December 2016 full moon – Wise Action, Wise Non-Action

tamarama-lifeguard-surfers

Surf life-saving crew, Tamarama Beach, New South Wales

The Noble Eightfold Path

The Noble Eightfold Path is the Buddha’s prescription for completely curing ourselves of unhappiness.  And like any good medicine, it doesn’t only work in one way.  It’s a very holistic treatment that works on several different aspects of our lives at once – in fact, every aspect of our lives is included here, if we’re practising fully.

The way the path is laid out invites us to pay attention to three particular areas of development, traditionally known as sīla, samādhi and pañña, or ethics, meditation and wisdom.  These three aspects support each other like the three legs of a tripod, and all of three of them need to be equally well developed, if our practice is to keep deepening. Continue reading

August 2016 full moon – Seven Factors of Awakening and Equanimity (again)

rock balance 3

Seven Factors of Awakening

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

February 2016 full moon – Motivation, Respect, Resolve

sea wall woman 2

Woman reading on sea wall – Newcastle NSW

The rewards and challenges of technology

Earlier this evening, I gave my first dharma talk via video-link, from the YHA in Sydney to Auckland Insight in New Zealand.  Nothing too remarkable about that these days; but still, it was a delight to be able to connect with the group in this way, and I felt a new sense of appreciation for the benefits of computer technology.  We now have access to a wide range of dharma teachings from many different traditions, in many different forms.  And with almost no effort, we can instantly download or stream talks and videos, or sign up for online study courses.

In my own experience though – as both a teacher and a student – there can also be a downside to this instant abundance.  Without awareness, it can unconsciously reinforce a passive, materialistic, and at times even disrespectful relationship to the teachings.

So as technology helps meditation becomes more and more mainstream, it’s becoming increasingly normal to approach it with a consumerist mind-set.  In some ways, this makes sense.  When everything else around us is presented in that way, why wouldn’t we think about the practice in terms of what we can get from it?  And why wouldn’t we assume that it should be available on my terms: in the way I want it, when I want it, for the price I want it?  We can even mistake this kind of freedom (to consume) for the deeper freedom that the Buddha’s teachings point to. Continue reading

February 2016 new moon – sea anemone heart

Sea AnemoneSea anemone by Virginia Draper
http://www.virginiadraper.com/p822038089

Opening, closing, opening, closing …

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

November 2015 full moon – gratitude

red berries close

A few slightly random reflections on Gratitude

“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.” AN 2.118

 As the three-month retreat at IMS comes to a close, there’s a definite shift in the overall mood of the meditators.  Each day, the ones I meet with are expressing more and more gratitude for the opportunity they’ve had to be here, practising intensively for six weeks or three months.
It’s definitely not easy to do this, and yet perhaps because of the challenges, there’s a corresponding depth to the gratitude.  I’ve noticed this in other situations, too – that there can be an unexpected ability to connect with gratitude even in the midst of difficulty.

Continue reading

September 2015 full moon – Maintaining Motivation (or finding antidotes to “sloth and torpor”)

The five hindrances

I’ve been back in New Zealand for the month of September, and with the Auckland Insight group, we’ve been exploring the Five Hindrances, five particularly unhelpful states of mind that get in the way of clear seeing, of insight.  They appear in the Satipatthana Sutta under the Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness, as qualities of mental energy that we need to learn how to relate to wisely, and eventually, to overcome completely.

These are the five:
sensual desire
aversion
sloth and torpor
restlessness and remorse
sceptical doubt 1 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/

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 …

December 2014 full moon – wisdom and compassion

heart forest

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/ )