Musings of the InsightLA teachers
I wake up to a clear winter sunrise in LA. It’s already the fifth day of the new year. Like a dream, the holidays are past, whether sparkling or somber. It’s 2019 now. Here we are, rowing our boats gently down the swift stream of time. Is life really but a dream, as our childhood song tells us? Who creates this dream life? Is it a lucid dream, where we are aware that we are dreaming?
Living immersed in our culture, it’s not easy to stay aware of the ephemeral, dream-like nature of this life. I sometimes find myself asleep in a way, distracted - check my phone, intend to answer an email but get drawn into answering a text and then forget the email. I know I’m not alone, if this happens to me, it probably happens to you, too. We’re already living in a virtual reality, a dream world where we forget who and what we truly are.
One New Year’s Eve, when people gathered to reflect on how they’d fulfilled their intentions for the year past, a very accomplished young teacher laughed and confessed: “I can’t even remember what my intentions were!” Her honesty was full of self-acceptance and light-hearted compassion. This is how it is sometimes: dreaming of a being a better self, we set intentions and…forget. It’s OK.
The grace of mindfulness and meditation is remembering. We learn how to step back from forgetfulness into loving awareness, any time we remember to wake up. Waking up, we perceive time itself - present, past & future -- has the quality of a dream. If life is but a dream – let’s make this year a good dream!
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.
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.
The Buddha’s original instructions for meditation, or dhyana, ask us to go into a secluded forest and sit under a tree, a quiet place to allow deep concentration. If you’ve ever meditated outside in nature, you can feel the support of plants, landscape, the earth, just as you are buoyed by different energy when you sit in a group from when you sit alone.
Jack and I are in Kyoto, Japan, for the first time! We spent our first day visiting majestic monasteries and Zen gardens. Everyone takes off their shoes at the entrance to a temple and puts on worn slippers. We pad silently around the soft wood floors, respecting the quiet rhythm of Zen temple life. Around each corner, gardens display subtle patterns of rock and gravel, moss and water, curved stone bridges carrying us from the preoccupations of our human world into the beauty and harmony of the vast cosmos.
When I gaze at the ineffable elegance and grace of one simple garden, I think of you and me. We, like Zen gardens, are exquisitely designed to express the sweep and power of nature in a small space - in this body. With quiet, mindful presence, we don’t have to go off to visit faraway Zen temples or ancient Japanese gardens to realize how this very body -- this personal life of you and me -- reveals infinite dimensions of universal life.
It’s very early Spring and the branches are bare. A few daring plum blossoms have burst open and little red camellias brave the cold. Stopping to savor a garden, we tune into the eternal stillness and flow of this life we share. A thirteenth-century Chinese master, Wumen Huikai, rakes the gravel of our flowing thoughts and feelings into one of my favorite Zen poems:
春有百花秋有月 The spring flowers, the autumn moon;
夏有涼風冬有雪 Summer breezes, winter snow.
若無閑事挂心頭 If useless things do not clutter your mind,
更是人間好時節 You have the best days of your life.
All of us at InsightLA want to share our deep sadness for the tragic events that occurred at the Tree of Life Synagogue and the shooting Friday at a yoga studio in Tallahassee.
Places of worship, sharing, community, or just somewhere that we can simply sit quietly - are sacred spaces. These spaces, and all spaces, are infinitely worthy of safety for all.
The Buddhist teachings that InsightLA is founded on are strongly rooted in the principles of non-violence and non-harming. It is these principles that we wish to communicate with every act, thought and will of compassion.
At InsightLA we know that when someone shares in practice with us, they are meeting us in a place beyond words, through connection of the heart. When something tragic befalls a member of our community, it ripples throughout us all. We send metta to the community of the Tree of Life Synagogue and to the people of Pittsburgh. Know that InsightLA is here for you.
We resonate with the larger community of Jewish people around the world, and with all beings who have suffered unbearable loss. May we all find a safe and reliable refuge in our places of practice and prayer.
We send wishes for healing, and our hearts meet in the place beyond words. Here is a video of President Obama singing “Amazing Grace” at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, after the tragic shooting there.
Please remember to vote with your heart on Tuesday!
A dozen years ago, I met an accomplished young yoga teacher from Toronto, Michael Stone. Michael had done a year of solo retreat in the northern woods of Canada and was diving deep into Buddhist meditation practice. We went for a long walk on the beach, Michael gesturing and tilting his head as he told his story. I admired his sincerity and dedication—he combined arduous and impeccable yoga training with social activism and a deep love of contemplative practice. That he was killer handsome didn’t hurt. His eyes were clear, his smile wide and warm, and his nose had just enough Semitic tilt to evoke affectionate memories of the men in my family. We became friends.
I traveled to Canada to teach a seminar for Michael’s group about mindfulness in psychotherapeutic work with kids. He came and taught at InsightLA. We shared our immense caring for the lives of children. We walked the streets of Old Town in Toronto, ate lunch at a hip French café, traded stories of love, heartbreak and dharma derring-do. I was touched by his eagerness to learn—everything.
Years passed. As our centers flourished and expanded, the demon busyness gobbled up our friendship. So I was glad to hear from Michael a couple years ago, asking me to read a book he was writing with a friend, a series of letters, intimate and open-hearted, about being partners and fathers. And then, once again, Michael fell off my radar—until I received a text message on Friday from Kristin Lehman, an InsightLA student who studies with him in Vancouver: Beloved Trudy. Michael Stone is in a coma. I wanted to let you know. Sending you metta and love always from far away.
Michael died Sunday evening. His wife Carina Stone, expecting their third baby, said, “He is the most generous, loving person I have known. I am grateful, I am sad. We are connected.” She shares the story of his suffering on his Facebook page and offers us the stark wisdom of the Zen evening verse:
Life and death are of supreme importance
Time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost
Let us awaken, awaken
Do not squander your life
And immense love:
May all beings be happy
May all beings be healthy
May all beings be safe and free from danger
May all beings be free from their ancient and twisted patterns
May all beings be free from every form of suffering
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.