Insight Meditation Society, retreat

Meditating together in May

FR Buddha head

Each month on or about the full moon, I’ve been trying to write a post about some aspect of dharma practice that’s relevant to what’s happening in my own life.  This next full moon though, I plan to be on retreat at the Insight Meditation Society’s Forest Refuge in Barre, Massachusetts, for the whole month of May, and I won’t have access to email, computers, or technology of any kind.

Even though I’ll be in silence and solitude, I know from past experience that a powerful feeling of connection with others can happen on retreat, especially with other meditators.  I’d been wondering about ways to make that felt sense of connection more tangible, then by coincidence, a friend sent me information about the “Mindful in May” challenge.  This challenge combines the benefits of committing to meditate every day, with fund-raising for Charity Water.

A not for profit organisation, Charity Water donates 100% of its funds to providing clean water in regions such as West Africa, where Mindful in May founder Elise Bialylew describes ” … watching in disbelief as women walked barefoot along cliffs for miles, balancing litres of water on their heads, only to do it all again the next day … For the lucky ones the water they brought back to their families were from clean wells – for the unlucky ones, contaminated water would quickly infect their families and lead to sickness and oftentimes death. This problem seemed so overwhelming, I really wanted to do something to make a difference, but I just didn’t know how it would be possible.
Fast forward 12 years and that latent feeling of wanting to make a difference came to the surface in an unexpected way through the idea for Mindful in May. When I created Mindful in May four years ago, I never would have imagined that four years later it would have spread into a global movement and have impacted the lives of thousands living without clean water.”

To commit to the Mindful in May challenge, you sign up to meditate for 10 minutes a day for the month of May as either a team or individual. You then receive access to a one month online course, which includes a meditation program delivered daily to your inbox, including audio guided meditations and video interviews with global experts such as Sharon Salzberg, Tara Brach, Kristin Neff and Dr Richard Davison.

If I wasn’t already on retreat at the Forest Refuge, I’d definitely be taking up the challenge!  I’ll be meditating every day anyway, so if you’d like to join me in spirit you might consider signing up for “Mindful in May” here:

Mindful in May – Coming Soon 2020

A second, highly worthwhile way of boosting your dharma practice in May is the online “EcoSattva Training” being offered by One Earth Sangha, starting Sunday 10 May 2015.  This training has evolved from the series of five online “Mindfulness and Climate Action” conversations in the fall of 2014, and is an opportunity to “join Joanna Macy, Rev. angel Kyodo williams and other great wisdom teachers of our time as we explore, connect and support each other in engagement amid these profound changes.”

Again, an opportunity I’m sorry to miss, but hopefully some of you might be able to join it.  More information here:

EcoSattva Training

Whatever you’re doing in May, I wish you well and look forward to exploring the dharma with you again soon.

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

December 2014 full moon – wisdom and compassion

heart forest

This December full moon I happen to be assisting James Baraz with a seven-day retreat in the Yarra Valley, outside of Melbourne, Australia.  Those of you who are familiar with James’ teaching know that he infuses the traditional mindfulness practices that lead to insight, with the “heart practices” known as the four brahma vihara: kindness/metta, compassion/karuna, joy/mudita and equanimity/upekkha.

Practiced together, all of these techniques help to strengthen what are sometimes referred to as the two “Wings to Awakening,” wisdom and compassion.  It’s said that both of these aspects need to be in balance, if we’re going to fly.  And in this metaphor, compassion is an umbrella term for all wholesome mind-states – so it includes the four brahma vihara, but also other skilful qualities such as generosity, gratitude, forgiveness, confidence, and so on.

You may have noticed this need for balance in your own meditation practice, as you look back over the months or years, or perhaps decades.  At times, it’s as if the wisdom gets ahead of the compassion, and we start to see our experiences with an almost painful clarity.  One way this can play out is in seeing our own difficult patterns in glorious technicolour.  I think it was the Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa who said: “Self-knowledge is not always good news!” And in this phase of practice, we can get quite discouraged at the apparent depth and strength of these difficult patterns.  Then, we might need to consciously incline the heart-mind towards compassion and the other brahma vihara, to bring some warmth and kindness into that clear seeing.

At other times, the opposite can be true. The heart opens up wide, and we feel the existential pain of being human so acutely that it seems unbearable.  Then we might need to strengthen the vipassana practice, so we can reconnect to the wisdom that everything is impermanent, everything changes and that nothing needs to be identified with.  So an important part of our own practice is learning to recognise if we’re off balance in some way, and whether we might need to strengthen one of these two wings: wisdom, or compassion.

Just this week, I had a beautiful experience of seeing and feeling both “wings” being in balance.  There have been several times now where I’ve been on retreat when one of the participants or retreat supporters received some kind of difficult news: perhaps the sudden loss of property or financial security; perhaps the diagnosis of a life-threatening illness or disease; perhaps the unexpected death of a close friend or family member.  It happened again on this retreat, and again, I got to see the fruits of our individual and collective practice.  Sitting together in stillness and silence, whether for days, weeks, or sometimes months, the heart and mind open wide to receive what’s difficult, with wisdom and compassion.  Wisdom recognises: “It could have been ME who received that news.”  Or “It could have been me who WAS that news.”  There’s the understanding that this is the human condition.  We’re all subject to loss, to aging, to sickness, and to death, and on recognising the universality of these conditions, compassion naturally flourishes.

Compassion is different from grief, because it’s underpinned by equanimity, stability of heart-mind, which I’m starting to think of as like the keel of a yacht.  To sail, the yacht has to be responsive to conditions, to wind and waves, but it needs the weight of the keel to keep it from capsizing.  In a similar way, equanimity keeps the practice stable, but it is a flexible stability that allows us to respond to the changing conditions of life with as much balance as possible.

Next weekend, I’m going to be exploring equanimity in a couple of day-long workshops in Auckland, then in 2015, I’m looking forward to offering more retreats in Australia, New Zealand and the United States, exploring different ways of practicing the two wings to awakening.  You can find more information about these events on the Retreats and Courses page here: https://jill0shepherd.wordpress.com/upcoming-retreats/

(And if you’re not able to make it to a retreat, James Baraz’s online Awakening Joy course is one very accessible way of engaging with the brahma vihara practices in daily life.  More info about that here: http://www.awakeningjoy.info/ )

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, 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

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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, 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 …

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

Non-residential weekend retreat, Auckland, New Zealand

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

FR Buddha heart mist

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

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

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

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

Metta weekend, Auckland, New Zealand

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

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The dedicated team!

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