top of page

Secular Dharma in Prisons with David M. Smith

Updated: Mar 27

In this episode, Dave Smith speaks with Prison Mindfulness Institute's Executive Director, Vita Pires, on his work in prisons and recovery groups.

  • What is the Secular Path of Dharma?

  • Prison work as service work.

  • Training in mindfulness-based emotional intelligence in prisons and recovery groups.


SUBSCRIBE to our weekly podcast - available on Podbean OR:






Dave Smith is an internationally recognized Buddhist meditation teacher, addiction treatment specialist, and published author. His background is rooted in the Insight Meditation tradition and he was empowered to teach through the Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society. He has extensive experience bringing meditative interventions into jails, prisons, youth detention centers and addiction treatment facilities. Dave teaches residential meditation retreats and classes, provides trainings and consulting in both secular and Buddhist contexts, and works with students through his meditation mentoring program. He recently founded the Secular Dharma Foundation and lives in Paonia, Colorado.


Podcast Transcript


Vita Pires: 

Hello everyone! This is Vita Pires with the Prison Mindfulness Institute. I'm happy to be here with Dave Smith. Dave Smith is a Buddhist teacher and mindfulness and emotional intelligence trainer. He's an internationally recognized meditation teacher, addiction treatment specialist, and published author. His background is rooted in the Insight Tradition, and he's empowered to teach through the Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society. 


He has extensive experience in meditative interventions in jails, prisons, youth detention centers, and addiction treatment facilities. Dave teaches residential meditation retreats and classes, provides training and consulting in both secular and Buddhist contexts, and works with students through his meditation mentoring program. He founded the Secular Dharma Foundation and now lives in Ionia, Colorado. Okay. Welcome, Dave. 


Dave Smith: 

Thank you. Good to be here. 


Vita Pires: 

Okay. So, you've been teaching this Dharma and other emotional intelligence for a long time and bringing it into the world of prisons and post-release and various facilities related to the criminal justice system. Maybe you could just share a little bit about how you got into working with these populations. 


Dave Smith: 

Sure, yeah. I lived in Nashville, Tennessee, for a long time, around maybe 2010. I was working in addiction treatment centers, and I was working for an organization called the Mind-Body Awareness Project. I was really on fire for Dharma and for meditation as a really just a very deliverable quick intervention to help people just deal with their minds and their suffering. It seemed like it was a really bite-sized nugget that if people could get just some insight into the fact that their mind was causing a big amount of their suffering, they would get relief relatively immediately. So, I was kind of on fire. 


I was a Dharma person. I never really thought that I would do what I ended up doing. I was working at a youth detention center, a youth drug and alcohol facility. I was teaching mindfulness to the kids there, and they really took to it. And so, at one point, I tried to implement some programs at the agency I worked at, and they were kind of resistant. And around that same time, I had sold my house in Massachusetts actually, and I had some money. And so, I just quit that job there. I was like, I'm just going to take some time. I'm just going to call all these agencies in Tennessee and see who's willing to let me teach mindfulness there. 


And so, I started just basically teaching programs for free. Nashville, Tennessee, had a really good drug court program. Nashville, Tennessee, actually had a lot of very robust clinical programs that they were teaching in the jails and prisons for people with substance abuse. I got hired by this really wonderful woman named Regina Duregee, who is doing cognitive behavioral therapy at programs in the jail. She didn't have anybody to teach mindfulness. So basically, I started doing programs with her. 


And then, in Nashville, Tennessee, their clinical program in corrections was kind of a small group of people. So kind of word got around that I was doing mindfulness training and teachings in the programs. I just started to teach up to 30-40 groups a month. It just took off. It literally just took right off. I was just on fire for it. So I was really, for a couple of years, just really loving doing the work and found that I was getting a lot out of it. And it was really working. 


It was also Nashville, Tennessee, not exactly the mecca of Western Dharma mindfulness. And so, I did that for many, many years. And then, I started developing training and programs on my own. That was really how I got started. 


Vita Pires: 

So that's a lot of groups to be running at once. 


Dave Smith: 

Yeah, it was. 


Vita Pires: 

With the kids, you said they took to mindfulness really well. How did you go about instructing that because sitting and looking at your breath for long periods of time is pretty hard? 


Dave Smith: 

I had some advantages. I had some advantages because, first of all, it was kids in the South. I'm a big guy. I dropped the occasional F-bomb. I'm covered in tattoos. Honestly, I got the kids' attention right away. They're like, "Who's this guy?" They could relate to me. I was very into self-disclosure. I talked about my teen years and I talked about having trauma. I kind of would do a narrative biography about why I practice meditation. 


And so one thing that you have to do in these institutions that I don't think people understand is that if you're delivering mindfulness in a place where people don't want to be, like a prison and jail and youth detention and drug and alcohol treatment, the present moment is the last place they want to be because they already don't even want to be there. I call it creating a buy-in, where you have to talk about it to the point where they get tired of hearing you talk about that, and they are like, "I want to try it." You have to kind of be a little bit shady and a little bit manipulative. You kind of has to trick them into thinking that this is a good idea. 


Vita Pires: 

What do you talk about? The benefits? Do you talk about the mind or proliferation? What do you talk about? 


Dave Smith: 

What seems to work, and has always worked for me, and I think this is helpful, is, of course, this buzzword that we all talk about authenticity. I really just talked about myself. I will talk about my suffering. I talk about how hard it was for me to be a teenager and how being a teenager actually totally sucks, and parents totally suck, and school systems and bullying, and the world that we live in kind of sucks. Like, kind of dukkha, suffering, normalizing the human experience of yeah, like being a person kind of is a drag. 


And then, letting them know, like, and how much do we add to that. Things are already a drag, and then we go ahead and we pour gasoline into the fire. I talk about my journey in meditation and how it helped me. And usually, if there's some authenticity and they can relate to you on a personal level, we know this in therapy. I've trained as a clinician, also. Rapport is the best intervention you have. So, if you can develop a kind of rapport with the folks, then you could get them to hop on one leg once you have the rapport set up. Once you get that rapport and buy-in, delivering mindfulness is actually quite easy. But if you don't get that, then it's really hard. 


Vita Pires: 

Yeah. What advice do you have for people who don't have tattoos and art? 


Dave Smith: 

Well, first of all, it's not for everybody. I don't think everybody is well suited to do this kind of work. I think you have to be in touch with and understand your inner teenager if you're working with teenagers, for example. If you have any unresolved trauma or unresolved issue or unresolved suffering around your teenage self, the kids are going to trigger that in you, and you're going to get activated. Your inner teenager is going to get triggered. You have to have done some work in terms of dealing with your kind of teenage life. You have to be in touch with that. I've seen people do it and have it not worked out. So, that's something that needs to be explored. 


If you had a really difficult teenage experience, which is not uncommon, then you can use that to your advantage. But I think that one thing to watch out for, I think, is that if you go into the room and you're an adult with information, and you're going to teach them something that they need to know, if you go on that with that posture, you're kind of dead in the water. They're tired of that. "Here's another adult who has all the answers, who's going to teach me about life." If you go in there with that attitude, they're going to eat you alive. 


Vita Pires: 

Right. You formed the Secular Dharma Foundation. I assume that you're into secular Buddhism. How do you translate mindfulness, you know, which is satipatthana or whatever it is? Do you teach the Four Foundations of Mindfulness with some other kinds of language or something like that? 


Dave Smith: 

I think that's a tricky game. I'm also an Insight person, so Tera Vaada Buddhism, a really early Buddhist tradition, is what I know, and I'm sort of obsessed with it. Essentially, the teachings in the Pali canon. As far as Buddhism is concerned, that's really all I know. And so, I think that it's actually not that hard to deliver the teachings of four foundations or four noble truths or Brahma Vihara, or whatever these kinds of Buddhist terms we use around, and the Buddha said this, right? You have to speak to people in the language that they use. That's actually not that hard to do. 


The vehicle that I find is most helpful actually doesn't come so much from the Buddhist tradition. And then I'm trained in, and I think it's really the kind of doorway in emotional intelligence. Everybody can relate to emotions. If you talk about anger, people know what you're talking about. If you talk about fear or sadness or even something complicated like shame. People know whether they like it or not or whether they'll admit to it. They know those experiences very intimately. So there's a way in which I kind of confront emotional intelligence, emotional freedom. 


I kind of come with that first, and then the backup is mindfulness. I actually don't come in with mindfulness. I come with emotions. I say, "Actually if you want to be free from your destructive emotions, you're going to have to have some self-awareness. And it turns out the best way to develop self-awareness is this practice called mindfulness." So I kind of sneak it in. 


And so, the work we do, we specifically call it the Secular Dharma Foundation, not the Secular Buddhist foundation. I'm not interested in trying to secularize Buddhism. I think Buddhism is doing a great job. I have no interest in tinkering with Buddhism. But Dharma is a different thing. And so really, what that is, is trying to take the ancient languages, the Pali languages, the original teachings, really, and coming at them, and bridging the gap between some of what I would call Western contemplative wisdom traditions, which the therapeutic world and modern secular psychology, EMDR therapy, somatic experiencing therapy, we have a whole, rich, sophisticated taxonomy of clinical interventions in the modern world that are fabulous. 


I believe, and I think it turns out, that if you bridge those with early Buddhist meditation practices, you get the best bang for the buck, which is why most therapies, obviously, as you probably know, like to park the term mindfulness based in front of it. Now, there are probably 20 programs that have Mindfulness Based parked in front of it. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, you know, Jon Kabat Zinn kicked the door open on this. So, they have all these. They call it MBIs, mindfulness-based interventions. 


I like to bridge the gap between those because I don't think Buddhism alone is adequate enough to address the sophisticated suffering that we all experience. I think without the wisdom of Dharma and the wisdom of self-awareness, and the wisdom of the heart, sometimes the current clinical modalities, we have actually fallen a little bit thin. So I'm sort of obsessed and have been obsessed with bridging these gaps. And so we put that under the title of Secular Dharma Foundation, because essentially, that's what we do is we try to marry these worlds in a way that's constructive and can be delivered in terminology that's not confusing or puts people off, but really, in everyday terms. 


Vita Pires: 

Yeah, I mean, our longest-standing prison program that originated in a juvie hall in Colorado it's called the Path of Freedom. It's Mindfulness Based emotional intelligence. But because I came from a Dharma background, that is why the title is the Path of Freedom. I'd never say Buddhism in it at all, but it was combining integral theory actually and Buddhism with techniques, but then all kinds of other stuff like nonviolent communication, you know, other kinds of skill sets that would go in tandem. 


Sometimes talking with people who are doing these so-called MBIs, they kind of take what we call like a sandwich approach, you know, like, "Okay, here's a little bit of, like, mayo, and that's the mindfulness, and then the meat of it is going to be neuroscience, talking about neuroscience or talking about something else. The mindfulness kind of goes into one minute. I'm really kind of exaggerating here, but sometimes it does. So just for one minute, look at your breath, and now we're going to talk about all this other stuff. And then there's a development of that ability to stabilize the mind. 


Dave Smith: 

That's right. Yeah. The way mindfulness slowly gets watered down to the point where it's almost not even there anymore. 


Vita Pires: 

Right. And then mindfulness is just kind of like something. It's sort of like, I think Martine Batchelor said to me once. Mindfulness is not just staring at things. 


Dave Smith: 

No, well, mindfulness, we've kind of rendered the term useless at this point. 


Vita Pires: 

Yeah. Because it's just like something that's thrown on everything. 


Dave Smith: 

Yeah, I know. I'm with you. I don't know how far down that road I want to go, but I have very mixed feelings about the term mindfulness, and we're stuck with it. Part of my job is to deal with this. And so, I try to, you know, you have to be clever and intelligent and sophisticated enough. Everybody delivers it in a different kind of way. I think a lot of it, too, is if you don't have a personal practice background, people sometimes will skip over or gloss over too quickly because it's hard to get people who don't know about it or who haven't done it before who are resistant to it to sit for 5-15-20 minutes. And so, part of it as a facilitator, you have to realize that there's a lot of facilitating mindfulness is dealing with the Dukka of the fact that the people in the room don't want any part of it, and having to stay with it and give them a couple more, and let them hang out there for a little while. 


Vita Pires: 

Right. On that note, what do you do with people that are just completely resistant, and kind of like they just dissociate, and they just want to sit there and space out? 


Dave Smith: 

Well, fortunately, I don't do a lot of that these days. I did that for years. I think part of it is you just sort of have to take it on the chin. If I was in a treatment center setting, what I would do is if there were 15 people in the room, I actually would try to focus on the four or five people who seemed to be getting it. And for the other people who are resistant and tuned out, I just let them hang. And say, "All right. If I can help five or six out of 15 people, I'm happy." It's not for everybody. 


Vita Pires: 

I would always say in class, like, "If you're not into this, that's cool. You can just sit here and have a quiet time. You might find it useful. You can even take a nap. I don't care." 


Dave Smith: 

I said the same thing. Yeah. One thing that I used to do that I think was really important when you get into prisons and in jails and places like that is I would not teach or be involved in a program that was mandated. People have to want to be in the room. And when I would go into the jail, the first thing I'd say is, "If there's anybody who actually doesn't want to be here right now, you're welcome to leave. And, in fact, if you don't really want to be here, I would prefer that you do." 


Vita Pires: 

In our classes, a lot of them have a good time. And so, therefore, you have people that want to be there, but they want to be there to get the good time, usually, by one class five in. It kind of works out but at first, they're not definitely not coming to the class. 


Dave Smith: 

Right. And that's hard. You have to negotiate that. I was lucky because the program I ran in jail for many years was a really hard program. People would go basically up to the judge. And they would say, "Okay. You're charged with all these drug-related crimes. You can either go to your sentence." whatever that is, "Or you can do this program." which is a program that is usually longer than their sentence. They are like, "You can go to six months and get out, or you can do this 18-month program. 


The people who opted into the program really want it. It was a very difficult program. It was easy to get kicked out of it. It was really well done. The State of Tennessee, I applaud them. It was a really well-done program. Everybody was pretty much in it to win it. And they did some 12 Step stuff in that program, and they did some other stuff. So, you know, I had 30 or 40 men or women each time, and everybody was pretty motivated. They really wanted to turn their lives around. They took it very seriously. So I was fortunate enough to be in a program where they kind of had a screening process that was done before I even got into the room. 


Vita Pires: 

Great. Speaking of emotion, in the classes I've been teaching in the last few years, I think it's the norm, but probably due to COVID, I ask, "How many people here are experiencing anxiety?" At first, I thought in some of these maximum securities, people wouldn't be willing to say yes, but 100% of the people raise their hand. I'd say, "How much of this is a really big issue for you?" And 100% of them raise their hand. We teach these kinds of breathwork techniques that slow or down-regulate really fast, but what do you do when people are experiencing such? Of course, it's totally natural that they are experiencing such a high level of anxiety. 


Dave Smith: 

The school of thinking that I mostly ascribe to is the work of Daniel Goleman. And very specifically, Paul Ekman. I'm trained in a program that's, I think, by far the greatest program for emotional intelligence called Cultivating Emotional Balance, which was developed actually, came out of the book destructive emotions out of a meeting in 2000 in Dharamsala, India. You might not be aware of where the Dalai Lama invited all the scientists and Buddhist meditators to develop a curriculum to address this. That was a secular curriculum. It's called Cultivating Emotional Balance. I was trained in that. 


One of the things that's actually really helpful, ironically, about emotions is you can give people proper education on what emotions are, how they operate in the system, and that they actually do have a role and they do have a purpose. They're not these annoying things that we all have to deal with. And in CEB, we teach emotional intelligence as not emotions are these annoying things that we need to overcome, but emotions can actually be a path to freedom in and of themselves. 


The one message that I tried to get across, and I'll try to get across right now, is we really have to stop thinking about emotions as being positive and negative. Emotions aren't positive or negative. Emotions don't have that kind of thing built into them. The question is, "Do I have a constructive relationship or a destructive relationship with emotion?" And so, that changes the whole game. I would say I think that in our culture, we are too cognitively heavy. We're too over-pathologizing psychological disorders. Anxiety is a good example. To me, anxiety is a fear problem. Anxiety is a destructive relationship to fear. 


People talk about anxiety. I think we shouldn't be talking about anxiety. We should be talking about fear. What do you do when you get scared? Well, when I get scared, I overthink. That's called anxiety. And so, for me, emotions are often the lowest common denominator. And so, could I have a more constructive relationship with my fear? And so, a lot of times that gets people, you know, they're like, "Wow, I didn't know it." 


To me, that's so overwhelming as a kind of public service announcement is we do not teach people in our culture at all about the science of emotions. Emotions actually turn out not the mystical, elusive, mysterious things that we think of them. Science has it pretty well sorted out. They're the universal emotions that we all have. They came online through our evolution as human beings. We adopted them. They're here to stay. They're not going anywhere. And they're not necessarily bad or wrong. They just happen to be there. 


I find I get a lot of mileage out of just giving people some basic education on what emotions are, how they work, and then what we can do about them and what we can't do. I think that I find that once I get through that, people go, "Okay, well, now all of a sudden mindfulness because they're like, well, now I'm interested." And so I think that that's, that's largely kind of the work. In fact, the Dharma Foundation, a lot of the work that I do personally that's not in the Buddhist context, is really trying to deliver education on that. 


A lot of the time, the work I do now is training trainers. So now I train the people who go into the treatment center, I train clinical staff, I train therapists in a program that I've developed called Mindfulness East, which East stands for Emotional Awareness Skills Training. Part of it is like, you know, you do need to have some mindfulness, but you don't need to actually have as much as you might think. So the question is, when you become emotional, when you become triggered into emotion, can you be aware of that? 


That actually turns out to be hard to do because, as you probably know, we get triggered, the amygdala kicks on, and our prefrontal gets shut down. Mindfulness is a prefrontal thing. So, it takes a little bit of time, and it takes a little bit of energy and some courage. I think this is a word that has gone extinct in our society. It takes some courage to do this stuff. This is not easy work. 


Vita Pires: 

That's also, just like you said, important to get the context or just the mechanics of it, so you realize, oh, hey, this is totally normal that I reacted to this. 


Dave Smith: 

It's totally normal. It's common. Everybody's doing it. I think the normalizing of it is where people go, "Oh, you mean, this happens to everybody? This is biological?" I'm like, "Yeah, it's not your fault." 


Vita Pires: 

Yeah, no, we weren't doing a class, or the facilitator reported to me. I told her this technique is called social. Nobody heard of it, when they say out loud, what you're, you know, one word, one-word note, you know, like. 


Dave Smith: 

Yeah, sure. 


Vita Pires: 

They go through the four foundations, so body sensation, stitching, you know, whatever, unpleasant or pleasant, and then you say some information. And so, she was mostly doing the formations, you know, like anxious or anxiety or relaxation or whatever. And people were just saying that going around the circle and saying that out loud. Afterward, so many people reported, oh, my gosh, when I'm walking around, now, you realize everybody has so many things going on in their head. I never thought of it like that before. They change so fast. They go around the circle, and somebody who is depressed turns into, like, relaxed, and the next go around. 


Dave Smith: 

I know. 


Vita Pires: 

In less than a minute, you know. They've changed their emotional state. So they really got some insight doing that. 


Dave Smith: 

Right. It turns out impermanence is actually a real thing. 


Vita Pires: 

Yeah. And then they're like, "Oh because I thought we were meditating." One guy said, "I thought everybody else was kind of like doing this, whatever meditation is." And he said I was just having all these. Now, I see everybody is having all these. 


Dave Smith: 

Right. Well, that's why I think that social emotion. I like social-emotional learning, but I think that that industry or that movement has almost eliminated mindfulness which I think is a foolish move. I think that is social relational. Gregory Kramer's work Inside Dialogue, which I think he's the master of this stuff, like when we go around, we're like, everybody's freaking out and totally, you know, like, we're all weird and odd, but everything's isolated. I think a lot of this, actually, I think it stems from the emotion of shame. 


Vita Pires: 

Yeah. That I'm not good enough and everybody else is. 


Dave Smith: 

Everybody else who's having a wonderful life, enjoying their experience, having a fabulous time, not having their cars break down, being able to pay their mortgage, or their kids behave. It's like, "No." And so, you know, I think that that's why I think group work is so important. I think one on one therapy is good, and I haven't done it in a while. One thing that I do miss doing is doing group therapy work, where people can really see, like, wow, everybody is having a hard time. 


Vita Pires: 

My personal kind of interest these days is that, you know, with the Dharma, you kind of sign on to a path, at least I did. You sign onto a path. I didn't have a lot of doubts about this. I read a bunch of books. I practiced some, and I listened to teachings, and I was like, "Okay, I'm in." And so then you develop into a path quality, you know, where you feel like, I don't have to be enlightened right now. I just keep working on the path, right? 


Dave Smith: 

Sure. 


Vita Pires: 

The mindfulness class is sometimes just sort of like in prison, sometimes, you know, it's worse positioned in life skills, part of this curriculum, and so it's just kind of like another workshop, another thing to download. They're a bunch of information, and the quality is not quite. 


Dave Smith: 

It's not there at all. You're right. 


Vita Pires: 

So I'm just wondering how. 


Dave Smith: 

I think that's a bummer. I don't know what the remedy is, but you're absolutely right. I agree. I think that you know, and also, if I can use the word American Buddhism, people have kind of, if you look at the eightfold path, which I think every school of Buddhism would acknowledge that that's what we're doing, where we want to have a whole path live in, which is eight things which they're not complicated things. It's our intentions and our words and actions. 


Vita Pires: 

It's not mystical. 


Dave Smith: 

They're not mystical. They're things that are happening. You and I are doing probably three or four of them right now. But meditation has kind of been yanked out of the structure of the Eightfold Path. And it's kind of been like; this is the thing. And so, I think when you remove an aspect of the path out of its kind of holistic thing, you end up with this kind of not great. Because here's the question of mindfulness. Where's it all going? Where's the secular mindfulness heading? What's the goal of secular mindfulness? And as you probably know, most people take it seriously, and this is why I like the work I do now. Because I also have a mentoring program where I work with people one on one, it doesn't take long. Like the MBSR crowd, even clinical people, if they do mindfulness long enough, they usually end up falling into one of the complex, elaborate Buddhist paths because you're like, "Oh, that somebody's actually thought this thing through. And so, I kind of feel like I sort of wait at the back of the room for those people when they come out and say, "Hey, by the way, if you want some more." 


Vita Pires: 

It's already laid out for you. You just have to go there. 


Dave Smith: 

And also, I have no problem. Danny Goleman talks about this in his book Altered Traits. There's the wide path, and then there's the deep path. I respect both. I respect the lawyer or the doctor, or the dentist, or the stressed-out person who's got a busy life who just meditates for 20 minutes a day, and it helps them. That's all they want. I don't think that's a problem. I think that that's a good thing. 


I think that each person needs to assess for themselves, you know, not everybody's going to end up wanting to use it as much as you and I have chosen. I think that that's okay. So I think that when we look at the kind of the great swath of what meditation culture in our society is, it's okay if people are doing the white path. And they're, you know, they download the comm app or the headspace app, and they do 20 minutes a day. And that's more or less all they do. Maybe their ethics are already in line. Maybe they're already pretty well-adjusted. And they do well in their work. And they do well in their family. They're kind of, for lack of a better word, mostly happy, and they use this meditation thing to support that. I think that's a beautiful thing. But then there are some of us. I know I put myself in his camp, who's fallen apart many times. And the 20 minutes a day on the cushion is just not going to cut it for me. 


Vita Pires: 

Yeah, I really noticed a difference. 


Dave Smith: 

You know, I need more. 


Vita Pires: 

It's not optional anymore. 


Dave Smith: 

I'm really screwed up. I would not say that I'm a well-adjusted person who's moved to the world with a kind of ease and presence. It's been, you know, it's been a really tumultuous journey for me. I'm in recovery as well. I've been sober for almost 20 years. I have a history of drug addiction. I have a history of not just PTSD but complex trauma. You know, I've had some big knots of string that I've had to untangle, and I've needed more. 


I've also needed more than Dharma. Dharma as much as I love Dharma, I haven't just succeeded in that. I've been in recovery for 20 years, and I've been in trauma therapy. I've been in talk therapy. I mean, I've done it all. I've needed it all. I think it's also a little naive to think that there's just kind of one thing that's going to work for all the things that are going on with me. That's why, again, why we like the Secular Dharma Foundation. We respect it. There's a range of things that people can use to help them overcome their challenges. Whatever that is, it is fine. 


Vita Pires: 

What about someone? I was talking to someone the other day, and she said when I was caught up in this world of crime, or whatever you want to call it. She said, "I didn't have any concern at all about the consequences." Because she said, "I felt like the worst had happened to me. So, who cares? Just bring it on." I will never use the word karma or cause and effect or anything, but it was just kind of like, I don't have any concern. I'm just going to do what I have to do at the moment, and it's going to be pretty bad. 


Dave Smith: 

I get it. I've been there. 


Vita Pires: 

So what do you say to someone who's saying that to you in a class? 


Dave Smith: 

I would probably not say anything. I would probably listen to what they have to say and try to help them unpack how they ended up there. And maybe help them unpack because what we're talking about essentially is sort of a kind of apathy, or kind of, it's all just a meaningless bottomless pit anyway. And so, you know, I find that in situations like that, it's much probably more helpful for me to listen and to maybe ask a question here. And that's why, like, motivational interviewing is good for this. Let them keep talking to get to a point where I can plan on something like, "Well, actually, it sounds like you care about this. And it sounds like you care about that." 


Ironically, people who say they don't care or they don't give a shit about anything, it's actually not true. They usually actually care a great deal. But the things that they've cared about have either been undermined or destroyed or have died, or there has been so much loss that they're feeling become more caring about things as stupid because if I care about something, I'm just going to get hurt. Therefore, loss and sadness are trauma, so painful that the only intelligent thing to do would just not care at all. And therefore, I'll just do whatever I want to do. And it is not that hard for someone to slide into that perspective. I've been in that perspective. 


It's trying to let people talk to the point where they recognize for themselves, wait a minute. Actually, I totally do care. I wish I didn't care. I really wish I didn't care. I find that in my life all the time. I care about things. I'm like, I really wish I didn't care about that, but I totally do. And this is, I think, a term that we see in early Buddhism that comes from the Pali tradition called anukampa, which means to cry out at the world. And it's that actually, I think that that part of dukkha is like, is that as human beings, unless we have some really wild diagnosis, we are all having to struggle with the burden of care. We're like, we care about things, and we just kind of wish we didn't. And then how do you negotiate that burden? That's tricky business. And so, it's easy to just say, "Well, I just don't care." 


That's a fool's errand. I think that that's a good place to start. And also, that can be talked about in a group and say, "Well, does anybody else feel this way?" And also, it turns out, we all kind of feel this way a little bit. Shouldn't I? If requested, we see this very well, and we see this and Dharma theory. We're dictated by the pleasure-pain dichotomy. And so most people feel as though the goal of life and the goal of happiness is to get the things that I want and to avoid the things that I don't want. And you know, that can't really be done. Not everybody knows that. 


Vita Pires: 

Sometimes, like, I just like to fantasize. I said, "Do your fantasies ever come true?" Ah, nope. 


Dave Smith: 

Exactly. It wouldn't be nice if the pleasure-pain dichotomy worked, but clearly, it does not. 


Vita Pires: 

When you're working with people that are in distress or whatever, what do you learn about yourself? 


Dave Smith: 

Well, you know, it's fascinating. I might work with somebody else who has not helped them much at all, but I get helped a lot. It's kind of a weird thing. It's like the best therapy is to, like, actually try to help other people. And if it works, it works. It doesn't work. But I think it's like, for me, it's a constant reminder, again, of this anukampa of this, like, of what we would call in a secular sense a shared humanity. 


It reminds me of, "Oh, yeah, I'm not the only person having a hard time." I'm not the only person who has a hard time getting my kid's shoes on before school. I'm not the only person who's worried about how I'm going to pay the mortgage next month. I'm not the only person who was worried about COVID, Trump, and climate change. And, you know, I'm not the only one. 


I think that the relational side of it is really so valuable that I get as much out of it. I mean, I honestly probably get more out of working with the people that I work with than they do. 


Vita Pires: 

Yeah. As part of your path. Dharma work is service work. That was something that was important that you'd like the audience to get from this interview. So kind of saying that Dharma work is service work. 


Dave Smith: 

Dharma work is service work. And this is one thing that I don't like is that, you know, in our culture, because we're so career driven, like, being a mindfulness teacher, you probably know this more than I do, being a mindfulness teacher, a Dharma teacher, people look at it as a career path. Like, you know, I'm going to do Dharma training. I'm going to be a trained Dharma teacher, then I'm going to teach it, then they're going to give me a community, or I'm going to teach it at Spirit Rock. I mean, people have this, like, totally delusional. I think people get into it for the wrong reasons. I think, largely, I think people want to become Dharma teachers or mindfulness teachers, a lot of times for reasons that aren't really so good. 


If we don't have that sorted out before we get into it, I think it can become very destructive. I think that this is hard work. It's service work, for sure. For me, it's about trying to contribute to the world in a meaningful way, which sometimes comes at a high cost for me psychologically, emotionally, and financially. It's not to be taken lightly. Now, if you want to be a firefighter, or a dentist, or a librarian, or whatever, that's fine. But if, if you think you want to move in this direction, I think people need to really do some good old fashioned hard thinking about, okay, like, what's the real motivation here? 


Vita Pires: 

Sometimes that motivation can also be tinged with, "I want to save people." 


Dave Smith: 

That is very true. I think that people need to come to terms with that because wanting to save people is not a bad thing by any stretch, but it can't be done. I've been there. I mean, I've had compassion. They don't call it compassion fatigue syndrome anymore, but that's the word that most of us know. I've had compassion fatigue twice because of that very same thing. We get burned out, and we get compassion and fatigue, and we want to help everybody at the expense of our own well-being and our own self-care. That's very destructive. As they say, in many rooms, they always tell you to put your oxygen mask on first before you help the person next to you. 


And also, the other thing, which I think is the darker side of saving other people, is it's very convenient. If I'm helping all these people, I don't have to look at my shit. I think that that's a big move that they're like, "Well." What a brilliant strategy, right? How convenient is that? I don't have to look at it. If I'm helping all these people, I don't have to look at my own suffering, my own confusion, my own destructive behaviors. In many ways, it's a kind of brilliant posture. It's the ultimate distraction. 


There can be a lot of things. People who want to be Dharma teachers, mindfulness teachers, or even therapists. There can be a lot of things in the mix that would contribute to questions that one might sit with and say, "Well, really, am I doing this for the right reasons?" I just kind of, you know, honestly, sort of slipped on a banana peel and ended up doing. I didn't think any of this through. I started teaching mindfulness to the kids in the treatment center because I worked at a treatment center, and then I just kind of followed the trail of breadcrumbs that was left in front of me, but I never sat down with a business advisor and made a business plan for how, you know, I never did any of that. I never even think about things in those terms. Opportunities arise. 


I forget who it was. So one of my teachers, many years ago, and I did this. If you have an opportunity, if you have an opportunity to share the Dharma, you should always say yes. And so I just kind of started, you know, I just kind of said someone said, would you come and do this thing. And if I could, if it was realistic and manageable, I just always did. And kind of still when I do. I mean, someone emailed me from your organization and said, "Do you want to do an interview with this thing?" I said, "Of course I wanted to." Like, I just always said yes to these things unless I couldn't. Sometimes I have to say no, nowadays, because I've been around long enough that I can't do all these things. But that's just kind of been the trail of breadcrumbs that I follow. 


Vita Pires: 

So, you know, we were in jails a lot. Sometimes you go in, and they're only going to see this person once because they're going to be shipped off somewhere else when we get out or whatever. You said it's sometimes easy to give people something that they might remember. Is there one thing that you always do? 


Dave Smith: 

Yeah, no, not really. I mean, I guess it depends on the individual. Yeah, I think the one thing is generally like, you know, be suspicious of your own mind. Don't trust everything that you think. Don't trust everything that you believe. And, of course, then the question becomes, what can I trust? I think the mind can become a trustworthy companion. But I think for most people, the untrained mind is not. 


You probably know this, right? At some point, the mind starts to become trustworthy. And when do you know when that will happen? And still today, like, my mind is not totally trustworthy. But I think part of it is to try to, however, one can put somebody into a contemplative space, for lack of a better word, and try to see if there's value and attention. Is there any internal resource that I have that I can develop? And it might just be paying attention. It might be kind. It might be a range of things. 


When we work with younger kids, especially in the ADHD world, of course, every kid I ever ran into in a treatment center had ADHD on their diagnosis. They hand out these diagnoses like lollipops at the bank now. And so, I would try to encourage you with it, like trying to see if you can recognize your own ability to pay attention to a resource that you have in every moment. Ask yourself if you're struggling. What am I paying attention to? What have I been paying attention to for the last five minutes? What has been the consequence of paying attention to that? 


And so, I think that when people realize attention is a choice, it's a moment choice. That, of course, that's kind of like Buddhist Psychology 101. It's not a very esoteric, elaborate concept. Paying attention is something that everybody gets. And so, I think that that can be a nice nugget of something that people can take and say, "Oh, yeah. Attention has a consequence for good, bad, or otherwise." 


Vita Pires: 

Great. So, we're coming up to the end of our time here. Is there anything else that you'd like to give as advice to people who want to get involved in this work? 


Dave Smith: 

I do. I think a lot of it is I think people who want to do this need to reflect and spend some time really coming to terms with their intention and their motivations of why is it that you want to do this because I think at the end of the day, this is hard work. It's hard work at the beginning. It's hard work in the middle. It's hard work in the end. People don't always like to do hard work. I think it's worth it. That's kind of my message. The work is very, very difficult and very, very hard. And very, very, very much worth it. But both of those, both, and it's both really, really hard and both very, very worth it. And if you're not willing, or you don't have the capacity, maybe you don't have the emotional or psychological capacity, I think that this is not something you just want to dive into. I think it's something that you need to really think about. And remember that it is hard work and that it's service work, and it's actually not about you. 


Vita Pires: 

Yeah. So, where can we find out more about your work? 


Dave Smith: 

If you go to www.DaveSmithDharma.com, that's my website, and probably everything I do or have out there is clickable off of that website. I have a Wednesday night class that people can sign up for every Wednesday. I have some online classes. I have a mentoring program. I'm on Spotify, iTunes, and YouTube. I'm actually pretty easy to find. And most of my resources are free, like all my Dharma talks and my podcasts. My podcast probably has 200 talks on it, guided meditations, and all that stuff is freely offered online to people, and if they want to further develop work with me, then they can get in touch with me and join one of my more intimate programs. So again, wide path, deep path. How much do you want out of this? I think it's all good. 


Vita Pires: 

Thank you so much, Dave. 

Comments


bottom of page