When I asked Anushka Fernandopulle about the main obstacle she sees in practitioners wanting to integrate dharma with their work, her answer was clear and immediate.
“People often don’t have a framework with which to see their work as part of their spiritual development, so it can help to have a right view chiropractic adjustment around this! I try to help people see that there doesn’t have to be a division between the two realms. Their work can be part of their path of development, which can help them personally—and also help them become a more effective, compassionate, and wise leader.”
Fernandopulle, an insight meditation teacher and Harvard and Yale graduate, works with practitioners of all stripes, though a large percentage of her teaching over the years has been with leaders and organizations interested in the synthesis of leadership, creativity, and awareness as framed through the dharma teachings. She grew up in a Sri Lankan community in Baltimore and spent many summers in Sri Lanka, where she first was exposed to the buddhadharma, but her connection with Buddhism was tenuous at first. It wasn’t until she was in college that she began studying the tradition in earnest and attending meditation classes at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center. After college, she practiced at Insight Meditation Society for a year, and then traveled to Sri Lanka and India, where she spent several years training in a number of Buddhist monasteries and practice centers. After returning to the United States, she joined a four-year meditation teacher training program led by Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, and others.
“I always had a curious bent,” Fernandopulle said. “As a child, I wanted to understand death and the passage of time. I wanted to understand what past, present, and future were. I also played sports in high school, and my dad suggested I sit quietly and follow my breath to calm myself before a big game. So it was natural for me to be interested in insight meditation.”
While Fernandopulle was doing an MBA at Yale University, her teacher, Narayan Liebenson, asked her to teach, and though at first Fernandopulle demurred, thinking she still had much to learn herself, eventually she agreed. She also began to see how her dharma work could support and inform the consulting and coaching she was doing with leaders of mission-driven organizations. Slowly, her teaching evolved, and she’s now been teaching retreats, as well as coaching executives, social justice leaders, filmmakers, and academics, among others, as they explore the meeting ground between dharma and work. Using the paramis, for example, she and her clients work together to see how these qualities of generosity, patience, determination, and the like can help them to be better leaders and to do meaningful work.
True to her inquisitive personality, Fernandopulle has other interests that also intersect with her Buddhist training. A lifelong naturalist, she became interested in birding during the pandemic, and you can tell from the way she speaks about it how excited she is to explore the connection between dharma and nature.
“One way to conceive of the dharma is dharma as nature, and the path of practice as realigning with this nature. We’ve been profoundly misaligned as humans and thus have caused a lot of harm to the environment. We need to become more aware of our connection with nature—the fact that we are that nature.”
As Fernandopulle sees it, her work is to help practitioners apply the teachings to their own experience and life. She herself holds teaching as a practice, and she has a lot of faith in the people who come to her for guidance—in their capacity to realize who they are.
“Everything that we need for awakening is always here.”
“Everything that we need for awakening is always here. It’s closer than our noses, which means all of us have the capacity to be free. I work with those who are sincerely trying to free themselves from suffering, and I help them access the teachings in a way that’s beneficial for them and the good work they’re trying to do. And,” she added, “I’m happy to help with all of it.”
To find out more about Fernandopulle’s teaching and work, visit her website at www.anushkaf.org.
Q: How does practicing mindfulness differ from following a more traditional Buddhist path?
Mindfulness is being taught in all kinds of settings nowadays, which can be great. More people get a taste of what is possible from the development of win places where they already are (schools, offices, prisons, hospitals, sports teams, etc). You don’t have to identify as Buddhist to derive benefit from these practices, so if they are offered at your workplace, etc., then you should definitely take advantage of it. At the same time, it’s helpful to know the background and context of mindfulness to gain full benefit from it—to acknowledge the roots of the various practices and techniques that have come to the West from Asia, and to see that they’re part of a larger framework. We’d never quote someone and not attribute their words, so I think it’s important for teachers of mindfulness to say “This is what mindfulness is; its origins can be traced to the Buddhist tradition taught in South Asia thousands of years ago; and this is where to go if you want to learn more.” This approach feels like it has integrity and also gives people a chance to explore further if they are so inclined.
For example, many of us can appreciate mindfulness of breathing as a technique for finding calm in the midst of a busy life. This is great, but it’s also helpful to know that mindfulness is only one part of what we can cultivate to discover the fullness of our well-being. There are other qualities like equanimity, concentration, joy, compassion, and kindness that are also helpful to develop. The calm that you find through working with the breath can be exponentially increased by continuing to learn and grow in the practice until you find an unshakable peace that goes beyond any changing circumstances.
Practices of mindfulness exist within a broader teaching that asks us to tune in both internally and externally. Mindfulness is therefore one important aspect of the path, but it’s just one step on an eight-step path described by the Buddha. Cultivating only mindfulness is like taking one pill of an eight-pill prescription! You will gain some benefit, but not as much as if you took the entire course.
If you want to go deeper, then having a broader context will be extremely helpful. But you can gain benefit at whatever level you engage. These are practices of human development, so you don’t have to consider yourself a Buddhist to try them. I wish you well with your path. May you find the highest happiness and peace!
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