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”→
Back at the end of July, I was an assistant teacher on a nine-day retreat at Spirit Rock, together with a friend and fellow teacher-trainee, DaRa Williams. One day, as we walked from the teacher housing to the meditation hall, I happened to notice a solitary Buddha figure set among some bushes on the hillside behind our cottages. Unlike the other Buddhas at Spirit Rock, this one was tucked almost out of view. There was no path to it, no clearing around it, and no place to sit nearby, but perhaps because of that, I felt compelled to go and take a closer look.
So I scrambled up a slight hill through the dry grass and discovered that the figure was what’s known as an “ascetic Buddha.” These images depict a phase in the life of Siddhārtha Gautama, the Buddha-to-be, before his Awakening, when he was practising extreme austerities such as sleeping on beds of nails, and eating very little food – hence the skeletal look in the image above. Continue reading “September 2016 full moon – wisdom and (self) compassion”→
“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 …
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/ )