Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Noel -- Metta wishes for the season

Here I am sharing the words of our wonderful Venerable Ayya Tathaaloka and the wishes of all the bhikkhunis of Aranya Bodhi and Dhammadharini Vihara in California.

May we give rise to all that is wholesome, healthy, helpful, beneficial, peaceful, benign, sublime and liberating. 
May all else fall away and arise no more.
As we move into the season of increasing light, may we know the increase of good qualities in our lives, in our hearts.

May our applied and directed thoughts, internal and externally directed be beneficial, healthy, helpful, wholesome, peaceful and sublime.
May we care well for whatever lies before us,
and for where we are right now.
In each step.
In moments of immanence,
in present moment awareness,
clearly perceptive,
knowing the amazing gift 
and the amazing opportunity 
in what we are meeting here and now.

And may we be a support for one another in this Way,
to all as for ourselves.

May we rejoice, with joy and gladness in our hearts
knowing the good this is, 
for ourselves
and for one another.
on this peaceful and silent night,
all calm, hearts bright,
with much metta ~

Ayya Tathaaloka
with Ayya Sobhana, Ayya Suvijjana and Ayya Nimmala

at Dhammadharini Vihara

Thursday, December 12, 2013


Since my return from California in September, my meditation has been all but non-existent, my ability to focus and concentrate and even my interest in attempting meditation has just not been there. As the cold weather has closed in I've gravitated more and more to my inner 'need' to bake and gobble up the final product in a way that can only be categorized as greed. There's no other way to look at it, whether one has Buddhist tendencies or not. Eating a whole small chocolate cake, for example, gobbling it all up in one sitting when one is not hungry and when one knows the body will react in a negative way afterwards, is greed. For me, it's definitely a craving that's always with me, one that I'm sometimes able to ignore, one that lately I've simply indulged. This is just one instance of late where craving around food has manifested itself in my life, and where I haven't had the discipline to say no.

This morning I logged on to the Bhavana web site and saw a link to an article by Bhante Gunaratana on the subject of Morality, in response to a question. Now, none of this is new to me. Morality is one of the basics of our practice and for the most part, I've developed what I think is pretty good morality, in the Buddhist sense.  The big exception for me is what he calls addictive behavior, when it comes to unnecessary food and I've long been aware of this. It's what we consider an unwholesome action.

In response to the question regarding Morality, Bhante G suggests substituting the word 'Discipline' for the word 'Morality', and somehow this helped me to put everything into a new and better perspective. Yes, I already knew I wasn't disciplined in this regard, and knew I wasn't even trying to be disciplined, but sometimes seeing or hearing the words at just the right time can make all the difference in how we react. Today must have been just the right time for me, because I got it.

I'm not going to reprint the entire article -- follow the link if you wish to read it -- but I will quote a few things that seemed to resonate with me.

"And, yes, it is correct to say that practicing sila—acting with discipline and restraint in daily life—lays an essential foundation for a good meditation practice.

"When we don’t have sufficient discipline, our practice will be difficult. Mindfulness may then be hard to attain or to sustain. We must have good discipline to be mindful."

He likens Sila (Morality) to sealing a house so the house has a good foundation that is firm and steady.  "Sila is like that when it comes to meditation. It’s the foundation. Through restraint, through wholesome actions and decisions made in our daily lives, we lay this foundation.

"If we don’t lay a good foundation for meditation, we can directly see the results in our practice. You may be meditating regularly, sitting a half-hour or an hour. All of a sudden one day, you can’t even sit for 10 minutes. Your mind is agitated, you’re constantly distracted, you simply can’t focus. Something you have done in your life—becoming enraged with someone, sexual misconduct, addictive behavior of all sorts or some other unwholesome action of body, speech or mind—has deeply registered in your subconscious mind. It keeps coming back up, making you feel remorseful, guilty, restless, full of worries. You just can’t sit!"  Boy, do I know this one well!

He says we can't wait until we are moral saints to begin meditation. "Whatever our moral situation, we must begin. We make the commitment to root out unwholesome behavior and to encourage wholesome habits in our lives." If we fail, he says, "If you do, then learn from those consequences. Feel the heaviness in your mind and in your life. Our goal is to make the mind light, to make our life light. After all, we are seeking to attain en-light-enment, aren’t we?"

He stresses that these are not commandments.  Sila is something we undertake on our own, by choice.  "If you don’t make the effort, if you commit some unwholesome behavior, you reap the consequences and it affects your meditation practice. If you do make the effort, you’ll also see the positive consequences—it’s very cause and effect. We practice sila for own self-confidence and to overcome our weaknesses. So, sila is a way of behaving, that we ourselves choose. We undertake it by ourselves for the sake of a steady state of mind, for the sake of progress in our practice. Good sila strengthens our courage and ability. It gives support to our meditation practice and provides psychological strength. It is this foundation that is absolutely necessary to gain concentration."

Discipline is the word of the day for me. I've already begun, with breakfast. Delicious, sufficient in quantity, but about half what I'd normally prepare and eat ravenously, from pure pleasure at the taste, beyond what is needed for sustenance. Yes, as I sit here writing I could use another serving -- but only from desire, not from hunger. I had great discipline in the forest, partly because little was available and partly because the monastic life simply calls for discipline in all things.

Aside from discipline about excessive and unneeded food, I also need discipline around exercise and more importantly, around meditation. The latter will be taken care of in a few days as I begin a retreat, but I need to exercise that same discipline on a daily basis, right here at  home. This is how wisdom develops -- actually, all three of the basics taught by the Buddha (Morality, Wisdom and Concentration) rely upon one another for support and growth, but Morality is the foundation. And I need to get back to it.

Sunday, November 24, 2013


For most of this past year I have been learning, re-learning, practicing and yes, struggling with, the process of Letting Go.  As stated in the linked blogpost, I've been letting go in smaller ways for years. This year was time to tackle letting go in big ways, because my current life path simply requires doing so. I don't think it's possible to effect a major change in one's life without letting go of the outcome, the fears, worries and doubts. At least it isn't for me, although that may merely be a factor of age and meager finances since it wasn't an issue in my younger years, when I'd up and move or change careers at the drop of a hat.

That's not to say I haven't found success, because I have let go of countless attachments and fears and such. But, I'm finding that the process of letting go is very much akin to (even related to) the process of of finding and eliminating Greed. Both are insidious -- as that linked blogpost points out, I have clearly and fully let go of lots of greed, both of the major and minor type. The same can be said of letting go of attachments and emotions. And yet, every time I feel I've made wonderful progress with either, I'll discover new and different ways that greed is manifesting itself, or that I'm holding on to an attachment or outcome in perhaps a different way. Thankfully, for the most part these are minor, particularly with greed. Letting go is still harder and in more major ways, and keeps surfacing again and again. Clearly, I'm not there yet.

While fear is part of what I'm letting go, it's interesting to me in that fear has never been a real part of my life. I've never hesitated to make major changes and live with the consequences. Mostly, the consequences were of a pleasant nature. Often, they effected major life changes of a kind that needed to be made. For example, it's amazing what one can learn about oneself during a two-month solo bicycle trip in the Colorado Rockies. Camping out every night, often in severe thunderstorms, preparing meals over a tiny camp stove, flat tires, exhaustion, struggling up steep Continental Divide passes or up a trail to the top of a fourteener can really tell you what you're made of -- and what you want to be made of.

The absence of physical fear did not, however, alleviate the deep inner fears that created a painfully shy child, teenager and adult. Much of the shyness eased, at least on the surface, but many of those deep fears remain and that's what I'm struggling with as much as I'm struggling with letting go of attachment to outcome. With letting go of control, if you will.

A few weeks ago, after writing the previous post here, I began a 28-day experiment with the idea of simply trusting that the perfect place/situation for me is out there and that it will be revealed in the proper time. Doing this gradually took the pressure -- internal pressure -- off the whole process of figuring out what to do, where to go. The result? Contentment.

That's a big deal. Many times I've found myself sitting on my sofa reading, for example, and realized that I was totally and completely content with that perfect moment and life in general. It continues, and expands daily -- and certainly not because life is what we'd think of as particularly perfect. I'm living in a house with no hot water, so how perfect could it be? But it feels perfect because I've accepted the reality of the moment -- from the lack of hot water to letting go of fretting about 'where to go and what to do'.  This is what's happening and since I can't change it, let it go.  Like everything else, this reality will change, for better or worse, so why grasp at it? Why get stuck on it? Why let it bother you? That's what I'm told enlightenment -- full enlightenment -- is all about. Arahants (fully enlightened ones) have aches and pains and frustrations and everything the rest of us have -- the difference is that it doesn't bother them. That's the goal.

No decisions about my future, but then, none are required yet. I'm here until spring and have confidence that the answer will be revealed by then. I'm certainly seeing things more clearly about all of the previous options, and have sent a letter of inquiry into yet another possibility. In the meantime, I continue to watch thoughts and insights arise and become clear, and letting this contentment soak as fully and deeply into the heart/mind as possible.

 On the other hand, I'm finding a bit of greed around baked goodies -- something I fight every winter because baking simply seems like the thing to do in cold weather, so while life is good I am far from perfect.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Saba ka mangala -- May all be happy

Shri Satya Narayan Goenka, more commonly known as S.N. Goenka or, among his students, Goenkaji, died on September 29, just over a month ago. I count myself among the students, as the very first Buddhist retreat I ever attended was one taught by him (electronically) at Dhamma Kunja in Washington State in February of 2005. It was the hardest thing I've ever done -- mentally, emotionally, and physically, but I was and remain utterly glad that I stuck it out, despite wanting to leave every day. And, although I do not practice the exact technique of meditation he teaches, it's safe to say that I continue to feel that it gave me the basics, which led to my desire to continue as a student of Vipassana and Theravadin Buddhism in general. For this, I will always be grateful.

Yesterday I received an email from the guiding Vipassana group, with a link to a lengthy newsletter devoted to this wonderful man. I wish I could share the link, but the site is password protected and while everyone who has ever completed a 10-day course anywhere in the world knows the login, we are asked not to divulge it, and I honor that request. I found it truly worthwhile to read.

Still, although I can't share the entire newsletter, I will share the following portion:

It was late afternoon of a long day toward the end of August 2000. In the United Nations General Assembly Hall in New York, delegates to the Millennium World Peace Summit were weary and a little jaded. This was the first global gathering of religious and spiritual leaders at the UN, and it had descended into acrimony. Far from finding common ground, the delegates had sharply differed over the question of conversion. Some delegates were highly critical of the practice; others representing some of the leading religions rejected those views. Over the years, the hall had often been the setting for this sort of wrangle involving politicians; it was disappointing to see spiritual leaders doing no better.

To close the session, a lesser-known figure made his way to the podium, helped by an assistant. His silver hair gleamed; he wore a smartly tailored Indian suit. Carefully he paid respects and smilingly surveyed the crowd. Then he started speaking, and within seconds he had caught the attention of the assembled dignitaries.

“Religion is religion only when it unites,” he said. “Religion is no religion when it divides. Religion is not for dividing people. It is for uniting people.”

“So much has been said for and against conversion. I am for conversion, not against it. But conversion not from one organized religion to another organized religion—no. Conversion from misery to happiness. Conversion from bondage to liberation. Conversion from cruelty to compassion. That is the conversion needed today.”

“If I have an agitated mind full of anger, hatred, ill will and animosity, how can I give peace to the world? “Therefore all the sages and saints and seers of the world have said, ‘Know thyself.’ Not merely at the intellectual, emotional or devotional level, but at the actual level. When you know the truth about yourself at the experiential level, many of the problems get solved. You start understanding the universal law of nature or God, which is applicable to one and all.
“When I observe myself and find that I am generating anger, ill will or animosity, I realize that I am the first victim of the hatred or animosity I am generating within myself. Only afterwards do I start harming others. And if I am free from these negativities, nature or God Almighty starts rewarding me: I feel so peaceful.

“Whether I call myself a Hindu or a Muslim or a Christian or a Jain, it makes no difference: a human being is a human being. Human mind is human mind. Conversion should be from impurity of the mind to purity of the mind. This is the real conversion that is necessary—nothing else.”

“Every religion has the wholesome core of love, compassion and good will. The outer shell differs, but give importance to the inner essence and there will be no quarrel. Don’t condemn anything, give importance to the essence of every religion and there will be real peace and harmony.”

The ruler referred to was the great Emperor Ashoka of India, who had issued the message—the world’s first call for religious tolerance—more than two millennia before. And the messenger was a man who always regarded Ashoka as a hero and had devoted his life to teaching a way to inner peace: Satya Narayan Goenka.

Saba ka mangala -- may all be happy -- are the last words heard from Goenkaji at the end of every 10-day course. None of his students are ever likely to forget it. I certainly haven't -- in fact, as he left the hall, chanting this, I wanted to cry because I knew it was over and it was time to return to 'real' life.

Sunday, September 29, 2013


Have you ever had a word stick in your mind and refuse to leave? Come to your attention again and again until you finally had to sit up and take notice? I have to admit, it's a first for me. I've had plenty of songs stuck in my head -- maddeningly so in early meditation retreats where the mind would latch onto anything it could find in order to avoid actually being exposed.

This word -- transmogrify -- stuck in my head all morning. Somehow, I had a vague sense of what it meant -- and tried vaguely to remember where it had entered my life in the past, wondered why it was suddenly coming to the fore so strongly. Finally, I googled the word to get the meaning: one meaning was to change or alter greatly. One I like better, now that I've continued to look at this word as it continues to sit and stick in my mind, is "transform, especially in a surprising or magical manner."

Once I was certain of the meaning -- and my earlier sense that it meant 'change' was surprisingly correct -- I began to look back and see where it entered my life. I still don't have the answer to that question. It's not a word that is generally found in my lexicon and I have no clue why it's sticking around or how I even began to sense that it meant change.

None of that managed to rid the word from my mind. It's still there, strong enough to prompt me to write this. What is it trying to tell me? Is there some 'surprising or magical' change about to enter my life? Is it already underway? What's going on here? Does my mind know something it hasn't told me yet? I'm stumped -- but curious.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Thoughts from the forest

My kuti -- the newest one, named Access
My experience here this summer is diametrically opposed to my experience here last summer. How can that be? I've asked myself that -- and come up with several possible or combination of answers. One is that my expectations this year were based on past knowledge of what I'd find, rather than whatever unknown expectations I had last year. Another (gained from a posting by our Abbess, Ayya Tathaaloka) is that my perceptions are different this year. I'm looking at the forest as home, seeing its value, its ability to heal, its beauty, its peace and silence and being surrounded by nature all as wonderful opportunities, not as an obstacle.

Once again, I packed the wrong clothing for the weather we are experiencing -- I brought warm things based on my cold experience last year. The few cool t-shirts I have see frequent washings, while the heavier things languish on the shelves. And that's never a complaint -- give me warm, sunny, breezy and totally beautiful days anytime, and I will adjust to meet the circumstances.

And that, as I type this, reminds me once again (and again, from reading Ayya Tathaaloka's words recently) that anything life presents us with can be viewed and perceived as an opportunity, rather than an obstacle, if you open your heart-mind to the possibilities. I see nothing here as an obstacle that can't be overcome.

Here on the land -- a fitting illustration.
Switching topics a bit, I want to quote something wonderful that I read a couple of days ago in a book called A Still Forest Pool, the Insight Meditation of Achaan (Ajahn) Chah.  I haven't finished the book because by evening, when I have time to read, my brain is tired and not much of it sticks. But this stuck: "The heart of the path is so simple. No need for long explanations. Give up clinging to love and hate, just rest with things as they are. That is all I do in my own practice."  Never have I read anything that cut so deeply, so quickly and simply to the heart of how we are meant to practice. Although I could never have stated it with such clarity as this, I can say with all honesty that this is where my practice is trending at the time, mostly off the cushion as I go through each day with this intention fully in my mind.

Being here has already developed this ability in me to a much greater degree, and continues to do so daily. Things change here with sometimes startling rapidity.  My options are to sit back by the wayside and grumble (clinging), resist the change in plans, or to just roll with it, which is what I do almost seamlessly now. I sometimes smile at an unexpected change, but don't cling to whatever it was that changed.

Walking down to the creek.

Now, on to fun! We had a wonderful young woman visit for a bit over a day, filled with questions about life here, about the mechanics of ordaining and such. Yesterday before she left Ayya took us for a creek walk (our creek, fittingly named DharmaCreek) that led us to a lovely waterfall -- shown in the above photo. And I mean literally a creek walk -- not walking alongside the creek, but for the most part walking in the creek, scrambling over and around huge boulders, along narrow bits of land alongside a really huge rock, through and around trees and branches, whatever it took to pick a path to the waterfall. To be clear: I love creekwalks! Have enjoyed them in the past -- the long ago past. I expect that the last one was maybe 1993-1995, and I was pleased and surprised that this body would still do it.

The pool again, and the rocks. All so beautiful. The air was warm, the cool water felt so wonderful on my feet. Not only am I a nature girl, I'm also a water girl.

Once here, we talked for awhile then sat in meditation for 20 minutes or so before reversing our course back to the cars. This is just a tiny taste of what is available here, if we (I) but only take advantage of it.

Not a fascinating photo, taken from the waterfall looking back, but it does show the beauty of the creek, the forest, all that surrounds us as we dwell here happily and peacefully. How can this be perceived as unpleasant?

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Buddha's Forgotten Nuns

Today I was made aware of the completion of this new documentary and wanted to share it with all of you that may be interested. I watched it just now, and can report that it is really wonderful -- well produced, beautifully photographed and narrated, and totally non-confrontational with regard to the larger Bhikkhu sangha which stands in the way of Bhikkhuni ordination. There is a small fee ($3.99) to watch, but that seems minor indeed and will hopefully repay expenses for this film and inspire the producers to do more. I was happy to pay it.

Watch the trailer, or the film, here. Some of you may be shocked to learn the state of women monastics within Buddhism, others are already well aware.

I was pleased to see some familiar faces among the various Bhikkhunis interviewed, and I also enjoyed a brief film clip of the first ordination at Aranya Bodhi a few years ago.

My own journey continues Wednesday, when I fly to California for a month's stay at Aranya Bodhi hermitage, in service to the hermitage in general and to Ayya Sobhana (the only monastic left onsite at the moment) in particular.

Please note: Ayya Tathaaloka, Abbess at Aranya Bodhi, has offered some critical commentary on descrepancies in this film of which she has personal knowledge. I'm not sure the link on her comment (below) works, and some of you may not notice the comment, so I will offer the link here for those of you who wish to read her wise words.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013


We talk so much about mindfulness, and I've just returned from a wonderful, but short, retreat at Bhavana taught by Bhante Gunaratana himself (I can die happy now, by the way, since this was way at the top of my bucket list). Mindfulness was mentioned and explained often during the week. But what does it mean in daily life? How do we put it into practice? Fortunately, this is a gift I learned and learned well 7 or 8 years ago, and something I continue to hone. It IS possible to train our minds to be aware all the time -- during all waking hours as we go about our daily lives. Here's an example of some current mindfulness in my life.

Last week at Bhavana I got a nasty insect bite on my thigh. I have no clue what bit me -- I was sitting on the deck of my little kuti reading when it began itching. When I scratched, I could already feel the welt of swelling. Over the next day or so the welt and swelling grew to about a 3-inch diameter spread of angry redness and itchiness, with a little pimple-like center. I kept my eye on it, determined not to say anything or let it impact my retreat. Thankfully, it reached a point where I could tell it wasn't getting worse. Since I've been home the redness and swelling have subsided, leaving that big circle of ugly yellow bruising in its place. Whatever bit me was a nasty little creature.

Then, not long before I left Bhavana, I noticed an itching on my calf -- which has progressed to an angry, itchy cluster of blisters that reek of poison ivy or poison sumac, all of which are rife in those woods. I didn't stray off paths often, but all it takes is once, and there were a couple of times when I might have brushed against something. I'm not usually allergic -- must have been potent.

Both these things have been great objects of mindfulness. Constant companions, bodily sensations to observe. Merely observe with equanimity, without drifting off into either grasping or aversion. Knowing they are impermanent. Trying not to scratch (although in both cases I admit to occasionally scratching the skin surrounding the bite and the blisters). Certainly not letting myself whine and moan and get all caught up in a sense of unpleasantness or reactions around all that itching. It just is. And it will pass.

Life throws us (me, anyway) opportunities of this kind for mindfulness constantly. All we have to do is be aware as they arise, and stay aware until they recede. It just takes training the mind. And if I can do it, anyone can do it. It just takes effort.

Naturally, I learned a great deal more during this retreat and eventually as thoughts reach coherence I'll write about them. But, probably the best moment for me was being asked to help the monks with the Eight Lifetime Precepts ceremony that closed the retreat. When they asked, I was so surprised and honored that my eyes got a little damp. But even then, I understood that I wasn't singled out for any reason other than that the job requires a female and I was the only female on the premises who had already taken these precepts. Normally, a nun would do the honors for the women taking them (Sayalay Susila did the honors for me, two years ago), but this time no nun was available. Another good moment for mindfulness -- no attaching of pride or ego to the selection! Still, I have to say that it was really, really cool to sit up front next to Bhante G and take part in this ceremony.

There were 3 men, 6 women taking the precepts. After bowing to Bhante G, receiving their Pali name and being doused with water by him, each person would move to the side to have a medallion necklace placed around their neck and a string bracelet tied around their wrists. Men moved to Bhante Seelananda, shown here next to Bhante G, the women moved to me, on the woman's side of Bhante G.
All of the people in white in the first couple of rows took the precepts. It's a fun event, filled with laughter and happiness (particularly when Bhante G's aim with the water is especially good!).
The women who took the precepts.
It's really hard to find words for how good this felt, especially for the two women in the group that I had known before this retreat. This woman sat the retreat taught by Sister Susila at Southern Dharma in April.

I was out of my element in some ways, totally aware of Bhante G watching my every move and hoping I was doing everything right, but I know this is a once-in-a-lifetime happening for me, and I enjoyed every moment of it. Many thanks to the resident who used my camera to take these photos.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013


That's what these last nine days have been about, and it was beautiful.

This was nothing like a group retreat, where there is always talking of some kind, where there are always sounds of people moving about, and where there are always people around, period. I had none of that. I had total silence, total stillness -- and that total outer silence and outer stillness led to total inner silence and inner stillness that was a thing of beauty to experience. The only sounds -- outside of the background sounds of the refrigerator or dehumidifier humming, or a fan spinning, or cars and neighbors -- came from the soothing voice and exquisite wisdom of Bhante Gunaratana, three times each and every day.

I made a last-minute decision to use his jhana CD, which I've had for a couple of years, instead of online retreat talks from Sister Susila, and that was a good decision indeed. Essentially, while the discussion and training was for jhana, it was a metta (loving friendliness, or loving kindness) retreat, as he teaches a method of attaining jhana through metta. This -- the metta -- was what influenced me the most. Jhana became secondary. One entire guided meditation was centered on relaxing the body and mind -- so peaceful that after the 30 minutes were over I continued to sit and continue relaxing both body and mind for the rest of the two hours.

All that metta, and all that inner silence eventually pointed to a place inside me where a great big knot of resentment lived. And friends, that resentment was all aimed at myself! Once I saw it, I also clearly saw the source: 70 years accumulation of blame, guilt, remorse, regret for everything I've ever done or said -- and there have been thousands of them -- that I later regretted in one way or another. Once again, I clearly saw the suffering this has caused me over a lifetime. 

The antidote is metta -- to myself and to others, along with compassion for myself and others. If we hold others in metta and compassion, we cannot say or do things we will regret.

And, as Bhante G said in one of his dhamma talks, the way we treat ourselves is most likely the way we will treat others. I've felt a lot of resentment towards other people from time to time. In fact, it's been really easy for some otherwise innocent person to pull that resentment out of me. Now that I'm aware of it, I can stop that. I managed to let go of a lot of that resident self-resentment and replace it with resident self-love and compassion. It will be an ongoing effort to rid myself of all of it.

This was an extraordinary experience for me, and I plan to do one of these each month (although without an electronic teacher, to keep the temptations of the internet away). Clearly, I would make a good hermit! That cave in the Himalayas is sounding better all the time. Too bad it's too cold and too far away. The 'cave' I'm in works just fine.

I realize this is something that many people could not do -- jobs, family and such do not offer the time and silent place for such things in the home. But if you ever have the chance to do it at home or in a remote cabin or even a tent -- do it! You won't be sorry.

Saturday, July 6, 2013


It's ironic that I find so much discontent with my life of relative solitude as it exists, yet seek solitude in a monastic environment somewhere.

There's an old saying of some kind about how often we humans look and look and look all around, far and wide, sometimes for years -- then discover that what we were looking for, what we wanted, was with us all the time.  I've been hearing and gathering little bits of data on that subject in the back of my mind for some time now, and I'm beginning to listen.

Some of the frustration I've found with the various monasteries I've visited has to do with solitude -- or lack thereof. I want a place where I can spend long hours meditating, but none of the monasteries really offers that, although I suppose I could arrange my own schedule in Austin to fit that need. Most, if they have any meditation schedule, offer a morning and evening meditation that are mandatory, but they're short -- generally no longer than an hour. And they include chanting, which I don't care for.

I'm looking for silence, for a peaceful place to just meditate for longer stretches, without having other scheduled activities or responsibilities to think about. In short, I want a retreat environment. In a perfect world there'd be some senior monastic around to offer advice and answer questions that might arise. But I haven't found a way to get both.

Those little thoughts in the back of my mind have been telling me that I have the perfect place right here, if I am willing to use it as such, and if I can find the discipline to do so. With that in mind I've set up an experiment that I hope to begin on Monday: 10 or so days 'on retreat' here in my home. No computer. No radio. I have taken the basic retreat schedule used at Bhavana and will follow that, breaking the 'no computer' rule each day long enough to listen to one of Sayalay Susila's dhamma talks from her 8-day retreat last December. No email, however!

Once I decided that, I needed to literally get my house in order. Neatness and cleanliness are the rule in any monastic environment, and necessary for the attainment of peace. I also had to get in a good supply of food, things that are easy to prepare for myself each day. Aside from general cleaning and neatening, the most necessary and wonderful thing I did was reinstate the beautiful meditation room I spent months re-doing, and which I abandoned over the winter due to cost of heat and then gave in to using it for staging Goodwill donations, storing empty boxes, and even curing garlic from the garden. It was a mess. Now, it's a meditation room again, as beautiful, calming and peaceful as ever. And as always, merely walking into or through the room brings instant calm and peace to me. I closed the reed blinds for the sake of photography, but they are generally open to the peaceful greenery outside.

 Solitude is happiness for one who is content, who has
heard the Dhamma and clearly sees.

There are a few more details to take care of: returning library books, some last-minute shopping and laundry, general straightening of the desk that won't be used, and hoping the rain stops long enough for my neighbor to cut my grass tomorrow so I won't be disturbed during my 'retreat'. I'll have meal, work and rest periods just as at Bhavana -- the rest is meditation.

Will I have the determination and discipline to make this work? I'll let you know.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Craving, desire and greed

Greed, craving and desire are at the heart of the Buddha's teaching in the Four Noble Truths: the first is the truth of suffering, the dissatisfaction or unhappiness we inevitably feel in our lives. The second truth is the origin of suffering, which is our own undisciplined grasping mind. Third is cessation, the truth that by eliminating desire and craving it is possible to end our suffering. Fourth is the noble eightfold path, which is the way to end suffering.

That greed, or desire, is also an insidious thing in Buddhist practice -- at least in my experience. On the other hand, if it were easy to spot and end we wouldn't suffer in the first place.

We think we know what greed is, and on the most basic level, we do. Recognizing the many ways greed inserts itself into our thoughts and actions, however, is a great deal more difficult. Years ago when I first began my walk down this path I thought I had a pretty good handle on greed and felt that I was basically greed-free. It's humbling to see and admit just how wrong I was and continue to be on this subject!

With that in mind I want to relate an experience I had a couple of years ago (January 31, 2011 to be exact).

I don't know how other people's minds work with regard to insights, but with me, big insights rarely happen all at once. Instead, over a period of time (months or years, even) I get a series of hunches, feelings, minor insights that float around unconnected in the back of my mind until something pulls all these scraps together into a cohesive whole. Much of the time, these bits of data center around things that aren't particularly flattering to me, meaning I really don't want to sit and look at them. Eventually, I'm driven to do so. That's what happened with this experience.

I'd had insights and hunches and feelings over a period of years (from even before I began meditating) regarding one particular subject, didn't know how to connect them but knew they were connected and important. I sat on my cushion with the intent of solving this mystery.  I asked, "What am I supposed to learn from this? What does it mean? What am I supposed to be seeing that I'm not seeing?". After only a few moments, something spectacular happened that totally changed my life.

It was the proverbial 'light bulb' moment, complete with bright light and an accompanying strong sensation that totally filled my mind and body. My entire life flashed across my mind's eye in moments, showing how I'd craved more and more and more -- more than what I had or could ever expect to have sometimes -- since I was a small child and right up to that current moment when I was obsessing over finding a way to redo my kitchen even though I couldn't realistically afford to do so. More importantly, I clearly saw how this ongoing, deep craving for more had brought a lifetime of suffering along with it

This realization was so strong that at that very moment I said, no more. No more of this craving and no more of the suffering that goes with it. It stops now. This giving up or letting go of craving seemed to trigger an even greater response -- deepened and multiplied the existing light and sensations and thrust me into an overwhelming experience that was almost other-worldly. I sat wrapped up in the wonder of it all for awhile, observing what was happening, the feelings (physical and mental) and so much more. Eventually, it faded and eventually I got off the cushion and went about life -- but with a permanently changed mindset. Bells, whistles and dramatics aside, it was a momentous experience with huge consequences to my practice and progress along the path.

Old habit patterns surfaced in my mind for a few days, but they were quickly recognized and immediately refuted, then simply disappeared. For a long time I hesitated anytime I had a thought to buy something. Is this necessary? Is it something I want or something I need? No rationalizations about 'need' allowed, either. Soon, it simply became a new MO for me. I've learned to make do with less, use what I have, and be content with all of it. In fact, I've reached a point where I don't want 90% of the 'stuff' I own and would happily be rid of it if I could find a way to live that didn't require furniture and other 'necessities' of life. A cave in the Himalayas has great appeal.

Many other changes followed this experience, but the main event was recognizing a greed that was such a huge part of my life that I could not see it as greed. It had simply always been there.

I've seen other, smaller sources and types of greed since this experience, but basically I felt that I was 'through' with greed and suffering (although I admit to a craving for chocolate and other sweets that sometimes gets the better of me). How wrong I was!

For awhile now I've been once more gathering scraps of data, flashes, small insights, whatever you want to call them in the back of my mind. I'm seeing other ways that 'wanting more' manifests it's ugly head in insidious ways (and again, has done so for my entire life). I wrote about dissatisfaction awhile back in Just say 'yes". I expect this will all come to a head one of these days when they coalesce enough to drive me to the cushion to examine them.

So far, I've successfully avoided that, but I know from experience that eventually the need will become strong enough that it can't be avoided.  When it does, I'll let you know.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Back to square one

When I began this journey a few months back I wanted -- needed -- to be open to the process. Some doors would open, others would close, and the key was to accept whatever happened -- whether internal or external.

From mid-April until about a week ago, I was busily running hither and yon from one Buddhist location to another. As written previously, after the two extraordinary retreats in April I was left with a sense that everything inside had exploded and needed to resettle into some new pattern. Because of previous commitments in May and June, I never really had a chance to let that fully happen. The two scheduled monastery visits only compounded the confusion. I haven't written about either of these because nothing seemed willing or able to settle into anything coherent enough to write.  And truthfully, it still hasn't. Whether or not this post will be coherent remains to be seen, but I finally feel able to begin.

The Austin monastery was, as expected, extraordinary, even in the midst of construction noise and chaos. In a brief conversation with the contractor, he referred to it as a 'five-star monastery', and I have to agree. It's beautiful, and it's luxurious. My kuti was made of stone, with lots of windows, a walk-in closet with built-in drawers, a full bath with double shower, a big corner desk/shelving combo, a small refrigerator, a hot-water dispenser, plus electricity, wireless internet and heat/AC. None that I've ever had or seen elsewhere had any of these features, other than heat. The pagoda and meditation room are exquisite. Life could be good here and the door is open to me to return and stay if I wish. For reasons I haven't fully explored, I have a good bit of hesitancy and resistance to doing that.

Bhavana was as wonderful as always -- perhaps more so because I was there between retreats, as a visitor, and could envision and experience the life of a resident (and of course, that was the point). From past visits, and from speaking with a couple of people I know who have been long-term residents there in the past, I had doubts in the back of my mind going in that I would be physically able to handle the amount/kind of work required without exhaustion. One of these past residents told me 'the residents do all the work there', another told me 'after a day of work I was so tired I couldn't meditate in the evening'. So I was prepared for this -- and in that respect, not disappointed. Being me, I didn't really want to accept this -- thought that with time my body would adjust. On my last day I had a long talk with Bhante G and he said that we must always face reality in these things, and the reality is that they need 'strong, young bodies', particularly in the winter. He was open to me being a resident in the summer, but even then, my experience is that the work is tiring. So, while that door is not totally closed for me, it certainly is closed for any long-term residency. And I'm OK with that.

I found that I experienced similar reactions upon return from each visit -- fatigue (and I think, some deep inner disappointment/discouragement that I haven't fully explored) that was all-encompassing. In each case, I slept seemingly around the clock for a week or more, then emerged into whatever passes for normal.  Today is the first day of that emergence from the Bhavana visit.The good news in this is that even through the fatigue and laziness of these two experiences, my inner work continued (whether I wanted it to or not), and my long-established habit of inner awareness caught all the nuances of what was popping up in my mind. I've seen hints of things I don't necessarily want to -- but of course need to -- explore more deeply. Such explorations take more energy than I have yet, but eventually I will be driven to actually sit on my cushion and take a hard look. When my mind is ready for that, it'll happen.

The one thing I have learned is that my fantasy of being homeless, driving hither and yon across country, down into Mexico and back up here to spend time in various monasteries, is just not reality for me because I simply don't have the energy for it. I can drive long days (12 hours coming home from Bhavana), but even shorter days with overnight stops are tiring. I can't begin to envision doing this intentionally day after day, year-round. Even if there are periods of 6-months between trips. As Bhante G said, we must face reality in these things, and the reality for me is that my body is simply too old for such things. Not everyone at 70 is this 'old', and not everyone at 70 is this 'young', but this is clearly something I cannot do.

So -- back to square one. What do I do? Two monasteries are open to me, but I'm as yet not comfortable with long-term residency at either. There are compelling reasons to not stay where I am (as well as compelling reasons to do just that).

What I've decided for now is to just sit tight until all this settles down before making any decisions. I'm still open to any doors that open to me, but fortunately there's no need to rush into anything.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Cosmic explosions of the mind

Springtime at Southern Dharma, a few days ago
This is one of those times where I literally don't know where to begin. There is so much I want to say, but where to begin? It doesn't help that my mind is still reeling a bit from having attended two intense retreats with a week-long break between the two. In all honesty, I can't say that I had fully assimilated the first one before it was time to turn around and drive back to Southern Dharma. And I certainly haven't assimilated either at this point -- only a  couple of days after leaving Southern Dharma the second time. When the mind is so fully affected, it feels as if it's almost had a little cosmic explosion and the pieces are settling down again in a different pattern. I'm sure a neurologist could explain it, but that little description is the best I can do.

I can, however, say one thing with full certainty: I am even more fully drawn to living in a monastic setting where I can meditate and learn. The only question now is, which one?  And that answer will need to wait for a couple of months, until I've visited the two remaining locations, and explored options at each.

Ayya Sobhana on the land at Aranya Bodhi

I also know with the deepest part of my heart that I am truly blessed to know these two extraordinary women, to have them as teachers and even as friends.  The two couldn't be more different -- Ayya Sobhana is as American as the proverbial apple pie, outgoing and no-nonsense but kind and patient and certainly well-trained by Bhante Gunaratana at the Bhavana Society. She is filled with wisdom, an excellent teacher with a wonderful sense of humor. Sayalay Susila, on the other hand, is Asian through-and-through. More reserved, quieter, very much an inner person whose years of deep meditation in a Burmese forest monastery under the training of Pa Auk Sayadaw are reflected in her wisdom, her demeanor and bearing. Her knowledge of the Abhidhamma and higher absorptions seems limitless. She is a truly gifted teacher.
Sayalay Susila at Bhavana, August 2011

Between these two retreats and teachers, many of the questions I've posed in previous posts here have been answered. That's no doubt why my mind feels slightly discombobulated. It really has been tossed around and reassembled.

When I mentioned my realization of dissatisfaction and that I had begun accepting and being content with whatever happens (saying 'yes') to Sister Susila, she said that was falling away of ego -- something very much to be desired in Buddhism. It certainly continues to feel good. Much of the time we spent together was spent in catching up, more than discussing the current retreat, which was fine. I really didn't have any questions -- I just needed the time and perhaps her presence to let the mind settle down and attain concentration, which it did. I just wanted to talk to her, ask questions unrelated to the retreat. There was not enough time, of course, but hours and days would not have been enough time. I am overjoyed with the amount of time I did have, and overjoyed that I am able to continue to work with her, help her with transcriptions and editing, and am able to ask her a question anytime there is something I feel is important enough to bother her. She will always answer, although I rarely ask.

From a practice standpoint, I gained deeply from both retreats. However, there were more 'breakthroughs' at the one taught by Ayya Sobhana, the subject of which was handling emotions the Buddha's way. Through her teaching I finally, finally found that spot deep inside where the lack of love and caring for myself dwelt, and the door opened, the answer revealed with a big rush of love and acceptance.  On another evening in deep concentration of an unusual sort my entire body 'disappeared'. I've had several occasions over the past 2 or more years where the inside of the body changed into something entirely different. The first time it was masses of tiny bubbles, moving around and popping. The next two times were last fall at Goenka, with different manifestations. In all three of these cases, I still 'saw' the shape of the body, the form, the skin. Only the inside disappeared. On this recent occasion, however, it all disappeared. Kind of faded away bit by random bit until nothing was left. This sounds strange if you  haven't experienced it, but as Sister Susila has said, the concentrated mind does some very strange things and these experiences are not unusual for those who practice concentration. She wanted to know exactly what I was practicing when that happened, because it was truly relevant.

The third big event to happen at Ayya Sobhana's retreat was the arising of compassion. All at once, in a huge rush, at the moment she told us about the bombing in Boston. I recognized it in the moment for what it was, knowing fully that it was more profound than mere reaction to the news. It has lasted, and grown, and is clearly a double-edged sword. When I saw others at the last retreat through the eyes of compassion, at times I could feel their suffering, and feel it deeply. That really changed how I regarded these people, and made me wonder if I could even handle feeling that much suffering, if I even wanted to feel the suffering of others so deeply. I don't think I have much choice in that matter, so it simply has to be accepted.

Two different teachers. Two different retreat subjects. Mind-boggling results for me in both cases.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Just say 'Yes'

I had an interesting -- and not generally pleasant -- year last year, from a Dhamma practice standpoint. I think these downturns are normal enough and even to be expected, especially when we run up against something we don't want to see.  I ran into that 'something' during the year-end retreat at Bhavana in December of 2011, and lived in a bit of turmoil until just recently. Things are beginning to come together again now, thankfully.

It's so hard to pinpoint exactly when something happens that sends the mind off in some irrevocable direction, but I think last year it happened to me at Aranya Bodhi when another lay resident came in a couple of days after my arrival. Her name was Geri, and she made a real impression on me. She'd quit her job, left her life, at the beginning of the year after some spiritual experience the previous summer. She had 'gone forth' much as monastics do, but without actually becoming a monastic. She was following her own path aimed at helping short-term at various meditation centers or monastic sites. (Sound familiar?) Last I heard, she was traveling with a Buddhist nun to perhaps Nepal. Not surprisingly, her influence was strong when I began thinking of also 'going forth' in my own manner. But what I think made the biggest difference in me was that she said she wanted to spend a year or two or however long just saying yes to everything. Yes to helping however she could. Yes to everything she encountered along the way. Even then, I wondered how that would feel, and her words were never far from my thoughts then or over the ensuing months.

Fast forward a few months and after thinking about Geri's words and much more, I began to realize just how often I said no in my life. How dissatisfied I was with everything I encountered along my way. I don't think I've always been that way -- or, at least not as completely so -- but I've certainly done my share of whining and complaining about things I didn't like in life, from time to time. During the past year or so that's been particularly the case, I found, and particularly (though far from exclusively) at meditation retreats. I didn't like the room, or the roommate. It was too hot, or too cold. Too many stairs to climb. I didn't like the bathroom arrangements. Or the food. Or whatever. And I didn't like much around here either, for that matter.

So, I sat with that realization for awhile, ugly as it was and as much as I didn't like facing the truth, then decided that I, like Geri, would start saying yes to everything. Every tiny little thing that came up in daily life. At first, old habit patterns continued to arise, but I was on the lookout for them and quickly turned dissatisfaction (no) to satisfaction (yes). Soon, the new patterns were firmly in place and now it's become automatic. And I can't tell you how much happier I am in general as a result.

The real test came last week, with the driving, the retreat center, the retreat itself. All of these are things that in the past would have bristled with opportunities for dissatisfaction, but with the new change in attitude, those same opportunities consciously became opportunities for satisfaction. I saw it daily, multiple times daily, and was always glad to see the yes reaction come up, each and every time. It was a form of acceptance for whatever was happening in that moment.

I'm not a Buddhist scholar, certainly, but it seems to me that dissatisfaction is a subtle form of greed -- wanting something to be different from what it is. Every time I think I've conquered greed, I find a new and different nuance, such as this dissatisfaction. I'm pretty sure this particular one is cured -- I like saying yes, and it makes the lives of people I encounter much better, too.

I have a feeling that this new acceptance has blossomed in 'woo-woo' (karmic) spiritual ways, too. When I returned, I found that doors have opened -- in Austin for May, at Bhavana for June, and at of course always (and with much gratitude) at Aranya Bodhi anytime I wish to join them. For now, that's enough. I'll go through the first two doors, then see what happens next. The pull to Aranya Bodhi is stronger than ever, but....only time will tell. As Ayya Sobhana so wisely counseled, I need to decide where I can best learn and grow in the Dhamma, and that may not necessarily be the fanciest, or the one with the most famous teacher. But that's all for the future. For now, I'm getting ready to return to Southern Dharma in a couple of days for a retreat with Sayalay Susila.  And very much looking forward to seeing her again.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Other 1%: Make a Difference

Lotus window at Southern Dharma
Although the retreat at Southern Dharma from which I just returned was likely the best and most personally productive I've ever attended, and while I made many great personal gains in insight and clarity during those 5 days, that's all been somewhat overshadowed by the turbulent issues and events of the past week.

Ayya Sobhana's wisdom is far-reaching, beyond Buddhism and yet connected in that Buddhism teaches peace, non-anger, non-killing and similar moral values that are an integral part of the practice. During her Dhamma talk one evening -- I think this was the night before she broke the news to us about the bombs in Boston, but after she knew it had happened -- she talked about many things including some studies that indicate what percentage of any size group is enough to effect a change in the entire group. That she is able to rattle off these studies and statistics from the top of her head amazed all of us, and she did so seemingly every day.

I can't begin to quote the statistics, or who did the study, or anything else, but what did stick in my head was that a mere 1% of people who inhabit this planet is enough to make a change. Enough to sway away from anger and towards peace. Enough to stop the proliferation of war and violence. Enough to save the planet from environmental destruction, from disease destruction, from war destruction. Only one percent!

Are you part of that one percent? I like to think I am -- all Buddhists are, because all Buddhists practice peace, compassion, non-violence, non-greed, care for the earth and the beings (all living beings, not just humans) who inhabit it. Individually, we are just one voice. Together, we can make up that one percent and maybe grow it beyond one percent.

I'm not talking only to and about Buddhists here. I am well aware that there are many caring, peace-loving, non-violent people in this world who are not Buddhists. I know many personally. This is not a faith-based issue, or a red/blue state political issue. It's not only an American issue. It's a human issue. An earth issue. What kind of world do you want your kids or grandkids to inherit? Are you willing to sit by and watch anger, aggression and fear from far corners of the earth (including right here in Washington DC) lead to nuclear annihilation? Is that what you want for your kids and grandkids? It has to stop. And people who work from a place of love, rather than a place of fear and hate, will be the ones to stop it. Hatred and anger will never work. Hatred engenders more hatred. Love and acceptance engenders more love and acceptance.

Practice peace. Practice non-violence. Step away from greed. Make taking care of our earth's ecosystem part of your life. Give it some importance. Support groups who do all these things. It doesn't take much time or money -- it just takes an intention to make a difference. Practice compassion, as in these words Ayya Sobhana used to lead us in meditation after telling us about Boston. I've shortened it a bit to merely include all beings in one paragraph. She led us in far more detail, but this is really all you need to know. Are you willing to be part of this one percent?

May all beings be freed from anger
May all beings be freed from hatred
May all beings be freed from fear
May all beings take care of themselves, happily

or, another chant she taught us and used daily at lunch:

May the suffering be free from suffering
May the fear-struck be fear from fear
May the grieving be free from grief,
So too may all beings be.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Supporting our bhikkhunis

In Asian countries where Buddhism has existed as an integral part of culture and religion for centuries, a symbiotic relationship exists between lay people and monastics, and it's a system that benefits both. Monastics live under strict rules of renunciation -- not allowed to have or spend money, or accumulate or buy food, for example. Monastics in Asia rely upon lay people for their daily food and the people -- even the poorest of them -- are happy to share what food they have with the monastics. Similarly, other necessities of life are subject to donation from lay people, and the lay people are happy to share.

Buddhism is relatively new in this country, brought to the forefront primarily by a number of western young people who went to Asia to study Buddhism with great masters, in various countries. After years of study, these westerners returned to the USA, established for-profit meditation centers, wrote best-selling books and generally introduced Theravadan Buddhism to the masses. There's nothing wrong with any of that -- I'm personally grateful that they did so because this is how I was first introduced to the practice that changed my life. Without them, I would no doubt still be floundering in despair.

I began to gravitate to pure monastic training and life quite some years ago -- at first this was probably because I could never afford to go to the for-profit centers, but now I prefer monastics for the purity of the teachings. Burmese, Sri Lankan, and some Thai monastics teach the purist form of the Buddha's words. Monasteries, in the ancient tradition of the Buddha, do not charge for teaching the words of the Buddha. As they've done for centuries, they rely upon dana, or generosity, for support. Most monasteries in this country, from what I can see, are part of some large Asian community that understands the symbiotic relationship, knows that without the help of the lay community the monasteries could not exist. The Bhavana Society in West Virginia, for example, was established over 30 years ago through the dana of a large Sri Lankan community in the Washington, DC and Baltimore areas. It's one of the oldest teaching monasteries in this country, and while students who attend retreats offer dana and support, I expect that it's still the Sri Lankan community that provides the largest ongoing support.

In recent years, other such places have been or are in the process of being established around the country.  Some that I'm aware of are located near and supported by specific Asian communities. There are certainly others whose support resources I know nothing about.

Establishing a monastic center staffed with western monastics and supported largely by western lay people is dicey, because we have not grown up with that symbiotic relationship -- the deep knowledge that without our ongoing support, the monastic community cannot exist. The nuns at Aranya Bodhi in California stay uppermost in my mind in this regard. They were blessed with many donations initially, but it was as if in the western mind one donation was enough. There are some who donate regularly, others who donate sporadically, but the need for support is ongoing, each and every month. Because they are developing a new location with new facilities, deep in the redwoods, expenses are greater than basic maintenance. You can read more about them and my visit with them last summer here.

The purpose of this post is to urge any of you who have benefited from Buddhist teachings to consider offering dana to these nuns -- or to any needy monastic community. Even if you haven't had Buddhist teachings and can afford to give money to good purposes, or simply want a tax write-off, I hope you'll consider donating. A regular monthly donation in whatever amount you can afford is best for their purposes -- but one-time donations are equally welcome. I want to see these nuns succeed in their goal, which is to provide a place for Theravadan Buddhist nuns to dwell, be ordained and teach, and for lay women to dwell and serve and learn. The abbess and prioress both have many years of excellent practice behind them, both are wise and gifted teachers with much to impart to the rest of  us. If you can help, please visit the Dhammadharini donations page and choose whatever method you prefer. I personally prefer not to use Network for Good because of the rather steep fees they charge. Other avenues ensure that every cent you donate goes directly to the Hermitage.

There's an extra, added benefit to such dana, too.  I know from personal experience that when you give to others from your heart, you also feel better. Everybody benefits.

May you have all good blessings for your generosity.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Letting go

The process of letting go is so difficult for most of us -- and yet so very necessary if we want to move forward. I'm often reminded of the Buddha's words on this.

Let go of the past, let go of the future, let go of the present, and cross over to the farther shore of existence.
With mind wholly liberated,
you shall come no more to birth and death.

Dhammapada 24.348

Simple words, but like so many of the Buddha's simple words, far from easy to do -- yet completely possible to do. The Buddha also said somewhere that he would never ask us to do what is not possible, to do what he himself had not done. The degree of difficulty in these things, I believe, has to do with one's own individual life circumstance -- karma, if you will.

Over the years I've let go of countless things -- mostly thoughts and perceptions and ideas that left me mired in mud, unable to move forward, and countless long-held emotions and sorrows and resentments. I do have a tendency to obsess over things from time to time -- perhaps regrets over past actions, or replaying/rewriting past conversations, for example. I give equal obsession time to future plans and conversations and worrying about whatever's going on in the present. Oddly enough, it seems that these are the things that most people think about when they're sitting in meditation and can't concentrate their minds. Somehow I found that fact to be comforting when I first heard it, years ago. It's always good to know that I'm not alone in my craziness.

Despite all the past practice, I keep needing to be reminded that letting go -- regardless of the situation -- is best and easiest in the long run. What we're letting go of, of course, is attachment to a person, place, thing, idea, emotions and feelings and so on. It's the attachment, the craving and desire for that person, place, thing, idea, emotion or feeling that makes letting go difficult and keeps us in the round of suffering.

I make good use of letting go daily in small situations, but lately, I've had good opportunity to put it into practice in more major situations once again. When I first let go of the fear of 'going forward' into intentional homelessness, I had a couple of specific ideas about where I'd go and what I'd do -- for me, that was necessary in order to feel a level of comfort with the process. Without realizing it, I became attached to those ideas, despite wanting to be free with the process -- to 'go with the flow', so to speak.

Last week, I found myself all wrapped up in fear about this. Full of what if's. What if the monastery in Austin doesn't invite me to visit at all, and even if they invite me to visit, what if they don't invite me to spend time as a resident there? Oh dear, oh dear. What will I do then? I can't live in Mexico year-round! What if I end up not being accepted at any monastery as a resident? What if none of them wants me? You get the picture. A whole roiling wave of 'what ifs' that stayed with me for a few days.

Fortunately, through meditation I realized that I needed to simply let go of trying to control what the monasteries will or will not do. I also opted to look more closely at monasteries other than the one in Austin, and that flowed into simply letting go completely.  Instead of worrying and trying to control the situation, I'll wait and see what doors open -- and close -- first, and go from there. That left me in a good state of peace about the process once again.

The letting go of material things is a different process, yet related. I lost all difficulty with that about two years ago during a deep meditative experience which I'll write about someday. At that point, I stopped buying things that weren't necessary -- dropped the 'I wants' forever. More recently, I've begun the process of decluttering my house as I prepare to move on to a new life. Most books are gone (or waiting to be sent to friends). Bags of paper from files have gone to recycling, five boxes of general 'stuff' has gone to Goodwill. More has simply gone into the trash. Some things -- particularly some books -- were harder to let go of than others, but with every bag and box and book that's left the house, I've felt more and more free. It's a wonderful feeling and I look forward to letting go of more and more 'stuff'. Emotional stuff as well as material stuff.

And who knows -- maybe none of the monasteries will invite me to become a resident. In that case, I'll look to other options, other possibilities. Six months in Baja would be a good start. In the meantime, I'll rest in comfort with the knowledge that at least I have a confirmed visit to Austin in May. After that -- well, I'll worry about that then.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Opening to life

Greetings, friends. Yes, I have been quiet. Nothing has coalesced into the need to be expressed, but that will happen. Be patient.

In the meantime, I want to point you to something I just discovered a few days ago, and urge you to read it. Cultivating Self-Affection During Tricky Times, by Dr. Cara Barker.

For me, it was a great follow-up on my last post, as I struggle for self-acceptance, affection, love and compassion.

Cara's writing -- with its sense of true caring and love being imparted to the reader as an individual -- is magical. See if you don't agree.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Are you kind to yourself? If so, how? If not, why?

This question arose for me yesterday. I don't remember what started it, but at some point early in the day I decided I was going to spend the day being kind to myself and that opened up a really big, ugly hornet's nest that's still swarming.

Some of the ways I've liked to be kind to myself in the past included long, lazy stretches in the steam room at the DAC in Eugene, or a nice massage at a nearby spa (usually preceded by a lazy stretch in the steam room at the DAC). Or a drive to the coast for some good fish & chips (or even some good fish & chips in town, for that matter) and a walk on a beach -- any beach, even if it was cold and wet. Maybe a drive into the mountains for some hiking, or waterfall watching, or just being.

None of that is available to me here, even if I had the money for a massage, for example. Especially on a Sunday. I couldn't think of one thing to do for myself that would be a kindness, a small bit of pampering. That realization brought on the hornet's nest. And saddened me. How could that be? My mind kept trying to draw me in to give this some serious consideration, but I carefully and intentionally avoided the whole idea. No meditation, no time without music or other sound, no time not reading, or doing crosswords, or wasting time on the internet. I just couldn't look at this. Didn't want to look at it.

By this morning I was willing to sit with it for awhile in meditation -- with no answers. Then I walked to the library -- walking is one of the best times for me to think. I began seeing ways that I was hard on myself, unkind to myself. I tried writing down a list of the ways I'm unkind to myself, but only came up with general categories that I know are filled with countless specific examples. I have a list of 'shoulds' and 'shouldn'ts' a mile long. I criticize myself (anytime I'm not perfect, which is all the time), I deny myself foods I like (but I don't want to gain weight, so how do I work with that one?). Is it any wonder I don't know how to be kind to myself?

If we're not kind to ourselves, how can we accept kindness from others? How can we be kind to others? It's like loving yourself, or holding yourself in compassion. It has to come from the inside first -- but for so many of us it's the hardest thing to do. I've found that I don't even know how to do it, especially when I live in isolation in a place that doesn't offer much in the way of opportunities for pampering. It shouldn't (there's that word again!) be all about pampering anyway, should it? There's something deeper -- I just haven't quite dug it out yet.

Open up your awareness. Listen to your own inner voice, self-talk, and listen closely. How often is it filled with shoulds and shouldn'ts, criticism, judging, and other negativities aimed at yourself? If it is -- rebel!  Consciously do the opposite. Indulge the whim. Ignore the criticism. When you hear 'I shouldn't' do this or that -- do it anyway! You want that piece of chocolate? Eat it! Your body doesn't feel like a hard workout today? Let it rest! And above all -- don't feel guilty for any of it. Try this for a week or so, see if you feel any better.

That's what I'm going to do.

Monday, March 11, 2013

What is compassion, and how do we get it

What is compassion? I think we probably all have an intellectual understanding of the word, a dictionary definition along the lines of 'Deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it,' or words to that effect.  Some of us seem to have it, others not so much. I've been one of the latter, and that in itself has been the subject of much meditation, much effort to correct, much concern, much questioning. A good Buddhist is compassionate, after all. Why was this so lacking in me? I had a major breakthrough on this subject this morning in meditation. But before I get into that, I want to explore the subject a little more.

First of all, I've learned over the years that you can't just decide to be compassionate, or beg and plead for compassion to arise. For most of us, it's inherently either there or not there. Some people seem born with great amounts of compassion. Many of these seem to gravitate to helping professions of one kind or another. Others use their innate compassion within their families or friends. I know many people who have great compassion. The rest of us struggle with it (even if we don't know we are doing so).

In my case, I've always had great compassion for animals of all kinds, and have had moments and times of great compassion for the suffering of those humans that I loved. I'm capable of generalized compassion for people around the world suffering from one weather phenomenon or another, or starving because of corrupt governments. But most of the time, I've learned that I was so wrapped up in my own struggles and sufferings that I simply didn't see the struggles and sufferings of others for what they were.

One thing that seems to be consistently taught in Buddhism and other spiritual practices concerns love: without love for oneself, how can one love another? Some teachers that I respect say that compassion springs from love -- including the idea that compassion for oneself springs from love for oneself. That's something else I lack, although I've had some cracks in that armor in recent months. And that probably explains the dearth of compassion for others that I've come to see so clearly. It's also said that compassion ripens over the course of our practice, as wisdom grows and we see things more clearly.

In A Path With Heart, Jack Kornfield talks about an exercise he often uses with groups. First, he asks them to reflect upon death, to imagine themselves at the end of their lives. Then, he asks them to look back over their lives and bring to mind two good deeds that they have done. Most people, he says, come up with small things. He says 'the things that matter most in our lives are not fantastic or grand. They are the moments when we touch one another, when we are there in the most attentive or caring way'.  Some people, he says, find this exercise very difficult. No good deeds come to mind, or if something does arise, it's immediately rejected. We judge ourselves too harshly.  I fall into that category -- although deep in my heart I know I've done many good deeds, I've never had any arise when I try that exercise. I am my worst enemy, my harshest judge, my strongest critic.

A couple of years ago I was listening to Sayalay Susila in an online recording where she talked about how shocked she was when she first began teaching in the West to see how few of us actually love ourselves. She said that in Malaysia, where she's from, and other Asian countries, everybody loves themselves.  In my mind, there must be some crucial sense of self or nurturing that children in those countries receive, compared to the way children are raised in the West.  To help us learn to love ourselves, she offered some metta phrases that I've used often over the last couple of years, although I'm not really sure how much they've helped. Part of the problem has been that I've simply been unable to wish these kind thoughts upon myself. I could mouth the words, or think the words, but there wasn't much sincerity behind them. Still, I keep them taped to my computer monitor and I use them lots in meditation:

May I love myself just as I am,
May I sense my worthiness and well-being,
May I trust this world,
May I hold myself in compassion,
May I meet the suffering and ignorance of others with compassion.

Note how that pesky word 'compassion' sneaks in there. I guess you really can't have one without the other. But how do you get them?

Many years ago I remember reading in one of Jack Kornfield's books a method of doing this. He suggested that you close your eyes and imagine that your adult self is holding your child self in a deep, loving embrace. I could do that -- envision an old photograph of myself as a child and hold that child closely cuddled in my lap, see her suffering, and offer her love and compassion, but it was pretty limited and certainly not lasting. It's much easier to find compassion for a suffering child than it is to have compassion for -- or even see -- the suffering of the adult who 'ought to be able to handle such things'. The sad truth is that most of us can't handle our suffering on our own, other than by ignoring, covering up, self-medicating or perhaps going off into the darkness of depression. And make no mistake, we are all suffering in one way or another. Back to Jack Kornfield's method, I tried it for awhile but eventually stopped because it didn't seem to be making any difference.

Fast forward a lot of years. Since listening to Sayalay's talk I've used  her metta phrases countless times, in and out of meditation. I've used other metta phrases in the same way. Trying hard to find even small glimpses of love for myself, compassion for myself. Last March I attended a metta retreat at Southern Dharma taught by Ayya Sobhana, of Aranya Bodhi in California. I've studied and used metta for years, but this was my first actual metta retreat. Following the usual format she had us choose various people in our lives as examples of the various categories of people we wished to send metta to during the week. A respected teacher or mentor, a good friend, a loved one, a neutral person, and an enemy -- and oneself. What I learned the most during that week -- and it brought great sorrow to me at the time -- was that I could not find love for myself at all, nor could I even choose one person in my life who stood out as a 'loved one'.  It was a sobering week for me and frankly, not a great deal has changed.

There have, however, been small steps. I have great compassion for the nuns at Aranya Bodhi, for example. I see and feel the struggles of their daily lives in rather primitive surroundings (they don't see it as such -- in fact they are thriving and happy), and I have a strong wish to alleviate and ease some of their struggles and suffering (as seen through my eyes). Last fall, driving home after 3 weeks at the Southeast Vipassana Center in south Georgia, my mind and body were suddenly overwhelmed with a glowing sense of well-being, happiness and something new that was unmistakably love for myself. That deep realization, the glow, the wonderment of it all, stayed with me most of the way home. So this is what it feels like!

Eventually the glow wore off, as these moments inevitably do, but there was a crack in the wall. A big one. In recent weeks of meditation I've begun each morning meditation with lots of metta -- aimed mostly at myself in an effort to widen the crack. I began speaking the words aloud, softly, in an effort to better sense their meaning, and to keep my mind from wandering. There have been days when I've felt the walls go down -- but in time they always go back up, although I do believe they become weaker with each incident and will eventually be swept away completely. Part of these recent meditations included something else I recently learned somewhere -- probably from Jack Kornfield again, perhaps others -- which is to envision myself wrapped in love and compassion as I spoke these metta phrases. Not surprisingly, I had some difficulties with that, but there were enough small successes to keep me trying.

This morning I went back to Jack's original advice -- the adult me and the child me. After the years of study and effort, I was indeed able to see and feel the suffering of this small child I was holding. I remembered how she suffered, how unhappy she was, and I was filled with compassion for her suffering, could wrap myself in that compassion, deeply. I stayed with that for awhile, then one of those magical moments/insights we look for in our practice arose and I suddenly saw very clearly the connection that exists between that young, suffering 'me' and all others. I saw that all children suffer in one way or another, just as all children take that suffering with them into their adult lives in one way or another. The deep compassion I was feeling for the child 'me' spread instantly and naturally outward to all others around the world and my mind and body were filled with a wonderful, indeed physical, glow that encompassed peace, equanimity, love, compassion and all sorts of other feelings. I literally felt this glow moving outward to others, wrapping them just as it wrapped myself. It was such an extraordinary moment that I just stayed with it for the balance of the hour, knowing its value and importance, wanting to absorb as much of it as I could.

It wasn't the most important insight/experience I've had in my practice, but it ranks right up there -- especially if it actually makes a noticeable, lasting change. I can only hope that this was powerful enough to shatter barriers forever. Only time will tell, but today feels really, really good.