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.
“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.”
The last few weeks have been a time of seismic shifts in opening our hearts. For millions of people all over the world, it was heart-breaking to witness the suffering that George Floyd endured, and to see how much his family grieved. When the world grieved too, it caused a tipping and turning point. Our individual and collective hearts opened with compassion. The force of this compassion opened to the truth of deeply embedded structural violence and the social forces that have harmed our black communities for centuries. Of course, this also connects to all peoples everywhere, all genders, and all those who have been affected by this particular kind of systemic injustice. Although very painful, it also opened a widespread awakening to the truth of this kind of suffering, and the healing of it.
As Van Jones, news commentator and author said recently, “A miracle has taken place. A continent of common ground has emerged from beneath the waves.”
In the Dharma, it is said that compassion is a powerful healing force that reaches out to alleviate suffering. Reaching out with compassion can sometimes feel like the strength of courage to face what is difficult.
Reaching out can also feel gentle, like a soothing balm that offers some relieving kindness when we can sincerely say to someone, “I care about your pain.”
Sometimes it’s helpful to train the mind/heart in compassion during sitting meditation, so that it becomes a supportive habit pattern easily accessible in daily life. Traditionally, to practice compassion during meditation there is a progression of individuals that we offer to, and phrases that can be used (see Sharon Salzberg’s book, “Loving Kindness”).
In my own compassion practice, I keep it really simple. I choose someone who has shared their heartache with me, or whose difficulty is obvious. I take a few moments opening to how it is for this person, and at times compassion naturally arises. But there are times I need to use a phrase to help incline the mind/heart towards compassion, for example, “May you be free from your heartache,” repeating that phrase softly in a comfortable cadence.
There are times when we need to practice compassion for ourselves. However, sometimes we may feel so paralyzed, hurt, or upset that we can easily dismiss our own basic needs for self-care. Having raised four children, I remember this very well. It took time to establish a habit of offering compassion to myself. Some simple words would help to incline my heart towards compassion, “May my heart and mind be at ease.” Or even more specifically, “May I be more compassionate towards myself.” Even if it seemed impossible, I would rather repeat a wholesome intention than allow my unskillful thoughts to take over.
Knowing the terrain around compassion is important, so that we can be aware of what might be obstructing compassion. The far enemy of compassion is cruelty. This is when we strike out with angry words, actions, or even silently with our thoughts to hurt or harm.
The near enemy is apathy or indifference. It can manifest as not caring, a numbing distance, or a lack of empathy. Awareness is like a solvent; when the near or far enemies arise, awareness can dissolve any entanglement or identification with it, allowing compassion to arise.
May our deeper understanding and the power of compassion be forces of healing for all beings everywhere.
Kamala Masters is one of the founders & teachers of the Vipassana Metta Foundation on Maui. She teaches retreats in the Theravada tradition at venues worldwide, including being a Guiding Teacher & member of the Board of Directors at the Insight Meditation Society at Barre, Massachusetts. She & DaRa Williams will be teaching a People of Color retreat at the Mountain Hermitage in October 2020.
The Ten Paramis are the ten perfections of the heart to cultivate in one’s practice of the Dhamma. Ajahn Sucitto tells us, “These parami form a set of themes that are used in the Theravada tradition to this day. They provide a template for the mind’s energies & activities that isn’t an extra to all the other things we might have to do, but encompasses our talking & working, our relationships & interactions with others, our times of private introspection, our decision-making & the forming of our life directions. We practise morality, patience & all or any of the rest while we are engaged at work, or minding the children, or stuck in a traffic jam… The parami take spiritual practice into areas of our lives where we get confused, are subject to social pressure & are often strongly influenced by stress or stress- forming assumptions. Providing alternative ways to orient the mind in the stream of daily events, the ‘perfections’ can derail obstructive inner activities, & leave the mind clear for meditation. Cultivating parami means you get to steer your life out of the floods.”
The Ten Perfections (Parami)
Generosity/Sharing (dana) Recognizing the joy of sharing, & acknowledging that we all come into this world subject to pain, sorrow, sickness & death, I aspire to offer what I can in terms of resources, hospitality, healing & wise advice.
Morality/Integrity (sila) Recognizing the trust that develops from conscientiousness & fellow-feeling, I aspire to cultivate actions of body, speech & mind that turn away from hostility & harshness, & that cut off greed & manipulative behaviour.
Renunciation/Values-based Simplicity (nekkhamma) Recognizing the ease that arises with modesty & contentment, I aspire to relinquish needless acquisition & an imbalanced use of material resources.
Clarity/Wisdom (pañña) Recognizing the skill of clarity, I aspire to handle my perspectives with awareness & careful reflection, & thereby arrive at an unbiased understanding.
Energy (viriya) Recognizing my capacity for vigour, or for distraction & laziness, I aspire to use my energy for my long-term benefit & for the welfare of others.
Patience/Tolerance (khanti) Recognizing the value of tolerance & perseverance, I aspire to let go of getting my own way, cutting corners & being narrow-minded.
Truthfulness (sacca) Recognizing the wise relationships that can be established through my own veracity & through the honesty of others, I aspire to free my mind from biased perspectives & devious behaviour.
Resolution (adhitthana) Recognizing the potency of a firm heart, I aspire to hold intentions that are enriching, & to ward off vacillation on one hand & forceful goalseeking on the other.
Goodwill (metta) Recognizing the happiness of a warm heart, I aspire to cultivate empathy & compassion. Resisting mind-states based on fault-finding of myself or others, I will encourage goodwill rather than foster ideals of perfection.
Equanimity/Stability of Heart (upekkha) Recognizing the peace of even-minded acceptance, I aspire to let sickness & health, blame & praise, failure & accomplishment flow through my awareness without getting distracted by them.
Buddhist monk Ajahn Sucitto, currently based at Cittaviveka Monastery in Chithurst, West Sussex, has been part of a number of Theravada monasteries in Britain. The passages above on the Paramis are excerpted from his books “Parami, Ways to Cross Life’s Floods” and “Buddha-Nature, Human Nature.” Both are available on-line in PDF form at no charge.
As a human being we are endowed with a precious life. The human realm offers a mix of pleasant and painful experiences, there are opportunities for learning, doing good, or accumulating wealth. Many people strive to get as many pleasant experiences as possible, to accumulate material things, or to exercise power.
However, only few people reflect about the real essence of life. What essence can be extracted from one’s life? What is of benefit in this life for oneself and others? What is supporting one’s spiritual practice? Generally speaking, we are surrounded by material things, we have a body, and we have a mind.
Instead of accumulating material things or indulging in countless sensual pleasures – including food – we can share what we have with others. We can be generous and support others by offering food, building a well, sharing our time with a sick friend, or setting up a school.
Our manifold activities all day long and throughout our life are based on bodily actions and speech. We should make sure that they are guided by ethical principles; the base being not to harm or hurt others in any way. We should treat others with respect and dignity, be kind and compassionate. In this way, our body becomes a vehicle for virtuous behavior.
Due to confusion, distress, and negative habits in the mind we never attain the lasting happiness and peace of mind we so dearly wish for. Meditation is mental development of qualities such as kindness, compassion, patience, or equanimity and the cultivation of insight to see things are they really are. A well-developed mind is free from negativity and full of wholesomeness. Wisdom and compassion are the base of a liberated heart & mind.
The essence that can be extracted from our life to make it meaningful and beneficial is: dana, sila, bhavana – generosity, virtue, mental cultivation.
Every day we can aspire to be generous, virtuous, and cultivate our mind. In this way, we use our precious life – material things, body, mind – to extract what is essential.
Ariya Baumann was a nun in Myanmar (Burma) for many years where she assisted the Sayadaws by teaching & translation. In 2013, she disrobed & is now based in Switzerland. She continues to teach vipassana & metta meditation courses worldwide & is also a co-founder/president of ‘Metta In Action’ which supports a variety of social & medical projects throughout Burma, especially nunneries.
After learning my flight was detained 4 hours,
I heard the announcement:
If anyone in the vicinity of gate 4-A understands any Arabic,
Please come to the gate immediately.
Well—one pauses these days. Gate 4-A was my own gate. I went there.
An older woman in full traditional Palestinian dress,
Just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly.
Help, said the flight service person. Talk to her. What is her
Problem? we told her the flight was going to be four hours late and she
I put my arm around her and spoke to her haltingly.
Shu dow-a, shu- biduck habibti, stani stani schway, min fadlick,
Sho bit se-wee?
The minute she heard any words she knew—however poorly used—
She stopped crying.
She thought our flight had been canceled entirely.
She needed to be in El Paso for some major medical treatment the
Following day. I said no, no, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just late,
Who is picking you up? Let’s call him and tell him.
We called her son and I spoke with him in English.
I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and
Would ride next to her—Southwest.
She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for the fun of it.
Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and
Found out of course they had ten shared friends.
Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian
Poets I know and let them chat with her. This all took up about 2 hours.
She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life. Answering
She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies—little powdered
Sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts—out of her bag—
And was offering them to all the women at the gate.
To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a
Sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the traveler from California,
The lovely woman from Laredo—we were all covered with the same
Powdered sugar. And smiling. There are no better cookies.
And then the airline broke out the free beverages from huge coolers—
Non-alcoholic—and the two little girls for our flight, one African
American, one Mexican American—ran around serving us all apple juice
And lemonade and they were covered with powdered sugar too.
And I noticed my new best friend—by now we were holding hands—
Had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing,
With green furry leaves. Such an old country traveling tradition. Always
Carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.
And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought,
This is the world I want to live in. The shared world.
Not a single person in this gate—once the crying of confusion stopped
—has seemed apprehensive about any other person.
They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women too.
This can still happen anywhere.
Not everything is lost.
Photo at top of Naomi’s 95 yr old Palestinian grandmother by Michael Nye.
Naomi Shihab Nye describes herself as a “wandering poet.” Born to a Palestinian father & an American mother, she grew up in St. Louis, Jerusalem & San Antonio. Drawing on her Palestinian-American heritage, the cultural diversity of her home in Texas & experiences traveling the world, Nye uses her writing to attest to our shared humanity. The recipient of many literary awards, she currently serves as Young People’s Poet Laureate in the U.S.
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.
By Marcia Rose
December 21, 2019 – Winter Solstice: Japanese Tea Ceremony
6 a.m. – 30 minute sitting in silent meditation with 70 people in a dark candle-lit room
6:30 a.m. – 20 minute slow walking meditation
6:50 a.m. – Japanese sweet & a cup of freshly made green tea, silently served to each person with a bow
7:10 a.m. – Clear morning light beginning to fill the room & our hearts
7:15 a.m. – spontaneous sharing/poetic words invited…
And so goes our annual Solstice Tea Ceremony here in Taos, New Mexico.
Taking cues from the overt & more subtle rhythms of the natural world, we mark a repeating cycle… darkness to light… the ending & the beginning of a new year/new cycle within this fluid frame of a year’s time.
For many of us, this is time for reflection. What am I grateful for? What heart/mind qualities do I want to strengthen & cultivate? What would I like to let go of, relinquish? What has been particularly challenging this year? What has been especially beautiful, illuminating & uplifting?
Our year-end/year-beginning reflections may bring forth personal, intimate recollections as well as thoughts & images related to broader themes & particular happenings in the world beyond our intimately experienced personal memories.
As our complex human heart/mind quite naturally sorts through & sifts out much of what we have encountered & experienced physically, intellectually, emotionally & spiritually through a year, we are left with ‘just a handful of leaves’ of all the billions of experiences that have passed through our body, mind & heart during this fluid frame of a past year. Trusting what shows up & then simply taking what is offered is just what we need for our practice. With heartfelt interest & care for our well-being, along with a non-judgmental, non-clinging awareness, we mindfully notice, ‘What is my relationship in this very moment to this remembered experience?’
Our reflective practice can bring a clear, caring & non-manipulative interest to what comes up, without editorial commentary. This is the ground, the quality of heart/mind ambiance needed for intuitive understanding & illumination to arise. In this context, our heart is able to release from the swirling eddies of contraction that we can get caught in.
Within our practice, we learn to be truly caring & patient with ourselves as this new cycle/new year blossoms. We can learn to be heartfully, wisely responsive in relationship with ourselves & others, rather than contracting in reactivity. This allows spaciousness, understanding & intuitive wisdom to naturally blossom. This is how we learn to receive the light that we yearn for to fill our heart & mind… the clear light that is always available, forever nearby. This is our practice.
May this new year be filled with friendship, love, a growing intuitive
understanding & a deepening sense of well-being & ease for you.
with metta, Marcia Rose
“The fool who knows he is a fool
Is that much wiser.
The fool who thinks he is wise
Is a fool indeed.”
The Buddha from the Dhammapada
There was a mighty elephant with a strong trunk and long tusks, trained by a good master, and willing and serviceable. This elephant, led by his trainer, came to the land of the blind. Very soon the rumors went in the land of the blind that an elephant had come to their country. So the wise men and teachers of the blind came up to the elephant and began to investigate him. And when the elephant was gone, they met and discussed the animal among themselves.
There were some who said he was like a great thick snake; others said he was like a snake of medium size. The former had felt the trunk, the latter the tail.
Further, there were some who claimed that his figure was like a high column, others declared he was large and bulky like a big barrel, still others maintained he was smooth and hard but tapering. Some of the blind had taken hold of one of the legs, others had reached the main body, and still others had touched the tusks.
In the end they abused and scolded one another over their disagreements, and finally every one of them swore that everyone else was a liar and was cursed on account of his heresies.
Everyone of these blind men was honest in his contentions, sure of having the truth and relying on his own experience. But the elephant trainer knows that every one of them has a parcel of the truth, that every one is right in his way, but wrong in believing his outlook to be the whole truth.
The master of the elephant was an Enlightened One. He brought the elephant of truth into the land of the blind, and those who listen to him well will understand that all the claimants have parcels of the truth. Those who takes refuge in his doctrine will cease to bicker and quarrel.
Sutta Pitaka – Khuddaka Nikaya
The Buddha taught that every human birth is precious & worthy of gratitude. In one of his well-known analogies, he said that receiving a human birth is more rare than the chance that a blind turtle floating in the ocean would stick its head through a small hoop. He would often instruct a monk to take his ground cloth into the forest, sit at the base of a tree, and begin “gladdening the heart” by reflecting on the series of fortunate circumstances that had given the monk the motivation & ability to seek freedom through understanding the dharma.
Practicing mindfulness of gratitude consistently leads to a direct experience of being connected to life & the realization that there is a larger context in which your personal story is unfolding. Being relieved of the endless wants & worries of your life’s drama, even temporarily, is liberating. Cultivating thankfulness for being part of life blossoms into a feeling of being blessed, not in the sense of winning the lottery, but in a more refined appreciation for the interdependent nature of life. It also elicits feelings of generosity, which create further joy. Gratitude can soften a heart that has become too guarded, and it builds the capacity for forgiveness, which creates the clarity of mind that is ideal for spiritual development.
Let me be clear: The practice of gratitude is not in any way a denial of life’s difficulties. We live in troubling times, and no doubt you’ve experienced many challenges, uncertainties, and disappointments in your own life. Nor does the practice of gratitude deny the Buddha’s teaching on death: Death is certain; your death is certain; the time of death is unknown; the time of your death is unknown. Rather, gratitude practice is useful because it turns the mind in such a way that it enables you to live into life or, more accurately, to die into life. Having access to the joy & wonderment of life is the antidote to feelings of scarcity & loss. It allows you to meet life’s difficulties with an open heart. The understanding you gain from practicing gratitude frees you from being lost or identified with either the negative or the positive aspects of life, letting you simply meet life in each moment as it rises.
Gratitude for the grace of conscious embodiment evolves into the practice of selfless gratitude, in which your concerns slowly but surely shift from being mostly about yourself & those close to you to being about all living beings. As this occurs, you need less & less in the way of good fortune. It becomes enough that there are those who are happy, who are receiving love, who are safe, and who have a promising future. It is not that you would not prefer good things for yourself, but your sense of well-being is no longer contingent on external circumstances. You are able to rejoice that amidst all life’s suffering there exists joy. You realize that pain & joy are part of a mysterious whole. When this state of selfless gratitude starts to blossom, your mind becomes more spacious, quieter, and your heart receives its first taste of the long-sought release from fear & wanting. This is grace.
View full article on Phillip’s website: dharmawisdom.org/
Phillip Moffitt has been teaching Vipasanna meditation throughout the U.S. since completing teacher training at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in 1998. A former publishing executive, Phillip is founder of the Life Balance Institute, dedicated to study & practice of spiritual values in daily life. He also founded the Marin Sangha in San Rafael CA & is a teacher & member of the Guiding Teachers Council at Spirit Rock. His books include “Dancing with Life.”
Depending on your quality of mind,
the object may be perceived
differently & the view changes.
Your watching mind must be strong & purified, with less defilement. If your mind is ready, understanding arises. So take care of your mind, take care of your practice & take care of your watching mind. Cultivate it so that it is stronger & stronger.
Our duty is to make the quality of awareness stronger. Stronger awareness means awareness & wisdom are working together continuously. This is awareness with the right view, right attitude, right idea, and right thought. If this is continuous, then the mind is stronger & stronger. We only need to do this. If the mind becomes stronger it can do its job. Dhamma does its job & nature does its job.
We are not trying to see the object. We are not trying to look for something. We are trying to make the meditating mind stronger & stronger.
How do we make the mind stronger? When we are aware, with the right attitude & right understanding, then the mind has wisdom & it becomes stronger. This is not because we are putting in a lot of energy; if we use too much energy the mind will become tired. If we try to see something, the mind becomes tenser. We are cultivating the quality of awareness to make the mind stronger & stronger. If we have awareness with wisdom & continuity, then the mind becomes stronger & stronger. When the mind becomes stronger it can do its job.
There is more understanding. It should be like this. When we have more understanding, we have less resistance & fewer reactions. Because of reactions, we suffer. Because of learning, we understand. With understanding comes confidence.
For someone who has been meditating or practicing for a long time,
the mind must be of a better & better quality. The mind is more aware,
more stable & more peaceful.
Excerpt from Sayadaw’s book “Dhamma everywhere: Welcoming each moment with Awareness & Wisdom.” [Entire book available on-line]
Sayadaw U Tejaniya began his Buddhist training as a young teenager in Burma under the late Shwe Oo Min Sayadaw. After a career in business & life as a householder, he has been a permanent monk since 1996. He feels that his experience developing his practice while living as a householder helps him understands both the challenges yogis face in integrating their meditation practice with their everyday lives & how to overcome them.