Before starting Elephant Journal, Waylon Lewis worked at both Shambhala Publications and Shambhala Mountain Center. After years of “working for things called ‘Shambhala’ and making not-much-money,” he had three things on his mind: 1) he was ready to start something that he controlled, 2) he wanted to use his skills to a tee, and 3) he wanted to get filthy rich. While the filthy rich thing hasn’t panned out yet, Elephant does serve as Lewis’s vehicle to fulfill his bodhisattva vow to save all beings. What started as an idea for a yoga magazine in 2002 has turned into something more: “As a magazine and a web site, we certainly are not about yoga people. We’re about ‘the mindful life’—living a good life that also happens to be good for others, and our planet.” Recently Tricycle‘s Emma Varvaloucas had a chance to catch up with Lewis in a conversation on Skype.
Why did Elephant Journal change from a print publication to an online publication? National magazines generally are lucky to sell three or four magazines out of 10 on the newsstand. From an environmental POV, that’s a crime. From a Buddhist POV, that’s some karma I don’t want to be involved in. So I spent two more years improving the magazine, interviewing big-deal people and that became a talk show [Walk the Talk]. But I couldn’t figure out how to distribute the magazine in a more eco-responsible manner. We were printed on eco-paper, New Leaf, FSC-certified, but I was unwilling to go down from the 8 or 9 out of 10 we were selling as a smaller publication to a huge publication that could make a ton of dough but, in its inherent business model, be hypocritical.
So after six years, I declined a good offer to sell out, and went online. Gave up my staff, office, car, my house went into foreclosure, and I just started learning by doing in terms of new media. WordPress, Twitter, Facebook.
You say on elephantjournal.com that you’re a “dharma brat” and grew up around Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, but that you were straying from Buddhism until you did a retreat when you were 16. Where do you stand with Buddhism in your life now? Well, I never really strayed; I just didn’t get it. I used to think that all these people meditating around me all the time were avoiding something. I was a child, exuberant, full of life, I wanted to run around and do stuff. These people, on the other hand, were just practicing “being.” Boring.
I grew up in Boulder, went to a Buddhist private school here called Vidya for free because my mom, Linda Lewis, was a teacher there. Later on we moved to Karme Chöling, in Vermont. So I had a very Buddhist upbringing. I loved it—Buddhism is non-theistic so there’s not a whole lot to rebel against, except our tendency as a community to be uptight and anti-children (children are chaos, personified) and to suppress dialogue/gossip. But finally when I did that weekthun [weeklong retreat], I got it: meditation was directly relevant to me, to becoming sane, to figuring out who the hell I was.
I’ve had a few falling outs with my Shambhala Buddhist community. That said, I still consider Sakyong Mipham my teacher and the community to be my sangha, the unsurpassable guide. I practice meditation in the morning and evening, just a bit—as per Sakyong Mipham and Pema Chödrön’s urgings to practice at least a bit—and morning and evenings are rightly considered the most effective times to practice. I practice raising windhorse, Shambhala stuff, just naturally all the time. Most of my best friends are sangha. I see my meditation instructor, Dan Hessey, pretty regularly, and Frank Berliner is one of my closest advisors. I’m very involved in Naropa, generally.
All that said, I’ve found it tough to do what I’m doing within the sangha. The sangha is much more settled and mature now than it used to be. It’s also a lot less fun, crazy, forward and outward-looking. I feel it to be my life’s purpose—and command from my parent’s guru—Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, to offer the best of his legacy, the teachings of meditation and compassion and community to a wider world. There’s a story of the Karmapa, the 16th Karmapa, looking down from a skyscraper in Hong Kong and crying. Someone asked him why he was crying. He could see all the people below, looking just like little ants. He said, there’s so much suffering out there. That’s how I see Boulder. We’re happy, sunny, healthy, community-focused… and yet, personally, we’re all suffering so much. It’s worldwide. Meditation and the teachings of the buddhadharma give us a practical framework to “think about others, and be happy, instead of thinking about ourselves and being unhappy.” If Coke could bottle meditation, the ability to become sane and happy and offer that to others—folks would buy. Even better, it’s free!
I’ve read on elephantjournal.com that 73% of its readers are female. How does it feel to have attracted the attention of so many ladies? Hahahaha. Well unfortunately or fortunately, when it comes to community, eco-living, yoga, health, wellness, meditation, spirituality or faith… women show up. Men are busy playing video games, drinking, businessing, and thinking about women.
Do you think that Elephant Journal falls more on the fun side or the serious side? It’s got to be both. The two make each other more powerful. Serious without fun isn’t accessible, even to serious people. Fun without serious is fluff. Jon Stewart, my personal idol, combines both expertly.
Elephant Journal gathers together so many different strands of interest. What is the glue that holds them all together? My bodhisattva vow, frankly. The inspiration of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, my parents’ teacher, and the world or mandala he created, much of which has naturally changed or died out already.
Rinpoche encouraged us all to get out there—he wanted Shambhala Training to be as mainstream accessible as, say, Jersey Shore. He talked about wanting it sold by the tabloids in the grocery. That hasn’t happened.
I live in Boulder, Colorado—we’ve been named healthiest, best educated, best for cycling, best for foodies, greenest, best place to retire…and yet over the last six months, I’ve been reminded that there’s so much suffering, even here in this “god realm.”
That’s our vow: We’ve been given something so powerful and simple and precious, yet free and immediately transportable: meditation, mindfulness. If it were just invented, marketed and could be sold for a profit, it’d dwarf the iPad by 1,000,000 times in global excitement and impact. But it’s hard to market. It’s boring. It’s hard on our resistance. It’s delightful, too. But folks think it’s spiritual, “special.” Trungpa Rinpoche and my teacher Sakyong Mipham talk about meditation as something basic, ordinary, like training our body through healthy diet and exercise and yoga…only we’re training our mind and heart so we can enjoy life and help others to enjoy life and be responsible in our impact in the world and in daily life, in the smallest of gestures, like remembering to turn off the light switch.
So that’s what binds together everything on elephant: yoga, organics, sustainability, conscious consumerism, active citizenship, enlightened education, adventure, the arts and our other areas of focus: mindfulness. As we practice meditation and study the Dharma, we naturally become more awake and enjoy our daily lives and get less wrapped up in our stories and want to help others more. And that includes all sentient beings—probably why Buddhists have traditionally been vegetarians, and lived in harmony with our environment.
If you could tell someone who is indifferent about protecting the environment one thing in the hopes that you could make them eco-conscious, what would it be? That eco-responsibility is, on a physical level, the same as meditation on an inner level. It’s a mindfulness practice, a way to come back throughout the day to the present moment. Remember to turn off your wifi when done. Why? The electricity comes from a coal plant. Coal is why we’re cutting the tops of mountains off in Virginia and poisoning their water supply. Coal poisons our air, and the air our children breathe. Ride your bike, or walk. It’s more fun. It slows our speediness down, and helps us enjoy and appreciate our daily life, moment by moment. I need it! And it saves gas, which saves pollution, transportation, foreign wars and the lives and money they take away. We talk about interdependence? There’s no better way to jump into the knot of eternity than to enjoy, sugata, being responsible in our daily lives. It’s not about perfection. I eff up all the time. I take hot baths. We all have our things. But we can enjoy our life, enjoy being eco, not from a POV of deprivation but from a POV of appreciation. It’s easy and fun, for me. Eating food from farms in this area… it has much more power to it than eating food of a Sisco truck.
You’ve gotten into some disagreements around the web and people have spoken very unkindly of you in certain quarters. How do these sometimes harsh criticisms affect you, your work, and your practice? I’ve been criticized my whole life. Most of us have. 80% of any criticism, from a Dharma point of view, is helpful. Unwrap the agenda of whomever’s offering said criticism, and I have a lot to take in and learn, it’s helpful. That’s where all that stuff about enemies being our greatest teachers comes from.
That said, elephant has received a ton of support. You all at Trike have been great colleagues. Shambhala Sun has trained me, really, over the years, and now I’m helping them with a little consulting on new media and their new launch, Mindful magazine.
Criticism, when it’s personal and vitriolic, really hurts. But I was brought up in the Shambhala tradition: we’re taught to be open-hearted, raw, dorky (as in not “cool,” just uplifted, upright) warriors. So I don’t try and get away from the hurt, even if it’s not true.
That’s been my experience with Bill Schwartz, formerly one of our star writers. He loves the fight. He loves to attack—whether it’s KTD, Ponlop Rinpoche and the Karmapa, Tricycle, Shambhala Sun (I actively defended him through all that…until I finally got threatened by a lawsuit, while my house was still in foreclosure, because of stuff he’d written about a community he termed a cult). That’s when he turned on me. In our last thread he even started bringing up my ex-girlfriend…he plays dirty. He wants a (virtual) brawl. And he’s good at it. The only way to win with bored maniacal bullies is not to play. So, mostly, I just ignore him. Boredom, as we know from meditation, is a great antidote to klesha [affliction].
Look, I’ve been criticized for years, as you say. It hurts just about every time but at a certain point you have to decide if your mission, your teacher’s command, and helping others is more important that being liked by everyone. People have a lot of projections about me. But get to know me: I guarantee you’ll either like me, or you’ll be bored to death by me. All I do is work.
Is there anything else you want to add about yourself or Elephant Journal? Um, just that, compared with the yoga community, Buddhists are navel-gazing. We’re living our lives—which is great—we’re bringing the great gift that is the buddhadharma to bear with our family, or work. But, with amazing exceptions like Bernie Glassman or Fleet Maull, we’re doing very little to connect with the greater world. I’d like to see us really lift our gaze up and offer what we’ve been given to the wider world. Who cares if anyone becomes Buddhist, of course. But meditation and tonglen and such are literally like water for a world dying of thirst.
I think it’s a shame that meditation and basic Buddhist teachings are less accessible or out there than yoga studios and The Forum and Deepak and The Secret and Eckhart Tolle, the Now guy who was on Oprah. Meditation is, as Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche says, a basic tool that can train the mind much in the way we all realize we need to take care of our body.
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