Reflections on Practice
This page offers some reflections on practice from various teachers who are associated with The Mountain Hermitage, including Marcia Rose, Sayadaw Vivekananda, Annie Nugent, Venerable Dhammadinna, Andrea Fella, Greg Scharf, Jean Smith, Gina Sharpe, Winnie Nazarko, Sean Murphy, Wynn Fricke, Nikki Mirghafori, Joseph Goldstein, John Stanley, David Loy, Brian Lesage, and Larry Yang.
For almost a year now, I’ve noticed an underlying anxiety, a feeling of being off balance, craving to read the news more than I ever did before. There is a thread of fear stitched into our country, and I feel it, for we aren’t separate from our surroundings. In the midst of summer, there’s a chill in my heart. I’m grateful for the teachings & practice of mindfulness, calm, and equanimity.
What gives rise to the peace of mindfulness? The ancient texts tell us: mindfulness produces mindfulness. What we do with our minds right now conditions the next moment. How we breathe, how we pay attention to what arises in & around us, how we love… What are we doing moment to moment? We’re practicing something all the time. Are we practicing being aware? How are we actually spending the moments we have in this heart-breakingly unsafe, exquisite, magnificent life?
Flannery O’Connor wrote, “Faith comes & goes. It rises & falls like the tides of an invisible ocean. If it’s presumptuous to think that faith will stay with you forever, it’s just as presumptuous to think that unbelief will.” My Korean Zen teacher always encouraged us to “Believe in yourself!” With great humor & intensity, he asked us to have confidence in our minds, to believe in the stability & wisdom of awareness itself, our “not-moving mind.” His definition of faith was trust in awareness, our ability to see clearly.
Even so, sometimes what we see frightens & upsets us. We know our trust, confidence, faith will waver. When we’re mindful, we can see: wavering is both as real & ephemeral as trusting. Like all experiences, they appear & disappear. The skill is being willing to step back & observe the heart’s inevitable movement back & forth, in & out of fear & faltering, with as much kind, understanding awareness as we can summon.
This is how we learn to meet the inevitable ebb & flow of confidence with the “not-moving mind”. Sorrows, fears, joys, perceptions move — who watches & stays still? Awareness & presence are always here when we look deeply. This is how we cultivate mindfulness & compassion with all the insecurity of life. Practice means learning to recognize & support the courage, capacity, and strength already present in us. And mindfulness means remembering to look, again & again. “Believe in yourself!”
By Marcia Rose
It’s Autumn. Time for harvesting, and time to prune back & clear out all that has concluded its innate cycle of flowering & fruiting. It’s also time to replant the edibles that fare well in cooling temperatures, so that my home grown nurturance continues on into late Fall. Replanting is a practice of metta for myself, by which I mean taking care of myself wisely & happily… though not necessarily so easily these days because of the physical labor involved.
And of course, early Autumn brings the great joy of imbibing the wholesome & tasty nurturance that harvest season offers. This evening for dinner, I sauteed four different vegetables, picked just moments before from the garden, then poured three local eggs on top & allowed it all to simmer slowly. Joy is an essential aspect of our practice. Without it liberation remains at bay.
As I come towards the end of my 77th year of life, the work of growing food & flowers has evolved more & more into a deep & sometimes even a profound aspect of my Dhamma practice. One piece of this has been my decision to grow two crops for my ‘old age‘…. planting two crops that will return on their own year after year. Now I will have asparagus & strawberries to eat, even when I’m not up to the work of planting food each year. So yes, acknowledging & accepting in a deep way that I’m getting to be an old woman, and responding to this inevitability by planting a part of my garden for my nurturance in old age.
This year I have asked myself, ‘What is the Dhamma of a flower?‘ Is it not the same as it is for you & me? The poppies this season were particularly magnificent. These exquisite blossoms live just briefly. One must take them into the heart fully when they are in bloom, because they return to the earth in moments, it seems. This in turn offers nurturance, first for the heart/mind & then to the soil, and also a deep practice in relinquishing any clinging to the uplift & delight we experience in the presence of great beauty. I found myself observing each of the mammoth red poppies many times during the day or two that it offered up its vibrant & amazing beauty. For soon this fleeting beauty would be followed by that flower losing its brilliant color, its shape slowly collapsing & crumbling into itself & then falling petal by petal to the ground.
Each year, I experience awe & great respect for this practice of Dhamma gardening, as I receive its ever new & deepening Dhamma truths & fruits with heartful gratitude.
“Let us adopt a lifestyle that emphasizes contentment, because the cost to the planet & humanity
of ever-increasing ‘standards of living’ is simply too great.”
It is difficult to fully comprehend great environmental changes like global warming. We know that carbon dioxide levels are rising dangerously in the atmosphere leading to unprecedented increases in the average temperature of the planet… Human activity everywhere is hastening to destroy key elements of the natural ecosystems all living beings depend on. These threatening developments are drastic & shocking. It is hard to imagine all this actually happening in our lifetime, and in the lives of our children. We must deal with the prospect of global suffering & environmental degradation unlike anything in human history.
If we can begin to act with genuine compassion for all, we still have a window of opportunity to protect each other & our natural environment. This will be far easier than having to adapt to the severe & unimaginable environmental conditions projected for a “hothouse” climate. On close examination, the human mind, the human heart & the human environment are inseparably linked together. We must recognize we have brought about a climate emergency in order to generate the understanding & higher purpose we need now. On this basis we can create a viable future – sustainable, lasting, peaceful co-existence.
Ignorance of interdependence has harmed not only the natural environment, but human society as well. We have misplaced much of our energy in self-centered material consumption, neglecting to foster the most basic human needs of love, kindness & cooperation. This is very sad. We have to consider what we human beings really are. We are not machine-made objects. It is a mistake to seek fulfillment solely in external “development.”
This blue planet of ours is a delightful habitat. Its life is our life; its future is our future. The Earth, indeed, acts like a mother to us all. Like children, we are dependent onher. In the face of such global problems as the climate emergency, individual organizations & single nations are helpless. Unless we all work together, no solution can be found. Our Mother Earth is now teaching us a critical evolutionary lesson – a lesson in universal responsibility. On it depends the survival of millions of species, even our own.
The destruction of nature & natural resources results from ignorance, greed & lack of respect for the Earth’s living things. Future human generations will inherit a vastly degraded planet if destruction of the natural environment continues at the present rate. Our ancestors viewed the Earth as rich & bountiful. They saw nature as inexhaustible. Now we know this is the case only if we care for it. It has become an urgent necessity to ethically re-examine what we have inherited, what we are responsible for, and what we will pass on to coming generations. We ourselves are the pivotal human generation… We must take the initiative to repair & protect this world,ensuring a safe-climate future for all people & all species.
* You can view full article in a 2009 issue of the Shambala Sun. It originally appeared in the book “Climate Emergency” edited by John Stanley, David R. Loy & Gyurme Dorje.
* The Dalai Lama was the first to sign the Buddhist Declaration on Climate Change.
* View an hour-long video of His Holiness speaking about the impact of climate change at University of California San Diego conference.
By Annie Nugent
In these troubled times that we live in, we can find ourselves very unhappy with the way events are unfolding in the world & wanting them to be a different way than they are. Because we don’t know how to make sense of it all, the question might arise: Is it possible to be truly happy amidst the challenges of this mystery that we call life? It is often these unsatisfying or difficult times in life that bring us to the dharma in search of answers to this question.
The Buddha tells us that we have been caught in the tangle of desires & dislikes for a very long time, seeking out the pleasant & avoiding what we don’t like. Yet this is the treadmill that keeps us bound to suffering because nothing lasts; we can’t hold on to having things the way we want them to be.
The way to untangle this tangle is to find quiet places & look within by means of mindfulness; by so doing we are cultivating the heart, the mind of wisdom. The Buddha said he knew nothing that brought so much happiness as a mind cultivated towards goodness & wisdom, and nothing that brought so much suffering as a mind that perpetuates the unskillful tendencies of greed, aversion & delusion.
Now we know what to do to bring about the lasting happiness that we seek: Cultivate a wise and loving heart.
Mindfulness shows us how we get entangled in these unwholesome qualities of mind that create so much suffering for us & for all beings. We see that we no longer need to be at their mercy – mindfulness helps us to not bite the hook!
A growing joy & confidence enters our lives when we see that we have developed the skills to meet the challenges of life, not from a place of reactivity or divisiveness as we might have done in the past. Now we engage from a place of goodness, wisdom & compassionate understanding.
This allows for a self respect, a direct understanding & appreciation of the richness that our lives offer. The possibility, the potential for a completely wise & loving heart. This is the great gift that we can give to the world.
“Monks, mindfulness of death — when developed & pursued — is of great fruit & great benefit. It gains a footing in the Deathless, has the Deathless as its final end. And how is mindfulness of death developed & pursued so that it is of great fruit & great benefit, gains a footing in the Deathless, and has the Deathless as its final end?
“There is the case where a monk, as day departs and night returns, reflects: ‘Many are the [possible] causes of my death. A snake might bite me, a scorpion might sting me, a centipede might bite me. That would be how my death would come about. That would be an obstruction for me. Stumbling, I might fall; my food, digested, might trouble me; my bile might be provoked, my phlegm… piercing wind forces [in the body] might be provoked. That would be how my death would come about. That would be an obstruction for me.’
“Then the monk should investigate: ‘Are there any evil, unskillful mental qualities unabandoned by me that would be an obstruction for me were I to die in the night?’ If, on reflecting, he realizes that there are evil, unskillful mental qualities unabandoned by him that would be an obstruction for him were he to die in the night, then he should put forth extra desire, effort, diligence, endeavor, undivided mindfulness, & alertness for the abandoning of those very same evil, unskillful qualities. Just as when a person whose turban or head was on fire would put forth extra desire, effort, diligence, endeavor, undivided mindfulness, & alertness to put out the fire on his turban or head, in the same way the monk should put forth extra desire, effort, diligence, endeavor, undivided mindfulness, & alertness for the abandoning of those very same evil, unskillful qualities.
“But if, on reflecting, he realizes that there are no evil, unskillful mental qualities unabandoned by him that would be an obstruction for him were he to die in the night, then for that very reason he should dwell in joy & rapture, training himself day & night in skillful qualities.
“Further, there is the case where a monk, as night departs and day returns, reflects: ‘Many are the [possible] causes of my death. A snake might bite me, a scorpion might sting me, a centipede might bite me. That would be how my death would come about. That would be an obstruction for me. Stumbling, I might fall; my food, digested, might trouble me; my bile might be provoked, my phlegm… piercing wind forces [in the body] might be provoked. That would be how my death would come about. That would be an obstruction for me.’
“Then the monk should investigate: ‘Are there any evil, unskillful mental qualities unabandoned by me that would be an obstruction for me were I to die during the day?’ If, on reflecting, he realizes that there are evil, unskillful mental qualities unabandoned by him that would be an obstruction for him were he to die during the day, then he should put forth extra desire, effort, diligence, endeavor, undivided mindfulness, & alertness for the abandoning of those very same evil, unskillful qualities. Just as when a person whose turban or head was on fire would put forth extra desire, effort, diligence, endeavor, undivided mindfulness, & alertness to put out the fire on his turban or head, in the same way the monk should put forth extra desire, effort, diligence, endeavor, undivided mindfulness, & alertness for the abandoning of those very same evil, unskillful qualities.
“But if, on reflecting, he realizes that there are no evil, unskillful mental qualities unabandoned by him that would be an obstruction for him were he to die during the day, then for that very reason he should dwell in joy & rapture, training himself day & night in skillful qualities.
“This, monks, is how mindfulness of death is developed & pursued so that it is of great fruit & great benefit, gains a footing in the Deathless, and has the Deathless as its final end.”
– Anguttara Nikaya 6 §49
Translation By Thanissaro Bhikku on accesstoinsight.org
Anyone who practices mindfulness knows that there are forces in the mind that can make it difficult to be mindful. Rather than reacting to these difficulties as somehow being “bad” or as “distractions,” it is important to investigate them. It is easier to find freedom from something when we know it thoroughly…
Of the many forces of distraction, five are traditionally identified as particularly important for meditators to be familiar with. Known as the five hindrances, they are forces in the mind that can hinder our ability to see clearly or to become concentrated. The hindrances are: 1) sensual desire, 2) ill will, 3) sloth and torpor, 4) anxiousness and worry, and 5) doubt…
The hindrances can be like “black holes” in the mind. A black hole is a collapsed star where the gravitational force is so powerful that even light is sucked in and trapped. When the hindrances are strong, the light of awareness is pulled into their gravitational field and we lose our ability to see what is happening. We may get lost in thought or fantasy fueled by a hindrance.
When they aren’t so strong as to act like black holes, the hindrances can still cloud our ability to see clearly, particularly to know what is harmful and what is beneficial to do, say, or think…
The hindrances operate in everyone; their presence is not a personal failing. Rather, it is useful see their occurrence as an important opportunity to investigate them. Sometimes it is wise to not attempt to quickly get rid of a hindrance but to use it as a chance to learn something. The stronger the hindrance, the more important it is to investigate it…
Exploring the hindrance in and of itself involves recognizing the components of a hindrance, e.g. its physical, energetic, emotional, cognitive and motivational aspects. For example, strong desire may be experienced physically as a leaning forward, a tightening of the solar plexus, or a sense of lightness. Energetically it may be a rushing or lifting. Emotionally it may involve pleasant emotions like delight, excitement, eagerness, or an effort to fix unpleasant emotions such as emptiness, loneliness, or
fear. Cognitively it may involve beliefs and stories that we tell ourselves. And, motivationally, it may come as a strong impulse to act or to cling…
To be present without being hijacked by the hindrances is a joy. Unhindered attention is a treasure. It is what allows mindfulness to begin doing its most penetrating work of liberation.
Excerpted from article by Gil Fronsdal, a guiding teacher at Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, CA. SEE THE FULL ARTICLE along with other Dharma articles by Gil. Gil has also written a book on the Hindrances, called “Unhindered.”
By Marcia Rose
We do a lot of looking…at our computer, i-Phone, television, through lenses, at people, books and at ‘nature’. Our looking is perfected every day, but how often do we see?
Seeing/Drawing is a way of getting into intimate touch with the visible world around us, and through it…with ourselves. It’s a very straightforward uncomplicated process. The ‘practice’ is to receive what is seen without interposing our ‘self’. We spend time seeing/drawing the simplest, most commonplace things of nature, the things that we have ‘looked at’ all our lives and things that we may have eaten all of our lives but have never really seen; an orange, a scallion, ginger, peppers whole and cut open, leaves, rocks, tree bark, flowers, roots and faces.
Can the mind, the eye and the heart simply reflect like a clear mirror, with no concept? From this will spring the ability to contact things directly and positively, letting the hand (and pencil) follow what the eye sees…not ‘making’ a picture, not ‘being’ creative. We are engaging in the practice of contemplative awareness in relationship to a world that is fully alive. We’re no longer ignoring the beauty and intricacies of the multitude of simple things that constitute life…the convoluted network of the veins of a leaf and its wondrous undulations, the strength, intensity and delicacy of the branches that make a bush, the voluptuous curve of a red pepper, the unimaginable depth of form in a walnut or the unique lines, hills and valleys of the human foot.
When the eye and heart wake up to see again, we suddenly stop taking things for granted. The thing that we draw is no longer a ‘thing’, no longer an object…no longer MY object and I am no longer the overbearing subject who objectifies things. Something else happens or has the potential to happen. The split is healed.
Whatever we are truly seeing and drawing, we are saying ‘yes’ to its existence. We dignify it, declare it worthy of our total attention, simply because we and it are here in the midst of this awesome mystery and miracle that we and all of it share. We begin to take delight, a pure delight in seeing…the light over the mountains in the late afternoon, the carrots and peaches in the market, the people everywhere all around us. Our eye and heart are ‘in love’. And as one artist said, “I had to celebrate this love and so…I draw.”
By Wynn Fricke
Why did the Buddha instruct us to be intimate with the body? Where is the place of movement in meditation?
Stillness of mind is a refuge, a place of safety and simplicity. We dive beneath thoughts into a place we recognize as impersonal and in motion, where there is no central, fixed character, or a character at all. This is a great relief and a respite from addictive mental patterns that don’t benefit us or those around us. Mindful moving can allow us to abandon the mind’s attachment to self-dramas and enter the dynamic natural world of sensation being known. Meditating on the body is a powerful means to still the mind and to see more clearly, more deeply. Without thoughts mediating the experience of the body, we can experience the body directly feeling the hardness, softness, heaviness, lightness, coolness, warmth. We are observing and touching what the Buddha described as the underlying elemental nature that constitutes all things.
Through our embodiment practices, in motion and in stillness, we begin to see how any kind of mental contraction is mirrored in the body. The body reverberates with patterns of holding and releasing depending on the attitudes of mind. When we intentionally observe contraction with kindness and interest, we can see these forces as impersonal, like weather patterns. We didn’t create them. We don’t need to control them. We just need to turn towards them and take interest. Letting go, mentally and physically, happens as we become aware of the underlying feeling tone, and the pain of clinging. What is let go of, quite naturally, is the effortful construction of a separate self –which is a house of cards that can be slowly recognized for what it is. There is great joy in the mind as it grows wide and drops the narrow and false perception of self – the “tiny mind” as Sayadaw U Pandita liked to refer to it.
Movement as meditation is a place of creativity, investigation, and joy. We can use movement as an enlivening means to deepen insight, well-being, and peace. Being connected to the moving body is being connected to the present moment in its luminous impermanence.
By Sean Murphy
Perhaps the most striking thing about doing writing practice – in other words, story-telling – in the context of a meditation retreat is the bearing it has on the understanding of ‘no-self’: the lack of a separate self, a central doctrine of Buddhism. The reason being that the ‘self’ as understood and experienced through meditation practice, is itself a story – one we tell ourselves over and over again until we believe it.
If we wish to see through the illusion of a separate self, one very effective way to do this is by working directly with the stories about who we are (or think we are!) that we’ve been building up and telling ourselves all our lives. Putting words and experience down on the page can be a highly effective way to examine and begin to deconstruct the self-story… and to enjoy the process, because freeing the creative flow through writing practice (also known as free-writing) is finally an enjoyable and liberating experience.
When we begin to let our words flow onto the page without the usual filter of the internal critic/ego self getting in the way, we may discover surprising results. We may find that creativity, wisdom, and compassion can arise naturally from the emptiness of the meditative mind, without our usual thought processes needing to intrude – without the ‘trying’ to create something impressive or profound which so often makes our creative efforts feel stilted and inauthentic. In other words, without the ‘self’ getting in the way. Then perhaps we can feel the joyousness of letting go of the conditioned self-story, and the creative freedom of creating any story we like – or no story at all.
In his book The Art of Happiness and often in his teachings, His Holiness the Dalai Lama likes to point out that an often-overlooked source of happiness and resilience is a sense of self-worth. When I share this with Dharma students, they often draw a blank: What does he mean by “self-worth”? Perhaps this notion is a bit mysterious. Self-worth is not linked to any accomplishments or special qualities a person may have. It has nothing to do with measuring ourselves against others. And it doesn’t come about through our own effort.
Self-worth arises through appreciating our shared humanity: “You can relate to fellow human beings because you are a being, within the human community.” Simply because we ourselves are human beings we share an empathic bond with everyone. This tends to be hard to discern, like trying to point out the presence of water to a fish that is immersed in it.
His Holiness continues, “[T]hat human bond is enough to give rise to a sense of worth and dignity. That bond can become a source of consolation in the event that we lose everything else.” Many of you may be taken by surprise, even stunned. “In the event we lose everything else,” is a strong statement. It conjures images of disaster or the flight of refugees. He is asserting that that human bond can support you by imbuing your suffering with dignity. I hope this stirs in you an intense curiosity about how something so ordinary and overlooked can be the source of unassailable hope and optimism.
Metta bhavana or loving kindness meditation is a way of contemplating this innate and essential human bond until it becomes integrated as a realization. The Buddha called this the mind liberation of metta. As Indian Buddhism matured, this grew into bodhicitta, “the mind of awakening,” the celebrated entrance into the Mahayana.