The wholesome and the unwholesome

As we practice living our lives, we are beset with the constant need to wisely discern which actions to take, and which to refrain from. In the historical teachings of the Buddha, we find a number of examples of people asking for instruction on how to make the correct choice. Most of the time the Buddha’s response is the same: he suggests that we compare the probable results of our actions to see if they are beneficial (wholesome) and cause no harm, or not beneficial (unwholesome) and do cause harm. We can take this advice to heart and use it as a way to make our paths more clear, but it’s not always easy to understand how to apply it.

This Sunday, Mike B. guided our Sangha on the topic of the Wholesome and the Unwholesome, helping us to understand the ways in which this ancient rubric can be applied to our lives today. The topic was centered on a series of talks recently given by Gil Fronsdal, which are available here:


What do we intend? How do we act?

Most of us have experienced the frustration of the disconnect between our intentions, and the way our days and lives actually unfold. In our gathering this Sunday Margaret guided our exploration of the connections between intention and citta.

Citta is the third foundation of mindfulness in the Satipatthana Sutta.  Citta is sometimes translated as “heart-mind”, or “mood of the moment”, but the following provides a perhaps useful motivation for using the Pali term “citta”:

“What we call mind is in reality different fleeting moments of consciousness succeeding one another very rapidly. Since “mind” has in psychology a meaning different from “mind” according to the Buddhist teaching, it is to be preferred to use the Pali term citta (pronounced: chitta).”  (From Cetasikas, by Nina van Gorkom.) 

We explored intention – widening the scope to incorporate the underlying intentions that drive our more impulsive, reactive actions.  We based our reflections on a talk by Ajahn Sucitto, titled “Rest Intention through Embodiment”.

You can listen to the talk by Ajahn Sucitto here:

We explored the way intentions that lead to actions are conditioned by Citta (heart-mind), noting that our Citta is accurately reflected in the body. Citta is connected to emotion, and also has an ethical component. We considered the way long term habits are embedded in Citta (this relates to the notion of karma).  In this framework for thinking about intentionality, meditation serves to calm and settle the body, to disengage from reactivity. The intentions that arise from this calm and settled state lead us to more skillful ways of being. 

Also provided was a guided meditation by Chas di Capua that some used during our sitting:


The Value of the Undependable

Even when we seem to pay objective attention to the flow of our experiences, we often impose a scale of value upon them — pleasing or unpleasing, likable or not — as if this will usher us toward a more pleasant existence. The inconstancy and undependability of phenomena are not our focus. Yet giving our attention directly to the fleeting, changing, unreliable nature of our experience can be precisely the approach that brings us peace and freedom. Wendy guided our reflections on this slippery topic this week, drawing on excerpts from a dharma talk by Nathan Glide titled “Anicca and Vedana”

“Anicca and Vedana” Nathan Glyde 2021-02-02


The Pitfalls of Mindfulness Practice, the Promises of Making Mistakes

What are the ways in which some Mindfulness trainings conflict with others?  How can confusion bring clarity, even as clear ideas can lead us so deep into tangles?  Many of us were taught to meditate in quiet environments by teachers whose teachers’ teachers were Forest Monks, practicing in the blooming buzzing confusion that wild nature offers.  What can we learn from our roots?  Michael guided our reflections this week as we develop some of these themes that sprouted in last Sunday’s sangha. 


The Here and Now

Ever since the publication of Ram Dass’s “Be Here Now” in 1971, most everyone with a spiritual inclination has assumed that here and now are where and when we want to be as fully as possible.  It’s also true that these terms can be quite nuanced, even surprising.  Sam guided our reflections on this terrain this past Sunday, drawing on excerpts from a talk by Eugene Cash and a guided meditation by Tara Brach. 

“The Shock of the Now” by Eugene Cash at the SFIMC, 8-4-19

“Meditation:  Letting Go into Living Presence” by Tara Brach at the IMC of Washington DC, 5-5-21

Sam read the poem “This Shining Moment in the Now” by David Budbill

and the following excerpts from The Complete Tassajara Cookbook p. 365 by  Edward Espe Brown:

“Then I asked the Roshi if he had any advice for me as the cook.   His answer was straightforward and down to earth: ‘When you wash the rice, wash the rice;  when you cut the carrots, cut the carrots;  when you stir the soup, stir the soup’.

(later, referring to cooking) “Anyone can do this kind of work.   Whole worlds come alive.  Entering into activity you find the world appears vivid with spinach, lettuces, and black beans;  with cutting boards, baking pans, and sponges.    You let go of the imagined and hypothetical so that awareness can function in the world of things.  Where previously you may have hesitated or waited for the world to provide entertainment or solace, her you enter a world vibrant with the energy and devotion flowing out of your own being.   Food appears.”  


Complex connections; a heart at peace

This week Eveline focused our attention on ways to avoid being overwhelmed as we open our awareness to the wide and intricate webs of connection that unite us, finally, with the whole world. 

Excerpts from Sebene Salassie and Nina Wise served as sources with which we can access the wisdom that can keep us grounded in the complexities of our lives, and focus on what really matters. As the mind stills, the heart opens. As the heart opens, we discover how we belong to this earth and live in a web of connection. 

You can listen to the talk (preceded by a guided meditation) by Sebene here:

Nina Wise’s talk can be heard here:



This week, Payton guided our Sangha on the wide topic of Exhaustion.

What is it to be exhausted? I think we all know the feeling. Physical exhaustion is a fairly gross sensation, where the body just doesn’t quite operate the way we want it to, and we may find it actively seeking rest. Exhaustion of the mind or the heart can at times be more subtle, and when it manifests we may become more easily confused, slow, frustrated, angry, or needy. I find it interesting that these manifestations are all aspects of the Three Poisons of Greed, Aversion, and Delusion. When we are exhausted, we have fewer and fewer “spoons” (to use Spoon Theory, coined by Christine Miserandino) and the result is that the Three Poisons flourish more freely, covering over our true nature.

I don’t think we need to spend much time on the “why” of being exhausted. I imagine that every one of us can come up with a personalized list of what exhausts us in our daily lives. What I find surprising is that, for me, I can become exhausted in so many varied situations. When the quarantine began I thought, “oh, this will be annoying; I’ll be bored, but I suppose that’s not a big deal”. I never expected that the lack of social contact, the lack of variation in my schedule, and in my physical location would make me more mentally exhausted, but so it has. Just doing simple things like preparing food or cleaning laundry seem to grow in scale every day. And of course this isn’t limited to pandemic times, it’s just that, like a retreat, the sudden shift of my conditions has made these mental patterns more apparent.

So we are tired, we are exhausted, we work so hard to do the things we have to do. Does Buddhism offer any suggestions, any relief from this state? Fortunately, the parallels between exhausted states and the origins of the Three Poisons gives us a place to start looking.

Sayadaw U Tejaniya teaches that the goal of Buddhist practice is not a strong focus and many hours of formal meditation, although those might be tools that are appropriate in some situations. Among the reasons he gives for avoiding such practices is that they themselves can be exhausting. If our spiritual practice is exhausting we’re not very likely to pursue it when our minds are already tired.

Rather, he teaches that a continuous gentle awareness and an accepting mind is all that is required. Just being aware of our body or of what is going on in the mind is the action of a split second; it requires very little effort. As one of my teachers said when I first learned formal meditation: when we become aware that our mind has wandered, congratulations! We’re already back! We need not think hard about our experience or try to create an outcome; that is the action of craving. The mind will naturally reach conclusions based on the evidence it gathers through awareness, but only if the awareness is continuous enough, kind enough, and wise enough, to gather that data. Somehow, meditation practice can itself be an antidote to exhaustion! But how, exactly?

Some quotes from Dhamma everywhere, by Ashin Tejaniya, which you can find here.

What kind of effort do we need when we are meditating? Right now many people know of only one type of effort, which is energetic, forcing effort. However, it is wrong effort when it is motivated by defilements like craving, aversion, or delusion. This kind of effort will only feed more defilements in the process.

Isn’t this what it feels like to be exhausted? We feel the suffering of too much effort, and the defilements arise.

How then, do we meditate? We use the wholesome effort and the right effort of patience and perseverance in our practice.

Insights don’t have an opportunity to arise when we are very intent on one object without exploring or investigating what is happening

In mindfulness meditation, we don’t need to cultivate or work on objects or what we observe. We can and will need to develop how we observe. We do this first by noticing or acknowledging how the mind is already observing. Is it agitated or calm? Is there some kind of wisdom present? You don’t need to try to change how the mind is observing. You do want to take note of how it is observing and the corresponding effects of observing in this way. Over time, you will notice different causes and effects. When you have repeatedly observed and seen different scenarios, you will begin to better understand the relationship of how the state of the mind and the thoughts in the mind affect the way you feel about the object or what you are observing.

Start with an awareness of any object. As you maintain awareness, keep checking the mind. What is the mind aware of? When it is aware, is the mind at ease or not? Is it relaxed? When it is, what is the attitude in the mind? Keep checking. Be mindful that you are not just intent on objects!

How much effort do you need to know seeing, hearing, heat, cold, touching, or tiredness? Do you need to focus to know any of these? Is that tiring or difficult? See how easy observing is?

You need to pay attention to the observing mind if you want to understand the truth. Regularly check on how you are practicing. Can wisdom arise in the presence of craving, aversion, or delusion in the observing mind? What attitude is the mind practicing with? Check your attitude regularly.

Understanding that something is not beneficial is very different from thinking or judging that something is “not good”. If the mind labels something as “good”, there is craving already. With any object that arises, delusion is already on the scene. Delusion conceals an object’s natural characteristics (but not the object itself) and labels it as “good” or “bad”.

As such, we also don’t try to remove aversion when it arises. We are not trying to get rid of aversion. As soon as we try to push aversion away, there is more aversion. Aversion is always negative, having the quality of pushing something away. We are observing aversion because we want to know its true nature. This is what it means to meditate.

Most people think they have to bring awareness back to some object with the idea, “Oh, my awareness is gone, I must have awareness again.” That’s a tiring way to practice. I will give you a simpler, more relaxed way: Remind yourself. When you try to get awareness, you may be focusing on an object. The mind that is already thinking wrong thoughts now tries to be aware of an object. That requires focusing energy. When you remind yourself, the mind thinks about the mind and body and awareness is automatically there.

How do you understand Viriya? Viriya is the spiritual faculty of patience and perseverance. I understand viriya as persistence, not exertion or force! Please don’t wear out your mind or body by striving forcefully when you meditate. Understanding can’t develop when your mind or body is tired. Can you learn something thoroughly if you start and stop the process many times? You will miss the storyline in a TV series if you catch a few episodes and miss a few episodes. Similarly, only if awareness is continuous, where you see the beginning, middle and end, will you then understand the true nature… Be cool and calm about it. Be interested. There should be consistent effort but not exertion. … We don’t interfere with what is happening. We don’t make something unwanted to disappear or stop, nor do we need to try to create preferred experiences. The mind is doing its own work through recognizing, being aware, knowing, thinking about the practice, and being interested

What kind of effort do we use in our daily lives? We have automatically used some kind of force primarily motivated by craving, aversion, or delusion. It has become a habit. Viriya with wisdom, however, knows that mindfulness practice is beneficial, so we persevere and we know our motivation

Have you ever been angry? When you are angry and you think, “I am getting angry,” what will happen? The anger grows. Anger grows when you take possession of the anger with, “This is my anger.” When people are sad and they say, “I’m depressed, I’m feeling down,” then they really get depressed. Why is that? It’s because their attitude and ideas have assumed the sadness as their sadness. If you consider sadness as just one aspect of the nature of mind, then you’d feel much better. It’s the mind that is sad, not my mind that’s sad. It’s not, “I want, I’m not satisfied.” It’s the mind that is angry or wanting. It’s harder for defilements to grow stronger in the presence of this right view in the mind.

Excerpts from The spectrum of low energy, by Annie Nugent

0:00 Taking vacation seriously
2:15 examining the spectrum of low energy
3:20 retreat might cause exhaustion to show up
4:15 if we notice tiredness, it may not be sloth and torpor, but just exhaustion from “should” syndrome
6:25 we might notice that our body wants downtime, but then we do a retreat, and we might drive ourselves in our practice
8:00 we might be uncomfortable being alone with ourselves
8:45 another article: how racism is bad for our bodies
11:15 behind the sense of stress, exhaustion can appear as it disperses
12:28 we might not be able to change our conditions, but we can come to understand our predicament and weave in small things to create more ease and balance


Luminous awareness and the ground of Mind

Typically, we approach the Buddha Dharma with the intention of gaining something: a quiet mind, a lofty insight, a new sense of identity.  With luck and a supple frame of mind, we can learn to observe what is actually currently happening in this mind of ours, which is both vast and tranquil and leaping from thought to thought, like a monkey swinging from branch to branch.  Is there a way of seeing Citta – Luminous awareness – that encompasses both these possibilities, and points us to the ground of Mind itself?  Drawing on a talk by Ajahn Sucitto, Don S. guided our reflections this Sunday.

You can listen to the talk by Ajahn Sucitto here:


Radical Self Honesty: The Joy of Getting Real

“Remove the veil, so that I may see what is really happening here, and not be intoxicated, by my stories and my fears”

Elizabeth Lesser

Teaching through stories and a deep understanding of human psychology, Tara Brach describes how our brains are wired to turn away from what is truly happening and fixate on anything else. Particularly when it comes to observing our own selves, we often engage in subtle or overt blame and judgement — often in the name of self-improvement. Any self judgement prevents us from seeing what is true and real. Buddhism describes the importance of practicing both sides of the sword of awareness: keen self awareness, AND radical acceptance of what we find.  In seeing, and accepting what is true and real inside ourselves, we find true safety, and can live more openly, spontaneously, and love more freely. 

This week, Lorilee guided our sangha, making space for a deep conversation about the ways in which we react to and hide from the world around us through fear, aversion, and doubt. She played an excerpt from a talk by Tara Brach entitled, “Radical Self-Honesty: The Joy of Getting Real”, which you can listen to here:


Right Speech – the Ideal Off-the-Cushion Practice

Practice “off of the cushion” is every bit as instructive as quiet sitting.  So for this week’s discussion, Andrea presented one aspect of the eightfold path that’s a clear call to apply mindfulness in our daily lives: right speech (also sometimes translated a “wise” speech).  We also broke into pairs in which members of the sangha were given the opportunity to bring mindful awareness to their own speech in the moment.

Andrea played excerpts from two talks, which you can listen to via the links below:

Andrea Fella:
Tara Brach: