Profile of Practice Leader Kurt Schwarz

WHAT LED YOU TO STUDYING AND PRACTICING BUDDHISM AND VIPASSANA MEDITATION?

I was first introduced to Buddhist meditation as a development in my personal spiritual practice after having studied hatha yoga.  Having developed flexibility and awareness in order to sit comfortably on the floor for extended periods of time following my breath, I turned to Buddhist-oriented meditation to help calm and still my mind.  I have written about this journey extensively over the past few years and have self-published a personal, spiritual memoir on this topic entitled, Moving into Stillness:  On Finding Meaningful Activities that Nurture and Sustain the Inner Life. (Available through McNally-Robinson Booksellers, 2015)

As I recount, my earliest Buddhist experience was with a Zen teacher who was from South Korea.  I learned some simple chants as well as the importance of a solid seated posture when practicing meditation.  These elements are still with me today after more than 20 years of practice.

I made a conscious shift in my practice after a conversation with a Zen teacher, Ed Espe Brown, who encouraged me to explore the mindfulness meditation tradition.  He said that it was more “user-friendly” and more readily accepted by students in the West.

HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN PRACTICING THIS FORM OF MEDITATION?

I have been practicing Insight Meditation for the past 20 years.  I have a strong interest in exploring the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha) and have read books from a wide variety of traditions although I have always come back to Insight Meditation as my core teaching.  The writings of Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, and Sharon Salzburg have been the foundations which have profoundly influenced my practice.  I look to Thich Nhat Hahn and Pema Chodron for additional encouragement and guidance in my practice of meditation.

WHO HAS BEEN YOUR MAIN MENTOR WHILE ON THIS PATH?

While the student-teacher relationship is traditional in Buddhism, I consider myself to be largely self-taught.  There have been some teachers.  For example, Steven Hick from Ottawa was a guide during a two year, Dharma study program that I participated in.

The Buddha, himself, emphasized that we are to be “a light unto one’s own self”.  The teachings of the Buddha have helped me to turn to my own self for the inspiration and the guidance that I need.  This has been a helpful teaching which has taught me to be self-reliant rather than seeking the approval of an external authority.

WHERE HAVE YOU GONE ON RETREATS, AS WELL AS STUDYING THE DHARMA?

I have participated in several silent, one week retreats in conjunction with the two year, Dharma study course that I took with Steven Hick. These were held in various retreat centers around Winnipeg.  

In 2009, I had the opportunity to travel to San Francisco where I participated in a three day Sesshin (intensive meditation retreat) at the San Francisco Zen Centre.  It was an amazing experience to practice at the centre founded by Suzuki Roshi, a Zen Master who helped to establish Buddhist practice in the West.

I enjoy visiting other Buddhist meditation groups when I am travelling.  I have visited other Buddhist meditation groups in Toronto, Chicago and New York.  Recently, I was able to visit Plum Village, a monastic community and retreat center located in Southwest France.

HOW HAS THIS PRACTICE CHANGED YOUR LIFE AND LIFE PATH? RELATIONSHIPS?

I would say that the greatest effect on my life has been in the way I have learned how to live in a calmer, more grounded way. The practice has taught me the importance of pauses or gaps before action rather than unconsciously reacting to things. I am a more responsive participant in life.  (My wife, Leona, would say that I still have a way to go!)

WHAT OTHER FORMS OF PRACTICE, OR MEDITATION, HAVE HELPED YOU GET TO WHERE YOU ARE TODAY?

I began my training and development in the Christian tradition. I am an ordained minister. I have also had postgraduate training in the fields of pastoral psychotherapy and chaplaincy training.  Over the years, I have turned to yoga and Buddhist-oriented meditation to supplement and support my spiritual, care-giving work.  My areas of specialization are in mental health, as well as in addictions.

HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN PROVIDING LEADERSHIP WITH THE WIMG?

I got involved with the Winnipeg Insight Meditation Group shortly after we moved back to Manitoba from Toronto in 2003.  After a while, I became interested in exploring the Dharma with others, so I started the Dharma Study Group, a book group focused on reading Buddhist-oriented Dharma books.  

I have been offering Dharma talks and leading meditation in our group for the past 8 years.  I consider it a privilege and an honour.

CAN YOU DESCRIBE THE TRANSITIONS THAT WIMG HAS GONE THROUGH?

While I am not a founding member of WIMG, I have witnessed several transitions.  These transitions have been mainly related to moving with Yoga North as they have moved to various locations in Winnipeg.  With each move, there have been some necessary adjustments to the new physical structure of the buildings and areas of the city.  After having made several moves with Yoga North, I feel happy to be at their current location in the Wolseley area.  It feels like “home” to me.  I am also happy that we have been able to expand our practiceto St. Peter’s Anglican Church which has been the WIMG home for Wednesday night sittings.  

WHAT ARE YOUR VISIONS AND DREAMS FOR THE FUTURE OF WIMG?

Over the past four years, our membership has grown, particularly as a result of adding the Wednesday sitting at St Peter’s.  My vision or dream, while perhaps a modest one, is for a stronger connection amongst group members.

I would like to see more opportunities for members to interact and get to know one another, events like nature walks and Winnipeg’s Peace Days Celebration.   We have already created more opportunities to practice together in Days of Mindfulness and silent three-day retreats.  I trust that we will continue to offer these retreats where we can learn and grow together.

ARE THERE ANY ADDITIONAL COMMENTS YOU’D LIKE TO ADD ABOUT YOUR PRACTICE AND WIMG?

I enjoy visiting art galleries and I have led evenings of Meditating with Art for our meditation group several times.  Sometimes I find an opportunity to "sit" and contemplate a piece of art.  Once while doing that, a security person came up to me and asked me what I was doing and if I was "okay".  "Yes", I replied, "I enjoy sitting with the art". 

A personal highlight was when I happened to see a performance art piece at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art by Marina Abrahmovic called The Artist is Present.  In this challenging work, she sat at a table and invited members of the audience to come and sit with her.  She was there for the entire day for a three month exhibition period!