Archive | Reflections on Practice

“Making mindfulness of the body our friend”

So many of us live in our heads.  When we are caught up in the world of thoughts, emotions and fantasies, believing their content and taking them personally, we experience the corresponding suffering that they bring.

One way to support ourselves not to suffer in this arena is to remind ourselves – as it says in the Buddha’s teachings – that “there is a body, just to the extent necessary for mindfulness and clear understanding to arise.” The Buddha said that, without mindfulness of the body, there is no possibility of freedom from suffering. This doesn’t mean that freedom from suffering is in the body; it means that the mind is attending to something that is grounding, something tangible which helps us to disengage from the story in the mind that had swept us away.

Once this simple acknowledgement that “there is a body” is established, we have redirected our attention from the mental activity that we were caught in. We actually get in touch with the experience of the body, which will support a growing steadiness of mind to bring about the understanding of the changing nature of sensations and breath. The understanding following from this is that the thoughts and emotions that had caused us so much suffering prior, are also impermanent.

We are told that when the Buddha’s attendant, Ananda, was grieving the loss of his dear friend Sariputta, he described his emotions in this way: “When the noble friend Sariputta had gone, the world was plunged into darkness for me…” Then he added that after the Buddha had also passed away, “there was no friend like mindfulness directed to the body”.

This is good advice for us too.  Can we take our cue from Ananda, especially during times when we are troubled by thoughts and emotions, and make mindfulness of the body our friend?

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Interdependence Always Arising

Find a comfortable place to sit on a cushion on the floor or in a chair. Gently close your eyes & bring your attention to the direct sensorial experience of your breath for a few moments. Now visualizing or sensing an enormous jeweled net, a net of boundless proportions…letting this fill your mind & heart. This net is woven of an infinite variety of brilliant crystal gems, each with countless facets. At each point where the strings of the net meet there is a brilliant highly reflective, muti-faceted gem with each jewel reflecting within itself every other jewel in the net. At the same time its image is reflected in each of the other gems. In this vision each jewel contains all the other jewels. To look at one gem at any point is to see the reflection of all the gems at all of the points in the net…a boundless net of beginningless – endless radiating aliveness.

This practice is a metaphor for the intricately interwoven tapestry of life, with everything constantly changing & everything reflecting everything in this many hued & faceted jeweled net of life. This understanding that lies at the heart of all of the Buddha’s teaching arises from his teaching of Interdependent Co-Arising. In our growing understanding that no-thing spontaneously exists all on its own, we truly come to know that everything, including all physical & mental experience, have many, even infinite, contributing factors & conditions of causation. Within each ‘thing’ are MANY things.

This sublime teaching was clearly expressed in this verse from the Buddha.

‘This is, because that it.
This is not, because that is not.
This ceases to be, because that ceases to be.’ 

Seeing/knowing the world in this way can greatly demystify things for us, along with uniting us…bringing us together…offering us the wisdom to make ethical decisions with more skill & compassion. We are more clearly able to see the potential repercussions of what may have seemed to be harmless actions & reactions in relationship to ourselves & others. Mindful insight arises in seeing the impact that we have on others & in relationship to our environment. And, we find more patience arising in relationship to ourselves & others as we begin to more clearly understand the origin of our thoughts, emotions & actions.  We learn to sense, see & know the interdependence between our reactions & moods/emotions…between our emotions/moods & our decisions…between our decisions & our contracted resistance or greed.

A GREAT GIFT of this understanding/ insight is our growing ability to intervene in the process of reactivity. Rather than immediately, habitually reacting in ways that cause suffering for ourselves & others, our practice gives us some ‘breathing space’ between what may be a strong or subtle unpleasant experience & our habitual reaction to unpleasant experience. We might still feel angry, fearful, greedy & upset, but there is now a few second gap in our heart/mind. With our mindfulness-based insight practice this ‘gap’ increases over time to a few more seconds…allowing our agitated mind to ‘cool off’. And seeming miraculous, at least at first, we now have a broader range of choices for how to RESPOND rather than react internally & externally. It can be quite an incredible change for us when mindfulness intervenes in our habitual ‘chain of causation’ that causes suffering for ourselves & for others.  We experience a wonderful freedom with this change as it develops, deepens & matures within the whole of our life.

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“Reflection on Gratitude”

Gratitude is a quality and virtue that is like a hidden treasure. It is a spiritual force that brightens our existence and leads to inner harmony. Gratitude can bring an incredible amount of joy into our lives. It makes us happy.

As a beautifying quality of the heart and mind, gratitude is not as well-known as other qualities such as the Ten Perfections or the Seven Factors of Awakening. However, the Buddha stated very clearly, “The good person is grateful and thankful.”

Those who are grateful remember words, deeds, situations, or events that were beneficial, profitable, or instructive. What is profitable or instructive does not necessarily have to be pleasant or beautiful. Even unpleasant or painful experiences and encounters can be instructive or beneficial. Spiritual maturity is reflected in the understanding that the potential for inner growth can be found in every situation and every moment. Whether pleasant or painful. Those who are grateful recognize that everything is a gift and that nothing should be taken for granted.

When a heartfelt ‘thank you’ goes beyond the conventional mechanical phrase, it creates a connection with the other person and brightens up both lives.The practice of gratitude not only sharpens the awareness of our connection with others but also how we depend on them. Food, clothes, transportation, computer, toothpaste, books, toilet brush – all these things are produced by others. On top of this, there are the social and emotional aspects of our lives that are covered by other people or living beings. In this way, we are always beneficiaries and we owe so much to others.

Gratitude engenders a sense of fullness and causes appreciation for everything we have and for whatever we encounter. And we realize that we have so much! We recognize our ‘wealth’. People often focus on what they are missing, ‘I still need this to be happy. I should have another pair of shoes ….’, and so on. With this perspective, there arises a feeling of never-enough, a sense of lack. This is truly a sorrowful and miserable feeling. I call this the ‘never-enough-syndrome’. Additional to a free-flowing gratitude practice throughout the day, we can take a few moments in the evening and reflect on at least three things for which we are grateful today. We may probably find that it is more and more the simple and ordinary ‘everyday-things’ that we are grateful for.

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Judith Lief on “Starting on the Path of Fear & Fearlessness”

It helps to explore how we can work with fear from the point of view of the path, the student’s journey. How do we walk the path of fear? Fear is not a trivial matter. In many ways, it restricts our lives; it imprisons us. Fear is also a tool of oppression. Because of fear, we do many harmful things, individually & collectively, and people who are hungry for power over others know that & exploit it. We can be made to do things out of fear.

Fear is a very tricky thing. Sometimes we put up a pretense of virtue, but really we’re afraid of being bad. Are our good deeds true virtue or just fear? Fear also stops us from speaking up when we know we should. Fear is often what causes people to leave the path of dharma. When things start to go deep, beyond self-improvement, they encounter fear & say, “This path is not for me.”

The essential cause of our suffering & anxiety is ignorance of the nature of reality, and craving & clinging to something illusory. That is referred to as ego, and the gasoline in the vehicle of ego is fear. Ego thrives on fear, so unless we figure out the problem of fear, we will never understand or embody any sense of egolessness or selflessness.

We have our conscious day-to-day fears—of a close call, an accident, a bad health diagnosis. But then there is an undercurrent of fear, which is very relevant to practitioners. This undercurrent of fear lurks behind a lot of our habits. It is why it is so hard to just sit still or stand still or stand in line—not doing anything in particular — without feeling nervous & fidgety. We have a fear of being still.

There are many stages in the practitioner’s journey of working with fear, but it is very important to know where it begins, so we can get off on the right foot. The starting point is … where you look straightforwardly at your own experience. You examine fear & dissect it into its components. Where does it arise? What is the sensation when you feel afraid? What kind of thoughts race through your mind when you are in a state of fear? What’s your particular pattern? Do you panic? Do you freeze? Do you get really busy & try to fix everything? Do you get angry? At this stage in the path, you try to understand your experience, try to break it down.

To do this, it helps to see things as they arise — before they become full-blown & you are caught in their sway, at which point you can’t do much about them. In meditation practice you slow things down, and that allows you to see the subtle arisings. By slowing things down, you can interrupt the tossing of the match into the pile of leaves. You can say, “I don’t need to go there. I see what’s coming.” You catch things when they’re manageable. Understanding, examining, knowing, slowing down—those are the first steps in working with fear, the beginning of the path to fearlessness.

Excerpted from article that first appeared in May 25, 2017 issue of Lion’s Roar magazine.

Judith Lief is an experienced teacher of Buddhist psychology & meditation who trained under Tibetan meditation master, Ven. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. She has been a teacher & practitioner for over 35 years, and she continues to teach throughout the world. Judy is known for offering insights & practices stemming from the Buddhist tradition as a support for ordinary people facing the difficulties & challenges of modern life.

 

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Ajahn Sumedho on “An Awakened Response to Violence: Natural Purity of the Mind”

(In 1999, when this dharma talk was given in Spirit Rock Meditation Center, the U.S. military was bombing Yugoslavia. We have substituted Ukraine for Yugoslavia in the text here, to make the article more relevant to today’s circumstances.)

Those who live in awakened awareness see the suffering of others—the unhappiness, the misery, the unfairness, the corruption, the horrors of life. We’re not blind to all of this, but we do not create additional sorrow, despair & anguish around our contact with these common human experiences of life’s inevitable suffering.

I have been asked how to relate to the violence in Ukraine where people are performing horrific acts. The questions immediately arise: What can we do about it? How should we regard this? The answer, of course, is mindfulness. With mindfulness, we still feel what is impinging on our mind as unpleasant, ugly, unfair or horrific, because that is simply the way it is. But now we have the opportunity to choose how we respond.

Usually, we just react. When we hear bad news about violence, about brutality & corruption, about the persecution of innocent people, we usually feel indignant or outraged. We want revenge, to punish the tyrants & those perpetuating these indignities on others. This is our conditioned reaction—when we hear bad news, we feel angry; when we hear good news, we feel happy. We don’t have much of a choice in the matter because this is how we are programmed to react.

When we are mindful, we can respond instead of react. With an awakened mind, based in right understanding or right view, we can liberate ourselves from the momentum of habit & reactivity. We can respond to the various experiences we have in life with wisdom & compassion. When we are mindful, we enter the natural state of the mind, which is pure & unconditioned.

The four Brahma-viharas are the natural responses that come from this purity of mind. They are not created. That is, we don’t try to feel compassionate through conjuring up ideas of compassion or sentimental attitudes about love. Compassion, or karuna, is the natural response to the misfortunes, unfairness & atrocities that we see or hear about.

The Brahma-vihara of metta, generally translated as lovingkindness, is our response to the conditioned realm, a patient acceptance of everything, whether good or bad. Accepting the good is not so hard, but it is quite difficult not to hate the bad & seek revenge. Metta is not approval of the bad. It doesn’t mean that we remain ignorant or refuse to look. When we are in that state of pure attention & awareness, then we are not compounding the bad with hatred or the desire for revenge. Metta is responding with kindness & patience, without getting caught up in our habitual emotional reactions to repulsive or unpleasant experiences.

Mudita, or sympathetic joy, is the spontaneous response to the beauty & goodness of the world we live in. Upekkha, or equanimity, is a state of composure & emotional balance. It is the ability to know when it’s time to do something & when there is nothing that can be done. The Brahma-viharas are called the divine abodes. They come from the purity of the mind. They are not personal qualities; they are universal.

American-born Ajahn Sumedho, a monk of over 30 years, was abbot of Amaravati Monastery near London from its consecration in 1984 until his retirement in 2010. Regarded as Ajahn Chah’s most influential Western disciple, Sumedho is considered a seminal figure in the transmission of the Buddha’s teachings to the West.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2000 issue of the magazine “Inquiring Mind.”
READ IT IN FULL

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Recent Poetry by Teacher Joseph Goldstein

    The Muse

Something happened

In my seventy-fifth year-

a channel opened

to oceans of space,

where words sparkle

in their sparse delight

calling, calling, calling

 

Lazy Day at 76

Morning coffee

and a first glimpse

into the unknown day,

waiting for that pulse of life

to push through the pale joy

of sitting,

and doing nothing.

 

Going for a walk

is almost too much

on this day of questionable ease:

is it simply resting up

to save the world

or the faint glimmer of decline?

I’ll decide tomorrow

if I awaken in the morning light.

 

         A Fall

A high forest stream,

a slip, a fall, a twisted knee

and summer plans asunder.

Why, because

anything can happen any time.

 

A night awake

grumbling,

and in the morning

peace.

Why, because

anything can happen any time

opens the heart

to life

to death.

 

      Rebirth

The birth canal of death

propels us forward.

Is it love that beckons

or the grappling hook of hope –

pulling, pulling

towards the first crying breath?

 

    Relationships

Some knots defy the fingers

struggling to unwind

our complex threads of history –

our minds, like arthritic hands

fumbling in the dark.

Maybe those threads

can never be picked apart

and only the brilliant edge of love

will find the way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dandelions –

bursts of joy

littering my yard.

 

Seduction –

easing into a warm bath,

already cooling.

 

Two long legs

Looking down, I wonder

‘Who do they belong to?’

 

 Ode to Non-being

If now, on top of this, Nonbeing IS, who can comprehend it.

  • Chuang Tzu

 

What if the Matrix

Is Being-ness itself –

 

Building dreams at water’s edge,

ageing children dig in the sand.

Shovels and spades build castles and caves,

as Shiva plays on breaking waves.

 

Who will brave the embrace of peace –

that mysterious absence

terrifying at first,

and then release.

 

 

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2022 New Year Letter: “The Times They Are a-Changin’…”

Dear Friends,

It’s been A YEAR again…an unusual (meaning not usual) and challenging year for most all of us sentient beings on this magnificently beautiful planet we all share. The microscope has been turned on to its high power, illuminating the changing & impermanent nature of just about everything that we’ve been used to & so much of what we’ve taken for granted. The truth is that it has always been & will always be this way. There’s never been anything that we can forever depend on to remain the same, or to even remain at all.  But we haven’t been called to notice this quite so clearly & intimately on a planetary & personal scale until these last few years.

It’s through our own direct experience via our meditation practice that we truly learn that all sentient beings, including each one of us, and each & every life-form on this planet, are totally interdependent amazing miracles, albeit temporary miraculous manifestations of life.

As awakening beings, we acknowledge that this temporariness with all the unrelenting changes that permeate & stir our lives, can be hard to accept, at least at first.  This is the beginning of our transformation towards a greater truth leading into a new way of trusting this constant change we had previously thought to be such a problem.

In my garden, a pair of Chinese ring-necked doves take turns sitting on the eggs in their nest. One morning, the two take a short break together to drink some water.  Returning to the nest to take her turn, the female dove finds both eggs broken open & the contents gone. I found her sitting hunkered down, perfectly still & quiet. She stayed that way for over an hour & then flew off. A few days later the pair built a new nest in a new tree & the process of nurturing new life began again.

As we enter into this ‘new year’, we can also practice sitting still, quietly giving our breath a dedicated attention, allowing relaxation & clarity to manifest. We mindfully notice that no two breaths are alike. We notice that the breath gets more & more subtle, soft & light as we relax. We notice that a lightness of being & a quiet joy begin to show up. We’re doing nothing to make this happen. We mindfully notice that a sense of tranquility begins to permeate. We notice that we are experiencing centeredness & a balance of heart & mind. We recognize & learn to simply, mindfully be present within the body, the breath & the heart/mind as it all keeps changing.

We can make a resolve to begin each day sitting in quietude cultivating gratitude, as a clear & powerful way to affirm, inspire & engage a wholesome relationship to change & impermanence. As we spontaneously allow various aspects of our life to appear, we learn to open our heart/mind towards being grateful for whatever shows up.

BREATH…”much gratitude for breath.”  SENSATIONS IN THE FEET…”gratitude for feet.”  HEARING BIRD SONG & WIND…”gratitude for hearing, for birds, for air”.  THOUGHTS OF MY SON…”deep gratitude for my son”.  INTERNAL & EXTERNAL DIFFICULTIES…Can we be grateful for difficulties? Difficult internal & external experiences can be some of our most inciteful teachers. MORNING SUNSHINE...”gratitude”. And on it goes without any clinging…JUST GRATITUDE!

Patience, generosity, compassion, loving-kindness, clarity, equanimity & a deep sense of interconnectedness are beautiful & wholesome heart qualities that blossom & flourish from a heart/mind filled with gratitude. We begin to sense, see & know the world as it truly is, and are more & more able to respond to our inner world & the outer world…rather than reacting to how it shows up.

The purifying, crystalline & at times challenging process of our practice eventually strips us clean, creating a balanced & cool brightness… the liberating experiences of equanimity & wisdom. We are learning to trust our practice as we continue moving through all the ebbs & flows…moving through & with the changing nature of this miraculous life.

May this ‘new year’ be filled with light, understanding, ease, friendship, love & a deepening sense of well-being for each of you & for all beings everywhere.

With love, Marcia

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Reflection on Compassion & Equanimity

These last years, with Covid, isolation & political tensions, we have all been called to cultivate greater levels of compassion. We are facing many forms of suffering both on an individual & a collective level, and we are continuing to expand our hearts to all that is happening in the world. Thankfully we can find support in the Buddhas teaching on the four Brahma Viharas & the balancing potential of equanimity to support the compassionate heart.

Opening to compassion also means opening to the first noble truth – the truth of suffering. We connect with our own personal versions of suffering, as well as the existential, collective layers of suffering. We see our shared inherent vulnerability & the potentially painful experiences that comes along with the realities of sickness, aging & death. The potential medicine of compassion practice is that it can open the door to a deeper sense of interconnection. And through the deepening interconnection, we can release painful self-identification with suffering as personal & somehow “wrong”. Over time compassion can grow to meet the “full catastrophe of life” with warmth, care & steadiness without needing anything to change. Often the relief is not in trying to get rid of suffering, but in meeting it, breathing with it, and caring for it. Caring intimacy with what is painful has its own relief.

A difficulty with compassion practice is that we can easily feel overwhelmed as we start connecting with various forms of suffering. The heart can have a hard time bearing the unpleasantness, without trying to get rid of it – either by turning away from suffering or somehow trying to fix it. It takes a lot of steadiness to simply breath with the unpleasantness of suffering, letting it be, letting it flow through without reactivity.

Equanimity offers a non-reactive & steady heart space – not having an opinion about whether an experience is good or bad. As a support for compassion, equanimity can help the heart open to what is painful & potentially unpleasant, without needing to get rid of the unpleasantness. While equanimity understands that our experience of suffering ultimately is related to our own reactivity around unpleasant, pleasant & neutral experiences, compassion has empathy for all the ways we are afraid, get caught, get entangled & get lost. Together they support the heart to respond to our samsaric existence from a place of balance, steadiness & care.

May we all know steady, unwavering, courageous compassion.

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From the Onondaga Nation: Thanksgiving Address – “Words That Come Before All Else”

Today we have gathered & when we look upon the faces around us we see that the cycles of life continue. We have been given the duty to live in balance & harmony with each other & all living things. So now let us bring our minds together as one as we give greetings & thanks to each other as People. Now our minds are one.

We are thankful to our Mother the Earth, for she gives us everything that we need for life. She supports our feet as we walk about upon her. It gives us joy that she still continues to care for us, just as she has from the beginning of time. To our Mother, we send thanksgiving, love & respect. Now our minds are one….

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

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

CLICK TO READ THANKSGIVING ADDRESS IN FULL

“In Haudenosaunee tradition, being grateful & giving thanks is a regular practice in both everyday life & at special occasions. The Thanksgiving Address, or “The Words that Come Before All Else,” is delivered in Native Haudenosaunee languages at both the beginning & the end of social gatherings, celebrations, and council meetings; and it is recited each morning at the beginning of the school day. The Thanksgiving Address is not a prayer, but rather an offering of greetings & thanks to the natural world. Each part of Creation is acknowledged & thanked for the ways in which it contributes to life on Earth.”

Words from The Skä•noñh – Great Law of Peace Center, a Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Heritage Center focused on the story of the native peoples of central New York, told through the lens of the Onondaga Nation. You can find a complete version of this inspiring & poetic address on the National Museum of the American Indian website. Each element of the natural world is spoken to & thanked for their contributions to all life. A wonderful read or spoken piece!

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Venerable Tomas Dhammadipa on Anapana Sati (Breath) Meditation

Knowledge of the Buddhist way should be applied in practice & verified first hand through direct experience. One should make a great vow to tread the way & realize the Dharma for the benefit of all sentient beings.

This is the essence of Buddhist Wisdom… In order to attain Wisdom, we have to practice: 1) Samatha – meditation for the Appeasement of the mind. 2) Vipassana – Insight meditation. According to Buddhist tradition, the Buddha himself used Anapana Sati meditation to attain Enlightenment. This is the most respected meditation in all traditions, both the North & the South. Why? The Buddha himself told, “See it yourself. Do not accept just because I say so.

The phenomenon of Breath, whether we are aware of it or not, is the basis of living. If we don’t breathe, we don’t live. Both our Mind & Body participates in it till our Life lasts. The process of breathing is dependent on our Body on the one hand & on the other, on our Mind. “Breath” belongs to the element of “Rupa” (Body), but cannot function without the “Nama” (Mind). When the function of the Mind ceases, the Breath will cease too.

The “In – Out Breathing” reflects the condition of the Mind & the Body and its mutual inter-relationship. This is the Buddhist Wisdom. For example, if we use the Body & Mind with effort, it affects the condition of our Breath & vice versa. We have to understand this. In Buddhist scriptures our human body is compared with the “billows” used by goldsmiths. The hand which operates the billows, is our Mind. If we use the billows with much effort, our Breath will be fast. If we use the billows with little effort, our Breath will be slow. Our Breath will depend on our effort.

If you have strong emotions, it will reflect on the quality of your Breath, and you will use much effort for perceptions of your Mind. When you cool down, your feelings, perceptions & Breath changes. What we have to strive for is “Appeased Breath,” especially when we face difficulties in life. So practice this meditation to achieve an appeased mind. Then you will be able to cope with any difficulties/defilements in daily life, with the “Mindfulness of Breath.

When the Mind is appeased & calm, the Breath will be slow. When the Mind is agitated, the Breath will be fast. Study of the “In – Out Breath” is connected with Wisdom. Watch the Breath with Wisdom. The Breath is a direct reflection of how you use your Mind & Body.

The importance of this method of being “Mindful of the Breath” is that the Breath informs you from birth to death, about the “Conditions of your Mind & Body.” This is the Wisdom of the Breath. The Breath is “Mind created Reality” (an object created by the Mind) So, if our Mind does not exist, our Breath does not exist either. To understand Breath, you have to understand this – that it is a “Mind-Created Reality.”

A rare gem in contemporary Buddhism, Venerable Tomas Dhammadipa was born in Czechoslovakia, where he studied Chinese literature & philosophy. He studied under renowned contemporary masters of Buddhism in Japan, Sri Lanka & Burma, and received ordination in both Theravada & Mahayana traditions. One of his principal teachers was Burmese meditation master Pa Auk Sayadaw, who recognized him as his first Western disciple qualified to teach meditation.

Above excerpted from transcripts of Dhamma talk given by Ven Dhammadipa in Toronto in 2006. See transcript of full talk at:  https://ia904509.us.archive.org/16/items/2006anapanasatimeditationstoronto_txt/2006%20Anapanasati%20meditations%20(Toronto).pdf

 

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