Profile of Practice Leader: Thomas Steur

What led you to study and practise Buddhism and Vipassana Meditation?

Curiously enough, I think it was a book my father left lying around when I was in university and doing everything I could to avoid studying. It was Betty Edwards’ Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, still a classic text not only for drawing but for spurring creativity in general, and it kept mentioning something called “Zen” and an author named Frederick Franck and his book, The Zen of Seeing. For years afterward I kept drawing and painting and trying to connect these practices with a nascent curiosity about Zen and meditation and so on.

Robert M. Pirsig’s 1974 opus, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, was a major inspiration to me then too although I’m only now appreciating the profound things that man came up with way back then. I really didn’t have a clue what it was all about in those days – this was before the Internet and before McNally Robinson’s – so it is interesting now to reflect back on my early experiences and to pick out the seeds of what I know and do now. I encourage anyone to try this with your own life: What did you used to do, and think, and tell yourself, that turned out to be solid and true and the right path for you?

How long have you been practising this form of meditation?

My explorations without guidance led me to a brief involvement with a group who practised in a Vajrayana tradition, but I could feel that it wasn’t right for me so I respectfully dropped out. It’s a terrible cliché that “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear”, but that’s exactly how it happened many years later.

I had a major change in my life circumstances and suddenly found myself living alone and feeling lonely and sad with only two self-serving misbegotten cats for company. A new friend I’d made introduced me to the group which met at the Yoga Centre Winnipeg, and I started attending regularly. For months, I sat at the back, didn’t ask questions, and didn’t talk to anyone. And still I felt welcomed, and this habit of practising mindfulness took root and began to grow. There was no pressure to be anything or do anything. I hope our group still feels that way to anyone feeling small and perhaps in similar circumstances.  

Who has been your main mentor while on this path?  Other mentors?

Like Nelle, whom I met way back then, I learned the most from the man who started what is now the WIMG. And I learn lots from my fellow Dharma practice leaders and discussions with people in the group. And then there’s just life itself – family, friends, and clients. I learn so much from my work with my clients!

Where have you gone on retreats or places for studying the Dharma?

I do not have time, at this stage in my life, to attend retreats although I’ve been to some Day of Mindfulness retreats from which I’ve derived great benefit. I consider my family and my housework and my dishes part of my practice (ha-ha!).

How has this practice changed your life and life path? Relationships?

That’s hard to answer because we only live life forwards and only once, and that makes for lousy research with a very small sample size! All I can say is that I feel a solid, unshakable foundation in the Dharma, a tremendous sense of community in our little Sangha, and a deep peace in my knowledge of the Buddha. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I guess I could also say that when others are troubled, I am confident that I have something real to offer in terms of listening, compassion, humour, and perspective.

What other forms of practice or meditation have helped you get to where you are today

Yeah. Dishes. Walking with my dog, letting him walk me. Running and bicycling. Reading lots and doing research. Everything I learn in public health epidemiology, psychology and neurology, and any valid school of therapy confirms the Dharma teachings over and over again. This practice is so rooted in good science; for something so ancient, it is really the most remarkable human achievement. So after a while you start to see the Buddha’s teachings, and sometimes even the Buddha-nature, in everything!

What are your visions and dreams for the future of WIMG?

I really don’t know! We have excellent leadership happening organically in the group now, and I cannot see where it will all lead. But I don’t want to ever lose the sense of close connection that (I hope!) we have, and I would like anyone who doesn’t feel that we’re living up to the feeling of a Sangha to tell us. We’ll listen.

And like I said above, I hope that anyone who feels the way I did 20 years ago feels welcome to just come and take it in – no pressure, no commitment, and no sell job. Each of us can walk the path in our own way at our own speed. I’m not such a quick study myself.

Is there any other question that you’d like to answer as well? What do you think is the most important thing that people need to know about Insight Meditation?

I feel the most important thing is to clear up the myths and misconceptions about mindfulness meditation that may be out there.

Meditation will not make us levitate. Teachers do not give off light rays. We do not cure cancer. We who practice this path have our hurts and failings, and we suffer just like anyone else.

The essence of what I’ve gained thus far, really, is just a way of making sense of life’s unfairness and its paradoxes. It is something truly grand to inspire and guide me, but which I know I’ll never completely live up to. However, the joy is in the trying. In trying, we must be humble, flexible, and forgiving; trying too hard doesn’t work! The practice fosters goodwill, humour, compassion, irony, and love – that’s all! – no miracles.