November 2015 full moon – gratitude

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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.
Gratitude practice as an antidote to life’s challenges
One of the practices from James Baraz’s Awakening Joy course that I’ve continued to come back to is the daily exploration of gratitude.
A few years ago, I hesitantly brought this theme into the men’s prison where I was volunteering.  I’d assumed that it would be a challenging practice for the men, given their circumstances.  But to my surprise, almost as soon as I mentioned the word “gratitude,” every man there began to speak animatedly of the many different aspects of their lives that they appreciated.  If it hadn’t been for the “movement bell” signalling the end of the session, the discussion could have kept going for hours.
Similarly, earlier this year I visited Christchurch, New Zealand, a city that experienced a devastating earthquake four years ago that flattened the city centre and killed 185 people.  Our host told us that in her experience, after the earthquake there was a profound shift in people’s attitudes to life.  One of the striking benefits was that people began to express a lot more gratitude; they no longer took anything for granted, and were grateful for even the smallest acts of kindness or generosity.
Daily gratitude email practice
One of the practices recommended in the Awakening Joy course is to work with a gratitude friend, and email each other a list of 5-10 things that you appreciated each day.  I’ve been exchanging these (almost) daily gratitude emails with two friends for a few months now, and am still surprised that even on the most ordinary-seeming day, there are so many things to appreciate – when I turn my attention in that direction.
One of those friends is dealing with a major health challenge, and yet her gratitude list often exceeds the suggested 5-10 items.  This inspires me to look more closely at my own life, and the more I look, the more I see.  It’s quite magical!
Gratitude as a form of appreciative joy or mudita meditation
Gratitude in the form of appreciative joy or mudita is also one of the four brahma-vihara meditations that the Buddha recommended we practice regularly, to free the heart-mind from ill-will and aversion.
If you’d like to experiment with mudita practice, here’s a link to a guided meditation I gave at IMS last week:

sunlit branches h
Neuroscience benefits of gratitude

The benefits of gratitude start with the dopamine system, because feeling grateful activates the brain stem region that produces dopamine. Additionally, gratitude toward others increases activity in social dopamine circuits, which makes social interactions more enjoyable …

One powerful effect of gratitude is that it can boost serotonin. Trying to think of things you are grateful for forces you to focus on the positive aspects of your life. This simple act increases serotonin production in the anterior cingulate cortex.

It’s not finding gratitude that matters most; it’s remembering to look in the first place. Remembering to be grateful is a form of emotional intelligence. One study found that it actually affected neuron density in both the ventromedial and lateral prefrontal cortex. These density changes suggest that as emotional intelligence increases, the neurons in these areas become more efficient. With higher emotional intelligence, it simply takes less effort to be grateful.

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In honour of the Native American tradition of Thanksgiving
Excerpts from a Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address
Greetings to the Natural World

The People
Today we have gathered and we see that the cycles of life continue.
We have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things.
So now, we bring our minds together as one as we give greetings and thanks to each other as people.
Now our minds are one.

[the address then continues with the following categories:]
The Earth Mother … the Waters … the Fish … the Plants … the Food Plants … the Medicine Herbs … the Animals … the Trees … the Birds … the Four Winds … the Thunderers … the Sun … Grandmother Moon … the Stars …

The Enlightened Teachers
We gather our minds to greet and thank the enlightened Teachers who have come to help throughout the ages.
When we forget how to live in harmony, they remind us of the way we were instructed to live as people.
With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to these caring teachers.
Now our minds are one.

[then The Creator …]

Closing Words
We have now arrived at the place where we end our words.
Of all the things we have named, it was not our intention to leave anything out.
If something was forgotten, we leave it to each individual to send such greetings and thanks in their own way.
Now our minds are one.


The full text is here:

May our minds be one in gratitude.

October 2015 full moon – Digital detox (or finding antidotes to “restlessness and worry”)

Technology-induced restlessness

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.

When I first read this refinement of the traditional ethical precepts, I noticed a twinge of discomfort, followed by a pulse of self-judgement.  But then I remembered an article I read a few years ago, about the neuroscience of internet searching.  Apparently when we browse on-line, the effect on the brain is similar to other forms of substance addiction.  The same opiates and dopamines are released as with nicotine, alcohol, cocaine and heroin use!  I found this both reassuring and disturbing: reassuring, because it helped make sense of why leaving the devices alone can be so hard; but disturbing because well, it’s an addiction, and by definition, addictions aren’t healthy.

I haven’t been able to find the original scientific article, but I did find another article from The Atlantic which is perhaps even more disturbing.  Apparently the neuroscience behind addictive internet use is not only well-known by technology companies, it is actively exploited by some of them.

As the author, Bill Davidow, says at the end, “I’m learning that to function effectively and happily in an increasingly virtual world, I have to commit a significant amount of time to living without it.”

All of this has made me more committed to re-establishing a practice I used to do regularly, of taking a “device-free” day at least once a month.  I remember that although it sometimes took a surprising amount of organisation ahead of time, afterwards, there were obvious differences in the state of my nervous system and my heart-mind generally.  I felt calmer, clearer, less reactive, even after just one day of no technology.  I was surprised to feel how much slower time passed – but in a good way, a “breathing out” kind of way.

I was also surprised how pleasant it felt to give myself permission to just read a book, or just cook a meal, or just go for a walk, or just talk to a friend, without the usual background level of restlessness that multi-tasking stimulates. I felt more connected to myself, and more connected to others, too.

Last week, I saw a series of portraits by the photographer Eric Pickersgill that captured how common this technology-induced disconnection is.  He photographed regular people in regular scenarios, but then digitally altered the pictures to remove their phones and tablets.  The results are quite saddening, but perhaps again, might offer more motivation to put away the devices – for just a while!

If a full day of digital detox seems unworkable, try for even just a half-day, to go completely technology-free: no phones, tablets, computers, TV screens, screens of any kind.  And if you do decide to experiment with this type of renunciation, let me know how it goes. Perhaps together we can create small refuges from restlessness, by putting down the devices for just a day or two.  Best of luck!

Three new and interesting books for experienced meditators

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

Each of the authors has been practising meditation for several decades, and all three of them are also meditation teachers.  What they share in common is a depth of practice understanding and clear, direct writing that helps make even the most profound teaching more accessible.  I’ve compiled a little more information on each of them, below, and hope you enjoy their books as much as I have!

(For books better suited to beginners, see my suggested reading list page here: )

Seeing That Frees: Meditations on Emptiness and Dependent Arising
Rob Burbea October 2014

From the foreword by Joseph Goldstein:
“Rob Burbea, in this remarkable book, proves to be a wonderfully skilled guide in exploring the understanding of emptiness as the key insight in transforming our lives… It is rare to find a book that explores so deeply the philosophical underpinnings of awakening at the same time as offering the practical means to realize it.”

From the book:
“A core insight repeatedly insisted on in this book is that fundamentally what gets us into trouble are the ways we typically view things, and our blind clinging to these ways of seeing. At the roots of our suffering – primary in engendering, perpetuating, and exacerbating it – are our habitual conceptions and the ways of looking they spawn. It is therefore precisely these that need to be addressed and replaced.”
(Kindle Locations 180-181)

Right Concentration: A Practical Guide to the Jhanas
Leigh Brasington October 2015

From the foreword:
“One of the elements of the Eightfold Path the Buddha taught is Right Concentration: the one-pointedness of mind that, together with ethics, livelihood, meditation, and so forth, leads to the ultimate freedom from suffering. The Jhanas are the method the Buddha himself taught for achieving Right Concentration. They are a series of eight successive states, beginning with bliss and moving on toward radically non-conceptual states. The fact that they can usually be achieved only during prolonged meditation retreat tends to keep them shrouded in mystery. Leigh Brasington is here to unshroud them. He takes away the mystique and gives instructions for them in plain, accessible language, noting the various pitfalls to avoid along the way, and then providing a wealth of material on the theory of jhana practice – all geared toward the practitioner rather than the scholar.”

I had the good fortune to read an early draft of this book last year and enjoyed Leigh’s direct and accessible writing style.  Now I’m waiting – not so patiently – for the finished book to come out in an e-version!

Compassion and Emptiness in Early Buddhist Meditation
Bhikkhu Analayo November 2015

From the foreword by Sharon Salzberg:
“Arising from the author’s long-term, dedicated practice and study, this book provides a window into the depth and beauty of the Buddha’s liberating teachings. Serious meditation students will benefit tremendously from the clarity of understanding that Venerable Analayo’s efforts have achieved.”

From the book:
” … an essential component of compassion is the concern for others to be relieved from suffering and affliction. Although this is hardly surprising, a subtle but important point to be noted here is that [this] does not qualify the act of seeing the actual suffering as compassion. Rather, compassion is concerned with the other being free from affliction. … In this way, the mind takes the vision of freedom from affliction as its object. … This is vital in so far as the meditative cultivation of compassion can only lead to deeper concentration if it is undertaken with a positive or even joyful mind.”
(Kindle Locations 200-209)

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.