Just last week, I finished a one-month retreat at the Insight Meditation Society’s Forest Refuge in Barre, Massachusetts, led by Sayadaw U Vivekananda. What a relief it was, to temporarily put down some of the burdens I didn’t even know I was carrying, and to have such a powerful opportunity to “disentangle the tangle” (as the discourses say)!
The challenges and rewards of retreat practice
Being silent and unplugged for a whole month might sound easy – and perhaps for some people, it is – but for most of us it can be surprisingly challenging at times. As Andrew Holecek, a US teacher and student of Tibetan Buddhism, recently wrote: Retreat is not for the faint of heart. It takes courage to stop and face one’s mind so directly. But if you want to be unconditionally happy, which is one way to talk about enlightenment, there is no other way. Sooner or later you have to relate to your mind instead of from it. Otherwise you will forever be held captive by the contents of your mind, shackling yourself to every shiny thought that pops up, a prisoner of your own making.
Even though it’s not always easy to be on retreat, the rewards are immense. Towards the end of my time at the Forest Refuge the gratitude I felt for this opportunity became quite overwhelming. I realised that next year will be the 15th anniversary since sitting my first three-month retreat at IMS, and that every year since then (with one exception) I’ve been able to sit either a one, two or three-month retreat here. Continue reading “July 2017 full moon – Gratitude”→
Last weekend I ran a one-day workshop in Auckland, New Zealand, on the theme of “spiritual friendship,” and just a few days ago I facilitated a small group discussion in Australia at the Blue Mountains Insight Meditation Centre, on the theme of “awakening community.”
These two topics feel very alive for me at the moment, partly because of spending so much time visiting different insight meditation groups in different parts of the world. I’ve noticed that when a group is well-established and healthy, the level of dharma practice in those communities feels much stronger, yet in many of the places I visit, access to teachers and good dharma friends is not always easy to find.
This may be because historically, within the Western insight meditation “tradition,” there’s been a strong emphasis on offering silent individual meditation retreats as the main form of dharma practice, so it’s still quite rare to find opportunities for people to engage with each other outside of formal retreat. Yet throughout the suttas, there’s a strong emphasis on spiritual friendship as being foundational to the development of the whole path to freedom. Here’s just one example: “If wanderers who are members of other sects should ask you, ‘What, friend, are the prerequisites for the development of the wings to self-awakening?’ you should answer, ‘There is the case where a monk [practitioner] has admirable people as friends, companions, & colleagues. This is the first prerequisite for the development of the wings to self-awakening.'” AN9.1
Then there’s the often-quoted exchange between the Buddha’s attendant, Ananda, and the Buddha, where Ananda has a sudden realisation of the importance of spiritual friendship. He goes to the Buddha and tells him how he’s just recognised that spiritual friendship is half of the spiritual life, but the Buddha disagrees with him quite emphatically: “Don’t say that, Ananada. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life.” SN 45.2
The Buddha then states that when someone has admirable people as friends, companions, & colleagues, they can be expected to develop & pursue the noble eightfold path. This path is the core of the Buddha’s teachings, and consists of eight factors: Right View, Right Intention or Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. Of those eight factors, only the last one, right concentration, needs to be specifically cultivated in meditation practice. All the others can be developed in daily life, in relational and social contexts.
I wonder then, if by putting so much emphasis on solitary, silent retreat practice, we may have developed an unbalanced approach to the Buddha’s teachings – one that reduces his holistic path to a set of meditation techniques, done mostly for our own individual improvement.
A few years ago, the US dharma teacher David Brazier wrote an article in Tricycle magazine that pointed out some common cultural biases in the way Westerners have tended to approach dharma practice. I found his critique quite revealing – and a little bit painful – but it’s also inspired me to want to explore more relational and socially-engaged forms of practice alongside traditional silent meditation. He says:
For many Western Buddhists, a technical approach that says in effect, “You don’t need to believe anything, just do the practice” is very appealing. We are, after all, a culture very much driven by technology. Yet this technical emphasis directed toward Buddhism is something new. … The idea that one can “just do the practice” is itself based on faith, yet it is easy to miss this sleight of hand. This view of practice does not avoid faith; it simply plays into a faith we already have — that is, faith in a technological approach to life. It assumes that meditation, like penicillin or Windows 7.0, works the same in any context. That is a lot to assume. Going hand in hand with the idea of context-free meditation is the view, not uncommon in Western convert Buddhist circles, that Buddhism and meditation are virtually synonymous. But the vast majority of Asian Buddhists, now as throughout history, do not meditate, or only do so on rare occasions, and when they do, do so as part of a collective ritual rather than as a personal improvement method. … This self-focused, technological model of Buddhist practice is not without its virtues. It has made Buddhism widely approachable in a new cultural setting. It has highlighted the richness of its meditative traditions. But a decontextualized dharma can put the spotlight on the private subject in a manner that is quite in line with the alienated, isolated, choice-making individual that is the primary model of the person in our capitalistic society. Is this really what we want? It also makes Buddhism into a set of commodities that can be purchased, and reduces practitioners to economic units. This is dharma that reinforces, rather than challenges, many tendencies in Western societies that are anything but emancipatory. … Lack of a coherent and meaningful community life and way of relating to others is, arguably, the cause of much of the suffering that people seek to resolve in Buddhism. If what they get is a do-it-yourself, on-yourself, by-yourself, for-yourself, at-a-price technique, this is not going to do the trick, even if it does provide some secondary gains or palliative satisfactions. … [Ultimately] Buddhism flourishes through an other-centered, rather than a self-centered, orientation toward life.
In many of the communities I’ve been visiting recently, people often express a desire to feel more connected to others, but don’t know how to help that happen. And without some degree of conscious effort and commitment, the default seems to be just a group of individuals who sit together in silence on a regular basis, perhaps having a cup of tea with each other afterwards, and that’s about it. Maybe that’s more than enough for many people, but somehow, when the Buddha talks about spiritual friendship being “the first prerequisite for the development of the wings to awakening,” I think he was referring to a bit more than that!
It also feels important to acknowledge that many people have experienced hurt through their involvement with – and/or exclusion by – various kinds of communities, and every one of us has known the pain of a broken friendship. So what might it take for any group of meditators to move closer to being an insight meditation community – a group founded in spiritual friendship, that supports all of its members to deepen their practice, both on and off the meditation cushion?
I don’t have answers, but I do look forward to continuing to explore these questions with whoever might be interested.
(* with thanks to Yael at BMIMC for suggesting this title)
Last month, I wrote about the quality of viriya, sometimes translated as “heroic energy,” and how at times, just signing up for a retreat can seem to kick-start an inner process where qualities such as determination, dedication, commitment, effort, and trust begin to deepen – even before we actually arrive at the retreat itself.
Also last month, I started offering an on-line course aimed at supporting people to establish or maintain a daily meditation practice. In our two-weekly meetings with the course participants, I can already see and feel the transformations that are happening, as a result of making just a little more commitment, and putting in just a little more effort to meditate regularly.
So this month, I want to share some further reflections on this quality of effort. Everything we do in life takes some kind of effort, and yet because it is so foundational, we often don’t pay any attention to it. Recognising how we relate to this effort is a very important part of the practice though, because sooner or later, meditating regularly will start to reveal some of our common patterns of response, or our “conditioning,” to use the terminology of Buddhist psychology.
I’ve seen in my own practice, and in many students too, the tendency to start out with a very binary approach: all or nothing, which usually leads to intense striving, followed by exhausted apathy, a period of recovery, and then the whole cycle starts over again. Striving … apathy … striving … apathy … I call this the “Superhero to Slug” syndrome. Often, it’s driven by fear: the fear that unless I make 110% effort, I’m going to stall completely, which ironically, often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This pattern of oscillating between too much and too little effort seems to have been common in the Buddha’s time too, because in the path of practice that he laid out, he emphasised over and over again the need to find the Middle Way. The middle way is the balance-point between extremes of any kind, and in the Noble Eightfold Path which lies at the heart of the Buddha’s teachings, this balanced approach is known as “Right Effort,” sometimes also translated as Wise Effort or Appropriate Effort. But for many of us, finding this middle way in relation to effort is challenging, because we can be unconsciously addicted to the highs and lows in our lives. The middle way is something we don’t notice – or that we even have aversion towards – because it’s too ordinary, boring, not special enough.
So learning to find this balance is a key skill that we need to develop – and then to keep refining, because it’s constantly changing. Right Effort will look different for each one of us depending on our life circumstances, and it will be different for each of us in every meditation session, changing moment by moment, hour by hour, day by day, week by week.
As we pay attention to the quality of effort, we might start to notice some recurring mental reactions that come up in response to the effort it takes to meditate regularly: perhaps boredom, or pride, or self-judgement, or irritation, or disappointment, or avoidance, or guilt, or blame, or denial, or [insert your own favourite] … the list can get quite long! The problem is that if these reactions aren’t seen with mindfulness, as just temporary mental phenomena, we tend to identify with them, to create a story, a sense of self around them. For example: “That was such a bad meditation. I’m such a bad meditator. In fact, I’m such a bad person. I should have known it wouldn’t work for me. I might as well give up now …”
The (relative) good news is that not only is this normal, it’s actually part of the point of insight meditation practice. The freedom from suffering that the Buddha talked about is not some big-bang event to be experienced far off in the distant future. It’s available in any moment that we’re able to bring mindfulness to what’s happening in the body and mind, regardless of whether the experience is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. This is because when we can see an experience clearly, we have the freedom to respond differently, instead of acting out of our habitual auto-pilot responses.
So a large part of what we’re doing in our meditation practice is learning to become more and more mindful of our experiences, both on the micro and the macro level, in the body and in the heart-mind. As a way of establishing the habit of mindfulness in these different arenas, it can be helpful during any meditation period to silently ask yourself three questions:
What’s happening in the body right now?
What’s happening in the heart-mind right now?
How am I relating to that experience?
Those three questions are ones that you can incorporate at the beginning, middle and end of each meditation period, as a way of refining mindfulness throughout the session. They’re also very helpful questions to ask – as often as you remember – throughout the day, as a way of bringing mindfulness into daily life.
The first two questions are just about observing what is, but the third offers an invitation to notice the attitude to your experience, and to develop an approach of kind curiosity towards it. This brings in the compassion aspect of the Buddha’s teachings, which are sometimes described in terms of “the two wings of awakening,” wisdom and compassion. Insight meditation is part of the wisdom wing, and the brahma vihara practices of kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity all come under the compassion wing.
Once again, there is the importance of balance: we need both wings to be equally well developed, if this bird is going to fly. So even if you’re not doing formal brahma vihara practice as part of your daily meditation, it can be very helpful to begin and end each meditation period with a few minutes of metta/kindness practice. You could start by taking a moment to acknowledge your own good qualities and to wish yourself well; then finish by bringing to mind one or two people that you feel close to, and offering them this same energy of kindness and care. Taking the time to do this at the beginning and end of each session can help to soften any tendency towards over-efforting, and hopefully, also bring a sense of ease and enjoyment to the practice.
Wishing you all more ease and more enjoyment, as you explore the middle way …
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:
“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.”
May we all experience the benefits of giving and receiving generosity …