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 …

Brene Brown on shame, vulnerability and compassion

echidna 1 scaled

Australian echidna not enjoying having its photo taken

Recently I’ve offered a couple of retreats and courses exploring the theme of “Transforming Poison into Medicine – working with the mind’s difficult energies.”   That phrase about “poison and medicine” was borrowed from a chapter in a book by Pema Chodron, an American nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition who has written many inspiring books about transmuting life’s obstacles into resources.  The titles of her books say it all:

The Wisdom of No Escape
Start Where You Are: How to accept yourself and others
When Things Fall Apart
The Places that Scare You
Comfortable with Uncertainty
No Time to Lose …

There’s definitely a theme there!  And perhaps she (and we) need to keep coming back to that theme because it IS so counter-intuitive that “the way out is through.”  Even to hear or read words such as shame and vulnerability can send some of us scurrying back into our “wombat holes,” to borrow a phrase from a recent course participant.

But in case we need any further convincing, there’s a growing body of research that’s starting to come to similar conclusions.  For example, Brene Brown, who is a professor of sociology at Houston University, has spent the past ten years studying vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame, and although (as far as I know) she is not a meditator, the conclusions she comes to sound a lot like this alchemical process of transmuting poisons into medicine.   In one of her latest interviews, she even quotes Pema Chodron.  Here is a short extract from that interview:

If you have a petri dish and you have shame in there, this pervasive feeling of not being good enough and not being ‘whatever’ enough—thin enough, rich enough, popular enough, promoted enough, loved enough. It only needs three things to survive in this little Petri dish and actually to grow exponentially and creep into every corner and crevice of your life and that is secrecy, silence and judgement. If you have the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and you douse it with some empathy, you share your story with someone who can hear you and look back at you and say you’re not alone, shame dies. 

Pema Chödrön … defines compassion as knowing your darkness well enough that you can sit in the dark with others. …

Which is why, it’s so ironic to me that people think that vulnerability is weakness, when really, letting ourselves fully soften into feeling is one of the most courageous things we do. I mean it’s ballsy to let yourself feel. I don’t know if there’s an emotion more vulnerable than joy. I think it is one of the most difficult emotions to feel. Emotions won’t kill you but not feeling them will. Our fear of emotion can absolutely kill us. Pain won’t kill us but numbing pain kills people every single day. We’re the most obese, in debt, medicated, workaholic, addicted adults in human history. Pain won’t kill you, numbing pain kills people every minute of every day.

So what’s the antidote?

To increase our tolerance for discomfort … you practice being uncomfortable.

Because to lean into joy is to lean into discomfort.

 

The whole text of the interview is available here: http://www.dumbofeather.com/conversation/brene-brown-is-a-grounded-researcher/

 

Insight Dialogue update – New South Wales

bronze ear

Good news!  It’s just been announced that Greg Kramer, the founder of Insight Dialogue, will be teaching a nine-day retreat for experienced students at the Blue Mountains Insight Meditation Centre in February 2015, together with senior Insight Dialogue teacher Mary Burns.
Places in this retreat are strictly limited and demand will probably be high, so if you are interested in attending please book soon.  More information can be found here: http://www.meditation.asn.au/schedule.html

When I first discovered Insight Dialogue on retreat with Greg Kramer in the US in 2007, it felt like the “missing link” that helped to integrate the insights I’d discovered in silent retreat into my daily life.  Being able to practice mindfulness while speaking and listening has had a huge impact on how I relate to others (as well as myself), so I’m very much looking forward to exploring this relational form of insight meditation again in a couple of weeks time.
If you’re unfamiliar with the practice of Insight Dialogue, you might like to try it out at an introductory day-long workshop co-facilitated by Jill Shepherd and Beth Faria.  These workshops are suitable for people with some previous mindfulness and insight meditation (vipassana) experience, but prior Insight Dialogue experience is not required.
See details below:

 

Insight Dialogue introductory day-long workshop 1
Sunday 25 May – Newtown, Sydney

update 20 May 2014 – only 4 places left

Co-facilitators: Jill Shepherd and Beth Faria
Date: Sunday 25 May 2014
Time: 8:30-5:00 p.m.
Location: Newtown Yoga Room 35 Dickson St
Newtown NSW 2042
Cost: $20+ dana*
Food: Please bring your own lunch.  Tea and herbal teas will be supplied.
Equipment: Chairs will be available, but please bring your own meditation cushion or bench if you have one, and a shawl or blanket.
To register: http://www.eventbrite.com.au/e/insight-dialogue-meditation-workshop-tickets-10800144523

“Insight Dialogue is an interpersonal meditation practice. It is based upon traditional Buddhist insight meditation, and involves cultivating the same qualities of mindfulness and calm concentration.  These qualities are cultivated while in relationship, while speaking and listening with one or more people, and as such, the keen and settled mind can gain insight into the nature of suffering and ease, identification and freedom. The topics of the dialogues are intended to invite the meditators into direct experiences of impermanence and selflessness, love and compassion, the suffering that comes with clinging and the release that comes with letting go.  The wisdom of selflessness and the compassion of the shared human experience become immediately present. The integration with our lives is revealing, challenging, and liberating.”
(interview with Greg Kramer, founder of Insight Dialogue, 8 March 2010)
For more information about Insight Dialogue, please refer to the Metta Program’s website: http://metta.org/insight-dialogue-3/

Reflections on the Brahma Vihara practices

Kuan Yin sunbeam

This article (with minor amendments) was first published in the March 2014 BMIMC newsletter.

Since returning to Australia and New Zealand from the United States eighteen months ago, I’ve been teaching several weekend retreats, day-long workshops and evening classes in New South Wales and Auckland.  Alongside the insight meditation practice, I’ve usually included some focus on the four brahma-viharas: the meditative development of good will, compassion, joy and equanimity (or metta, karuna, mudita and upekkha, to use the Pali terms).
At the beginning of my own meditation practice, I tended to avoid the brahma-viharas because I found them so incredibly challenging. As I’ve supported other meditators over the last few years, I’ve observed many people going through similar struggles. And yet, I’ve also often noticed that there seems to be a direct relationship between how resistant a person is to exploring the brahma-vihara practices, and how much benefit they eventually end up receiving from them!
Much of the resistance seems to come from the misunderstanding that the purpose of these practices is to cultivate positive emotions. And so there’s a tendency to try to force or manufacture an idea of how that emotion is supposed to feel, which often leads to the exact opposite: unskilful emotions of frustration, self-judgement, tension, irritation, boredom, and various other flavours of aversion.
Rather than trying to manufacture positive emotions though, the purpose of these practices is to cultivate the intention to wish well to others, to care about their suffering, to appreciate their joy, and to stay even-minded in the face of life’s “ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows.” Sometimes a positive emotion arises naturally as a result of that intention, but this is a side effect rather than the main goal. Understanding this can take the pressure off, reduce performance anxiety and help develop more patience for the organic development of these skilful mind-states.
“Think not lightly of good, saying, ‘It will not come to me.’ Drop by drop is the water pot filled. Likewise, the wise man [or woman], gathering it little by little, fills himself [or herself] with good.”
Dhammapada chapter 9 verse 122
A more contemporary metaphor I like to use is that of the Hubble telescope. My understanding is that this highly sophisticated piece of machinery is constantly scanning the universe in search of the faintest signs of life. In a similar way, when I practice the brahma viharas, at times it feels as if I’m turning my own Hubble telescope inwards in search of the faintest signs of metta, karuna, mudita and upekkha. There’s a deep listening that has to happen to access these tiny pulses of good will, compassion, joy and equanimity, but when they’re recognised, the metaphorical Hubble telescope transmits them into consciousness so they can be amplified. Once recognised and amplified, these skilful mind-states become resources that help to develop the deep calm and concentration necessary for insight to arise.
There are several suttas which describe the kind of chain reaction that happens when wholesome mind-states such as joy, tranquility, and happiness develop naturally into “vision and knowledge with regard to Deliverance,” e.g. AN10.1. The brahma vihara practices are a powerful way to jump-start that development, so if you have found these practices a struggle, I encourage you to persevere, with patience, and be open to the transformations that may arise!

For information on new retreat opportunities in Australia and New Zealand, see here:

http://jill0shepherd.wordpress.com/upcoming-retreats/

Insight Meditation weekend – Auckland, New Zealand

St Francis weekend retreat group

This weekend’s insight meditation retreat at St Francis Retreat Centre in Auckland was blessed by good weather, good food, good friends – and good singing and chanting, courtesy of a Pasifika dance group on Saturday and a Hindu meditation group on Sunday!  Much gratitude to everyone who contributed to providing such powerful conditions for the deepening of wisdom and compassion.

(thanks also to Sia, retreat centre cook, for taking this photo of most of the retreatants)

I hope to be able to offer two more similar weekends in Auckland, 1-3 May and 1-3 August, but sadly, the St Francis Retreat Centre is already booked on those dates.  I will keep looking for alternative venues, so please let me know if you have any suggestions.

The two doorways, wisdom and compassion (with thanks to Greg Kramer)

beach tree 2

summer at Langs Beach, New Zealand 15 December 2013

farmhouse snow scaled

winter in Massachusetts 4 January 2014

dry hill dead tree scaled

winter drought in California 15 January 2014

In the last month, I’ve moved between mid summer, deep winter and back to mid summer again, and had the opportunity to visit old friends in Auckland, Barre and San Francisco; spend an afternoon with the prison sangha in Massachusetts; learn how to perform a baby blessing, same sex wedding ceremony, and funeral; attend James Baraz’s Thursday night meditation group and hear the sustainability researcher Bob Doppelt speak about climate change; spend time with human cadavers in an anatomy lab in California; visit Gil Fronsdal’s new retreat centre in Scott’s Valley (which is entirely supported by dana); teach a metta day-long to a group of mostly young people in Santa Cruz; and stay a week in a retirement village with mostly old people in New Zealand.

Because these experiences were so varied and happened in a relatively short space of time, it could have been easy to feel unbalanced or ungrounded, but the quality of being present, of mindfulness, was what made it possible to navigate those changes without too much stress.  And there was another dimension to that experience that I haven’t been able to articulate, until I recently read the transcript of a talk given by Gregory Kramer about love and wisdom.  This talk was given in the context of an Insight Dialogue retreat, but his description of what can happen when we cultivate this quality of presence feels equally true in daily life practice.

He says that as we touch into our own human experience, “Something gets peeled away, either dropped or revealed or broken open, as we are touched by each other, as we are touched by wise teachings, as we are touched by the sensitization of this heart in meditation … Each time we come into the moment, each time we – let’s say – pause, or just look at things as they are, there is a strengthening of the quality of being present … So there is a kind of seeing things as they are rather than through so many of the stresses that close us off, through these filters that we usually wear to protect this tenderness … It’s just so easy to overlook or lose touch with or even be scared by that within us which is so responsive and so really sweet …  Why do we look away from it so much?  Why isn’t it always visible to us?  Why aren’t we amazed and delighted most of the time? This is incredible, this brightness of the mind and being touched by the world … I guess wisdom and love name two doorways, and almost, you can choose your way … So wisdom unburdens the mind so that we can experience love.  And love unburdens the heart so that we can experience wisdom.”

May we all experience unburdening of the heart-mind …

PS If you are interested in learning the practice of Insight Dialogue, which is a relational form of vipassana meditation based in mindful speaking and listening, there is an eight week online introduction starting 17 March 2014 with two senior ID teachers.  More info here:

http://metta.org/program/introduction-online-insight-dialogue-032013/