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 Marcia Rose
It’s that time of year…. at least here in the Northern Hemisphere. Springtime, this season of replenishment when the natural balance, reciprocity & generosity of spring is a mirror for our own re-flourishment after more than a year of what many people have experienced as a deep or at least a partial drought of the reciprocity of connection, mutual flourishing, replenishment & in-person generosity.
I’m out in my flower & veggie gardens daily, grateful to be witnessing & reaping the gifts of this deep & ongoing connection as I observe these natural laws. We all take care of each other… me, along with all the food & flower plants growing in the garden & the multitude of birds, bunnies & insects that inhabit & are nourished in this bountiful space.
The Buddha’s teachings & our practice constantly invite us to cultivate the heart of giving & receiving… the heart of generosity & gratitude. We learn that our liberation & flourishing are deeply rooted in opening to a culture of gratitude.
Learning to give & learning to receive — letting go of control & receiving what is given, receiving each moment of our life just as it is, whether pleasant or unpleasant, with the trust that it is just right, just enough for our spiritual growth to unfold. We can give ourselves the gift of truly learning to be in the present moment with clear mindful awareness… receiving the present moment with gratitude, appreciation & humility. We can learn to apply the wise attention of mindful awareness in the midst of any exchange, any relationship, any emotional state, any sensation that moves through our body… to the smell of rain, the touch of the wind on our skin, to tending of each & every plant in the garden & filling the bird feeders, to any task we might be engaged in, to the experience of a breath from its birth all the way through to its death.
The Buddhist teachings invite us to practice with dedication & openheartedness as we learn to receive life fully… to be kind, generous & grateful knowing that this very life just as it is, is the path – our path to the deepest ease of a true sense of well-being & joy. We learn that this very life is our path to liberation & that our liberation is intimately & profoundly connected & nourished through our deepening mindful awareness of the natural balance, reciprocity, generosity & mutual flourishing mirrored in the life everywhere all around us.
By Greg Scharf
One useful metaphor for describing insight meditation is to see it as the practice, or process, of developing intimacy. The great 13th century Zen master Dogen was once asked: “What is the awakened mind?” He replied: “The mind that is intimate with all things.” In meditation we spend a lot of time observing both mind & body through the simple process of connecting directly with the ongoing flow, the flow of our experience, and as our practice deepens, so does intimacy.
I often call this a radical intimacy – a deep & radical intimacy with our own body & mind. Of course, sometimes we like what this intimacy reveals, and sometimes we don’t. Occasionally our mind & body do what we want, but far more often they don’t, and much of the time, we find ourselves at odds with some aspect of our experience. For example, we do everything we can to find a suitable arrangement for our sitting posture in mediation, but the body won’t stay comfortable: sooner or later it starts to hurt. Over the course of our life the body ages, gets sick, and eventually dies regardless of our efforts to have it be otherwise. The mind is even worse. It gets up to all kinds of nonsense & won’t stay where we put it but keeps wandering off. Over time it begins to become abundantly clear that we have little if any control over either body or mind. Perhaps there is something for us to investigate in all of this.
One of the hardest things for us to learn in meditation is that this practice is not about having certain kinds of experiences or attaining special, blissful, or peaceful states. Of course, sometimes we do have what we might call special experiences, and there is nothing wrong with having them. They may serve us by bringing energy & interest to meditation but if we focus on them too much they may just get in the way. What we are interested in exploring are the universal characteristics or qualities that apply to all things – to any & every experience whether special or mundane, pleasant or unpleasant. We might call this the essential nature of all experience.
Henry David Thoreau once said: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” The power & beauty of the meditative experience is that it has the potential to bring us to the level of direct non-conceptual experience where we actually do front the essential facts of life – we get to the root, to the heart of things. These essential facts of life, of nature, are an aspect of any & all experience. This means that for our purposes – for the development of insight – it truly doesn’t matter what’s happening.
This is actually a profound & critical understanding that cuts through our tendency to judge certain experiences as wrong or bad, or as in the way. Mindfulness has the power to transform perceived obstacles to meditation into objects of meditation. With mindfulness practice there is the implicit understanding that if it is in the way, it is the way. This understanding is not only a great relief, it is also empowering because it relieves us of the need to spend our time & energy in the futile attempt to control our experience.
If our happiness & freedom are dependent on having certain experiences, or achieving special sublime states, we’ll never find a true, lasting, freedom because states simply don’t last. Conditions are always changing & when they do change, we’re back where we started; there’s no real freedom there. True freedom is not found through gaining some kind of control over life, in order to have things be a certain way, but about coming into alignment & harmony with the way things are. We are not meditating in order to get something we don’t have or to go somewhere other than where we are right now. We are not going from here to there, we’re going deeper into here.
By Brian Lesage
So the Story goes… the Buddha’s journey on the spiritual path begins with him leaving home – exiting the palace gates and setting off into the simple and austere life of a renunciate. When I take a moment to slow down and imagine this kind of radical life change, I think, “Wow, to begin such a journey requires a deep and profound passion.” In this way, I have noticed when I am skillfully passionate about my own spiritual journey, deeper dimensions of the Dharma are revealed. I experience a yearning that carries me out the gates of my own “palace” and leads me onto the path of awakening.
In the Pali canon, the Buddha alludes to this skillful passion or yearning as a key ingredient. As an example, one of the four bases of power (Iddhipada) needed for the spiritual path is chanda, which, in this context, is the wholesome desire we need to move forward on a spiritual journey. This chanda has been an essential factor in my life. When I left the life of being a Zen monk, I was thrown out into the world where I needed to make all kinds of life decisions. I was bewildered. Although by entering the monastery I had stepped onto the path and gained the skill of simply being with the unfolding of experience, I hadn’t developed the skills to keep me from returning to the “palace.” I hadn’t fully developed the skill of yearning that would carry my spiritual practice forward once I’d left the monastery.
I have found that learning to yearn skillfully is a refined art. Passion can easily be confused with craving and clinging, which just leads to more stress rather than more freedom. Learning to yearn skillfully not only provides the wholesome energy to move forward on the path; it also leads to a deepening relationship with the Dharma. Wholesome passion deepens mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom when harnessed skillfully.
How can you distinguish between skillful and unskillful yearning?
First, look at how they are similar. Both wholesome passion and unwholesome craving pull the heart/mind to something that is not here but is over there, to something not present in this moment.
Now, consider how they are different. For wholesome passion, you feel a pull to there in a way that actually opens up what’s here. With unwholesome craving, the pull to there happens in a way that what is here disappears.
Here is an example to help make sense of these similarities and differences: Let’s say I want to get to the top of a mountain….
When the heart is filled with a wholesome passion for reaching the top of the mountain, it infuses each step with a quality of presence and patience. The wholesome passion brings the energy needed to fully be with each step. This opens up depth and dimensionality to the entire journey to the top. The journey is not different from the destination and each mountain top we come to is simply a new vantage point to view the whole path, to steer our course away from the “palace” towards the ripening of our spiritual path.
When the heart is filled with unwholesome craving for reaching the top of the mountain, the mind is consumed with thoughts about the top of the mountain itself. It obsesses over how I am not there yet. Each step is overridden by fantasies about the top of the mountain. Exhaustion, distraction, and discouragement can easily arise and the mountain top recedes. Even if we were to reach the top, it can lead to craving for the next mountain or for a return to the “palace.”
A quote attributed to Antoine de Saint Exupery captures this journey. “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the people to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” Can you learn to yearn skillfully? Can you learn to yearn for this vast and endless sea, this journey out of the ignorance of the palace life and into the heart of the Dharma?
May you learn to yearn skillfully in a way that brings freedom to our world.
Through effort, attention,
Restraint and self-control,
The wise person can become an island
No flood will overwhelm.- Dhammapada 25
Expecting Buddhist practice to entail only joy & ease is naive. More realistic is to expect both joy & sorrow, ease & struggle. If the practice is to engage with our full life, then inevitably we will practice in times of crisis, loss, or painful self- confrontation. Certainly it would be nice to negotiate these times with calm, grace & wisdom. However, if we are hard on ourselves for not doing so, we only add to our suffering & hinder the growth of compassion….
I have known meditators who have congratulated themselves for their meditative proficiency when practice has been easy. And I have known meditators filled with doubt & self-condemnation when the practice has been stormy. Practicing with our best effort during periods of crisis & personal struggle may not bring about spiritual highs. It may, however, bring something more important: a strengthening of the inner qualities that sustain a spiritual life for the long term: mindfulness, persistence, courage, compassion, humility, renunciation, discipline, concentration, faith, acceptance & kindness.
For Buddhist practice, one of the most important inner capacities to develop is awareness of intention. Our intention is like a muscle; following through on our intention to practice- to be mindful & compassionate- during times of difficulty is an important way of strengthening it. The beauty of this is that, even if our efforts are clumsy or if we don’t accomplish a particular task, the “intention muscle” has still been strengthened every time we use it, especially if it is being nourished by faith & clear comprehension. As our core motivations become stronger & we develop more confidence & appreciation in them, they become a resource & refuge in times of difficulty.
Meditators all too often measure their practice by their “meditative experiences.” While a range of such potential experiences can play an important role in Buddhist spirituality, day-to-day practice is more focused on developing our inner faculties & strengths. This includes cultivating awareness & investigation in all circumstances, whether the weather is clear or stormy. A wealth of inner strength follows in the wake of mindfulness & persistence. Such strength is often accompanied by feelings of calm & joy; but, more important, it allows us to remain awake & free under conditions of both joy & sorrow.
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
Hokusai says look carefully.
He says pay attention, notice.
He says keep looking, stay curious.
He says there is no end to seeing.
He says look forward to getting old.
He says keep changing,
you just get more who you really are.
He says get stuck, accept it, repeat
yourself as long as it is interesting.
He says keep doing what you love.
He says keep praying.
He says everyone of us is a child,
everyone of us is ancient,
everyone of us has a body.
He says everyone of us is frightened.
He says everyone of us has to find
a way to live with fear.
He says everything is alive–
shells, buildings, people, fish,
mountains, trees, wood is alive.
Water is alive.
Everything has its own life.
Everything lives inside us.
He says live with the world inside you.
He says it doesn’t matter if you draw,
or write books. It doesn’t matter
if you saw wood, or catch fish.
It doesn’t matter if you sit at home
and stare at the ants on your veranda
or the shadows of the trees
and grasses in your garden.
It matters that you care.
It matters that you feel.
It matters that you notice.
It matters that life lives through you.
Contentment is life living through you.
Joy is life living through you.
Satisfaction and strength
is life living through you.
He says don’t be afraid.
Don’t be afraid.
Love, feel, let life take you by the hand.
Let life live through you.
The poem refers to prolific Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), whose famous wave woodblock print many will recognize. Roger Keyes is an art historian & curator of Japanese art as well as a poet. For almost 50 years, he has devoted himself to study of Hokusai’s prints & ‘translated’ what he read in Hokusai’s paintings into this poem. See more of Hokusai’s wonderful work.
The historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, lived, attained enlightenment & taught in India more than 2,500 years ago. However, I believe that much of what he taught so long ago can be relevant to people’s lives today. The Buddha saw that people can live together freely as individuals, equal in principle & therefore responsible for each other.
He saw that the very purpose of life is to be happy. He talked about suffering in the context of ways to overcome it. He recognized that while ignorance binds beings in endless frustration & suffering, the development of understanding is liberating. The Buddha saw that every member of the human family, man & woman alike, has an equal right to liberty, not just in terms of political or even spiritual freedom, but at a fundamental level of freedom from fear & want. He recognized that each of us is just a human being like everyone else. Not only do we all desire happiness & seek to avoid suffering, but each of us has an equal right to pursue these goals.
Within the monastic community that the Buddha established, individuals were equal, whatever their social class or caste origins. The custom of walking on alms round served to strengthen the monks’ awareness of their dependence on other people. Within the community, decisions were taken by vote & differences were settled by consensus.
The Buddha took a practical approach to creating a happier, more peaceful world. Certainly, he laid out the paths to liberation & enlightenment that Buddhists in many parts of the world continue to follow today, but he also consistently gave advice that anyone may heed to live more happily here & now….
We human beings are social animals. Since our future depends on others, we need friends in order to fulfill our own interests. We do not make friends by being quarrelsome, jealous & angry, but by being sincere in our concern for others, protecting their lives & respecting their rights. Making friends & establishing trust are the basis on which society depends. Like other great teachers the Buddha commended tolerance & forgiveness in restoring trust & resolving disputes that arise because of our tendency to see others in terms of ‘us’ & ‘them.’
By Marcia Rose
“Resilience: recovering strength, spirits, good humor, buoyancy, flexibility”
JOY FOR/JOY WITH
Explore the teachings of MUDITA…
Joy is wired into our genes, brain circuits & biology. It’s an integral part of our health equation. And in times like these, it matters more than ever.
This past spring at Lenox Hill Hospital in NYC, the Beatles song “Here Comes the Sun” started up every time a coronavirus patient was discharged or recovered enough to breath without the help of a ventilator. A doctor at the hospital shared, “For those on the front lines of critical care, it’s like a war zone. The work is relentless. To hear this song on the loud-speaker is brilliant. It’s just what people need, a reminder that patients are recovering. You feel good for a moment.”
Mudita, the practice of sympathetic, empathetic, contagious joy & happiness, matters more during dark times. These qualities of heart/mind give us the resilience to get through these challenging times… through the physical, emotional, environmental & cultural crises that are occurring daily. We need to focus on joy & happiness more now, not less.
We begin Mudita practice reflecting on good things we’ve done, just a few moments ago or some years ago… the wise choices we’ve made, ways that we’ve helped others & times that we’ve acted out of a true feeling of generosity. We’re cultivating self-respect & love through acknowledging & honoring the goodness in our nature, our healthy humanbeingness. This nurtures our capacity to feel joy, happiness & delight in relationship to another’s happiness, success, health, brilliance & beauty, as well as delight in the magnificence of this planet & all the sentient beings who share it with us.
Mudita is a response from the heart. It’s a warm sense of connection rooted in kindheartedness & empathetic understanding. And of the four Divine Abidings – unconditional loving-kindness, compassion, Mudita & Equanimity – it can be the most difficult to cultivate. Mudita practice can bring to the surface many of the conditioned beliefs & reactive habit patterns that we identify as ‘ourself’… such as the learned belief that we are inadequate in some way or the learned attitude that we are better than. These learned self-identities create a constant underlying sense of uncertainty, tension & stress within our heart/mind & body. This ‘conceit of self’ usurps the vitality that comes with being fully present, blocking our potential to experience the shared contagious joy of simply being present with ‘what is’ in relationship to other beings & in relationship to our ourselves.
Joy opens us physically, mentally & emotionally – it’s an experience of expansion. Whereas fear, resistance & judgement are experiences of deep contraction. Cultivating joy is an important component of resilience, as it increases our capacity to face difficulties. Every time we stretch our capacity to experience Mudita, we increase our capacity to ‘stretch’ more without breaking. Joy energizes us. It makes the heart/mind light, pliable, open, generous & relaxed. In these moments we often feel unbound, healed.
Take a moment now to experiment with the feeling of joy in a very simple way with the words “I am here”. The emphasis isn’t on the sense of “I” or “am” but on “here.” Joy moves us into presence & breaks down our patterns of grasping at experience to validate our sense of who we are. Within this immediate experience of presence, we are free to pour our energies into the activity of life itself… no comparing or competing. We’re free to purely rejoice in/with another being’s delight, success, health, brilliance & beauty.
Summer morning Finches
singing their heart out
and into mine.
In the late 1980s, the Thai monk Ajahn Suwat was teaching a ten-day retreat at the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) with Ajahn Geoff (Thanissaro) as his translator. Ajahn Suwat had been in America for some time but he hadn’t taught a retreat to Westerners before. After several days, Ajahn Suwat asked Ajahn Geoff, “Why do the students seem so unhappy? They’re meditating. They’re here. But they seem so grim & not at all like they’re enjoying themselves.” After thinking about it, Ajahn Geoff said, “They know how to meditate, but not how to practice dana.” He saw a direct relationship between the lack of happiness & the lack of a foundation in dana.
In Thailand, where I lived for many years, generosity & giving are a child’s first teachings in Buddhism. Pregnant women go to the temple, offer food & dedicate merit: “May my child be healthy & happy.” When children are little, they get up early with their families to make offerings to the monastics walking by on almsround. Someone helps each child put a spoonful of rice in the alms bowl, and everyone claps & says, “Great!” Children get the idea: Wow, giving is good. They grow up associating generosity with pleasant feelings because it is a cultural value.
There are many different translations of the word dana. Basically, it is the quality of generosity in which we give physically and from the heart. Hearts with dana are generous, open-palmed & liberal in terms of willingness to give, share, be present & help others. All of those qualities lead us away from me & my needs, me & my preferences, me & my demands, me & my expectations, me & my desires, me & my firm place in the center of the universe.
At the root of generosity is the perception that there is always something to share. In fact, you don’t need a lot in order to give…. Sometimes we have a lot, but we feel it’s not enough & that we have to protect what’s there. We don’t even think about sharing what we have. That’s a state of lack & of being truly poor. On the other hand, giving & sharing come from a place of wealth.
There’s an old story about the difference between heaven & hell. The hell realms are filled with people who sit at long banquet tables piled high with all sorts of delicious foods & drinks. But everyone is completely miserable & hungry because the utensils are too long to maneuver. No matter how hard they try, they can’t put the food into their mouths. The heavenly realm is the same: the tables are laden with the same delicious foods & drinks & with the identical long utensils. But the people are happy & bright because they use the utensils to feed one another. There is no hunger or frustration, only fullness & well-being within the identical conditions. Giving & sharing is what turns a hell realm into a heavenly one.
One of the doorways out of suffering is generosity. It’s important to realize that dana is not just about material giving. It also involves service & keeping one’s eyes open for what needs to be done. How can I help? Who is in need of assistance? In order to feel comfortable helping others, we have to leap over the hurdle of self, of me & mine. Acts of service invite us to step out of the conditioned boundaries that we set up for our imaginary selves.
Ajahn Pasanno is a senior disciple of Ajahn Chah who for many years was the abbot of Wat Pah Nanachat International Forest Monastery in Thailand. In the late 1990s, he moved to California to head the new Abhayagiri Monastery. Ajahn Pasanno stepped back from the role of abbot in Spring 2018 but continues as an anchor of wisdom & guidance for the community.
“Compassion lies at the heart of what it means to be fully human. It allows us to be at peace in the midst of pain & turmoil. Compassion is an energetic response rather than a mental idea”
Awakening is not a separate state of being that comes into existence without the cultivation of the heart & the mind. We live in a time, a place & a culture in which the cognitive functioning aspects of the brain & mind have been elevated as the pinnacle or place to operate from, where greed, aversion & delusion have been the primary seeds of thought & actions. This has been at the loss & exclusion of understanding the great wisdom & contribution that the heart brings.
We have become acutely aware in this moment that we have been imbalanced for a very long time, even beyond the inception & manifestation of the conditions existing in & on these lands of the America’s. I posit that these conditions have been a fundamental struggle for humankind to transform. What might have been if we had been inclusive & holistically oriented? What might have gone into understanding & discovering who we are as human beings if, instead of separating the heart & mind, we had integrated the two? What might evolve if we lead with the heart of compassion?
If one connects into the compassionate heart, it’s going to, at times, bring one to a place where you have to be present with personal suffering & the suffering in the world. And that can be a place that oftentimes is so difficult that we find all these ways to turn away from it. The only way we can actually meet each other & meet the world & what’s happening is by strengthening the heart. Compassion becomes an embodied way of moving towards awakening as opposed to this “above the neck” disembodied place of understanding awakening & freedom.
There are many people that have a great deal of compassion. However oftentimes when self-compassion is not developed & cultivated, we become fairly quickly under-resourced & unable to continue to move forward & be fully present with our own embodied experience as well as with other embodied beings that we move through this life with. The way to know suffering in someone else is to recognize & know it yourself — to be aware of what it feels like, tastes like, smells like, looks like, sounds like. So self-compassion actually can act as a bridge between understanding compassion, having compassion, generating compassion, being compassion & offering compassion to others.
(Adapted from an interview that originally appeared on spiritrock.org)
DaRa Williams is a trainer, meditation teacher & psychotherapist who is committed to the healing of intergenerational trauma. A meditator for the past 25 years, she is a graduate of the Community Dharma Leaders 4 training through Spirit Rock Meditation Center, the Spirit Rock/Insight Meditation Society Teacher Training Program & is a guiding teacher at IMS. She is the program manager & a core teacher in the current IMS Teacher Training Program. Dara is also the Program Manager & teacher in the Indigenous Focusing Oriented Therapy & Complex Trauma (IFOT) training programs in the United States. She & Kamala Masters will be teaching a People of Color retreat at The Mountain Hermitage in October 2020.
“It is my belief that vipassana meditation & the dharma are ideal for transforming suffering, particularly the trauma of oppression & its many vicissitudes – where the chains around our minds & hearts can be broken through & dissolved. Awareness & wisdom become the vehicle for freedom & transforming lives.”