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.
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.
By Marcia Rose
As our beautiful home planet revolves & we turn again toward the light, the New Year often inspires reflection on what has taken place, changed and passed… in our personal life, our community, our country and in the world at large. We might note how, as life unfolded within us and around us this past year, we experienced beauty, joy, compassion, generosity and love as well as rancor, confusion, anger and misunderstanding… in our own mind and heart as well as coming from others out in the larger world. And especially we discover that nothing seems to stay the same, internally or externally.
A question that often arises is: What is it that is of greatest value? For many of us the answer comes clearly time and again. We recognize that in times of uncertainty, turbulence and stress, the teachings of the Buddha offer us what is actually a radical notion… that when we cultivate an equanimous heart and mind through our practice, even the most extreme external or internal circumstances do not consistently hold strong sway over us.
As we learn and practice with diligence and sincerity on this path that leads to freedom, we discover that more and more often we’re able to meet and respond with some measure of equanimity when facing difficult, disappointing and stressful times. The cultivation of equanimity that naturally happens through our practice brings forth an equilibrium, a fearlessness and balance of heart/mind… thus giving us the clarity and power to experience and respond to every sort of manifestation and change in the realms of internal and external experience. Consequently our heart and mind begin to relax.
We find that we are able to engage responsively more and more often with wholesome and appropriate thoughts, words and actions even in the midst of what might be some hardship in our life or in the larger world. And as our practice continues to take a deeper trajectory, these wholesome thoughts, words and actions become a refuge for us in every circumstance.
We can take inspiration from the just-about-to-be Buddha, sitting under the Bodhi Tree on that now famous night. Sidartha Gotama was protected within the great strength of his mindful presence… a presence enlivened by a determination, keen interest and a penetrating sense of investigation imbued with an uplifting and refreshing joy… all accompanied by clear discernment. We can remember this about-to-be Buddha sitting under the Bo Tree that night, with unshakable stability grounded in the evenness and balance of a receptive, openhearted presence… as though he were an immovable mountain… the mountain of Equanimity.
We are delighted to welcome our new Mountain Hermitage retreat cook Amy Gates by sharing a couple of her excellent healthy recipes for the winter season. Amy traveled here last summer from her home in the Bay Area to cook for the Hermitage’s 5-week retreat with Sayadaw Vivekananda & Marcia Rose…and like so many others, she fell in love with Taos & northern New Mexico. This self-described “fun-loving, travel-obsessed nature junkie, health food enthusiast, natural foods chef & holistic health coach” is now living here full time.
Amy began cooking for the Dharma several years ago at the Insight Retreat Center in Santa Cruz, CA for teachers Gil Fronsdal & Andrea Fella. “It was here,” she says, “that I found a love in cooking for retreats. With my passion for wellness & personal interest in meditation, I find great joy in supporting others’ practice through love & nourishment in food.”
Hermitage students & staff have been enjoying Amy’s positive energy & internationally inspired vegetarian retreat meals. Simple but so delicious. We are grateful to have her as part of our Hermitage community…supporting our practice with nutritious & tasty food!
Find out more about Amy on her website: www.amythekitchenfairy.com
Warm Winter Chai: (Serves 8)
1/2 gallon water
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 c pureed ginger
1/3 c cardamom pods ground
1 tsp whole coriander
2 cloves whole
3 whole peppercorns
1/4 c loose leaf assam or black tea
1 Tbsp vanilla
2-4 Tbsp coconut sugar, or sweetener of choice
1 cup, or more to taste, whole milk, half and half, or non-dairy milk of choice
1. Add the water and spices to a large pot and boil for 1 hour. Let sit on stove overnight.
2. Bring to just a boil. Add 1/4 c loose black tea. Brew for 5 minutes.
3. Strain tea and discard spices.
4. Return to stove and bring to a simmer. Add sugar, vanilla, and milk of choice, stirring until sugar is dissolved. ENJOY!
Garlic Thyme Tempeh: (Serves 4)
8 oz tempeh
2 Tbsp tamari
4 cloves garlic, smashed
1/2 cup veggie broth
2 Tbsp balsalmic vinegar
3 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup fresh thyme, leaves whole, soft stems roughly chopped
2 Tbsp olive oil
1. Set up a steamer basket and pot on the stovetop. Slice the tempeh into two thin squares across the middle, sort of like a clamshell. Now slice each square corner to corner, into triangles.
2. Steam the tempeh for 10 minutes.
3. In the meantime, mix all marinade ingredients together in a big bowl. When tempeh is ready, transfer it directly into the marinade. Let marinate for 1 to 4 hours, flipping occasionally.
Preheat lightly oiled grill on medium high (indoor or outdoor). Cook tempeh for 5 minutes on each side, flipping with a metal spatula, so that it doesn’t stick. Tip: rub thyme and garlic on each side. Some will fall off, but not all of it.
Preheat oven to 400°F. Place marinated tempeh on a greased or parchment lined baking sheet. Bake until crispy and lightly browned on each side, about 15 minutes per side. Flip half way through.
Pumpkin Sage Polenta: (Serves 4-6)
3 cups water
1 cup polenta
2 tsp salt
1/2 cup pumpkin puree (canned is fine if you do not have freshly roasted pumpkin)
1 tsp sage, chopped
1/2 cup parmesan cheese (optional)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed (or nondairy alternative)
1. In a medium saucepan, bring water to boil.
2. Whisk in polenta, lower the heat and let the polenta simmer, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon.
3. Add the pumpkin, salt, and sage, and continue stirring for about 15-20 minutes, until the polenta begins to pull away from the sides of the saucepan.
4. Stir in the parmesan cheese and butter. Serve immediately while hot and creamy.
By Brian Lesage
During the Buddha’s time, a group of monks happened upon one of their fellow monastics in the forest, the Venerable Bhaddiya (Ud 2.10). “Ah, what bliss, ah, what bliss…,” they heard him muttering to himself. The monks were worried that Bhaddiya felt disheartened with the spiritual life and was spending all of his time daydreaming about the opulent life he had before being ordained, so they told the Buddha their concerns. When the Buddha met with Bhaddiya, Bhaddiya responded with words to the effect of, “My brother monks completely misunderstood my exclamations. I wasn’t dreaming of the petty happiness of the royal life but, rather, savoring the supreme happiness that arises from the spiritual path!”
I appreciate how this story reveals not only our tendency to make assumptions about other people’s experiences, but, more importantly, shows us that not all forms of happiness are equal in depth. Happiness has always been a popular aspiration both inside and outside of Buddhist circles and I often wonder about the type of happiness we may be craving today. Is it the same happiness that the Buddha was encouraging in early Buddhism?
One big discovery that arose in my own spiritual practice was that I had been searching for the kind of happiness my society, family and culture had conditioned me to seek. It was the happiness of mere well-being. In other words, it was the classic attempt to maximize pleasant experiences and minimize unpleasant experiences. As much as I intellectually knew the folly of this, it took practice to recognize my conditioning and to see that such attempts, in fact, led to a meaningless and hollow life filled with a sense of separateness.
As I continued to practice, I began to discover that this spiritual path opens the door to a deeper sense of happiness and contentment, a happiness that I probably wouldn’t have defined as “happiness” at the beginning of this spiritual journey. This kind of happiness requires me to open my heart to not only my own suffering but to the suffering of others. I think this is why the Buddha broadened his description of happiness to include a heart also filled with the noble quality of compassion and willing to touch into the suffering of the world.
Yes, my mind still prefers pleasant experiences over unpleasant experiences but, like Bhaddiya, this path and practice have widened my heart to include a kind of bliss not confined to the narrow world of my preferences. It is now open to and part of this vast universe of the Dharma which includes everyone and everything, thus allowing me to savor the supreme happiness that arises from the spiritual path.