Musings of the InsightLA teachers
When I was 26, I fell in love with Buddhist psychology and meditation teachings. I needed a “safe and reliable refuge”. At first, I looked up in awe at my Asian teachers. I was perplexed by life and searching for answers outside of myself. I hoped to enlighten myself through connection with who they were and the compassion they exuded. Over the years of practice, they always pointed us back to enlightened qualities of our own hearts as the real source of inspiration and wonder. Our teachers saw us as young Buddhas, learning how to cultivate, strengthen and trust our own innate sanity, goodness, and understanding.
Teachers point the way and help us envision the possibility of awakening. We begin to trust that awakening can happen in this very life – in fact, in any moment when we’re not preoccupied with wanting our situation to be different, better, luckier... This impatience with the way things are and how it is for us generates stressful thoughts that make us unhappy and block the flow of clarity. Mindfulness allows us to see when our attention is ‘going there’ and choose a more positive and liberating focus for our energy and consciousness.
As we enter the last month of a challenging year for our country, I feel infinite gratitude for the trust of my teachers, for Ram Dass’s teachings of loving awareness and the opportunity to teach at his annual winter retreat with hundreds of people who long to embody them. I’m grateful for the kindness of everyone who helped my injured back to travel here for the week. Our teachers’ sense of spiritual adventure and their trust in our indwelling wisdom spark confidence that this journey is possible for each one of us. May we all continue to practice and learn together. And may we trust our teachers, trusting us on our path!
Yesterday was Thanksgiving, a day of feasting and gathering together. For indigenous people, it’s a day of mourning. Whether celebrating or grieving, we have this special day dedicated to gratitude, a chance to express how grateful we are for so many things; for friendship, family, and love.
At InsightLA we’re grateful to you, our generous and beloved community. And on this holiday more than ever, I’m grateful for the teachings that free our hearts, and show us how to observe thoughts and feelings as they form and dissolve in the stream of consciousness. Here’s why:
Ten days ago, in an excess of enthusiasm at the end of a Tabata class, I did a sideways leap, tripped, and slammed hard enough into the cement sidewalk to fracture a vertebra. The treatment is to ‘decrease activity’, in other words, to stop and rest (not my natural state). In pain during the first days, I could only see this injury as unfortunate. Disappointed, I struggled to keep on doing.
Today, having had to let go of plans and all busyness, my perception has changed dramatically. The facts are the same –- injury, healing -- but now I’m calmly resting, listening to the sounds of life outside as the world goes by, surrounded by care and support – most fortunate. Lying on the couch propped by pillows, I watch shadows and light slant across the floor with the turning earth. This heart is peaceful and still. You know from your own mindfulness practice that when we stop resisting what is, the joy of just being can be the greatest gift of all. Giving thanks!
Did you know about the Veterans Day Moment of Silence Act? It was enacted to encourage two minutes of silence nationwide on each Veterans Day in honor of their service. This Act is definitely an outlier, for it was unanimously passed by both houses of Congress! President Barack Obama signed it into law on Oct. 7, just a year ago.
On Saturday we remember all the people who fought in the many wars of our history; this year for the first time, Military Families are included with Veterans. For the past seven years, InsightLA trained staff at area VA hospitals in mindfulness and self-compassion practices designed especially for our Veterans. The mission was to create a kinder atmosphere in the hospitals, and to offer our Veterans powerful mindfulness-based practices for healing their trauma and isolation. We care.
No matter what you or I think about war, or who goes to fight our wars, or what defines honorable service, we can understand the longing to live for a purpose bigger than just ourselves. America’s warriors are volunteers. They choose to put their lives on the line to serve and protect others – us! Wherever we stand on the increasingly divided political spectrum, we can separate our passionate, wildly divergent beliefs from simple respect for selfless service, personal sacrifice and love of country. Our mutual respect is an honorable path to peace.
I love this Moment of Silence Act — two whole minutes of national mindfulness! Two full minutes of being together in silence as a nation to appreciate our shared humanity and offer respect. Two minutes a year…imagine if we could extend this to two minutes a day. When we practice mindfulness together, little by little we realize that we and our beautiful country, our magnificent blue planet, and our magical, heart-breaking world are not separate. With more and more minutes of loving awareness, we begin to see how all our diversities are part of a larger whole, and feel the stunning unity connecting us in all our multiplicities. We, too, can inspire ourselves to live with the intention to serve, protect, and take care of life – life in the form of you, of me, of all beings everywhere, without exception!
Note From Trudy from Sarah Selders on Vimeo.
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!”