Musings of the InsightLA teachers
For years when I was young, I struggled with a kind of low-level anxiety, as though something nameless and forgotten was always nipping at my heels. My relationships, passionate at first, always seemed to end in dissatisfaction. My mind jumped around, and I followed it. When I found this practice, it was hard for me at first. But even though I struggled to sit still and pay attention, just making that effort began to help me settle down and relax into my own being. For the first time in my young adult life, I felt at home in my own skin, in my own life.
This is why we practice mindfulness and meditation. Little by little, breath by breath, step by step, we learn how to be present and aware. Moment by moment, we develop and strengthen our power of attention so we can choose how to use our minds, how to open our hearts and live our deepest values. How we keep our awareness in this very moment is what really matters, for the present moment is actually the only one we have to live – the past is a memory, the future still a dream. The NOW moment is the most powerful. We learn how to be more steadily loving and kind so when we inevitably hit a rough patch, even though nothing may change in our external circumstances, our whole view and perspective on what’s happening can shift, bringing healing and relief.
We discover that the body is a rudder that can steer us through wild mind waves into the calm waters of loving awareness. And the more we can notice and be present with what’s happening, the more we quiet down and discover moments of stillness and peace that never seemed possible before. Loving awareness of the body is a great practice for busy people to calm down and release stress compassionately, even when there isn’t time to go away on meditation retreats or practice more intensively. Our body and breath are always with us and as we go through the ups and downs of life, becoming more joyfully conscious of the aliveness of the body, we realize our kinship with all life.
One of the great benefits of mindfulness practice is that we begin to understand: just as I go through hard times, everyone does. It’s part of being human. We make mistakes, we forgive ourselves, we learn that we’re not alone. This is what it’s like to be a human being, mindful of our unique, individual life happening in the vastness of all space and time. Being alive is an endless invitation to step into the magic of infinitely mysterious, ineffable being, manifesting as this very moment. I hope you’re enjoying the mindfulness practices that not only help you create a meaningful, purposeful life but also connect you to the immense current of creation flowing through you, as you.
I watched with awe and appreciation Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony and the immense courage it took to share her painful history and trauma. I was floored by her commitment to her “civic duty” (her words). Let this just sink in for a moment: as an act of patriotism she bared her soul in front of the world for her country, knowing that without her story on the record, Congress’ decision in its selection of a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court would not be fully informed. I also watched with deep sadness and horror as her brave truth-sharing was dismissed and undermined by fellow citizens, media commentators, and members of Congress. On display: an epidemic inability to hear and stay open to pain and consider the possibility that the story shared was for the common benefit, not partisan point-scoring.
I am reminded of similar acts of courage playing out on a much smaller scale in our meditation communities across the country. Meditation practitioners are standing up and speaking out about how the communities themselves have been formed that make them emotionally or psychologically unsafe. They are pointing out the ways the teachings are presented that prevent them from being universally accessible. As scary or daunting or even re-traumatizing as it is for them to share their truth, these courageous community members are speaking out with the intention to create more authentic, heartfelt spaces of shared practice and learning.
But unlike what’s happening on the national stage, those of us who meditate together learn how to turn towards our painful stories, stay steady and open to them. We have tools to help us when the going gets tough. When resistance inevitably comes up, we notice, ground, take a few breaths, and listen when someone says, “This is how it is for me.” It’s difficult to stay open to pain, especially when we may have wittingly or unwittingly played a part in it. With our commitment to loving awareness, these stories of suffering can be a gift – a wake up call, a precious opportunity to put our practices of mindfulness and compassion in action. We can explore ways of creating “a more perfect union” of practice and community (I am very much looking forward to David Treleaven’s upcoming teachings on trauma-sensitive mindfulness).
This work is not easy. To me, it is our “patriotic” duty towards our meditation communities to stay with it. We can be inspired by the courage of those of us who are willing to share their pain so that we can be better together. We can re-commit to opening our hearts. We can re-commit to turning tenderly towards suffering and using it as the path to transformation. We are not in a hurry. We are here to listen to each other. We are here to be kind – to ourselves and others - and to learn the truth of what is. We are here to awaken together. This is why we practice. This is what we are here to do.
On Rosh Hashanah Sunday, someone asked a poignant question. She wondered what to do? Yom Kippur is coming, the holiest of days of atonement, repentance, and she’s not ready to forgive - not at all. Her fear about facing this day without doing what is required reminded me of being a young girl and wondering if God would inscribe me in the symbolic “book of life” and allow me to live another year.
My family was not observant, so I only thought about God occasionally. I figured God didn’t have time to think of me too often, either, which was a relief. Being a little kid, I hadn’t done anything worse than fight with my siblings or steal candy, so I reckoned I’d get to live.
During the high holidays, observant Jews do the difficult psychological work of self-examination and spiritual change: asking for forgiveness, resolving not to repeat mistakes, wiping the slate clean of grudges and resentments to begin a fresh new year. God doesn’t sort out personal relationships; we humans have to do that – to apologize for hurting others, forgiving those who ask - so that we can bear to sit with ourselves in loving awareness meditation without having that body cringe of shame about who we are.
What if we aren’t ready to forgive? Forgiveness can’t be forced. We can have compassion for all the suffering without condoning unforgivable harms. We can have boundaries. It’s OK to protect ourselves from seeing the person who harmed us, even if they’re a family member. We can ask for help, like the questioner on Sunday. And little by little, we leave behind whatever separates us from the joy of our own aliveness. The book of life symbolizes our own aliveness here, the sense of being present and awake. To live is our birthright – to be at home in our lives, to feel worthy and appreciative of the life that has been given to us.
A Note From Trudy:
Over the decades since Larry Rosenberg founded the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, few people have ever been allowed the honor of being in residence there. For nine years my friend George Mumford lived there, practicing Vipassana (Insight or Mindfulness meditation) with great humility, steadiness and brilliant generosity. Later, as a sports psychologist, George was the mindfulness and meditation coach for the Chicago Bulls and LA Lakers during the time they won six NBA championships!
When asked if Michael Jordan has the strongest concentration he ever witnessed, George responded, “Yeah, but it’s also mental toughness and will to win. I study excellence, and it doesn’t matter what domain a person who is excellent at what they do is in – there’s a meditative quality to their training and performance…certain qualities are there: wise effort, wisdom, concentration or faith, and confidence.
He added, “You can’t do it without the meditation practice. This is not just about being good in sports; this is warrior training. It’s a full-time job. Warriors have known this for a long time. You have to be able to deal with your emotions and be clear about what you are attempting to do and how you’re going to do it. Mindfulness develops this skill.“
George is one of the best and most versatile teachers I know. He has taught all over the country with his vast understanding and courageous heart. Now he’s training the Miami Dolphins, and this Saturday, coming to InsightLA. He teaches radical awareness: “Whatever is on your mind, that’s your meditation. Meditation is a way of life!”
We can live wisely only when we accept the reality of change. Where I lived as a Buddhist monk, impermanencewas central to the curriculum. We deliberately contemplated change, our moods, the seasons, the passing of visitors, our aging, and the movement of our breath until we could see life as an unstoppable river. When Zen master Shunryu Suzuki was asked to sum up all Buddhist teaching he offered this simple phrase: “Not always so.”
Indeed, it was in the forest monastery that I began to taste the beauty of change and transformation. I remember how vividly mindfulness practice awakened my senses. I grew up in a suburban intellectual family, and the outdoors meant the backyard. But in the monastery, the temple buildings were in a central clearing, surrounded by towering teak trees and tropical vines, by thick woods filled with wild birds and cobras. Our small huts were scattered throughout this forest.
In this forest I learned to feel the turning of the seasons, the sweaty robes and loud singing of the cicadas on hot summer nights, the muddy feet and endless dampness of the monsoon rains, the dry winds of the cool season when I would wrap my towel under my robe for an extra layer of warmth. This was the first time I could actually watch the slowly changing phases of the moon and the appearance of morning and evening planets at dawn and dusk. I came to love these rhythms.
Now I bow to change everywhere. I have learned to be gracious with it. Of course like everyone I have suffered my losses, deaths of dear ones, divorce, and certain failures. With compassion and clarity, we can see that every one of us participates in the constant cycles of life’s change and renewal, seasons of grief and suffering, as well as seasons of joy, celebrating life’s renewed marvels and beauty.
Earlier this year, a man who played professional football with the NFL for a few years came to sit with us at InsightLA. As we talked, he described how he gave his all to the game. Like some other players, he chose to use the power of his visibility as a pro athlete to call attention to racial injustice. But then, he and the other teammates who had been ‘taking a knee’ during the national anthem were required to stay in the locker room while it played. As a meditator, he chose to follow his values and his heart. He retired.
However we may feel about a controversial issue, can we practice being present and listen to someone who completely disagrees? Can we hang in there with each other, and learn what goes into our conflicts? Studies have shown that mindfulness and compassion practices can reduce implicit bias which increasingly divides and polarizes us. Too often these days, I hear “I can’t stand to talk with my sister/brother/parents/relatives/co-workers about anything to do with politics!” How can we solve the many challenges facing us without listening to each other, without civil political dialogue and respectful conversation?
Recently, a Texan candidate named Beto O’Rourke was asked by a veteran if he thought players’ taking a knee was disrespectful. Beto welcomed the question. He saw it as a chance to discuss a contentious subject in a direct, empathic way, informed by his willingness to understand some historical reasons and precedents for the silent, non-violent, passionate protests. You can watch the video here. See what you think – and feel free to let us know.
This last week I again had the great pleasure and honor to teach a silent retreat in Germany, this time in Bavaria. Fifty brave souls, about a third of them new to retreat practice, showed up. Many of them secular mindfulness teachers or aspiring teachers. The place was magical: A medieval castle on top of a hill, first mentioned in local scriptures in the 12th century, surrounded by a big landscaped park with faux romantic ruins, perfect for walking meditation and reflections on nature.
Two male peacocks, one in natural colors and one white, watched our every move and commented the bell ringing with their cries. We decided that their cat-like “MEOUW-MEOUW!” could also be heard as “NOW- NOW!” What a fitting reminder!
After the first few days when the minds were caught oscillating back and forth between sleepiness and restlessness the repeated daily rhythm and the lack of outer distractions allowed for peacefulness and contentment to arise. Awareness practice became more easeful and kind and allowed for insights to arise, like these:
~We can see how we keep ourselves busy in order not to feel.
~We can see how much we believe that in order to be worthy of love we need to work hard and be perfect.
~We can see how we hold on so strongly to our roles, even on retreat, where many of them are just memories or projections.
~We can see how everything arises and passes away, inside and out, and relax back into this truth that nature shows us everywhere.
And (as Mark Nepo so beautifully describes it) we can have glimpses...
“..into the endless breath
that has no breather,
into the surf that human
shells call God(dess).”
With love and respect,
P.S. Trudy and I are co-leading InsightLA's 5 night Fall Insight Meditation Residential Retreat. The retreat is being held at the beautiful Royal Way Retreat Center, just a couple hours outside of LA, in Lucerne Valley. Hope you can sit with us!
Once when I was teaching at a Spirit Rock retreat years ago, Jack was giving the evening dharma talk, I was so tired that I fell sound asleep like a child listening to a bedtime story. I was sitting up straight in perfect cross-legged posture on the stage right in front of everyone in the meditation hall. This is a strange ability one can develop after years of meditating!
It was interesting to fall asleep and wake up there. This is the sleepiness that can hinder meditation, quaintly called “Sloth & Torpor” in the ancient texts. Along with mild embarrassment, I felt surprised that I’d let myself relax that deeply sitting up in front of 100 retreatants. It was sweet to realize I felt safe enough to do that. I’m not recommending sleeping during meditation, but when it happens, we can appreciate being in a place where we feel protected enough to let down our guard and rest.
Today I’m tired again, filled with a kind of political exhaustion from the corrosive onslaught of negative news. This is a time to ground myself in the wisdom of what I deeply trust in our practice. It’s a time to find the stillness within that reveres all people for their powerful potential to be caring and good. It’s a time to gather in kindness and community, so the worldly winds don’t buffet us as much - time to lend each other our spiritual strength and feel the value of simply coming to practice with others. What a gift to have a spiritual home where we can rest our weary minds right here at InsightLA!
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.