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.
This month’s full moon post is a little late, because just this morning, I finished co-teaching the last six weeks of the three-month retreat at IMS in Barre, Massachusetts.
The ending of any period of intensive meditation practice is poignant, but even more so when it’s been a longer retreat. As this retreat was drawing to a close, I started to felt even less articulate than usual! It’s been hard to find words that might capture something of the power of the profound transformations that I had the honour to witness, as I accompanied the meditators at least some of the way on their inner journeys.
Part of the struggle has been a sense of paradox: a feeling that the heart-mind has become both vastly expansive, and completely intimate. So when a friend sent me the link to this short video of a supermoon rising, I was very happy, because perhaps these images might convey what my own words can’t …
Next Step Dharma – online course by Oren Sofer and Jaya Rudgard
For anyone wondering how to access support for the transition from retreat practice to daily life, my friends Oren and Jaya have a six week online course specifically designed to help bring your retreat back home.
The course comprises:
• 21 short Dharma Talks and 16 Guided Meditations, all geared for integration
• 18 Recorded interviews with founding Insight Meditation teachers
• 8 weeks of interactive, live Q & A Sessions with the Course Leaders
• Mentoring for your meditation practice
• Weekly readings and “Core Integration” practices
• Lifetime membership in our online community
Do not chase after what is gone,
Nor yearn for what is yet to be.
For the past has been left behind,
And the future cannot be reached.
Those states that are before you now —
Have insight into every one!
Know that well, again and again.
Do this work today, with ardor;
Who knows when death will come calling?
There is no bargaining with Death,
Or with his army of minions.
Abiding ardently like this
Without fail, both day and night, is
“The single most precious moment.”
So the peaceful sage has told us.
Quoted in “Older and Wiser: Classical Buddhist Teachings on Aging, Sickness, and Death”
by Mu Soeng, Gloria Ambrosia, Andrew Olendzki
Finally, here’s a link to the last talk I gave at the end of the retreat. It has an overview of the core teachings and ways to put them into practice in daily life, using the ten parami of generosity, renunciation, ethical conduct, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, resolve, kindness, and equanimity. I hope it will be helpful whether you’re a beginning meditator, or an experienced practitioner.
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)”→
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”→
“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 …
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 …
I recently had the good fortune to sit a two-week retreat offered by Gil Fronsdal at the Insight Retreat Center near Santa Cruz, California. As Gil led us deeper and deeper into one of the core texts on mindfulness of breathing, the Anapanasati Sutta, I again found myself exploring some familiar – and difficult – inner terrain.
Fortunately, not long before that retreat I’d read a quote from another US dharma teacher, Eugene Cash, that had become a kind of mantra for me: “If it’s in the way, it IS the way!” Something about the simplicity of that slogan resonated, and helped shed light on the often-unconscious resistance I have to aspects of life that appear to be obstacles to my practice. And by coincidence (or not), a friend had recently sent me a similar quote reminding us that the messiness we encounter in meditation practice is not a mistake, it’s actually the raw material that we work with as fuel for the transformation process. This is from an article in Tricycle magazine by Aura Glaser, a dharma teacher in the Tibetan tradition. She writes:
“Although our deep-seated tendency is to reject the unwanted in an effort to prevent suffering, it turns out that all the ways we resist actually limit our lives, bringing us pain. And yet how do we find the courage to open to, and accept, all of what we are and all of what is arising in our body and mind? How do we tap the confidence to live with that kind of openness and receive what is arising in the moment, just as it is, with clarity and kindness?
… We sometimes imagine that if we just lead our spiritual life the “right” way, we won’t encounter life’s sharp edges. We will be on a direct path to ever-increasing tranquility and joy. We are not prepared for all of our unfinished business being exposed, all of our unresolved trauma pushing up from the depths like a geyser of black mud. Working with all that has been pushed down is a central part of the spiritual journey.”
Sometimes we can have reservations about doing longer retreats because of the possibility of some kind of “geyser of black mud” emerging. But in my own experience, one of the benefits of retreat practice is that even though challenges may come up, often these challenges catalyse the inner strengths that are needed to meet them, and this is part of the magic and mystery of being on retreat. With hindsight, this is what I experienced during the recent two-week retreat. Afterwards, I recognised that even though the inner challenges I’d been working with had been deeply painful, each time I was able to accept them as a necessary part of the journey, somehow the energy needed to work through them became available.
Towards the end of the retreat I remembered that viriya, sometimes translated as “heroic effort,” is actually one of the seven factors of awakening that we need to cultivate in the service of freedom. So I started to work with this factor of viriya more intentionally, and discovered that just inclining the heart-mind in that direction seemed to set off a kind of chain reaction: making the effort to meet a particular obstacle freed up even more energy when that obstacle was overcome, and the whole process felt quite exhilarating at times.
In our ordinary lives, thinking of ourselves as having heroic qualities may be a stretch, and for women especially, heroism may feel like an alien quality when the vast majority of role models and images of the heroic are men, as in the photo above. Even the word “viriya” literally translates as “the state of a strong man.” The root “vir” comes from the Pali and Sanskrit word for warrior, and the same root is found in the English word “virile.” (If you’re familiar with yoga practice, you might also recognise it in the Sanskrit name for warrior pose, Virabhadrasana.) On retreat though, we can experiment with and explore aspects of ourselves that may be lying dormant, and if we can free this quality of heroic energy from its gendered trappings, it can be a powerful motivating force that helps us to meet the difficult aspects of our lives.
This process of cultivating viriya can begin even before the actual retreat starts. In my own practice, I’ve often noticed that just having signed up for a retreat seems to kick-start an inner process where qualities such as determination, dedication, commitment, effort, and trust begin to deepen.
And for many people, getting to a retreat in the first place means working with a whole range of obstacles: financial challenges, health issues, work commitments, childcare responsibilities, etc. But remembering “If it’s in the way, it IS the way,” even these become part of our pre-retreat practice. We can set an intention and then begin to cultivate this quality of viriya: persistence; energy; vigour; courageous effort; heroic exertion … The obstacles may not dissolve overnight. It may take six weeks, six months, six years before we eventually manage to get to the retreat. But when we do finally get there, the time spent cultivating viriya will be a powerful support for our meditation practice, and we might understand directly why it is one of the seven factors of awakening.
I was recently given a copy of Ajahn Sucitto’s latest free book, “Parami: Ways to Cross Life’s Floods,” and have found it to be one of those rare books that I don’t want to put down, and can’t wait to come back to.
The ten parami (sometimes translated as “ten perfections”) are qualities of heart/mind that the Buddha is said to have developed to perfection before he attained complete freedom. They are particularly relevant to lay people because they’re qualities that can be developed in ordinary life: Generosity, Ethical Conduct, Renunciation, Wisdom, Energy, Patience, Truthfulness, Resolve, Kindness, and Equanimity.
In his introduction, Ajahn Sucitto talks about “crossing the floods” as a metaphor for freedom, and how developing the parami can give us firm ground to stand on. He says: “Interest in deep change gets triggered by the feeling of being swept along by events; by the sense of being overwhelmed by, and even going under, a tide of worries, duties, and pressures. That’s the ‘floods.’ And crossing them is about coming through all that to find some firm ground. It takes some work, some skill, but we can do it. This book offers some guidelines and themes for practice that can get us fit for the task.” [p11]
These ten parami are powerful supports to our meditation practice too. It’s said that if we come to a place where we don’t feel to be making progress any more, it’s because one or more of the parami is underdeveloped. That has been true in my own practice, and I’ve also observed it in others, too. So this book is a resource to help shine light on those areas of the practice that perhaps need more attention. Each chapter explores one of the parami in depth, drawing on Ajahn Sucitto’s many decades of dedicated dharma practice, and it includes suggestions for working with the parami in daily life as well as in formal meditation.
If you’re interested in reading the book, it’s available as a free download from the Forest Sangha Publications website: