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An Interview with Andrea Miller

From Andrea Miller — an editor and staff writer at Lion's Roar, the leading Buddhist magazine in the English-speaking world — comes a diverse and timeless collection of essays, articles, and interviews. Miller, whose writing is by turns earnest and irreverent, unadorned and lyrical, talks to Buddhist teachers, thinkers, writers, and celebrities about the things that matter most and she frames their wisdom with her own lived experience. 

In Awakening My Heart, we hear Tina Turner on the power of song, Ram Dass on the importance of service, Jane Goodall on the compassion that exists in the natural world, and Robert Jay Lifton on the darkest deeds of humanity — and how to prevent such things from ever happening again. Moreover, Miller — with her gently probing questions — gets to the bottom of the friendship between Zen master Bernie Glassman and Hollywood's Jeff Bridges and she takes a playful look at the difference between Michael Imperioli, the serious Buddhist practitioner, and the unhinged mobster character he played in The Sopranos. 

Insight teacher Gina Sharpe coaches Miller on how to start facing the racism that exists even in the most liberal communities, while Robert Waldinger, a Zen priest and the leader of the world''s longest running study of human happiness, teaches her the key to being truly happy. Miller also brings the wisdom of a thirteenth-century Zen text into her very own galley kitchen and takes a look at animals through a quirky dharma lens. Finally, she goes on retreat with two of the world''s most beloved contemporary Buddhist teachers, Pema Chödrön and Thich Nhat Hanh, and travels to India to follow in the footsteps of the Buddha himself.

For someone who is new to Buddhism, how would you suggest they approach your book? 

Just dive in. The work was never intended to only be for card-carrying Buddhists. I’m the deputy editor of Lion’s Roar magazine (formerly called the Shambhala Sun) and the material in Awakening My Heart was originally created for that publication. According to a survey that we did several years ago, a little more than 50 percent of our readers do not identify as Buddhist. Some of our readers practice contemplative forms of other religions—Christianity, Judaism, etc. Some identify as “Buddhist-curious.” Many identify as “spiritual but not religious.” So our material—and by extension my book—is accessible to people who are new to Buddhism.

But just to be clear, I’m not at all interested in converting anyone to Buddhism. (If you want to be a Buddhist, that’s great. If you don’t want to be a Buddhist, that’s great, too.) Besides just telling a good story, what I’m interested in doing is sharing the tools and teachings of Buddhism with those who are interested. In my experience, there are people of many different traditions who find elements of Buddhism helpful and—from where I sit—the world needs some help. In short, I’m interested in how Buddhist wisdom can be of benefit to individuals and the broader society.

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What do you hope for your audience to learn or understand from these interviews and essays?

The Buddha is often quoted as saying that he taught about two things only—suffering and the end of suffering. In other words, Buddhism is about understanding what prevents us from being truly happy and how we actually can be. 

Awakening My Heart is likewise driving at those two essential points. So I’m exploring issues such as how to be more compassionate to self and other; how to accept the reality of impermanence; how to be really present for our lives; and how to work with anger and other difficult emotions. I hope readers are able to digest some of that and, as a result, that they become just a little bit happier, kinder, and more inspired to make the world a better place.

You have two books previously published, for younger audiences: My First Book of Canadian Birds (Nimbus Publishing) and The Day The Buddha Woke Up (Wisdom Publications). How was the process of writing the pieces in Awakening My Heart different from your work on your first two books? Did either of those experiences help inform this one? 

I write a lot of different types of material and every project I work on has its own unique challenges and requirements. What I’ve noticed though, is that it almost doesn’t matter what type of writing I’m doing—fiction, journalism, children’s books, or even book reviews—I always get into the same absorbed mental space when I’m writing. And I love being in that space.

I wouldn’t exactly say that Awakening My Heart and the picture books informed each other, but I’m like most authors in that certain topics are of interest to me and I keep returning to them in one way or another. Recently I realized that both of my picture books have corresponding pieces in Awakening My Heart

The Day the Buddha Woke Up is a board book about the Buddha’s life and teachings, while the travel piece “The Buddha Was Here” covers that same ground but for grownups. That is, “The Buddha Was Here” is the story of a trip that I took to India during which I visited sites related to the Buddha’s life and it is braided together with the Buddha’s biography. My First Book of Canadian Birds, on the other hand, relates loosely to my personal essay “Buddha’s Birds.” My First Book of Canadian Birds is a science-based picture book, which teaches little kids about blue herons and ruby-throated hummingbirds, etc. “Buddha’s Birds,” in contrast, delves into Buddhist mythology and teachings related to the same animals. With their colors and songs, birds are a rich treat for the senses, and it’s easy to find poetic and spiritual meaning in the way they fly and preen and nest. For me, that’s why birds are such a joy to write about.

You have interviewed many well-known people, including Jane Goodall, Jeff Bridges, and Tina Turner. In an ideal world with no barriers, who would you like to interview next?

I’d like to zip back in time and interview some of the great spiritual leaders who have shaped some of the current world religions— the Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, and Guru Nanak. 

Other than any of your own books, what is one book that you recommend everyone read?

I really don’t think there is a book that everyone should read. There is just too much variety in terms of people’s preferences and needs. So I can only speak to what I appreciate in a book.

The best book I’ve read lately is the experimental novel Lincoln in the Bardo. It’s confusing for the first couple of pages—so much so that if the book weren’t by the celebrated George Saunders I probably would have given up on it. But I did persevere and once I figured out what was going on, I fell in love with the gorgeous, totally unique writing style and the moving story. I have a real soft spot for magical realism. 

Awakening My Heart is available from Chapters, Amazon, and your local independent bookstore today!

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