Richard C. Miller, PhD
Founder of iRest Institute Richard Miller, PhD is a clinical psychologist, author, researcher, yogic scholar, and spiritual teacher. For over 40 years, Richard Miller has devoted his life and work to integrating the nondual wisdom teachings of Yoga, Tantra, Advaita, Taoism and Buddhism with Western psychology. Among his mentors were Jean Klein, T.K.V. Desikachar and Stephen Chang. Richard is the founder of iRest Institute, co-founder of The International Association of Yoga Therapy, founding editor of the professional Journal of IAYT, and was a founding member and past president of the Institute for Spirituality and Psychology.
Author of Yoga Nidra: The iRest Meditative Practice for Deep Relaxation and Healing and The iRest Program for Healing PTSD, Richard serves as a research consultant studying the iRest Yoga Nidra protocol that he has developed (Integrative Restoration ~ iRest, a modern adaptation of the ancient nondual meditation practice of Yoga Nidra) researching its efficacy on health, healing and well-being with diverse populations including active-duty soldiers, veterans, college students, children, seniors, the homeless, the incarcerated, and people experiencing issues such as sleep disorders, PTSD [Posttraumatic Stress Disorder], chemical dependency, chronic pain, and related disorders. In addition to his research and writing projects, Richard lectures and leads trainings and retreats internationally.
Interview by David R. Kopacz, MD (August, 19, 2022)
"There’s a moment where we may have an insight, an inkling, a transformative moment, where we feel not separate...there comes a moment where we have a deeper insight. It’s a felt, somatic insight, not intellectual, where we recognize we aren’t separate, and that the conditioned mind has created this sense of separation, where in fact, there is none.."
Part II of interview from 8/19/22
Read Part I Here
David R. Kopacz (DRK):
You mentioned that while iRest is an educational organization (as well as a health care and spiritual organization) that you have “enlightenment in the back room,” what is enlightenment?
Richard C. Miller (RCM):
There’s a moment where we may have an insight, an inkling, a transformative moment, where we feel not separate. We know that around 18 months of age, as the myelin sheaths come online, and there’s enough cognitive intelligence that comes, a sense of self is created. And it gives rise to a sense of separation in our culture, family, reward that sense of separateness. But there comes a moment where we have a deeper insight. It’s a felt, somatic insight, not intellectual, where we recognize we aren’t separate, and that the conditioned mind has created this sense of separation, where in fact, there is none.
So I would say enlightenment is that moment where that sense of separation dissolves. And when we look at any object, we feel that there is an underlying essence that we share in common, that’s not separate.
So then we have the ability to understand the uniqueness of each object, whether it’s sentient or insentient. We can feel and understand there’s an underlying, you might say, essence or mystery, which interconnects everything. But it’s experiential, it’s not cognitive. We can come to a cognitive understanding through study, but to really have it as a somatic impact that you cannot deny―that changes the whole ballgame.
There’s a moment of enlightenment where we have this healing, you would say, have a sense of separation, that initiates a whole new process of inquiry, and a continual unfolding or unpacking of that understanding and ever deepening ways. Enlightenment isn’t a one and only moment, I would say it’s an opening of a whole new way of being in the world that offers continual insights into the way the universe works.
Probably most people have glimpses in their life, but they don’t recognize what the impact of it is. They go right back into their conditioning because conditioning is so strong. But there are those individuals who have that glimpse, and it sparks something in them to understand (that is what happened to me) “what just happened,” and to go into it more deeply, where ultimately, it’s not just a moment of enlightenment, but it becomes a way of living life. It’s a 24-hour, seven days a week, 365 days a year understanding that we realize we’re not doing. And that’s fascinating.
I don’t know how much you’ve studied that. But when we look at thinking, the mind is just producing plots, I’m not producing thoughts. I’m not producing emotions, they’re producing themselves. That allows me to step back and ask, “Well, if I’m not producing them, then who am I?” And that brings us in, as you were saying, to this observing presence moment, where we realize while these are arising within an unfolding within us, we are something that transcends them. We were here before, during and after. And so then movements like death, lose meaning. Because in a way, each moment we’re experiencing death, a thought, completes itself, dies, it’s done, an emotion completes itself. It’s done. And if we can understand that, that each moment is dying into the next moment, and each moment is the rebirth from the last moment, death loses all of its fear, anxiety.
I remember actually, the last talk I was with Krishnamurti, an Indian fellow asked him for the ten billionth time about reincarnation. And Krishnamurti, in one of his cantankerous moods shouted at the poor fellow, “Sir, if you are really interested in reincarnation, then it would be this moment you would be only concerned with because this moment is the reincarnation of the last moment, and the next moment is the reincarnation of this moment. I thought, perfect answer.
I don’t think enlightenment is teachable. I think we can give tools where people can I have a direct insight. I think the inquiries of the five qualities of being provide a portal where a person can have a preliminary glimpse. And then that glimpse can unfold into a deeper understanding.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the issue of burnout, which is such a big issue in health care and so many fields, and whether it might serve as an initiation or motivation to move beyond meditation and yoga as “stress reduction” to more of an opening into enlightenment and a greater capacity for working with suffering. What are your thoughts on this?
I do agree that processes like yoga pranayama meditation can help create a stronger resilience to burnout. Companies, unfortunately, are using that to get people to work more. I was at Facebook a few years ago giving a talk. I talked about using meditation and all these things. And the head supervisor stopped me and turned to everybody and said, “Just make sure you get your work done before you do this.”
We are starting to work with cybersecurity organizations where the burnout is over 35% among workers and their leaders are burning out in 24 to 26 months, because they have an inability to turn off their vigilance. They’re in hyper-vigilant mode, especially when an attack is happening in their system. So we can provide them the tools and way to step out of their thinking mind to get a restful night’s sleep, to process the emotions to not get caught in the vigilance. Hopefully they can weather the storms that they are having to weather.
That said, we want to look at the company’s environment as well. Because you cannot weather a storm, and then go back right into another storm and then go where people are going to burn out whether they have all these tools of yoga or not.
I do feel as you’re saying, dissatisfaction, the term dukkha which means dissatisfaction, leads to suffering. But it as you say, provides us a potential doorway. For me, back in my 20s, I was dissatisfied, I was having a depression. I was very interested in how to cure it. Well, during my first yoga nidra practice, I had this deep, transformative moment where I didn’t feel separate anymore, and my depression just vanished. Then it came back. But it allowed me the opportunity to realize there’s something here that I may have access to, that can help me overcome, ultimately, the depression I was feeling and the suffering. What I ultimately got interested in was―I realized―I couldn’t make it go away. And I couldn’t make those kinds of insights come. But I could be very vigilant to understand what happened right before that insight came. And what happened right before that insight disappeared when the depression came back. So I was looking at those juncture points. And of course, unbeknownst to me, that brought me into being more in observing presence. The observing presence allows those moments to come more and more and for the depression to clear away more and more. Then―all sudden―I realized, as an observing presence, I’m not depressed. When I stopped putting my emphasis on the depression, and more on turning back into the observing presence itself, that brought a deep awakening.
Why is it that one person, you, or I, gets very excited and activated and another person just doesn’t? That’s the mystery. If I have a mission, it is trying to make people more curious. So they become activated to make those kinds of inquiries, or to help them long enough during a retreat where they might have a breakthrough insight. In a retreat, I’ve taken them out of their normal ways being. If I take a veteran into a class, I take them out of their normal way, and I can help them have potentially an insight. But I know that some vets have those insights, and they don’t get activated, they go right back into their conditioning. I have great respect for conditioning because it overwhelms people so easily. That activation is a really important moment. They have some kind of dissatisfaction that gathers their attention strongly enough. So that’s one piece. I think the second piece is there has to be some moment of insight, some moment of glimpse―their world, all sudden turns upside down and then goes back. But that glimpse can create that sense of activation, where later on, they have a deeper glimpse. And then maybe a series of glimpses, and then maybe a breakthrough moment. And then everything just turns on its head.
I have been interesting looking at the models, like Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey model (Campbell met Krishnamurti on a cruise ship, going across the Atlantic) where suffering is baked into the process of transformation. The suffering is at the bottom of the circle, you start up, in the known world, you cross the threshold to get into the abyss, and then something flips the polarization and instead of going downward, you’re all of a sudden, coming back up.
Jack Mezirow has studied the idea of transformational learning, which is disorientation broken into three parts, there’s disorientation, then there’s a realization―aha, the disorientation is part of the learning process. And then there’s a re-formation or transformation.
And that’s really a moment of transformation. I would say when a person is able to feel themselves as an awaring presence, and then realize their emotions, their thoughts are unfolding in their awaring presence, but they don’t necessarily have to be involved in them. They’re not separate from the emotions they’re still feeling them, but they can have a deeper quality of rest and inner resource as awareness from which they can meet these difficult challenging emotions or situations.
You mentioned several times that it’s an innate quality or an innate state. That is a difficult concept philosophically―our culture doesn’t think of people an innate sense of well-being, or like you describe the “inner resource.” I was excited to learn about the concept of the inner resource. Although, I find it’s a difficult thing for many veterans to connect to, some of them will say, “Well, I never had that.”
That ability to tolerate the disorientation is really critical because some people get disoriented, and they’ll claw their way back to their original understanding. Others are thrust into it and through it, hopefully, we have a mentor who can help as a guide. Look at Dante’s Inferno. Dante has that disorientation in the woods and journeys to the Rose, but he has a mentor, a guide who’s helping him along the way. So, I think mentors are really critical. As long as they’re helping us keep inquiring and not telling us what we should be seeing. They are really there as a steady outer resource.
That disorientation has to happen at some level, where we step out of the reality and the lens through which we’re seeing the world into a totally different recognition. And then weathering that disorientation until that new understanding permeates. And, what I like about non-duality, it doesn’t reject duality, it embraces it as a co-way of seeing and being in the world, we cannot live just as non-dual, we have to live in a duality world―they’re both important.
There is another model which is really important because the progressive model is a hierarchical model that propagates, we go step-by-step, and we will have this moment of enlightenment. When enlightenment occurs, we realize that we have always been enlightened. It’s always been the case and we get the joke. All of a sudden, we’re thrust out of a hierarchy or model into a holographic model, where everything we see, you realize, is the essence of what we’ve discovered. There’s nothing separate from it. So everything holographically includes everything else. With a hologram, we do know that the more pieces of a hologram we put together, the clearer the picture becomes. That’s part of the ongoing process of enlightenment, we’re seeing it more and more clearly as we go through our years, but, paradoxically, the same understanding we come to, the understanding we keep unfolding into it’s the same understanding we’ve always had. It’s new and fresh. I love that. If somebody says, “Well, what do you feel?” I say, “I feel that I’m always fresh and brand new, but always the same.” That paradox has to coexist. We’re always fresh, we’re always brand new. We’re always opening into this moment that’s fresh. And yet something here is always the same. There is a kind of a continuity that has a sense of personality about it. But we’ve got to have that freshness of opening to the unknown moment to moment.
That seems to be what’s missing in the narrative around “burnout is bad, resiliency is good.” “We’re going to help put on this armor, so that you don’t suffer, so you don’t have burnout.” How can we introduce a narrative that it is okay, maybe even crucial to have this disorientation. Sometimes I wonder, do we need to re-spiritualize medicine or re-spiritualize healthcare?
That’s the terminology I’ve introduced into iRest, which is burnout is a messenger, we’re not trying to get rid of it. We are bringing it in for dialogue and inquiry: “What brings you here into my life? What do I need to learn from you, so that I can become so sensitive to you that as in the future, I move towards you?” I’m recognizing you more early on as a symptom and a messenger that is telling me I need to shift something, so that I don’t go all the way into the burnout.
Companies are recognizing that if they give these kinds of trainings to the workers, the workers may work, we could say fewer hours, but are more efficient. And they’re not burning out, because they’re learning about the symptoms, so that they understand them earlier and earlier, and so can take a mental health day. And rather than go all the way into burnout, where they’re down for weeks, or they leave the company, they are finding an ally in burnout as a messenger. One of the things we’re doing is coming to companies and saying, “Look, how many thousands of dollars does it cost you to train this person, lose the person and then have to retrain a new person―we can save you all that time.” But we’re looking at burnout as a messenger, as an ally, not as something to overcome, but to really understand. I think it needs a cultural shift at the company level.
I’m working with Cure for the Kids, a clinic in Las Vegas. They see up to 125 children a day with cancer. But they’ve come to understand the environment has a lot of bullying in it. The doctors, the MDs bully the nurses and the nurses bully their own or the people below them. And the people below them are bullying. So, they’re looking at the whole cultural milieu and realizing it needs to shift. They’re bringing us in to help make that shift, to really help people begin to listen to one another as allies, not “doctors are better than nurses, nurses are better than paramedics, and paramedics are better than…” That whole, old hierarchical system, while we’re respecting it, we are also dismantling the whole notion of it. Now they’re re-educating the people working there. What they’ve had to do, unfortunately, is let go of a number of people who can’t make that transition, and bring on people who really see that that’s the culture they want to work in. Then you’ve got that hologram where everybody is equal to everybody else.
Increasingly, there is a shift in focus from burnout being a problem in the individual to it being a problem in the institution.
I think it is actually a combination of both, we need to give interventions that the individual can utilize. And not just the individual, because what we’re saying is that individual is part of a larger culture. There is a huge shift, we can help an individual, but it’s got to be a cultural change, ultimately.
You said that your mission is to help people become curious. In the retreat you taught recently, you said you had a vision for iRest contributing to world peace. You also are speaking today of supporting cultural changes in businesses and organizations. What do you view the as the mission of iRest in the world?
I’ve often used the metaphor, we each have a garden to tend, and when tended, we feel in harmony with ourselves, and we feel in harmony with life. We’re doing the work we might say we were born to do. One person’s a gardener or a doctor, I’m a psychologist, another person is a cybersecurity, whatever. But when we’re really in our roles, and I remember when I was a teenager, I worked making bicycles during the summer and I often sat with the workers who had been on the line for years. And I said, “How do you deal with drudgery? You know, every day you’re making 1300 bicycles and you only put the tire on, and you only make the boxes that bicycles go in. How do you deal with this?” I was fascinated when they said, “We see it in a larger picture. It’s helping us make the living that we can go fishing with our kids on the weekend. We can grow them into the education that we didn’t have as children, where they may go to college and grow beyond us.” So I realized we can be in a drudgery job, but because of our thinking, we can embrace it in a way. And they also had become such a unified culture where they all agreed with the same thing. They were having fun. They were singing as they were working, even though they’re just putting the same cog on every day.
So I realized, we can find a way to help a person feel good about what they’re doing, and have that larger kind of vision, and tend their own garden. What I often see is so many people not tending their garden, but tending other people’s gardens. What I’ve seen is, if we can really feel a sense of harmony within ourselves, people around us start coming up to us saying, “How do I get what you’ve got? Because you’ve got something that I would like to have” They can feel that sense of ease and peace, and equanimity, and ground. Then people will come to us to invite us into their garden, rather than us imposing on them. That’s the vision I have of helping people really settle into their lives, gaining these skills, finding that deep inner resource of equanimity.
But we have to step out of this “I know, you don’t know,” mentality to “I’m just living my life and I’ve got tremendous peace and ease and resiliency, would you like some?” That’s a better invitation than “I know, and you don’t.” Then we’re not breeding that subtle violence, we’re really being peace. And I like that statement that Thich Nhat Hanh always said, “We are here to be peace, not to impose peace.” Then once we are peace, people naturally gravitate to us. And I think that’s to me the way to go.
I’m pragmatic idealist. I know that this can be, ultimately, the way we’re all living our lives. But my pragmatist knows that it’s either going to take a very long time, or reality just really enjoys opposites. So there will always be the peacemakers, and there will always be the warmakers. And that’s just the way it is. But here, we reconcile that with living in a dualistic world from a non-dual perspective.
Is there anything you want to loop back to before we finish up for today?
No, I think we began that exploration of these innate qualities within us. I think we all have within us. I think we all have within us an inner compass that knows what’s right and what isn’t right. And it’s outside of the moral dictates given to us by our culture. And it is interesting, when I was working with the military, they asked me, what would happen if their men and women did iRest. I said, basically, they will discover their own inner compass of what is right and what is not right. And they will operate off that moral inner compass. Which means sometimes they will sometimes go against the orders that they are being given. And I was surprised when the general in the room said, “That’s exactly what I want to hear. Because they have to know when to follow the rule. And when the lieutenant that may be giving the rule is off.” I think we all have in us an inner compass that knows what’s right and what doesn’t feel right. We can discover, through processes like iRest, that quality, that inner compass within us and then we really have become our own authority. Then we can really break free of the authorities around us who are not, I would say doing what’s right. Or break free of the conditioning of their culture, the people around them, who are selfish, narcissistic, whatever. I think to discover these innate qualities is really important and vital, so that we can each be able to say, “This feels right.” Somebody may challenge us, “Why?” I would say, it’s not a why. I can’t tell you why it just feels right. And I know that if I don’t follow this, everything’s going to go to chaos. I think to help people discover those innate qualities, I think is really important.
What you say reminds me of young Carl Jung, when he was asked late in his life if he believed there was a God. Jung said, “I don’t believe―I know.”
I would like everybody to have that experience. We would be living in a very different world. It’s so sad that we could feed everybody in the world, we could give health care to everybody in the world, and yet the greed and the narcissism just keeps getting in the way. That’s unbelievable to see. Maybe I shouldn’t enter into politics at the moment, but just to watch the politicians who go against all reason and morality because of that greed, and that narcissism to stay elected. If they only knew that if they didn’t do any of that, they would stay elected. But that’s the irony, too, just amazing to see…and leading to that moment, as you were alluding to, of crisis and disorientation that hopefully, we can move through it.
As we know, in climate change, we’re going to hit a huge crisis in 2040s. And the models that I’ve seen if we can meet that crisis in the 2050s, we can start to come out of it. But there’s going to be that crisis of disorientation in the 2040s, where everything is going to be rearranged for everybody in the world. I’m going to keep my pragmatic optimism. I know we can get we can get through this, but we’re in for a rocky ride.
Thank you so much, Richard, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk today.