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
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/ )