Archive | Reflections on Practice

Patience

Patience is a blessing to human beings and is the best moral practice.
–The Buddha (Mangala Sutta; Dhp. v. 184)

Patience leads to Nibbana
— Burmese saying

Thistle 2Patience is required in performing acts of generosity, in observing precepts, and in the field of mental development (bhavana).   In meditation when we observe a pain that is gradually intensifying we tend to get annoyed.  This annoyance may easily turn into irritation and restlessness.   We start fidgeting, we change our posture.  We might even ask ourselves: Why do we have to sit still in meditation and observe this pain?  This seems like a futile exercise.  With this we have just missed a wonderful opportunity to gain intuitive wisdom.  If we were to observe that same pain with some patience we could learn many things from it, such as seeing its inherent quality, its fascinating changes, and even its eventual dissolution.  When we are remembering some undesirable event of the past we may want to push it away and rather not observe it.  Once again, wisdom cannot arise.  Here, too, patience will make a big difference.  When we accept and observe the undesirable event of the past as an object of observation we get to know it, what it feels like in the mind, and eventually we might even come to terms with it.

Satipatthana mediation could be described as a process of developing ever greater levels of patience.  At the outset of our meditation journey we easily get impatient with undesirable, and times even desirable objects.  As the meditation practice is full of challenges this will give us ample opportunity to grow more and more patient.  After being very diligent for quite some time, on occasion our meditation practice may collapse.  At such a point again we need patience with the situation and just accept what has happened and start all over again.  Sooner or later, in the presence of mindfulness and patience, we are bound to succeed and gain nibbana.  Hence , the Burmese saying “Patience leads to Nibbana” very much applies to the meditation practice.

The patience gained from intensive or regular meditation at home will come in good stead in our daily life when we have to deal with the imperfections of ourselves and others.  Others’ speech may be timely or untimely, true or untrue, gentle or harsh, connected with good or with harm, spoken with a mind of loving-kindness or with inner hate.  Whatever others might be saying, we need to abide in patience, compassion, and loving-kindness.

In the context of the Abhidhamma patience and other positive mental qualities like loving-kindness, gentleness, and amity are various aspects of the mental state of non-hatred (adosa).  The commentary to the Cariyapitaka defines patience as follows: It has the characteristic of acceptance; its function is to endure the desirable and the undesirable; its manifestation is tolerance or non-opposition; seeing things as they really are is its proximate cause.  In the texts patience is much extolled as a blessing to human beings and as the best moral practice (Mangala Sutta; Dhp. v.184).

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Finding No ‘Self’ Through the Creative Process as Practice

In exploring the creative process as practice, with mindfulness and investigation being the root from which stem the beautiful blossoms of wisdom and creative expression in its myriad manifestations, we find that creative process can be a vehicle for peeling away layers of our habitual conditioned perceptions and reactions, thus a vehicle with great potential for revealing the interdependent and selfless nature of all physical and mental phenomena.

3Red poppy on wallWhether it be the spontaneity of a moment to moment creative visceral response through the moving body, or seeing with the eye without interposing the ‘self’, meaning contacting things directly… letting the hand and pencil follow what the eye sees without the thought of ‘making’ a picture or ‘being’ creative…or trusting thoughts/words arising as though from nowhere, from no-one… allowing the immediacy and spontaneity of writing to flow from this ’empty space’–we could say that the creative process is about forgetting what we’ve previously learned which is a necessary step in responding and seeing more directly and precisely.

Part of moving, seeing and writing is forgetting – meaning forgetting what we think we know about the subject, which includes what we may have been taught about drawing or writing or how we should or should not move the body. ‘Forgetting’ in this way stops the mind from knowing in its conditioned habitual ways. Consequently one is confronted with the object itself and one’s usual way of knowing is arrested. The heart, the mind is open, receptive, appreciative and able to respond to the inner voice, the tone, shape or texture with genuine authority and autonomy.

What keeps this openhearted “being in the presence” from happening? A common response is, “the fear of losing control.” Though without a doubt there is an ancient and subconscious urge for inventiveness and creative life in every one of us from our very beginnings, it is not so easy to be unarmed–to be without our habitual ways and self-centered identifications. Fear sometimes leaps up in us, and so we train the heart/the mind slowly and with great care to clearly see the nature of our constraints, and let go.

In our practice, including the creative process as practice, until we can suspend the need for meaning we can’t experience direct revelation/insight/wisdom. The way to returning to things themselves can be difficult as we are faced with our ‘self’–our seemingly set solid ‘self’. At times many of us may experience the simple direct presence of ‘not knowing’ as feeling stupid, but the most extraordinary insightful experiences I’ve had all had a quality of ‘bearing witness’–of being fully present with tremendous and yet relaxed interest, an openhearted mindful attention and discernment, along with the innocence of humility and no impulse to make meaning.

Engaging in the creative process with joyful interest and openhearted mindfulness can be a wonderful vehicle for freeing up honesty, authenticity and the essence energy of creativity, all of which help to create the conditions that allow for a direct revelation of insight into the not-self nature of all things.

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Compassion

“My continuing passion is to part a curtain — that invisible veil of indifference that falls between us and that blinds us to each other’s presence, each other’s wonder, each other’s human plight.”
— Eudora Welty, American author and photographer

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.
If you want to be happy, practice compassion
— Dalai Lama

Poppy orange 2There is an image in Tibetan Buddhism that represents the awakened energy of unconditional, boundless compassion.  It is an image of a Bodhisatta often depicted as having 1,000 arms outstretched and 1,000 eyes — an eye painted in the palm of each outstretched hand, 1,000 eyes to see all the suffering in the world, and 1,000 arms reaching out to help.

Compassion is the heart beat of the Buddha’s teaching.  It may be experienced as the trembling or the quivering of the heart in response to pain -one’s own pain or another’s.  Compassion is a very tender, open state and at the same time a place within us of great strength — tenderness, openness and strength — enabling us to stay present with whatever is happening within our own bodies and minds and with what is going on around us without becoming overwhelmed.

The practice and the unfolding of compassion are challenging, which means that we take to heart the Buddha’s words, “I teach one thing and one thing only – suffering and the end of suffering.” The practice of compassion asks us to gently maintain our awareness of suffering.   Most of us are strongly habituated to sweep discomfort away, to sweep dis-ease “under the rug”, to hide it away in a metaphoric closet.   Or, we hide ourselves away by shutting off, going to sleep or distracting ourselves.  We might ignore or trivialize suffering so we don’t see the pain of others in the world — or experience our own pain and suffering.

Through the purification of the heart and mind that practice brings, we gradually turn our developing capacity for heart-full, unconditional acceptance towards suffering.  We are then able to open to it with understanding and courage and move towards its alleviation. Unconditional compassion, our heartfelt connection to beings and our way of being in this world, arises out of a clear, deep seeing and understanding of suffering, its root cause and the way of its end.

Unconditional, boundless compassion is one of the wings of awakening with which we fly free.

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Wisdom and Faith

Robin's-Barn-Owl-photo
There is a very simple connection between wisdom and faith.

Wisdom is bound to arise as we keep being mindful from moment to moment, exerting effort with concentration building.

At first, wisdom arises in simple ways: just knowing the nature of one rising movement, knowing the nature of a falling movement; knowing the specific nature of some pain, some ache, some hardness, some softness; gradually getting to know the different mental states; discerning the specifics of mind and matter and their relationship to each other, and other insight knowledges.

Every time a meditator intuitively (not just intellectually) realizes a new insight knowledge the meditator understands “Wow, I’m seeing something that I’ve never seen before. There really seems to be something to this path. Something is really happening.” One begins to find that their experience is in accord with what has been said in Dhamma talks or written in the texts. As a result of this, one’s faith increases.

And as our wisdom increases stage by stage, the wholesome mental state of faith is strengthened.

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Using Everything as Food for Freedom

When we are faced with the challenge of bringing the practice into our everyday lives, it can seem like a daunting task. Out of this we may become despondent and slowly our good intentions about practice begin to recede into the background as we become seduced by worldly distractions, relegating our practice to a period of formal sitting some time in the day. While this is an important part of the practice, it is only a part.

What about the rest of the day?

Rather than limiting the practice to some special period of time on the cushion, can we learn to see every situation as an opportunity for wisdom and compassion to grow? For example: whilst driving our car is there aversion to other drivers or are we perhaps daydreaming? When talking with others are we judging or wanting something from them? When preparing the evening meal are we rushing, leaning in to the moment?  In the midst of these ordinary, worldly situations can we notice how we are relating to the moment?

The Buddha tells us that the end of suffering comes with the uprooting of the defilements of greed, hatred and delusion. Thus our job is learning to bring awareness to the presence of these unwholesome habits in the mind and not acting on them – this is how they are ultimately uprooted. In this way we are working towards ending suffering.

But this takes time – the patient, sincere willingness to begin with a gentle but determined encouragement to be aware of what is happening in the mind in one small moment. This is perfectly doable – nothing grandiose like being aware “for the whole day”. One moment of awareness begets another. Slowly and repeatedly throughout the day noticing what our attitude of mind is in any moment. Asking the question: “What’s happening in the mind now?”

In this way we can see that there is nothing special we have to do to alter our day. Only watching how the mind is operating. With awareness we begin to see the unwholesome tendencies of mind showing themselves. With time our attitude of mind shifts from living out the defilements of greed, hatred and delusion towards living from a place of generosity of heart, kindness and compassion and wisdom.

A joy comes into our lives when we realize the scope of the dharma. We see that it doesn’t narrow or limit our lives, but brings a growing ease of mind into life as wisdom and compassion is cultivated in the midst of the fullness and vibrancy of daily life. We come to understand that awareness wakes us up. It is a courageous and a deeply compassionate act because it breaks the cycle of ignorance. Gratitude arises for our lives as they may be manifesting right now, recognizing that the seeds of wisdom and compassion lie in whatever life is offering in this moment. It is up to us to use them as food for freedom.

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The Dharma In A Few Words

We might think that the Dharma is only to be found in long hours of sitting on our meditation cushion…but not so. It incorporates all areas of our lives if we are prepared to look at life with eyes of wisdom – and what better place to begin than with our speech?

The Buddha spoke about the importance of speaking wisely. It is one of the steps of the 8 fold path and an immediately rich area of practice for us in the busy, interactive world we live in. Each time we open our mouth to speak we have the opportunity to cultivate either wholesome or unwholesome qualities:  we can perpetuate the habitual responses borne out of delusion that we have blindly acted out for many lifetimes or we can learn to pause momentarily before we speak, take note of what is happening in the mind – and then speakZia flower 2 from a place of growing awareness of what our motivation is in our choice of words, because motivation or attitude of mind, is the key to wholesome speech. Are our words motivated by kindness or anger, greed or generosity?

For example, take the simple sentence: “Hello, how are you today?” What is our motivation in saying these words that are used so often in our daily lives? We might say them to our neighbors, the check-out clerk at the supermarket, our friends, our children, partners and people in the street. But are we aware of all of the qualities that might be present within the heart/mind as we are speaking them?

In just these few words we can find the Dharma: when the heart is open and connected to the other person – we can touch our common bond, our humanity. We are not threatening the other person or wanting anything from them, rather we are giving in a very simple, aware way. We are letting go of thoughts about ourselves and what we want, and including someone else into our world with kind awareness, transforming what might have been a mere formality, a polite, empty sentence if said without awareness, into a small gesture of kindness and inclusion borne out of awareness. In these moments we are also not trying to make any special feeling arise, instead, through being genuinely open and truly present, we can feel a quiet connectedness come to life within the heart, free of expectation of any particular result.

It takes so little of our time, yet has far reaching consequences in terms of our practice because each drop of wholesome motivation in our speech, coming from a place of generosity and kindness of heart, rather than from a place of grasping or unkindness is a step in the direction of letting go of our deeply ingrained habitual tendency of unawareness in the world.

If we are sincerely interested in developing in our practice, then we can resolve to pay attention when we speak. As we begin to include speech into our practice we will notice how difficult it is because our habits run so deep. Don’t let this dishearten you…and watch the judging mind…. we are all working towards purifying our unskillful habits….and of course, it is going to take time. The important thing to remember is to be patient with ourselves and never to give up… each moment we are willing to make the effort towards strengthening awareness in our speech brings wholesome results….a drop at a time.

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Inner Happiness

Vivekananda HeadAs a non-meditator, we think that for our happiness and well-being we have to rely on external gadgets such as having the latest computer game, or spending holidays in the Caribbean renting a yacht. When we meditate, we gradually come to realize that more and more joy and happiness is arising within. This leads to the arising of contentment with whatever we have, with whatever social position we find ourselves in. We realize that for true inner joy, happiness, peace, and balance of mind, we don’t really need those external gadgets. And this, in a sense, is a form of inner liberation.

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From Joseph Goldstein

“It was an amazing first five minutes. For the first time I saw there was a way to look at the mind, instead of looking out at the world through it. When people first get a taste of watching their minds, the discovery is tremendously compelling.”

“Calm is a state that is the opposite of restlessness. Equanimity is the quality of mind of impartiality… the equanimous mind holds everything, and in that impartiality is the chance to learn.”

“When you realize the empty or selfless nature of consciousness, the energy to bring about the good of others dawns uncontrived and effortless. When we take ourselves out of the way, what is left is love and compassion.”

“Real spiritual maturity happens when the relative and ultimate levels of truth are known as expressions of each other. When we understand truth on the ultimate level, we can engage in the world with much greater freedom.”

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