Train the mind playfully – Taking a Leap with Andreas Fosdal

His mother was an amateur musician, studied professionally and sang a lot, while his father was a horn player. He has a brother who used to be a singer and nowadays is an agent for singers. His half-sister is currently a midwife, but used to be a cellist. And his sister-in-law is an opera-singer. Andreas Fosdal is clearly surrounded by music and musicians. If not practicing themselves, then certainly in heart. 

As for Andreas, he has played the Oboe since he was a young kid and these years plays in a symphonic orchestra. Being married and having two cats, he continues to live in the city where he was born, grew up, studied and found a job: Copenhagen.

Compared to other big cities in Europe, despite having about 1.2 million people, the capital of Denmark is relatively quiet. Andreas lives in an even more quiet area, be it not far from the centre. Although, to him, it sometimes feels far from the city. 

Till this very day Andreas feels there is no reason to leave this city, or country for that matter. He enjoyed studying sometimes for some weeks or months in Germany or elsewhere. But certainly considering the increasing warm weather due to global warming, as he put it in our interview, “I don’t see any point in going South.”

Recognizing the development of warmer weather, more crazy rain showers and less and less ice & snow from Fryslân (in the Netherlands), Andreas and I agree: Climate change is hitting us. We are both not sure what to think & feel about that. At the moment of our interview there was still little air traffic due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In Kathmandu people can now see the Himalaya-mountains again, for the first time in 25 years. We can see the effect of not-flying, but will we continue to do things like that for the sake of a happier world?

Not relying on polluting industries is one of the many reasons why Denmark has been at the top of the list of happiest countries in the world. When I ask Andreas why this is the case, he points to the social system. “Free hospital, free library, free school. We pay a lot of tax, but it is pretty much given for benefiting everybody in the country.” Something that, he said, gives – more or less – a feeling of equality and no big differences between those who are rich and those who are poor. 

The topic of taxes, caring for each other and how music, Buddhism and education can contribute to the well-being of everyone on this planet, is like a running thread that keeps returning throughout our interview.

Why (and when) did you take the leap into a buddhist path?
I think it started about fifteen to seventeen years ago when I was trying to cope with stress that came with my job. I read about breathing techniques and came across some of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books (A Zen-buddhist monk, originally from Vietnam). ‘That was the first, like, notion of ‘Buddhist’ I think.’ Later I started to read some books by the Dalai Lama and there was something that spoke to me. 

The next thing that happened was that I came across Mingyur Rinpoche. He came to Denmark in 2010. I saw his teaching. Though I can not remember where it was about, I do remember his presence. I remember it because it was the year when all flights were cancelled due to a volcanic outburst in Iceland. He came from Switzerland by car and was just fresh, even after a very long journey. 

The next big step was two years later. My father went to Nepal for volunteer work. My mother had worked with a Tibetan lady that grew up in Nepal before. My mother knew I was interested, and the Tibetan lady is a Buddhist. I met her. She was hosting a teaching with a Kagyü Lama, who lives in Copenhagen, every Sunday. I went there. 

The first teaching I heard from him was about Ngöndro (so-called preliminary practices from the Vajrayana tradition), because he was teaching some students he had for a long time. ‘Even though it was really really foreign, I just had the feeling I was at the right place. That was pretty much the leap for me: meeting him.’ 

The next leap was two years later. When he, unfortunately, could only teach in a limited way, I started to look on the internet to get some more information and where to study. Suddenly I saw that Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche had this teaching on Mahamudra at Nitartha, starting in 2014. ‘I just had the feeling: I have to go there.’ I have been at Nitartha for the following 4 years. 

Does it feel to you as a natural flow, or were there moments that you made a decision to take a certain direction?
I don’t think I had to make a decision. I had to make decisions like going for about twenty days to the United States in the middle of the summer. I was living alone there and for my parents that was perhaps a bit strange. But other than this, it was not really a big decision. I did not need to think a lot about it. 

It sounds like one thing leads to another. Naturally. Fluently. There seems not to be a lot of pressure to step into something, not-knowing what happens?
Yes. Most of it was really fluent. Meeting this Lama in Copenhagen, I felt connected to this lineage in some way, and then Ponlop Rinpoche was a natural offspring of that meeting. 

You spoke about coping with stress. How did this stress come about? How did you experience that? And especially, how did that lead to breathing exercises and Thich Nhat Hanh?
Playing concerts can be pretty stressful. You have like one concert, and you have to deliver at that concert. You can not say: ‘Can we meet tomorrow again, or…?’ That is pretty stressful – mentally and bodily. I think accumulating stress was a part of that. 

How it developed from there, I can not remember. Slowly there was a kind of feeling. The breathing was one thing, and relaxing, but slowly seeing the books by Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama: there were a lot of things I could learn from Buddhism that I had not heard about before. 

Offering timeless wisdom and boundless compassion

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Offering timeless wisdom and boundless compassion

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Offering timeless wisdom and boundless compassion

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What was it in those books that was drawing your attention?
I think the way I lived my life was simply not a way which felt as ‘right’ in dealing with those things that I had never thought about. Dealing with the mind and the way we engage with things. That was pretty much like, ‘I just did things’. Something good. Something bad. 

Reading one book. Then another. It was maybe not an obsession, but I thought it was interesting to see how there was so much about the human being and capacity that I had never even thought about. I read philosophy a little bit at gymnasium, but otherwise I never really (Andreas pauses here for a moment, as if feeling those years)… I had my music and that was fine. 

Was there any sign of Buddhism, religion or spirituality present in your early life?
Not at all. I mean, I went to ‘Confirmation’ but have no remembrance of that. That was something you did. My mother was pretty religious, Christian, but never spoke about it actually. We spoke about it later in life, but not at that time. It was not something that I heard from at home. Family life had a secular outlook so to speak. 

In general we are protestant here. I went to a private school. I don’t remember. We had religion as a topic at school. It is not a big part of Danish culture. We are formed by the Christian way of thinking as I understand it, but it was not a part of my life. 

Then, how did your mother ended up working with a Tibetan lady
They were just working together. The Tibetan lady was married to a Danish guy, so she just had work where my mother was. That was the connection. They must have been talking about their religious background, since my mother knew she was a Buddhist. She has probably been at this lady’s house, which is full of Buddhist thangkas. Difficult not to notice. 

What was it about Mingyur Rinpoche’s presence that touched you?
He is an extremely joyful and down-to-earth presence. Nothing like ‘I am a big fine Lama’. I did not know much about him at that time, but I experienced him as a simple person with a presence that was definitely not simple. Strong. Light. Joyful mind. I saw him last year in Copenhagen again, and that was like I remember it. But maybe I remember it wrong. 

What about this teaching on Ngöndro?
At that time I had no idea who this Lama was, who lives an infamous life in Copenhagen. I can see he is teaching more broadly now. Having a Danish passport, which makes things easier. I still attend his teaching when I can. 

Is there any point where you would say: ‘Yes, now I am on a Buddhist path in my life,’?
Probably not the first time I visited this Lama in Copenhagen. However, not long after I had the feeling ‘this is the right spot’ for me, or ‘I need to know more about what this is’. It is something I did not know, but is in front of me. When exactly I don’t remember, but pretty much in the beginning. ‘I am sure.’ 

My knowledge before that meeting was only from books. Certainly this Ngöndro with deities. It was pretty foreign for me. But I felt welcome and had the sense ‘this is right’. 

What did Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche and Nitartha add to that?
In the beginning it was overwhelming to attend teachings for eighteen or nineteen days in a row. That was something that never happened to me before. In Copenhagen the meeting (with the Lama mentioned earlier) was very small, and held in a flat. Then I came to Nitartha and we had a lot of people and so on. Maybe I had read a bit about Rinpoche but not much before I came to Nitartha. Then I got some friends from the first year and it was like: ‘I have to come back every year.’ In 2017 I became a student of Rinpoche and a member of Nalandabodhi at the same time. 

What is it about Nalandabodhi that makes you want to be a member?
What I have encountered up to now is the atmosphere between members, most of them I know from Nitartha. I like the teachings. The structure of the three paths. It is explained in a way that is both very modern but still very faithful to the sources it comes from. I like that a lot. You both have a feeling it is contemporary and still a connection to the sources. Not only the Buddha’s teachings but also a culture that is in many ways different from ours. I think that is very beautiful. 

I don’t know whether you can find this in other places because I ended up here. I have never looked for many other sources. Nalandabodhi is like my main path, together with Nitartha. 

What does it mean that the teachings are modern yet faithful to its sources? 
Everyone that encounters Ponlop Rinpoche’s teachings feels that he is a person that is familiar with our culture. At the same time, when he speaks, it seems he speaks well for different audiences in different ways. Even during the same teachings. 

Recently, I had this teaching hosted by Kamalashila. In many ways he addressed the audience that – of course, he did not know them and was seeing people only on a very small screen –  in a down-to-earth manner. Still, he puts things in some angles or things that you feel are meant for people that have more knowledge or who are further on the path. If you need to say how he teaches in accordance with tradition, look at the material: It is in a down-to-earth language and suddenly very precise. 

If family members would attend, you and they might both feel addressed?
I think so. I can not tell. My parents have never seen him teach. But I think that this is a strength. If you meet him at Nitartha, that is a completely different set-up. 

What kind of teaching speaks to a broad audience that is coming from the Buddhist tradition?
I think maybe the teaching of being equal. At least in these times. We are all facing all kinds of problems, some worse than I do. Being in it together. Some of the Buddhist teachings emphasize we are equal in wanting happiness and being free of suffering. That is a teaching, I feel, that is so evident at the moment. For example, with the racial things in the United States that are showing up. In Europe as well, maybe not as obvious. And the pandemic. This compassion, we basically have the same capacity to love and try to help when people are suffering. And I can see it happens. In Denmark the atmosphere around it has been less stressful. Political life has been done more in a way of ‘being in this together.’ It does not matter whether you are right-wing or left-wing. There is not this usual fight. The last three months have been pretty quiet. 

The pandemic was one thing, but it shows so many other layers. Huge income gap. People not having proper access to hospitals or schools. Everything comes to the surface, because the system is built on not being equal. It shows that this is really not the way to deal with each other. 

This notion of equality seems to play an important role in creating circumstances in which as many people as possible can lead a happy life?
You can send your children to school and know that you will have a good basic education from first grade to gymnasium. You, of course, pay tax. But if you don’t earn that much money, it is a balance of everybody paying a lot of tax. I remember the Lama in Copenhagen saying: ‘When you pay tax, think about it as generosity.’ That stuck to my mind. When people talk about “I paid so much tax.” Yes, but it is generous. It is just called a name tax. 

What does Buddhism have to teach us about dealing with or training our mind?
I like that you said training. We don’t have an education that says we need some training of the mind. But training the mind and dealing with the world is maybe something that we completely, or more or less, don’t teach at schools. 

The Buddhist path is structured in a way, be it in a flexible way, saying: We are capable of training the mind in a way that makes life easier and more peaceful. We don’t get surprised when things do not go as we thought they should go. Or the idea we had about a certain way of life. 

When I look at it, I still think I am in the first grade. Or maybe second grade. Still very much in the beginning. I think we need this more than so many other things we learn at school: To have a peaceful and compassionate mind. Many ways, at least how I grew up, we don’t learn that the mind can be trained. It does not sound good in many people’s ears. But I think it is like everything else. I trained as an Oboe player for my whole life. That is pretty normal. 

So, meditation and training the mind is like playing a musical instrument? Something that takes time?
In general, they say you need at least ten years to learn to play an instrument and a certain amount of hours. You can not learn an instrument faster. If you want to do it in the highest professional way then those ten years are a basic thing. Some need fifteen years. I have done it, maybe not the first years, for hours every day. I still learn and learn. 

I have been dedicated to Oboe since I was four years old. I heard an Oboe-player in Copenhagen and said to my parents: ‘I want to play the Oboe’. I did not start before I turned nine because of physical reasons – too small and so on. I had this feeling: ‘this is my path, I want to be an Oboe player.’ And I am happy I succeeded with that. If you can say it like that: ‘succeed’. I enjoy playing music. Hopefully some like it. 

I learn a lot about my mind when playing. Last year I was a soloist with my orchestra. First of all, I used half a year to build up for that. I was playing with the orchestra every week, but this was like a big thing. 

Learning about the mind, ups and downs come and go. Of course, when you get closer to the event, you get more and more stressed. The week when I played the concert, it changed something. Being on stage. You have used so much time and then you play two concerts, and it is gone. I used so much energy in that process. I face a lot of, you could say, ‘demons’ of the mind. They come up a lot. Sometimes out of the blue. ‘What am I doing here?’ Standing on stage for rehearsal. ‘I am not ready’. ‘I am not good enough.’ A voice saying: ‘This could have been better’. We have recorded it also, and the thought came to my mind: ‘Maybe I should have waited two years.’ 

Then, also seeing that all these things are coming and going very fast. Maybe I have noticed that earlier, but now I have been training my mind a bit more. I can see that this is just a thought. I don’t necessarily need to believe that when it is happening. It did not work all the time, but sometimes it did. 

Part of the training of the mind is guarding ourselves against demons found within?
That is one part, but if the teaching of no ego, no self… As long as I have the idea of someone playing, doing this stuff, the evaluation, at least for a musician, comes up. We compete all the time. Being better than the other. It is not a healthy approach. 

My sister-in-law grew up in Russia and played at a piano school. She said that her teacher once said to another student: ‘Remember, she is your enemy.’ It is not as bad in Denmark, but to get a job you compete with 25, 50 or 100 people for one job. That is very intense. That is a habit built up in 25 years. To get rid of that…. 

…When you play, suddenly you have this moment in which everything is like… how is this playing? You hear the sound in the room. This can be very short. That is interesting. What is that a part of? Not to be somebody, when playing?

Does being on a Buddhist path mean you relate differently to yourself as a musician and the music being played?
The last part, I don’t know. But I definitely relate differently to myself as a musician. I do not identify as much with being a musician than I did about ten years ago. During this corona crisis I have not played a concert for three months. I can not say I did not miss it. But I do not crave for coming back and playing concerts. 

The idea of ‘I perform music for people, I do it, it is me performing’, to get beyond that and play music because it is something people enjoy listening to and could benefit people. Then it is not an ego-thing. I hope I can manage to do that at some point. That would change the way I perceive the music also. But I am not sure. 

The competitive atmosphere does not necessarily help with taking such an approach?
Yes, it is very competitive. Some environments are more competitive than others. I don’t think the orchestra I play in is strongly competitive. Yet, there is still some competition. When you have a job, it is not a competition for a job. But at least you want to play a good concert, since the audience evaluates it. Though I am not sure about that. 

Does everyone have a unique voice while also being in harmony together – in a similar way, everyone has an individual path in life but we need to find a way to live in harmony? 
It is true. I am pretty sure when we come back now – we will probably play in August again – we will have a completely new feeling about why we started to play music. People start because they love music. Not playing together for five months makes a big impact. I am really looking forward to how the atmosphere would be. I am pretty sure it will not be competitive at all, but more like: ‘We can go back and play.’ It will probably be a strong experience. 

Probably the idea of the ego. It is not present all the time, but it pops up. Though actually, it pops up all the time. In many situations. It’s a big question all the time: What is this ego-thing that is filling so much in my life but is not really there? I don’t get it. I can read about it in books and meditate on it. Maybe there are flashes when it is not there. I am not sure. It still, not from the beginning but for a long time, has been the main thing. 

Now I am studying the Mahayana-teachings at Nalandabodhi, but they are still much connected with the idea of having an ego and how to deal with that. I think it is fascinating the many ways the teachings are pointing to the same subject: How to get rid of the idea of ego? That’s a strong thing. 

Also connected to the body. What is the mind-body connection? For a really long time: What is mind, and how is it connected to the body? Teachings on prana, and mind moving on prana. That is something that I find fascinating maybe, though that is not the right word. I can not come up with a better word. Mind-blowing in some ways. It is mind-blowing. 

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I would recommend: go for it! I think if you have a feeling that you are drawn to a certain path, I would do it. Of course, you can always encounter strange sects, I don’t know. In general I would say: Go for it, because it is probably something you as a person miss or look for. It can be difficult in some ways. I would not say that people look strange at me when they hear about going to Nitartha, a Buddhist philosophical boot camp, but in general I think most people look for something we can see in this crisis: People look for things other than material things. Though we are not told that. But we are looking for it. At least I do. 

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