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”→
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:
Just wanted to share a few photo souvenirs from this retreat, which took place last week on the outskirts of Kerteminde, an old fishing village a couple of hours from Copenhagen. The retreat was led by Joseph Goldstein and Uffe Damborg, who have known each other for over forty years, since their time practicing together in Bodhgaya, India, with Munindra-ji in the 1960s.
Uffe and Joseph at Copenhagen train station
A few of the 105 participants, coming mostly from Scandinavia, Northern Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States, had also been with Munindra-ji at that time, and since it was the 99th anniversary of Munindra-ji’s birth, on one level this felt like a historic gathering. I was surprised by how many familiar faces I recognised from silent retreats at IMS in Massachusetts, and perhaps for the first time, I sensed a connection to some kind of lineage – though a very informal one – and to a generation of meditators who have been exploring this path for many decades now.
The 19th century octagonal wooden pavilion on the right was our meditation hall for the week.
On another level, it was still about practising mindfulness in the present moment, and I was inspired by everyone’s diligent efforts to cultivate deepening freedom of heart and mind. Perhaps I’m a slow learner, but I’m still surprised that with each new retreat, in each new location, and with each new set of people from different circumstances, backgrounds, and life situations, there are common themes that keep emerging! There are common themes, perhaps even universal themes, and yet the majority of the people I talk with believe that they are totally alone in their struggles, and that they are uniquely defective, inadequate, messed up, neurotic, failing etc. And then with that frame of mind, the meditation practice can so easily turn into yet another form of getting it wrong, of being wrong, again.
To conserve resources, we were asked to write our names on a cup and take responsibility for washing it ourselves when necessary. Retreat participants were also invited to donate snacks and treats for the tea table, which resulted in a steady supply of chocolate, nuts, raisins, biscuits/cookies, and even fresh cherries from the local fruit stand to keep us going.
From that negative state of mind, it’s then hard to connect with what’s good: in ourselves, or in others, or in the world around us. I know this from my own experience, and so my aspiration is to keep finding ways for each one of us to step out of the trance of disconnection, to see the universality of our challenges, so that they might become a resource for deepening insight and compassion – instead of more fuel for our alienation.
Last week I gave a talk to the Lakeside Vipassana meditation group in Chicago. It was an incredibly cold evening outside (by my standards) but there was a good turn-out and a warm response to my exploration of Effort and Enjoyment in meditation practice.
I’ve been meeting with meditation groups in a variety of locations these last few years: in the USA, Australia, Aotearoa/New Zealand and in a Massachusetts prison. In spite of the diversity of people I meet, there are some surprisingly common themes among them.
One that stands out to me lately is how often our meditation practice can be unconsciously motivated by self-aversion. Often when I talk about “enjoying your practice,” the common reaction is one of surprise that this is either possible, or even desirable. There can be an assumption that whatever is experienced as pleasant is somehow unspiritual (whatever that means), and that Right Effort means only blood, sweat, and tears. I know from my own experience that practicing with this underlying attitude is unsustainable. Meditation soon becomes a chore, a duty, and just one more thing to feel guilty about when I don’t do it as often or as well as I “should.”
Most of us are familiar with paying attention to what’s happening on the micro level in our bodies, through mindfulness of breathing or physical sensations, but sometimes it’s helpful to zoom out and check what’s happening on the macro level of practice. What underlying assumptions, views, beliefs are motivating my practice? Has it become just another self-improvement project, a subtle or not-so-subtle form of violence to who I take myself to be right now?
If so, it can be helpful to put more effort into the brahma-vihara practices, cultivating kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. In particular, the cultivation of joy for one’s own good qualities can be a powerful antidote to the tendency towards self-aversion. The Buddha recommended doing this practice to a lay person by the name of Mahanama, and suggested that it would lead to complete freedom – so perhaps it’s worth a try!