daily life, mindfulness, motivation, retreat, Retreat practice, Ten Parami, Uncategorized

January 2018 full moon – re-set

Sydney Insight Meditators 2018 New Year’s retreat

meditators - Rena drawing
Drawing by retreat participant Rena Czaplinska Archer

Making positive changes

The New Year is traditionally a time to try to make positive changes for the year ahead.  And yet most of us have had the experience of starting out with a rush of good intentions, only to find ourselves collapsing back into old habits very quickly.

Having recently finished teaching a seven-day retreat over the New Year, the same pattern can be seen after a period of intensive practice.  Many people experience a wave of inspiration, and have the intention, post-retreat, to renew their commitment to meditating on a daily basis.

Yet again, these intentions often don’t last very long.  The momentum of daily life re-asserts its hold on us, and we’re soon back where we started.  When one retreat participant was recently asked on their retreat registration form to describe their daily practice, they wrote that it mostly consisted of “looking at their meditation cushion and feeling guilty!”

Establishing and/or maintaining a daily meditation practice

Most of us can probably relate to that description, at least at times.  So this month, I’d like to focus on some strategies for establishing or maintaining a daily meditation practice.

Continue reading “January 2018 full moon – re-set”

Awakening, daily life, freedom, neuroscience

New neuroscience research on the lasting benefits of meditation

 

ponga bud h

Dan Goleman and Richie Davidson are both well-known names in the fields of psychology, science journalism and neuroscience, and they have recently co-authored a book laying out their most recent research on the benefits of meditation.

Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body

Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson, published September 2017

To begin with, the authors make an interesting distinction between meditative states, and meditative traits.

“… beyond the pleasant states meditation can produce, the real payoffs are the lasting traits that can result. An altered trait—a new characteristic that arises from a meditation practice—endures apart from meditation itself. Altered traits shape how we behave in our daily lives, not just during or immediately after we meditate.”

They discuss new data that appears to confirm how with practice – and particularly, with intensive retreat practice – deep and lasting transformations do occur.  There’s a clear development from meditation as a method of experiencing pleasant states, to one that results in lasting changes, or traits.

They also distinguish between the “wide path” of practice: the mainstreaming of meditation techniques into mindfulness apps, for example; and the “deep path,”

“… which has always been the true goal of meditation. As we see it, the most compelling impacts of meditation are not better health or sharper business performance but, rather, a further reach toward our better nature. A stream of findings from the deep path markedly boosts science’s models of the upper limits of our positive potential.

The further reaches of the deep path cultivate enduring qualities like selflessness, equanimity, a loving presence, and impartial compassion—highly positive altered traits. … Now we can share scientific confirmation of these profound alterations of being—a transformation that dramatically ups the limits on psychological science’s ideas of human possibility.

The very idea of “awakening”—the goal of the deep path—seems a quaint fairy tale to a modern sensibility. Yet data from Richie’s lab, some just being published in journals as this book goes to press, confirm that remarkable, positive alterations in brain and behavior along the lines of those long described for the deep path are not a myth but a reality.”

Most people reading this post will already know this, and may not need any more proof of the benefits of meditation!  Still, this book should be a useful resource to those who might be newer to meditation practice – or to anyone surrounded by hard-core sceptics – because their research debunks some of the pseudo-scientific hype that has been used to sell meditation as a mainstream cure-all.

” … we bemoan how the data all too often is distorted or exaggerated when science gets used as a sales hook. The mix of meditation and monetizing has a sorry track record as a recipe for hucksterism, disappointment, even scandal. All too often, gross misrepresentations, questionable claims, or distortions of scientific studies are used to sell meditation.”

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of this book, as an antidote to some of the wilder misrepresentations of meditation that seem to becoming more and more widespread.

 

Podcast interview with Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson, by Dan Harris

For more information, check out this recent interview between the book’s authors and Dan Harris (of 10% Happier fame)

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1087147821

Episode 98

 

ponga fronds

daily life, insight, Noble Eightfold Path, Right Action, Right Concentration, Right Effort, Right Intention, Right Livelihood, Right Mindfulness, Right Speech, Right View, Uncategorized

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

Brahma Vihara practice, Four Foundations of Mindfulness, Insight Dialogue, Seven Factors of Awakening, Ten Parami, Uncategorized

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

daily life, fear, Five Precepts, mindfulness, Uncategorized, Virtue - sila

July 2016 full moon – Hatred STILL never ceases by hatred …

rain storm h

Rainstorm near Te Moata Retreat Centre, Coromandel, New Zealand

Exactly two years ago in July 2014, I wrote a post based on some well-known lines from the Dhammapada:

Hatred never ceases by hatred, but by love alone is healed. This is an ancient and eternal law. 1

Lately, that same post has been getting some views again, perhaps because there seem to have been just so many painful events in the world recently.  And perhaps like many others, at times I feel overwhelmed by the intensity and volume of suffering.  I notice my mind flipping between two modes: wanting to shut it all out, or compulsively needing to know the latest details.

Denial isn’t healthy, of course, but neither is unconsciously feeding the misery.  Because of the mind’s inherent “negativity bias,”2 it’s easy to develop a distorted perception of the world.  This is then amplified by the collective negativity-bias of the media, and the relentless twenty-four-hour reporting of tragedy after tragedy after tragedy.

A few years ago, I remember reading a discussion between a psychologist and a well-known dharma teacher about how to stay present when sitting with distressed clients, hour after hour.  The dharma teacher suggested that for every hour of contact with a client, the therapist should take at least one hour of silent time to meditate and come back to balance, before seeing the next client.

It sounded like a great idea, but I couldn’t imagine any of the psychologists or psychotherapists – or even dharma teachers I knew – being able to put it into practice.  And yet now more than ever, perhaps we need to reconsider it: to find ways of taking a break or making some space or creating more silence so that the psyche can recuperate a little.

Thich Nhat Hanh, the well-known Vietnamese dharma teacher, has written extensively about this need to protect our hearts and minds from “toxins” of various kinds.  In search of inspiration, I recently re-read his Five Mindfulness Trainings, which are a translation of the standard five ethical precepts.  Here’s a summary of all five:

The first training is to protect life, to decrease violence in oneself, in the family and in society. The second training is to practice social justice, generosity, not stealing and not exploiting other living beings. The third is the practice of responsible sexual behavior in order to protect individuals, couples, families and children. The fourth is the practice of deep listening and loving speech to restore communication and reconcile. The fifth is about mindful consumption, to help us not bring toxins and poisons into our body or mind.3

His re-writing of the last precept really stood out for me, with its emphasis on refreshing, healing, and nourishing.  I’m sharing it in full here, with the hope it might offer just a moment or two of relief, or perhaps even some inspiration to keep orienting towards “peace, joy and well-being.”

Nourishment and Healing: the fifth of five mindfulness trainings by Thich Nhat Hanh

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivating good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I will practice looking deeply into how I consume the Four Kinds of Nutriments, namely edible foods, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness. I am determined not to gamble, or to use alcohol, drugs, or any other products which contain toxins, such as certain websites, electronic games, TV programs, films, magazines, books, and conversations. I will practice coming back to the present moment to be in touch with the refreshing, healing and nourishing elements in me and around me, not letting regrets and sorrow drag me back into the past nor letting anxieties, fear, or craving pull me out of the present moment. I am determined not to try to cover up loneliness, anxiety, or other suffering by losing myself in consumption. I will contemplate interbeing and consume in a way that preserves peace, joy, and well-being in my body and consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family, my society and the Earth. 3

labyrinth view

Labyrinth at Te Moata Retreat Centre, Coromandel, New Zealand

Remembering to orient to the good, as well as the challenging

The intention here is not to ignore or deny painful experiences, but to try to maintain balance.  At times, I need to consciously remember the many, many people who are working towards overcoming suffering; and to remember how many positive changes are taking place, even though they might not get much media coverage.

Martin Luther King jr

Thich Nhat Hanh is one example I turn to for inspiration, and Martin Luther King Junior another.  These two knew each other quite well in the 1960s, and I sometimes like to imagine the discussions they would have had with each other back then.  Perhaps there’s an echo of the Dhammapada verses in this famous quote by Dr King:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. 4

May we all keep finding balance in the midst of darkness, and keep re-orienting to love.

thich nhat hanh martin luther king jr

Photo of Dr King and Thich Nhat Hanh from http://www.thisishowiflow.com/thich-nhat-hanh/

PS For more on Thich Nhat Hanh, here’s quite an inspiring short conversation between Thich Nhat Hanh and Oprah Winfrey:

1 https://jill0shepherd-insightmeditation.com/2014/07/11/july-2014-full-moon-hatred-never-ceases-by-hatred/
2 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Negativity_bias/
3 http://plumvillage.org/mindfulness-practice/the-5-mindfulness-trainings/
4 https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/52037-a-testament-of-hope-the-essential-writings-and-speeches-of-martin-luthe

 

anxiety, fear, retreat, Uncategorized

March 2016 full moon – Retreat and pre-retreat practice

door inside 2

Planning to go on retreat?

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”

daily life, Determination - aditthana, insight, Insight meditation - vipassana, motivation, retreat, Uncategorized

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 full moon – Motivation, Respect, Resolve”

Brahma Vihara practice, compassion - karuna, equanimity - upekkha, friendliness - metta, insight, Insight Dialogue, Insight meditation - vipassana, joy - mudita, mindfulness, retreat, Uncategorized

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 “February 2016 new moon – sea anemone heart”

freedom, insight, retreat, Uncategorized

December 2015 full moon – In praise of trees

NZ Christmas tree 3
New Zealand Christmas tree with native bird ornaments

This year, the full moon coincided with Christmas Day for the first time in 38 years. I’m in New Zealand visiting family for the holidays and even though it’s the middle of summer, there are evergreen Christmas trees decorated with icicles and snowflakes everywhere. The symbols of Christmas have always been messed up – the pagan-influenced Christmas tree, the Coke-ad inspired Santa, the Christian Nativity scene – but even more so in the Southern Hemisphere. In Australia, women in Santa hats and bikinis body-surf on Bondi Beach, while groups of men work on their tans, standing around beer-filled coolers topped with battery-operated sparkling artificial Christmas trees. Continue reading “December 2015 full moon – In praise of trees”

community, daily life, gratitude, Insight meditation - vipassana, Insight Meditation Society, joy - mudita, Uncategorized

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 “November 2015 full moon – gratitude”