compassion - karuna, dukkha or unsatisfactoriness, freedom, middle way, Uncategorized, Wisdom - pañña

September 2016 full moon – wisdom and (self) compassion

buddha-emaciated-2

Emaciated Buddha figure, Spirit Rock

The ascetic Buddha

Back at the end of July, I was an assistant teacher on a nine-day retreat at Spirit Rock, together with a friend and fellow teacher-trainee, DaRa Williams.  One day, as we walked from the teacher housing to the meditation hall, I happened to notice a solitary Buddha figure set among some bushes on the hillside behind our cottages.  Unlike the other Buddhas at Spirit Rock, this one was tucked almost out of view.  There was no path to it, no clearing around it, and no place to sit nearby, but perhaps because of that, I felt compelled to go and take a closer look.

So I scrambled up a slight hill through the dry grass and discovered that the figure was what’s known as an “ascetic Buddha.”   These images depict a phase in the life of Siddhārtha Gautama, the Buddha-to-be, before his Awakening, when he was practising extreme austerities such as sleeping on beds of nails, and eating very little food – hence the skeletal look in the image above.  Continue reading “September 2016 full moon – wisdom and (self) compassion”

daily life, Determination - aditthana, mindfulness, Ten Parami, Wisdom - pañña

January 2015 full moon – resolution and determination

Mangonui harbour boats
Calm during the storm
“The days and nights are relentlessly passing; how well am I spending my time?”

(A question that the Buddha advised practitioners to contemplate frequently)

2015.  Each year this changing-of-the-calendar-numbers seems to arrive a little more quickly.  Each year, it seems that somehow there is less TIME … and so at first reading, the above reflection can seem to reinforce a sense of time-poverty: having too much to do, and not enough time to do it in.

Almost everyone I know seems to be affected by this particular form of stress, a kind of epidemic or collective disease that’s increasingly resistant to ordinary forms of treatment!  Recently I received a newsletter from a wise friend, Sebene Selassie, exploring this same theme in terms of “the pathology of productivity.”  Her questions struck a chord:

How often do I access the deep wisdom of simply being? Or is there mostly a low buzz of resistance to this very moment? A grasping connected to worrying, changing, solving, fixing, planning, getting, achieving, attaining…?
The mind that races is a mind that demands certainty and security; if I plan it all out, everything will finally be okay. Besides being impossible, that demand makes it difficult to rest in the beauty and mystery of what simply is. This moment. Presence.
… Whenever I pause and allow myself to reconnect deeply to my heart-mind-body, I can also remember the truth of interconnection.  But this requires an intentional, sustained pause. Something we all seem less and less capable to allow.

See the whole article, plus a moving description of her experiences in relation to the recent grand jury verdicts in the US, here: http://eepurl.com/Y8XHL

Even though I mostly have the freedom to set my own schedule, I’m still not immune from the energies of worrying, changing, solving, fixing, planning, getting, achieving, attaining that Sebene writes of.  As I was working on my teaching and travel schedule for 2015-2016, I noticed the thought: “Hmm, I really need to plan more spontaneity somewhere in here!”  It took me a few moments to register the paradox of “planning spontaneity,” and yet I know from past experience that without some form of effort, the relentless flow of busyness will simply sweep me away again.

So I notice another paradoxical urge: to want to change, solve and fix this problem of busyness by making a New Year’s resolution to be less busy!  Of course, this is a time of year when many people make New Year’s resolutions to fix – or improve – or overcome – or get rid of – some aspect of their lives that they don’t like, but perhaps because the resolution is rooted in aversion, it’s usually not very effective.

I started to wonder what a healthy resolution might look and feel like, and if perhaps using some of the ten parami, the ten (so-called) “perfections,” might be a more balanced way to approach this challenge?  Since it IS the season of resolutions, the most obvious one to bring to mind is the eighth parami, usually translated as “resolution and determination,” but without the parami of wisdom to support it, resolution alone can easily be misapplied.

One way that wisdom develops is from learning to ask the right questions.  So coming back to the Buddha’s original question: “How well am I spending my time?” I’m planning now to contemplate this every evening in January, just to see … to see if I can experience less busyness, as an antidote to what Thomas Merton named “the violence of our times.”  The first time I read his words I felt a shock of recognition, and even now, when I re-read them, there’s a pulse of discomfort that tells me, reluctantly, that there’s probably something in it I still need to learn!

“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to the violence of our times.”

May we all experience freedom from ALL forms of violence in 2015 …

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, 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/

 

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