April 2018 full moon – Retreat and post-retreat practice

Before and after

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post titled Retreat and pre-retreat practice, which explored ways to navigate some of the anxiety and other challenges that often come up before we go on retreat.

This month, I’m writing about another aspect of retreat practice that doesn’t always get a lot of attention, and that’s what happens after retreat.  This exploration feels alive for me right now, having just finished teaching a five-day retreat for Auckland Insight at a camp in Huia, on the Manukau Harbour.

harbour headland 1.JPG

Waking up every morning to the soft lapping of waves on the harbour shore, and the song of tui (native birds) calling from the kauri trees was very relaxing.  And after five days of no internet or mobile phone access, I noticed how much more at ease my body, heart, and mind felt.  But then, there’s the return … for most of us, to busyness, overwork, hyper-stimulation, and various relational challenges, with partners, family, friends, colleagues, neighbours.

What is “real life?”

It’s common for people to talk about this return as going back to so-called “real life.”  But thinking of everyday life as “real life” implies that retreat life is somehow “unreal.”  In the first few years of my own practice, I often got caught in this duality, not seeing that there was an underlying cynicism built into it.

On retreat, I’d sometimes experience moments of clarity, stillness, and alignment with a deeper truth that at the time, felt very rewarding.  But coming back home, it was easy to lose connection with the value of those moments, to dismiss them as irrelevant, unreliable, or even naive.

Later on, I recognised that this was a kind of defense mechanism to protect myself from what often felt like a significant loss: loss of connection with my own capacity to give and receive love; loss of connection with my own capacity to understand more fully; loss of connection with the deeper purpose of life; and loss of connection with others who shared similar aspirations.

harbour foreshore rocks 6.JPG

Grief and gratitude

It was only after several longer retreats at the Forest Refuge that I eventually understood that my cynicism was a way of avoiding grief.  It was a relief just to be able to name this, then I could make time for a kind of “mourning period” to allow the sadness to move through.  Surprisingly, when I was able to do this, what often emerged was a sense of profound gratitude that helped to balance out the grief.

Intuitively, this movement between allowing grief and orienting to gratitude helped me to come back to balance, and the benefits of retreat practice became more sustainable – even in the midst of the many challenges of everyday life.

(You can hear more on this theme of post-retreat practice in one of my recent talks given at Auckland Insight, here.)

Sangha

Consciously cultivating gratitude is just one suggestion to help navigate any post-retreat rockiness.  Staying connected to sangha, community, is also invaluable.  If there isn’t a sitting group in your area that you can meet with regularly, you might consider inviting someone from the retreat to stay connected with you online.  These days, most people have the technology to make occasional meetings via video-call possible, and this can be a great way of maintaining or strengthening dharma friendships.

There are also many study courses available on line now too, that support the deepening of our practice in community.  Organisations such as the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, Spirit Rock Meditation CenterLion’s Roar magazine, and Tricycle magazine all offer online courses covering a wide range of Buddhist study and practice.

boat ramp 2.JPG

Next Step Dharma online course

One course that’s particularly aimed at supporting the transition from retreat practice to daily life is Next Step Dharma, set up by my friends Oren Sofer and Jaya Rudgard.
I occasionally host the online Q&A sessions for this course, and always enjoy connecting with people around the world who are exploring ways to integrate their retreat understanding into daily life.
More info here

May we all navigate the transitions between pre-retreat, retreat, and post-retreat practice with ease!

January/February 2018 super blue blood moon – Buddhist visual art and architecture

This month, I felt the need for some inspiration of the senses, so I’ve decided to set up a webpage dedicated to visual art that’s either been created by practising Buddhists, or features images or sculptures of the Buddha, or evokes meditative states.
Below are just a few samples I’ve found recently.  There are larger images and more info on the new webpage here:
https://jill0shepherd-insightmeditation.com/buddhist-inspired-visual-art-and-architecture/
Feel free to send me any of your own favourites.


Dharma and Art: A Practice of Investigating Perception

And, if you’re interested in exploring the connection between creativity and dharma more fully, the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies is offering a new online and residential six-month program which looks fascinating.
Applications for that close soon – 1 March 2018 – and you can find more info here:
https://www.bcbsdharma.org/yearlong-programs/dharma-and-art/


Karl Martens

https://mymodernmet.com/karl-martens-watercolor-paintings-birds/


Miya Ando

http://www.miyaando.com/


James Turrell

http://jamesturrell.com/work/type/


Tadao Ando

https://www.dezeen.com/2017/08/08/tadao-ando-hill-of-the-buddha-lavender-mound-makomanao-takino-cemetery-sapporo-japan/

 

January 2018 full moon – re-set

Sydney Insight Meditators 2018 New Year’s retreat

meditators - Rena drawing

Drawing by retreat participant Rena Czaplinska Archer

Making positive changes

The New Year is traditionally a time to try to make positive changes for the year ahead.  And yet most of us have had the experience of starting out with a rush of good intentions, only to find ourselves collapsing back into old habits very quickly.

Having recently finished teaching a seven-day retreat over the New Year, the same pattern can be seen after a period of intensive practice.  Many people experience a wave of inspiration, and have the intention, post-retreat, to renew their commitment to meditating on a daily basis.

Yet again, these intentions often don’t last very long.  The momentum of daily life re-asserts its hold on us, and we’re soon back where we started.  When one retreat participant was recently asked on their retreat registration form to describe their daily practice, they wrote that it mostly consisted of “looking at their meditation cushion and feeling guilty!”

Establishing and/or maintaining a daily meditation practice

Most of us can probably relate to that description, at least at times.  So this month, I’d like to focus on some strategies for establishing or maintaining a daily meditation practice.

Continue reading

December 2017 super moon – impermanence, vastness, and intimacy

super moon Wellington

A still from the video of an impressive moonrise in early 2013, over Mount Victoria Lookout in Wellington, New Zealand by Mark Gee


Impermanence

This month’s full moon post is a little late, because just this morning, I finished co-teaching the last six weeks of the three-month retreat at IMS in Barre, Massachusetts.

The ending of any period of intensive meditation practice is poignant, but even more so when it’s been a longer retreat.  As this retreat was drawing to a close, I started to felt even less articulate than usual!  It’s been hard to find words that might capture something of the power of the profound transformations that I had the honour to witness, as I accompanied the meditators at least some of the way on their inner journeys.

Part of the struggle has been a sense of paradox: a feeling that the heart-mind has become both vastly expansive, and completely intimate.  So when a friend sent me the link to this short video of a supermoon rising, I was very happy, because perhaps these images might convey what my own words can’t …

Short video (three minutes) here:

https://player.vimeo.com/video/58385453

Next Step Dharma – online course by Oren Sofer and Jaya Rudgard

For anyone wondering how to access support for the transition from retreat practice to daily life, my friends Oren and Jaya have a six week online course specifically designed to help bring your retreat back home.

The course comprises:
• 21 short Dharma Talks and 16 Guided Meditations, all geared for integration
• 18 Recorded interviews with founding Insight Meditation teachers
• 8 weeks of interactive, live Q & A Sessions with the Course Leaders
• Mentoring for your meditation practice
• Weekly readings and “Core Integration” practices
• Lifetime membership in our online community

More info here: http://www.nextstepdharma.org/


Bhaddekaratta Sutta — The Discourse on an Auspicious Day

Do not chase after what is gone,
Nor yearn for what is yet to be.
For the past has been left behind,
And the future cannot be reached.
Those states that are before you now —
Have insight into every one!
Invincibly, unshakably,
Know that well, again and again.
Do this work today, with ardor;
Who knows when death will come calling?
There is no bargaining with Death,
Or with his army of minions.
Abiding ardently like this
Without fail, both day and night, is
“The single most precious moment.”
So the peaceful sage has told us.

Quoted in “Older and Wiser: Classical Buddhist Teachings on Aging, Sickness, and Death”
by Mu Soeng, Gloria Ambrosia, Andrew Olendzki


Finally, here’s a link to the last talk I gave at the end of the retreat.  It has an overview of the core teachings and ways to put them into practice in daily life, using the ten parami of generosity, renunciation, ethical conduct, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, resolve, kindness, and equanimity.  I hope it will be helpful whether you’re a beginning meditator, or an experienced practitioner.

Dukkha, the ending of Dukkha, and the ending of this retreat 

New neuroscience research on the lasting benefits of meditation

 

ponga bud h

Dan Goleman and Richie Davidson are both well-known names in the fields of psychology, science journalism and neuroscience, and they have recently co-authored a book laying out their most recent research on the benefits of meditation.

Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body

Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson, published September 2017

To begin with, the authors make an interesting distinction between meditative states, and meditative traits.

“… beyond the pleasant states meditation can produce, the real payoffs are the lasting traits that can result. An altered trait—a new characteristic that arises from a meditation practice—endures apart from meditation itself. Altered traits shape how we behave in our daily lives, not just during or immediately after we meditate.”

They discuss new data that appears to confirm how with practice – and particularly, with intensive retreat practice – deep and lasting transformations do occur.  There’s a clear development from meditation as a method of experiencing pleasant states, to one that results in lasting changes, or traits.

They also distinguish between the “wide path” of practice: the mainstreaming of meditation techniques into mindfulness apps, for example; and the “deep path,”

“… which has always been the true goal of meditation. As we see it, the most compelling impacts of meditation are not better health or sharper business performance but, rather, a further reach toward our better nature. A stream of findings from the deep path markedly boosts science’s models of the upper limits of our positive potential.

The further reaches of the deep path cultivate enduring qualities like selflessness, equanimity, a loving presence, and impartial compassion—highly positive altered traits. … Now we can share scientific confirmation of these profound alterations of being—a transformation that dramatically ups the limits on psychological science’s ideas of human possibility.

The very idea of “awakening”—the goal of the deep path—seems a quaint fairy tale to a modern sensibility. Yet data from Richie’s lab, some just being published in journals as this book goes to press, confirm that remarkable, positive alterations in brain and behavior along the lines of those long described for the deep path are not a myth but a reality.”

Most people reading this post will already know this, and may not need any more proof of the benefits of meditation!  Still, this book should be a useful resource to those who might be newer to meditation practice – or to anyone surrounded by hard-core sceptics – because their research debunks some of the pseudo-scientific hype that has been used to sell meditation as a mainstream cure-all.

” … we bemoan how the data all too often is distorted or exaggerated when science gets used as a sales hook. The mix of meditation and monetizing has a sorry track record as a recipe for hucksterism, disappointment, even scandal. All too often, gross misrepresentations, questionable claims, or distortions of scientific studies are used to sell meditation.”

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of this book, as an antidote to some of the wilder misrepresentations of meditation that seem to becoming more and more widespread.

 

Podcast interview with Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson, by Dan Harris

For more information, check out this recent interview between the book’s authors and Dan Harris (of 10% Happier fame)

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1087147821

Episode 98

 

ponga fronds

Buddhist-inspired artworks available in NSW, Australia

Viruch Pinkuntod (1973-2015)

An artist friend of a friend, Viruch Pikhuntod, a Thai Buddhist, died recently in New South Wales and left many beautiful artworks referencing his Buddhist beliefs.

Viruch Pinkuntod unnamed painting

Untitled, Oil on canvas, 198 x 52cm

Information below and image from SIM newsletter, June 2016, written by Anna Russell

Viruch grew up in a family and a culture where Buddhism was a given. He graduated from the National Art School, held solo shows and  was a finalist in the Dobell Drawing Prize, amongst others. His Buddhism infused everything he did.

In his poem, Stubborn boy, quiet boy, bird boy, written a few years after he arrived in 1995,  he writes:

Do not know why I feel like I can fly.
But it has been like that for me since I settled here. Australia.

I fly with my art, my drawing and painting. My music, my photography, my writing.
I fly with the world that I live in, that we live in. It is a world of friendship and love, of conflict and difference.

I do not know how far I can fly, how long I can live to watch the world. It does not matter.

On the day I die, my last words will be “thank you”.

Viruch’s partner organised an exhibition in Sydney and an overflow show at their home in Medlow Bath, but many paintings remain. We’d like to see them go where they would be appreciated, as our interest is in honouring Viruch’s work and beliefs, not making sales.

For more information about viewing the works, contact Gary Shinfield.

 

September 2017 full moon – Taking A Stand

Stand Against Suffering: A Call to Action by Buddhist Teachers

“‘As long as a society protects the vulnerable among them, they can be expected to prosper and not decline.’

The Buddha, in the Mahaparinirvana Sutta

Buddhism does not align itself with any party or ideology. But when great suffering is at stake, Buddhists must take a stand against it, with loving-kindness, wisdom, calm minds, and courage.”

https://www.lionsroar.com/stand-against-suffering/

watertower yard

Water tower with Native American protest graffiti, Alcatraz

What stand can I take?

The purpose of the dharma, the Buddha’s teachings, is to free ourselves from ignorance. With the current escalation in overt racism and hate crimes around the world – on top of systemic social injustice – as a white person, the stand I’d like to take is in terms of better understanding my own white privilege.

Just getting beyond the initial reaction to the term “white privilege” can be quite a journey, so I’ve set up a new webpage with links to some resources that I plan to continue exploring myself over the next few months and years.  I also hope they’ll be helpful for any dharma practitioners who are interested in seeing through our various biases and social constructs, in the service of deeper wisdom and compassion.

https://jill0shepherd-insightmeditation.com/wise-action-undoing-racism/

I plan to add more links to inspiring and challenging articles, and in the meantime, below are just a few items that touched me recently.

 

jail screen 3

Cell block, Alcatraz

Where Will You Stand?

Rev. angel Kyodo williams 18 August 2017

“Much of what is being taught as Buddhism in America is the acceptance of a kinder, gentler suffering that does not question the unwholesome roots of systemic suffering and the structures that hold it in place. The expansive potential of the dharma to liberate us from suffering is in danger of being rendered impotent because it is held in subjugation to the very systems that it must thoroughly examine. 

No one group, community, or institution has the answer, but each of us can call forth the willingness to offer our best, claim responsibility for our worst, and fold it all into the continuous moment-to-moment practice of simply being present to what is. If your practice is not attenuating greed, hatred, and ignorance—the social expressions of which are the delusions of supremacy, racism, and oppression—then you need to change your practice.”

https://www.lionsroar.com/where-will-you-stand/

trunk red sap close

Eucalyptus trees after bushfire, New South Wales, Australia

Clinton Pryor walks for indigenous justice in Australia

“I started this journey walking from Perth to find the truth and find a new way for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Australia. For the past 50 years our people have been fighting for rights, but it’s like it has just gone down the drain too many times. So, I decided to go for a big massive walk across the country to find the truth of what’s going on. What I’ve seen and experienced this way is that our people are living in developing world conditions.

In some communities there’s no fresh water. Other communities are polluted from mining, and on top of that these companies are hiring people from out in cities and towns to work in these communities, when our local people want jobs as well. What the people want in these communities is to be self-governed. They want to take care of our people themselves.”

https://www.theguardian.com/inequality/2017/sep/08/6000km-only-20-minutes-with-the-pm-prime-minister-clinton-pryor-relives-epic-walk-across-australia-indigenous?


Te Puea marae

Te Puea marae – image from facebook

Te Puea Marae gears up to help homeless for second winter in New Zealand

The south Auckland marae (Māori meeting house) that opened its doors to the homeless last year is about to do so again.  Te Puea Marae in Mangere helped 181 people last year, using 1200 volunteers over three months. Starting on 18 July, it will again take people in – for six months.

Spokesperson Hurimoana Dennis told Morning Report this time they’ve been working hard with government agencies to provide the service.

“We believe we can still … support homeless families. We did it last year – we learnt some things, and we put people into homes.  It’s an opportunity … to work with agencies, to show agencies what best practice engagement looks like for our Māori families, our communities and those who are homeless.”
http://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/334794/te-puea-marae-to-help-homeless-for-second-winter

Check out their facebook page for ways to help:

https://www.facebook.com/TePueaMaraeManaakiTangata/

 

July 2017 full moon – Gratitude

FR meadow Buddha

Just last week, I finished a one-month retreat at the Insight Meditation Society’s Forest Refuge in Barre, Massachusetts, led by Sayadaw U Vivekananda.  What a relief it was, to temporarily put down some of the burdens I didn’t even know I was carrying, and to have such a powerful opportunity to “disentangle the tangle” (as the discourses say)!

The challenges and rewards of retreat practice

Being silent and unplugged for a whole month might sound easy – and perhaps for some people, it is – but for most of us it can be surprisingly challenging at times.  As Andrew Holecek, a US teacher and student of Tibetan Buddhism, recently wrote:
Retreat is not for the faint of heart. It takes courage to stop and face one’s mind so directly. But if you want to be unconditionally happy, which is one way to talk about enlightenment, there is no other way. Sooner or later you have to relate to your mind instead of from it. Otherwise you will forever be held captive by the contents of your mind, shackling yourself to every shiny thought that pops up, a prisoner of your own making.
https://www.lionsroar.com/block-all-exits-from-retreat/

Gratitude

Even though it’s not always easy to be on retreat, the rewards are immense.  Towards the end of my time at the Forest Refuge the gratitude I felt for this opportunity became quite overwhelming.  I realised that next year will be the 15th anniversary since sitting my first three-month retreat at IMS, and that every year since then (with one exception) I’ve been able to sit either a one, two or three-month retreat here. Continue reading

Let’s Stand Up Together – Bhikkhu Bodhi

flax-bw-v

In response to the intense turbulence of the last few months, and the immense outpouring of messages of resistance and support, adding my own not-so-articulate-or-informed opinions to all of that seemed redundant.  I’ve been staying quiet in terms of not posting, but active in terms of looking for ways to resist harmful energies, whichever country or community they’re emerging within.

The latest news in relation to changes in US immigration policy has been yet another wake-up call though.  I’m still struggling to find an appropriate response of my own, so in the meantime, here’s  a recent message from the North American Buddhist monk Bhikkhu Bodhi that feels very relevant.

Let’s Stand Up Together – by Bhikkhu Bodhi

I recently came across a news report stating that 2,500 religious leaders had signed a petition urging Congress to reject Donald Trump’s cabinet nominees as “a cabinet of bigotry.” I looked over the list of signatories, designated by religion, and saw only one who identified as Buddhist. This observation reinforced my puzzlement as to why Buddhist teachers and leaders in the U.S. are not more outspoken in addressing issues of public concern. Considering that Buddhism is widely hailed as the preeminent religion of peace and compassion, why, I ask myself, aren’t we more visible as advocates of peace, basic sanity, and social justice?

We’re entering a turbulent time when it won’t be enough for us merely to adopt the dharma as a regimen of resilience, a means of maintaining inner balance against the shock waves rippling across the social landscape.

Granted, our numbers are small, but I don’t think that is the only reason for our reticence to speak up. Several other factors may also be involved. One is the adoption of the dharma as a path to personal happiness to be pursued mainly in the silence of the meditation hall. A second is the fear that political activism will fire up our passions and shatter our fragile calm. A third is the belief that active engagement with worldly events is an entanglement in illusion. And still a fourth is the view, widespread among dharma teachers, that we must welcome everyone and not risk alienating potential students by expressing our political convictions.

Now, I believe that teachers whose primary job is to teach the techniques of meditation practice should not expound their personal political views from the cushion. It’s also unfitting for heads of dharma centers to use their authority to endorse candidates for office or throw their community behind a political party. Nevertheless, I would draw a sharp line between political endorsement and advocating on public issues, and I would hold that to address such issues is well within a dharma teacher’s domain. Politics today is not merely a battleground over power and position; it is also an arena where great ethical contests are being fought, contests that have a crucial impact on everyone in this country and on this planet. If, from fear of upsetting others, dharma teachers shy away from addressing these critical matters, their silence could even be considered an abdication of their responsibility as spiritual leaders.

There are certain convictions that we as Buddhists hold and consider inviolable. We believe, for instance, that every human being possesses intrinsic dignity, that everyone should be treated fairly, that those fallen into hardship should be protected and given the chance to flourish, and that the resources of the earth should be used judiciously, out of respect for the delicate web of nature. The inauguration of Donald Trump as America’s new president is likely to strain each of these beliefs to new limits. We’re entering a turbulent time when it won’t be enough for us merely to adopt the dharma as a regimen of resilience, a means of maintaining inner balance against the shock waves rippling across the social landscape. We’ll need a bolder agenda, a program of collective resistance inspired by a radically different vision of human interconnection, one that affirms our duty to respect and care for one another and to maintain a habitable planet for generations yet unborn.

To stand up and speak out in support of such ends is not necessarily to meddle in party politics. It is, rather, to bring the moral weight of the dharma to bear on matters that affect the lives of people everywhere.

If, as upholders of Buddhist faith, we’re to make our distinctive mark on public policy, we may have to establish a Buddhist advocacy group, a pan-Buddhist alliance grounded in the recognition that hot political disputes are also burning ethical issues on which we should take a stand. Through such an alliance we can bring the power of Buddhist conscience out into the public arena. Since our numbers are relatively small, we won’t be able to make much of an impact on our own. But we can join with progressive leaders of other faiths who share our convictions, advocating together on behalf of human decency and in defense of our embattled democracy. We can call, in unison, for a policy of global generosity in place of rash militarism, for programs that protect the poor and vulnerable, for the advancement of social and racial justice, and for the rapid transition to a clean-energy economy. To stand up and speak out in support of such ends is not necessarily to meddle in party politics. It is, rather, to bring the moral weight of the dharma to bear on matters that affect the lives of people everywhere—now, and long into the future.

 

December 2016 full moon – Wise Action, Wise Non-Action

tamarama-lifeguard-surfers

Surf life-saving crew, Tamarama Beach, New South Wales

The Noble Eightfold Path

The Noble Eightfold Path is the Buddha’s prescription for completely curing ourselves of unhappiness.  And like any good medicine, it doesn’t only work in one way.  It’s a very holistic treatment that works on several different aspects of our lives at once – in fact, every aspect of our lives is included here, if we’re practising fully.

The way the path is laid out invites us to pay attention to three particular areas of development, traditionally known as sīla, samādhi and pañña, or ethics, meditation and wisdom.  These three aspects support each other like the three legs of a tripod, and all of three of them need to be equally well developed, if our practice is to keep deepening. Continue reading