Retreat as rebellion

mens shirts 7

Resisting the tyranny of productivity

Over the last few months, I’ve been having conversations with students – and with myself! – about what feels to be the increasingly relentless busyness of our lives. People often say to me that they don’t have time to meditate every day, and they certainly don’t have time to go on retreat, because of work or financial or family pressures. There are just too many other demands on their time, energy, and resources.

Sometimes there are genuine obstacles that get in the way of making time for formal practice. But sometimes, the busyness is a convenient rationalisation, one that allows us to avoid looking at what might be underneath the frenetic activity. On top of our own individual conditioning, most of us are impacted by the dominant values of mainstream society, which demand us to be constantly productive. As a result, we often develop  a compulsive need to be doing; doing; doing; almost as a way to justify our existence. Capitalist values tend to define us by what we DO, so unless we’re constantly busy, we’re no-one. For many people, the idea of simply BEING – even for a few minutes at a time – is terrifying. As a society, our flight from stillness and solitude has gone into hyperdrive.

wrong way 1

Resisting time-pressure

One of the side-effects of this speeding up of everything, is that time spent meditating or on retreat is easily devalued, because it’s not productive. More and more, there’s pressure to achieve the same meditative “results” – whatever they may be – in shorter and shorter times.

We can even see a shift in the retreat schedules of some insight meditation centres around the world. The nine-day retreat has shrunk to seven days, the seven-day retreat to five days, the five day retreat to three days, and so on, so that more retreats can be fitted in to each calendar year.

Retreats should be getting longer, not shorter

Yet if anything, retreats should be getting longer, not shorter, because most people come into retreat chronically stressed and tired. Much as we might like to deny it, we are organic beings. We’re made of meat and bone, flesh and blood. We’re not machines or electronic devices that can just be plugged in, switched on and kept going 24/7. But more and more, this is what we expect of ourselves, and it’s often not until we go on retreat and do stop, that we realise just how exhausted we are.

This means that the first one or two days of the retreat are spent in recovery mode, catching up on sleep and giving our fried nervous systems some time to recuperate. Then, because of our achievement-oriented striving, we feel like we have to make up for this lost time during the remaining days of the retreat, otherwise we’ll fall behind, won’t measure up, won’t achieve anything, won’t make any progress …

Our drivenness damages our own health, and the planet’s health

This drivenness is bad not only for our own health, but for the planet too, as we try to alleviate the stress of our over-full schedules by consuming more and more resources. Constant busyness gives us an excuse to ignore the damage we’re doing to the world – and each other. So in some ways, going on retreat and taking time to not be productive is an act of rebellion.

When we are able to take some time to slow down, the shift from DOing to BEing is often uncomfortable at first. It brings us face to face with the powerful conditioning that tells us we’re worthless, unless we’re involved in fifty different activities simultaneously. But as we start to see through that conditioning, we begin to taste moments of deep ease, peace, and freedom, and the insanity of our old way of being loses some of its appeal.

Every moment of meditation is a moment of resisting the tyranny of productivity

It still takes courage to resist that conditioning and prioritise living a more contemplative life, so we need the support of others who are oriented in a similar way, to help us maintain confidence that we are heading in the right direction. Each time we go on retreat, we’re strengthening our own intention to live a more sane and healthy life, and we’re helping others to do the same. In that way, every moment of meditation can become a moment of resisting the tyranny of productivity.

May our collective efforts to live with more ease, sanity and peace be a contribution to the welfare, the happiness, and the freedom, of all beings on our planet, and the planet itself.

Lake Freestad reflection

 

Three new and interesting books for experienced meditators

I’m currently working my way – slowly! – through three new books that may be of interest to experienced meditators: 

Seeing That Frees: Meditations on Emptiness and Dependent Arising
Rob Burbea 10 October 2014 Hermes Amara

Right Concentration: A Practical Guide to the Jhanas
Leigh Brasington 13 October 2015 Shambala

Compassion and Emptiness in Early Buddhist Meditation
Bhikkhu Analayo 3 November 2015 Windhorse Continue reading

July 2015 full moon 2 (blue moon) – anatta or not-self

Te Henga - Bethell's Beach reflections

‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’

‘There is nothing in the experience of the cosmos that fits the bill of being eternal, unchanging, or that deserves to be clung to as “me” or “mine.’

In last month’s post, I wrote about dukkha, the second of the three “universal characteristics” recognised by the Buddha as being inherent in all experience.  The first of these three is impermanence, and the third is anatta, usually translated as “not-self.”

Of the three, not-self is sometimes the hardest to make sense of because in English, it can sound like non-existence: I’m supposed to somehow become a non-entity, a nobody, and try to efface my personality so I have no individuality.  But this is a serious misunderstanding, because when approached correctly, experiencing anatta on deeper and deeper levels helps us to live life in more alignment with who we truly are.

As with all of the Buddha’s teachings, this understanding can be developed progressively.  To begin with, we can explore it on a more psychological level by paying attention to our thoughts, particularly any self-referencing thoughts.  Often these are happening as background chatter, but when we start to notice the content of them, it can be quite shocking to recognise how distorted, limiting and sometimes just outright cruel, our self-perceptions and self-views can be.

A few years ago, I started to tune in to the tendency in my mind to make very definite “I AM …” statements – for example, “I am always late,” or “I am so judgmental,” or “I am a hopeless meditator.”  But when I really paid attention, very few of these thoughts were completely true.  Just a simple example: “I’m always late.”  When I thought about it more carefully, I had to acknowledge that yes, I’m sometimes late, but the majority of times, I’m actually punctual.

We can even think of this as an ethical practice, keeping the commitment to not lie, and question: “Is this statement I’m making really true?”  We might notice the tendency to eternalise, fix, make solid whatever the perception is, and to recognise how much we love to create stories and inhabit them, even if the stories are painful ones!  Then remembering the intention of non-harming that underlies all the ethical training, we might feel more resolve to let go of those stories.

Sometimes this letting go happens quite naturally on retreat, when the mind is very quiet and mindfulness very sharp.  Then we might start to notice the subtle contraction, tightening, and closing down in the body and mind whenever we have a self-referencing thought of any kind.  We begin to catch the mind in the act of constructing identity, and to feel how limiting it is.

I’ve seen this in my own mind at times, almost as if it’s fabricating a flimsy kind of structure out of old bits of timber and rusty iron and bent nails, desperately cobbling something together, some kind of armature or scaffolding as a defence against impermanence and the myriad possibilities that can come from just being, rather than constantly doing …

Maybe you’ve experienced this too: the agitated contraction around a limiting self-view, then a sudden unexpected letting go, followed by a few moments of deep ease and happiness.  Often this letting go and the relief that comes afterwards can feel quite new and unfamiliar, and it can take a bit of getting used to.  Sometimes it’s followed by a kind of backlash, or even an attempt to go back to the previous misery, perhaps because we’ve invested so much time and energy in it!  But with practice, we learn not to believe the backlash, and to recognise the deeper truths about who we are. We come more into contact with what we might call our Buddha-nature – our highest human capacity.

I think of the Buddha’s own life again (as much as we can know of it from the discourses).  And I imagine what my own life would have been like, if he had not chosen to go beyond what his family told him was possible, what society told him was possible, what his first teachers told him was possible, and what the conditioning in his own mind told him was possible.

Because the Buddha was willing to challenge all of that, my own life has benefited enormously, and I feel inspired to risk stepping out of my own comfort zones.  When some aspect of my ego baulks, I remind myself that the teachings on anatta are not intended to be easily digestible, because in fact, as the English dharma teacher John Peacock says:

“You’re not going to change if you feel comfortable!”

John Peacock  The Buddha doesn’t do ‘cozy’  http://www.bcbsdharma.org/2015-2-3-insight-journal/

July 2015 full moon – dukkha

African Burial Ground memorial New York City

African Burial Ground memorial New York City

In last month’s full moon post, I wrote about impermanence.  Impermanence or anicca is one of the three “universal characteristics” recognised by the Buddha as being inherent in all experience; the other two being dukkha (usually translated as “suffering,” but more accurately, unsatisfactoriness), and anatta, or not-self.  Deeply understanding these three characteristics leads to the highest freedom, the freedom of heart and mind that is the goal of all insight meditation.

In my own practice, when I’ve read statements like the one I just made, my mind sometimes baulks.  What’s being conveyed sounds too abstract, remote, or perhaps idealistic, and my poor brain just doesn’t know what to do with that kind of information – at least on an intellectual level.

So this month, I’d been wondering how to talk about the second universal characteristic, dukkha, in a way that makes it real, and wakes us up to its transformative power.  Then the news came in about the shootings in Charleston, South Carolina, and Sousse, Tunisia.  And I need to say right away that I feel completely unequipped to know how to respond to pain of that magnitude.  I’m tempted to turn away and write about something completely different, but because I have friends in the US who are negatively impacted by individual and collective, institutional racism every day, I’m going to focus on the first of these two events.

There are people far better qualified than me to talk about the negative impacts of racism on all of us, but I’m inspired to even mention it in a blog because of a dharma talk I recently listened to by Ruth King.  She talks about the common dynamics of dominant/subordinate relationships between racial identity groups, and she refers to lack of urgency from the dominant group in relation to matters that are life-threatening to the subordinate group.  She gives the example of a group of white people taking the time to write 20-30 drafts of a letter protesting the killing of unarmed black men by US police, even though new murders were happening almost daily.  I thought of this example as I hesitated to write, then re-write, this post, knowing that I was never going to get it right no matter how long I took.

Here’s the link to Ruth King’s talk: http://www.dharmaseed.org/teacher/539/talk/27269/

Shrine at East Bay Meditation Center, Oakland, California

Shrine at East Bay Meditation Center, Oakland, California

In the Buddha’s teachings, the First Noble Truth is the simple recognition that “There is dukkha.”  Simple, but often completely counter-intuitive.  It’s more common when faced with distress of any kind, to fall into habitual strategies: to avoid, ignore, deny, numb out, blame, etc. These are the urges I notice in myself when extreme violence and/or racism are “in my face.”  Underlying them is often a feeling of complete powerlessness, but paradoxically, when I’m able to let go of all the useless strategies and stay in contact with just that underlying feeling, I can access more clarity.

I may still feel unable to DO anything about the situation, but at least I can “bear witness,” as they say in Zen.  In my understanding, this means being willing to not turn away, to fully face the situation as best I can, and to just name to myself – and perhaps others – what is really going on.

Yesterday, I received an email invitation to endorse an open letter sent by an organisation called Buddhists for Racial Justice.  Although on one level it might be dismissed as just another email petition, on another, I was grateful to be able to do something, no matter how small it might seem: just to be able to bear witness to what has been going on for so long, and add my name, publicly, to the wish for this form of dukkha to be overcome.

Here are the first three paragraphs of the letter:

As Buddhist teachers and leaders we are deeply shaken and saddened by the intentional and premeditated murder of nine worshippers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015. We send our heart-filled condolences to the families, loved ones, church, and communities, who have experienced this grievous loss.

While this terrorist act was apparently perpetrated by a single individual consumed by racial hatred and a desire to ignite a race war, the soil in which this massacre took root is the legacy of slavery, white supremacy, Jim Crow laws, lynchings, and the resulting racial inequalities and injustices that persist in our individual and collective consciousness and institutions. The daily experience of violence against people of color has become more recently visible through highlighted media coverage of the ongoing brutal treatment and killings of unarmed African-Americans by law enforcement agents across the country.

As Buddhists we realize the interdependence of all of our experiences—and that violence towards one community is violence perpetrated upon us all. As spiritual leaders, we must be committed to healing the wounds of racism that are such a primary and toxic part of the landscape of our country. This calls on those of dominant white communities to inquire deeply into and transform patterns of exclusion to power, inequity in resources, unseen bias, and unexamined disparities in privilege. There is an urgency to affirm that Black Lives Matter and work with religious and secular communities to respond to racial injustice.

You can see the full letter here:

An Open Letter

bus hairstyling girl, San Francisco

bus hairstyling girl, San Francisco

This site also has useful information for white people about racial awareness as spiritual practice, and a Shared Resources page with links to excellent documentaries and dharma talks.  All of these are from the US, and so far I haven’t been able to find any equivalent for Australia and New Zealand.  Please contact me if you know of anything relevant to this part of the world.

May we all experience freedom from the dukkha of oppression, in all its forms.

February 2015 full moon – freedom from the fetter of views

ruined building 1
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.

jail screen 3

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.

jail windows 2

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

jail windows 4jail windows 5

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

EBMC shrine 2

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.”
http://www.eastbaymeditation.org/

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.

harbour bridge ferry

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.

January 2015 full moon – resolution and determination

Mangonui harbour boats

Calm during the storm

“The days and nights are relentlessly passing; how well am I spending my time?”

(A question that the Buddha advised practitioners to contemplate frequently)

2015.  Each year this changing-of-the-calendar-numbers seems to arrive a little more quickly.  Each year, it seems that somehow there is less TIME … and so at first reading, the above reflection can seem to reinforce a sense of time-poverty: having too much to do, and not enough time to do it in.

Almost everyone I know seems to be affected by this particular form of stress, a kind of epidemic or collective disease that’s increasingly resistant to ordinary forms of treatment!  Recently I received a newsletter from a wise friend, Sebene Selassie, exploring this same theme in terms of “the pathology of productivity.”  Her questions struck a chord:

How often do I access the deep wisdom of simply being? Or is there mostly a low buzz of resistance to this very moment? A grasping connected to worrying, changing, solving, fixing, planning, getting, achieving, attaining…?
The mind that races is a mind that demands certainty and security; if I plan it all out, everything will finally be okay. Besides being impossible, that demand makes it difficult to rest in the beauty and mystery of what simply is. This moment. Presence.
… Whenever I pause and allow myself to reconnect deeply to my heart-mind-body, I can also remember the truth of interconnection.  But this requires an intentional, sustained pause. Something we all seem less and less capable to allow.

See the whole article, plus a moving description of her experiences in relation to the recent grand jury verdicts in the US, here: http://eepurl.com/Y8XHL

Even though I mostly have the freedom to set my own schedule, I’m still not immune from the energies of worrying, changing, solving, fixing, planning, getting, achieving, attaining that Sebene writes of.  As I was working on my teaching and travel schedule for 2015-2016, I noticed the thought: “Hmm, I really need to plan more spontaneity somewhere in here!”  It took me a few moments to register the paradox of “planning spontaneity,” and yet I know from past experience that without some form of effort, the relentless flow of busyness will simply sweep me away again.

So I notice another paradoxical urge: to want to change, solve and fix this problem of busyness by making a New Year’s resolution to be less busy!  Of course, this is a time of year when many people make New Year’s resolutions to fix – or improve – or overcome – or get rid of – some aspect of their lives that they don’t like, but perhaps because the resolution is rooted in aversion, it’s usually not very effective.

I started to wonder what a healthy resolution might look and feel like, and if perhaps using some of the ten parami, the ten (so-called) “perfections,” might be a more balanced way to approach this challenge?  Since it IS the season of resolutions, the most obvious one to bring to mind is the eighth parami, usually translated as “resolution and determination,” but without the parami of wisdom to support it, resolution alone can easily be misapplied.

One way that wisdom develops is from learning to ask the right questions.  So coming back to the Buddha’s original question: “How well am I spending my time?” I’m planning now to contemplate this every evening in January, just to see … to see if I can experience less busyness, as an antidote to what Thomas Merton named “the violence of our times.”  The first time I read his words I felt a shock of recognition, and even now, when I re-read them, there’s a pulse of discomfort that tells me, reluctantly, that there’s probably something in it I still need to learn!

“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to the violence of our times.”

May we all experience freedom from ALL forms of violence in 2015 …