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/ )

compassion - karuna, daily life, Kindness - metta, Wisdom - pañña

Brene Brown on shame, vulnerability and compassion

echidna 1 scaled

Australian echidna not enjoying having its photo taken

Recently I’ve offered a couple of retreats and courses exploring the theme of “Transforming Poison into Medicine – working with the mind’s difficult energies.”   That phrase about “poison and medicine” was borrowed from a chapter in a book by Pema Chodron, an American nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition who has written many inspiring books about transmuting life’s obstacles into resources.  The titles of her books say it all:

The Wisdom of No Escape
Start Where You Are: How to accept yourself and others
When Things Fall Apart
The Places that Scare You
Comfortable with Uncertainty
No Time to Lose …

There’s definitely a theme there!  And perhaps she (and we) need to keep coming back to that theme because it IS so counter-intuitive that “the way out is through.”  Even to hear or read words such as shame and vulnerability can send some of us scurrying back into our “wombat holes,” to borrow a phrase from a recent course participant.

But in case we need any further convincing, there’s a growing body of research that’s starting to come to similar conclusions.  For example, Brene Brown, who is a professor of sociology at Houston University, has spent the past ten years studying vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame, and although (as far as I know) she is not a meditator, the conclusions she comes to sound a lot like this alchemical process of transmuting poisons into medicine.   In one of her latest interviews, she even quotes Pema Chodron.  Here is a short extract from that interview:

If you have a petri dish and you have shame in there, this pervasive feeling of not being good enough and not being ‘whatever’ enough—thin enough, rich enough, popular enough, promoted enough, loved enough. It only needs three things to survive in this little Petri dish and actually to grow exponentially and creep into every corner and crevice of your life and that is secrecy, silence and judgement. If you have the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and you douse it with some empathy, you share your story with someone who can hear you and look back at you and say you’re not alone, shame dies. 

Pema Chödrön … defines compassion as knowing your darkness well enough that you can sit in the dark with others. …

Which is why, it’s so ironic to me that people think that vulnerability is weakness, when really, letting ourselves fully soften into feeling is one of the most courageous things we do. I mean it’s ballsy to let yourself feel. I don’t know if there’s an emotion more vulnerable than joy. I think it is one of the most difficult emotions to feel. Emotions won’t kill you but not feeling them will. Our fear of emotion can absolutely kill us. Pain won’t kill us but numbing pain kills people every single day. We’re the most obese, in debt, medicated, workaholic, addicted adults in human history. Pain won’t kill you, numbing pain kills people every minute of every day.

So what’s the antidote?

To increase our tolerance for discomfort … you practice being uncomfortable.

Because to lean into joy is to lean into discomfort.

 

The whole text of the interview is available here: http://www.dumbofeather.com/conversation/brene-brown-is-a-grounded-researcher/