anxiety, climate change, community, freedom, retreat, Retreat practice, Uncategorized

Retreat as rebellion

mens shirts 7

Resisting the tyranny of productivity

Over the last few months, I’ve been having conversations with students – and with myself! – about what feels to be the increasingly relentless busyness of our lives. People often say to me that they don’t have time to meditate every day, and they certainly don’t have time to go on retreat, because of work or financial or family pressures. There are just too many other demands on their time, energy, and resources.

Sometimes there are genuine obstacles that get in the way of making time for formal practice. But sometimes, the busyness is a convenient rationalisation, one that allows us to avoid looking at what might be underneath the frenetic activity. On top of our own individual conditioning, most of us are impacted by the dominant values of mainstream society, which demand us to be constantly productive. As a result, we often develop  a compulsive need to be doing; doing; doing; almost as a way to justify our existence. Capitalist values tend to define us by what we DO, so unless we’re constantly busy, we’re no-one. For many people, the idea of simply BEING – even for a few minutes at a time – is terrifying. As a society, our flight from stillness and solitude has gone into hyperdrive.

wrong way 1

Resisting time-pressure

One of the side-effects of this speeding up of everything, is that time spent meditating or on retreat is easily devalued, because it’s not productive. More and more, there’s pressure to achieve the same meditative “results” – whatever they may be – in shorter and shorter times.

We can even see a shift in the retreat schedules of some insight meditation centres around the world. The nine-day retreat has shrunk to seven days, the seven-day retreat to five days, the five day retreat to three days, and so on, so that more retreats can be fitted in to each calendar year.

Retreats should be getting longer, not shorter

Yet if anything, retreats should be getting longer, not shorter, because most people come into retreat chronically stressed and tired. Much as we might like to deny it, we are organic beings. We’re made of meat and bone, flesh and blood. We’re not machines or electronic devices that can just be plugged in, switched on and kept going 24/7. But more and more, this is what we expect of ourselves, and it’s often not until we go on retreat and do stop, that we realise just how exhausted we are.

This means that the first one or two days of the retreat are spent in recovery mode, catching up on sleep and giving our fried nervous systems some time to recuperate. Then, because of our achievement-oriented striving, we feel like we have to make up for this lost time during the remaining days of the retreat, otherwise we’ll fall behind, won’t measure up, won’t achieve anything, won’t make any progress …

Our drivenness damages our own health, and the planet’s health

This drivenness is bad not only for our own health, but for the planet too, as we try to alleviate the stress of our over-full schedules by consuming more and more resources. Constant busyness gives us an excuse to ignore the damage we’re doing to the world – and each other. So in some ways, going on retreat and taking time to not be productive is an act of rebellion.

When we are able to take some time to slow down, the shift from DOing to BEing is often uncomfortable at first. It brings us face to face with the powerful conditioning that tells us we’re worthless, unless we’re involved in fifty different activities simultaneously. But as we start to see through that conditioning, we begin to taste moments of deep ease, peace, and freedom, and the insanity of our old way of being loses some of its appeal.

Every moment of meditation is a moment of resisting the tyranny of productivity

It still takes courage to resist that conditioning and prioritise living a more contemplative life, so we need the support of others who are oriented in a similar way, to help us maintain confidence that we are heading in the right direction. Each time we go on retreat, we’re strengthening our own intention to live a more sane and healthy life, and we’re helping others to do the same. In that way, every moment of meditation can become a moment of resisting the tyranny of productivity.

May our collective efforts to live with more ease, sanity and peace be a contribution to the welfare, the happiness, and the freedom, of all beings on our planet, and the planet itself.

Lake Freestad reflection

 

Awakening, daily life, freedom, neuroscience

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

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”

community, freedom, Insight Meditation Society, love, Sangha / Community, spiritual friendship, Triple Gem, Uncategorized

June 2016 full moon – Inspiration and taking refuge in sangha/community

graduation group by Ben MarshallGraduates of the Insight Meditation Society and Spirit Rock four-year teacher training programme, 10 June 2016 – photo by Ben Marshall

In my last international newsletter back in April, I wrote about inspiration, an aspect of spiritual practice that surprisingly, doesn’t seem to be talked about very often.  As I discovered back then,

“… the root of the word “inspiration” comes from late Latin, and it’s related to the act of breathing, specifically breathing in, in the sense of giving life to, or animating – just as expiring is related to breathing out, and dying …
Inspiration, then, is literally life-giving.  When I feel most inspired, I feel most alive, in touch with some kind of life-energy that feels much vaster than just my own individual human vitality.”

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been appreciating the power of community to help kindle that sense of inspiration and connection to an energy bigger than just my own.  And I feel to have understood a little more clearly why the Buddha referred to sangha or community as the third of three jewels, three treasures that we can “take refuge” in.  Continue reading “June 2016 full moon – Inspiration and taking refuge in sangha/community”

freedom, insight, retreat, Uncategorized

December 2015 full moon – In praise of trees

NZ Christmas tree 3
New Zealand Christmas tree with native bird ornaments

This year, the full moon coincided with Christmas Day for the first time in 38 years. I’m in New Zealand visiting family for the holidays and even though it’s the middle of summer, there are evergreen Christmas trees decorated with icicles and snowflakes everywhere. The symbols of Christmas have always been messed up – the pagan-influenced Christmas tree, the Coke-ad inspired Santa, the Christian Nativity scene – but even more so in the Southern Hemisphere. In Australia, women in Santa hats and bikinis body-surf on Bondi Beach, while groups of men work on their tans, standing around beer-filled coolers topped with battery-operated sparkling artificial Christmas trees. Continue reading “December 2015 full moon – In praise of trees”

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”

anatta or not-self, community, daily life, dukkha or unsatisfactoriness, freedom, impermanence - anicca, racism, Three universal characteristics

July 2015 full moon – dukkha

African Burial Ground memorial New York City
African Burial Ground memorial New York City

In last month’s full moon post, I wrote about impermanence.  Impermanence or anicca is one of the three “universal characteristics” recognised by the Buddha as being inherent in all experience; the other two being dukkha (usually translated as “suffering,” but more accurately, unsatisfactoriness), and anatta, or not-self.  Deeply understanding these three characteristics leads to the highest freedom, the freedom of heart and mind that is the goal of all insight meditation.

In my own practice, when I’ve read statements like the one I just made, my mind sometimes baulks.  What’s being conveyed sounds too abstract, remote, or perhaps idealistic, and my poor brain just doesn’t know what to do with that kind of information – at least on an intellectual level.

So this month, I’d been wondering how to talk about the second universal characteristic, dukkha, in a way that makes it real, and wakes us up to its transformative power.  Then the news came in about the shootings in Charleston, South Carolina, and Sousse, Tunisia.  And I need to say right away that I feel completely unequipped to know how to respond to pain of that magnitude.  I’m tempted to turn away and write about something completely different, but because I have friends in the US who are negatively impacted by individual and collective, institutional racism every day, I’m going to focus on the first of these two events.

There are people far better qualified than me to talk about the negative impacts of racism on all of us, but I’m inspired to even mention it in a blog because of a dharma talk I recently listened to by Ruth King.  She talks about the common dynamics of dominant/subordinate relationships between racial identity groups, and she refers to lack of urgency from the dominant group in relation to matters that are life-threatening to the subordinate group.  She gives the example of a group of white people taking the time to write 20-30 drafts of a letter protesting the killing of unarmed black men by US police, even though new murders were happening almost daily.  I thought of this example as I hesitated to write, then re-write, this post, knowing that I was never going to get it right no matter how long I took.

Here’s the link to Ruth King’s talk: http://www.dharmaseed.org/teacher/539/talk/27269/

Shrine at East Bay Meditation Center, Oakland, California
Shrine at East Bay Meditation Center, Oakland, California

In the Buddha’s teachings, the First Noble Truth is the simple recognition that “There is dukkha.”  Simple, but often completely counter-intuitive.  It’s more common when faced with distress of any kind, to fall into habitual strategies: to avoid, ignore, deny, numb out, blame, etc. These are the urges I notice in myself when extreme violence and/or racism are “in my face.”  Underlying them is often a feeling of complete powerlessness, but paradoxically, when I’m able to let go of all the useless strategies and stay in contact with just that underlying feeling, I can access more clarity.

I may still feel unable to DO anything about the situation, but at least I can “bear witness,” as they say in Zen.  In my understanding, this means being willing to not turn away, to fully face the situation as best I can, and to just name to myself – and perhaps others – what is really going on.

Yesterday, I received an email invitation to endorse an open letter sent by an organisation called Buddhists for Racial Justice.  Although on one level it might be dismissed as just another email petition, on another, I was grateful to be able to do something, no matter how small it might seem: just to be able to bear witness to what has been going on for so long, and add my name, publicly, to the wish for this form of dukkha to be overcome.

Here are the first three paragraphs of the letter:

As Buddhist teachers and leaders we are deeply shaken and saddened by the intentional and premeditated murder of nine worshippers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015. We send our heart-filled condolences to the families, loved ones, church, and communities, who have experienced this grievous loss.

While this terrorist act was apparently perpetrated by a single individual consumed by racial hatred and a desire to ignite a race war, the soil in which this massacre took root is the legacy of slavery, white supremacy, Jim Crow laws, lynchings, and the resulting racial inequalities and injustices that persist in our individual and collective consciousness and institutions. The daily experience of violence against people of color has become more recently visible through highlighted media coverage of the ongoing brutal treatment and killings of unarmed African-Americans by law enforcement agents across the country.

As Buddhists we realize the interdependence of all of our experiences—and that violence towards one community is violence perpetrated upon us all. As spiritual leaders, we must be committed to healing the wounds of racism that are such a primary and toxic part of the landscape of our country. This calls on those of dominant white communities to inquire deeply into and transform patterns of exclusion to power, inequity in resources, unseen bias, and unexamined disparities in privilege. There is an urgency to affirm that Black Lives Matter and work with religious and secular communities to respond to racial injustice.

You can see the full letter here:

http://buddhistsforracialjustice.org/an-open-letter/

bus hairstyling girl, San Francisco
bus hairstyling girl, San Francisco

This site also has useful information for white people about racial awareness as spiritual practice, and a Shared Resources page with links to excellent documentaries and dharma talks.  All of these are from the US, and so far I haven’t been able to find any equivalent for Australia and New Zealand.  Please contact me if you know of anything relevant to this part of the world.

May we all experience freedom from the dukkha of oppression, in all its forms.