Musings of the InsightLA teachers
I’m awake at odd hours of the night, having just returned from teaching in China. Though the moon is waning, soft silvery light splashes into my room. Each changing phase evokes the feminine moon cycle; like the movement of ocean tides, women’s bodies are attuned to the rhythm of the moon.
The full moon is an ancient symbol of awakening, of the radiant, illuminated nature of consciousness itself . As the poet Izumi Shikibu (974-1034) wrote a thousand years ago: “Watching the moon. at dawn,. solitary, mid-sky,. I knew myself completely: no part left out.”
Can we appreciate all the phases of the moon, all the stages of our life? Can we see past the patterns of perception that too often eclipse the wonder of being alive? The lunar phases of birth, growth, fullness, then letting go little by little and vanishing into the mysterious darkness – these are the eternal cycles of all life.
Only a week ago, we celebrated Full Moon Festival at our week-long mindfulness meditation retreat outside of Beijing. At the end of evening practice, some of the men served traditional moon cakes to the women, and we sang “Moon River” together, a song Chinese people know! Together we reflected on which phase of the moon we are in at this time in our own lives. What about you?
This week Jack and I celebrated our one-year anniversary by returning to the Santa Monica Pier and riding the Ferris Wheel.
As our gondola rose towards the top, I felt a rush of joy. Last year, as we were rocking gently in midair, Jack proposed—right at the top of the wheel! As the wheel turns, we celebrate one of the happiest times in our lives, so grateful.
I’m grateful for the practice of mindfulness, for the love, joy, compassion, and equanimity that help us humans stay connected to ourselves and in friendly relationship with one another. I’m grateful that we can learn how to infuse our consciousness with self-compassion and tender kinship with all life. And I’m grateful for all of you, who care deeply about your lives, and want to grow and bring more love into our world together. I’m grateful for wisdom practices that show us how to recognize the genius of knowing itself. Instead of getting caught in pettiness and taking it all personally, we can identify with innate, benevolent and creative awareness.
Along with gratitude comes the wish to share our love. How many ways can you think of to share what you love? When you are loving, you can dedicate that love to those who are lonely. When you feel peaceful, offer your peace of mind to people traumatized by violence. When you take a shower, imagine all the people who are homeless, displaced, or refugees reveling in the stream of clean water. When you’re feeling safe and protected, give the gift of fearlessness to everyone vulnerable to racism, oppression, and discrimination. When you swim, dedicate the cool water to rain on places that are hot with hatred. When you sip something to drink, “May this drink satisfy the thirst of craving for power or revenge.” When you eat something sweet, “May this bite sweeten hearts everywhere.”
We can use our imagination to share what we love, the everyday pleasures of our life, posting them on the universe… Whatever joy, gratitude and love come our way, may they radiate to all beings everywhere, limitless and blessed.
P.S. I’m also grateful for the lively, fresh, and whimsical new community we’re creating on social media! A big shout out to Sarah Selders, InsightLA’s Director of Digital Content, and Mark Koberg, Director of Programming and Marketing, for their effort in developing this online space for our sangha to connect, share our love and support one another. We’d be so grateful if you’d join us on Facebook, Instagram & Twitter. It’s easy, just click the icons below.
We live in scary times and we easily get caught in the primal reactions to fight, flee or freeze. Being in those states is miserable; we feel angry, fearful or numb - or all of the above. And it will taint our interactions with the people we love and the wider community.
Where to turn for support? Two spiritual leaders who I think have had a lot of practice with violence, suppression, heartbreak and loss are His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. One living in exile for nearly 60 years now, his country still occupied, his culture and language still violated and suppressed. The other has been fighting years and years against the Apartheid system in South Africa and since its fall the many still ongoing after-effects.
Yet both of them, spiritual leaders for millions of people for decades, have been described time and again as some of the most joyful and happy people around. Which is no coincidence. What can we learn from them?
In his book with the Dalai Lama psychiatrist Howard Cutler describes research on unhappy versus happy people: “In fact, survey after survey has shown that it is unhappy people who tend to be most self-focused and socially withdrawn, brooding and even antagonistic. Happy people in contrast are generally found to be more sociable, flexible, and creative, and are able to tolerate life’s daily frustrations more easily than unhappy people. And, most important, they are found to be more loving and forgiving than unhappy people.”
Desmond Tutu says: “Discovering more joy does not, save us from the inevitability of hardship and heartbreak. In fact, we may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily too. Perhaps we are just more alive. Yet as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreaks without being broken.” What uplifting and hopeful words. And the Dalai Lama has been famously quoted as saying: “Why be unhappy about something if it can be remedied? And what is the use of being unhappy if it cannot be remedied?”
This is so much easier said then done – and yet. As mindfulness practitioners we have an idea how to do that. How to use our practice on and off the cushion to put this into action, one step at a time, one breath at a time.
This is from the introduction to my new book, No Time Like The Present:
“…After more than forty years teaching mindfulness and compassion, the most important message I can offer is this: You don't have to wait to be free. You don't need to postpone being happy.
When Nelson Mandela walked out of Robben Island prison after twenty-seven years of incarceration, he did so with such dignity, magnanimity, and forgiveness that his spirit inspired the world. Like Mandela, you can be free and dignified wherever you find yourself. Freedom is not reserved for exceptional people. No one can imprison your spirit.
When your boss calls and you feel fear or anxiety, when someone in your family is in conflict or duress, when you feel overwhelmed by the growing problems of the world, you have choices. You can be bound and constricted or you can use this difficulty to open and discover how to respond wisely in this unfolding journey. Sometimes life gives us ease, sometimes it is challenging and painful. Sometimes the whole society around you is in upheaval. Whatever your circumstances, you can take a breath, soften your gaze, and remember that courage and freedom are within, waiting to awaken, and to offer to others. Even under the direst conditions, freedom of spirit is available. Freedom of spirit is mysterious, magnificent, and simple. We are free and able to love in this life—no matter what.”
Labor Day, the first Monday in September, was created to celebrate American workers; now the holiday heralds the end of summer. It’s hard for millenials to believe today, but in the 60’s, jobs were readily available. Especially if you were white with a little education, you could take your pick.
Just a few years after graduating from college, I became a single Mom ‘head of household’. Suddenly I needed a job to support my family. Sometimes it was discouraging to work hard at work and at home. I wished life was more spiritual and romantic. We know that when we work on automatic pilot, bored and fantasizing about being elsewhere, this is demeaning of ourselves and those we work with. But until I found a teacher and began practicing the Dharma -- the beautiful teachings of mindfulness and compassion we offer at InsightLA -- perhaps like you, I didn’t know any better.
Before and after work, I spent lots of time sitting in meditation. Trading child care with friends, I sat retreats whenever I could. I began to realize that it’s not just whatwe do that shapes who we are, but how we do it. You won’t be surprised -- but I was amazed to discover that my outlook played a big role in whether work felt depressing or interesting. Soen Nakagawa Roshi used to say that as our wisdom grows, “Our miserable karma becomes our wonderful dharma!” My “miserable karma” of feeling oppressed gradually changed to the “wonderful dharma” of appreciation and gratitude. This can happen anytime we remember to be mindful about how we approach our life.
When we deliberately practice being friendly and mindful, even work that is unchallenging and repetitious can become a fruitful field of practice. Through the quality of our attention, the miserable karma of restlessness and resentment can become the wonderful dharma of renewal and creativity. We come alive! Then we see our work, our labor, as spiritual practice. The whole experience can be transformed.
For almost a year now, I’ve noticed an underlying anxiety, a feeling of being off balance, craving to read the news more than I ever did before. There is a thread of fear stitched into our country, and I feel it, for we aren’t separate from our surroundings. In the midst of summer, there’s a chill in my heart. I’m grateful for the teachings and practice of mindfulness, calm, and equanimity.
What gives rise to the peace of mindfulness? The ancient texts tell us: mindfulness produces mindfulness. What we do with our minds right now conditions the next moment. How we breathe, how we pay attention to what arises in and around us, how we love… What are we doing moment to moment? We’re practicing something all the time. Are we practicing being aware? How are we actually spending the moments we have in this heart-breakingly unsafe, exquisite, magnificent life?
Flannery O’Connor wrote, “Faith comes and goes. It rises and falls like the tides of an invisible ocean. If it’s presumptuous to think that faith will stay with you forever, it’s just as presumptuous to think that unbelief will.” My Korean Zen teacher always encouraged us to “Believe in yourself!” With great humor and intensity, he asked us to have confidence in our minds, to believe in the stability and wisdom of awareness itself, our “not-moving mind.” His definition of faith was trust in awareness, our ability to see clearly.
Even so, sometimes what we see frightens and upsets us. We know our trust, confidence, faith will waver. When we’re mindful, we can see: wavering is both as real and ephemeral as trusting. Like all experiences, they appear and disappear. The skill is being willing to step back and observe the heart’s inevitable movement back and forth, in and out of fear and faltering, with as much kind, understanding awareness as we can summon.
This is how we learn to meet the inevitable ebb and flow of confidence with the “not-moving mind”. Sorrows, fears, joys, perceptions move — who watches and stays still? Awareness and presence are always here when we look deeply. This is how we cultivate mindfulness and compassion with all the insecurity of life. Practice means learning to recognize and support the courage, capacity, and strength already present in us. And mindfulness means remembering to look, again and again. “Believe in yourself!”
“If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”– Heather Heyer, who was tragically killed in Charlottesville, wrote this in what she did not know would be her last Facebook post.
We are saddened about the loss of a young woman who demonstrated against hate, and shocked by the neo-nazi demonstrators who think this violence is justified.
I find this tribute to forgiveness from Heather Heyer’s father profoundly moving. His words, spoken from his grieving heart, remind me of what Dr. King said, in what he did not know would be his last sermon, “I have decided to stick to love.” This is our path — to pay attention, and stick to love.
Yesterday in our early morning Deepening Your Practice class, I found myself quoting not the Buddha, but Pope Francis. The Pope recently gave a clear, moving talk about interconnectedness, lovingkindness and compassion. It was a TED talk! He sat at a desk in the Vatican and spoke to the whole world about a revolution of tenderness, “la tenerezza.” This is the love that is close, intimate and real. As he looked us in the eye, the power of love that connects, comforts, and cares was conveyed kindly and firmly. “Tenderness means using eyes to see each other, the ears to listen to the children, to the poor, to those who are afraid of the future, to the silent cry of our common home, of our sick and polluted earth.”
This is true strength, as we learn in Mindful Self Compassion class, the bravery it takes to open our hearts in genuine compassion for ourselves and our world. At this point in my practice, I feel so porous and permeable that everyone’s suffering permeates my heart, both human and nonhuman beings. It takes both fortitude and joy to bear the openness that comes when we don’t separate ourselves from all that is.
On this day, it’s good to be reminded that governments are only part of the picture. Our fate is in our mindful hands and strong hearts. It’s good to hear words of hope blooming in the midst of humanity’s tragedies. As Pope Francis says, “A single individual is enough for hope to exist and that individual can be you. And then there will be another you and another you and it turns into an us. When there is an ‘us’ there can be a revolution.” Let’s make it a revolution of tenderness, and bring all our courage and love into actual, concrete actions to protect all beings and a planet our human future can live in!
In the spirit of welcome, two of our wonderful team members at InsightLA, Mark and Sarah, chose our recent motto: “You Can Sit With Us”. It’s a reference to a scene in the movie “Mean Girls”. A popular girl who is sitting with her clique at lunch shrieks at a new girl (wearing sweatpants) who tries to join them, “You can’t sit with us!”. We are saying exactly the opposite: whoever you are, whatever kind of ‘clothes’ you wear (color, gender, age, class, abilities…), you can sit with us.
We’re following in the footsteps of the Buddha, who welcomed people from all walks of life into his Sangha. He lifted the lamp of Dharma and said, “Ehipassiko”. That’s Pali for “Come and see.” This is how he invited all suffering beings to walk through the Dharma door of liberty, insight and compassion — just like the poet Emma Lazarus’s sonnet, immortalized at the Statue of Liberty:
“…Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, … and her name
Mother of Exiles…
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses,
yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
At InsightLA, we’re working to make InsightLA a more inclusive space for everyone. However, we will inevitably make mistakes, for we aren’t separate from our society where prejudice and bias are institutionalized and widespread in ways that are mostly invisible to white people. In fact, this week it appears that some in our government intend to strengthen white privilege and exclude more people – “You can’t join us!” – rather than affirm the value and benefit of racial and gender equality, equity, refuge, and economic parity for our nation.
When I wrote about ‘white awareness’ three weeks ago, a friend felt excluded. Even though we don’t intend to offend, when the impact of what we say causes distress, our intention isn’t what matters. Attending to the impact matters most.
In all of our relationships, our efforts to grow in awareness and empathic response sometimes include missteps. We will always have a lot to forgive, in ourselves and in each other! This is how it is in our human world. Come and see.