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.
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.
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.)
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.
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!
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.
Rainstorm near Te Moata Retreat Centre, Coromandel, New Zealand
Exactly two years ago in July 2014, I wrote a post based on some well-known lines from the Dhammapada:
Hatred never ceases by hatred, but by love alone is healed. This is an ancient and eternal law. 1
Lately, that same post has been getting some views again, perhaps because there seem to have been just so many painful events in the world recently. And perhaps like many others, at times I feel overwhelmed by the intensity and volume of suffering. I notice my mind flipping between two modes: wanting to shut it all out, or compulsively needing to know the latest details.
Denial isn’t healthy, of course, but neither is unconsciously feeding the misery. Because of the mind’s inherent “negativity bias,”2 it’s easy to develop a distorted perception of the world. This is then amplified by the collective negativity-bias of the media, and the relentless twenty-four-hour reporting of tragedy after tragedy after tragedy.
A few years ago, I remember reading a discussion between a psychologist and a well-known dharma teacher about how to stay present when sitting with distressed clients, hour after hour. The dharma teacher suggested that for every hour of contact with a client, the therapist should take at least one hour of silent time to meditate and come back to balance, before seeing the next client.
It sounded like a great idea, but I couldn’t imagine any of the psychologists or psychotherapists – or even dharma teachers I knew – being able to put it into practice. And yet now more than ever, perhaps we need to reconsider it: to find ways of taking a break or making some space or creating more silence so that the psyche can recuperate a little.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the well-known Vietnamese dharma teacher, has written extensively about this need to protect our hearts and minds from “toxins” of various kinds. In search of inspiration, I recently re-read his Five Mindfulness Trainings, which are a translation of the standard five ethical precepts. Here’s a summary of all five:
The first training is to protect life, to decrease violence in oneself, in the family and in society. The second training is to practice social justice, generosity, not stealing and not exploiting other living beings. The third is the practice of responsible sexual behavior in order to protect individuals, couples, families and children. The fourth is the practice of deep listening and loving speech to restore communication and reconcile. The fifth is about mindful consumption, to help us not bring toxins and poisons into our body or mind.3
His re-writing of the last precept really stood out for me, with its emphasis on refreshing, healing, and nourishing. I’m sharing it in full here, with the hope it might offer just a moment or two of relief, or perhaps even some inspiration to keep orienting towards “peace, joy and well-being.”
Nourishment and Healing: the fifth of five mindfulness trainings by Thich Nhat Hanh
Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivating good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I will practice looking deeply into how I consume the Four Kinds of Nutriments, namely edible foods, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness. I am determined not to gamble, or to use alcohol, drugs, or any other products which contain toxins, such as certain websites, electronic games, TV programs, films, magazines, books, and conversations. I will practice coming back to the present moment to be in touch with the refreshing, healing and nourishing elements in me and around me, not letting regrets and sorrow drag me back into the past nor letting anxieties, fear, or craving pull me out of the present moment. I am determined not to try to cover up loneliness, anxiety, or other suffering by losing myself in consumption. I will contemplate interbeing and consume in a way that preserves peace, joy, and well-being in my body and consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family, my society and the Earth. 3
Labyrinth at Te Moata Retreat Centre, Coromandel, New Zealand
Remembering to orient to the good, as well as the challenging
The intention here is not to ignore or deny painful experiences, but to try to maintain balance. At times, I need to consciously remember the many, many people who are working towards overcoming suffering; and to remember how many positive changes are taking place, even though they might not get much media coverage.
Martin Luther King jr
Thich Nhat Hanh is one example I turn to for inspiration, and Martin Luther King Junior another. These two knew each other quite well in the 1960s, and I sometimes like to imagine the discussions they would have had with each other back then. Perhaps there’s an echo of the Dhammapada verses in this famous quote by Dr King:
Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. 4
May we all keep finding balance in the midst of darkness, and keep re-orienting to love.
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”→
While in San Francisco recently, I had an opportunity to visit Alcatraz island, the former federal penitentiary, 19th-century military fortress, site of Native American heritage and protest, and now one of America’s most visited national parks. As we walked through the decaying cell blocks, I was struck by the layers and layers of defence that had been constructed to keep what was deemed “unsafe” from being a threat.
Immense effort had been made to prevent escape. First, there was banishment to an island: the sea as initial safety barrier. Then on the island itself, razor wire fences, grilles, screens, mesh, and steel bars, all arrayed to confine those people who had been judged as threats to society.
At the start of our visit, I was awed by how extreme all these external mechanisms of protection seemed. As the visit wore on, I began to reflect on the internal mechanisms of protection that we all construct, to defend against perceived threats to our existence. Some of you reading this have had the experience of being physically incarcerated; all of us have the experience of being mentally incarcerated by our own inner constructs, belief systems, and world views, that prevent us from living in the deepest freedom.
In the Buddha’s teachings, this freedom is sometimes described as being “unfettered,” and it comes from understanding how we get caught in … … a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. Bound by a fetter of views, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person is not freed from birth, aging, & death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair. He or she is not freed, I tell you, from suffering & stress. MN2
So the first stage in this process of freeing ourselves from suffering and stress is to clearly see the views that are keeping us trapped. Often, it’s only when we come into contact with people who hold views radically different to our own that we’re able to see where we’re clinging. This can be confronting, but I sometimes think of vipassana practice as progressively expanding our capacity to just BE with difference.
A few weeks ago, I visited the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, California, which has made a conscious commitment to being a refuge for all the diverse communities that surround it. The center recently won an award in recognition of the work that it does “to actively pursue participation by people of diverse classes and races; raise the voices and support the leadership of working class and poor people; and have an organizational culture that draws on the strengths of all class cultures.”
Because the centre serves such a wide range of different communities with sometimes competing needs, they have a set of communication guidelines posted next to the shrine in their main hall to help support skilful relationship. The first of these guidelines, developed by Visions Inc, is: Be willing to “try on” new ideas, or ways of doing things that might not be what you prefer or are familiar with.
Mushim, one of the core teachers, explained this guideline as being similar to trying on new clothes. Can we be willing to try on clothes that are very different from what we might normally wear, with an attitude of openness and curiosity? She went on to say that just because we try something on doesn’t mean that we have to BUY it.
Something about this suggestion – of being willing to try on but not necessarily buy – has been very helpful for me recently. I’ve been doing a lot of travelling by public transport in different parts of the world, and often overhear conversations that express views very different from my own. I notice the inner recoil, and try to remember to just “try it on.” When I’m able to do this, there’s a softening into compassion; the recognition that we’re all caught in various ways, all prisoners of our own fettered views. Then this moment of recoil can be a wake-up bell, an invitation to see beyond these rigid bars of identity-view to the freedom that’s actually, always available.
“The days and nights are relentlessly passing; how well am I spending my time?”
(A question that the Buddha advised practitioners to contemplate frequently)
2015. Each year this changing-of-the-calendar-numbers seems to arrive a little more quickly. Each year, it seems that somehow there is less TIME … and so at first reading, the above reflection can seem to reinforce a sense of time-poverty: having too much to do, and not enough time to do it in.
Almost everyone I know seems to be affected by this particular form of stress, a kind of epidemic or collective disease that’s increasingly resistant to ordinary forms of treatment! Recently I received a newsletter from a wise friend, Sebene Selassie, exploring this same theme in terms of “the pathology of productivity.” Her questions struck a chord:
How often do I access the deep wisdom of simply being? Or is there mostly a low buzz of resistance to this very moment? A grasping connected to worrying, changing, solving, fixing, planning, getting, achieving, attaining…? The mind that races is a mind that demands certainty and security; if I plan it all out, everything will finally be okay. Besides being impossible, that demand makes it difficult to rest in the beauty and mystery of what simply is. This moment. Presence. … Whenever I pause and allow myself to reconnect deeply to my heart-mind-body, I can also remember the truth of interconnection. But this requires an intentional, sustained pause. Something we all seem less and less capable to allow.
See the whole article, plus a moving description of her experiences in relation to the recent grand jury verdicts in the US, here: http://eepurl.com/Y8XHL
Even though I mostly have the freedom to set my own schedule, I’m still not immune from the energies of worrying, changing, solving, fixing, planning, getting, achieving, attaining that Sebene writes of. As I was working on my teaching and travel schedule for 2015-2016, I noticed the thought: “Hmm, I really need to plan more spontaneity somewhere in here!” It took me a few moments to register the paradox of “planning spontaneity,” and yet I know from past experience that without some form of effort, the relentless flow of busyness will simply sweep me away again.
So I notice another paradoxical urge: to want to change, solve and fix this problem of busyness by making a New Year’s resolution to be less busy! Of course, this is a time of year when many people make New Year’s resolutions to fix – or improve – or overcome – or get rid of – some aspect of their lives that they don’t like, but perhaps because the resolution is rooted in aversion, it’s usually not very effective.
I started to wonder what a healthy resolution might look and feel like, and if perhaps using some of the ten parami, the ten (so-called) “perfections,” might be a more balanced way to approach this challenge? Since it IS the season of resolutions, the most obvious one to bring to mind is the eighth parami, usually translated as “resolution and determination,” but without the parami of wisdom to support it, resolution alone can easily be misapplied.
One way that wisdom develops is from learning to ask the right questions. So coming back to the Buddha’s original question: “How well am I spending my time?” I’m planning now to contemplate this every evening in January, just to see … to see if I can experience less busyness, as an antidote to what Thomas Merton named “the violence of our times.” The first time I read his words I felt a shock of recognition, and even now, when I re-read them, there’s a pulse of discomfort that tells me, reluctantly, that there’s probably something in it I still need to learn!
“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to the violence of our times.”
May we all experience freedom from ALL forms of violence in 2015 …
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/ )
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 …
Just wanted to share a few photo souvenirs from this retreat, which took place last week on the outskirts of Kerteminde, an old fishing village a couple of hours from Copenhagen. The retreat was led by Joseph Goldstein and Uffe Damborg, who have known each other for over forty years, since their time practicing together in Bodhgaya, India, with Munindra-ji in the 1960s.
Uffe and Joseph at Copenhagen train station
A few of the 105 participants, coming mostly from Scandinavia, Northern Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States, had also been with Munindra-ji at that time, and since it was the 99th anniversary of Munindra-ji’s birth, on one level this felt like a historic gathering. I was surprised by how many familiar faces I recognised from silent retreats at IMS in Massachusetts, and perhaps for the first time, I sensed a connection to some kind of lineage – though a very informal one – and to a generation of meditators who have been exploring this path for many decades now.
The 19th century octagonal wooden pavilion on the right was our meditation hall for the week.
On another level, it was still about practising mindfulness in the present moment, and I was inspired by everyone’s diligent efforts to cultivate deepening freedom of heart and mind. Perhaps I’m a slow learner, but I’m still surprised that with each new retreat, in each new location, and with each new set of people from different circumstances, backgrounds, and life situations, there are common themes that keep emerging! There are common themes, perhaps even universal themes, and yet the majority of the people I talk with believe that they are totally alone in their struggles, and that they are uniquely defective, inadequate, messed up, neurotic, failing etc. And then with that frame of mind, the meditation practice can so easily turn into yet another form of getting it wrong, of being wrong, again.
To conserve resources, we were asked to write our names on a cup and take responsibility for washing it ourselves when necessary. Retreat participants were also invited to donate snacks and treats for the tea table, which resulted in a steady supply of chocolate, nuts, raisins, biscuits/cookies, and even fresh cherries from the local fruit stand to keep us going.
From that negative state of mind, it’s then hard to connect with what’s good: in ourselves, or in others, or in the world around us. I know this from my own experience, and so my aspiration is to keep finding ways for each one of us to step out of the trance of disconnection, to see the universality of our challenges, so that they might become a resource for deepening insight and compassion – instead of more fuel for our alienation.