Musings of the InsightLA teachers
The Buddha encouraged his community to meditate in the forest at the foot of a tree, beginning a long tradition of reverence for nature in Buddhism. Spending time in nature, we can sense the intimate connection between the natural world and our own nature. There’s a circuitry between the health of the environment and our own mental and physical health.
Even along city streets, by strip malls and parking structures, we notice the power of nature -- blades of grass poking through asphalt, tree roots heaving up concrete slabs of sidewalk, banks of flowers inhaling the exhaust of the freeway. In Los Angeles, the ocean is our only wilderness. The beach is a liminal space where the untamable magnificence of Mother Nature meets our urban life of confinement in cars and constant connectivity. People flock to the beach around sunset, the mysterious threshold between day and night.
As the sun flames from gold to orange to scarlet, the waves move like liquid opal.
For a few moments, the sea is milky turquoise, luminous under a glowing coral sky. The vast pearly ocean slowly turns dark as light fades from the sky. Rays of incandescence light up the horizon where the sun slides down to the other side of the world. Scattered along the water’s edge, a few families and couples enjoy playing in the afterglow, silhouetted by the sea -- ghostly beings dancing in the magical light before nightfall.
Why not try it one evening? Stay, linger on the beach at dusk as waves wash away the day. Revel in the stillness of being in nature. You might walk toward the Santa Monica Ferris wheel of ever-changing, ever-turning rainbow light. You can treasure the peace and magic of the natural world in your own mindful heart.
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.
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One of the core principals of InsightLA is compassion, and by its very definition, compassion is not just an emotion it is accompanied by a strong desire to take action and help those who are suffering.
By offering mindfulness practices to people affected by homelessness, poverty, illness, as well as caregivers and first responders, we have learned that meditation can provide profound healing and refuge to those directly affected.
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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!
Walking on ancient stone floors uneven from centuries of footsteps, stepping over bronze plaques commemorating trials and beheadings for high treason and state visits of yore, under the soaring vaulted beams of the 13thcentury Westminster Hall, the ceiling like a huge upside-down ship, we marvel our way through majestic medieval buildings gently sinking into the marshland below the river Thames. This is Parliament, in London.
Our guide is Chris Ruane, a 10-year meditation practitioner and tall, welcoming MP (Member of Parliament). Chris was inspired by Tim Ryan’s Mindful Nation to found the UK All-Party Parliamentary Mindfulness Group, taught by Chris Cullen. In just five years, their work has touched politicians from 40 countries and hosted the first-ever international summit.
Jack, our granddaughter Allie, and I meet with the well-organized Mindfulness Initiative team, a working group of 20+ people from various disciplines sharing the efficacy and progress of mindfulness practice in their fields. To witness their international efforts become global reality fills my eyes with tears of gratitude and joy!
The leaders we met with have a great responsibility; they carry both the dismay and dreams of the people they represent. They’ve found the practices of mindfulness and compassion invaluable to quiet and clear their minds, enable them to listen to each other ‘across the aisle,' and learn to respond from the deeper calling of their hearts. They tell us it has changed their lives. You, too, carry your own disquiet, your dreams and great possibilities for the world. May your life, too, be guided by the power of your simple, sustained practice of loving awareness and caring presence.
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!
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.
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.
Decades ago in the 70’s, before the Dalai Lama became famous, his smiling face was on the cover of a newspaper called The Snow Lion. The quote under his photo struck me so powerfully that I cut out the cover page and stuck it on a kitchen cupboard where it yellowed and tattered over the years. That piece of paper is long gone, but I always remember what he said: “Maybe I am the last Dalai Lama. It’s all right. There’s nothing wrong.”
His words shook me, a young practitioner. How can it be all right for his legacy and tradition to disappear in the slow genocide unfolding in Tibet? How to understand what the Dalai Lama said, given how much his people rely on his compassionate and courageous leadership?
Uttered in the context of Tibet’s tragedy, those words - “It’s all right. There’s nothing wrong.” - inspired me through many sad, hard times in my life. I remember sitting quietly in the meditation hall, tears of grief streaming down my face, simultaneously knowing that deep down, it’s still OK. Mysteriously, it is all right. Not the breezy ‘all right’ of “it’s all good”, which can be a dismissal or denial, but the “all right” of humbly embracing our broken-heartedness with loving awareness. Then we can discover the “all right” of compassionate presence and grace.
Next time you feel that all is lost, try sitting down right in the midst of your grief or despair. Sitting and walking mindfully in meditation, it’s easier to be with ourselves more lovingly. Through the courage to meet life as it is and drink it in - straight up! - we embody the compassion of our clear, radiant true nature. Deeply knowing: yes, this heart is aching. And it’s all right. There’s nothing wrong.