Friendly and soft-spoken, Jeff Oliver could almost be mistaken for your nice surfie neighbor who lives down the road, right down to the aura of serenity which surrounds him. However, his has been an unusual path. After beginning to meditate on his own in Australia, he left home in order to seek a teacher and ended up ordaining as a monk within the Mahasi Sayadaw tradition for nine years, living first at a monastery in Burma and then in South Africa. These days, he travels widely as an internationally renowned dhamma teacher. During the 3 day vipassana meditation retreat he recently led at New Life, Jeff captivated and engaged his students with practical wisdom and techniques that guided us towards first seeing deeply into ourselves, in order to improve our relationships with those around us. Other themes we explored included gratitude and appreciation, the steps of forgiveness, and the healing nature of loving kindness. He was kind enough to sit down and chat with us about teaching, awareness, and communication.
Can you tell us a little bit about your journey to becoming a dhamma teacher?
In Australia I was doing some activism about the environment with the Wilderness Society and a few other places and I became more in tune with the environment and a few other places. Then I met a lot of people who were vegetarian and into healing and crystals and all sorts of things and this just expanded my mind and I spent more time in nature and I started to just sit in nature and I felt, “Maybe I’m meditating”. And maybe I should find a teacher who teaches meditation. And I did that, and it led me to Burma and I became a Buddhist monk in Burma. My teacher was impressed and he liked my experiences and my ability to speak, and so he then asked me to assist him in teaching. And then in 2002 I disrobed…not to get away from being a monk, but to become more accessible to everyone, and to be more natural, more open. So since then I’ve been a freelance meditation teacher. I’m invited to a few different countries like Czech Republic and Turkey, Thailand, Malaysia, here and there.
What are your greatest joys and challenges as a dhamma teacher?
My first answer to that is here and now [laughs]…so today, what I shared just now. Specific occasions don’t so much jump to mind, just what I shared just now was joyful and something to celebrate. But I do love sharing in Turkey. I find it really challenging and very universal because I’m not sharing “Buddhism”. It’s actually the Buddha’s teachings but it’s not in the Buddha’s package so I find that what I’m sharing is really universal and everyone can benefit from it. I love that.
That leads on to my next question, which is that your teaching style is very practical, very accessible, and obviously the students respond very well to that. So what inspires you or motivates you to teach this way?
It’s just coming from my own experience. And as much as somebody might appreciate my style and what I share, I try not to keep this myself and take this in an egoistic manner but rather pass on the gratitude to my teachers and my teachers’ teachers and even the Buddha. Some teachers will emulate their teachers and just copy or pass on the literal teachings that their teachers passed on, which is very much an Asian tradition. But when a foreigner picks up even the Asian teachings, we have our own input, we have our own style, we have our own background, we have our own terminology, our own explanations for things, so, definitely in my case it’s coming from my background, my conditioning, my experiences. I’m not repeating something that I’ve been told, I’m not teaching from the scriptures. At the risk of being, you know, “This is my style, everybody should do my way”, actually it’s an offering. If people like it they can take it, if they don’t it doesn’t matter. It’s just an offering.
In this retreat we’ve been combining communications skills with vipassana meditation. Why do you think it’s important to practice the two in conjunction with one another?
One, because I believe that a large percentage of our happiness in our daily life is coming from our relationships, and if our relationships are not going well we don’t feel good about ourselves, we can generally be unhappy about our life because of our relationships. When I looked into relationships I realized it’s my ability to communicate in my relationships. So I found that relationships are based on communication and then we need to communicate with awareness. We need to know how we feel, we need to be able to communicate how we feel, we need to be aware enough to know what someone is communicating to us, how they feel. Of course wisdom definitely needs to be a part of both of these: understanding how you feel, but then understanding how another feels, and the way you can understand another is through understanding yourself. This comes through your own self-awareness, and this is vipassana.
This isn’t your first time at the foundation but it’s your first retreat here. What are your thoughts?
It’s an unusual place. It’s not somewhere that I can say I’ve run a retreat before. I’ve only been here a few days and I did just visit for one night earlier this year so I really don’t have a hard and fast opinion or something, it’s just like this place, it’s changing all the time, so my feeling is changing. People come here, it seems, to overcome addiction or any kind of substance abuse etc. Not only that of course, but anything, anyone, who would like to create a new life for themselves. So the place itself is quite transitory. The retreat wasn’t just a closed retreat like we would normally have, say fifteen people would come for a retreat and it would just be with those fifteen people. So it was a little bit open, fluctuating, people come, people go. Which was really good for me because then I had to accept that, open up to that, and yeah, I offer what I can offer, they get what they can get, and we just watch it all come, watch it all go [laughs]. I do believe in the place, I believe that some really great and wonderful work is taking place here.
And what do you hope your students will take away from this retreat?
The quick answer is awareness and wisdom. That they’ve gained some skills in communication, which is based in awareness and wisdom. Hopefully some new understanding of themselves, some new understanding of how their mind works, some self acceptance, and ability to relax, and honesty – self honesty. And as we were sharing today, some self enquiry. To have that ability to really ask yourself, what’s going on, how do I feel, what’s the truth now?
Do you have any final remarks that you’d like to add?
I just wish that everybody here finds what they’re looking for, that they can create a good foundation for their life while they’re here, and that the skills that they learn here can be carried into their life, for the rest of their life. A wish that people can really understand themselves and create their own freedom or perhaps even wake up to the fact that there is already freedom available and they can access it if they want to.
Thank you so much. We hope you can come and visit us again soon!
That would be wonderful.
NB: Interviews and testimonials on our blog have only been edited for length and grammatical accuracy.