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: http://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/ )

Weekend workshops coming up soon in Auckland

Insight Meditation day-long workshop

Exploring equanimity: finding balance and ease in the midst of busyness
Suitable for more experienced meditators, this day-long workshop will be an opportunity to deepen the practice of insight meditation through an exploration of equanimity: the balanced heart-mind. The day will be spent alternating between periods of silent sitting and walking meditation, guided meditations and group discussion, with some optional opportunities to meet individually with the teacher.
Dates and times: 9:00 am – 5:00 pm Saturday 13 December 2014
Place: 9 Kotare Avenue Westmere Auckland
Cost: $30 + dana*
To register: https://www.eventbrite.co.nz/e/insight-meditation-workshop-auckland-saturday-13-december-2014-tickets-12539302391

 

Insight Dialogue day-long workshop

Insight Dialogue is an interpersonal meditation practice that brings the mindfulness and tranquility of traditional silent meditation into our experience with others. Resting on the foundation of traditional Buddhist teachings, this practice offers a way to integrate our dedication to a path of wisdom and compassion with our relational lives.
For more information about Insight Dialogue, please refer to the Metta Program’s website: http://metta.org/insight-dialogue-3/

This day-long introduction to Insight Dialogue is suitable for people with some insight meditation (vipassana) experience, but prior Insight Dialogue experience is not required.

Dates and times: 9:00 am – 5:00 pm Sunday 14 December 2014
Place: 9 Kotare Avenue Westmere Auckland
Cost: $30 + dana*
To register: https://www.eventbrite.co.nz/e/insight-dialogue-day-long-workshop-auckland-sunday-14-december-2014-tickets-12539167989

Three day Insight Meditation retreat – Blue Mountains, NSW Australia

Turning Poison into Medicine: Working with the Mind’s Challenges

During this three day insight meditation retreat we will use the Four Foundations of Mindfulness to explore the difficult energies in the mind; what causes them to arise, and techniques for transforming them from obstacles into resources that support the development of wisdom and compassion.
Most of each day will be spent practising silent sitting and walking meditation, with some guided meditation instructions and opportunities for individual and group meetings with the teacher. Suitable for beginners as well as more experienced meditators.

Time and dates: 5:00 p.m. Friday 23 January – 1:00 p.m. Monday 26 January 2015
Location: Blue Mountains Insight Meditation Centre (BMIMC) 25 Rutland Road Medlow Bath NSW 2780
Cost: $270 + dana*
To register: Download BMIMC application form here http://www.meditation.asn.au/Documents/retreat_application_2012

Update 28 November:
Fully booked for women – please apply to be on waiting list
One place left for men

November 2014 full moon – Right Effort and the Middle Way

2014-10-18 Santi sangha stupa jill

A monk and several bhikkhunis (fully-ordained nuns) from Santi Forest Monastery, visiting the Blue Mountains Insight Meditation Centre, October 2014

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 …

October 2014 full moon – viriya / heroic energy

Viriya: persistence; energy; vigour; courageous effort; heroic exertion

Monument to surfers, Santa Cruz CA

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.

Woman surfer at Tamarama Beach NSW Australia

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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September 2014 full moon – equanimity part 2

Equanimity: Evenness of mind

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:

All beings are the owners of their karma. Their happiness and unhappiness depend upon their actions, not upon my wishes for them. (traditional)

I wish you happiness but cannot make your choices for you. (Sharon Salzberg)

May I/we be undisturbed by the comings and goings of events. (Sharon Salzberg)

May I/you learn to see the arising and passing of all things with equanimity and balance. (Jack Kornfield) – photo by Sue Bachman

No matter how I might wish things to be otherwise, things are as they are. (Kamala Masters)

May I accept and open to how it is right now, because this is how it is right now. (Kamala Masters)

I care for you but cannot keep you from suffering. (Sharon Salzberg)

May I/you be open and balanced and peaceful. (Jack Kornfield)

May I/we accept things as they are. (Sharon Salzberg)

August 2014 full moon – Equanimity

Gain/loss, status/disgrace, censure/praise, pleasure/pain: these conditions among human beings are inconstant, impermanent, subject to change. Knowing this, the wise person, mindful, ponders these changing conditions. Desirable things don’t charm the mind, undesirable ones bring no resistance. His [or her] welcoming and rebelling are scattered, gone to their end, do not exist. Knowing the dustless, sorrowless state, he [or she] discerns rightly, has gone, beyond becoming, to the Further Shore.

AN 8.6 Lokavipatti Sutta: The Failings of the World

Having just landed back in the Blue Mountains, Australia, after two months of travel in the Northern Hemisphere and New Zealand, there’s now some time to catch my breath and reflect on the kaleidoscope of people and places I’ve just visited.  Perhaps because conditions were changing so rapidly, it was so clear that whenever there was holding on, there was suffering.  And when there was no holding on, no resistance, there was no suffering.  Moving through – or with – all of these changes, I’m grateful for the possibility of equanimity; and grateful too, for the rich experiences of these last few weeks.

15 June 2014 Boston, Massachusetts: Royall House slave quarters

23 June 2014 Kerteminde, Denmark: yellow house old courtyard

29 June 2014 Copenhagen, Denmark: stone boy red lips

5 July 2014 London, England: pearly king and queen

8 July 2014 Brighton, England: gravel beach and pier

10 July 2014 London, England: dragon skyline Royal Courts of Justice

13 July 2014 London, England: Columbia Road flower stall

21 July 2014 New York, New York: African Burial Ground

21 July 2014 New York, New York: National September 11 Memorial

21 July 2014 New York, New York: girls playing on the High Line park

21 July 2014 New York, New York: Zucotti Park woman collecting cans

22 July 2014 New York, New York: Sebene Jill Bryony at New York Insight

27 July 2014 Marina Del Rey, California: host Patrick in pool

3 August 2014 Auckland, New Zealand: winter weekend retreat at Aio Wira

 

And to finish, some more thoughts on equanimity from Pema Chodron:

To cultivate equanimity we practice catching ourselves when we feel attraction or aversion, before it hardens into grasping or negativity. We train in staying with the soft spot and use our biases as stepping-stones for connecting with the confusion of others. Strong emotions are useful in this regard. Whatever arises, no matter how bad it feels, can be used to extend our kinship to others who suffer the same kind of aggression or craving — who, just like us, get hooked by hope and fear. This is how we come to appreciate that everyone’s in the same boat. We all desperately need more insight into what leads to happiness and what leads to pain.

It’s easy to continue, even after years of practice, to harden into a position of anger and indignation. However, if we can contact the vulnerability and rawness of resentment or rage or whatever it is, a bigger perspective can emerge. In the moment that we choose to abide with the energy instead of acting it out and repressing it, we are training in equanimity, in thinking bigger than right and wrong. This is how all the four limitless qualities — love, compassion, joy, and equanimity — evolve from limited to limitless: we practice catching our mind hardening into fixed views and do our best to soften. Through softening, the barriers come down.

Pema Chodron, Comfortable with Uncertainty Shambhala 2002 p79-80

July 2014 full moon – Hatred never ceases by hatred …

burnt banksia close scaled
pink blue flowers 1 scaled

 

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

quoted in “The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times” by Pema Chödrön 2001

Hatred never ends through hatred.  By non-hatred alone does it end.  This is an ancient truth.

The Dhammapada: Teachings of the Buddha translated from the Pali by Gil Fronsdal 2008

Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world.  By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased.  This is a law eternal.

“Yamakavagga: Pairs” (Dhp I), translated from the Pali by Acharya Buddharakkhita. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/dhp/dhp.01.budd.html

Hostilities aren’t stilled through hostility, regardless.  Hostilities are stilled through non-hostility: this, an unending truth.

“Yamakavagga: Pairs” (Dhp I), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/dhp/dhp.01.budd.html

These are four translations of the same verses from the Dhammapada, a collection of short sayings attributed to the Buddha.  They’re a distillation of one of the key principles of the Buddha’s teachings – the principle of non-harming – and no matter how the central message is translated here, I still find it to be a challenging statement.

Over the last few weeks, because I’ve had a few conversations with people who are struggling to deal with hatred, I’ve been inspired to contemplate this teaching again, to try to find ways of engaging with it as a practice and not only a statement of principle.  Part of the challenge of these verses for me is that on first reading, they can appear so black and white that they unconsciously reinforce a kind of hatred towards my own hatred.  Because if I was practising right, hostility just wouldn’t come up any more, would it?  Instead, I’d be abiding healed by love, happily ever after …

With this assumption, when hatred does come up the tendency is to disown, deny, suppress, ignore it – anything to get away from the discomfort of it!  And in Buddhist circles, one very common strategy is to use metta practice to try to get rid of even the slightest trace of hostility.  Metta (usually translated as “loving-kindness,” but more accurately good will or benevolence), is one of four skilful mind-states known as the brahma-viharas, that can be cultivated through specific meditation practices.  The other three are compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity (or balance of mind), but metta is seen as the foundation of all four and it tends to get the most emphasis in Western vipassana teaching.  It’s often presented as a kind of universal antidote to all negative emotions or mind-states, so it’s not surprising that many meditators tend to jump to metta as a way to bypass difficult feelings.

I’ve often tried this strategy myself, but sadly, it’s never been very successful.  If anything, it’s tended to make me feel worse, because not only is the original hatred untouched, there’s now a whole pile of self-judgement and shame on top of it, due to the failure of my metta practice to make any difference whatosever!

Recently, what has been more effective is to first recognise the hatred of the hatred, and then to apply the ancient truth of non-hatred to the hatred itself.  This means being willing to explore the unpleasant feelings in the body and the heart-mind, with as much compassion – rather than metta – as possible.  Compassion is the courage to face into what’s difficult: to be with the uncomfortable sensations in the body and the distressing emotions in the heart-mind, without feeding or suppressing them.  This means not rehashing the story of what happened, not trying to resolve the situation in our heads yet again, not getting caught in replaying what should have been said or done.  Instead, it’s consciously bringing the attention down into a more embodied awareness.

This can be done as a formal meditation practice, by making a resolution to simply be with the hatred for a set period of time, and to investigate all of  its physical and mental symptoms.  I’ve found that lying down to do this can be helpful, because it’s easier to relax the whole body when lying down.  In the same way, placing one hand on the heart-centre and one on the belly can help to connect with a more embodied and intuitive understanding of hatred.  Then, when any uncomfortable physical or mental feelings come up, try to stay with them with an attitude of kind curiosity, gently opening to whatever arises with as much compassion as you can.

This is definitely a practice, because having compassion towards oneself in this way is not something that comes easily to most people.  Often when I suggest it, the first response is almost one of horror, because self-compassion often seems to be mistaken for a form of self-centredness.  So it’s important to have patience for the process, and recognise that because it’s not our usual way of relating to hatred, it will take time to develop this new approach.

And, if the hatred is very strong, it might be necessary to put a strict limit on the amount of time you’re willing to be with it in meditation.  That way, it won’t wear you down so that you end up getting lost in the story of it again.  For example, it could be helpful to set a timer for perhaps only thirty seconds to begin with.

When the time is up, you can bring the meditation to a close by deliberately changing focus to contemplate something positive for a few moments.  This helps to establish a positive feedback loop in the mind, that strengthens the willingness to be with discomfort.  For example, you could think of a situation in your life where you feel safe and at ease; or a person or pet that you naturally feel good will towards; or an aspect of your character that others appreciate; or simply acknowledge your own courage in having faced into the hatred for a few moments.  All of these are forms of the brahma viharas mentioned above, and they can help to reduce any negative residue that might be left from having explored the hatred a little.

The goal of this practice is not to get rid of the hatred, but to cultivate a wiser relationship to it.  Being with the hatred in small doses, we start to see that like everything else, it’s impermanent, it’s stressful, and it’s not under my control.  It becomes possible to take it less seriously, and with repeated practice, we develop the capacity to be with it more fully, for longer.  At some point, we might be able to set the timer for sixty seconds, then two minutes, five minutes … Eventually, instead of hating the hatred, we start to see the pain that hatred causes more clearly.  Then, we start to care not only about our own pain, but the pain of  the person or people we formerly hated, too, and our compassion extends to include their suffering.  In this way, hatred does become “healed by love alone:” but as a natural process, one that takes all the time it needs and can never be forced.

 

 

 

4 July 2014 – celebrating two years of “homelessness”

2014-07-04 London

Just realised today is the second anniversary since I had to leave the US, which means I’ve been technically homeless and living out of this suitcase (the silver sub) for two years now!  Sending much gratitude to all the people who have given me a roof over my head – thanks to all of you, I’ve been able to continue teaching and travelling and teaching and travelling and …

Danish retreat with Joseph Goldstein and Uffe Damborg, June 2014

Kerteminde town harbourA view of Kerteminde harbour

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 Joseph 2

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.

hostel pavilion

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.

hostel cups 2

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.

Kerteminde yellow house sun h

 Old Kerteminde houses

 Kerteminde yellow house window detail

 

hostel snail

 And the retreat mascot …