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”

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/ )

Brahma Vihara practice, compassion - karuna, daily life, equanimity - upekkha, Equanimity - upekkha, friendliness - metta, joy - mudita

Reflections on the Brahma Vihara practices

Kuan Yin sunbeam

This article (with minor amendments) was first published in the March 2014 BMIMC newsletter.

Since returning to Australia and New Zealand from the United States eighteen months ago, I’ve been teaching several weekend retreats, day-long workshops and evening classes in New South Wales and Auckland.  Alongside the insight meditation practice, I’ve usually included some focus on the four brahma-viharas: the meditative development of good will, compassion, joy and equanimity (or metta, karuna, mudita and upekkha, to use the Pali terms).
At the beginning of my own meditation practice, I tended to avoid the brahma-viharas because I found them so incredibly challenging. As I’ve supported other meditators over the last few years, I’ve observed many people going through similar struggles. And yet, I’ve also often noticed that there seems to be a direct relationship between how resistant a person is to exploring the brahma-vihara practices, and how much benefit they eventually end up receiving from them!
Much of the resistance seems to come from the misunderstanding that the purpose of these practices is to cultivate positive emotions. And so there’s a tendency to try to force or manufacture an idea of how that emotion is supposed to feel, which often leads to the exact opposite: unskilful emotions of frustration, self-judgement, tension, irritation, boredom, and various other flavours of aversion.
Rather than trying to manufacture positive emotions though, the purpose of these practices is to cultivate the intention to wish well to others, to care about their suffering, to appreciate their joy, and to stay even-minded in the face of life’s “ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows.” Sometimes a positive emotion arises naturally as a result of that intention, but this is a side effect rather than the main goal. Understanding this can take the pressure off, reduce performance anxiety and help develop more patience for the organic development of these skilful mind-states.
“Think not lightly of good, saying, ‘It will not come to me.’ Drop by drop is the water pot filled. Likewise, the wise man [or woman], gathering it little by little, fills himself [or herself] with good.”
Dhammapada chapter 9 verse 122
A more contemporary metaphor I like to use is that of the Hubble telescope. My understanding is that this highly sophisticated piece of machinery is constantly scanning the universe in search of the faintest signs of life. In a similar way, when I practice the brahma viharas, at times it feels as if I’m turning my own Hubble telescope inwards in search of the faintest signs of metta, karuna, mudita and upekkha. There’s a deep listening that has to happen to access these tiny pulses of good will, compassion, joy and equanimity, but when they’re recognised, the metaphorical Hubble telescope transmits them into consciousness so they can be amplified. Once recognised and amplified, these skilful mind-states become resources that help to develop the deep calm and concentration necessary for insight to arise.
There are several suttas which describe the kind of chain reaction that happens when wholesome mind-states such as joy, tranquility, and happiness develop naturally into “vision and knowledge with regard to Deliverance,” e.g. AN10.1. The brahma vihara practices are a powerful way to jump-start that development, so if you have found these practices a struggle, I encourage you to persevere, with patience, and be open to the transformations that may arise!

For information on new retreat opportunities in Australia and New Zealand, see here:
https://jill0shepherd.wordpress.com/upcoming-retreats/

Brahma Vihara practice, friendliness - metta, Insight meditation - vipassana, mindfulness, retreat

Non-residential weekend retreat, Auckland, New Zealand

Update 24 July – ONLY 2 PLACES LEFT
Freeing the Heart-Mind
A non-residential weekend retreat exploring Buddhist meditation practices for developing wisdom and compassion

FR Buddha heart mist

During this non-residential weekend retreat we will explore two main forms of Buddhist meditation, insight (vipassana) and loving-kindness (metta). Together, these two practices help us to cultivate more awareness of ourselves and others, so that we can live our lives with greater ease and understanding.
Most of each day will be spent practising silent sitting and walking meditation, with some guided meditation instructions and opportunities for individual and group meetings with the teacher.

Saturday 3 August 9:45 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. Insight Meditation (vipassana)
Suitable for beginners as well as those with some previous insight meditation experience
Sunday 4 August 9:45 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. Loving-kindness Meditation (metta)
Suitable for people who have already attended a day-long insight meditation retreat
Location: SOUL centre of the body and mind 18 Huia Road Titirangi
Cost: $80 for both days + dana*
(A small number of places will be available for people to attend only one of the two days for $50 + dana)
Food: Please bring your own lunch. Tea and herbal teas will be supplied.
Equipment: Some cushions and chairs will be available, but please bring your own meditation cushion or bench if you have one, and a shawl or blanket.
To register: contact Jill Shepherd through the About page of this website

*Dana
In most Buddhist traditions the teachers are not paid to teach. Instead, the teachings are given on a ‘dana’ basis – dana being the Pali word for generosity or giving freely. At the end of the course, participants are invited to reciprocate this generosity by offering dana to support the teacher, but there is no obligation to do so.
Jill is an independent meditation teacher and is not financially supported by any meditation centre or Buddhist organisation. She relies on dana for her livelihood, and pays for all the expenses incurred in offering a retreat herself, including most international airfares.

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

Metta weekend, Auckland, New Zealand

Gratitude to all the participants in the recent Metta weekend retreat held at Bella Rakha in Auckland, New Zealand.

20130626-192345.jpg
The dedicated team!

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Shrine prepared by Sue, with everyone’s aspirations in the bowl below

Brahma Vihara practice, friendliness - metta, Insight meditation - vipassana

Effort and Enjoyment

lakeshore ice 4
Chicago lake shore

Last week I gave a talk to the Lakeside Vipassana meditation group in Chicago.  It was an incredibly cold evening outside (by my standards) but there was a good turn-out and a warm response to my exploration of Effort and Enjoyment in meditation practice.

I’ve been meeting with meditation groups in a variety of locations these last few years: in the USA, Australia, Aotearoa/New Zealand and in a Massachusetts prison.  In spite of the diversity of people I meet, there are some surprisingly common themes among them.

One that stands out to me lately is how often our meditation practice can be unconsciously motivated by self-aversion.  Often when I talk about “enjoying your practice,” the common reaction is one of surprise that this is either possible, or even desirable.  There can be an assumption that whatever is experienced as pleasant is somehow unspiritual (whatever that means), and that Right Effort means only blood, sweat, and tears.  I know from my own experience that practicing  with this underlying attitude is unsustainable.  Meditation soon becomes a chore, a duty, and just one more thing to feel guilty about when I don’t do it as often or as well as I “should.”

Most of us are familiar with paying attention to what’s happening on the micro level in our bodies, through mindfulness of breathing or physical sensations, but sometimes it’s helpful to zoom out and check what’s happening on the macro level of practice.  What underlying assumptions, views, beliefs are motivating my practice?  Has it become just another self-improvement project, a subtle or not-so-subtle form of violence to who I take myself to be right now?

If so, it can be helpful to put more effort into the brahma-vihara practices, cultivating kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity.  In particular, the cultivation of joy for one’s own good qualities can be a powerful antidote to the tendency towards self-aversion.  The Buddha recommended doing this practice to a lay person by the name of Mahanama, and suggested that it would lead to complete freedom – so perhaps it’s worth a try!