Metta weekend, Auckland, New Zealand

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

The dedicated team!

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

Insight Meditation in Silicon Valley

This article from Wired magazine gives a snapshot of how insight meditation is being used – and/or misused – in big tech companies such as Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, PayPal, etc.
It’s not meditation any more, it’s “neural self-hacking!”

Winter in Australia and New Zealand – study and practice opportunities

This year is flying by, and in less than two weeks I plan to be in retreat at the Forest Refuge for the whole month of May.  So I wanted to take the opportunity now to remind NZ friends that there are still some places available for the 14-16 June weekend retreat at Bella Rakha in Oratia.

Looking further ahead, the 16-18 August metta weekend and Greg Scharf’s two-week retreat at BMIMC in New South Wales, Australia, are both close to being full already – so if you are interested in those two, please register soon.  For more information, please see the “Upcoming retreats and courses” page.

While in New Zealand in June and July, I hope to be able to offer two six-week study and practice groups exploring the brahma-vihara practices and the Four Foundations of Mindfulness in more depth.  These groups would meet for two hours each week somewhere in inner city Auckland (venue to be decided.)  If you are interested in being involved in one or both of these groups, please let me know.  More details to follow.

Wishing you all a peaceful autumn, and I hope to practice with you again this winter.


Responding and reacting

face mask torso

CPR masks

What?  Yet another act of mass violence? This one very close to home …

I arrived in Boston yesterday morning, just a few hours before Logan airport was closed down due to the marathon bombings.  A friend picked me up and took me straight to a local hospital so we could spend time with a mutual friend who was having her first chemotherapy treatment, for recently diagnosed Stage IV cancer.

Leaving Boston later that afternoon, we saw police cars escorting convoys of dozens of empty school buses driving into the city.  It was an eerie sight, and we wondered what was going on.  Perhaps some kind of disaster-response rehearsal?  But it wasn’t a rehearsal, it was the real thing.  (Am assuming the buses were needed to take survivors to safety)

A day later and my mind still struggles to take all of this in.  It shuttles between aversion and delusion, two of the three “root poisons” in Buddhist thought – i.e. not wanting / resisting, and not knowing / ignoring.

I go on-line, looking for consolation, and come back with this piece by Pema Chodron.  Ah, yes, the consolation of no-consolation!  Staying with that “queasy feeling” and being able to say “this too, this too,” to Stage IV cancer and bombings and ————- (fill in the blanks).

Anxiety, heartbreak, and tenderness mark the in-between state. It’s the kind of place we usually want to avoid. The challenge is to stay in the middle rather than make us more rigid and afraid. Becoming intimate with the queasy feeling of being in the middle of nowhere only makes our hearts more tender. When we are brave enough to stay in the middle, compassion arises spontaneously. By not knowing, not only hoping to know, and not acting like we know what’s happening, we begin to access our inner strength.

Yet it seems reasonable to want some kind of relief. If we can make the situation right or wrong, if we can pin it down in any way, then we are on familiar ground. But something has shaken up our habitual patterns and frequently they no longer work. Staying with volatile energy gradually becomes more comfortable than acting it out or repressing it. This open-ended tender place is called bodhichitta. Staying with it is what heals. It allows us to let go of our self-importance. It’s how the warrior learns to love.

Pema Chodron, from The Places That Scare You (Shambhala Publications)

Parami – a new book by Ajahn Sucitto

I was recently given a copy of Ajahn Sucitto’s latest free book, “Parami: Ways to Cross Life’s Floods,”  and have found it to be one of those rare books that I don’t want to put down, and can’t wait to come back to.

The ten parami (sometimes translated as “ten perfections”) are qualities of heart/mind that the Buddha is said to have developed to perfection before he attained complete freedom.  They are particularly relevant to lay people because they’re qualities that can be developed in ordinary life: Generosity, Ethical Conduct, Renunciation, Wisdom, Energy, Patience, Truthfulness, Resolve, Kindness, and Equanimity.

In his introduction, Ajahn Sucitto talks about “crossing the floods” as a metaphor for freedom, and how developing the parami can give us firm ground to stand on.  He says:
“Interest in deep change gets triggered by the feeling of being swept along by events; by the sense of being overwhelmed by, and even going under, a tide of worries, duties, and pressures.  That’s the ‘floods.’  And crossing them is about coming through all that to find some firm ground.  It takes some work, some skill, but we can do it.  This book offers some guidelines and themes for practice that can get us fit for the task.” [p11]

These ten parami are powerful supports to our meditation practice too.  It’s said that if we come to a place where we don’t feel to be making progress any more, it’s because one or more of the parami is underdeveloped.  That has been true in my own practice, and I’ve also observed it in others, too.  So this book is a resource to help shine light on those areas of the practice that perhaps need more attention.  Each chapter explores one of the parami in depth, drawing on Ajahn Sucitto’s many decades of dedicated dharma practice, and it includes suggestions for working with the parami in daily life as well as in formal meditation.

If you’re interested in reading the book, it’s available as a free download from the Forest Sangha Publications website:

(Donations are always appreciated)

For more information about Ajahn Sucitto, see the Interesting / influential / inspiring teachers page on this website

Doing and being

Mangawhai beach

Mangawhai Beach

One of the delights of teaching insight meditation retreats is experiencing first-hand how even though the form and content of each retreat is similar, the mix of people attending each event is unique, and out of this uniqueness, different practice themes naturally emerge.

Recently I taught a couple of day-long silent retreats in Auckland, New Zealand.  At the start of these retreats I ask participants to fill out a practice questionnaire, and under the question about “Occupation,” one of the participants wrote “Be-er.”  When I was growing up in New Zealand, drinking beer was practiced almost as a religion, so my first thought was that this participant was making some kind of statement about his love of beer.  But this didn’t fit with what I knew of him, so I asked him what he meant.  He explained that he was tired of being a “Do-er,” and was experimenting with being a “Be-er” instead.  I vaguely remember a bumper sticker a few years ago that had a similar message: something about being a Human Being instead of a Human Doing.

During the rest of that day-long retreat, many people spoke about their struggles with busyness, about being caught up in doing and longing to just be.  But paradoxically, there’s also often a fear of just being, because we’re so unused to it.  Sometimes in the context of a day-long retreat, when the body and mind settle into a place of just being present, anxiety and agitation come up as a kind of backlash to the peace.

I wonder if this is because most of us live such binary, all-or-nothing lives.  We’re either frantically busy – “flat-out-like-a-lizard-drinking,” as they say in Australia – or almost comatose in various ways.  So when we come on retreat, the experience of silence and simplicity is a form of detox from this hyper-busyness, and it takes some getting used to.

As a way of lessening the shock to our systems, it can be helpful to try to “seed” our daily lives with moments of non-doing.  This is the practice of mindfulness in daily life: trying to remember to fully BE with an experience as it’s happening, instead of thinking about the next one before it’s even arrived.  So for example, when the phone rings, taking a second or two to just breathe before answering it.  Or when about to hit “send” on an email message, waiting for just one moment before clicking that button.  Or when sitting in the car at a red light, taking those few minutes to breathe, to check in: what’s happening in the body and mind right now?  And how am I relating to this experience?

All of these are opportunities to shift mode for a second or two, from Doing to Being.  By integrating mindfulness into daily life like this, being on retreat becomes less of a culture shock.  Then we can slide into the stillness, the silence, the simplicity with ease, or perhaps even delight.

Effort and Enjoyment

lakeshore ice 4
Chicago lake shore

Last week I gave a talk to the Lakeside Vipassana meditation group in Chicago.  It was an incredibly cold evening outside (by my standards) but there was a good turn-out and a warm response to my exploration of Effort and Enjoyment in meditation practice.

I’ve been meeting with meditation groups in a variety of locations these last few years: in the USA, Australia, Aotearoa/New Zealand and in a Massachusetts prison.  In spite of the diversity of people I meet, there are some surprisingly common themes among them.

One that stands out to me lately is how often our meditation practice can be unconsciously motivated by self-aversion.  Often when I talk about “enjoying your practice,” the common reaction is one of surprise that this is either possible, or even desirable.  There can be an assumption that whatever is experienced as pleasant is somehow unspiritual (whatever that means), and that Right Effort means only blood, sweat, and tears.  I know from my own experience that practicing  with this underlying attitude is unsustainable.  Meditation soon becomes a chore, a duty, and just one more thing to feel guilty about when I don’t do it as often or as well as I “should.”

Most of us are familiar with paying attention to what’s happening on the micro level in our bodies, through mindfulness of breathing or physical sensations, but sometimes it’s helpful to zoom out and check what’s happening on the macro level of practice.  What underlying assumptions, views, beliefs are motivating my practice?  Has it become just another self-improvement project, a subtle or not-so-subtle form of violence to who I take myself to be right now?

If so, it can be helpful to put more effort into the brahma-vihara practices, cultivating kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity.  In particular, the cultivation of joy for one’s own good qualities can be a powerful antidote to the tendency towards self-aversion.  The Buddha recommended doing this practice to a lay person by the name of Mahanama, and suggested that it would lead to complete freedom – so perhaps it’s worth a try!

Generosity part 2 – Christmas

More on generosity – this time from the English monk Ajahn Sucitto.

He asks some great questions in his latest blog:

“So how well does the notion of the self-centred human, motivated by profit and personal gain, stand up in this light? What is noticeable is that when given a free choice, people incline towards voluntary service and towards taking on a challenge.”

To me, the key is “free choice.”  If there’s even the slightest trace of expectation, assumption, coercion, manipulation etc, then people tend not to incline in the direction of generosity.

“How do you filter out needs from the bubbling tide of wants that surges out in consumer-fever, especially in this Christmas season? Find and rest back in your inner wealth, that’s how.  How do you generate inner wealth? Open the heart like a generous hand, whether in terms of things or service, or even in giving attention to others’ needs – that’s a good place to start.”

The whole blog is here