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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: https://dharmaseed.org/talks/62816/

Nina Wise’s talk can be heard here: https://dharmaseed.org/talks/8997/

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Exhaustion

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

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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: https://dharmaseed.org/talks/audio_player/9/63606.html

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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:

https://www.dharmaseed.org/teacher/175/talk/65005/

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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: https://audiodharma.org/talks/audio_player/2066.html
Tara Brach: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AXo0OBYdTXc

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The question of faith

At first or even second look, Buddhism is not quickly associated with Faith.  In fact many look upon it as free of that which was least appealing in their religious upbringing, the insistence on things unseen, accessible only by belief.  But it turns out that Saddha, usually translated “Faith”, is one of the five most important spiritual faculties to the practitioner of Dharma, though its meaning and the perspective it introduces will different from what we might assume. 

Sam guided our reflections on Faith this Sunday, drawing on a guided meditation by Ajahn Sucitto and talks by Andrea Fella and Yanai Postelnik.

The full guided meditation is available here: https://www.dharmaseed.org/talks/audio_player/9/62970.html

You can listen to Andrea’s talk here: https://dharmaseed.org/teacher/20/talk/13903/

You can listen to Yanai’s talk here: https://dharmaseed.org/teacher/193/talk/26011/

“The way of love is not
a subtle argument.

The door there
is devastation.

Birds make great sky-circles
of their freedom.
How do they learn it?

They fall, and falling,
they’re given wings.”

Mawlana Jalal-al-Din Rumi
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What keeps us from being truly alive?

Much of the time, as we see life through a lens of our perceptions and thoughts, we are so caught up in our mind’s stories and made-up reality, that we can’t see things as they really are. There is great freedom in being able to let go of long held, distorted views; and there is great liberation available when we can be intimate and honest with ourselves—connecting not only to ourselves, but also to other beings and to the earth. 

Dharma Teacher Kaira Jewel Lingo brings a new focus to cultivating Right View through Deep Listening.  Evelien led our discussion this past week on drawing on our innate capacity to practice such Listening and experience the clarity it can bring.

The played talk can be heard here: https://dharmaseed.org/teacher/1012/talk/63884/

Eveline began our meditation by inviting us to bring into our hearts and minds an attitude of kindness, which had an effect on a number of people in the sangha.  Michael let her know that he had at hand a copy of the poem “Kindness,” by Naomi Shihab Nye, and Eveline requested that it be read.  Several people asked where they might find this poem, which is often read in spiritual circles of all kinds.  Among many places, “Kindness” appears in her first collection of poetry, Different Ways to Pray

A video of the poet herself reading it can be found here:   https://youtu.be/8UF3NolGSHg

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The Impermanence of the Body

Last week Michael A. discussed  the significance of the Buddha’s last steps, last words, and lasting legacy. Part of that legacy is the importance of holding close the impermanence of all things, including the body itself. This week, Jeffrey presented one aspect of the Buddha’s Mindfulness of the Body, one of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. 

Jeffrey read some writings and poems on death followed by the Corpse Meditation that is part of the Mindfulness on the Body reflection from the Pali canon.

“When the Buddha talks about the importance of the present moment, he often portrays it as a place where work has to be done: the work of improving your skills in how to construct it. And the motivation for doing the work is provided by contemplation of death—the message being that if you don’t do the work needed to get your mind under control, you have no idea where the mind will take you at death, and the work won’t get done unless you do it right now.”

Thanissaro Bikku

Maraṇa sati (mindfulness of death, death awareness) is a practice of keeping close the thought that death can strike at anytime, and we should practice with urgency in every moment, even in the time it takes to draw one breath.

By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Genesis 3:19

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Shakespeare, MacBeth, upon learning of the death of Lady MacBeth

He also read When Death Comes by Mary Oliver and Antidotes to Fear of Death by Rebecca Elson.

Finally, some fun facts:

Teeth are the hardest part of animal bodies.

Oldest dinosaur teeth are 230 million years old. The oldest hominid teeth are 7 million years old, and only survive under very special conditions. Mine won’t be so lucky.

Looking forward. All life ceases on Earth in 2.8 billion years, due to increased luminosity of the sun.

If that doesn’t do it, in 7.8 billion years… Earth swallowed by the Sun

The sun is on its own trajectory from dust to dust. It will take trillions of years to completely cool off.

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The Buddha’s Last Steps, Last Teachings

Most of us are familiar with the early events of the life or legend of the Buddha – his shock at the grim realities of living, his departure from the palace, his wandering, awakening and spreading the Dharma.  But close of his teaching career, his choice of where and how to die, and his final teachings may be less familiar.    

Michael A guided our reflections this week on the significance of the Buddha’s last steps, last words, and lasting legacy. We broke into groups to discuss the question, “the Buddha vowed to overcome old age, sickness, and death; did he succeed?”.

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The crucial focus of Impermanence

This Sunday, Wendy presented Mark Nunberg’s talk “Allowing Impermanence and Uncertainty to Transform the Heart”. We explored the mind’s habit of ignoring impermanence and taking false refuge in a fixed self. The practice of bringing awareness to the changing nature of things, including the self itself, is a path to alignment with reality and freedom from attachments. As Thich Nhat Hanh put it, “It is not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not.” 

You can listen to the talk by Mark Nunberg here:

https://dharmaseed.org/talks/audio_player/543/62655.html

There’s also a guided meditation which we partially listened to during our gathering:

https://dharmaseed.org/talks/audio_player/543/62654.html

Here is a link to the “Long Live Impermanence” article by Thich Nhat Hanh referenced in Mark’s talk:

https://stillwatersanghamn.wordpress.com/2014/01/13/long-live-impermanence/