September 2015 full moon – Maintaining Motivation (or finding antidotes to “sloth and torpor”)

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:
sensual desire
sloth and torpor
restlessness and remorse
sceptical doubt 1

Over the years, I’ve heard dozens of dharma talks on these five hindrances, because – as you may have recognised – they show up pretty frequently: not only in formal meditation practice, but in daily life too.  And because they are so common, we need to find ways to relate to them skilfully so they don’t totally hijack the practice.

Sloth and torpor

Of these five hindrances, I’d always thought “sloth and torpor” was the most straightforward, referring just to sleepiness and dullness, or the sinking-mind that happens so often during meditation.  But as I was getting re-acquainted with sloth and torpor for the evening course, I started to understand there are many different aspects to it.

The first and most obvious level is the drowsiness and mental sluggishness we often experience in formal meditation, and which in daily life extends into apathy, inertia, and lack of energy.  The animal known as the “sloth” embodies this quality because of its very slow metabolism.  Living in the jungles of Central and South America, it spends most of its life hanging upside down in trees, moving only when absolutely necessary, and even then, very slowly.  Apparently, it moves so slowly that it provides excellent habitat for moths, beetles, cockroaches, fungi, and algae.  I love that description, because when then mind is under the influence of sloth and torpor, many other energy-sapping qualities breed in there, too!

Sloth! [2]

On a more subtle level, this hindrance can show up as a habitual tendency to avoid facing difficulties.  I hadn’t considered this as an aspect of sloth and torpor before, but in his book Mindfulness, a Practical Guide to Awakening, Joseph Goldstein describes it as:
… not merely the feeling of sleepiness, but rather the deeper pattern or tendency of withdrawing from difficulties. This is the habit of retreating from challenges rather than arousing the energy and effort to engage with them. In these situations, sloth and torpor are like the reverse gear in a car, never going forward to meet experience but always pulling back. This pattern of retreating from difficulties strengthens the tendencies toward laziness and inactivity, passivity and lethargy. At these times, there is no energy or power to do or accomplish anything. Here, the factors of sloth and torpor keep us from drawing on the strength that we actually have. 3

When I started to tune in to this aspect of sloth and torpor in my own life, I was surprised to see how often it showed up.  Just in the last week, I noticed it in the form of habit-mind: meditating mostly just to get it done … because it’s what I do … out of routine … without much real engagement or interest … more-or-less just waiting until the next time I can go on retreat … and then I’ll do some real practice …

This is perhaps an example of the tendency most of us have to stay within our comfort zones, and to be wary of challenging ourselves too much.  Now that I’m recognising it as a form of sloth-and-torpor though, I feel a bit more motivated to make the effort to overcome it.

Antidotes to Sloth and Torpor

One strategy for doing this can be to develop a more conscious commitment to the practice, to set ourselves small challenges as a way to maintain interest and motivation.  Especially at first, our motivation to practice needs a lot of support, if it’s to withstand the pull of all the other aspects of life that absorb our time and energy: work, relationships, parenting, family life, social life, entertainment, etc.  Otherwise, it’s easy to drift into complacency, just go with the flow of everyday life, and eventually, lose momentum altogether.

It’s a bit like growing a tree seedling.  In the beginning, we have to make quite a bit of effort to protect the young plant from being damaged by wind, and frost, and harsh sun, and insects, and animals, until it develops strong roots and can grow by itself, unsupported.

vine 1

Setting your own curriculum

One way of providing this support could be to write yourself a kind of curriculum, where you set goals to aim for over the next year or two – or perhaps five!  In setting these goals, you might consider a balance between three aspects of the practice:

sitting, study, and sangha (community).

Sitting means formal meditation practice, in daily life or on retreat.  Study can be very helpful to deepen understanding of the key techniques and philosophies that meditation practice is founded on.  And sangha or community is the relational aspect of daily-life practice, the network of supportive friendships that help strengthen our development of wisdom and compassion.

Each person’s curriculum will look different depending on level of experience and stage of life, but below are some possibilities to consider, based on samples I’ve worked on with students over the last couple of years.

101 – Beginning meditators

If you’re fairly new to practice and don’t yet meditate regularly, you might consider trying to meditate every day for a set period – for example ten minutes each morning, for just one week.  If that’s successful, extend it for another week.  If not, experiment with doing it at a different time of day, or try for five minutes instead.  Then gradually increase to fifteen or twenty minutes.

Listen to a dharma talk or podcast and/or read a few chapters of an inspiring book once or twice a week.

Sit with a meditation group at least once a month, if you can find one nearby.

Attend a one-day workshop or non-residential weekend retreat every three months.

201 – Meditators with some retreat experience

Experiment with increasing your daily sitting meditation by five or ten minutes, or add a second shorter session in the evening or during a lunch-break.

Once a month, take a half-day self-retreat: put aside technology for the morning and spend it sitting and walking in silence.  If you have a friend to do this with, you could then have lunch together and time for dharma discussion.

Sit with a meditation group, weekly if possible – or if you can’t find one nearby, considering setting one up.

Take an on-line study course or join a dharma book group.

Attend a residential weekend retreat every three months, and a one-week or nine-day retreat twice a year.

301 – Experienced meditators

Aim to sit twice a day for at least thirty minutes, and/or add in a session of formal walking meditation.

Take a more active role in a meditation group where appropriate: perhaps facilitating some sessions, giving instructions for beginners, or setting up a discussion group for more experienced meditators.

Take more advanced study courses, on-line or on-campus.

Try to find a meditation teacher who might be available to offer individual guidance for your practice on a somewhat regular basis, perhaps once a month or so.

In addition to regular nine-day retreats, plan to do a longer retreat – perhaps one, two or three months – every two to three years if possible!

Don’t be afraid to dream

Perhaps for some, these suggestions sound daunting, but with increased commitment to practice, most people experience an exponential increase in the benefits they gain from it.  (And conversely, when it’s just something to fit in around all of life’s other demands, the benefits often aren’t so apparent)

Longer-term meditation retreat practice isn’t for everyone, but if you have any interest in it at all, it doesn’t hurt to set the aspiration.  Even if your life circumstances might seem to make it impossible, I’ve often observed that when there’s clarity of intention, unexpected opportunities can materialise out of left-field and the necessary support magically becomes available.  So don’t be afraid to dream!

(I wrote about an example of this in my own life in an earlier blogpost here: Generosity part 4: Giving and Receiving

May we all experience the benefits of overcoming sloth and torpor …

1. If you’re not familiar with the five hindrances and ways of working with them, there’s a simple overview here:

2. Photo credit

3. Goldstein, Joseph Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening Sounds True Kindle Edition (p. 142)

August 2015 full moon – International Bhikkhuni Day

This month, in honour of International Bhikkhuni Day on 12 September, instead of writing my own reflections I’d like to share part of an article by two bhikkunis (fully-ordained nuns), Ayya Santacitta and Ayya Santussika, who are also climate-change activists.

I’ve had the good fortune to meet Ayya Santacitta a few times, both when I was on staff at IMS and more recently in San Francisco at Alokha Vihara, the monastery she helped establish with Ayya Anandabodhi.  The monastery has since moved to a more rural area near Placerville, California, and friends of mine are helping to organise support for the sisters and their monastery with a special ceremony on International Bhikkhuni Day.

Even though you may not be in a position to visit Alokha Vihara yourself, perhaps you might consider offering a donation in support of the pioneering work these nuns are doing, not only in terms of providing a training monastery for women, but also to find ways of addressing the climate crisis.

You can find more information about the “friend-raising” and “fund-raising” event here:

Ayya Santussika and Ayya Santacitta teaching a daylong retreat on “Stable Heart, Stable Climate” at Insight Santa Cruz

On the Front Lines

By Ayya Santacitta & Ayya Santussika
We women monastics don’t have the privilege of shutting ourselves off from the need for change. Because we are not part of the establishment, we live our lives on the front lines. As bhikkhunis, what pulls us to the front lines of climate change is the pioneering spirit of the bhikkhuni movement itself. We are already going against the grain to reestablish the order of fully ordained Theravada nuns; we’re willing to step out of a patriarchal system and create something new. And because we lack the “golden handcuffs” of abundant financial support, we don’t have to worry about keeping everybody happy. We have the freedom to respond to the urgent needs of the day, applying the Buddha’s teachings to the crises humanity faces now.

We are working to pass on to the next generation a presentation of the Dhamma that is applicable to this day and age. A contemporary Dhamma has to be embodied by both female and male monastics, otherwise many people will turn away, thinking this religion doesn’t recognize the clear truth that women and men alike are both sorely needed as leaders. The Dhamma must not be confined to the old order of things, which is very much about dominating nature, taking what you can get and throwing back what you don’t want. This is the way women—and the environment—have been treated for centuries. As bhikkhunis, we are stepping out of that.

… Some people may say, “We don’t want our monastics to be political.” But if we monastics are not addressing this very concrete, desperate, ethical issue, then we’re not doing our job. In fact, we find that most people feel a sense of relief when they hear monastics break the silence and speak clearly about the environment and how this topic fits into the framework of the Dhamma. Our aim is to bring a bit more sanity to an urgent situation so that people are able to act effectively. This is what the Buddha did when people were in crisis; he placed it in the bigger context of the reality of aging, sickness, death and rebirth. The crisis of climate change can be framed in these same terms. It’s the death of a worldview and a way of life based on fossil fuels. The kind of rebirth the human family will experience depends on our actions now.

Addressing the environmental crisis in the context of the Dhamma does not mean we will never feel overwhelmed and paralyzed. But when we do, we work with those mind-states using the Buddha’s tools for understanding the mind. When the mind becomes depressed, we need to bring balance to what we’re doing. Here, we can apply the same energy, attention, skillfulness, agility and malleability needed to scramble up the mountain of enlightenment. We move the mind in a direction that’s wholesome so we can continue to act and to awaken. If we do this in accordance with truth, our actions to address the climate crisis are no different than practicing for awakening.

This essay was drawn from an interview conducted by Dennis Crean, former managing editor of Inquiring Mind (1998-2011) and Martha Kay Nelson, also an editor of the Mind (2011-present).
From Inquiring Mind, Vol. 31, #2 (Spring 2015)
The full essay is available here:

New meditation app for “fidgety skeptics”

After having a nationally televised panic attack on Good Morning America, US news anchor and self-confessed meditation skeptic Dan Harris discovered the benefits of insight meditation for himself, and wrote a book, 10% Happier, “as a way to convince fellow skeptics to give the practice a shot.”

Now he has teamed up with Joseph Goldstein, one of the Guiding Teachers of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, to put together a two-week introduction to meditation app aimed at fidgety skeptics and Type-A personalities.

I’ve had the opportunity to watch some of the daily video lessons and listen to the guided audio meditations, and I appreciate how clearly and concisely Dan and Joseph present the core techniques of insight meditation.  So if you happen to know any meditation skeptics who might be open to learning in this way, this could be a good place for them to start:

(Some of the proceeds from sales of the app will be donated to the Insight Meditation Society)

July 2015 full moon 2 (blue moon) – anatta or not-self

Te Henga - Bethell's Beach reflections

‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’

‘There is nothing in the experience of the cosmos that fits the bill of being eternal, unchanging, or that deserves to be clung to as “me” or “mine.’

In last month’s post, I wrote about dukkha, the second of the three “universal characteristics” recognised by the Buddha as being inherent in all experience.  The first of these three is impermanence, and the third is anatta, usually translated as “not-self.”

Of the three, not-self is sometimes the hardest to make sense of because in English, it can sound like non-existence: I’m supposed to somehow become a non-entity, a nobody, and try to efface my personality so I have no individuality.  But this is a serious misunderstanding, because when approached correctly, experiencing anatta on deeper and deeper levels helps us to live life in more alignment with who we truly are.

As with all of the Buddha’s teachings, this understanding can be developed progressively.  To begin with, we can explore it on a more psychological level by paying attention to our thoughts, particularly any self-referencing thoughts.  Often these are happening as background chatter, but when we start to notice the content of them, it can be quite shocking to recognise how distorted, limiting and sometimes just outright cruel, our self-perceptions and self-views can be.

A few years ago, I started to tune in to the tendency in my mind to make very definite “I AM …” statements – for example, “I am always late,” or “I am so judgmental,” or “I am a hopeless meditator.”  But when I really paid attention, very few of these thoughts were completely true.  Just a simple example: “I’m always late.”  When I thought about it more carefully, I had to acknowledge that yes, I’m sometimes late, but the majority of times, I’m actually punctual.

We can even think of this as an ethical practice, keeping the commitment to not lie, and question: “Is this statement I’m making really true?”  We might notice the tendency to eternalise, fix, make solid whatever the perception is, and to recognise how much we love to create stories and inhabit them, even if the stories are painful ones!  Then remembering the intention of non-harming that underlies all the ethical training, we might feel more resolve to let go of those stories.

Sometimes this letting go happens quite naturally on retreat, when the mind is very quiet and mindfulness very sharp.  Then we might start to notice the subtle contraction, tightening, and closing down in the body and mind whenever we have a self-referencing thought of any kind.  We begin to catch the mind in the act of constructing identity, and to feel how limiting it is.

I’ve seen this in my own mind at times, almost as if it’s fabricating a flimsy kind of structure out of old bits of timber and rusty iron and bent nails, desperately cobbling something together, some kind of armature or scaffolding as a defence against impermanence and the myriad possibilities that can come from just being, rather than constantly doing …

Maybe you’ve experienced this too: the agitated contraction around a limiting self-view, then a sudden unexpected letting go, followed by a few moments of deep ease and happiness.  Often this letting go and the relief that comes afterwards can feel quite new and unfamiliar, and it can take a bit of getting used to.  Sometimes it’s followed by a kind of backlash, or even an attempt to go back to the previous misery, perhaps because we’ve invested so much time and energy in it!  But with practice, we learn not to believe the backlash, and to recognise the deeper truths about who we are. We come more into contact with what we might call our Buddha-nature – our highest human capacity.

I think of the Buddha’s own life again (as much as we can know of it from the discourses).  And I imagine what my own life would have been like, if he had not chosen to go beyond what his family told him was possible, what society told him was possible, what his first teachers told him was possible, and what the conditioning in his own mind told him was possible.

Because the Buddha was willing to challenge all of that, my own life has benefited enormously, and I feel inspired to risk stepping out of my own comfort zones.  When some aspect of my ego baulks, I remind myself that the teachings on anatta are not intended to be easily digestible, because in fact, as the English dharma teacher John Peacock says:

“You’re not going to change if you feel comfortable!”

John Peacock  The Buddha doesn’t do ‘cozy’

July 2015 full moon – dukkha

African Burial Ground memorial New York City

African Burial Ground memorial New York City

In last month’s full moon post, I wrote about impermanence.  Impermanence or anicca is one of the three “universal characteristics” recognised by the Buddha as being inherent in all experience; the other two being dukkha (usually translated as “suffering,” but more accurately, unsatisfactoriness), and anatta, or not-self.  Deeply understanding these three characteristics leads to the highest freedom, the freedom of heart and mind that is the goal of all insight meditation.

In my own practice, when I’ve read statements like the one I just made, my mind sometimes baulks.  What’s being conveyed sounds too abstract, remote, or perhaps idealistic, and my poor brain just doesn’t know what to do with that kind of information – at least on an intellectual level.

So this month, I’d been wondering how to talk about the second universal characteristic, dukkha, in a way that makes it real, and wakes us up to its transformative power.  Then the news came in about the shootings in Charleston, South Carolina, and Sousse, Tunisia.  And I need to say right away that I feel completely unequipped to know how to respond to pain of that magnitude.  I’m tempted to turn away and write about something completely different, but because I have friends in the US who are negatively impacted by individual and collective, institutional racism every day, I’m going to focus on the first of these two events.

There are people far better qualified than me to talk about the negative impacts of racism on all of us, but I’m inspired to even mention it in a blog because of a dharma talk I recently listened to by Ruth King.  She talks about the common dynamics of dominant/subordinate relationships between racial identity groups, and she refers to lack of urgency from the dominant group in relation to matters that are life-threatening to the subordinate group.  She gives the example of a group of white people taking the time to write 20-30 drafts of a letter protesting the killing of unarmed black men by US police, even though new murders were happening almost daily.  I thought of this example as I hesitated to write, then re-write, this post, knowing that I was never going to get it right no matter how long I took.

Here’s the link to Ruth King’s talk:

Shrine at East Bay Meditation Center, Oakland, California

Shrine at East Bay Meditation Center, Oakland, California

In the Buddha’s teachings, the First Noble Truth is the simple recognition that “There is dukkha.”  Simple, but often completely counter-intuitive.  It’s more common when faced with distress of any kind, to fall into habitual strategies: to avoid, ignore, deny, numb out, blame, etc. These are the urges I notice in myself when extreme violence and/or racism are “in my face.”  Underlying them is often a feeling of complete powerlessness, but paradoxically, when I’m able to let go of all the useless strategies and stay in contact with just that underlying feeling, I can access more clarity.

I may still feel unable to DO anything about the situation, but at least I can “bear witness,” as they say in Zen.  In my understanding, this means being willing to not turn away, to fully face the situation as best I can, and to just name to myself – and perhaps others – what is really going on.

Yesterday, I received an email invitation to endorse an open letter sent by an organisation called Buddhists for Racial Justice.  Although on one level it might be dismissed as just another email petition, on another, I was grateful to be able to do something, no matter how small it might seem: just to be able to bear witness to what has been going on for so long, and add my name, publicly, to the wish for this form of dukkha to be overcome.

Here are the first three paragraphs of the letter:

As Buddhist teachers and leaders we are deeply shaken and saddened by the intentional and premeditated murder of nine worshippers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015. We send our heart-filled condolences to the families, loved ones, church, and communities, who have experienced this grievous loss.

While this terrorist act was apparently perpetrated by a single individual consumed by racial hatred and a desire to ignite a race war, the soil in which this massacre took root is the legacy of slavery, white supremacy, Jim Crow laws, lynchings, and the resulting racial inequalities and injustices that persist in our individual and collective consciousness and institutions. The daily experience of violence against people of color has become more recently visible through highlighted media coverage of the ongoing brutal treatment and killings of unarmed African-Americans by law enforcement agents across the country.

As Buddhists we realize the interdependence of all of our experiences—and that violence towards one community is violence perpetrated upon us all. As spiritual leaders, we must be committed to healing the wounds of racism that are such a primary and toxic part of the landscape of our country. This calls on those of dominant white communities to inquire deeply into and transform patterns of exclusion to power, inequity in resources, unseen bias, and unexamined disparities in privilege. There is an urgency to affirm that Black Lives Matter and work with religious and secular communities to respond to racial injustice.

You can see the full letter here:

bus hairstyling girl, San Francisco

bus hairstyling girl, San Francisco

This site also has useful information for white people about racial awareness as spiritual practice, and a Shared Resources page with links to excellent documentaries and dharma talks.  All of these are from the US, and so far I haven’t been able to find any equivalent for Australia and New Zealand.  Please contact me if you know of anything relevant to this part of the world.

May we all experience freedom from the dukkha of oppression, in all its forms.

June 2015 full moon – impermanence

church door

Deeply understanding the truth of impermanence – including death – is central to the Buddha’s teachings, but for those of us living in contemporary western society, this can seem a very alien and alienating concept.  It’s more the norm to avoid anything to do with death and dying for as long as possible, until at some point, it inevitably confronts us.

Early on in my own practice I noticed this tendency in myself, and a little reluctantly at first, tried to do something about it.  With hindsight though, I feel very fortunate to have been able to explore impermanence in various ways over the last few years: through Zen chaplaincy training, doing volunteer hospice work, and helping set up a Death and Dying group when I was on staff at the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts.  (Six years later, that group is still going strong: it’s morphed into the Caregivers Sangha, which continues to explore different aspects of death and dying, and also offers support to anyone in the community who may be injured, ill, or in the last stages of life.)

And, in spite of all that preparation, when my father died in New Zealand a couple of weeks ago, I still felt the impact, and on many different levels simultaneously.  He was 87 and had been in poor health for quite a while, so it wasn’t unexpected.  Yet when I sat and meditated alongside his body in the funeral home, each time I took another sidelong glance at his face, there was a visceral response in my own body, a primal recoil from the truth of impermanence.

At the same time, during the funeral preparations, people in my father’s community who I barely knew were suddenly willing to start conversations with me about their own experiences of loss.  I heard many poignant stories, and the universality of death started to sink in more deeply.

Then a few days ago, it was time to send out my usual bi-annual newsletter to all the people on my mailing list.  I wasn’t sure whether to mention my father’s passing or not, but because it was still occupying a large part of my psyche, in some ways it would have felt strange not to acknowledge it.

So in the end I did mention it, and after the newsletter went out, many people emailed saying how much they appreciated my sharing the news.  Again, quite a few people movingly described their own experiences of losing someone close to them, and I realised that there are still not many opportunities to talk about death and dying, even though it’s an inevitable aspect of life.

Buddha night v

So over the last couple of weeks, I’ve felt like a modern-day Kisa Gotami, belatedly coming to more understanding that actually, death is everywhere – if our eyes and hearts are open to letting it in.

Kisa Gotami was a woman who, according to the discourses, was unable to accept the truth of her only son’s death until the Buddha helped her put the tragedy in a bigger context. The story goes that after her infant son died, Kisa Gotami went into deep denial (as we might say today), and carried his corpse around the village, asking everyone she met for help to cure him.  Most people tried to tell her the truth that the child was dead, but she simply couldn’t hear it.  Eventually, a kind person suggested that she go to the Buddha and ask for his assistance.

The Buddha saw immediately that Kisa Gotami’s mind was not able to take in the truth, no matter how clearly it might be expressed.  So he told Kisa Gotami that he could cure her problem, but that he would need some ingredients to make medicine.  He asked her to go into the village and collect some mustard seeds from any households where there had been no death.

Kisa Gotami hurried off, going from house to house with her request.  At each house, people were keen to give her a few mustard seeds, but when she questioned the householders further, in every single house, someone had died: a grandparent, mother, father, aunt, uncle, sibling or child … Eventually, Kisa Gotami understood that death is universal.  She went back to the Buddha, buried her child and joined the Buddha’s community, and it’s said she later attained the deepest freedom, Nibbana.

beach rock cairnmist forest bw

Remembering this story, I wondered how Kisa Gotami might access this same truth if she were alive today.  And I thought of the “Death Cafe” movement, which I’d read about a couple of years ago.  Apparently, the first “death cafe” was established in London in 2011 to allow people, often strangers, to gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death. The objective is ‘to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives’.

Over the last four years, this idea has spread around the world and according to the Death Cafe website, there have been 1992 death cafes in 32 countries, including Australia and New Zealand.  You can find more information about it here:

Although I haven’t been to one myself yet, I love the idea!  And it’s renewed my interest in providing opportunities for people to explore this whole theme of death and dying.  A few years ago in Massachusetts I offered a couple of day-long workshops to do this.  I remember how powerful those experiences were, so if any of you reading this have interest in doing something similar in your own communities, I’d be happy to help facilitate a workshop, discussion group, or even just an individual conversation – whatever feels appropriate, just let me know.

To close, here’s a traditional Buddhist funeral chant:

Anicca vata sankhara
Uppada vayadhammino
Uppajjhitva nirujjhanti
Tesam vupasamo sukho.
All conditioned things are impermanent
Their nature is to arise and pass away.
To live in harmony with this truth
Brings the highest happiness.


beach blue penguin dead


May we all realise the highest happiness.

Meditating together in May

FR Buddha head

Each month on or about the full moon, I’ve been trying to write a post about some aspect of dharma practice that’s relevant to what’s happening in my own life.  This next full moon though, I plan to be on retreat at the Insight Meditation Society’s Forest Refuge in Barre, Massachusetts, for the whole month of May, and I won’t have access to email, computers, or technology of any kind.

Even though I’ll be in silence and solitude, I know from past experience that a powerful feeling of connection with others can happen on retreat, especially with other meditators.  I’d been wondering about ways to make that felt sense of connection more tangible, then by coincidence, a friend sent me information about the “Mindful in May” challenge.  This challenge combines the benefits of committing to meditate every day, with fund-raising for Charity Water.

A not for profit organisation, Charity Water donates 100% of its funds to providing clean water in regions such as West Africa, where Mindful in May founder Elise Bialylew describes ” … watching in disbelief as women walked barefoot along cliffs for miles, balancing litres of water on their heads, only to do it all again the next day … For the lucky ones the water they brought back to their families were from clean wells – for the unlucky ones, contaminated water would quickly infect their families and lead to sickness and oftentimes death. This problem seemed so overwhelming, I really wanted to do something to make a difference, but I just didn’t know how it would be possible.
Fast forward 12 years and that latent feeling of wanting to make a difference came to the surface in an unexpected way through the idea for Mindful in May. When I created Mindful in May four years ago, I never would have imagined that four years later it would have spread into a global movement and have impacted the lives of thousands living without clean water.”

To commit to the Mindful in May challenge, you sign up to meditate for 10 minutes a day for the month of May as either a team or individual. You then receive access to a one month online course, which includes a meditation program delivered daily to your inbox, including audio guided meditations and video interviews with global experts such as Sharon Salzberg, Tara Brach, Kristin Neff and Dr Richard Davison.

If I wasn’t already on retreat at the Forest Refuge, I’d definitely be taking up the challenge!  I’ll be meditating every day anyway, so if you’d like to join me in spirit you might consider signing up for “Mindful in May” here:

A second, highly worthwhile way of boosting your dharma practice in May is the online “EcoSattva Training” being offered by One Earth Sangha, starting Sunday 10 May 2015.  This training has evolved from the series of five online “Mindfulness and Climate Action” conversations in the fall of 2014, and is an opportunity to “join Joanna Macy, Rev. angel Kyodo williams and other great wisdom teachers of our time as we explore, connect and support each other in engagement amid these profound changes.”

Again, an opportunity I’m sorry to miss, but hopefully some of you might be able to join it.  More information here:

Whatever you’re doing in May, I wish you well and look forward to exploring the dharma with you again soon.

April 2015 full moon – “awakening community” *

Spiritual friendship one-day workshop 29 March 2015 Auckland, New Zealand

Last weekend I ran a one-day workshop in Auckland, New Zealand, on the theme of “spiritual friendship,” and just a few days ago I facilitated a small group discussion in Australia at the Blue Mountains Insight Meditation Centre, on the theme of “awakening community.”

These two topics feel very alive for me at the moment, partly because of spending so much time visiting different insight meditation groups in different parts of the world.  I’ve noticed that when a group is well-established and healthy, the level of dharma practice in those communities feels much stronger, yet in many of the places I visit, access to teachers and good dharma friends is not always easy to find.

This may be because historically, within the Western insight meditation “tradition,” there’s been a strong emphasis on offering silent individual meditation retreats as the main form of dharma practice, so it’s still quite rare to find opportunities for people to engage with each other outside of formal retreat.  Yet throughout the suttas, there’s a strong emphasis on spiritual friendship as being foundational to the development of the whole path to freedom.  Here’s just one example:
“If wanderers who are members of other sects should ask you, ‘What, friend, are the prerequisites for the development of the wings to self-awakening?’ you should answer, ‘There is the case where a monk [practitioner] has admirable people as friends, companions, & colleagues. This is the first prerequisite for the development of the wings to self-awakening.'” AN9.1

Then there’s the often-quoted exchange between the Buddha’s attendant, Ananda, and the Buddha, where Ananda has a sudden realisation of the importance of spiritual friendship.  He goes to the Buddha and tells him how he’s just recognised that spiritual friendship is half of the spiritual life, but the Buddha disagrees with him quite emphatically:
“Don’t say that, Ananada. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life.” SN 45.2
The Buddha then states that when someone has admirable people as friends, companions, & colleagues, they can be expected to develop & pursue the noble eightfold path.  This path is the core of the Buddha’s teachings, and consists of eight factors: Right View, Right Intention or Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.  Of those eight factors, only the last one, right concentration, needs to be specifically cultivated in meditation practice.  All the others can be developed in daily life, in relational and social contexts.

I wonder then, if by putting so much emphasis on solitary, silent retreat practice, we may have developed an unbalanced approach to the Buddha’s teachings – one that reduces his holistic path to a set of meditation techniques, done mostly for our own individual improvement.

A few years ago, the US dharma teacher David Brazier wrote an article in Tricycle magazine that pointed out some common cultural biases in the way Westerners have tended to approach dharma practice.  I found his critique quite revealing – and a little bit painful – but it’s also inspired me to want to explore more relational and socially-engaged forms of practice alongside traditional silent meditation.  He says:

For many Western Buddhists, a technical approach that says in effect, “You don’t need to believe anything, just do the practice” is very appealing. We are, after all, a culture very much driven by technology. Yet this technical emphasis directed toward Buddhism is something new. …
The idea that one can “just do the practice” is itself based on faith, yet it is easy to miss this sleight of hand. This view of practice does not avoid faith; it simply plays into a faith we already have — that is, faith in a technological approach to life. It assumes that meditation, like penicillin or Windows 7.0, works the same in any context. That is a lot to assume.
Going hand in hand with the idea of context-free meditation is the view, not uncommon in Western convert Buddhist circles, that Buddhism and meditation are virtually synonymous. But the vast majority of Asian Buddhists, now as throughout history, do not meditate, or only do so on rare occasions, and when they do, do so as part of a collective ritual rather than as a personal improvement method. …
This self-focused, technological model of Buddhist practice is not without its virtues. It has made Buddhism widely approachable in a new cultural setting. It has highlighted the richness of its meditative traditions. But a decontextualized dharma can put the spotlight on the private subject in a manner that is quite in line with the alienated, isolated, choice-making individual that is the primary model of the person in our capitalistic society. Is this really what we want? It also makes Buddhism into a set of commodities that can be purchased, and reduces practitioners to economic units. This is dharma that reinforces, rather than challenges, many tendencies in Western societies that are anything but emancipatory. …
Lack of a coherent and meaningful community life and way of relating to others is, arguably, the cause of much of the suffering that people seek to resolve in Buddhism. If what they get is a do-it-yourself, on-yourself, by-yourself, for-yourself, at-a-price technique, this is not going to do the trick, even if it does provide some secondary gains or palliative satisfactions. … [Ultimately] Buddhism flourishes through an other-centered, rather than a self-centered, orientation toward life.

Living Buddhism,0 November 2011

In many of the communities I’ve been visiting recently, people often express a desire to feel more connected to others, but don’t know how to help that happen.  And without some degree of conscious effort and commitment, the default seems to be just a group of individuals who sit together in silence on a regular basis, perhaps having a cup of tea with each other afterwards, and that’s about it.  Maybe that’s more than enough for many people, but somehow, when the Buddha talks about spiritual friendship being “the first prerequisite for the development of the wings to awakening,” I think he was referring to a bit more than that!

It also feels important to acknowledge that many people have experienced hurt through their involvement with – and/or exclusion by – various kinds of communities, and every one of us has known the pain of a broken friendship.  So what might it take for any group of meditators to move closer to being an insight meditation community – a group founded in spiritual friendship, that supports all of its members to deepen their practice, both on and off the meditation cushion?

I don’t have answers, but I do look forward to continuing to explore these questions with whoever might be interested.

(* with thanks to Yael at BMIMC for suggesting this title)

Seven day retreat with visiting US teachers – Auckland

Greg and Mary Melbourne

Greg Kramer and Mary Burns at an Insight Dialogue workshop in Melbourne, 2 February 2015

As many of you are already aware, the founder of Insight Dialogue, Gregory Kramer, is currently offering a series of retreats in Australia and New Zealand, together with senior teacher Mary Burns.  I’ve been supporting them with all of their events in this region, so far including a three-day non-residential workshop in Melbourne, and finishing yesterday, a five-day retreat in Kincumber, New South Wales.

In both these events I was again struck by the capacity of this practice to lead even complete beginners into deep meditative understanding.  And I know from my own experience how this blending of silent insight meditation with mindful speaking and listening to explore key aspects of the Buddha’s teachings, quickly leads to powerful transformation of heart and mind.

This is likely to be the final time that Gregory visits this part of the world, so this is a precious opportunity to experience Insight Dialogue with the person who developed it, together with his co-teacher Mary Burns, a senior Insight Dialogue teacher with many years of meditation experience.  More information below:

Insight and the Interpersonal: The Path to Freedom
Seven-day Insight Dialogue retreat with Greg Kramer and Mary Burns – Auckland

(Supported by Jill Shepherd and Beth Faria)

Humans are relational beings. We work and live with others. It is no surprise that much of our suffering is with people. We meditate to understand and be free from suffering. Yet there seems to be a gap between our individual meditation practice and our lives with other people. How can the power of mindfulness and concentration help reveal and release the tangles of the mind that arise in relationship?
Insight Dialogue brings the mindfulness and tranquility of traditional silent meditation practice into our interactions with others. It offers the ability to observe in real time how we communicate through our self-constructs and our constructed sense of the other. Meditating together, we serve as each other’s reminder to awaken to the mind’s constructing nature and its great potential for awareness and freedom.
In this retreat, we will maintain noble silence as a support for traditional meditation and Insight Dialogue. There will be time in nature to support ease and solitude. Holding retreat as one element in the mosaic of awakening, we will live the following question throughout our time together: How can this practice support insight right now and how can the path of awakening be carried forward into my entire life?

Time and dates: 5:00 p.m. Friday 13 March – 2:00 p.m. Friday 20 March 2015
Location: Bella Rakha Retreat Centre 581 West Coast Road Oratia
Cost: sliding scale $910/$760/$610 + dana*
To register:

(Australian residents: Greg and Mary’s nine-day retreat at the Blue Mountains Insight Meditation Centre in New South Wales has been fully booked for many months now, so to help facilitate Australians to attend this retreat, I’m happy to offer the lowest rate on the sliding scale, of NZ$610 (+ dana)  We can also help with transportation to and from Auckland airport if necessary.)

For a taster of Insight Dialogue practice, Greg and Mary will also be offering an evening workshop in Auckland, 7:00-10:00 pm Wednesday 11 March 2015.  For more information about the workshop, refer to the Retreats and Courses page here:

Looking forward to meditating with you again soon,


February 2015 full moon – freedom from the fetter of views

ruined building 1
While in San Francisco recently, I had an opportunity to visit Alcatraz island, the former federal penitentiary, 19th-century military fortress, site of Native American heritage and protest, and now one of America’s most visited national parks.  As we walked through the decaying cell blocks, I was struck by the layers and layers of defence that had been constructed to keep what was deemed “unsafe” from being a threat.

jail screen 3

Immense effort had been made to prevent escape.  First, there was banishment to an island: the sea as initial safety barrier.  Then on the island itself, razor wire fences, grilles, screens, mesh, and steel bars, all arrayed to confine those people who had been judged as threats to society.

At the start of our visit, I was awed by how extreme all these external mechanisms of protection seemed.  As the visit wore on, I began to reflect on the internal mechanisms of protection that we all construct, to defend against perceived threats to our existence.  Some of you reading this have had the experience of being physically incarcerated; all of us have the experience of being mentally incarcerated by our own inner constructs, belief systems, and world views, that prevent us from living in the deepest freedom.

jail windows 2

In the Buddha’s teachings, this freedom is sometimes described as being “unfettered,” and it comes from understanding how we get caught in …
… a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. Bound by a fetter of views, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person is not freed from birth, aging, & death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair. He or she is not freed, I tell you, from suffering & stress.

jail windows 4jail windows 5









So the first stage in this process of freeing ourselves from suffering and stress is to clearly see the views that are keeping us trapped.  Often, it’s only when we come into contact with people who hold views radically different to our own that we’re able to see where we’re clinging.  This can be confronting, but I sometimes think of vipassana practice as progressively expanding our capacity to just BE with difference.

EBMC shrine 2

A few weeks ago, I visited the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, California, which has made a conscious commitment to being a refuge for all the diverse communities that surround it.  The center recently won an award in recognition of the work that it does “to actively pursue participation by people of diverse classes and races; raise the voices and support the leadership of working class and poor people; and have an organizational culture that draws on the strengths of all class cultures.”

Because the centre serves such a wide range of different communities with sometimes competing needs, they have a set of communication guidelines posted next to the shrine in their main hall to help support skilful relationship.  The first of these guidelines, developed by Visions Inc, is:
Be willing to “try on” new ideas, or ways of doing things that might not be what you prefer or are familiar with.

Mushim, one of the core teachers, explained this guideline as being similar to trying on new clothes.  Can we be willing to try on clothes that are very different from what we might normally wear, with an attitude of openness and curiosity?  She went on to say that just because we try something on doesn’t mean that we have to BUY it.

harbour bridge ferry

Something about this suggestion – of being willing to try on but not necessarily buy – has been very helpful for me recently.  I’ve been doing a lot of travelling by public transport in different parts of the world, and often overhear conversations that express views very different from my own.  I notice the inner recoil, and try to remember to just “try it on.”  When I’m able to do this, there’s a softening into compassion; the recognition that we’re all caught in various ways, all prisoners of our own fettered views.  Then this moment of recoil can be a wake-up bell, an invitation to see beyond these rigid bars of identity-view to the freedom that’s actually, always available.