This is peaceful
This is sublime
Namely: the stilling of all formations
The letting go of all attachments
The destruction of craving
Fading away / dispassion
Reflections on the Brahma Vihara practices
This article (with minor amendments) was first published in the March 2014 BMIMC newsletter.
Since returning to Australia and New Zealand from the United States eighteen months ago, I’ve been teaching several weekend retreats, day-long workshops and evening classes in New South Wales and Auckland. Alongside the insight meditation practice, I’ve usually included some focus on the four brahma-viharas: the meditative development of good will, compassion, joy and equanimity (or metta, karuna, mudita and upekkha, to use the Pali terms).
At the beginning of my own meditation practice, I tended to avoid the brahma-viharas because I found them so incredibly challenging. As I’ve supported other meditators over the last few years, I’ve observed many people going through similar struggles. And yet, I’ve also often noticed that there seems to be a direct relationship between how resistant a person is to exploring the brahma-vihara practices, and how much benefit they eventually end up receiving from them!
Much of the resistance seems to come from the misunderstanding that the purpose of these practices is to cultivate positive emotions. And so there’s a tendency to try to force or manufacture an idea of how that emotion is supposed to feel, which often leads to the exact opposite: unskilful emotions of frustration, self-judgement, tension, irritation, boredom, and various other flavours of aversion.
Rather than trying to manufacture positive emotions though, the purpose of these practices is to cultivate the intention to wish well to others, to care about their suffering, to appreciate their joy, and to stay even-minded in the face of life’s “ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows.” Sometimes a positive emotion arises naturally as a result of that intention, but this is a side effect rather than the main goal. Understanding this can take the pressure off, reduce performance anxiety and help develop more patience for the organic development of these skilful mind-states.
“Think not lightly of good, saying, ‘It will not come to me.’ Drop by drop is the water pot filled. Likewise, the wise man [or woman], gathering it little by little, fills himself [or herself] with good.”
Dhammapada chapter 9 verse 122
A more contemporary metaphor I like to use is that of the Hubble telescope. My understanding is that this highly sophisticated piece of machinery is constantly scanning the universe in search of the faintest signs of life. In a similar way, when I practice the brahma viharas, at times it feels as if I’m turning my own Hubble telescope inwards in search of the faintest signs of metta, karuna, mudita and upekkha. There’s a deep listening that has to happen to access these tiny pulses of good will, compassion, joy and equanimity, but when they’re recognised, the metaphorical Hubble telescope transmits them into consciousness so they can be amplified. Once recognised and amplified, these skilful mind-states become resources that help to develop the deep calm and concentration necessary for insight to arise.
There are several suttas which describe the kind of chain reaction that happens when wholesome mind-states such as joy, tranquility, and happiness develop naturally into “vision and knowledge with regard to Deliverance,” e.g. AN10.1. The brahma vihara practices are a powerful way to jump-start that development, so if you have found these practices a struggle, I encourage you to persevere, with patience, and be open to the transformations that may arise!
For information on new retreat opportunities in Australia and New Zealand, see here:
Insight Meditation weekend – Auckland, New Zealand
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.
Welcoming the New Year
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,
Joseph Goldstein’s new book Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening
Joseph Goldstein has just published a new book which looks in detail at the Satipatthana Sutta, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, which is the key text for the practice of insight meditation. It should be a very helpful resource for anyone who wants to refine their understanding of mindfulness and its role in the development of insight.
In a recent interview for the Insight Journal of the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, Joseph says:
“I purposely chose Mindfulness as the title because I wanted to expand the meaning of the word from its popular usage, and re-link it to the goal of liberation. Because mindfulness is now so widespread, and with so many good effects, sometimes it is easy to lose sight of the understanding that the Buddha taught it as a vehicle for awakening. That is the deepest meaning, even as we apply it in different ways. Applied mindfulness can be very effective in alleviating the symptoms of suffering; the fullness of the Buddha’s teaching addresses the very causes of suffering.”
You can find the rest of the interview here: http://www.bcbsdharma.org/insight-journal/
And purchase information here: http://www.soundstrue.com/shop/Mindfulness/4472.pd
Rick Hanson interviews Joseph Goldstein on mindfulness
This is a recent interview by neuroscientist Rick Hanson with his teacher, Joseph Goldstein, who is one of the founding teachers of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts.
Joseph gives a very clear explanation of the full range of what mindfulness is, and also what it isn’t, based on his forty years experience of teaching vipassana in the West.
The interview is freely offered by Rick Hanson, but you need to sign up to get access to it:
Generosity part 4: Giving and Receiving
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:
Metta weekend – Blue Mountains, NSW, Australia
Generosity part 3: The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer
This TED talk by a musician, Amanda Palmer, on “The Art of Asking” really resonated with some of my own recent experiences of giving and receiving. It’s not a classical Buddhist “dana talk” – it even features some brief nudity – but her courage in being willing to connect with a diverse cross-section of people, to be vulnerable, and to give and receive without shame is quite inspiring.
“… I was a self-employed living statue called the 8-Foot Bride … I painted myself white one day, stood on a box, put a hat or a can at my feet, and when someone came by and dropped in money, I handed them a flower and some intense eye contact. … So I had the most profound encounters with people, especially lonely people who looked like they hadn’t talked to anyone in weeks, and we would get this beautiful moment of prolonged eye contact being allowed in a city street, and we would sort of fall in love a little bit. And my eyes would say, “Thank you. I see you.” And their eyes would say, “Nobody ever sees me. Thank you.”
… And the media asked, “Amanda, the music business is tanking and you encourage piracy. [by offering her music on-line with no set price] How did you make all these people pay for music?” And the real answer is, I didn’t make them. I asked them. And through the very act of asking people, I’d connected with them, and when you connect with them, people want to help you. It’s kind of counter-intuitive for a lot of artists. They don’t want to ask for things. But it’s not easy. It’s not easy to ask. And a lot of artists have a problem with this. Asking makes you vulnerable.”
Asking makes you vulnerable, but offering can too, and so can receiving. After listening to her talk, instead of trying to somehow “get beyond” that vulnerability, I’m starting to appreciate it as a sign of genuine generosity.
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
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
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.