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”
I’ve recently enjoyed leading a couple of longer residential retreats in New Zealand and Australia, exploring the teachings from the Satipatthana Sutta on the Seven Factors of Awakening: mindfulness, investigation, energy, joy or rapture, tranquillity, concentration or stability of mind, and equanimity.
When cultivated together and brought into balance with each other, these seven factors provide the optimum conditions for the deepest insights to arise, so they play a very important role in the development of wisdom. In fact Bhikkhu Anaalayo, in a recent study retreat exploring the Satipatthana Sutta, said that all the various techniques and methods found in that sutta are designed to develop these Seven Factors of Awakening. Continue reading “August 2016 full moon – Seven Factors of Awakening and Equanimity (again)”
Rainstorm near Te Moata Retreat Centre, Coromandel, New Zealand
Exactly two years ago in July 2014, I wrote a post based on some well-known lines from the Dhammapada:
Hatred never ceases by hatred, but by love alone is healed. This is an ancient and eternal law. 1
Lately, that same post has been getting some views again, perhaps because there seem to have been just so many painful events in the world recently. And perhaps like many others, at times I feel overwhelmed by the intensity and volume of suffering. I notice my mind flipping between two modes: wanting to shut it all out, or compulsively needing to know the latest details.
Denial isn’t healthy, of course, but neither is unconsciously feeding the misery. Because of the mind’s inherent “negativity bias,”2 it’s easy to develop a distorted perception of the world. This is then amplified by the collective negativity-bias of the media, and the relentless twenty-four-hour reporting of tragedy after tragedy after tragedy.
A few years ago, I remember reading a discussion between a psychologist and a well-known dharma teacher about how to stay present when sitting with distressed clients, hour after hour. The dharma teacher suggested that for every hour of contact with a client, the therapist should take at least one hour of silent time to meditate and come back to balance, before seeing the next client.
It sounded like a great idea, but I couldn’t imagine any of the psychologists or psychotherapists – or even dharma teachers I knew – being able to put it into practice. And yet now more than ever, perhaps we need to reconsider it: to find ways of taking a break or making some space or creating more silence so that the psyche can recuperate a little.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the well-known Vietnamese dharma teacher, has written extensively about this need to protect our hearts and minds from “toxins” of various kinds. In search of inspiration, I recently re-read his Five Mindfulness Trainings, which are a translation of the standard five ethical precepts. Here’s a summary of all five:
The first training is to protect life, to decrease violence in oneself, in the family and in society. The second training is to practice social justice, generosity, not stealing and not exploiting other living beings. The third is the practice of responsible sexual behavior in order to protect individuals, couples, families and children. The fourth is the practice of deep listening and loving speech to restore communication and reconcile. The fifth is about mindful consumption, to help us not bring toxins and poisons into our body or mind.3
His re-writing of the last precept really stood out for me, with its emphasis on refreshing, healing, and nourishing. I’m sharing it in full here, with the hope it might offer just a moment or two of relief, or perhaps even some inspiration to keep orienting towards “peace, joy and well-being.”
Nourishment and Healing: the fifth of five mindfulness trainings by Thich Nhat Hanh
Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivating good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I will practice looking deeply into how I consume the Four Kinds of Nutriments, namely edible foods, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness. I am determined not to gamble, or to use alcohol, drugs, or any other products which contain toxins, such as certain websites, electronic games, TV programs, films, magazines, books, and conversations. I will practice coming back to the present moment to be in touch with the refreshing, healing and nourishing elements in me and around me, not letting regrets and sorrow drag me back into the past nor letting anxieties, fear, or craving pull me out of the present moment. I am determined not to try to cover up loneliness, anxiety, or other suffering by losing myself in consumption. I will contemplate interbeing and consume in a way that preserves peace, joy, and well-being in my body and consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family, my society and the Earth. 3
Labyrinth at Te Moata Retreat Centre, Coromandel, New Zealand
Remembering to orient to the good, as well as the challenging
The intention here is not to ignore or deny painful experiences, but to try to maintain balance. At times, I need to consciously remember the many, many people who are working towards overcoming suffering; and to remember how many positive changes are taking place, even though they might not get much media coverage.
Martin Luther King jr
Thich Nhat Hanh is one example I turn to for inspiration, and Martin Luther King Junior another. These two knew each other quite well in the 1960s, and I sometimes like to imagine the discussions they would have had with each other back then. Perhaps there’s an echo of the Dhammapada verses in this famous quote by Dr King:
Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. 4
May we all keep finding balance in the midst of darkness, and keep re-orienting to love.
Graduates of the Insight Meditation Society and Spirit Rock four-year teacher training programme, 10 June 2016 – photo by Ben Marshall
In my last international newsletter back in April, I wrote about inspiration, an aspect of spiritual practice that surprisingly, doesn’t seem to be talked about very often. As I discovered back then,
“… the root of the word “inspiration” comes from late Latin, and it’s related to the act of breathing, specifically breathing in, in the sense of giving life to, or animating – just as expiring is related to breathing out, and dying … Inspiration, then, is literally life-giving. When I feel most inspired, I feel most alive, in touch with some kind of life-energy that feels much vaster than just my own individual human vitality.”
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”
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”
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”
This full moon post is a bit late again, partly because I’ve been on the move, travelling and teaching, and partly because a friend of mine is actively dying now. Even though I’m not physically with her, the gravitational pull of death seems to dissolve any words that come into my mind, and I can find nothing to write that seems to be of any relevance.
So this month, perhaps just a few images of Januarys past can be enough.
January 2013 lakeshore ice Chicago
January 2012 empty nest snow Massachusetts
January 2006 dead trunk woodpecker holes Massachusetts
January 2012 venetian blind Massachusetts
Life is an ever rolling wheel And every day is the right one. He who recites poems at his death Adds frost to snow.
Mumon Gensen, Japanese monk died 1390
Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death
edited by Yoel Hoffmann
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”
“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.” AN 2.118
As the three-month retreat at IMS comes to a close, there’s a definite shift in the overall mood of the meditators. Each day, the ones I meet with are expressing more and more gratitude for the opportunity they’ve had to be here, practising intensively for six weeks or three months.
It’s definitely not easy to do this, and yet perhaps because of the challenges, there’s a corresponding depth to the gratitude. I’ve noticed this in other situations, too – that there can be an unexpected ability to connect with gratitude even in the midst of difficulty.