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Teaching Mindfulness and Overcoming Imposter Syndrome with Gil Fronsdal

Updated: 5 days ago

In this episode, Gil Fronsdal speaks with Prison Mindfulness Institute's Executive Director, Vita Pires Ph.D., about teaching mindfulness and overcoming imposter syndrome.

  • Buddhist perspective on teaching and overcoming imposter syndrome.

  • Teaching meditation and embodiment.

  • Teaching Buddhism and preparing audiences for deeper teachings.

  • Mindfulness teaching and practice.

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Gil Fronsdal is the senior guiding co-teacher at the Insight Meditation Center (IMC) in Redwood City, California, and the Insight Retreat Center in Santa Cruz, California. He started Buddhist practice in 1975 and has been teaching for IMC since 1990. Gil is an authorized teacher in two traditions: the Insight Meditation lineage of Theravada Buddhism of Southeast Asia, and Japanese Soto Zen. He holds a Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies from Stanford. He is a husband and the father of two sons.

Podcast Transcript

Vita Pires 0:00  

Welcome, everyone, to the Teaching Mindfulness Summit. I'm pleased to be here today with Gil  Fronsdal. Gil Fronsdal is a senior guiding teacher at the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City,  California. And the Insight Retreat Center in Santa Cruz, California. Gil started Buddhist practice in 1975 and has been teaching for IMC since 1990. He's an authorized teacher in two traditions, the Insight  Meditation lineage of Theravada Buddhism of Southeast Asia and the Japanese Soto Zen tradition. He holds a Ph.D. in Buddhist studies from Stanford. Welcome, Gil.  

Gil Fronsdal 0:37  

Hi. Very nice to be here.  

Vita Pires 0:39  

Nice to have you here. I was hoping you could talk about the Buddhist perspective on teaching itself.  What does that mean to you?  

Gil Fronsdal 0:49  

Thank you for asking it that way. What does it mean to me? So certainly, it'll be my take on it all.  I've been deeply influenced by these decades of being a Buddhist, Buddhist practitioner, and Buddhist monk, and deeply steeped in this. As it occurs to me at the moment, when you asked that question, is that in my background in Buddhism, the idea is not to become a teacher.  It's not like a career goal or purpose to become a teacher. That's embodied most clearly among  Theravada monastics who, never think of themselves as teachers, they think of themselves as just monks who are practicing. But if people come and ask them for teachings, they're happy to give them.

My path to becoming a teacher was not to be a teacher. It was, first and foremost, just to support people in this world who are suffering, to help people together with myself, and for others to find a way to be free of suffering. And that as I practiced, there was a dropping of self, a disappearing of a certain kind of self-centeredness, self-preoccupation that I had earlier in my life. The consequence of that dropping of self-concern was that somehow, my heart and some source inside of me wanted to respond to the suffering of the world. I had no idea of becoming a teacher when I set out when I decided to devote my life to Buddhism. Initially, as a Zen priest, the image I had was that I would find a little storefront to rent in the city. I would have a little meditation hall in it. My job would be to keep it clean, have the key, and open and close it daily so people could come and meditate. That was the extent of my ambition.

I wasn't comfortable calling myself a teacher; it just evolved from that little aspiration. The doors kept opening and invitations kept coming. Initially, when I first started teaching, I was passive, like a monastic, just waiting to be invited. But at some point, it became clear that I was invited to lead a sitting group. And it was clear that they were looking to me for leadership. And I decided, 'Well, the invitation is to take  leadership.' That was a whole transition to being more concerned with what it means to teach. How do I  teach? I wasn't a teacher.  

First and foremost, I'm a practitioner. And that's been a saving grace for me as a teacher because teaching is a fantastic way to practice. I've learned so much over these years. I've been teaching for almost 35 years, and I'm a slow learner in the Dharma. But that's long enough. All the teaching I do has been like meditation practice, slow and steady. Practicing, learning, growing, developing, and freeing myself in the activity of teaching. And that has been fantastic that I could fold it into the practice itself.  

Vita Pires 4:43  

When you're talking about your ambition to have the little storefront, I'm thinking about you on  YouTube. You're in your little storefront with a million people!  

Gil Fronsdal 4:54  

And the key that I have is the streaming key for YouTube!  

Vita Pires 5:07  

You said in your email, 'The Buddhist point of view teaching is a form of Buddhist practice, regardless of  how well we teach.' Can you speak to that a little bit? Especially when people learn to be teachers, they get caught up in what they call the imposter syndrome, where they don't feel confident. And they feel like they have to be a perfect teacher. And they have to get out there and say all the right things and, be perfectly embodying mindfulness.  

Gil Fronsdal 5:34  

To have those attitudes, what we're conveying then in our very being and how we're showing up to teach is that everyone is supposed to be perfect. There is perfection, and they're supposed to have those kinds of concerns about their performance. So we're teaching the opposite of the Dharma. One of the inspiring moments in seeing someone teach for me was when I was practicing at the San Francisco Zen  Center. There, the ethos was when someone gave a Dharma talk; you were never supposed to have notes; you were just supposed to show up. And Dharma talks were meant not to be about the content so much but about the manifestation of the teacher's practice. So something about how they were there was more important than the words.

And so there was an older man who was newer as a teacher. He showed up to give his Dharma talk, and when he was going to give his talk, he opened up a Buddhist newspaper, like a journal, from a Zen Center in Los Angeles. He read someone else's Dharma talk that had been published in the newsletter. And he just read it, and that was it. You weren't supposed to use notes, right? And he was here reading somebody else's talk. What amazed me the most was the way he read it and the way he showed up there. He wasn't embarrassed, he wasn't apologetic, he was just very simple and matter-of-fact. He had found this, he liked it, he was presenting it. I don't remember anything about what he read. I remember his ease, how comfortable he was doing it. There was no pretense. And that impressed me like, 'Oh, that's the way to teach'.  

I'm so happy to teach always for free. Occasionally, people want me to teach in a situation where they pay. I go along with it sometimes, but I prefer to teach freely without expecting pay. One of the reasons for that is that I don't feel like I have to do a good job. As soon as I feel like I have to do a good job, I get tripped up. Then, it is a performance. I certainly try to do the best I can. It's more out of joy and my delight to share the Dharma than it is to fit some standard of what I'm supposed to be.  

Vita Pires 8:31  

That reminds me of sometimes when we're training people to guide meditation, for example, we have some scripts that they can read and get some ideas. Or, I usually just say listen to people and practice with people, and then it will be natural to you. But what I noticed is that they do a download thing.  Where, for example, they say, 'Okay, now take a comfortable seated position'. It is as though they're reading the script. And I say, 'Can you just practice and then speak to what you're doing'? They can't quite get that. If you're practicing yourself, then you know when your mind wanders, you can then bring it back for yourself because it is happening to you. So, practicing while you're guiding, do you do that?  

Gil Fronsdal 9:15  

Oh, absolutely. How I try to teach is to live what I'm teaching while I'm teaching. The preferred way of teaching is to be riding the edge of what I understand, hoping or looking to understand more. And I just delight in this. So it sounds to people who listen to me that I know a lot, but actually, it's about my own internal experiences. I'm riding the edge of what I am looking for, what's beyond what I know. How can I  grow in this and how can I touch into the topic? If I'm teaching about generosity, I want to feel my way into generosity. Teaching about mindfulness, feeling my way into what it's like to be aware and a full way.  Whatever it is, I'm trying to live it or be it. And, that's more important for me than the content of the words. I have a mode of teaching, which I call my explaining mode. So sometimes I'll go home to my wife  and look a little bit discouraged and say, 'I fell into my explaining mode.' And explaining mode for me is that I'm not inhabiting or living the experience. I'm just explaining something, information. And it's a little bit draining for me. And sometimes I feel while I'm doing it, 'Oh no, Gil, you're in your explaining  mode.' And sometimes I can't quite find my way out. So then I'm just, 'Well, okay, that's how it is today'.  

And I'll just keep doing it. But there's a very radical difference for me between when it feels alive, inside,  and nourishing for myself. I feel like I'm living the practice, as opposed to when it's just the content and ideas that are being presented. So for people who are reading a script, it's not necessarily wrong to do that. But the art of it is to embody what you're reading. Be familiar with it, read ahead of time, know it, and personalize it, so that you can enter into the words. And certainly, for some people, that's less anxiety-producing because, for some people, talking extemporaneously is not easy. But you should live the word like the script is poetry.  

Vita Pires 11:54  

That's a good metaphor. In your teaching, you tend to have themes when you do your daily Dharma and things like that. I've listened to hundreds and hundreds of your guided meditations since COVID. I like how you have a theme, and then you unpack the theme; it seems like you're getting into it yourself as you're explaining it.  

Gil Fronsdal 12:27  

Absolutely. That's what makes it come alive for me. It's nice to have a theme. I think some people relax when they know the teacher knows what they're teaching. Sometimes I've said at the beginning of a talk, 'This is what we're doing'. And I've had people say, 'ahh" as soon as they know I have a plan. Now I can relax and just go along with you. For longer talks that we do, I do a 45-minute or an hour-long talk, I  have a theme, some ideas, and I have a thought. Sometimes, I like to come up with three main points beforehand because they say that that is what people can remember. Three things. I try to be clear about what those are. And sometimes I'll repeat them or say them repeatedly, just to make sure. I want people to remember this. But what I'm also doing for a longer talk is a journey. And I'm feeling my way; it's like the path is opening up in front of me as I speak. And so sometimes it's not so linear, but for me, it is linear because there is a next step. And so I'm feeling my way, Where's the path opening?  Where's the freedom here? Where in myself? In the content? In the relationship with the audience?  Where is it opening here? What's the next step? It's rare these days that I write out a talk or have an outline. I used to do that many years ago. Now, it's very rare. But occasionally, I'll still do it. I don't necessarily stick to it. Because the path is opening up differently than it is on paper.  

Vita Pires 14:25  

And it might be different people that are in your audience or something that will inspire that.  

Gil Fronsdal 14:33  

When I was a Zen priest living at the monastery one summer, the first teachings I did there were throughout the summer. They received a lot of guests. And those guests would receive meditation instructions in the afternoon like a three o'clock. And, I was the primary person who would teach that.  

Many days of the week, I was meeting these guests, and sometimes there would be three to ten,  somewhere in that range. And what I became acutely aware of was how on different days, the guests would be different. Individually but also collectively as a group. Sometimes local cowboys who came lived farm ranch lives and, then there'd be people who came from different walks of life. And each of them had a different manner or a different vocabulary of English, a different way of being. And so the art was not to give the same introduction and meditation every time but to be attuned to them. And then adjust according to them. Adjust the words, adjust my manner, my tone of voice, the loudness. I tend to speak very softly. But sometimes I would adjust that for people who were loud, just to kind of match them. And so this attunement with the audience is such an important part of teaching.  

Vita Pires 16:08  

Yes, I'd like to know how you might prepare people to be receptive to the deeper or more transformative teachings engaged within Buddhism. Do you work with that?  

Gil Fronsdal 16:24  

Yes, so this is a classic thing in Buddhism. It goes back to the Buddha, that the deeper teachings are only given to people when their mind or their hearts are prepared. Some things soften; they are relaxed, the hindrances are no longer there, they are not preoccupied. They are present in a malleable, soft, inspired way, listening and ready to take it in. And so there is a journey. Like in a single talk, or, you'd mentioned my weekly YouTube, which are short 15-minute talks with a theme over the week. Some weeks, I have a sense of a journey through the five days. And, sometimes I would give the deepest teaching on the last day, building on what we did before that. But in a longer talk, like on a retreat where I teach a week-long retreat or longer, I'm very aware that the beginning people are getting settled, getting relaxed.

By the middle of the retreat, people have an openness and receptivity that they don't have just walking off the street in their busy lives. And then they're receptive to hearing certain teachings. And there are certain moments when people are more receptive than other times. And so on retreats, for example, if I give any teaching after they've been meditating for a while, the first few moments after the end of the meditation, I operate on the assumption that people are ready to hear something in a whole different way. And so I tried to be very careful what I said and maybe something concise. Like dropping something into a pond, the pond is clear to ready for the ripples. Or in a 45-minute talk, it's also a journey. There's an arc in the talk. And there, too, I'm paying attention to what's happening in the room, the energetics of the people, the receptivity of people. And I'm not trying to manipulate them, but I'm trying to get them ready, to prepare them to be settled and attentive and present. So, near the end of the talk, I can drop something into the talk that they can hear in a way they couldn't at the beginning.  

Vita Pires 18:54  

You predominantly teach Dharma and Buddhism, correct? And so you're not a secular-minded. Although you do teach some kind of secular mindfulness classes that would be for the general public occasionally.  

Gil Fronsdal 19:09  

Maybe, I don't know about secular. I don't think I do that. But here at AMC, we're kind of Buddhist light.  When I teach an intro to meditation class, I might mention some Buddhist terms or ideas or even  Buddhism. But I tell people, sometimes upfront when they come, that the Buddhist part is not needed.  I'm just interested in conveying the practice. So if they don't like Buddhism, just ignore that. Ignore that part of it.  

Vita Pires 19:37  

When you were talking about the long talks, (and I've been around doing this for 40 years) we would always go to long talks and have long sitting periods, like what you are talking about. Where you're getting receptive, and there'd be these long, one-hour or two-hour talks. Sometimes it is like going on a journey and the talks help settle you into it, depending on whoever's delivering the talk. But these days when I meet people who are just coming for the mindfulness teaching, they seem adverse to listening to an hour-long talk. They only want a 10-minute soundbite or 15 minutes that sums it all up quickly. And then we're good to go. Do you think this is an erosion? Is some depth being lost here from transformative opportunities?  

Gil Fronsdal 20:26  

It's possible, but I don't think that way so much. I think I just prefer to kind of respond to the circumstances I'm in. So people show up with that kind of mind, and that kind of conditioning, from their culture, from their screen time, and their attention span has changed. Then, the art is to match that and support them as they are. And maybe if they come regularly, there's a learning, a new way of being  or preparing them for something. I think my general idea would be just to accept people how they are,  and then figure out how to work with that.  

Vita Pires 21:13  

Do you have any advice for somebody who wants to become a mindfulness teacher?  

Gil Fronsdal 21:20  

 I think that I would always give generic advice: to do a lot of practice. And, the stronger your desire to be a mindfulness teacher, practice, and, in particular, do retreats. The number of people who teach mindfulness now without really having done a lot of the practices is phenomenal. Someone came to a  retreat once and said, 'Oh, I wrote a book about mindfulness, they are so great.' And then she said, 'This is the first time I've meditated.' And I looked at her and I said, 'Really? Is this your first time meditating on retreat? 'No, first time ever.' And she wrote a book on mindfulness. I thought, 'Wow'!  

From my Buddhist point of view, I think it's invaluable for people who teach mindfulness to do their  practice. With that regard, I'll tell a story. There was a professor at UC Berkeley in the psychology department, I think her name was Elenor Rauch. She was a Buddhist practitioner, she did Tibetan practice. She tells a story of one of her Tibetan lamas coming from Nepal or India, kind of- new to the  West. She was explaining to him her profession, that that they studied the human mind. And the Lama  said, 'Do they meditate?' And she said, 'Most of them don't'. And he said, 'Is that ethical'?  

I thought that was a fascinating comment.  

Vita Pires 23:07  

I'm kind of surprised that people who apply for our program to become teachers, don't want to meditate. They want to teach mindfulness because they think mindfulness is just being aware of the present moment.  

Gil Fronsdal 23:22  

That doesn't do any harm. It could do a lot of good for the world, I don't want to say it's wrong. My biggest concern with that is that we teach primarily by how we are, not what we teach. We want to be careful what we manifest, we are, in some ways, what we want to teach. And it's hard to do that if you haven't done practice yourself. One of the things we convey in how we are, is our confidence, and our love of the practice. We show, maybe subconsciously for some people, we show them we're practicing what we're teaching all the time. And that's what it's been like for me, and I feel so fortunate that I've been practicing as a teacher. I've learned so much about myself and had to work through so many of my hang-ups and freed myself from so many different things. I've tapped into so much goodness inside of myself, by really staying close to the practice; mindfulness of my body, of my heart, and my mind, simultaneously as I'm teaching.  

Vita Pires 24:43  

I work with prisons a lot because I run the Prison Mindfulness Institute. When I initially was going into  jails and prisons 25 years ago, I was given really simple instructions on meditation, 'Sit there, do that for  hours.' When I would go into the prisons, I was not leading guided meditations. I would give these simple three-minute instructions: posture, breath, and what you do with thoughts, and that was it. And then we sit there in silence. Well, that didn't work. Everybody was like, 'Great, you can sit still up there,  but we can't do this!'  

And so I began to appreciate the power of guidance during meditation. And that it was helpful for people to have something to anchor their minds to. Somebody is there saying, 'Well, okay, now this and now that, and now this, and then that'. So, I appreciate your guidance; it has been helpful. I have played your tape in prison sometimes, which has been helpful.  

Gil Fronsdal 25:46  

Fantastic! I think it's phenomenal that you have been doing this for 20 years. Thank you for doing that.  That's so fantastic gift to be doing. And, probably, it's been good for you too.  

Vita Pires 25:59  

Yes, it's been great. I've learned a lot in developing and adapting programs to the audience. Also, getting feedback is ongoing; I'm constantly changing the methods.  

I appreciate you taking the time to talk with us today. And I appreciate your teaching and all the wisdom you share with the world. Thank you, Gil, for who you are.  

Gil Fronsdal 26:31  

Wonderful, thank you. It's wonderful to spend this time with you, and I hope we will have a chance to meet in person.  

Vita Pires 26:36  

Thank you.  

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