Musings of the InsightLA teachers
35 years ago, Adelaide Harrison, a kind white-haired lady from South Africa visiting her son Gavin in New England, confided to me in a hushed voice when he left the room, “He only does what he wants to do!” She was shocked at her son’s commitment to listening to his body and trusting his intuition about what he was called to do. I tried to reassure her: he’s not being selfish, he’s following in the footsteps of the Buddha, who taught that the best way to care for others is to be sure we’re taking wise care of our own life energy, too.
Gavin was diagnosed with HIV when it was a death sentence, before the medicines came that generously prolong life. Thanks to his fierce commitment to sustaining the health of his body, he was graced with enough additional years to fulfill his spiritual longing and live a truly enlightened life of meditation, beauty, service and joy. From his work with children orphaned by the AIDS epidemic in South Africa and with gay men living with HIV in the early days, to his poetic teaching, Gavin used his passion and talent to guide and love others.
In his spiritual community in Mt. Shasta, Gavin changed his name to express the profound transformation he went through there. Gavin became their cherished companion Saucha, meaning purity of heart. Three weeks ago, our beloved friend Gavin/Saucha died suddenly of a heart attack. His teacher, Devaji, is leading a meditation retreat in Saucha’s honor, attended by me and the friends who became his family in the last few years. Saucha is very present here. It’s as though I’m looking through his eyes at the twin peaks Shasta and Shastina on the towering volcanic mountain he loved.
Two peaks, one Mt. Shasta: a majestic symbol of the two-fold practice erupting from the depths of molten love at the center of our being. Just as it is one mountain, it is one life, one love we share – we only appear to be divided in two, as self and other. How fortunate we are to have practices to reveal this all-embracing love in both its oneness and twoness! Though we meet, care for each other, go apart, care for ourselves, and meet again in the whirlwind of life, in reality, there’s no separation -- just the twirling dance of falling in love with our self, with each other, and the whole topsy-turvy world. Like Saucha, may every one of us live with the joy and radiance of infinite love!
I’m in the shuttle bus to Albuquerque after teaching a meditation retreat at Vallecitos Mountain Ranch in the mountains of northern New Mexico. After a bumpy 11 miles of dirt road we reach paved road, leaving the beautiful Carson National Forest wilderness behind. Half of the retreatants are on this bus.
Everyone is talking, sharing, laughing, leaning over seatbacks towards one another. What a contrast to the silence of retreat, only accentuated by birdsongs echoing across the granite walls of the valley, the low sigh of wind in the pine woods, the soft song of the river in the distance. The stillness of solitude in nature has vanished.
Though experiences are as different as we are, we all share a common memory of retreat adventures at Vallecitos—sitting and walking meditation, walking through Elk Meadow or along the Continental Divide Trail, lying on the forest floor watching huge clouds float across the cobalt blue sky. We all practiced together as the wild lupine began to bloom, daisies peeked above the grass, two mama does tended their fawns, and little chipmunks scurried around. Learning to be present with our various joys and sorrows, retreat is a time to walk peacefully through the interior topography of our lives.
From a disparate group of individuals arriving to deepen our practice of mindfulness and compassion, we now feel like family. Everyone is happier than when they arrived. A loving community has formed from the common memories we share.
Just home from traveling halfway around the world for a couple weeks of meditation retreat. Since there are wonderful retreat centers right here in California - Spirit Rock, Big Bear, others - why go spend weeks in the heat of Southern India, in an austere ashram accompanied by clouds of mosquitoes, swarms of ants and assorted insects, peacocks wailing and monkeys ready to grab any piece of fruit you may have?
This was a pilgrimage. A journey to Tiruvannamalai where the great sage Ramana Maharshi lived in a cave on the holy mountain Arunachala for 17 years (until his mother came to live with him and he found roomier lodging ☺ ). My lifelong friend Gavin “Saucha” Harrison loved Ramana. I went to sit with Saucha’s beloved teacher, Devaji, as a bow of respect for my dear friend who died suddenly in October, even though my connection to Ramana never went very far beyond having that portrait with his soft, luminous eyes glowing on my altar years ago.
When I finally arrived at Sudananda ashram after the many long hours of travel, I wasn’t sure exactly what I was doing there. What I discovered, after a few days of meditating in the confusion of sitting with a different group, in a different tradition, was how much I enjoyed being a beginner again. I liked the uncertainty of being plunged into a strange new context, truly not knowing what to expect. Faced with new challenges, mindful of the tendency to fall into familiar patterns, I was eager to stay open, to be wide awake.
Suzuki Roshi famously said the goal of practice is to keep our “beginners mind." Not the goal of having any particular meditative experience but the ability to be receptive and present wherever we are. This is the genuine gift of our practice. With loving awareness, we can see the startling mystery of life, of a pear, a hummingbird, the vulnerable eyes of those around us. We can have a fresh innocence of spirit, an open-hearted longing to learn. I wish this spirit for you today and every day.
For years, my vision couldn’t be corrected properly with glasses. Unlike most people, I’ve been waiting eagerly for the time to have cataract surgery where a new lens can be put into the eye. Usually it’s a simple, routine procedure, but with some damage to my corneas, it’s trickier. Thursday was the surgery on the left eye. It went well, but I won’t know the final outcome for a few weeks. Nervous the day before, I reflected, what does it mean to see clearly?
Seeing clearly is being fully present within the experiencing of seeing and what is seen; it’s an active process that can only happen in the present. Seeing this process clearly is mindfulness. Witnessing what’s happening right here through all the senses: seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, thinking, remembering, noticing what grabs our attention – this kind of seeing doesn’t depend on the eyes. It requires the humility to simply receive the moment in clear awareness. It requires the willingness to welcome each moment of sight, sound, taste, touch, thought, feeling, taking it all in, moment by moment.
This kind of seeing is creative, intelligent, awareness discerning how everything it perceives appears and then disappears. We don’t have to try hard, our natural awareness can easily see how a sight, sound or thought happens, peaks, fades, then passes away. We are life witnessing life being born, existing, vanishing. Seeing this way doesn’t depend on glasses or corrective surgery; it relies on cultivating invisible qualities of the heart, like tenderness and patience.
It takes generosity of spirit to receive life as it is. It calls for the inner vision we call mindfulness or loving awareness, an intuitive wisdom. As the little prince said: “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”(Antoine de Saint-Exupéry) May the light of seeing clearly, wisely, “rightly” what’s essential - LOVE - shine through all your holidays!
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.
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.
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.