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 one just starting the practice of meditation, there is often hope for a cure.
Sometimes what one wants to be cured of is quite specific. States of mind like anxiety, or grief, or stress can be powerful motivators to practice. Or there may be mental or physical health issues which one wishes to heal.
In other cases, spiritual search might be powered by something less tangible, like a general hope there might something to learn or develop which could create meaning which is currently lacking.
Thus it is generally true that some kind of discontent is present at the beginning of practice. There is an itch to scratch – emotional, physical, or existential. In some cases, all three! Thus it has been since the time of the Buddha. He himself says that suffering/distress ripens into either despair or search. People who go on meditation retreats are taking the route of search, having set aside despair, at least for now.
Of course, its a healthy and wise thing to seek healing from suffering. There are many ways humans attempt to do this. Some of these methods might be helpful. Some strategies might not be useful at all, causing addition suffering and deepening of despair. Particular methods for finding relief might seek elimination of symptoms, or to create an entirely new replacement experience.
The Buddha’s own way of addressing suffering is generic. The teachings directly target the way the human heart/mind causes and intensifies its own distress via resistance to experience. The training seeks less to control how things are in the immediate sense than to find wise relationship to any situation which is present. Like a whole system tonic, mindfulness and other trainings of the heart/mind strengthen us in all dimensions of our being.
Ajahn Brahm, a monk in the Thai Forest Tradition, clarifies that skillful motivation for meditation is not to focus upon directly curing anything in particular. Instead, the training is to develop a being (ourselves) that cares, that is compassionate and wise with whatever is present. The process of developing this stability of heart/mind is the training of vipassana meditation.
Paradoxically, it is from this place of grounded, balanced acceptance of experience that literal healing sometimes arises. By addressing the main conceptual problem which is within our power to heal – deluded craving – we shift our entire system in the direction of health and balance. Whether our conditions change or not, we are better able to find equanimity and happiness in the actual unfolding of our lives.
Every now & again we get irritated – just a little bit. It is nothing major, and it does not throw us out of balance. But there is this little contraction when a meditator comes into the meditation hall & is noisier than we think she or he should be. “Can’t you sit down more quietly? Don’t you see that I am deeply meditating?” Then we take a deep breath, realising how silly it is to get upset about this triviality & settle back into our practice. Concentration is getting better & deeper – and then somebody coughs. “How inconsiderate!” the mind comments. Then back to the experience of the breath. Now mindfulness is really picking up, the mind is sharp & clear – and somebody blows the nose. And this blows the mind, “Don’t you know that I was just about to have a really deep experience?!”
Such little disturbances happen all day long & without mindfulness we are very quick to blame these disturbances or the people who caused the disturbance. But we need to remember that nothing & nobody else can make us irritated or upset. Actually, we should be very grateful for these disturbances because they show us where we are stuck: stuck in the idea that insights can only arise when there are no ‘disturbances‘ at all. We assume that the mind & the environment must be in a certain state – whatever this might be – for understanding & insights to happen. With this, we become very selective & exclude many experiences because they do not fit into our idea.
But actually, in vipassana meditation we establish mindfulness in regard to all of the four foundations of mindfulness. In other words, we are aware of bodily sensations, of feeling tones, of thoughts, of mind states or emotions & of everything that presents itself at one of the six sense doors. If we are doing the practice properly, nothing can ‘disturb‘ us. Whenever we get irritated because something has ‘disturbed‘ our meditation, we should immediately detect that holding on is taking place. We hold on to the idea of how the practice should be, how meditators should behave, or how the yogi jobs should be organized. Whenever we think in terms of ‘should‘ or ‘should not,’ a little red light should blink. ‘Should‘ points to the fact that we have formed an idea around something, that we want things to be a certain way – of course, our way! We need to loosen the tight grip around these ideas. The real disturbance is not the cough or the lawn mower. The real disturbance is our attitude to these happenings. The attitude of “this should not be happening” or “this should be done in such & such a way.”
When we notice another little contraction because the carrots are overcooked, then we can lighten up & smile at ourselves. There is no need to blame ourselves for this irritation. If we do so, we would only reinforce our wrong attitude to phenomena that are naturally happening, to phenomena over which we have no absolute control. The art of vipassana meditation is to deal with all experiences in the same way. One object is not better than another. Mindfulness is not discriminating. A so-called ‘disturbance‘ is mind-made: sound is just sound, pain is just pain, heat is just heat, cold is just cold, smell is just smell, silence is just silence …..
Ariya Baumann will be teaching the Three-Week Summer Hermitage Retreat in July 2020.
PREPARING FOR A RETREAT: Outer & Inner causes & conditions necessary for Vipassana & Samatha meditation practice
From The Mountain Hermitage editor: Buddhist meditation is described as a training method for purifying mind & heart. This purification process is what leads one towards liberation/Nibbana. The first of Seven Stages of Purification is Purification of Virtue or Sila. Other conditions are also important to undertaking meditation in a retreat setting for wholesome & liberating results to occur. Below, we hear from Sayadaw Vivekananda & Marcia Rose, both teachers of the Summer 2019 Five-week Vipassana retreat, on how to make best use of retreat time by following the Precepts & developing wholesome qualities of heart & mind, before & during practice in a retreat. As Sayadaw emphasizes, “A retreat offers a precious opportunity to develop concentration & intuitive wisdom, and so we need to make good use of our time.”
Understanding the Necessary Prerequisites:
INTRODUCTORY OVERVIEW from Teacher Marcia Rose
Outer causes and conditions: 1) the guidance of a qualified teacher. 2) One must be able to practice continuously in a quiet, healthy & pleasant environment, such as at a retreat center, where one’s material needs are easily met. 3) It’s crucial to have good companions whose ethical discipline & views are compatible with one’s own.
The inner requirements are more exacting: 1) One must have few desires for things one does not have & one must have a strong sense of contentment with what one does have… & not continually seek after better accommodations, food, various accessories, etc. 2) One must devote oneself to a simple lifestyle, with as few extraneous activities, such as socializing, doing business or seeking various types of entertainment, as possible. 3) One must maintain an exceptionally high standard of ethical discipline, avoiding all modes of conduct of body, speech & mind that undermine one’s own & others’ sense of wellbeing. 4) Both during & between formal meditation practice sessions, one must overcome what is for most people a deeply ingrained habit of letting one’s mind get caught up in involuntary thoughts & ruminations. Our baseline as meditators needs to remain silent, calm & with an alert mindful presence/an alert mindful awareness.
Also of importance as preconditions for practice are the paramis of a generosity of heart & mind, patience, enthusiasm or a vigorous energy for and within practice, a base of metta & a developing degree of equanimity.
Understanding the Importance of Sila/Ethical Conduct:
PURIFICATION BEFORE & DURING RETREAT from Sayadaw Vivekananda
Many conditions have to be fulfilled to go on a retreat. We should prepare by purifying our ethical conduct before the retreat begins. On multiple occasions, the Buddha emphasized the importance of ethical conduct as the foundation for development of concentration and wisdom:
“One always perfect in ethical conduct,
Endowed with wisdom, well concentrated,
One energetic and resolute
Crosses the flood so hard to cross.”
(SN 2:15, translation by Bhikkhu Bodhi, adapted)
This consists of ethical conduct that has been purified prior to meditation (pubbabhagasila), as well as ethical conduct that is being purified during meditation (sahajatasila). The Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw of Burma explains that ethical conduct purified prior to meditation serves as a distant condition or prior cause (pakatupanissaya) for the arising of concentration & wisdom in insight meditation, eventually culminating in path concentration & path wisdom. Moment-to-moment mindfulness of predominant objects of observation during intensive insight meditation contributes to pure ethical conduct, which is an immediate condition or present cause (sahajatanissaya) for the arising of concentration & wisdom.
Obviously, insight concentration & insight wisdom are strong when based on both, ethical conduct purified prior to a retreat and during a retreat, rather than being based on ethical conduct purified during meditation alone.
By Marcia Rose
In Buddhist understanding, the mind is not considered to just be the brain. Experiential understanding through our practice of Concentration/Samatha, Vipassana & the Brahma Viharas can show us that mind consciousness emanates from the energy center of the heart. The term ‘heart-mind consciousness’ that is often used stems from this experiential understanding. And each of us knows from our own experience, this heart-mind can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven.
And so we cultivate the mind. This is our path. Mind is the forerunner of all things. Reflect for a moment on the most powerful mind state you’ve ever had in your life… maybe rageful anger, depression, terror or jealousy. Maybe ecstasy or love or maybe a particular meditative experience. Whatever it’s been, recall how it really defined your world in that moment; how it transformed all your perceptions. With this reflection, you can understand how very powerful this mind is. You can see how cultivating existence in the realms of a pure, wholesome & beautiful heart-mind might be possible with this power of the mind.
Through our practice, we’re inclining the power of our heart-mind towards what in Pali & Sanskrit is called Bodhi Citta: Bodhi: Enlighted/Awakened/Liberated, and Citta: Mind. We’re inclining the heart-mind towards liberation – towards the pure, wholesome & beautiful heart-mind.
THE MIND – From the Dhammapada by the Buddha
Just as an arrow-maker straightens an arrow shaft,
a discerning person straightens her/his mind – so fickle
and unsteady, so difficult to guard and control.
Like fish out of water cast on dry ground throbs & quivers,
this mind flops around. Hence one should escape the realm of Mara.
The mind is mercurial, ever swift, hard to restrain, alighting where it wishes.
How wonderful to master this mind; a tamed mind brings happiness.
Let the discerning person watch over her/his mind,
so difficult to perceive, so subtle, alighting where it wishes;
a watchfully protected mind brings happiness.
The mind travels far, is formless,
and dwells in the cave of the heart. Those who still subdue it
are liberated from the bonds of Mara.
Wisdom is not perfected in one whose mind is not steadfast,
in one who doesn’t know the Good Teaching,
and in one whose faith wavers.
There is no fear for the Wakeful One,
whose mind is not sodden by lust,
whose thoughts are undisturbed by hatred,
who has gone beyond both virtue and harmful actions.
Knowing the body to be as fragile as a clay pot,
make the mind like a well-fortified city,
drive out Mara with the sword of insight.
Then guard what you have won,
This body, alas, will soon lie on the ground,
lifeless, abandoned like a useless piece of rotten wood.
Whatever an enemy may do to an enemy, or a hater to a hater,
an ill-directed mind inflicts on oneself even greater harm.
Neither mother, father nor any other relative can do one
greater good than one’s own well directed mind.
Everything has mind in the lead, has mind in the forefront, is made by mind.
If one speaks or acts with a pure mind- a pure heart, happiness will follow
like shadow that never leaves.
In the usual iconography of the temple or the local Wok
you would never see him doing such a thing,
tossing the dry snow over a mountain
of his bare, round shoulder,
his hair tied in a knot,
a model of concentration.
Sitting is more his speed, if that is the word
for what he does, or does not do.
Even the season is wrong for him.
In all his manifestations, is it not warm or slightly humid?
Is this not implied by his serene expression,
that smile so wide it wraps itself around the waist of the universe?
But here we are, working our way down the driveway,
one shovelful at a time.
We toss the light powder into the clear air.
We feel the cold mist on our faces.
And with every heave we disappear
and become lost to each other
in these sudden clouds of our own making,
these fountain-bursts of snow.
This is so much better than a sermon in church,
I say out loud, but Buddha keeps on shoveling.
This is the true religion, the religion of snow,
and sunlight and winter geese barking in the sky,
I say, but he is too busy to hear me.
He has thrown himself into shoveling snow
as if it were the purpose of existence,
as if the sign of a perfect life were a clear driveway
you could back the car down easily
and drive off into the vanities of the world
with a broken heater fan and a song on the radio.
All morning long we work side by side,
me with my commentary
and he inside his generous pocket of silence,
until the hour is nearly noon
and the snow is piled high all around us;
then, I hear him speak.
After this, he asks,
can we go inside and play cards?
Certainly, I reply, and I will heat some milk
and bring cups of hot chocolate to the table
while you shuffle the deck.
and our boots stand dripping by the door.
Aaah, says the Buddha, lifting his eyes
and leaning for a moment on his shovel
before he drives the thin blade again
deep into the glittering white snow.
Billy Collins, called “the most popular poet in America” by the New York Times, was Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003. He recently retired from 50 yrs teaching at Lehman College of the City University of New York. This poem appeared in his 1998 book “Picnic, Lightning.”
“Utter only speech that neither torments oneself nor harms others.” (SN.8.5)
If we’re serious about liberation, meditation practice doesn’t end when we leave the cushion-it just gets more real. There are countless ways to bring these teachings to life. One of the most powerful (and frequently overlooked) vehicles for transformation is that of “Right Speech.” The Buddha spoke regularly of the power words have to heal or harm, as well as to play an active role in our awakening individually & collectively.
As social creatures, speech holds a crucial place in our lives. Many of our deepest joys & sorrows come from our relationships, where verbal communication can determine the quality of our connection. Internally, thinking & perception continually shapes experience. Externally, language has the potential to bridge the gap between us & connect our inner worlds. What’s more, from the Buddhist perspective, speech is one of the three doors of action by which we create kamma, intentional acts that affect our wellbeing & shape future habits.
The classical definition of Right Speech is clear enough: abstain from false, harsh, divisive & idle speech (SN 45.8). Yet to implement this requires careful attention not only to what we say, but to why we speak, as well as how & when we speak. Practicing with these guidelines shapes our mind for our welfare & steers our conversations towards more harmony & meaning.
The teachings on speech go far beyond this basic definition. At the core, Right Speech means using language in service of awakening. It is to use our words-internally & externally-to cultivate skillful qualities & reduce unskillful qualities of mind. How often do our conversations (& our thoughts) enhance healthy states like patience, generosity, kindness, truthfulness, simplicity? How often do they instead reinforce unhealthy habits or stimulate impulses that only entangle us further?
The more I study these ancient teachings on speech, the more I see them as a dynamic template meant to inform our lives. They provide guidance to orient our intentions & to navigate an increasingly complex world. Where they lack specific instruction on how to implement their wisdom, we can rely on more modern disciplines to fill in the gaps. (E.g., I’ve found great benefit in Nonviolent Communication as an adjunct).
When we take up this practice of Right Speech as a core part of the contemplative path, we gain a tremendous arena for training the mind, and create more opportunities to give voice to our deepest values. As we witness the extreme polarization in the world today, the absence of real dialogue in so many sectors of civil society, we need these tools more than ever.
Oren Jay Sofer teaches meditation & communication retreats & workshops nationally. A member of the Spirit Rock Teachers Council, he is a Certified Trainer of Nonviolent Communication & a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner for the healing of trauma. Oren also holds a degree in Comparative Religion from Columbia University & is the author of a new book, Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication.
free from hostility,
even among those who hate.
free from misery and affliction
even among those who are afflicted.
free from the trouble of busyness
even among those who are busy.
like those who have nothing
feeding on rapture
like the shining ones.
Winning gives birth to hostility.
Losing, one lies down in pain.
The calmed lie down in peace,
having set winning and losing aside.
There’s no fire like lust
no evil like hatred,
no pain like disharmony,
no happiness like the happiness of peace.
Greed, the primary sickness,
Delusion, the primary pain.
Knowing this truth, just as it is,
freedom, the primary joy.
Health, great good fortune,
Contentment, great wealth,
Trust, great kinship,
Freedom, the greatest happiness.
taste the nourishment of seclusion,
of stillness and calm,
freed from fear and attachment,
refreshed with the sweet joy of the Way.
How joyful to see the Awakened,
in the company of the wise.
Endless grief for those
who commune with a fool,
as traveling in company with an enemy.
Joyful is communion with the Awakened,
as with a gathering of kin.
Follow the Awakened, the shining ones,
the discerning, the learned,
dutiful, loving, and wise.
They know to work and forbear.
as the moon follows the path of the stars.
Saying by the Buddha on Joy-Happiness in the Dhammapada. This is from a composite of
various translations compiled by teacher Marcia Rose.
We have received an inestimable gift. To be alive in this beautiful, self-organizing universe—to participate in the dance of life with senses to perceive it, lungs that breathe it, organs that draw nourishment from it—is a wonder beyond words. It is an extraordinary privilege to be accorded a human life, with self-reflexive consciousness that brings awareness of our own actions and the ability to make choices. It lets us choose to take part in the healing of our world.
Gratitude for the gift of life is the primary wellspring of all religions, the hallmark of the mystic, the source of all true art. Yet we so easily take this gift for granted. That is why so many spiritual traditions begin with thanksgiving, to remind us that for all our woes and worries, our existence itself is an unearned benefaction, which we could never of ourselves create….
That our world is in crisis—to the point where survival of conscious life on Earth is in question—in no way diminishes the value of this gift; on the contrary. To us is granted the privilege of being on hand: to take part, if we choose, in the Great Turning to a just and sustainable society. We can let life work through us, enlisting all our strength, wisdom, and courage, so that life itself can continue.
There is so much to be done, and the time is so short. We can proceed, of course, out of grim and angry desperation. But the tasks proceed more easily and productively with a measure of thankfulness for life; it links us to our deeper powers and lets us rest in them. Many of us are braced, psychically and physically, against the signals of distress that continually barrage us in the news, on our streets, in our environment. As if to reduce their impact on us, we contract like a turtle into its shell. But we can choose to turn to the breath, the body, the senses—for they help us to relax and open to wider currents of knowing and feeling….
Thankfulness loosens the grip of the industrial growth society by contradicting its predominant message: that we are insufficient and inadequate… that we need more—more stuff, more money, more approval, more comfort, more entertainment. The dissatisfaction it breeds is profound. It infects people with a compulsion to acquire that delivers them into the cruel, humiliating bondage of debt. So gratitude is liberating. It is subversive. It helps us realize that we are sufficient, and that realization frees us.
By Marcia Rose
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 in some way 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, multi-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 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 is the relative side of selflessness or ‘not-self’ & is the ground of understanding from which compassion springs.
This understanding that lies at the heart of all the Buddha’s teaching arises from his teaching of Interdependent Co-arising. It’s our growing understanding that no thing spontaneously exists all on its own. All phenomena, including both physical & mental experience, have many, even infinite, contributing factors & conditions of causation. Within each thing are many things.
This sublime teaching is clearly expressed through the following verse from the Buddha:
‘This is, because that is.
This is not, because that is not.
This ceases to be, because that ceases to be.’
An ordinary, everyday way to touch into this truth is seeing that the cup of coffee or tea in our hands could not exist without the person who ordered the bag of beans for her store. Looking deeper, we see the truck that the beans arrived on & its driver. We see the fuel in the truck’s tank & person who pumped it. We see the person who roasted the beans or carefully dried the tea leaves & packaged them. We see the ship the beans or the tea leaves sailed on from Peru or China & all the hands on deck who ensured it’s safe arrival. We see the farmer who cared for the soil & planted the crops & picked the beans or tea leaves. We see the sunshine & the rain that made the plants grow. And of course, each & every one of these conditions had their own complex web of factors that contributed to their unique arising as well. Maybe we see some of the decisions in each of the people’s lives that led to their interaction with the tea leaf or the coffee bean & maybe we see some of the things that influenced each of those decisions as well. It all infinitely goes on. Everything impacts everything else.
Seeing the world in such a way can demystify things greatly for us. It unites us & brings us together. It offers us the wisdom to make ethical decisions with more skill & compassion. It allows us to better see the potential repercussions of our seemingly harmless actions & reactions in relationship to ourselves & to others. It can give us mindful insight into seeing the impact that we have on others & on our environment.
And so importantly, we also learn to have more patience with ourselves & with others. With our practice & the ensuing insight that arises, we better understand the origin of our thoughts, emotions & actions. We learn to sense, see & know the interdependence between our reactions & our moods, between our moods & our decisions, between our decisions & our contracted resistance, and between our resistance & our fears. We truly begin to learn how it all arises interdependently, with each experience flowing into the next.
One of the greatest gifts of our mindfulness-based insight practice is our growing ability to intervene in the process of reactivity. So rather than immediately & ignorantly reacting in a way that causes more suffering for ourselves & others, our practice can give us some breathing space between what may be a strong or subtle unpleasant experience & our habitual reaction to unpleasant experience.
Maybe we still feel angry or upset, but there is now a few second gap in our mind/heart. Over time, this gap will increase to a few more seconds, allowing time for our reactivity to cool off. Consequently, and maybe at first seeming miraculously, we now have a broader range of choices for how to respond internally & externally. It can be quite an incredible change for us when mindfulness intervenes in our habitual conditioned ‘chain of causation’ that leads from ignorance to suffering. There is a wonderful freedom that we experience with this change as it develops, deepens & matures within our life as a whole.
The practice of the Dharma is learning how to live, and this is both hard and joyful work. Practice makes extraordinary demands of us. It requires that we take nothing for granted, that we accept nothing on faith alone. If we practice with diligence and honesty, then we must question everything about ourselves; we must challenge our most basic beliefs and convictions, even those we may have about the dharma itself…
When you put something to the test, really to the test, don’t you find that it challenges, that it stretches you, too? This has certainly been my experience. Some of these wonderful teachings are inspiring. It can be intellectually satisfying and emotionally nourishing just to hear them. But you can’t stop there. If you want to gain any real benefit from them, you have to let them stretch your own lived experience. For the dharma to become firsthand knowledge — to feel the “ouch” of it — you have to live intimately with it, hold it up to scrutiny, and let it hold you up to scrutiny. In the end, the ball is always thrown back to you: “Be a lamp unto yourself,” says the Buddha. In other words, you must ultimately find the way on your own, by putting your ideas of the truth to the test. Your questions light the way.
So what is the test of truth? The Buddha offers a simple formula: Test things in terms of cause and effect. Whatever is unskillful, leading to harm and ill, should be abandoned; whatever is skillful, leading to happiness and peace, should be pursued. Apply the test of skillfulness to all teachings in all your actions. Where is this teaching taking you? Is it moving you in a direction that is wise and kind? One quick test isn’t enough, you know. You have to keep at it, so that your sensitivity to the results of your actions grows more and more refined with practice. When you’ve done the hard work of asking these questions, then you can decide for yourself whether a teaching, or a teacher, is worth following. And at the same time, you’ve also taught yourself how to live — a learning that can bring with it joy and the energy to go even deeper.