Musings of the InsightLA teachers
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!