community, Insight meditation - vipassana, Insight Meditation Society, retreat, Retreat practice, Uncategorized

Insight Meditation Society 2020 Registration Now Open

Just letting you know that the Insight Meditation SOciety in Barre, Massachusetts, has just announced its 2020 retreat schedule and registration is now open. Based on previous years, most retreats tend to get fully booked within a few days, so if you’re interested in practising at IMS, best to register as soon as you can to avoid missing out.

IMS images

I’m scheduled to teach a five-day metta retreat in February 2020, the first six weeks of the three-month retreat in September, and the whole month of November at the Forest Refuge.

I look forward to meditating with some of you at IMS again soon!

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

 

anxiety, daily life, gratitude, grief, insight, Insight meditation - vipassana, mindfulness, retreat, Retreat practice

April 2018 full moon – Retreat and post-retreat practice

Before and after

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.

harbour headland 1.JPG

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.

harbour foreshore rocks 6.JPG

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.)

Sangha

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.

There are also many study courses available on line now too, that support the deepening of our practice in community.  Organisations such as the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, Spirit Rock Meditation CenterLion’s Roar magazine, and Tricycle magazine all offer online courses covering a wide range of Buddhist study and practice.

boat ramp 2.JPG

Next Step Dharma online course

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!

daily life, mindfulness, motivation, retreat, Retreat practice, Ten Parami, Uncategorized

January 2018 full moon – re-set

Sydney Insight Meditators 2018 New Year’s retreat

meditators - Rena drawing
Drawing by retreat participant Rena Czaplinska Archer

Making positive changes

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.

Continue reading “January 2018 full moon – re-set”

daily life, death and dying, dukkha, impermanence - anicca, Insight Meditation Society, retreat, Ten Parami, Uncategorized

December 2017 super moon – impermanence, vastness, and intimacy

super moon Wellington
A still from the video of an impressive moonrise in early 2013, over Mount Victoria Lookout in Wellington, New Zealand by Mark Gee

Impermanence

This month’s full moon post is a little late, because just this morning, I finished co-teaching the last six weeks of the three-month retreat at IMS in Barre, Massachusetts.

The ending of any period of intensive meditation practice is poignant, but even more so when it’s been a longer retreat.  As this retreat was drawing to a close, I started to felt even less articulate than usual!  It’s been hard to find words that might capture something of the power of the profound transformations that I had the honour to witness, as I accompanied the meditators at least some of the way on their inner journeys.

Part of the struggle has been a sense of paradox: a feeling that the heart-mind has become both vastly expansive, and completely intimate.  So when a friend sent me the link to this short video of a supermoon rising, I was very happy, because perhaps these images might convey what my own words can’t …

Short video (three minutes) here:

https://player.vimeo.com/video/58385453

Next Step Dharma – online course by Oren Sofer and Jaya Rudgard

For anyone wondering how to access support for the transition from retreat practice to daily life, my friends Oren and Jaya have a six week online course specifically designed to help bring your retreat back home.

The course comprises:
• 21 short Dharma Talks and 16 Guided Meditations, all geared for integration
• 18 Recorded interviews with founding Insight Meditation teachers
• 8 weeks of interactive, live Q & A Sessions with the Course Leaders
• Mentoring for your meditation practice
• Weekly readings and “Core Integration” practices
• Lifetime membership in our online community

More info here: http://www.nextstepdharma.org/


Bhaddekaratta Sutta — The Discourse on an Auspicious Day

Do not chase after what is gone,
Nor yearn for what is yet to be.
For the past has been left behind,
And the future cannot be reached.
Those states that are before you now —
Have insight into every one!
Invincibly, unshakably,
Know that well, again and again.
Do this work today, with ardor;
Who knows when death will come calling?
There is no bargaining with Death,
Or with his army of minions.
Abiding ardently like this
Without fail, both day and night, is
“The single most precious moment.”
So the peaceful sage has told us.

Quoted in “Older and Wiser: Classical Buddhist Teachings on Aging, Sickness, and Death”
by Mu Soeng, Gloria Ambrosia, Andrew Olendzki


Finally, here’s a link to the last talk I gave at the end of the retreat.  It has an overview of the core teachings and ways to put them into practice in daily life, using the ten parami of generosity, renunciation, ethical conduct, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, resolve, kindness, and equanimity.  I hope it will be helpful whether you’re a beginning meditator, or an experienced practitioner.

Dukkha, the ending of Dukkha, and the ending of this retreat 
gratitude, insight, Insight meditation - vipassana, Insight Meditation Society, retreat, Uncategorized

July 2017 full moon – Gratitude

FR meadow Buddha

Just last week, I finished a one-month retreat at the Insight Meditation Society’s Forest Refuge in Barre, Massachusetts, led by Sayadaw U Vivekananda.  What a relief it was, to temporarily put down some of the burdens I didn’t even know I was carrying, and to have such a powerful opportunity to “disentangle the tangle” (as the discourses say)!

The challenges and rewards of retreat practice

Being silent and unplugged for a whole month might sound easy – and perhaps for some people, it is – but for most of us it can be surprisingly challenging at times.  As Andrew Holecek, a US teacher and student of Tibetan Buddhism, recently wrote:
Retreat is not for the faint of heart. It takes courage to stop and face one’s mind so directly. But if you want to be unconditionally happy, which is one way to talk about enlightenment, there is no other way. Sooner or later you have to relate to your mind instead of from it. Otherwise you will forever be held captive by the contents of your mind, shackling yourself to every shiny thought that pops up, a prisoner of your own making.

On Retreat, Block All Exits

Gratitude

Even though it’s not always easy to be on retreat, the rewards are immense.  Towards the end of my time at the Forest Refuge the gratitude I felt for this opportunity became quite overwhelming.  I realised that next year will be the 15th anniversary since sitting my first three-month retreat at IMS, and that every year since then (with one exception) I’ve been able to sit either a one, two or three-month retreat here. Continue reading “July 2017 full moon – Gratitude”

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March 2016 full moon – Retreat and pre-retreat practice

door inside 2

Planning to go on retreat?

I’ve had a few conversations recently with people who are planning to go on retreat soon, and at some stage in the discussion, there’s often an embarrassed acknowledgement of feeling some anxiety about it.  Even for people who have been on retreat before and have some familiarity with the set-up, each retreat is unique, so we never really know what to expect.  In some ways, that’s the point of it: to open ourselves to the unknown, to explore new territory, and to experience aspects of ourselves that we may not have come into contact with before. Continue reading “March 2016 full moon – Retreat and pre-retreat practice”

daily life, Determination - aditthana, insight, Insight meditation - vipassana, motivation, retreat, Uncategorized

February 2016 full moon – Motivation, Respect, Resolve

sea wall woman 2
Woman reading on sea wall – Newcastle NSW

The rewards and challenges of technology

Earlier this evening, I gave my first dharma talk via video-link, from the YHA in Sydney to Auckland Insight in New Zealand.  Nothing too remarkable about that these days; but still, it was a delight to be able to connect with the group in this way, and I felt a new sense of appreciation for the benefits of computer technology.  We now have access to a wide range of dharma teachings from many different traditions, in many different forms.  And with almost no effort, we can instantly download or stream talks and videos, or sign up for online study courses.

In my own experience though – as both a teacher and a student – there can also be a downside to this instant abundance.  Without awareness, it can unconsciously reinforce a passive, materialistic, and at times even disrespectful relationship to the teachings.

So as technology helps meditation becomes more and more mainstream, it’s becoming increasingly normal to approach it with a consumerist mind-set.  In some ways, this makes sense.  When everything else around us is presented in that way, why wouldn’t we think about the practice in terms of what we can get from it?  And why wouldn’t we assume that it should be available on my terms: in the way I want it, when I want it, for the price I want it?  We can even mistake this kind of freedom (to consume) for the deeper freedom that the Buddha’s teachings point to. Continue reading “February 2016 full moon – Motivation, Respect, Resolve”

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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”

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”