Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Mindfulness

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

Silence

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

Solitude

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.