If all goes to plan, from tomorrow I’ll be on retreat at IMS’s Forest Refuge in Barre, Massachusetts, for six weeks from 17 April to 31 May. Today, as I work on extricating myself from daily life, I’ve been experiencing a huge amount of gratitude for all the causes and conditions that have come together to make this possible.
So I just wanted to acknowledge again all the people who have offered their support in so many different ways:
Thank you all! I trust that whatever benefit comes from my time on retreat might be shared with all of you, and all beings everywhere …
Planning to go on retreat?
I’ve had a few conversations recently with people who are planning to go on retreat soon, and at some stage in the discussion, there’s often an embarrassed acknowledgement of feeling some anxiety about it. Even for people who have been on retreat before and have some familiarity with the set-up, each retreat is unique, so we never really know what to expect. In some ways, that’s the point of it: to open ourselves to the unknown, to explore new territory, and to experience aspects of ourselves that we may not have come into contact with before. Continue reading
Woman reading on sea wall – Newcastle NSW
The rewards and challenges of technology
Earlier this evening, I gave my first dharma talk via video-link, from the YHA in Sydney to Auckland Insight in New Zealand. Nothing too remarkable about that these days; but still, it was a delight to be able to connect with the group in this way, and I felt a new sense of appreciation for the benefits of computer technology. We now have access to a wide range of dharma teachings from many different traditions, in many different forms. And with almost no effort, we can instantly download or stream talks and videos, or sign up for online study courses.
In my own experience though – as both a teacher and a student – there can also be a downside to this instant abundance. Without awareness, it can unconsciously reinforce a passive, materialistic, and at times even disrespectful relationship to the teachings.
So as technology helps meditation becomes more and more mainstream, it’s becoming increasingly normal to approach it with a consumerist mind-set. In some ways, this makes sense. When everything else around us is presented in that way, why wouldn’t we think about the practice in terms of what we can get from it? And why wouldn’t we assume that it should be available on my terms: in the way I want it, when I want it, for the price I want it? We can even mistake this kind of freedom (to consume) for the deeper freedom that the Buddha’s teachings point to. Continue reading
Sea anemone by Virginia Draper
Opening, closing, opening, closing …
Everything has its natural rhythm, including the human heart. I’m not sure why it took me so long to understand this, but a childhood memory – of exploring rock-pools with my father while on holiday in Scotland – helped. On family visits to chilly windswept beaches, he and I would wander at low tide among the exposed rock basins in search of marine life: crabs and starfish and sea anemones and jellyfish and small see-through shrimpy things. Continue reading
This full moon post is a bit late again, partly because I’ve been on the move, travelling and teaching, and partly because a friend of mine is actively dying now. Even though I’m not physically with her, the gravitational pull of death seems to dissolve any words that come into my mind, and I can find nothing to write that seems to be of any relevance.
So this month, perhaps just a few images of Januarys past can be enough.
January 2013 lakeshore ice Chicago
January 2012 empty nest snow Massachusetts
January 2006 dead trunk woodpecker holes Massachusetts
January 2012 venetian blind Massachusetts
Life is an ever rolling wheel
And every day is the right one.
He who recites poems at his death
Adds frost to snow.
Mumon Gensen, Japanese monk died 1390
Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death
edited by Yoel Hoffmann
January 2010 snow barn Massachusetts
January 2014 white bed Auckland
January 20111 forest snowstorm Massachusetts
January 2009 baby monks sweeping Bodhgaya
New Zealand Christmas tree with native bird ornaments
This year, the full moon coincided with Christmas Day for the first time in 38 years. I’m in New Zealand visiting family for the holidays and even though it’s the middle of summer, there are evergreen Christmas trees decorated with icicles and snowflakes everywhere. The symbols of Christmas have always been messed up – the pagan-influenced Christmas tree, the Coke-ad inspired Santa, the Christian Nativity scene – but even more so in the Southern Hemisphere. In Australia, women in Santa hats and bikinis body-surf on Bondi Beach, while groups of men work on their tans, standing around beer-filled coolers topped with battery-operated sparkling artificial Christmas trees. Continue reading
A few slightly random reflections on Gratitude
“These two people are hard to find in the world. Which two? The one who is first to do a kindness, and the one who is grateful and thankful for a kindness done.” AN 2.118
As the three-month retreat at IMS comes to a close, there’s a definite shift in the overall mood of the meditators. Each day, the ones I meet with are expressing more and more gratitude for the opportunity they’ve had to be here, practising intensively for six weeks or three months.
It’s definitely not easy to do this, and yet perhaps because of the challenges, there’s a corresponding depth to the gratitude. I’ve noticed this in other situations, too – that there can be an unexpected ability to connect with gratitude even in the midst of difficulty.
Last month I wrote about the hindrance of “sloth and torpor,” the dullness of body and mind that gets in the way of clear seeing, insight. This month, I’ve been more aware of the opposite of sloth and torpor, which shows up in the form of “restlessness and worry”, the fourth of the five hindrances. And I’ve been noticing it not just in myself, but in many people coming on retreat.
The first few days of a retreat often involve swinging from one extreme to the other: from sleepiness to restlessness and back again, over and over. That’s probably always been the case, right from the time of the Buddha. But these days, restlessness in particular is intensified by our addiction to all things electronic, which keep us in a state of perpetual stimulation and/or anticipation of stimulation. It’s getting harder and harder to unplug. So in response, some meditation centres are asking retreat participants to commit very specifically to “undertake the training to refrain from using electronic devices while on retreat” as a part of their commitment to Noble Silence. Continue reading
I’m currently working my way – slowly! – through three new books that may be of interest to experienced meditators:
Seeing That Frees: Meditations on Emptiness and Dependent Arising
Rob Burbea 10 October 2014 Hermes Amara
Right Concentration: A Practical Guide to the Jhanas
Leigh Brasington 13 October 2015 Shambala
Compassion and Emptiness in Early Buddhist Meditation
Bhikkhu Analayo 3 November 2015 Windhorse Continue reading
The five hindrances
I’ve been back in New Zealand for the month of September, and with the Auckland Insight group, we’ve been exploring the Five Hindrances, five particularly unhelpful states of mind that get in the way of clear seeing, of insight. They appear in the Satipatthana Sutta under the Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness, as qualities of mental energy that we need to learn how to relate to wisely, and eventually, to overcome completely.
These are the five:
sloth and torpor
restlessness and remorse
sceptical doubt 1 Continue reading