anxiety, climate change, compassion - karuna, death, dukkha, fear, Uncategorized

Compassion for all beings affected by the Australian bushfires

trunk red sap close

Season’s greetings from Waipu, New Zealand

I’m unexpectedly having to spend more time here in New Zealand, after my nine-day retreat outside of Sydney over New Year was just cancelled due to the bushfires in Australia.

The Blue Mountains has been a kind of second home to me, so I’ve been staying in contact with friends there who have been sending me heart-breaking reports of the situation they’re enduring.

In the face of such intense destruction, it’s hard to know how to respond from afar, but I’ve decided to make a commitment to practice compassion every day for the next two weeks, and to send out this message to see if anyone would like to join me in that commitment.
(Originally I was just going to send this message to people in Australia, but a US friend asked to be included, so now I’m sending it to everyone on my mailing list in case you’d like to join us.)

My plan is to sit for 15 minutes every day at 1:00 pm NZT, which is 11:00 am Sydney and Melbourne, 10:30 am Adelaide, 10:00 am Brisbane, and 8:00 am Perth. That’s midnight in the UK, sorry, but 4 pm on the US West Coast and 7 pm on the US East Coast.

I’ve made a fifteen minute guided meditation that focuses on practising compassion specifically for the bushfire situation, which you can find on Dharmaseed here:
https://www.dharmaseed.org/teacher/637/talk/60035/

Of course, you can practice compassion in any way that works for you. And, depending on the situation and how your heart feels each day, it may be that one of the other brahmavihara practices might be more appropriate. If you’re not familiar with brahmavihara practice, you might listen to this talk which gives an overview of the relationship between kindness, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity.
https://www.dharmaseed.org/teacher/637/talk/58585/

wombat and baby 1.JPG

Wombat mother and baby, Newnes Plateau NSW

What’s been happening in Australia

For those who might not be aware of the situation, more than four million hectares of Australia have burned and nine people have died since September 2019, in an “unprecedented” start to the summer fire season.

New South Wales

The total area burned in NSW is 3.41m hectares, according to the Rural Fire Service. … “To put it in perspective, in the past few years we have had a total area burned for the whole season of about 280,000 ha,” RFS spokeswoman Angela Burford said. “This year we’re at 3.41m and we are only halfway through the season.”
https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/dec/24/australian-bushfires-the-story-so-far-in-each-state

community, compassion - karuna, daily life, ethics, Noble Eightfold Path, racism, Right Action, Uncategorized

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.”

Stand Against Suffering: A Call to Action by Buddhist Teachers

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.”

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/

 

7 equanimity, anxiety, community, daily life, equanimity - upekkha, Equanimity - upekkha, fear, impermanence - anicca, motivation, racism, sangha, Uncategorized

November 2016 full moon – Turmoil

newcastle-beach-full-moon

almost super-moon, Newcastle Beach NSW Australia 13 November 2016

Turning towards and turning away

Whether it’s global political upheaval, worsening social injustice, natural disasters, personal stress, emotional pain, relational crises, or health challenges, we seem to be in a phase of intense turmoil right now.

Many of the communities around the world that I care about are struggling in relation to recent political developments in the US and UK.  And now the latest earthquakes and flooding in New Zealand are powerful reminders of our vulnerability, confronting the delusion that we are in control and challenging the belief that we can rely on anything external for our security.

I’ve noticed in myself these last few days, a shift from turning away, to turning towards.  After an initial period of shock and numbness, a renewed sense of purpose and determination is starting to emerge, helped by a whole range of articles, videos, resources and Buddhist readings that have been shared from many different sources.

So in this month’s post, I wanted to include a few of these, with the hope that they might bring some inspiration, renewed courage, or just practical support for facing these current challenges.


Inspiring Buddhist teachings for difficult times

Pema Chodron

As human beings we share a tendency to scramble for certainty whenever we realize that everything around us is in flux. In difficult times the stress of trying to find solid ground—something predictable to stand on—seems to intensify. But in truth, the very nature of our existence is forever in flux. Everything keeps changing, whether we’re aware of it or not.
https://tricycle.org/magazine/fundamental-ambiguity-being-human/?utm_source=Tricycle&utm_campaign=c816b6d659-Special_Newsletter_11_09_2016&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_1641abe55e-c816b6d659-307269753

Jack Kornfield

When times are uncertain, difficult, fearful, full of change,
they become the perfect place to deepen the practice of awakening.
After viewing the elections, whatever your point of view,
Take time to quiet the mind and tend to the heart.
Then go out and look at the sky.
Remember vastness, there are seasons to all things,
gain and loss, praise and blame, expansion and contraction.
Learn from the trees.
Practice equanimity and steadiness.
Remember the timeless Dharma amidst it all.
Think of the best of human goodness.
Let yourself become a beacon of integrity with your thoughts, words and deeds.
Integrity in speech and action, virtue and non-harming brings blessings.
Remember the Noble Truths, no matter the politics or the season:
Greed, hatred and ignorance cause suffering. Let them go.
Love, generosity and wisdom bring the end of suffering. Foster them.
Remember the Buddha’s counsel,
“Hatred never ends by hatred but by love alone is healed.
This is the ancient and eternal law.”
The human heart has freedom in itself to choose love, dignity and respect.
In every circumstance, embody respect and cultivate compassion for all.
Let yourself become a beacon of Dharma.
Amidst the changes, shine with courage and trust.
Love people, and…
This is your world. Plant seeds of goodness
and water them everywhere.
Then blessings will grow for yourself and for all.
http://www.spiritrock.org/

His Holiness the Dalai Lama

“May I become at all times, both now and forever
A protector for those without protection
A guide for those have lost their way
A ship for those with oceans to cross
A bridge for those with rivers to cross
A sanctuary for those in danger
A lamp for those without light
A place of refuge for those who lack shelter
And a servant to all in need.”
http://kalachakranet.org/text_his_holiness_dalai_lama.html

Gil Fronsdal

Equanimity, one of the most sublime emotions of Buddhist practice, is the ground for wisdom and freedom and the protector of compassion and love. While some may think of equanimity as dry neutrality or cool aloofness, mature equanimity produces a radiance and warmth of being. The Buddha described a mind filled with equanimity as “abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility, and without ill-will.”
https://tricycle.org/magazine/perfect-balance/?utm_source=Tricycle&utm_campaign=c816b6d659-Special_Newsletter_11_09_2016&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_1641abe55e-c816b6d659-307269753


The current U.S. political situation – some commentaries

Bhikkhu Bodhi

Although, as a monk, I do not endorse political candidates or align myself with political parties, I feel that as a human being inhabiting this fragile planet, I have an obligation to stand up for policies that promote economic and social justice, respect for the innate dignity of all human beings, and preservation of the earth’s delicate biosphere. By the same token, I must oppose policies detrimental to these ideals. I see politics, not merely as a naked contest for power and domination, but as a stage where great ethical contests are being waged, contests that determine the destiny—for good or for ill—of everyone in this country and on this planet.
https://buddhistglobalrelief.me/2016/11/09/a-trump-presidency-need-not-be-the-end-times/

Van Jones

Van Jones is a CNN political contributor, regularly appearing across the network’s programming and special political coverage.  He has founded and led numerous social enterprises engaged in social and environmental justice.
Van reminds us that we have 70 days before the president-elect Trump takes office, and suggests that in these next two weeks we prioritize three things:
1. grieve and heal;
2. gather information;
3. build community.

“It’s ok to take time to grieve and heal” … then “We gotta play our cards right.  Our most important card is you.  We need you … You can turn the TV off, turn the radio off, stop going online .. you can binge-watch some stuff, you can go exercise, do whatever you need to do, get some cuddles in, get some snuggles in, and heal a little bit, and grieve a little bit … And then from an authentic place, not pushing … not ‘I gotta do this, I gotta do this, I gotta do this’ – that’s gonna give you a bunch of do-do, and we’re not trying to do do-do – we want you to BE … and be connected to who you are, and why you care so much, and why you love folks so much.  We want you to be deeply grounded, deeply connected, so we can make wise decisions going forward.”

Connect and strengthen our communities

The Work That Reconnects (WTR) is an open-source body of work that has its roots in the teachings and experiential methods of Joanna Macy. It is a process of group work that uses experience based activities to help participants connect with one another and with the intelligence, self-healing powers of life on Earth. The goal of the WTR is to “enliven” and motivate participants to play an active role in the creation of a life sustaining society.
While the primary focus of the WTR is deep ecology and environmental activism, the process of sequencing used within the WTR (called “The Spiral“) can be a valuable tool in building racial awareness, as well.
https://whiteawake.org/self-education/wtr-spiral/

Stand with Standing Rock

https://nodaplsolidarity.org/
This site is dedicated to supporting the frontline, indigenous led resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline. We hope that this site will make it easier for allies from around the world to take action against the institutions that are attempting to construct the pipeline.
Please join in taking sustained action in solidarity with the Red Warrior Camp and the Camp of the Sacred Stones.


New Zealand 2016 earthquakes

Damage done by an earthquake at Bluff Station between Blenheim and Kaikoura in New Zealand.
Damage done by an earthquake at Bluff Station between Blenheim and Kaikoura in New Zealand. Photograph: Alex Perrottet/RNZ

Earthquake support information

An extensive list of web links providing high quality information to assist you, and those you support, through tough times following Earthquakes and their Aftershocks. This includes for children and young people.
http://skylight.org.nz/earthquake+aftermath+support

WHAT TO DO NOW

Some suggestions from Dr Sarb Johal, psychology professor at Massey University
* Follow a normal routine as much as possible
* Eat healthy meals – be careful not to skip meals or to overeat
* Exercise and stay active
* Help other people in your community as a volunteer – stay busy
* Accept help from family, friends, co-workers, or other people you trust – talk about your feelings with them
* Limit your time around the sights and sounds of what happened – don’t dwell on TV, radio, or newspaper reports on the events.

HOW TO REMAIN OPTIMISTIC

* Support one another, especially family members and your community
* Provide emotional support – comfort each other
* Carry out practical tasks – tackling the jobs that need to be done a bit at a time and counting each success
* Share your experience and feelings with others – a bit at a time when it is right for you – and have sensitivity for what the listener or audience (like your Facebook or social media friends) might be prepared to hear at that time too
* Look after your own and your family’s general health – rest, exercise, food and company all help.
http://www.stuff.co.nz/life-style/well-good/inspire-me/86488820/earthquake-how-to-stay-positive-in-shaky-times

WAYS TO HELP

Wanting to lend a hand, or provide some type of assistance after NZ was shaken just after midnight on Monday?  Here are some ways you can help.
http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/nz-earthquake/86453967/ways-you-can-help-out-after-the-november-earthquakes

May all beings be safe … healthy … happy … free …

compassion - karuna, dukkha or unsatisfactoriness, freedom, middle way, Uncategorized, Wisdom - pañña

September 2016 full moon – wisdom and (self) compassion

buddha-emaciated-2

Emaciated Buddha figure, Spirit Rock

The ascetic Buddha

Back at the end of July, I was an assistant teacher on a nine-day retreat at Spirit Rock, together with a friend and fellow teacher-trainee, DaRa Williams.  One day, as we walked from the teacher housing to the meditation hall, I happened to notice a solitary Buddha figure set among some bushes on the hillside behind our cottages.  Unlike the other Buddhas at Spirit Rock, this one was tucked almost out of view.  There was no path to it, no clearing around it, and no place to sit nearby, but perhaps because of that, I felt compelled to go and take a closer look.

So I scrambled up a slight hill through the dry grass and discovered that the figure was what’s known as an “ascetic Buddha.”   These images depict a phase in the life of Siddhārtha Gautama, the Buddha-to-be, before his Awakening, when he was practising extreme austerities such as sleeping on beds of nails, and eating very little food – hence the skeletal look in the image above.  Continue reading “September 2016 full moon – wisdom and (self) compassion”

Brahma Vihara practice, Four Foundations of Mindfulness, Insight Dialogue, Seven Factors of Awakening, Ten Parami, Uncategorized

August 2016 full moon – Seven Factors of Awakening and Equanimity (again)

rock balance 3

Seven Factors of Awakening

I’ve recently enjoyed leading a couple of longer residential retreats in New Zealand and Australia, exploring the teachings from the Satipatthana Sutta on the Seven Factors of Awakening: mindfulness, investigation, energy, joy or rapture, tranquillity, concentration or stability of mind, and equanimity.

When cultivated together and brought into balance with each other, these seven factors provide the optimum conditions for the deepest insights to arise, so they play a very important role in the development of wisdom.  In fact Bhikkhu Anaalayo, in a recent study retreat exploring the Satipatthana Sutta, said that all the various techniques and methods found in that sutta are designed to develop these Seven Factors of Awakening.  Continue reading “August 2016 full moon – Seven Factors of Awakening and Equanimity (again)”

Brahma Vihara practice, compassion - karuna, equanimity - upekkha, friendliness - metta, insight, Insight Dialogue, Insight meditation - vipassana, joy - mudita, mindfulness, retreat, Uncategorized

February 2016 new moon – sea anemone heart

Sea AnemoneSea anemone by Virginia Draper
http://www.virginiadraper.com/p822038089

Opening, closing, opening, closing …

Everything has its natural rhythm, including the human heart.  I’m not sure why it took me so long to understand this, but a childhood memory – of exploring rock-pools with my father while on holiday in Scotland – helped.  On family visits to chilly windswept beaches, he and I would wander at low tide among the exposed rock basins in search of marine life: crabs and starfish and sea anemones and jellyfish and small see-through shrimpy things. Continue reading “February 2016 new moon – sea anemone heart”

community, daily life, gratitude, Insight meditation - vipassana, Insight Meditation Society, joy - mudita, Uncategorized

November 2015 full moon – gratitude

red berries close

A few slightly random reflections on Gratitude

“These two people are hard to find in the world. Which two? The one who is first to do a kindness, and the one who is grateful and thankful for a kindness done.” AN 2.118

 As the three-month retreat at IMS comes to a close, there’s a definite shift in the overall mood of the meditators.  Each day, the ones I meet with are expressing more and more gratitude for the opportunity they’ve had to be here, practising intensively for six weeks or three months.
It’s definitely not easy to do this, and yet perhaps because of the challenges, there’s a corresponding depth to the gratitude.  I’ve noticed this in other situations, too – that there can be an unexpected ability to connect with gratitude even in the midst of difficulty.

Continue reading “November 2015 full moon – gratitude”

6 concentration, compassion - karuna, dependent arising, emptiness, freedom, Right Concentration

Three new and interesting books for experienced meditators

I’m currently working my way – slowly! – through three new books that may be of interest to experienced meditators: 

Seeing That Frees: Meditations on Emptiness and Dependent Arising
Rob Burbea 10 October 2014 Hermes Amara

Right Concentration: A Practical Guide to the Jhanas
Leigh Brasington 13 October 2015 Shambala

Compassion and Emptiness in Early Buddhist Meditation
Bhikkhu Analayo 3 November 2015 Windhorse Continue reading “Three new and interesting books for experienced meditators”

Brahma Vihara practice, compassion - karuna, equanimity - upekkha, friendliness - metta, Insight meditation - vipassana, joy - mudita, Kindness - metta, mindfulness, retreat, Uncategorized

December 2014 full moon – wisdom and compassion

heart forest

This December full moon I happen to be assisting James Baraz with a seven-day retreat in the Yarra Valley, outside of Melbourne, Australia.  Those of you who are familiar with James’ teaching know that he infuses the traditional mindfulness practices that lead to insight, with the “heart practices” known as the four brahma vihara: kindness/metta, compassion/karuna, joy/mudita and equanimity/upekkha.

Practiced together, all of these techniques help to strengthen what are sometimes referred to as the two “Wings to Awakening,” wisdom and compassion.  It’s said that both of these aspects need to be in balance, if we’re going to fly.  And in this metaphor, compassion is an umbrella term for all wholesome mind-states – so it includes the four brahma vihara, but also other skilful qualities such as generosity, gratitude, forgiveness, confidence, and so on.

You may have noticed this need for balance in your own meditation practice, as you look back over the months or years, or perhaps decades.  At times, it’s as if the wisdom gets ahead of the compassion, and we start to see our experiences with an almost painful clarity.  One way this can play out is in seeing our own difficult patterns in glorious technicolour.  I think it was the Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa who said: “Self-knowledge is not always good news!” And in this phase of practice, we can get quite discouraged at the apparent depth and strength of these difficult patterns.  Then, we might need to consciously incline the heart-mind towards compassion and the other brahma vihara, to bring some warmth and kindness into that clear seeing.

At other times, the opposite can be true. The heart opens up wide, and we feel the existential pain of being human so acutely that it seems unbearable.  Then we might need to strengthen the vipassana practice, so we can reconnect to the wisdom that everything is impermanent, everything changes and that nothing needs to be identified with.  So an important part of our own practice is learning to recognise if we’re off balance in some way, and whether we might need to strengthen one of these two wings: wisdom, or compassion.

Just this week, I had a beautiful experience of seeing and feeling both “wings” being in balance.  There have been several times now where I’ve been on retreat when one of the participants or retreat supporters received some kind of difficult news: perhaps the sudden loss of property or financial security; perhaps the diagnosis of a life-threatening illness or disease; perhaps the unexpected death of a close friend or family member.  It happened again on this retreat, and again, I got to see the fruits of our individual and collective practice.  Sitting together in stillness and silence, whether for days, weeks, or sometimes months, the heart and mind open wide to receive what’s difficult, with wisdom and compassion.  Wisdom recognises: “It could have been ME who received that news.”  Or “It could have been me who WAS that news.”  There’s the understanding that this is the human condition.  We’re all subject to loss, to aging, to sickness, and to death, and on recognising the universality of these conditions, compassion naturally flourishes.

Compassion is different from grief, because it’s underpinned by equanimity, stability of heart-mind, which I’m starting to think of as like the keel of a yacht.  To sail, the yacht has to be responsive to conditions, to wind and waves, but it needs the weight of the keel to keep it from capsizing.  In a similar way, equanimity keeps the practice stable, but it is a flexible stability that allows us to respond to the changing conditions of life with as much balance as possible.

Next weekend, I’m going to be exploring equanimity in a couple of day-long workshops in Auckland, then in 2015, I’m looking forward to offering more retreats in Australia, New Zealand and the United States, exploring different ways of practicing the two wings to awakening.  You can find more information about these events on the Retreats and Courses page here: https://jill0shepherd.wordpress.com/upcoming-retreats/

(And if you’re not able to make it to a retreat, James Baraz’s online Awakening Joy course is one very accessible way of engaging with the brahma vihara practices in daily life.  More info about that here: http://www.awakeningjoy.info/ )

compassion - karuna, daily life, Energy - viriya, Insight meditation - vipassana, mindfulness, Uncategorized

November 2014 full moon – Right Effort and the Middle Way

2014-10-18 Santi sangha stupa jill
A monk and several bhikkhunis (fully-ordained nuns) from Santi Forest Monastery, visiting the Blue Mountains Insight Meditation Centre, October 2014

Last month, I wrote about the quality of viriya, sometimes translated as “heroic energy,” and how at times, just signing up for a retreat can seem to kick-start an inner process where qualities such as determination, dedication, commitment, effort, and trust begin to deepen – even before we actually arrive at the retreat itself.

Also last month, I started offering an on-line course aimed at supporting people to establish or maintain a daily meditation practice. In our two-weekly meetings with the course participants, I can already see and feel the transformations that are happening, as a result of making just a little more commitment, and putting in just a little more effort to meditate regularly.

So this month, I want to share some further reflections on this quality of effort.  Everything we do in life takes some kind of effort, and yet because it is so foundational, we often don’t pay any attention to it.  Recognising how we relate to this effort is a very important part of the practice though, because sooner or later, meditating regularly will start to reveal some of our common patterns of response, or our “conditioning,” to use the terminology of Buddhist psychology.

I’ve seen in my own practice, and in many students too, the tendency to start out with a very binary approach: all or nothing, which usually leads to intense striving, followed by exhausted apathy, a period of recovery, and then the whole cycle starts over again.  Striving … apathy … striving … apathy …  I call this the “Superhero to Slug” syndrome.  Often, it’s driven by fear: the fear that unless I make 110% effort, I’m going to stall completely, which ironically, often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This pattern of oscillating between too much and too little effort seems to have been common in the Buddha’s time too, because in the path of practice that he laid out, he emphasised over and over again the need to find the Middle Way. The middle way is the balance-point between extremes of any kind, and in the Noble Eightfold Path which lies at the heart of the Buddha’s teachings, this balanced approach is known as “Right Effort,” sometimes also translated as Wise Effort or Appropriate Effort.  But for many of us, finding this middle way in relation to effort is challenging, because we can be unconsciously addicted to the highs and lows in our lives. The middle way is something we don’t notice – or that we even have aversion towards – because it’s too ordinary, boring, not special enough.

So learning to find this balance is a key skill that we need to develop – and then to keep refining, because it’s constantly changing. Right Effort will look different for each one of us depending on our life circumstances, and it will be different for each of us in every meditation session, changing moment by moment, hour by hour, day by day, week by week.

As we pay attention to the quality of effort, we might start to notice some recurring mental reactions that come up in response to the effort it takes to meditate regularly: perhaps boredom, or pride, or self-judgement, or irritation, or disappointment, or avoidance, or guilt, or blame, or denial, or [insert your own favourite] … the list can get quite long! The problem is that if these reactions aren’t seen with mindfulness, as just temporary mental phenomena, we tend to identify with them, to create a story, a sense of self around them. For example: “That was such a bad meditation. I’m such a bad meditator. In fact, I’m such a bad person. I should have known it wouldn’t work for me. I might as well give up now …”

The (relative) good news is that not only is this normal, it’s actually part of the point of insight meditation practice. The freedom from suffering that the Buddha talked about is not some big-bang event to be experienced far off in the distant future. It’s available in any moment that we’re able to bring mindfulness to what’s happening in the body and mind, regardless of whether the experience is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. This is because when we can see an experience clearly, we have the freedom to respond differently, instead of acting out of our habitual auto-pilot responses.

So a large part of what we’re doing in our meditation practice is learning to become more and more mindful of our experiences, both on the micro and the macro level, in the body and in the heart-mind. As a way of establishing the habit of mindfulness in these different arenas, it can be helpful during any meditation period to silently ask yourself three questions:

What’s happening in the body right now?

What’s happening in the heart-mind right now?

How am I relating to that experience?

Those three questions are ones that you can incorporate at the beginning, middle and end of each meditation period, as a way of refining mindfulness throughout the session. They’re also very helpful questions to ask – as often as you remember – throughout the day, as a way of bringing mindfulness into daily life.

The first two questions are just about observing what is, but the third offers an invitation to notice the attitude to your experience, and to develop an approach of kind curiosity towards it.  This brings in the compassion aspect of the Buddha’s teachings, which are sometimes described in terms of “the two wings of awakening,” wisdom and compassion. Insight meditation is part of the wisdom wing, and the brahma vihara practices of kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity all come under the compassion wing.

Once again, there is the importance of balance: we need both wings to be equally well developed, if this bird is going to fly. So even if you’re not doing formal brahma vihara practice as part of your daily meditation, it can be very helpful to begin and end each meditation period with a few minutes of metta/kindness practice. You could start by taking a moment to acknowledge your own good qualities and to wish yourself well; then finish by bringing to mind one or two people that you feel close to, and offering them this same energy of kindness and care.  Taking the time to do this at the beginning and end of each session can help to soften any tendency towards over-efforting, and hopefully, also bring a sense of ease and enjoyment to the practice.

Wishing you all more ease and more enjoyment, as you explore the middle way …