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 …

Energy - viriya, Insight meditation - vipassana, retreat, Seven Factors of Awakening, Uncategorized

October 2014 full moon – viriya / heroic energy

Viriya: persistence; energy; vigour; courageous effort; heroic exertion
Monument to surfers, Santa Cruz CA

I recently had the good fortune to sit a two-week retreat offered by Gil Fronsdal at the Insight Retreat Center near Santa Cruz, California.  As Gil led us deeper and deeper into one of the core texts on mindfulness of breathing, the Anapanasati Sutta, I again found myself exploring some familiar – and difficult – inner terrain.

Fortunately, not long before that retreat I’d read a quote from another US dharma teacher, Eugene Cash, that had become a kind of mantra for me: “If it’s in the way, it IS the way!”  Something about the simplicity of that slogan resonated, and helped shed light on the often-unconscious resistance I have to aspects of life that appear to be obstacles to my practice.  And by coincidence (or not), a friend had recently sent me a similar quote reminding us that the messiness we encounter in meditation practice is not a mistake, it’s actually the raw material that we work with as fuel for the transformation process.  This is from an article in Tricycle magazine by Aura Glaser, a dharma teacher in the Tibetan tradition.  She writes:

“Although our deep-seated tendency is to reject the unwanted in an effort to prevent suffering, it turns out that all the ways we resist actually limit our lives, bringing us pain. And yet how do we find the courage to open to, and accept, all of what we are and all of what is arising in our body and mind? How do we tap the confidence to live with that kind of openness and receive what is arising in the moment, just as it is, with clarity and kindness? 

… We sometimes imagine that if we just lead our spiritual life the “right” way, we won’t encounter life’s sharp edges. We will be on a direct path to ever-increasing tranquility and joy. We are not prepared for all of our unfinished business being exposed, all of our unresolved trauma pushing up from the depths like a geyser of black mud. Working with all that has been pushed down is a central part of the spiritual journey.”

Sometimes we can have reservations about doing longer retreats because of the possibility of some kind of “geyser of black mud” emerging.  But in my own experience, one of the benefits of retreat practice is that even though challenges may come up, often these challenges catalyse the inner strengths that are needed to meet them, and this is part of the magic and mystery of being on retreat.  With hindsight, this is what I experienced during the recent two-week retreat.  Afterwards, I recognised that even though the inner challenges I’d been working with had been deeply painful, each time I was able to accept them as a necessary part of the journey, somehow the energy needed to work through them became available.

Towards the end of the retreat I remembered that viriya, sometimes translated as “heroic effort,” is actually one of the seven factors of awakening that we need to cultivate in the service of freedom.  So I started to work with this factor of viriya more intentionally, and discovered that just inclining the heart-mind in that direction seemed to set off a kind of chain reaction: making the effort to meet a particular obstacle freed up even more energy when that obstacle was overcome, and the whole process felt quite exhilarating at times.

In our ordinary lives, thinking of ourselves as having heroic qualities may be a stretch, and for women especially, heroism may feel like an alien quality when the vast majority of role models and images of the heroic are men, as in the photo above.  Even the word “viriya” literally translates as “the state of a strong man.”  The root  “vir”  comes from the Pali and Sanskrit word for warrior, and the same root is found in the English word “virile.”  (If you’re familiar with yoga practice, you might also recognise it in the Sanskrit name for warrior pose, Virabhadrasana.)  On retreat though, we can experiment with and explore aspects of ourselves that may be lying dormant, and if we can free this quality of heroic energy from its gendered trappings, it can be a powerful motivating force that helps us to meet the difficult aspects of our lives.

Woman surfer at Tamarama Beach NSW Australia

This process of cultivating viriya can begin even before the actual retreat starts.  In my own practice, I’ve often noticed that just having signed up for a retreat seems to kick-start an inner process where qualities such as determination, dedication, commitment, effort, and trust begin to deepen.

And for many people, getting to a retreat in the first place means working with a whole range of obstacles: financial challenges, health issues, work commitments, childcare responsibilities, etc.  But remembering “If it’s in the way, it IS the way,” even these become part of our pre-retreat practice.  We can set an intention and then begin to cultivate this quality of viriya: persistence; energy; vigour; courageous effort; heroic exertion … The obstacles may not dissolve overnight.  It may take six weeks, six months, six years before we eventually manage to get to the retreat.  But when we do finally get there, the time spent cultivating viriya will be a powerful support for our meditation practice, and we might understand directly why it is one of the seven factors of awakening.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

compassion - karuna, daily life, Insight meditation - vipassana, Uncategorized, Wisdom - pañña

July 2014 full moon – Hatred never ceases by hatred …

burnt banksia close scaled
pink blue flowers 1 scaled

 

 

 

 

 

Hatred never ceases by hatred, but by love alone is healed. This is an ancient and eternal law.

quoted in “The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times” by Pema Chödrön 2001

Hatred never ends through hatred.  By non-hatred alone does it end.  This is an ancient truth.

The Dhammapada: Teachings of the Buddha translated from the Pali by Gil Fronsdal 2008

Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world.  By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased.  This is a law eternal.

“Yamakavagga: Pairs” (Dhp I), translated from the Pali by Acharya Buddharakkhita. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/dhp/dhp.01.budd.html

Hostilities aren’t stilled through hostility, regardless.  Hostilities are stilled through non-hostility: this, an unending truth.

“Yamakavagga: Pairs” (Dhp I), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/dhp/dhp.01.budd.html

These are four translations of the same verses from the Dhammapada, a collection of short sayings attributed to the Buddha.  They’re a distillation of one of the key principles of the Buddha’s teachings – the principle of non-harming – and no matter how the central message is translated here, I still find it to be a challenging statement.

Over the last few weeks, because I’ve had a few conversations with people who are struggling to deal with hatred, I’ve been inspired to contemplate this teaching again, to try to find ways of engaging with it as a practice and not only a statement of principle.  Part of the challenge of these verses for me is that on first reading, they can appear so black and white that they unconsciously reinforce a kind of hatred towards my own hatred.  Because if I was practising right, hostility just wouldn’t come up any more, would it?  Instead, I’d be abiding healed by love, happily ever after …

With this assumption, when hatred does come up the tendency is to disown, deny, suppress, ignore it – anything to get away from the discomfort of it!  And in Buddhist circles, one very common strategy is to use metta practice to try to get rid of even the slightest trace of hostility.  Metta (usually translated as “loving-kindness,” but more accurately good will or benevolence), is one of four skilful mind-states known as the brahma-viharas, that can be cultivated through specific meditation practices.  The other three are compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity (or balance of mind), but metta is seen as the foundation of all four and it tends to get the most emphasis in Western vipassana teaching.  It’s often presented as a kind of universal antidote to all negative emotions or mind-states, so it’s not surprising that many meditators tend to jump to metta as a way to bypass difficult feelings.

I’ve often tried this strategy myself, but sadly, it’s never been very successful.  If anything, it’s tended to make me feel worse, because not only is the original hatred untouched, there’s now a whole pile of self-judgement and shame on top of it, due to the failure of my metta practice to make any difference whatosever!

Recently, what has been more effective is to first recognise the hatred of the hatred, and then to apply the ancient truth of non-hatred to the hatred itself.  This means being willing to explore the unpleasant feelings in the body and the heart-mind, with as much compassion – rather than metta – as possible.  Compassion is the courage to face into what’s difficult: to be with the uncomfortable sensations in the body and the distressing emotions in the heart-mind, without feeding or suppressing them.  This means not rehashing the story of what happened, not trying to resolve the situation in our heads yet again, not getting caught in replaying what should have been said or done.  Instead, it’s consciously bringing the attention down into a more embodied awareness.

This can be done as a formal meditation practice, by making a resolution to simply be with the hatred for a set period of time, and to investigate all of  its physical and mental symptoms.  I’ve found that lying down to do this can be helpful, because it’s easier to relax the whole body when lying down.  In the same way, placing one hand on the heart-centre and one on the belly can help to connect with a more embodied and intuitive understanding of hatred.  Then, when any uncomfortable physical or mental feelings come up, try to stay with them with an attitude of kind curiosity, gently opening to whatever arises with as much compassion as you can.

This is definitely a practice, because having compassion towards oneself in this way is not something that comes easily to most people.  Often when I suggest it, the first response is almost one of horror, because self-compassion often seems to be mistaken for a form of self-centredness.  So it’s important to have patience for the process, and recognise that because it’s not our usual way of relating to hatred, it will take time to develop this new approach.

And, if the hatred is very strong, it might be necessary to put a strict limit on the amount of time you’re willing to be with it in meditation.  That way, it won’t wear you down so that you end up getting lost in the story of it again.  For example, it could be helpful to set a timer for perhaps only thirty seconds to begin with.

When the time is up, you can bring the meditation to a close by deliberately changing focus to contemplate something positive for a few moments.  This helps to establish a positive feedback loop in the mind, that strengthens the willingness to be with discomfort.  For example, you could think of a situation in your life where you feel safe and at ease; or a person or pet that you naturally feel good will towards; or an aspect of your character that others appreciate; or simply acknowledge your own courage in having faced into the hatred for a few moments.  All of these are forms of the brahma viharas mentioned above, and they can help to reduce any negative residue that might be left from having explored the hatred a little.

The goal of this practice is not to get rid of the hatred, but to cultivate a wiser relationship to it.  Being with the hatred in small doses, we start to see that like everything else, it’s impermanent, it’s stressful, and it’s not under my control.  It becomes possible to take it less seriously, and with repeated practice, we develop the capacity to be with it more fully, for longer.  At some point, we might be able to set the timer for sixty seconds, then two minutes, five minutes … Eventually, instead of hating the hatred, we start to see the pain that hatred causes more clearly.  Then, we start to care not only about our own pain, but the pain of  the person or people we formerly hated, too, and our compassion extends to include their suffering.  In this way, hatred does become “healed by love alone:” but as a natural process, one that takes all the time it needs and can never be forced.

compassion - karuna, daily life, Insight meditation - vipassana, mindfulness, retreat, Uncategorized

Danish retreat with Joseph Goldstein and Uffe Damborg, June 2014

Kerteminde town harbourA view of Kerteminde harbour

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 Joseph 2

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.

hostel pavilion

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.

hostel cups 2

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.

Kerteminde yellow house sun h

 Old Kerteminde houses

 Kerteminde yellow house window detail

 

hostel snail

 And the retreat mascot …

Insight meditation - vipassana, mindfulness, retreat, Uncategorized

Insight Meditation weekend – Auckland, New Zealand

St Francis weekend retreat group

This weekend’s insight meditation retreat at St Francis Retreat Centre in Auckland was blessed by good weather, good food, good friends – and good singing and chanting, courtesy of a Pasifika dance group on Saturday and a Hindu meditation group on Sunday!  Much gratitude to everyone who contributed to providing such powerful conditions for the deepening of wisdom and compassion.

(thanks also to Sia, retreat centre cook, for taking this photo of most of the retreatants)

I hope to be able to offer two more similar weekends in Auckland, 1-3 May and 1-3 August, but sadly, the St Francis Retreat Centre is already booked on those dates.  I will keep looking for alternative venues, so please let me know if you have any suggestions.

daily life, Determination - aditthana, joy - mudita, retreat, Wisdom - pañña

Welcoming the New Year

20140102-114225.jpg

Greetings from snowy Massachusetts! I intended to write this post a few days ago, but I’ve been under the weather with a combination of jet lag, a head cold, AND a gastro bug. So I wasn’t exactly the life of the party on New Year’s Eve, but being forced to take time out has given me the chance to reflect on this transition from one year to the next.

Last Sunday I was able to visit the prison that I used to volunteer at when I lived in Massachusetts. It was a real delight to reconnect with that sangha, some of whom have been attending the group regularly for five years now. Because it was almost the New Year, I invited the men to reflect on their aspirations for the year ahead. I can’t share the details of what they said because of confidentiality issues, but I felt privileged to hear so many heart-felt expressions of the desire to change, and to live in alignment with a deeper truth.

Right now I’m at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies with a group of friends who are also experienced meditators, neuroscience researchers, and comparative religion scholars. This is the third time that we’ve gathered over the New Year for a week of peer-led meditation, interspersed with formal presentations on neuroscience research and explorations of different meditative traditions.

On New Year’s Eve we sat in a circle at midnight, and – similar to the prison visit – spoke out loud our aspirations for the coming year. And again, I was inspired to hear the depth and range and beauty of what people aspired to for themselves and others.

I look forward to continuing our dharma adventures together in 2014. May this new year bring you closer to your deepest aspirations.

With bows of gratitude,
Jill

daily life, Insight meditation - vipassana, mindfulness, Uncategorized

Joseph Goldstein’s new book Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening

Mindfulness

Joseph Goldstein has just published a new book which looks in detail at the Satipatthana Sutta, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, which is the key text for the practice of insight meditation.  It should be a very helpful resource for anyone who wants to refine their understanding of mindfulness and its role in the development of insight.

In a recent interview for the Insight Journal of the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, Joseph says:

“I purposely chose Mindfulness as the title because I wanted to expand the meaning of the word from its popular usage, and re-link it to the goal of liberation. Because mindfulness is now so widespread, and with so many good effects, sometimes it is easy to lose sight of the understanding that the Buddha taught it as a vehicle for awakening. That is the deepest meaning, even as we apply it in different ways. Applied mindfulness can be very effective in alleviating the symptoms of suffering; the fullness of the Buddha’s teaching addresses the very causes of suffering.”

You can find the rest of the interview here: http://www.bcbsdharma.org/insight-journal/
And purchase information here: http://www.soundstrue.com/shop/Mindfulness/4472.pd

daily life, Insight meditation - vipassana, mindfulness, Uncategorized

Rick Hanson interviews Joseph Goldstein on mindfulness

Joseph Goldstein

This is a recent interview by neuroscientist Rick Hanson with his teacher, Joseph Goldstein, who is one of the founding teachers of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts.

Joseph gives a very clear explanation of the full range of what mindfulness is, and also what it isn’t, based on his forty years experience of teaching vipassana in the West.

The interview is freely offered by Rick Hanson, but you need to sign up to get access to it:

http://www.entheos.com/Hardwiring-Happiness/RickHanson

daily life, Generosity - dana, mindfulness, retreat

Generosity part 4: Giving and Receiving

cake dana Greg and Donald - scaled

Greg Scharf and volunteer cook Donald Elniff enjoying cake dana at the Blue Mountains Insight Meditation Centre

Right now, I’m assisting my friend Greg Scharf teach a two week retreat at the Blue Mountains Insight Meditation Centre in New South Wales, Australia.  And right about now, the annual three-month retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, has just got under way.  So I’ve been appreciating the synchronicity of these two events, knowing that as we meditate together in the hall here in Australia, on the other side of the world another hundred or so people are joining us in the “psychesphere,” if that’s a word!

I also realised that it’s now ten years since I sat my first three-month retreat at IMS.   When I arrived at IMS for the first time in September 2003,  walked under the portico inscribed with the word Metta, and pushed open the heavy old front door, I had no idea what I was stepping into.  But those three months of intensive meditation practice have been the single most transformative event of my life to date, and now, ten years on, as I remember that time I’m filled with deep gratitude.

There’s something very poignant for me about being back at the Blue Mountains Insight Meditation Centre, too, because it was the community here in the Blue Mountains that made it possible to attend the IMS three-month retreat.  So today, I feel moved to acknowledge that connection by sharing the story of how that opportunity came to be.

I used to be one of the managers here at BMIMC, from 2000 – 2003, then I continued part time for a couple of years after that.  Prior to taking on the manager’s position, I had been working as an architect in Melbourne, Victoria, and I gave up my job to come and live here at the centre.  Back then, the role was part-time and it offered only a small stipend, so I suddenly had a lot less money than I was used to.  I didn’t own a car, and I didn’t know anybody in New South Wales.  But from the moment I arrived, people from the community whom I hardly knew were very generous.  They brought me warm clothes. They took me out for meals.  They drove me to town to do the shopping.  They offered me free dental treatment.  And they let me stay in their holiday cottage by the beach, to name just a very few examples.

In one way it was beautiful to be on the receiving end of so much generosity, but it also showed up a lot of my conditioning about being self-reliant and independent.  I saw how I felt much more comfortable being the one offering generosity, than the one receiving it, because I had an unconscious belief that receiving things from others made me somehow inferior to them.

As I explored the Buddha’s teachings in more depth though, I started to recognise all of these beliefs as forms of Wrong View.  I saw my attachment to being strong and self-reliant, and my fear of being dependent on or beholden to other people.  Gradually, through bringing awareness to them, these views started to dissolve and I was able to accept what people offered me with genuine appreciation for their generosity.

But then, towards the end of my tenure as manager, it felt as if they really “upped the ante,” as they say, and my capacity to receive kindness got an even bigger workout.  After three years of being the manager, I felt ready to do some longer-term meditation practice.  Although I’d spent some time practising in Thailand, I didn’t feel ready to do a long retreat in Asia, and the only other place I knew of that offered longer retreats was the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts.  I looked on-line at their three-month retreat and it seemed very expensive by Australian standards.  Back then, the Australian dollar was worth a lot less too, so by the time I’d added in the cost of the airfare and dana for the teachers, it just seemed financially impossible.

A few days later, I was having a cup of tea with someone from the BMIMC Management Committee and we started talking about the benefits of longer-term retreat practice.  I mentioned my interest in doing the three-month retreat to him, but that it seemed impossible because of the cost.  He thought for a moment, then suggested that we put something in the BMIMC newsletter to “see what might happen.”  I felt a bit guilty about putting myself out there like that, but reluctantly agreed, because I didn’t really think anything would come of it.

I was wrong though.  After the newsletter went out, donations started to arrive from people from the Blue Mountains, from Sydney, and beyond – including people I hadn’t even met.  One woman from New Zealand sent a cheque with a note enclosed, saying that she had done the three-month retreat at IMS many years ago, and she wanted me to have the same opportunity.

It was quite overwhelming, and at first I noticed a sense of cringe whenever a donation came in.  I’d think: “I’m not worthy.  Those people need their money more than I do.  I’m not good enough to practice at IMS anyway.  What if I don’t make it through the retreat?  I’ll have to give them their money back.”  It was painful, but finally I recognised that meeting people’s generosity with that kind of cringing response was in some ways, quite disrespectful. It wasn’t acknowledging or honouring their generosity, and it felt wrong to meet their kindness with such inner stinginess.  So I made the choice to NOT do that.  If I was going to accept their donations, I decided to do it as consciously and graciously as possible.  And to cut a long story short, eventually I was able to go to the United States and sit the three-month retreat at IMS in 2003.

But that wasn’t the end of my learning about generosity.  While I was on retreat, I would think about how many people had sent money in for me to be there, and it was a huge motivation to keep practising.  I thought about members of the Burmese community in Sydney, for example, who I knew were not wealthy, but had sent donations to help me do the retreat.  Then at those times when I didn’t feel like getting up to do the first sitting in the morning, I’d go anyway, because it would have felt mean-spirited to not make the extra effort.

So the material generosity that they gave me translated into a different kind of support, a sort of spiritual support, that was perhaps even more powerful than the money they offered.  At the end of each day on retreat, I wrote a thank-you card to one of the people on my donor list, and offered them whatever benefit might have come from that day of practice.  Even now, I still feel like crying when I remember what it was like to receive all of their dana, on so many levels.

I wanted to share this story because it shows how generosity might start with offering money or gifts to someone, but it’s the openness of heart and openness of mind that makes it a truly transformative experience.  And being able to appreciate what one receives is another facet of generosity which is often overlooked.  The Buddha recognised this in one of his teachings from the Anguttara Nikaya, where he talked about what a rare quality appreciation is.  He said:

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.”

May we all experience the benefits of giving and receiving generosity …