Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye
Before you know what kindness really is you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved, all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness, you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
only kindness that raises its head from the crowd of the world to say it is I you have been looking for, and then goes with you everywhere like a shadow or a friend.
Comment by Christina Feldman
“In her poem “Kindness”, Naomi Shihab Nye writes that it is only in seeing the size of the cloth of sorrow that we come to understand that it is only kindness that makes sense anymore. Hand in hand mindfulness and metta ask us to open our eyes and hearts to the sorrows of the world, to be touched by the struggle, fear, and violence that damage that scar the lives of many. We are asked to truly sense the helplessness of those trapped in poverty, neglect and deprivation, to open our eyes and hearts to the threads of despair, loneliness and pain that leave too many people in our world forgotten and invisible. Then it is true that only kindness can make sense anymore. To commit ourselves to kindness in our thoughts words and acts and to be a conscious participant in the healing of the world we are part of. Metta brings us out of the shell of self-absorption, allowing us to be touched by the world and to touch the world with kindness. With friendliness and kindness we take our place in the family of all beings.”
From her book Boundless Heart – The Buddha’s Path of Kindness, Compassion, Joy and Equanimity, p22. Shambala Publications, 2017
Contributed by Mike
Leaving the door open to joy
Since the beginning of the coronovirus outbreak every dharma talk I have listened to has begun with the deep acknowledgement of our individual and collective pain at this time. A recognition of anxiety, anger, fear, uncertainty, loss and grief. It’s not surprising that an acknowledgement of pain is the starting point of so many teachers as this is where the Buddha started. It is after all the first ennobling truth; a deep recognition that pain, suffering and tragedy are inherent in the human condition, that life is hard to bear. This is what the Buddha called dukkha. Much of this pain is our evolutionary inheritance – we are highly sensitive, fragile and vulnerable and we have a brain that constructs self- consciousness. My cat may sadly die of a virus but it has no knowledge of it coming and when it arrives it does not ponder the consequences, and of course it has no notion of its own mortality. But we have long since left Eden and there is no return.
And then of course there is that peculiarly human form of constructed dukkha that creates distress out of our unskillful reactions to all the inherent pain of life, our habitual and compulsive reactivity – “dukkha with compound interest” as one teacher likes to put it. It is this form of dukkha that according to the Buddha we can, with training, alleviate to some degree.
What I find most impressive about the Buddha is the ability to be fully awake to, and embrace, our existential condition with its inherent pain, radical instability, tragedy and impermanence. Not only to embrace it but to live from it in a way that reduces distress for ourselves and others. This is my understanding of awakening; nothing mystical, just the simple but deep comprehension of our human condition and the ability to live skilfully from that understanding. Given our human condition and our capacity to be fully awake to its full import, kindness and compassion seem the only appropriate response.
Where does that leave our pain? Christina Feldman is fond of saying “There is no freedom from pain – only freedom within it”. The only question is how do we meet our pain, whether it is the shared existential form or our personal anxieties, fears and angers? Fortunately the same evolutionary processes that have left us with our peculiar human dukkha have also endowed us with a range of capacities to be more skilfully with “that which is hard to bear”. The genius of the Buddha was his ability to tap into these capacities and to effectively teach them.
Joy seems one of those capacities to hold pain, along with kindness to self/others, compassion to self/others, equanimity and the courage to be human. To leave the door open to joy, or better to invite it in, in no way belittles, minimises, devalues, dismisses, overlooks, glosses over or air-brushes out the pain. It is not a denial, a distancing, an attempt at dissociation, a desensitisation, whistling in the dark, donning rose-coloured spectacles or a Pollyanna effect. Pain is pain and no amount of dharma practice can take it away. Rather our dharma practice enables a way of gently meeting and holding pain in a way that has the capacity to lessen distress to ourselves and others. Further it enables and supports an open hearted resilience.
One of the obstacles here is that joy is usually considered to be a “smiley emotion” whereas within the dharma practice it is thought of more as a way of meeting experience, an appreciative disposition, an orientation, and a way of abiding. It seems hugely beneficial to allow for a gentle joy, to give permission for it, to cultivate it even in the midst of pain. Our capacity to do this is largely in proportion to our inclination to practice. As an old Chinese proverb has it:
“If we keep a green bough alive in our hearts, the singing bird will come.”
Contributed by Mike
Rob Burbea, rest in love and peace and sangha
I’d often heard sangha members mentioning this teacher that they all really respected, but I’d not had the privilege of meeting him not that is until after he had died . . .When Jill mentioned one week that his funeral was happening with a Zoom (because of Covid restrictions) gathering I was interested, both by what a western Buddhist teachers funeral would be and by the zoom space that the times necessitated but on reflection I chose not to attend as I didn’t really know Rob. I hope that others who did will be able to share their experience of this.
During the process of making my decision I spent a fair bit of time on websites, http://www.robburbea.com/ Rob’s had beautiful posts from him and his team during his last months and there were links to his music and some of his teaching enabling me to gradually became acquainted with this amazing man. I am currently working through his last teachings on the Gaia House Dharma seed website.https://gaia.dharmaseed.org/retreats/4496
Despite being very ill and in considerable pain he taught a 3 week silent retreat on the jhanas, which are rare and beautiful advanced teachings. Part of me is envious of those who were able to attend, another realises that this extraordinary archive is available for everyone to work through in our own time at our own pace and I feel sublimely grateful for this.
Three months before Rob died a very dear friend of mine also died after a two and a half year process of living with a brain tumour. There were some similarities with Rob. James was a musician, a quiet non practicing Jew, a warm, generous and wonderful man taken from the world it seemed too soon. But the graciousness of both their passing’s is such a gift for us all, showing us not only how to live but how to die with such love and selflessness for all they touched.
Contributed by Joss
Dreaming the Real
I’m lying down looking at the colour
of sky falling through trees, dreaming
the real, tasting what it feels like to love it.
Why did it take me so long to let go, simply
exhale, so the day could breathe itself in
and open without me standing in the way?
How could I forget the grace of my own body
strong as this blue, tender as the white
of the wild blossom, warm as midday light?
Let me practice a patience bold enough
to hold every weather, trusting the elements,
the beauty of rain, all it shades of grey.
I want whatever’s real to be enough. At least
it’s a place to begin. And to master the art
of loving it; feel it love me back under my skin
Contributed by Alison
by Pablo Neruda
Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.
Contributed by Joss
Joss comments: Amazing that it was written in the 1950’s and published posthumously in 1974. There is a link to Sylvia Boorstien reading it rather beautifully here.
It only takes a reminder to breathe,
a moment to be still, and just like that,
something in me settles, softens, makes
space for imperfection. The harsh voice
of judgment drops to a whisper and I
remember again that life isn’t a relay
race; that we will all cross the finish
line; that waking up to life is what we
were born for. As many times as I
forget, catch myself charging forward
without even knowing where I’m going,
that many times I can make the choice
to stop, to breathe, and be, and walk
slowly into the mystery.
Contributed by Gordon
“Looking after oneself, one looks after others.
Looking after others, one looks after oneself.
And how does one look after others by looking after oneself? By practicing mindfulness, by developing it, by doing it a lot.
And how does one look after oneself by looking after others? By patience, by non-harming, by loving kindness, by caring for others.
Thus looking after oneself, one looks after others;
and looking after others, one looks after oneself.”
(The Buddha in the Sedaka Sutta)
Contributed by Mike
Lingering with loving appreciation – reflections upon Venerable Canda’s day retreat
Recently we were delighted to have the Venerable Canda lead our teacher led day retreat at Glenfrome School. Venerable Canda is a Buddhist nun in the Thai Forest Tradition who now is at work setting up a small community of fully ordained Buddhist nuns in Oxford. She is remarkable in her down to earth teaching style, her charisma, energy, and her engagement with the more challenging issues within the Buddhist community and wider society.
The theme of the day was the cultivation of contentment. Contentment she explained was an ennobling quality and a direct antidote to the restless desire that is the cause of much of our distress.
“Whilst the winds of wanting blow us from past to future, always promising happiness someplace else, contentment enables the mind to linger with loving appreciation in this moment; within this imperfect body and mind.”
So we were taught how to linger with appreciation with whatever may be arising within the moment. We practiced sitting meditation; breathing with a contended attitude towards whatever may be arising within our heart/mind/body. We practised walking meditation with the attitude of “this is enough” as we placed each foot slowly and contentedly on the ground. This is not easy of course, but like all other cultivations within the dharma it is doable with practice.
Of course discontent is what brought many of us to meditation and dharma practice in the first place and may be the reason why we continue to engage with it. As such this kind of discontent is motivational. However the kind of discontent that venerable Canda focused on was the kind that robs us of our well being and creates distress for ourselves, others and the planet. It is closely associated with craving; the “wanting more” mind that relentlessly generates distress and undermines well-being.
Often inevitably we bring the relentless striving/achieving mind to our practice. We want to get somewhere or achieve something. And of course the teachings of the Buddha in the discourses of the Pali Canon are full of exhortations to strive with diligence. However within this larger goal-orientated framework the cultivation of appreciation and contentment with this imperfect body/mind, as it presents itself right now, forms an essential component of the path. Venerable Canda was inviting us to cultivate a radical contentment based on the appreciation of the everyday and immediate goodness that we habitually overlook.
This kind of radical contentment is of course subversive. It seems that the whole consumer capitalist enterprise is based upon stimulating discontent so that we will consume more forevermore. The culture of discontent is so persuasive that one wonders how far along the road we can go in our personal practice of contentment without simultaneously addressing and changing the social and economic structures within which we are embedded.
Venerable Canda explained that on almost all of her retreats she is asked questions about activism. How can we be content when the world is burning? She explained that contentment, like equanimity, does not mean we accept the unacceptable or dismiss or downplay the social, economic and environmental injustices that so urgently need addressing. Rather the cultivation of contentment and appreciation can be a valuable resource for activists in that it counteracts the habitual negativity bias that can easily lead to overwhelm, burnout and despair. Furthermore the cultivation of qualities of contentment, appreciation, gratitude and equanimity may be the only firm foundations for effective change in the world. For to act from habitual places of grasping, aversion and restlessness may simply exacerbate the very suffering we wish to alleviate.
Something similar may be true at the individual level. Far from us collapsing in a messy heap of non-achievement, the cultivation of contentment provides a resource for personal well-being and a firm foundation for effective personal engagement with the world. And before we construe this as yet another distant goal to achieve may we frequently remember the invitation of Venerable Canda to “linger with loving appreciation in this moment; within this imperfect body and mind.”
Contributed by Mike
Not Me, Not Mine
Not me, not mine
Who am I
If not my thoughts
Energy housed in
flesh and blood
pouring through the unfolding
seeds of life
the wild seas
the sheltered forests
the untamed rivers
The sun glistens
My heart soars
with coarse wild abandonment
Not me, not mine.
Contributed by Heather McCabe
Do not try to save
the whole world
or do anything grandiose.
in the dense forest
of your life
and wait there
until the song
that is your life
falls into your own cupped hands
and you recognize and greet it.
Only then will you know
how to give yourself
to this world
so worth of rescue.
Contributed by Gordon
Ven Candavissudhi a UK-based Buddhist nun in the Theravadan tradition
Speaking to the Monk on a Motorbike podcast about her practice:
‘Then I started to cultivate the more wholesome states much more rather than simply the bare awareness focused on impermanence.
So that was a very nice, very equanimous kind of mind state, but I also saw the need to develop the beautiful qualities as well – to actively cultivate those.
And so now, I would say that my practice is much less directed, perhaps, much more about the attitude I bring to whatever I observe rather than what I observe using a specific technique, it’s a lot more open, so when I sit down on my cushion, I’ll usually ask ‘how do you feel mind?’ and then I’ll listen in (and tune up to what it wants) ‘do you want to look at your body – is there anything that hurts there, let’s have a look – what’s needed here to ease the pain?’ what’s needed hear to relax the mind, what kind of attention can help me to calm and relax in a very gentle natural way. And then if the breath wants to arise in my mind, I allow it to, but I don’t go out and grab it and try and make it stay.
So it’s a lot more gentle, it’s more about putting the causes in place for the breath to want to come to me, just as I would invite you here today and put the chocolate out and I’d make you a cup of tea so that you want to come in, I wouldn’t say ‘right, get in here, let’s start the recording – sit down, stay there’, no – it’s ‘let’s make the room warm, and I’ll put out chocolate and we’ll have a nice time hanging out’.
So it’s that sort of approach, it’s more looking at the relationship I have with my experience than trying to go after a particular type of experience and I find that’s really helpful for getting myself a little bit out of the way, so I’m not so much forcing on things to happen but allowing them to without always interfering in the process’
Contributed by James
Etty Hillesum – A life Transformed by
This is a remarkable account of the spiritual transformation of a young Dutch Jewish woman born in 1914 and who was in her 20s at the outbreak of the WW2 and living in enemy occupied Amsterdam .
Patrick Woodhouse draws from the diaries and letters Etty wrote from 1941-43, which were not published in Holland until 1986 and in English in 2002. These have become one of the most remarkable set of documents to emerge from the Nazi holocaust. The driving force that took her spirituality deeper was the Nazi terror and the increasing persecution of the Jews. Etty’s extraordinary account of her spiritual journey weaves in and out of this horrifically dark narrative.
She died in Auschwitz in November 2013.
Contributed by Barbara
Clare explains the relationship between Compassion Focused Training and Insight Meditation
I am really pleased that Will Devlin is able to offer a training in Compassion Focused Training and wanted to explain why I asked if he could offer this training to the BIM members. I first became interested in Compassion Focused Training (CFT) through reading Christopher Germer’s Book, ‘the Mindful Path to Self Compassion’ I felt there was so much shared ground with my understanding of Buddhism and Insight Meditation. It also seemed to offer me a real understanding of why it’s often so to be with my thoughts, emotions, feelings in a way which was free of blame and offered an evolutionary perspective on being human. That, yes there are a ‘thousand joys’, but the thousands sorrows are no picnic, so being human and much of our experience is out of our control and seen through the CFT perspective not our fault. It also resonated with so many teachings from Insight Teachers like Tara Brach and many others.
Essentially I suffer because I have a body that is raging with chemicals that send me into fight, flight or freeze and loops of fear, anxiety and self-criticism. That none of this is my fault, it’s a quirk of evolution and all of us have this. It seemed to offer understanding and compassion. I didn’t suffer because I wasn’t trying hard enough, or not meditating enough but because I was a human being with this brain evolved for survival just like everyone else.
For me the key was the recognition that part of what we struggle with, in meditation and life is the result of what Paul Gilbert, the founder of CFT calls our ‘tricky’ brains, evolved not for happiness but survival. Tara Brach calls the distress this gives us ‘limbic looping’.
Paul Gilbert has differentiated CFT from Buddhist practice as being about ‘working with the poison (where are minds are water) and how to turn the poison into medicine, rather than an insight into the nature of water itself.’ But to me it doesn’t matter because it is about understanding why human beings struggle so much and why compassion makes sense. Paul Gilbert first worked with this
approach because as a psychologist he saw a lot of people with high levels of self criticism that despite having some perspective on their ‘inner critic’ were still swamped with painful feelings of self -hatred and disgust.
To find out more about CFT see https://www.compassionatemind.co.uk
Will Devlin will be offering this 8 week CFT course, starting in January through BIM and other networks.
Cherish it just the way it is
“In the art of meditation you shouldn’t start with some idea of gaining. This is the paradox in meditation: we want to get somewhere – we wouldn’t have taken up meditation if we didn’t – but the way to get there is to be fully here. The way to get from A to point B is really to be at A. When we follow the breathing in the hope of becoming something better, we are compromising our connection with the present, which is all we ever have.
One place where ideas of gaining often come in, where people become obsessive about the practice, is in the task of staying with the breathing. We take a simple instruction and create a drama of success and failure around it: we feel we’re succeeding when we’re with the breath and failing when we’re not. Actually the whole process is meditation: being with breathing, drifting away, seeing that we’ve drifted away, gently coming back. It is extremely important to come back without blame, without judgement, without feeling a failure. If you have to come back a thousand times in a short period of sitting just do it. It’s not a problem unless you make it into one.
If you find yourself disappointed with your meditation there’s a good chance that some idea of gaining is present. See that and let it go.
However your practice seems to you, cherish it just the way it is.”
Larry Rosenberg in Breath by Breath – the Liberating Practice of Insight Meditation
Contributed by Mike
The Monk and the Philosopher. Jean-Francois Revel and Matthieu Ricard.
This is remarkable dialogue between J.F Revel, an influential philosopher and political commentator who left academia to become a writer, and his son, Matthieu Ricard, a scientist-turned-monk. Despite having a very promising career in science, Matthieu decided to study with a Tibetan Master exiled in Darjeeling. It is quite clear that Jean-Francois is genuinely very curious to understand what drew his son to make such a profound change to his life.
So despite having taken such very different paths, their interest in and respect for each other’s world view culminated in a series of conversations in 1996 which were then published as this book. What makes it so interesting to read is that not only is Jean-Francois questioning in a way which enables Matthieu to elaborate on the very essence of Buddhism, but that he is able to do it within the context and framework of a Jean-Francois’ deep understanding and knowledge of Western Philosophy.
Contributed by Barbara
Why do we meditate at all?
Every so often I ask myself this question. Asking the question seems to be a source of motivation and keeps the practice of meditation fresh and alive. The answers have varied and developed over time. Here is my latest offering:
We meditate to gather and calm the mind in order to see clearly what is happening.
As humans we are in the habit of reacting to the conditions of life with craving, aversion and confusion. As a reaction to life’s inevitable pain these are failed strategies that simply serve to exacerbate our discomfort. Meditation is a practice that cultivates a way of being that is at ease with things as they are.
In meditation we therefore cultivate a capacity to be with experience as it is without the familiar and well worn tracks of reactivity that we have habitually cultivated over the years. It is an experiential training in letting go.
When we are less driven by reactivity we can respond with a greater freedom. From moment to moment we develop the capacity and ability to respond more appropriately (“wisdom”) and with qualities of empathy (“compassion”) to whatever arises.
Meditation enables an enduring well-being and a sustainable happiness that is not dependent upon self-construction, external conditions or endless consumption. Instead we are increasingly able to lean into life’s radical impermanence with nobility.
Contributed by Mike
The courage to have a change in heart
With nations that fight each other, time passes and either the nations are no longer or they shift alliances and enemies become allies. This reminds us how everything changes with time. But the negative seeds that are left in our mindstream, the impact of our hatred and prejudice, is very long-lived. Why so? Because as long as we keep strengthening our anger and self-righteousness with our thoughts and our words and our actions, they will never go away. Instead, we become expert in perfecting our habits of hard heartedness, our own particular brand of rigid heart and closed mind.
So what I am advocating here is something that requires courage – the courage to have a change of heart. The reason that this requires courage is because when we don’t do the habitual thing, hardening our heart and holding tightly to certain views then we’re left with the underlying uneasiness that we are trying to get away from. Whenever there’s a sense of threat, we harden. And so if we don’t harden, what happens? We’re left with that uneasiness, that feeling of threat. That’s when the real journey of courage begins. This is the real work of the peacemaker, to find the soft spot and the tenderness in that very uneasy place and stay with it. If we can stay with the soft spot and stay with the tender heart, then we are cultivating the seeds of peace.
Pema Chodron in Practicing Peace in Times of War
Contributed by Alastair
Many people come to meditation expecting to create a state of peace or calm. True meditation is not creating a calm state. It is observing whatever is really happening without judgement, without analysing it, without getting wrapped up in the story about it. We spend most of our lives trying to avoid the unpleasant feelings just below the surface. Meditation creates a space where we can finally stop all the distractions and meet reality face to face.
(Posted by “David” on the Insight Timer App)
Contributed by Mike
The Near Enemies of Fierce Compassion
A near enemy is a Buddhist term that refers to a state of mind that appears similar to the desired state but actually undermines it. When we are aware of the near enemies of fierce compassion, we can act compassionately and affirmatively in the world without adding to the suffering that is already there.
We would like to offer 6 simple questions as a test of fierce compassion:
1. “Am I in the grip of anger or hatred?” (mindfulness versus emotional reactivity)
2. “Do I feel morally superior?” (acknowledging our common humanity versus self-righteousness)
3. “Do I want my adversary to suffer or be humiliated?” (kindness versus hostility)
4. “Am I self/other-ing?” (solidifying self, rather than sitting lightly to our identities)
5. “Am I polarising into them and us?” (acknowledging our common humanity versus discord and division)
6. “Is there an attachment to outcome, rather than a focus on process?” (grasping versus trusting the process)
When the answer to these questions is “no,” and we add a measure of wisdom, we can surely change the world for the better.
Adapted from The Near Enemies of Fierce Compassion
November 29, 2018
By Drs Chris Germer and Kristin Neff
Co-founders, Center for Mindful Self-Compassion
Contributed by Mike
Life is a garden
Life is a garden not a road
We enter and exit through the same gate
Wondering where we go matters less
than what we notice.
Kurt Vonnegut – Cat’s Cradle
Contributed by James
The thorn in the heart
Fear is born from arming oneself.
Just see how many people fight!
I’ll tell you about the dreadful fear
that caused me to shake all over:
Seeing creatures flopping around,
Like fish in water too shallow,
So hostile to one another!
— Seeing this, I became afraid.
This world completely lacks essence;
It trembles in all directions.
I longed to find myself a place
Unscathed — but I could not see it.
Seeing people locked in conflict,
I became completely distraught.
But then I discerned here a thorn
— Hard to see — lodged deep in the heart.
It’s only when pierced by this thorn
That one runs in all directions.
So if that thorn is taken out —
one does not run, and settles down.
Who here has crossed over desires,
the world’s bond, so hard to get past,
he does not grieve, she does not mourn.
His stream is cut, she’s all unbound.
What went before — let go of that!
All that’s to come — have none of it!
Don’t hold on to what’s in between,
And you’ll wander fully at peace.
(The Buddha from the Attadanda Sutta: Arming Oneself. Translated by Andrew Olendzki.)
Comment: This is one of my favourite poems from the Pali Canon. The metaphor of the thorn in the heart for all that afflicts us and the imagery of fish flopping around in shallow water for our usual states of agitation, unrest and conflict are both vivid and profound. The poem seems a truly autobiographical account by the Buddha that is revealing of his sensitivity as he struggles to make sense of the human condition. With insight the thorn in the heart is discerned and its extraction made possible with the gradual overcoming of our slavery to attachment and aversion and a cultivated capacity to let go and not to hold on to each moment of experience. The poem begins with conflict and ends with peace and as such is a wonderful summary of the entire Dharma.
Contributed by Mike
“Many people think of nirvana as a Buddhist heaven, well it isn’t. Nirvana is a state of freeing oneself. In the original language it is a verb form, not a noun, not a state I reach, not a place to go to, a verb which can literally mean “to go out”, an intransitive verb. It also means “to unbind” from something. “Nir” means to not do something, “vana” can mean to bind or tie to something. What we are engaged in is not achieving nirvana, but nirvana-ing, little nirvanas. It is unbinding yourself from habitual tendencies, from the pathology of habits, incrementally, little by little as we practice.”
From a dharma talk The Pathos of the Human Condition, 21/12/2013, Dharma Seed
Comment: I read this quotation with a sense of relief. It de-mythologises nirvana from a grandiose state of some future attainment to something much more doable in the here and now from moment to moment. It points to the ability, arising from practice, to respond to each moment without the habitually compulsive reactivities of grasping, holding and averting, leaving us free to respond more appropriately and with greater intimacy and ease.
Contributed by Mike
Nothing to lean upon at all
She saw that all phenomena arose, abided, and fell away.
She saw that even knowing this arose, abided, and fell away.
Then she knew there was nothing more than this, no ground, nothing to lean on, stronger than the cane she held.
Nothing to lean upon at all, and no one leaning…
And she opened the clenched fist in her mind and let go, and fell, into the midst of everything.
Teijitsu, 18th century abbess of Hakujuan, near Eiheiji, Japan
Comment: What I like in this elegant piece of writing is that it seems to point toward an interface between impermanence and emptiness in an experiential way.
The noticing that phenomena arise and pass away is followed by the realisation that this noticing too must pass. What then is left? Nothing to hold onto, and yet still we find ourselves ‘in the midst of everything’.
Contributed by James
Abandon what is unskilful. One can abandon the unskilful. If it were not possible I would not ask you to do it. If this abandoning of the unskilful would bring harm and suffering, I would not ask you to abandon it. But as it brings benefit and happiness, therefore I say, abandon what is unskilful.
Cultivate the skilful. One can cultivate the skilful. If it were not possible I would not ask you to do it. If this cultivation were to bring harm and suffering, I would not ask you to do it. But as this cultivation brings benefit and happiness, I say, cultivate the skilful.
(Anguttara Nikaya 2.19)
Contributed by Mike
Radical Dharma and Lama Rod Owens
Radical is not a term we immediately associate with Dharma readings so we were interested to participate in a day retreat in Bristol with Lama Rod Owens who describes himself as a “black, queer, activist, Buddhist teacher”. Along with colleagues, Angel Kyodo Williams and Jasmine Syedullah, Rod has authored a book entitled “Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love and Liberation”. He is an American and his work is contexted in the history of relationships between blacks and whites in the USA. He presents racism as creating injustice which leads to suffering in that we cut off painful aspects of ourselves from ourselves. This includes not just racism but also inequalities deriving from gender, sexual orientation and social class. Personal liberation is seen as impossible without social liberation, so as he and his colleagues put it “a new Dharma is one that insists we investigate not only the unsatisfactoriness of our own minds but also prepares us for the discomfort of confronting the obscurations of the society we are individual expressions of. It recognizes that the delusions of systematic oppression are not solely the domain of the individual. By design, they are seated within and reinforced by society “ (p.23/24/).
While some groups might appear to be in a privileged position in relation to these categories, Rod et al. point out that if we see privilege only as a gift, we lose sight of its shadow side which they describe graphically as “trading humanity for privilege.” We lose touch of our own vulnerability when we are straightjacketed into positions of power and authority.
They suggest that there is a need for “conversations” between groups in which the origin of these wounds can be sought and healing explored. In order to explore these ideas within the Sangha, we ran a couple of sessions in which we asked participants to share in pairs two questions. This first was concerned with the question “what do I leave behind at the door when I enter the Sangha? Do I become just the nice Buddhist? The second asked people to think about their experience of privilege or lack of it. These were just small exercises but more generally, the longer term question for the Sangha is whether it is possible to create a safe space in which these issues can be explored and a conversation developed.
Thanks to Rod for sharing his ideas with us. If you wish to learn more, you may like to know that he is leading a retreat at Gaia House from April 18-22 and is also leading a session at London Insight on April 23. The book Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation (2016) is published by North Atlantic Books.
Contributed by Ray Woolfe and James Wormell
Love can go anywhere
The Buddha taught that the forces in the mind that bring suffering are able to temporarily hold down positive forces such as love and wisdom – but they can never destroy them. The negative forces can never uproot the positive, whereas the positive forces can actually uproot the negative forces. Love can uproot fear or anger or guilt, because it is a greater power.
Love can go anywhere. Nothing can obstruct it. I Am That, a book of dialogues with Nisargadatta Maharaj, includes an exchange with Nisargadatta and a man who complained a great deal about his mother. The man felt she had not been a very good mother and was not a good person. At one point, Nisargadatta advised him to love his mother. The man replied “She wouldn’t let me.” Nisargadatta responded “She couldn’t stop you.”
No external condition can prevent love; no one and no thing can stop it. The awakening of love is not bound up in things being in a certain way. Metta, like the true nature of the mind, is not dependent; it is not conditioned.
Sharon Salzberg (from her book “Loving Kindness – The Revolutionary Art of Happiness”)
Contributed by Gordon
For a New Beginning
by John O’Donohue
In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.
For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.
It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.
Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you.
Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life’s desire.
Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.
Contributed by Mike
Tribute to Mary Oliver
Mary Oliver the great American poet died on January 17th 2019 at the age of 83. She was a prolific writer whose work received many awards and accolades. Her collection American Primitive received the Pulitzer Prize in 1984, and in 1992, she was awarded the National Book Award. Many of her poems are well known and used by teachers within the dharma community as well as the wider mindfulness meditation movement.
I first came across her work about five years ago in her New and Selected Poems and have found her poetry a continued source of inspiration. Her poems have a contemplative and detailed attention to the natural world. Often they evoke joy, delight, surprise and a sense of interconnection. Whilst her poems are often light and almost conversational in tone they often introduce a deeper reflection upon our lives. I feel it is this quality of reflection, particularly upon transience, as well as the evocation of attentive presence to the natural world, that have made her poems so endearing to practitioners of meditation. I leave you with what I believe to be one of her finest poems “Morning Walk”.
Little by little
empties its pockets –
foam and fluff;
and the long, tangled ornateness
or the whelks,
ribbed or with ivory knobs;
but so knocked about
in the sea’s blue hands
and their story is at length only
about the wholeness of destruction –
they come one by one
to the shore
to the shallows
to the mussel-dappled rocks
to the rise to dryness
to the edge of the town
to offer, to the measure that we will accept it,
though the hour be whole
though the minute be deep and rich
though the heart be a singer of hot red songs
and the mind be as lightning,
what all the music will come to is nothing,
only the sheets of fog and the fog’s blue bell –
you do not believe it now, you are not supposed to,
you do not believe it yet – but you will –
morning by singular morning,
and shell by broken shell.
Contributed by Mike
Birth and Becoming.
By Ajahn Chah
“It is taught that birth is suffering, but it doesn’t really mean dying from this life and taking rebirth in the next life. That’s too far away. The suffering of birth happens right now. It’s said that becoming is the cause of birth. What is this “becoming”? Anything that we attach too and put meaning on is becoming. Whenever we see anything as self or other or belonging to ourselves, without wise discernment that such is only a convention, that is becoming. Whenever we hold to something as “us” or “ours” and it then undergoes change, the mind is shaken by that. It is shaken by a positive or negative reaction. That sense of self experiencing happiness or unhappiness is birth. When there is birth it brings suffering along with it, because everything must change and disappear.”
Contributed by Ray
by Roger S Keyes
Hokusai says look carefully.
He says pay attention, notice.
He says keep looking, stay curious.
He says there is no end to seeing.
Look forward to getting old.
He says keep changing; you just get more who you really are.
He says get stuck, accept it, repeat yourself as long as it’s interesting.
He says keep doing what you love.
He says keep praying.
He says every one of us is a child, every one of us is ancient, and every one of us has a body.
He says every one of us is frightened.
He says every one of us has to find a way to live with fear.
He says everything is alive – shells, buildings, people, fish, mountains, trees.
Wood is alive.
Water is alive.
Everything has its own life.
Everything lives inside us.
He says live with the world inside you.
He says it doesn’t matter if you draw, or write books.
It doesn’t matter if you saw wood, or catch fish.
It doesn’t matter if you sit at home and stare at the ants on your veranda or the shadows of the trees and grasses in your garden.
It matters that you care.
It matters that you feel.
It matters that you notice.
It matters that life lives through you.
Contentment is life living through you.
Joy is life living through you.
Satisfaction and strength are life living through you.
Peace is life living through you.
He says don’t be afraid.
Don’t be afraid.
Look, feel, let life take you by the hand.
Let life live through you.
Happy New Year everyone
The heart of skillful meditation
The heart of skillful meditation is the ability to let go and begin again, over and over again. Even if you have to do that a thousand times during a session, it does not matter. There is no distance to traverse in recollecting our attention; as soon as we realize we have been lost in discursive thought, or have lost touch with our chosen contemplation, right in that very moment we can begin again. Nothing has been ruined and there is no such thing as failing. There is nowhere the attention can wander to, and no duration of distraction, from which we cannot completely let go, in a moment, and begin again.
Loving –kindness The Revolutionary Art of Happiness. p29
You will lose everything
by Jeff Foster
“You will lose everything.
Your money, your power, your fame, your success, perhaps even your memory.
Your looks will go.
Loved ones will die.
Your own body will eventually fall apart.
Everything that seems permanent is absolutely impermanent and will be smashed.
Experience will gradually, or not so gradually, strip away everything that it can strip away.
Waking up means facing this reality with open eyes and no longer turning away.
Right now, we stand on sacred and holy ground.
For that which will be lost has not yet been lost, and realising this is the key to unspeakable joy.
Whoever or whatever is in your life right now has not yet been taken away from you.
This may sound obvious but really knowing it is the key to everything, the why and how and wherefore of existence.
Impermanence has already rendered everything and everyone around you so deeply holy and significant and worthy of your heartbreaking gratitude.
Loss has already transfigured your life into an altar.”
Contributed by Gordon
Mind Wanting More
by Holly Hughes
Only a beige slat of sun
above the horizon, like a shade pulled
not quite down. Otherwise,
clouds. Sea rippled here and
there. Birds reluctant to fly.
The mind wants a shaft of sun to
stir the grey porridge of clouds,
an osprey to stitch sea to sky
with its barred wings, some dramatic
music: a symphony, perhaps a Chinese gong.
But the mind always
wants more than it has—
one more bright day of sun,
one more clear night in bed
with the moon; one more hour
to get the words right; one
more chance for the heart in hiding
to emerge from its thicket
in dried grasses—as if this quiet day
with its tentative light weren’t enough,
as if joy weren’t strewn all around.
Comment: This poem is a beautiful reminder of one of the reasons why we meditate. Whilst it is important that we maximise conditions for well-being, the excessive “wanting-more-mind” seems to be the habitual generator of discontent and dissatisfaction (dukkha) ensuring that our sought after well-being remains elusive. Insight meditation has the capacity to attenuate the “wanting-more-mind” and free our capacities for contentment, gratitude and perhaps give us glimpses of that joy strewn all around.
Contributed by Mike
Sitting is strange
“Sitting is a strange process. In the beginning, it’s hard to grasp what it’s all about. Later on, it doesn’t get much easier. The only thing that’s clear is “just do it.” Whether the sitting is “good” or “bad,” just do it. You never get any better at it. Not really. But this whole idea of “getting better” is part of the problem, the endless self-improvement and self-manipulation game. We don’t sit to get better. We sit to be with life as it is.” (Source unknown)
I find this a useful quotation to reflect upon. In a culture that seems to hold self-improvement as a near requirement it is difficult to see meditation as anything other than a self–improvement project, a way of getting better at “this” or being more of “that”. It therefore feels strange to know meditation as simply being about letting go of the entire getting disposition. To experience meditation as simply being open to what is now arising within us, to “life as it is” seems to take endless practice. Very strange. Perhaps the word “practice” doesn’t help here as it seems to engender an evaluative “how am I doing?” mentality. Maybe we should rename our meditation time. Any offers?
Contributed by Mike
by Clive James
Hard to believe now that I once was free
From the pills in heaps, blood tests, X-rays and scans.
No pipes or tubes. At perfect liberty,
I stained my diary with travel plans.
The ticket paid for at the other end,
I packed a hold-all and went anywhere
They asked me. One on whom you could depend
To show up, I would cross the world by air
And come down neatly in some crowded hall.
I stood for a full hour to give my spiel.
Here, I might talk back to a nuisance call,
And that’s my flight of eloquence. Unreal:
But those years in the clear, how real were they,
When all the sirens in the signing queue
Who clutched their hearts at what I had to say
Were just dreams, even when the dream came true?
I called it health but never stopped to think
It might have been a kind of weightlessness,
That footloose feeling always on the brink
Of breakdown: the false freedom of excess.
Rarely at home in those days, I’m home now,
Where few will look at me with shining eyes.
Perhaps none ever did, and that was how
The fantasy of young strength that now dies
Expressed itself. The face that smiled at mine
Out of the looking glass was seeing things.
Today I am restored by my decline
And by the harsh awakening it brings.
I was born weak and always have been weak.
I came home and was taken into care.
A cot-case, but at long last I can speak:
I am here now, who was hardly even there.
From Sentenced to Life, Picador, 2015, p. 4
Facing up to white privilege
UWE Bristol sponsored a guest lecture entitled ‘Facing up to White Privilege’ on Monday 3 September 2018.
The speaker was Dr Judy Ryde, psychotherapist, trainer and supervisor. In her talk, Dr Ryde outlined the history of white, or Northern European, domination, through slavery and colonisation to the present day. She highlighted how the invention of ‘political correctness’ created a more welcoming landscape by teaching people to censor racist language in public settings; however, she shared her view that this largely pushed unconscious and conscious racist beliefs out of sight for a while. The recent rise in hate crimes and right-wing politicians seems to support this. In her view, ‘it was like putting out a fire that is still burning underneath.’
She then went on to highlight some of the ways in which white people continue to benefit from past and present white domination. For example, did you know that most National Trust properties were built from the compensation awarded to families involved in the slave trade, when slavery was abolished? She also described the privilege of being ‘just normal’, of the supremacy of the English language, and of the globalisation of white sport, and she argued that ‘the degradation of the planet is the worst feature of white domination.’
She concluded her talk by suggesting some possible processes of facing up to white privilege, both within the individual and as a nation. For example, reparations could be made by re-naming the global ‘aid’ budget as the ‘reparations’ budget, and taking this more seriously, as a means of repaying nations and communities that we have exploited. She also suggested starting a fund for disadvantaged youth, paid for from wealthy families that directly benefited from the slave trade. And she suggested that the National Trust use their properties as teaching sites regarding colonisation, imperialism and slavery, to bring this history alive and share it more widely.
Let’s hope some of her suggestions are taken up soon!
Contributed by Christine
Remember the adze handle
“Just as when a carpenter or carpenter’s apprentice sees the marks of his fingers or thumb on the handle of his adze but does not know, ‘Today my adze handle wore down this much, or yesterday it wore down that much, or the day before yesterday it wore down this much,’ still he knows it is worn through when it is worn through. In the same way, when a monk dwells devoting himself to development, he does not know, ‘Today my effluents* wore down this much, or yesterday they wore down that much, or the day before yesterday they wore down this much,’ still he knows they are worn through when they are worn through.”
(Nava Sutta SN 22.101translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu)
I have found that these words from the Buddha are useful to remember when you feel that you are getting nowhere with your meditation. An adze is a tool with a wooden handle used by carpenters to hollow out wood. With constant daily use the handle would imperceptibly be worn down. The worn down appearance would only be noticeable after years of use. Likewise with daily meditation. The immediate effects may not be noticeable from day to day, or month to month. Perhaps it is only when we look back after much diligent practice that we recognise its transformative power. So we can remember the simile of the adze handle, trust in the process and let go of the wanting for speedy effects.
*Effluents is a translation of the Pali word asavas and is variously translated as defilements, taints, toxins, pollutants, outflows or effluents. It refers to all the unskilful thoughts and actions that flow out of us. In the Nava Sutta and elsewhere the Buddha describes the goal of the path as the ending of the effluents.
Contributed by Mike
Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn,
a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter.
If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things,
this is the best season of your life.
Chinese Zen master Wu Men
To have an unclouded mind and to see a little more deeply into life is perhaps what Insight meditation is all about. Bristol Insight exists to support us in the endeavour to see with a greater clarity and to respond to life with a deeper appreciation.