves, in order to increase and help promote self-compassion, as well as compassion for others. The circle of compassion extends from people who are dear to us, to neutral people, and finally, to difficult people—people with whom we have some strife in our lives—to also include them in our circle of compassion and care. Research has shown that compassion, both self-compassion and other-compassion, is really a great resource for resilience and dealing with stressful situations in life. It’s also important to note that we’re not trying to cultivate this high and mighty compassionate image figure that’s just out of our reach, but it's about being with real situations in our lives, and starting where we are. Just where we are.