Musings of the InsightLA teachers
Yesterday evening I was sitting on the beach at sunset, mesmerized by a flock of surfers bobbing on the waves, lit by the last pink light as the sun went down behind the mountains. I jumped into the ocean and played in the surf alongside some children I heard speaking French. A joyful toddler made a break for the waves, running towards us to join the fun before his mother snatched him back to safety.
Do you remember what it was like to be a child? How strange and fascinating the adult world can appear from a kid’s perspective? Even though specific memories may not be recalled, the felt-sense of being young and open - curious, sensitive, exploring - can be alive and strong in our mindfulness and meditation practice.
Children have a special power to imagine what will be healing and bring them happiness. When they feel safe enough, they have the courage, determination, and creativity to insist on whatever they conceive true happiness to be. What made the Buddha unusual was that he had an unlimited humanitarian goal and never lowered his expectations. As children do with their desires, he imagined the ultimate happiness and freedom and then cherished his longing for that as his highest priority. He pushed the limits of what his spiritual teachers taught. He wasn’t afraid to want a lot.
We can see a link between the beginner’s mind of children and the imagination and creativity of a grown-up Buddha. Resting in the often forgotten world of childhood—fresh, immediate, spontaneous, wide awake, immersed in the reality of here-and-now—can be a heartfulness training for our ‘been there, done that” adult minds. We can feel refreshed and renewed by being around the determination and delight of our young friends. Like us, children flower in the radiance of loving awareness. This is our practice: to shine this light on ourselves, each other, and our world.
Walking on ancient stone floors uneven from centuries of footsteps, stepping over bronze plaques commemorating trials and beheadings for high treason and state visits of yore, under the soaring vaulted beams of the 13thcentury Westminster Hall, the ceiling like a huge upside-down ship, we marvel our way through majestic medieval buildings gently sinking into the marshland below the river Thames. This is Parliament, in London.
Our guide is Chris Ruane, a 10-year meditation practitioner and tall, welcoming MP (Member of Parliament). Chris was inspired by Tim Ryan’s Mindful Nation to found the UK All-Party Parliamentary Mindfulness Group, taught by Chris Cullen. In just five years, their work has touched politicians from 40 countries and hosted the first-ever international summit.
Jack, our granddaughter Allie, and I meet with the well-organized Mindfulness Initiative team, a working group of 20+ people from various disciplines sharing the efficacy and progress of mindfulness practice in their fields. To witness their international efforts become global reality fills my eyes with tears of gratitude and joy!
The leaders we met with have a great responsibility; they carry both the dismay and dreams of the people they represent. They’ve found the practices of mindfulness and compassion invaluable to quiet and clear their minds, enable them to listen to each other ‘across the aisle,' and learn to respond from the deeper calling of their hearts. They tell us it has changed their lives. You, too, carry your own disquiet, your dreams and great possibilities for the world. May your life, too, be guided by the power of your simple, sustained practice of loving awareness and caring presence.
When I first came to InsightLA in the early days to take a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course, I was eager to deepen my practice. I was making a movie in Central America and knew I would miss classes. I asked Trudy, how can I make them up? She smiled and assured me we would find a way. Sure enough, her co-teacher Christiane Wolf came to my house and taught me in my living room.
I have never forgotten that incredible generosity. Recently, I finished co-teaching a class with Christiane. At the end of each session, we talked about the challenges and joy of teaching mindfulness. After all these years, she is still my teacher, and we are spiritual friends.
Again and again, the Buddha taught that friendship is essential for a fulfilled spiritual life. He even went on to say that admirable friendship, companionship and camaraderie are not just an important part of the journey -- friendship enables us to practice and embody the whole eightfold path (wise view, wise intention, wise speech, conduct, livelihood, wise effort, mindfulness, and meditation). When you have trustworthy people as friends, companions, & colleagues, the Buddha is right -- you can truly walk this path to the end of suffering, the end of loneliness. I have found good friendship to be the key to my spiritual growth. Sharing the silence of a sit or walking in mindfulness with others deepens my practice immeasurably.
Each month all of the teachers of InsightLA meet to practice and study together. Last week at our teacher development group, I looked around the room of twenty-five teachers and realized I now have a whole room full of admirable companions, my spiritual friends - people I know, respect, and love. They are part of my practice community, my sisters, and brothers.
Practicing mindfulness and compassion is not a solitary path; the people that you sit with become your community. You are no longer alone on your path. Come and join us at InsightLA, you, too, can start a life of true spiritual friendship
Ron will be teaching a class series called Changes & Transitions beginning July 8th.
Trudy and I have had the privilege of staying at Montagne-Alternative, a visionary community high in the Swiss Alps. The community has rebuilt an ancient and semi-deserted Swiss Mountain village to create an elegant center for groups to learn integrated and healthy ways of development. They foster innovative business conferences and creative community living. It is inspiring to see this example, shared by people in every country who value compassion, care for the earth, social well-being and shared prosperity.
The Buddha called this the creation of Wise Society...based on mutual respect, protection and care for one another and the environment. We can contribute to this possibility in our own community, just where we are.
With all the troubles in the world, let's work to create a new way, based on generosity. compassion, virtue and wisdom. Let's stretch out our hands and protect the vulnerable, and plant and nourish what is beautiful. It is possible, the seeds are in each one of us.
Our mindfulness rests on a foundation of compassion. It works like this: as we become more compassionately aware of our own suffering, we can perceive the suffering of others more accurately. A growing sense of being part of one family comes from cultivating loving awareness of our similarity as human beings, our oneness. As this realization deepens, we find there is only one possible response to pain and suffering: to care for one another and help out where we can.
We now know that childhood traumas (called ACE’s, adverse childhood experiences) dramatically affect children’s health across their whole lifetime. Today, we are learning how to prevent the progression from early adversity to disease and early death. Yet today, 2,500 children, including infants and toddlers, of parents who may be fleeing for their lives have been taken from their parents, the one constant in their lives, and sent far away. We don’t even know where they are. Just writing these words fills my heart with grief. I have spent much of my professional life as a psychotherapist working with children and families to protect and promote their mental health and their healing from ACE’s.
You don’t have to be a highly trained clinician to know that losing a parent – let alone being forcibly separated and held prisoner far from each other - is one of the most stressful experiences children can have. All children, including those of immigrant families seeking asylum in our country, deserve to be protected from horror and heartbreak. To deliberately inflict this Adverse Childhood Experience on them is nothing less than child abuse.
Two weeks ago, I asked, what is a compassionate, enlightened response to pain? To take refuge in loving awareness, in friendship, in wisdom and self-compassion teachings - speaking our truth in community, raising our voices on behalf of what we care about.
For those of you who are interested, click HERE for some resources.
While our political views may differ completely, we can all agree: first, do no harm -- and protect kids!
There are simple ways we can shape our experiences to include more compassion. I have a teacher, for example, who bakes beautiful pies once a year to bring to a family gathering. When it comes time to transport them, she has to be very careful. She drives slowly and cautiously. Other drivers, unaware of her precious cargo, don’t seem to appreciate when she drives so gingerly. You can imagine the line of frustrated drivers stuck behind her.
There are other times throughout the year when she finds herself sitting, irritated, behind a driver moving too slowly for her liking or one taking a little to long to respond to a green light. One day she caught herself feeling upset at another driver and realized that she has been that person. At least one day a year, she has been the slow driver holding up the others. “That’s me,” she thought. “I’ve been there. Maybe they’re moving slowly because they’re carrying precious cargo. Maybe they’ve got pies.”
She caught herself in a moment of suffering, as a result of her irritation and frustration. Turning mindful attention on how she felt created spaciousness. In this space, she was able to choose. She used compassion for herself and non-judgment to turn her suffering into understanding. She transformed the tension that she felt into the recognition that she and the other driver are actually the same.
Every day there are countless opportunities to use mindful awareness to access the empathy that lives within us. If we can continue to be open to awareness, compassion can reveal itself in a myriad of situations- maybe turning a frustrating drive home into a tender-hearted memory of family; and yummy pies!
I've been spending time with a close friend, a deep practitioner who recently had surgery. He's in a lot of physical pain as he recovers. Pain is hard to bear. On top of that, we tend to judge ourselves for the way we manage it. Even the Buddha had backaches as he grew older; there were times when he couldn't teach. He had to lie down because it hurt too much.
Pain asks to be held with compassion rather than judgment. We can get through it, but not by comparing ourselves to a dharma fantasy of Buddha-like transcendence and elegant equanimity. Sometimes it's just too hard. To acknowledge when it feels unworkable, to ask for help and offer a humble bow of surrender - these can be sane and healthy responses to strong pain.
In the same way, we're also carrying our country's collective pain. We're witnessing children being separated from parents and being placed in awful facilities, unprotected from fear and pain. No matter where you stand on immigration and asylum issues, basic human rights accorded by international law do matter. Protecting children matters. Love matters.
In the face of wild emotional heartache or physical misery, we often feel helpless, lonely, despairing. But this reaction leads to distress, or depression, even suicide, as Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain make tragically clear. Our practice calls for compassion for the pain of all beings everywhere (which includes ourselves). What is a compassionate, enlightened response to pain? To take refuge in loving awareness, in friendship, in wisdom and self-compassion teachings - speaking our truth in community, raising our voices on behalf of what we care about. Turning towards each other, sharing what's true for us awakens the great heart of compassion and frees us to respond wisely to the struggles of our world.
This is special time of year for me. When I was 17 I found the Dharma, and I often joke that because of my inner and outer turmoil and suffering I was highly motivated to practice. The truth is that's not a joke at all. There's a Buddhist phrase "practice like your hair's on fire." This expresses a sense of spiritual urgency. I related to this very much, and for me it was like my heart was on fire.
The Dharma was truly my life, my path. I didn't feel I had a choice. 10 years ago I moved to LA on a whim and met Trudy Goodman and found InsightLA before we had a center. It was a very different time for meditation in Los Angeles and I marvel at how things have grown. I have been teaching mindfulness and the Dharma since 2011 when Trudy heard me give a 10 minute Dana talk (a talk requesting support for the center and teachings) at the end of one of her evening teachings. She pulled me aside afterwards and asked me to join her first teaching cohort at InsightLA. Later on, I was honored to begin subbing for her Sunday mornings when she was away.
That year a few of my senior colleagues were given teacher authorization in the Theravada tradition in a beautiful ceremony with Trudy, Sharon Salzberg and Jack Kornfield, and then one year ago, myself and several of my colleagues at InsightLA were given our own powerful teacher authorization ceremony with Trudy and Jack. We also celebrated friends and colleagues who had graduated from the Spirit Rock Retreat Teacher training and three others dear to me who are in the current training cohort with Dharma friends and colleagues I've practiced with for many years.
This past Tuesday was the buddhist holiday called Vesak, honoring the Buddha's birth and enlightenment, and the one year anniversary of my authorization. I want to share my gratitude for the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, and for all my teachers. The transformation of my heart and mind is beyond words that can be expressed here. I feel so fortunate to live aligned with what matters so deeply to me and to share that with people. My only wish is to be able to pass on a fraction of what I've received.
P.S. In August, I'm leading a 6 night night silent meditation retreat in the Andalusian region of Southern Spain, located in the beautiful foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. This region is gorgeous and known for its tranquil and peaceful energy. If this is something you might be interested in learning more about click HERE.
Decades ago in the 70’s, before the Dalai Lama became famous, his smiling face was on the cover of a newspaper called The Snow Lion. The quote under his photo struck me so powerfully that I cut out the cover page and stuck it on a kitchen cupboard where it yellowed and tattered over the years. That piece of paper is long gone, but I always remember what he said: “Maybe I am the last Dalai Lama. It’s all right. There’s nothing wrong.”
His words shook me, a young practitioner. How can it be all right for his legacy and tradition to disappear in the slow genocide unfolding in Tibet? How to understand what the Dalai Lama said, given how much his people rely on his compassionate and courageous leadership?
Uttered in the context of Tibet’s tragedy, those words - “It’s all right. There’s nothing wrong.” - inspired me through many sad, hard times in my life. I remember sitting quietly in the meditation hall, tears of grief streaming down my face, simultaneously knowing that deep down, it’s still OK. Mysteriously, it is all right. Not the breezy ‘all right’ of “it’s all good”, which can be a dismissal or denial, but the “all right” of humbly embracing our broken-heartedness with loving awareness. Then we can discover the “all right” of compassionate presence and grace.
Next time you feel that all is lost, try sitting down right in the midst of your grief or despair. Sitting and walking mindfully in meditation, it’s easier to be with ourselves more lovingly. Through the courage to meet life as it is and drink it in - straight up! - we embody the compassion of our clear, radiant true nature. Deeply knowing: yes, this heart is aching. And it’s all right. There’s nothing wrong.
Frank Ostaseski is an internationally respected Buddhist teacher and visionary cofounder of Zen Hospice Project, and founder of the Metta Institute.
The Five Invitations: What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully
Life and death are a package deal. You cannot pull them apart.
In Japanese Zen, the term shoji translates as "birth-death." There is no separation between life and death other than a small hyphen, a thin line that connects the two.
We cannot be truly be alive without maintaining an awareness of death.
Death is not waiting for us at the end of a long road. Death is always with us, in the marrow of every passing moment. She is the secret teacher hiding in plain sight. She helps us to discover what matters most. And the good news is we don't have to wait until the end of our lives to realize the wisdom that death has to offer.
Without a reminder of death, we tend to take life for granted, often becoming lost in endless pursuits of self-gratification. When we keep death at our fingertips, it reminds us not to hold on to life too tightly. Maybe we take ourselves and our ideas a little less seriously. We let go a little more easily. When we recognize that death comes to everyone, we appreciate that we are all in the same boat, together. This helps us to become a bit kinder and gentler with one another.
In Buddhism, the reflection on death is an essential spiritual practice. It is not seen as ideology to be adopted as a protection against death. Rather, it is an opportunity to become more intimate with death as an inevitable part of life. While such reflections may seem morbid to some, I have found the practice of cultivating a wise openness to death to be life affirming. The value of these reflections is that we see how our ideas and beliefs about death are affecting us right here, right now.
This Sunday, Frank Ostaseski joins InsightLA's founding teacher Trudy Goodman at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Hollywood Forever, the home of our Eastside Monday Night Sitting Group, is the perfect setting for the exploration of what death can teach us about living fully. The program is open to all and will include mindfulness meditation, talks by the teachers, experiential exercises and discussion.