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.
“Noble friends and noble conversations” are mentioned often in the suttas of the Buddha’s teachings, as supports for practice, and as the antidote to every obstacle on the path to freedom. Where are these “noble friends to be found?
A sitting group is a great place to start!
Sitting groups require no registration, and are offered on a donation basis. You can come every week, or you can drop in whenever you can. Many people find that when they sit with a group, the group energy allows them to sit longer with less resistance than when sitting alone at home. It’s easier to meditate when your friends are meditating too; a sitting group is a great place to make “noble friends” - fellow travelers on the path of liberation, exploring ways that the teachings can be applied to the day-to-day issues that come up in our lives. Speaking the truth from the heart and listening deeply with compassion – these are noble conversations.
InsightLA has sitting groups on every day of the week, at locations all over town. Some are for everyone, some are affinity groups for specific populations. You can find them all listed HERE, over 30 of them!
I’ve been leading the Thursday night sitting group for eight years. In that time, we’ve walked each other through marriages, divorces, births, deaths, surgeries, tragedies and triumphs. In addition to a guided meditation, talk and discussion, we offer opportunities to get to know one another. We now meet in the big room at the Unitarian Church on 18th and Arizona. We make a special effort to welcome new people.
I will never forget the first time I experienced the presence of the Ven Ayya Tathaaloka. She walked into a Advanced Practitioner Program retreat at Spirit Rock that I attended, and she literally lit up the meditation hall. Before she uttered a word, her luminous presence said everything.
She proceeded to share the bima (teaching platform) with renowned Theravadan scholar, Bhikkhu Bodhi, to discuss and field questions on the topic of the Abhidhamma, a vast map of the Buddhist view of the mind and how it relates to the world. Not only was Ayya T’s pure presence remarkable, she easily held her own as a brilliant scholar. She was both inspiring and impressive.
As they opened up to other questions, I found my hand cautiously rising up. At that time ten years ago, there was great division in Buddhist circles about the teaching of secular mindfulness. As an InsightLA teacher teaching these classes, such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) & Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC), I could think of no higher authority to consult than the two esteemed monastics sitting before me.
Summoning the courage, I inquired, “Are these secular classes wholesome and do you support them as a legitimate part of the Buddhist path?” I will never forget Ayya T’s gentle and radically simple reply, “Is there the alleviation of suffering?” I nodded. Then, she added, “Is there understanding and fidelity to the original teachings of the Buddha?” I nodded again. Bhikku Bodhi concurred. In that moment, all debate ended.
As the founding Abbess of Dhammadharini Vihara, a monastic retreat for women in Northern California, Ayya T has bravely and skillfully gone about supporting the growth of the Bhikkhuni Sangha today. I support her work and the light of her embodied presence guides my path.
With Love, Lisa Kring
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.
Do you have new years resolutions? Maybe you want to stop eating convenience food so often or you want to meditate every day. Those are wonderful aspirations and could make a big difference in your life for sure.
Alas, from experience we know that it’s often hard to stop an old habit or to create a new one.
While you probably already know a lot about creating new habits, have you taken a closer look at your attitude towards where you are now? Why do you want a daily meditation practice? Do you want it because you want to rewire your brain? Get rid of the constant stress and anxiety? Stop yelling at the kids? Nothing wrong with that! But what is your internal self talk around this? Are you kind to yourself, understanding and motivate yourself with love or is the internal talk rather harsh, maybe even condescending or mean? Do you want change from a place of overall love and acceptance for yourself or because you believe that if you change x, y or z you will be happier, more successful or more lovable?
Australian meditation teacher Bob Sharples talks about “the subtle aggression of self-improvement”, the constant urge to make ourselves into a better version of ourselves. When we come from a place of not-good-enough, like we feel that our life is not good enough or we are not good enough – then the internal stress of that belief will be constantly present in the background.
If we first learn to accept this moment as it is, and then ourselves as we are – in this moment – then change can happen from a very different place. As the great psychologist Carl Rogers said: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself as I am, then I can change.”
Wishing us all a wonderful and self-accepting 2019.Warmly,
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!
A spiritual tradition is not a shallow stream in which one dips one foot and retreats to the shore, it’s a mighty tumultuous river that rushes through one’s life.
– Bhikkhu. Bodhi
As one year morphs into the next, it’s a good time to pause and ask what you most want for 2019? Asking an open question and waiting to sense the answer invites your intuition to help reveal your deepest wishes for yourself, your beloved community, and our shared world.
In the Tibetan tradition, there is a practice called setting your intention. Try it now: sit down, relax, and breathe mindfully for a few minutes. Then deliberately ask, question, what do I love the most? How can I create a life that is more aligned with my most generous, loving aspirations? To help, I sometimes use my imagination to fast forward into the future and look back on my life today from a wiser perspective. With this imagined hindsight, what I need to do comes clearer. You can imagine your best future and set your intention to move in that direction. After you have clarified your intention, write it down and save it somewhere. Your focused intention is powerful and purposeful.
Then as the year goes on, you can remember your intention; check in, each time trusting your heart to incline in the direction you truly want to go. Your simple persistence is a sign of deep, sincere practice! Whether you’re beginning to dip your toes, or wading, or swimming in the river of mindful living, please kindly appreciate any effort you’ve made to meditate this past year. Your practice will sustain you when you most need support, even when you’re not feeling it. Keep going.
Even if you’re feeling overwhelmed, disappointed, or struggle with the holidays, remember that we lived through the darkest night of the year last week. Day by day, the light is miraculously returning. So launch your boat or dive into the water - and set out for the depths in 2019!
Today is the solstice, the first day of winter, when Earth’s axis tilts the Northern Hemisphere farthest from the sun’s warmth. It’s the shortest day and the longest night of the year. This year a full moon (called the Cold Moon, or the Long Night Moon, by Native Americans) coincides with the solstice, along with the Ursid meteor shower. After all the holiday celebrations, winter is a time to to drop under the busy surface of everyday life and ask, what is most important? Who or what most inspires me to go deep?
And what does that even mean? Commit to daily meditation? Do a retreat? Come to community sits (meditation sessions) and events to explore practice together? To me, going deep means questioning whatever holds me back from experiencing wisdom and love. It means remembering the dimension of timeless mystery, the ever-present mystery of nowthat is always here, waiting for me to look beyond habitual, conditioned seeing.
For you, going deep may be imagining you’re sitting on a star looking down, envisioning your life from the perspective of vast compassion. It could be serving in a profound way that takes you out of your separate self to identify with something far bigger. It might be devoting this time to creating more balance and harmony in your life, withdrawing from relationships and activities that don’t nourish your spirit to refocus on understanding where your heart wants to go. It can be reflecting on the deepest teachings you’ve encountered, like this from Nisargadatta Maharaj:
“Wisdom tells me I am nothing. Love tells me I am everything. And between the two my life flows.”
May this holiday bring you gifts of joy to light up your heart and home.
With infinite love and gratitude for your practice and generosity,
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.