Our North Star

Britt guided our reflections this week, exploring our personal North Stars. Reconnecting with what brought us to practice, and probing why we continue to do so, can affirm and reinvigorate our commitments to awakening into presence.

Britt played a talk by Michele McDonald called “Spiritual Urgency and Awakening – Touched Completely by the Universe 18” which is available here:


She also played a talk by Donald Rothberg entitled “Twelve Reasons why we Practice”:


Skillful Effort: not too much, too little, but just right

Today Mike B offered a presentation centered around a dharma talk by Shaila Catherine, a teacher mainly known for her work in concentration. But the talk today was much more wide ranging, covering the many different aspects of Wise Effort. She made clear that a wide spectrum of effort can be appropriate in meditation, from light to intense – always with the alert not to ‘over-effort’. Further, she traced how the four kinds of effort that the Buddha himself outlined in his articulation of the eight-fold path offer a nuanced range of well focused approaches, differing according to the circumstances of the moment. The discussion that followed encompassed a wide variety of our sangha’s experience with finding the appropriate degree of effort to bring to our meditations.


Sense of Identity: where does it come from?

This week, Margaret guided our reflections as we continued the theme of identity from Lorilee’s Sangha last Sunday.

Margaret played excerpts from a talk by Rodney Smith:


Below are some quotes which were used during the discussion.

When you hear your inner voice, 
forget it.

-Hyoen Sahn

Krishnamurti: “It is the truth that liberates, not your efforts to be free”.

In teaching, the Buddha never spoke of humans as persons existing in some fixed or static way. Instead, he described us as a collection of five changing processes: the processes of the physical body, of feelings, of perceptions, of responses, and of the flow of consciousness that experiences them all. Our sense of self arises whenever we grasp at or identify with these patterns. The process of identification, of selecting patterns to call “I,” “me,” “myself,” is subtle and usually hidden from our awareness. We can identify with our body, feelings, or thoughts; we can identify with images, patterns, roles, and archetypes. (Kornfeld; article in Tricycle.)

The experience of self may be an illusion but without it we would be unable to function and this presents us with a question about the development or preservation of aspects of selfhood. Our experience of continuity allows us to make sense of the world we inhabit and our own internal narrative and it seems that some form of story must be present. In this regard the cognitive scientist Bruce Hood makes an important point by claiming that the brain itself creates narratives and that without them we would be incapable of making sense of the world we live in. Certainly, perceiving of the self as a narrative, or set of narratives is a rich arena for exploration and provides a useful basis for analysing the relationship between the individual self narrative and the collective social narratives. The questions then change. What stories allow us to wake up to our human condition? Which stories allow us to live well? How can we weave stories about our species that lead to better conditions for the many, instead of the few? How do we erect these stories self-consciously so that they do not become new forms of ideological imprisonment? This brings us into the history of sociology, religion, politics and economics: That is to say, those collective efforts throughout history to create tales, forms of collectivity that would respond to the questions concerning how we successfully co-exist and make sense of our lot.
Source: https://posttraditionalbuddhism.com/2016/12/15/identity-formation-and-buddhism-some-issues/

Freedom from inherent bias based on identity

This week, Lorilee led our Sangha discussion based on her current exploration of identity and bias in all types of relationships. She began by playing a brief video illustrating the layers of judgement we place on people and situations.

The video showed unsuspecting couples coming into a movie theater filled with tough-looking biker dudes and filmed their reaction to having to take the two remaining seats right smack in the middle of them; it is about judgement and identity.

Afterwards the discussion challenged us to explore awkwardness and discomfort; to engage with people we consider “others”. Who do we tend to socialize with, and who do you have a tendency not to socialize with? In challenging our inherent bias, it can be helpful to utilize Buddhist teachings about freedom and identity; to be proactive and expand our circle.

We also listened to an excerpt from Jack Kornfield’s talk at Spirit Rock entitled “Who Am I?”


Compassion, Pain, and an Open Heart

Mike Blouin led our reflections this past Sunday, aided by a talk by Michele Macdonald, with whom he attended retreat this May. 

Difficulties such as pain and overwhelm can prompt in us a response of compassion rather than evasion, if we have come to understand the spirit of Kwan Yin (Guanyin), the buddhist patron of mercy.

The talk itself cannot be posted because it was available for retreatants only, but here are a few excerpts.

Excerpts from Michelle McDonald talk (from 5/25 – 6/2 retreat at IMS)

“So we’ve been offering different ways to understand what mindfulness is, which is including mindfulness of compassion. And one definition we gave, which is from Suzuki Roshi, in the book Beginner’s Mind, is “soft readiness”. And soft readiness is implying that anything can happen. And we tend to not quite get that….that the message of mindfulness if that you’re developing a mind strong enough to be with anything that happens. The more that you’re connected with that truth that anything can happen, the safer you are, the more protected you are…the more disconnected you are from that truth, the more we will tend to think that the appearance of pain is our fault, or someone else’s fault.”

“And when something unpleasant appears….we’re caught in believing we can control it. We believe we can push it away, or with pleasure passing, we believe we can hold on. And the Buddha said that the willingness to go through seeing this is what causes the end of suffering.

“When we want something, we tend to get caught up in the object of the wanting…when we’re caught up in the object, we are completely disconnected from reality. None of us want to be objectified and yet we do it a lot. In this practice, it takes even getting remotely protected and quiet to even be interested in this. Because if you pull the projection back from the object, you’re stuck with the pain of wanting. It hurts. Wanting hurts, but it’s totally okay. Wanting is okay, aversion is okay. It’s just being caught in it, being imprisoned by it, and then it’s acting on it…acting on this disconnection from reality that causes so much suffering. There’s the object of the fear, which has nothing to do with anything, and then the fear, which is the pain in the heart.

“This is a question and answer with a teacher named Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, from the book I Am That. The question is: but pain is not acceptable. And he answered: why not? Did you ever try? Do try, and you will find in pain a joy that pleasure cannot yield, for the simple reason that acceptance of pain takes you much deeper than pleasure does. The personal self by its very nature is constantly pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain. The ending of this pattern is the ending of the self.

“If you’re having doubt, then just stop. It is one of the few times I will encourage someone to reflect back. The degree of doubt will be dependent on how painful something was, and how overwhelmed we got by it. Because if we’re not able to be mindful of pain, we tend to think that when we are overwhelmed by it, that it’s all our fault, even the appearance of pain is all our fault.”

“The Buddha described the proximate cause for the appearance of compassion, which is that pleasant feeling of caring about pain – the awareness is pleasant because it’s caring for pain – he said that the proximate cause for the appearance of compassion is the overwhelm we feel in the face of suffering. We tend to think of the helplessness we feel in the face of suffering, our own…that helplessness or the overwhelm, he said, is how compassion can arise.”

The Importance of Nothing

This week, Zac led our Sangha examining the concept of “nothing to do”.

He played a talk by Gil Fronsdal, available here:


Here are some of Zac’s other notes:

Saṁyutta Nikāya 12:15:
That things exist, O Kaccayana, is one extreme of view. That things do not exist is another. Rejecting both these extremes, the Tathagata points out the Dhamma via the middle.

Buddha is your mind
And the Way goes nowhere.
Don’t look for anything but this.
If you point your cart north
When you want to go south,
How will you arrive?
– Ryokan (1758–1831)

Do Nothing | Shinzen (see p. 40 in Five Ways)

Basic Instructions:
Let whatever happens, happen.
Whenever you’re aware of an intention to control your attention, drop that intention.

Free and Easy

A Spontaneous Vajra Song
-By Venerable Lama Gendun Rinpoche
from: https://www.peterrussell.com/Odds/Gendun.php

Happiness can not be found
through great effort and willpower,
but is already present,
in open relaxation and letting go.

Don’t strain yourself,
there is nothing to do or undo.
Whatever momentarily arises
in the body-mind
has no real importance at all,
has little reality whatsoever.
Why identify with,
and become attached to it,
passing judgment upon it and ourselves?

Far better to simply
let the entire game happen on its own,
springing up and falling back like waves
without changing or manipulating anything
and notice how everything vanishes and reappears, magically,
again and again, time without end.

Only our searching for happiness
prevents us from seeing it.
It’s like a vivid rainbow which you pursue
without ever catching,
or a dog chasing its own tail.

Although peace and happiness
do not exist as an actual thing or place,
it is always available
and accompanies you every instant.

Don’t believe in the reality of good and bad experiences;
they are like today’s ephemeral weather,
like rainbows in the sky.

Wanting to grasp the ungraspable,
you exhaust yourself in vain.
As soon as you open and relax
this tight fist of grasping,
infinite space is there –
open, inviting and comfortable.

Make use of this spaciousness,
this freedom and natural ease.
Don’t search any further
looking for the great awakened elephant,
who is already resting quietly at home
in front of your own hearth.

Nothing to do or undo,
nothing to force,
nothing to want,
and nothing missing –

Emaho! Marvelous!
Everything happens by itself.

“Simple Gifts”
written by Elder Joseph while he was at the Shaker community in Alfred, Maine.

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.

Simple Gifts – Yo-Yo Ma and Alison Krauss

Original Face

This week, Payton took a different look at the concept of not-self which we have been discussing by considering the classic Zen koan, “Original Face”. It is first presented in the Platform Sutta,

This very moment, before thinking good or bad, show me your original face.

Payton began with excerpts from a talk by Max Erdstein, available here:


The talk explored the meaning of a poem by Dogen with the same title:

Spring, Flowers
Summer, the Cuckoos
Autumn, the Moon
Winter, Snow that does not melt
Each season, pure and upright
– Dogen, “Original Face”

Then Payton played excerpts from a talk by Stephen Batchelor, available here:


Stephen looks at the Koan from a more practical perspective, pointing out that in the original version of the Four Noble Truths, the words “noble truths” were not present, leaving just “The Four”. Or, as the talk suggests, “The Four Noble Tasks”.

Further Reading

This is also the essence of Dogen’s koan, “Why is practice necessary if we are already innately enlightened?” He had his reasons for asking it that way, and I had my reasons for asking it my way, but it all boils down to that one thing – we’re already there, and yet practice is necessary. He solved it when he realized that practice is how we express it.

Examine your own life and look deeply at the questions and conflicts that bug you – the ones that really get you. Look at them very carefully. Then clear away irritation and opinion – “I don’t like this,” “That shouldn’t be” – let all that drop away. This doesn’t mean you surrender to what you think is wrong, but you sit still with it and drop all the extra baggage. Be very still and let the underlying question arise. Then you sit still with that until you come to the one wordless question. The answer to that cannot be put into words, you simply open to it. Just like you can’t tell a paraplegic how to accept his situation – but someone can demonstrate it. That’s what it’s like.

Transcript of a Dharma Talk by Kyogen Carlson: https://dharma-rain.org/personal-koans/

Somatic Meditation

Last week our focus was on Anatta/non-self. This week Joey built on that topic, drawing from a tradition of somatic meditation developed by Reggie Ray and articulated in a dharma talk by Adam Baraz. The talk includes exercises in somatic meditation that allow for a sense of expansion and spaciousness beyond the tight ‘selfing’ many of us get caught in.

Adam’s talk (labeled with his father’s name) is here:


The books which Joey read from are:

Reginald Ray, PhD. Touching Enligthenment: Finding Realization in the Body. pp. 198; 223-226, 237-238.

Will Johnson. The Posture of Meditation. p. 17-18.

And here is the poem that was read:

Free & Easy by Lama Gendun:

Happiness cannot be found through great effort and willpower
But is already present in open relaxation and letting go.
Wanting to grasp the ungraspable, you exhaust yourself in vain.
As soon as you open and relax this tight fist of grasping
Infinite space is there: open, inviting and comfortable.
Make use of this spaciousness, this freedom, this natural ease.
Don’t search any further, looking for the great awakened elephant
who is already resting quietly at home in front of your own hearth.

Finally, here is an additional resource on Somatic Meditation: