gratitude, insight, Insight meditation - vipassana, Insight Meditation Society, retreat, Uncategorized

July 2017 full moon – Gratitude

FR meadow Buddha

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.

On Retreat, Block All Exits

Gratitude

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”

daily life, Renunciation - nekkhamma

4 July 2014 – celebrating two years of “homelessness”

2014-07-04 London

Just realised today is the second anniversary since I had to leave the US, which means I’ve been technically homeless and living out of this suitcase (the silver sub) for two years now!  Sending much gratitude to all the people who have given me a roof over my head – thanks to all of you, I’ve been able to continue teaching and travelling and teaching and travelling and …

daily life, Generosity - dana, mindfulness, retreat

Generosity part 4: Giving and Receiving

cake dana Greg and Donald - scaled

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 …

daily life, Generosity - dana

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.

http://www.ted.com/talks/amanda_palmer_the_art_of_asking.html

“… 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.

Generosity - dana

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

http://sucitto.blogspot.co.uk/