Interview with Dave Smith on teaching meditation and the Secular Dharma Foundation

Dave Smith is an internationally recognized Buddhist meditation teacher, addiction treatment specialist, and published author. His background is rooted in the Insight Meditation tradition and he was empowered to teach through the Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society. He has extensive experience bringing meditative interventions into jails, prisons, youth detention centers and addiction treatment facilities.

Dave teaches residential meditation retreats and classes, provides trainings and consulting in both secular and Buddhist contexts, and works with students through his meditation mentoring program. He recently founded the Secular Dharma Foundation and lives in Paonia, Colorado.

Dave will be co-teaching at three secular dharma retreats in the coming months. On Feb. 7th and 8th, he and Karen Mannix will be offering a retreat on Mindfulness E.A.S.T. (Emotional Awareness Skills Training). From April 15th to 19th, he and Deborah Eden Tull will be leading a retreat on the Dharma of everyday living: exploring the relational and emotional aspects of mindfulness. Finally, Dave and Eve Ekman will be leading a retreat, The Dharma of Awareness, Emotion and Meaning, from June 6th to June 10th. For more information on these retreats, click here.

We recently interviewed Dave about his approach to being a meditation teacher and his Secular Dharma Foundation


SBN: Can you give us a sense of how you got into Buddhism, and as you developed your practice, what were the most important influences on you?

DS: That’s a long story, but I’ll give you kind of the snapshot.  I was introduced to the dharma when I was 19 through the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. The first thing I was introduced to was vipassana meditation. I went to this retreat center because I had a lot of trauma as a kid and my friend’s family thought that that practice maybe would help me. The thing that was most transformative to me with the very preliminary techniques that we learned was to notice that your mind wanders and bring your attention back to the in-breath. I did that for 5 or 6 minutes and my whole life changed. I was so identified by my mind, as many of us are, and I because I had so many traumatic events in my life,  my mind was like a horror movie. And so when I realized – from a first person come and see for yourself experience – that I could actually be in my body and my breath and sound and not be in my mind all the time – that was a dharma transmission for me. It’s something I totally take for granted now, but it was transformative.

Back then, it was the early 1990s and I was very much involved with the Burmese lineage of vipassana. The focus was noting,  labeling where the mind goes when it wanders. And then there was a little bit of the brahma viharas.  And there was a lot of emphasis on effort. Where, you know, you’re sitting 14 hours a day on retreat. Probably trying too hard. But that was my initial introduction and really kind of where I still hold my practice in many ways.

SBN: At some point, you eventually got involved with Noah Levine and Against the Stream. How did that happen?

DS: In 2003 I was I was living in Amsterdam and I was strung out on drugs and alcohol and I’d been in a band for 10 years. I decided to make changes in my life. I quit my band, I quit drinking and I went and sat the 3 month IMS retreat.  I was 60 days sober and I thought I was just going to get this addiction thing figured out.  At the end of the retreat, one the teachers – Spring Washam – told me that I needed to get in touch with Noah Levine since I had tattoos and was into punk rock.  I left the retreat and went to Amherst, Massachusetts. I go to the bookstore in Amherst and Noah’s book, Dharma Punx, had just come out and was literally in the window of the bookstore. You know the cover of the book has the tattoos on the hands, the flame. Of course, I just had to buy the book and read it a couple times.

So, I slowly developed a relationship with Noah over about maybe 5 years. By then, I had started teaching meditation in Nashville, Tennessee. I was teaching in youth detention centers and jails, and I reached out to Noah and his Addiction Recovery Network.  I was interested in doing training so I started to work with Noah directly to really learn how to teach meditation and that was the beginning of a very long relationship that has recently been sort of destroyed with all of the stuff that has happened with Against the Stream.

Even before that I was working in a substance abuse treatment center with teenagers. I just started doing groups with teenagers and I talked about meditation a little bit and the teenagers really took to some of the things I was talking about.

At some point, the light bulb off went in my head and I began to wonder if meditation or mindfulness would be an appropriate and useful kind of vehicle or path for people with substance abuse; and I launched my secular career around mindfulness and emotional intelligence. That was really a pinnacle moment for me.  it was meeting Noah, teaching dharma while working with teenagers who had addiction problems. Of course, I’m not the first person to be involved in this.  Kevin Griffin wrote the book on how mindfulness and Buddhism can help people with addictions, and there a lot of people are doing this right now.

SBN: What the most important impact that your connection with Noah Levine had for you?

DS: To his credit, he kicked the door open for a whole segment of the population that would probably never be interested in Buddhism. Noah made it very accessible and he created a sangha, a community of people who felt like they were with their own people – you know, younger people who maybe had substance abuse issues,  people who identified as counterculture or punk rock – a bunch of people who just never felt like they fit in anywhere.

Noah also gave me a platform for teaching. In our cohort  there weren’t a lot of people who had the practice history that I had.  I was one of the few people in the cohort of Against the Stream who had such a deep and long practice history that it kind of put me in a position to move into teaching quicker because I had I just had decades of experience.

SBN: Let me turn to another topic. Once you became a meditation teacher with the help of Noah, how did your teaching style compare to the IMS teachers that you encountered in retreats. Do you have your own particular way of teaching?

DS: I do feel a tremendous reverence and respect and I really want to have fidelity to the Theravadan lineage that I come from. And yet, there are a couple things I’ve noticed that have been troublesome for me as somebody who sat retreats. I always felt a little bit like the teachers were kind of off limits.  If you were talking to the teacher, if you wanted some attention from the teacher, you were sort of bugging them.

The teachers sat up higher than the retreatants. They’d come in in the morning and they do their evening talks and then there would be a little interview. That was the one thing I wanted to change. I wanted people on my retreats to feel more like I’m a student with them on the journey rather than think that I‘m the person who has all the knowledge.

So, I put a lot of effort into being more available than I think the teachers are on a typical retreat. We still do group interviews, but we do other interviews as well. So, I try to be more accessible We also teach a little bit more. I do three teaching sessions a day rather than two.

I do also feel like the retreat culture has been very vipassana/insight/mindfulness heavy and that the heart practices of the brahma viharas are just seen as another thing to do. I actually teach what I call metta vipassana,  which is really a 50/50 blend of mindfulness and heart practices. I teach as much metta as I do mindfulness.

On a retreat, we kind of break it down so that in the morning session we focus on mindfulness of breathing and then the afternoon session will be devoted to metta and the brahma viharas in the afternoon. This type of approach is based on what I’ve learned from my teacher, Steven Smith.

We learn how to bring attention to objects so it’s about the object as in mindfulness, but it’s actually really more about the quality of the attention or the quality of awareness that we bring to the object. So, there are a lot of times when I’ll teach metta as an anchor to develop a particular quality of attention to objects and other experiences.

Metta vipassana is in the Theravadan tradition, but if you look at all the Insight retreats, it’s 85 percent mindfulness maybe 90 percent mindfulness, and 10 percent metta. I think it should be more 50/50.

I think it’s a big problem for a lot of people that they if we just look at kind of practice 101, it’s like we have our attention and we have an object, we pay attention to that object, and so we we’ve become a little bit more hyper-focused on the object. For me, the question is what is the quality of attention or the quality of awareness? What is the relationship I have to the object? That is key.

SBN: Although you developed your practice in the Theravadan teaching tradition, would you also characterize yourself as a secular Buddhist?

DS: I suppose I could consider myself a secular Buddhist, but it would be with some degree of discomfort. Actually, I would say that I’m more identified with the early Buddhist tradition, which is pre-Theravadan and based on the Pali Canon. I don’t have a problem with the post-Canonical Theravada tradition, but I have found so many rich insights in the Pali Canon.

For me, the word dharma – based on the Buddha’s teachings in the Pali Canon – means a lot more than Buddhism. And in terms of the word secular dharma, you don’t even need the word secular because if you look at the early Buddhist tradition, you look at the dharma, there’s nothing religious about it so even calling it secular dharma is in some ways redundant.

SBN: Your secular dharma retreats are not based on just metta vipassana, but they also are bringing in psychological issues, emotional intelligence. So how do you connect the modern theories and scientific perspectives about psychology and emotions with the insights from early Buddhism? What are the secular approaches that useful and worthwhile to connect with a metta vipassana approach?

DS: I noticed the farther back I go in the Buddhist tradition, in the dharma, the more it lines up with the way we understand things in the modern, scientific world. I’ve seen in my in my own personal experience and also students that people go on these 10 days classic Insight meditation retreats and have these wonderful experiences. But then they go back into life and the messiness of life gets them triggered and worked up.  How do we take the retreat experience into my life?

Part of my goal is to address that dilemma and I think a secular dharma retreat can be more effective in this regard because we are dealing with a broader range of human experiences than a traditional retreat. We deal with four categories of experiences.  The first is the somatic component, which is the body, and  would include all of the embodied ways that we have sematic experiences. We also have cognitive experience, which is the psychological/thinking/perception/the mind. The first two categories deal with body-mind, which is mostly what we get in traditional retreat experiences.  But there are also two other categories.

The third is the emotional component. The problem with traditional Buddhist languages like Tibetan, Pali, Chinese, and Sanskrit is none of them have a term or a word that means emotion the way that we talk about it in the modern era. We need to understand emotion from the lens of evolutionary biology, which is that emotions have emerged over time that are part of our evolution, that they came on line at different places, and that they have a purpose and function.

Things like shame and anger; they’re considered bad negative emotions to be gotten rid of, so what I do is teach a little bit of emotional intelligence and emotional science in the retreat.

And then that brings me to the fourth category, which is what I call the relational component. My friend Deborah Eden Tull has written a book relational mindfulness and Gregory Kramer developed Insight Dialogue. The thing that makes life hard for most people is the relationships with the people that I care about in my life and the emotional exchange that we have relating to other people. Now you’re not going to get any of that in a classic Theravada retreat. So, what we do in a secular drama retreat is build those kind of practices into the retreat.

SBN: What does the structure of a secular dharma retreat look like? It’s structured differently than your metta vipassana retreats, right?

DS: From breakfast up to lunch we do mindfulness awareness practices. In the afternoon session would be an emotional relational practice where people interact with each other but then go back to the silence. And then in the evening, I would do a 20 minute talk or an overview of what metta is and how it works. Then, I do a guided metta meditation practice and then we would take a half an hour for people to talk about their experience. What did you notice coming up for you? There might be a Q&A or there might just be more reflection because these people have been talking to each other in the afternoon. And then we would go back in silence to that afternoon session the next day.

I’m not in any way trying to say that the original retreat model is bad, but you get a lot of benefits in my version of a retreat. I’m just wanting to add something to the buffet table. I just want to add another dish.

It’s interesting because from the 1st person user experience, it doesn’t feel that different from a traditional retreat. You get a lot of silence and its very structured. But the great thing about this approach is doing the emotional work in the afternoon; things come up for people and then when we do the evening heart practice sessions, they find that they have a lot to work with.

Another reason for this type of approach to a retreat is that, as my friend Josh Korda has noted, if we look at the classic Insight 10 day quiet style retreat, it can very much activate people’s attachment styles and cause a lot of suffering.  In his research John Bowlby has pointed out that the silence and people not looking at each other can trigger abandonment terror and then there is no venue to talk about it except a 10 minute interview every 2 days with a teacher. So traditional retreats can be damaging for some people.

One of the nice things about my retreats is that people’s struggles on retreat can be processed; they have a have a 2 hour session in the afternoon to actually tell us about it and process it.

SBN: My last question is about the Secular Dharma Foundation. Can you tell us what it is and what your vision is for it?

DS: My wife and I started this a couple years ago and our intention was really to merge everything I’m talking about and to integrate the best of the Eastern contemplative traditions with Western contemplative traditions and science.

Our goal is to work in mindfulness and emotional intelligence and also work in trauma and addiction and substance abuse. We do educational programs and we write curricula for these programs. I’m actually working on a curriculum right now that I call Mindfulness East, which stands for emotional awareness skills training so it’s a mindfulness program that’s specifically designed to develop emotional awareness and skills. And then we’re putting on two secular dharma retreats in 2020.

We’d like to have our own center. We’re looking at a property right now (if you know anybody who wants to give me a couple million dollars, let me know!). We want to have a Secular Dharma Foundation retreat center where we put on a combination of these kinds of retreats as well as clinical workshops on emotional awareness. We want it to be for a small group of participants, so we’re looking for a place for retreats for a maximum of 25 retreatants at any one time.

We want people to be very comfortable and have their own rooms. I’d like to have food available around the clock, even if it’s just like toast and coffee and fruit, but really having people feel more supported.

Finally, we’re looking at creating an online course for the stuff that we’re doing right now to. We want to bring the Eastern contemplative tradition and the modern world together in a way that is constructive.

SBN: Dave, thanks so much for giving us some insight into your teaching and the Secular Dharma Foundation. We have a page on the Secular Dharma Foundation on the website and we encourage folks to check out your retreats.


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One Reply to “Interview with Dave Smith on teaching meditation and the Secular Dharma Foundation”

Jim Del Duca

Dave is quite gifted and I admire his approach. I have attended two events conducted by him and found him to be very helpful. His incorporation of increased metta focus is a vital and necessary improvement in sharing dharma.

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