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.
The Buddha taught that we can develop loving-kindness by visualizing how a caring mother holds her beloved child. Love is our true nature, but it is often covered over by a protective layer of fear. The Buddhist path uses systematic trainings to cultivate love. These trainings are found throughout the Buddhist world. They strengthen our capacity for love, compassion, joy and peace. The practices that develop these qualities combine repeated thoughts, visualization and feelings. These trainings have been employed by millions of practitioners to transform their own hearts.
Loving-kindness is the first of these trainings. In loving-kindness practice, students visualize themselves and repeat four or five traditional phrases of well wishing, such as “May I be safe and healthy. May I be happy.” Along with the recitation, a bodily sense of love is established and the feelings of loving-kindness are invited.
Loving-kindness develops as we repeat these phrases thousands of times, over days and months…. I often recommend a year of developing loving-kindness for oneself. Because of the shame and unworthiness we carry, loving ourselves becomes a particularly powerful practice. It doesn’t create love. It opens the pathway to the gold of our natural love. Then it can spill over to bless all we touch.
Spend NEXT SATURDAY, November 3rd, with JACK KORNFIELD, for a day of practice at InsightLA's 2018 benefit, AWAKENED HEART.
Join us for a joyful day of transformative teachings, wonderful stories, heart practices, and awakening together. In these turbulent and divisive times, more than ever we need ways to steady our hearts, calm our minds, clear our vision and inspire our action. We will cultivate the qualities of courage and love, how to dwell in kind awareness, and how to enhance our natural capacity for care and connection, towards ourselves, our society and all beings. Metta and goodwill–combined with compassion, forgiveness, sympathetic joy and equanimity–are the revolutionary and necessary powers that can transform our lives and mend our world.
10 am - 4 pm
Saturday November 3rd
First Presbyterian Church
Santa Monica CA
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.
I watched with awe and appreciation Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony and the immense courage it took to share her painful history and trauma. I was floored by her commitment to her “civic duty” (her words). Let this just sink in for a moment: as an act of patriotism she bared her soul in front of the world for her country, knowing that without her story on the record, Congress’ decision in its selection of a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court would not be fully informed. I also watched with deep sadness and horror as her brave truth-sharing was dismissed and undermined by fellow citizens, media commentators, and members of Congress. On display: an epidemic inability to hear and stay open to pain and consider the possibility that the story shared was for the common benefit, not partisan point-scoring.
I am reminded of similar acts of courage playing out on a much smaller scale in our meditation communities across the country. Meditation practitioners are standing up and speaking out about how the communities themselves have been formed that make them emotionally or psychologically unsafe. They are pointing out the ways the teachings are presented that prevent them from being universally accessible. As scary or daunting or even re-traumatizing as it is for them to share their truth, these courageous community members are speaking out with the intention to create more authentic, heartfelt spaces of shared practice and learning.
But unlike what’s happening on the national stage, those of us who meditate together learn how to turn towards our painful stories, stay steady and open to them. We have tools to help us when the going gets tough. When resistance inevitably comes up, we notice, ground, take a few breaths, and listen when someone says, “This is how it is for me.” It’s difficult to stay open to pain, especially when we may have wittingly or unwittingly played a part in it. With our commitment to loving awareness, these stories of suffering can be a gift – a wake up call, a precious opportunity to put our practices of mindfulness and compassion in action. We can explore ways of creating “a more perfect union” of practice and community (I am very much looking forward to David Treleaven’s upcoming teachings on trauma-sensitive mindfulness).
This work is not easy. To me, it is our “patriotic” duty towards our meditation communities to stay with it. We can be inspired by the courage of those of us who are willing to share their pain so that we can be better together. We can re-commit to opening our hearts. We can re-commit to turning tenderly towards suffering and using it as the path to transformation. We are not in a hurry. We are here to listen to each other. We are here to be kind – to ourselves and others - and to learn the truth of what is. We are here to awaken together. This is why we practice. This is what we are here to do.
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.
When I first came to InsightLA in the early days to take a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course, I was eager to deepen my practice. I was making a movie in Central America and knew I would miss classes. I asked Trudy, how can I make them up? She smiled and assured me we would find a way. Sure enough, her co-teacher Christiane Wolf came to my house and taught me in my living room.
I have never forgotten that incredible generosity. Recently, I finished co-teaching a class with Christiane. At the end of each session, we talked about the challenges and joy of teaching mindfulness. After all these years, she is still my teacher, and we are spiritual friends.
Again and again, the Buddha taught that friendship is essential for a fulfilled spiritual life. He even went on to say that admirable friendship, companionship and camaraderie are not just an important part of the journey -- friendship enables us to practice and embody the whole eightfold path (wise view, wise intention, wise speech, conduct, livelihood, wise effort, mindfulness, and meditation). When you have trustworthy people as friends, companions, & colleagues, the Buddha is right -- you can truly walk this path to the end of suffering, the end of loneliness. I have found good friendship to be the key to my spiritual growth. Sharing the silence of a sit or walking in mindfulness with others deepens my practice immeasurably.
Each month all of the teachers of InsightLA meet to practice and study together. Last week at our teacher development group, I looked around the room of twenty-five teachers and realized I now have a whole room full of admirable companions, my spiritual friends - people I know, respect, and love. They are part of my practice community, my sisters, and brothers.
Practicing mindfulness and compassion is not a solitary path; the people that you sit with become your community. You are no longer alone on your path. Come and join us at InsightLA, you, too, can start a life of true spiritual friendship
Ron will be teaching a class series called Changes & Transitions beginning July 8th.
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.
There are simple ways we can shape our experiences to include more compassion. I have a teacher, for example, who bakes beautiful pies once a year to bring to a family gathering. When it comes time to transport them, she has to be very careful. She drives slowly and cautiously. Other drivers, unaware of her precious cargo, don’t seem to appreciate when she drives so gingerly. You can imagine the line of frustrated drivers stuck behind her.
There are other times throughout the year when she finds herself sitting, irritated, behind a driver moving too slowly for her liking or one taking a little to long to respond to a green light. One day she caught herself feeling upset at another driver and realized that she has been that person. At least one day a year, she has been the slow driver holding up the others. “That’s me,” she thought. “I’ve been there. Maybe they’re moving slowly because they’re carrying precious cargo. Maybe they’ve got pies.”
She caught herself in a moment of suffering, as a result of her irritation and frustration. Turning mindful attention on how she felt created spaciousness. In this space, she was able to choose. She used compassion for herself and non-judgment to turn her suffering into understanding. She transformed the tension that she felt into the recognition that she and the other driver are actually the same.
Every day there are countless opportunities to use mindful awareness to access the empathy that lives within us. If we can continue to be open to awareness, compassion can reveal itself in a myriad of situations- maybe turning a frustrating drive home into a tender-hearted memory of family; and yummy pies!