Musings of the InsightLA teachers
It was love at first sight, when I first met Coco, a curly apricot poodle mix that melted my heart to a puddle. I was 23 years old and had no idea the walls around my heart were soon to come crumbling down. Up to that point, my relationships with people were complicated at best or otherwise painfully traumatizing. My heart adapted to these wounds by erecting a fortress designed to never let love in again, guarded by the insistent belief that I was undeserving of it anyway.
Slowly but steadily, before I knew it, Coco snuck in past security and nestled her way into my heart, erasing any sense of separation between us. Loving and caring for her more than 13 years transformed my heart. I could no longer deny that I was lovable because Coco truly loved me, day in and day out, never wavering.
Coco was my benefactor, teaching me the language of true love and the gentle, tender tone to use when offering metta to myself and for all beings. Coco taught me the true meaning of mudita when joy flooded my heart every time she ran wild through a field or napped with ease in a blanket of sunbeams. When her beautiful bright spirit left her body heavy in my arms she became my heavenly messenger.
As you know from your own life and losses, through the joys and sorrows of impermanence only love remains. May our broken hearts heal and open to love in its many forms.
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!
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.
How many times do we start a new year with big resolutions, only to quickly fall short and give up?
We assume that change is an either/or proposition — we either “deliver” or we’re out of the game. Mindfulness practice suggests a much more effective approach.
When we meditate, we may begin with close attention to our breath or sensations, but over time we are bound to lose the thread of concentration.
We gently bring the attention back and start fresh. Nothing is lost. It’s all part of the process.
It’s a great metaphor for life. When we are thrown off course — when we fall short in our resolutions or are blown off course -- we simply begin again. No self-judgment or making stories about the future. Just pick up and start again.
Beginning again in meditation, says teacher Sharon Salzberg, is “the replica of having flubbed something at work and needing to begin again, or having strayed from our deepest aspirations chosen course and having to begin again, or finding that we’ve fallen down and needing to stand up and begin again.”
What happens if we berate ourselves for losing our attention in meditation? Or if we decide, “I’m going to focus for 30 minutes without losing my concentration for an instant”. Chances are, we’ll quickly get discouraged, and perhaps even give up meditating altogether.
Same with life and new year’s resolutions. Expecting ourselves to be perfect or being overly self-judgmental simply gums up the works. Just begin again. Right now.
The Buddha compared being overwhelmed by circumstances to being shot by two arrows. The first arrow is the pain of the event. The second arrow is the pain from tormenting ourselves over it. If we stop tormenting ourselves, we instantly eliminate half of our difficulties. Or increase our chances of reaching our goals.
Of course, many would argue that goals or resolutions aren’t very spiritual. Getting too caught up in what we want creates its own suffering, especially when it’s not good for us. So goals need to be held lightly. Especially, since we’re likely to need to begin again many times along the way,
Teacher Phillip Moffitt calls this\ beginning again "and” practice “ When things go wrong, he advocates telling yourself: “ 'Yes, I just got lost, and now I'll just start over.' For example, 'I feel alienated and think my peers don't like me, and I am going to go speak to that guy over there who I usually get along with.’ “
The beauty of this kind of “starting over” is that we don’t have to wait to practice for a new year or the next time we fall down. It’s as close as our next meditation.
This video from the Cleveland Clinic, “Empathy: The Human Connection to Patient Care”, was shown at InsightLA a few years ago. It shows a miraculous seeing into the hearts of others with eyes of compassion. If only we would see beyond the different roles and personalities we all inhabit to the one family we actually are!
Meditation allows us to be still and let the heart flower into new understanding and tenderness—this is the miracle of mindfulness! To paraquote the poet Walt Whitman:
Why, who makes much of a miracle?
As to me I know of nothing else but miracles,
Whether I walk the streets of Los Angeles,
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,
Or wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge of
To me the sea is a continual miracle,
The fishes that swim—the rocks—the motion of the waves—
the ships with people in them,
What stranger miracles are there?
With mindful walking and quiet sitting, we develop the ability to intuit, to see under the surface of things. We tune into universal rhythms of both the human and non-human worlds. Births and celebrations and losses and milestones touch our hearts while the earth turns on its axis and brings the seasons.
Wednesday was the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. Tonight the moon is waning, as a radiant crescent slivers into darkness. Here in the Northern hemisphere, we’ve been living each day a little longer. The majestic sun lingers slow and bright in the afternoon sky. This is the turning, light sheared off days by seconds, then minutes, till the longest night of winter solstice. This is the life of our world.
There is no other life—just this: the gradual turning of immense currents of light and dark, the miracle of incarnation, of empathy and compassion, embodied in each of you, 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.
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.