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)”→
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”→
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”→
While in San Francisco recently, I had an opportunity to visit Alcatraz island, the former federal penitentiary, 19th-century military fortress, site of Native American heritage and protest, and now one of America’s most visited national parks. As we walked through the decaying cell blocks, I was struck by the layers and layers of defence that had been constructed to keep what was deemed “unsafe” from being a threat.
Immense effort had been made to prevent escape. First, there was banishment to an island: the sea as initial safety barrier. Then on the island itself, razor wire fences, grilles, screens, mesh, and steel bars, all arrayed to confine those people who had been judged as threats to society.
At the start of our visit, I was awed by how extreme all these external mechanisms of protection seemed. As the visit wore on, I began to reflect on the internal mechanisms of protection that we all construct, to defend against perceived threats to our existence. Some of you reading this have had the experience of being physically incarcerated; all of us have the experience of being mentally incarcerated by our own inner constructs, belief systems, and world views, that prevent us from living in the deepest freedom.
In the Buddha’s teachings, this freedom is sometimes described as being “unfettered,” and it comes from understanding how we get caught in … … a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. Bound by a fetter of views, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person is not freed from birth, aging, & death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair. He or she is not freed, I tell you, from suffering & stress. MN2
So the first stage in this process of freeing ourselves from suffering and stress is to clearly see the views that are keeping us trapped. Often, it’s only when we come into contact with people who hold views radically different to our own that we’re able to see where we’re clinging. This can be confronting, but I sometimes think of vipassana practice as progressively expanding our capacity to just BE with difference.
A few weeks ago, I visited the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, California, which has made a conscious commitment to being a refuge for all the diverse communities that surround it. The center recently won an award in recognition of the work that it does “to actively pursue participation by people of diverse classes and races; raise the voices and support the leadership of working class and poor people; and have an organizational culture that draws on the strengths of all class cultures.”
Because the centre serves such a wide range of different communities with sometimes competing needs, they have a set of communication guidelines posted next to the shrine in their main hall to help support skilful relationship. The first of these guidelines, developed by Visions Inc, is: Be willing to “try on” new ideas, or ways of doing things that might not be what you prefer or are familiar with.
Mushim, one of the core teachers, explained this guideline as being similar to trying on new clothes. Can we be willing to try on clothes that are very different from what we might normally wear, with an attitude of openness and curiosity? She went on to say that just because we try something on doesn’t mean that we have to BUY it.
Something about this suggestion – of being willing to try on but not necessarily buy – has been very helpful for me recently. I’ve been doing a lot of travelling by public transport in different parts of the world, and often overhear conversations that express views very different from my own. I notice the inner recoil, and try to remember to just “try it on.” When I’m able to do this, there’s a softening into compassion; the recognition that we’re all caught in various ways, all prisoners of our own fettered views. Then this moment of recoil can be a wake-up bell, an invitation to see beyond these rigid bars of identity-view to the freedom that’s actually, always available.
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/ )
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 …
Last month I wrote a bit about equanimity, and how the possibility of not holding on to changing experiences can offer a sense of ease, even in the middle of difficult circumstances. So this quality of equanimity can be a kind of refuge, but – at least in my own experience – it doesn’t always arise spontaneously just when you most need it! Sometimes, it has to be actively cultivated.
In the Buddha’s teachings on the four brahma-vihara, (the meditative practices that develop skilful states of heart and mind,) we start by cultivating kindness or good will, then compassion, then appreciative joy, and lastly, equanimity. Equanimity is recognised as the pinnacle of these practices, and it can be the most challenging to develop because of its subtlety. It’s not a quality that is valued much these days, and as Ajahn Sucitto has described, outside of contemplative circles it’s not really understood at all. In his book “Parami: Ways to Cross Life’s Floods,” he says:
“True enough, the Pali word upekkha can mean ‘neutral’ in terms of feeling; it can give the impression that one is indifferent and doesn’t care – a nonchalant, laissez-faire attitude. But this is stupid equanimity; there’s nothing furthering in it. Nonchalance carries delusion that does not fully acknowledge the feeling or the consequence of mind states. It’s an escape in which one gets vague and fuzzy; it’s a defence, a not wanting to feel …”
When practiced in this way, we’re cultivating a form of deluded escapism rather than genuine refuge. And over time, this false equanamity can become a kind of default setting that the Buddhist psychologist John Welwood refers to as “spiritual bypassing.” He writes: “Spiritual bypassing is a term I coined to describe a process I saw happening in the Buddhist community I was in, and also in myself. Although most of us were sincerely trying to work on ourselves, I noticed a widespread tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks … Meditation is also frequently used to avoid uncomfortable feelings and unresolved life situations. For those in denial about their personal feelings or wounds, meditation practice can reinforce a tendency toward coldness, disengagement, or interpersonal distance. They are at a loss when it comes to relating directly to their feelings or to expressing themselves personally in a transparent way. It can be quite threatening when those of us on a spiritual path have to face our woundedness, or emotional dependency, or primal need for love.” http://www.johnwelwood.com/articles/TRIC_interview_uncut.doc
The coldness, disengagement and interpersonal distance that John Welwood describes here can be seen as the “near enemies” of equanimity. To be able to distinguish them from the real thing, we need to tune in to the body very carefully and sense the energy that’s present in these different states. For me, one of the key ways of recognising the difference is its energetic quality. With true equanimity, there’s a subtle vibration and warmth, an alive energy, that’s missing from the near enemies. When I’m disconnected and trying to pretend that it’s equanimity, if I’m honest and pay careful attention I can feel an underlying sense of flatness, coolness, and dismissiveness.
One of the benefits of cultivating equanimity in formal meditation is that as we recite the traditional phrases to develop non-reactivity, we can keep tuning in to the body and learn how to distinguish between genuine evenness of mind, and a false kind of calmness that we might be using to suppress unpleasant emotions.
So the next time you find yourself reacting strongly to a difficult experience – or to something difficult happening to someone else – you could try sitting in formal meditation, then bring the situation to mind. Choose one of the equanimity phrases below and keep slowly reciting it over and over, as you tune in to any physical sensations in your body. Over time, you may find that the emotional reactivity subsides, leaving behind a much calmer state of well-being. Because this state is quite subtle, it may take some getting used to at first, but as the mindfulness gets more refined, it becomes easier to recognise the characteristics of true equanimity more clearly.
If, however, the emotional reactivity doesn’t subside and the intellect starts getting involved in a lot of thinking about the experience, this could be a sign that there’s an underlying painful emotion that’s being suppressed. Again, try to bring the awareness back into the body, and gently feel into any difficult emotions or mind-states that might be present, such as anger, shame, grief, hatred, etc. If any of these are present, then it could be helpful to switch to compassion practice for a while, and more specifically, to self-compassion practice as I described in July’s post. It may take some time, but eventually, once the painful emotions have released, it will probably be easier to return to the equanimity practice and find a deeper, more genuine balance of heart-mind.
Here then, are a few equanimity phrases to experiment with:
These are four translations of the same verses from the Dhammapada, a collection of short sayings attributed to the Buddha. They’re a distillation of one of the key principles of the Buddha’s teachings – the principle of non-harming – and no matter how the central message is translated here, I still find it to be a challenging statement.
Over the last few weeks, because I’ve had a few conversations with people who are struggling to deal with hatred, I’ve been inspired to contemplate this teaching again, to try to find ways of engaging with it as a practice and not only a statement of principle. Part of the challenge of these verses for me is that on first reading, they can appear so black and white that they unconsciously reinforce a kind of hatred towards my own hatred. Because if I was practising right, hostility just wouldn’t come up any more, would it? Instead, I’d be abiding healed by love, happily ever after …
With this assumption, when hatred does come up the tendency is to disown, deny, suppress, ignore it – anything to get away from the discomfort of it! And in Buddhist circles, one very common strategy is to use metta practice to try to get rid of even the slightest trace of hostility. Metta (usually translated as “loving-kindness,” but more accurately good will or benevolence), is one of four skilful mind-states known as the brahma-viharas, that can be cultivated through specific meditation practices. The other three are compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity (or balance of mind), but metta is seen as the foundation of all four and it tends to get the most emphasis in Western vipassana teaching. It’s often presented as a kind of universal antidote to all negative emotions or mind-states, so it’s not surprising that many meditators tend to jump to metta as a way to bypass difficult feelings.
I’ve often tried this strategy myself, but sadly, it’s never been very successful. If anything, it’s tended to make me feel worse, because not only is the original hatred untouched, there’s now a whole pile of self-judgement and shame on top of it, due to the failure of my metta practice to make any difference whatosever!
Recently, what has been more effective is to first recognise the hatred of the hatred, and then to apply the ancient truth of non-hatred to the hatred itself. This means being willing to explore the unpleasant feelings in the body and the heart-mind, with as much compassion – rather than metta – as possible. Compassion is the courage to face into what’s difficult: to be with the uncomfortable sensations in the body and the distressing emotions in the heart-mind, without feeding or suppressing them. This means not rehashing the story of what happened, not trying to resolve the situation in our heads yet again, not getting caught in replaying what should have been said or done. Instead, it’s consciously bringing the attention down into a more embodied awareness.
This can be done as a formal meditation practice, by making a resolution to simply be with the hatred for a set period of time, and to investigate all of its physical and mental symptoms. I’ve found that lying down to do this can be helpful, because it’s easier to relax the whole body when lying down. In the same way, placing one hand on the heart-centre and one on the belly can help to connect with a more embodied and intuitive understanding of hatred. Then, when any uncomfortable physical or mental feelings come up, try to stay with them with an attitude of kind curiosity, gently opening to whatever arises with as much compassion as you can.
This is definitely a practice, because having compassion towards oneself in this way is not something that comes easily to most people. Often when I suggest it, the first response is almost one of horror, because self-compassion often seems to be mistaken for a form of self-centredness. So it’s important to have patience for the process, and recognise that because it’s not our usual way of relating to hatred, it will take time to develop this new approach.
And, if the hatred is very strong, it might be necessary to put a strict limit on the amount of time you’re willing to be with it in meditation. That way, it won’t wear you down so that you end up getting lost in the story of it again. For example, it could be helpful to set a timer for perhaps only thirty seconds to begin with.
When the time is up, you can bring the meditation to a close by deliberately changing focus to contemplate something positive for a few moments. This helps to establish a positive feedback loop in the mind, that strengthens the willingness to be with discomfort. For example, you could think of a situation in your life where you feel safe and at ease; or a person or pet that you naturally feel good will towards; or an aspect of your character that others appreciate; or simply acknowledge your own courage in having faced into the hatred for a few moments. All of these are forms of the brahma viharas mentioned above, and they can help to reduce any negative residue that might be left from having explored the hatred a little.
The goal of this practice is not to get rid of the hatred, but to cultivate a wiser relationship to it. Being with the hatred in small doses, we start to see that like everything else, it’s impermanent, it’s stressful, and it’s not under my control. It becomes possible to take it less seriously, and with repeated practice, we develop the capacity to be with it more fully, for longer. At some point, we might be able to set the timer for sixty seconds, then two minutes, five minutes … Eventually, instead of hating the hatred, we start to see the pain that hatred causes more clearly. Then, we start to care not only about our own pain, but the pain of the person or people we formerly hated, too, and our compassion extends to include their suffering. In this way, hatred does become “healed by love alone:” but as a natural process, one that takes all the time it needs and can never be forced.