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:

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)

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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:

Welcoming the New Year


Greetings from snowy Massachusetts! I intended to write this post a few days ago, but I’ve been under the weather with a combination of jet lag, a head cold, AND a gastro bug. So I wasn’t exactly the life of the party on New Year’s Eve, but being forced to take time out has given me the chance to reflect on this transition from one year to the next.

Last Sunday I was able to visit the prison that I used to volunteer at when I lived in Massachusetts. It was a real delight to reconnect with that sangha, some of whom have been attending the group regularly for five years now. Because it was almost the New Year, I invited the men to reflect on their aspirations for the year ahead. I can’t share the details of what they said because of confidentiality issues, but I felt privileged to hear so many heart-felt expressions of the desire to change, and to live in alignment with a deeper truth.

Right now I’m at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies with a group of friends who are also experienced meditators, neuroscience researchers, and comparative religion scholars. This is the third time that we’ve gathered over the New Year for a week of peer-led meditation, interspersed with formal presentations on neuroscience research and explorations of different meditative traditions.

On New Year’s Eve we sat in a circle at midnight, and – similar to the prison visit – spoke out loud our aspirations for the coming year. And again, I was inspired to hear the depth and range and beauty of what people aspired to for themselves and others.

I look forward to continuing our dharma adventures together in 2014. May this new year bring you closer to your deepest aspirations.

With bows of gratitude,

Awakening Joy online course with James Baraz

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Many of you who attended the recent weekend with James and Jane Baraz at SOUL in Titirangi expressed interest in taking James’ online Awakening Joy course.  He just let me know that registration for the 2014 course is now open at:

Here is a short summary about the course from James’ website:

The course runs for five months, with a curriculum of principles and practices designed to incline the mind toward well-being, happiness and ease. The 2014 course features an extraordinary lineup of presenters including popular past guests like Sylvia Boorstein and Rick Hanson, other highly respected wisdom teachers like Barbara Marx Hubbard, and some exciting young voices like Vinny Ferraro and Anushka Fernandopulle.

James also mentions that this year they are making available a new Awakening Joy Support Group Manual for those who want to share the course with others and go through the material as a group. He says: People find that going through the themes together is one of the most powerful ways to deepen the principles and apply the practices in daily life.

Several Auckland meditators have expressed interest in taking this course together as a peer-led group.  If you’d like to be part of that group and/or to help coordinate it, please email me through the About page of this website.

Wishing you all an easeful summer …


Introduction to Insight Meditation (vipassana) four-week course – Auckland, New Zealand

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21-01-14 COURSE FULL

Dates and times: Thursday evenings 7:00-9:00 pm 23 January, 30 January, 6 February, 13 February
Location: 9 Kotare Avenue, Westmere
Cost: $40 for all four sessions + dana*
This four-session course will explore the foundations of insight meditation, as a means to developing more happiness and peace of mind in our daily lives. It is suitable for beginners as well as those who want to refine and deepen their understanding of vipassana / insight meditation practice.
To register: contact Jill Shepherd through the About page of this website

Insight Meditation weekend retreat – Auckland, New Zealand

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21-01-14 Limited places left

Dates and times: Friday evening 14  February to Sunday afternoon 16 February
Location: St Francis retreat centre 50 Hillsborough Road Mt Roskill
Cost: $220 + dana*
Suitable for people with some previous insight meditation experience – e.g. have attended at least one day-long retreat or Introduction to Insight Meditation class before
To register: contact Jill Shepherd through the About page of this website

Insight Dialogue day-long retreat – Blue Mountains, NSW Australia

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What is Insight Dialogue?
“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:

Co-teachers: Jill Shepherd and Beth Faria
Date: Sunday 1 December 2013
Time: 9:00-5:00 p.m.
Location: Blue Mountains Insight Meditation Centre (BMIMC) 23 Rutland Road Medlow Bath NSW 2780, Australia
Cost: $60 + dana*
Suitable for people with some insight meditation experience, but prior Insight Dialogue experience is not required
To register: Download BMMC application form here

Two day-long retreats with James and Jane Baraz – Auckland, New Zealand

James Baraz

Jane Baraz

1 December update – FULL – please apply to be on waiting list

I’m happy to announce that James Baraz and his wife Jane Baraz will be visiting New Zealand next month.  James is a well-known Spirit Rock vipassana teacher and also, since 2003, has been offering a very popular international on-line course, Awakening Joy, that is designed to  incline the mind toward well-being, happiness and ease.

I will be helping James and Jane run two day-long retreats at SOUL in Titirangi, 7-8 DecemberThe first day, Saturday, will be a vipassana retreat, and the day-long on Sunday will be themed around Awakening Joy.  For more information, see my Upcoming Retreats and Courses page:

Places are limited so prior registration is required.

To make a booking, please contact me through the About page of this website:

I look forward to meditating with you and James and Jane soon!