Musings of the InsightLA teachers
This week Jack and I celebrated our one-year anniversary by returning to the Santa Monica Pier and riding the Ferris Wheel.
As our gondola rose towards the top, I felt a rush of joy. Last year, as we were rocking gently in midair, Jack proposed—right at the top of the wheel! As the wheel turns, we celebrate one of the happiest times in our lives, so grateful.
I’m grateful for the practice of mindfulness, for the love, joy, compassion, and equanimity that help us humans stay connected to ourselves and in friendly relationship with one another. I’m grateful that we can learn how to infuse our consciousness with self-compassion and tender kinship with all life. And I’m grateful for all of you, who care deeply about your lives, and want to grow and bring more love into our world together. I’m grateful for wisdom practices that show us how to recognize the genius of knowing itself. Instead of getting caught in pettiness and taking it all personally, we can identify with innate, benevolent and creative awareness.
Along with gratitude comes the wish to share our love. How many ways can you think of to share what you love? When you are loving, you can dedicate that love to those who are lonely. When you feel peaceful, offer your peace of mind to people traumatized by violence. When you take a shower, imagine all the people who are homeless, displaced, or refugees reveling in the stream of clean water. When you’re feeling safe and protected, give the gift of fearlessness to everyone vulnerable to racism, oppression, and discrimination. When you swim, dedicate the cool water to rain on places that are hot with hatred. When you sip something to drink, “May this drink satisfy the thirst of craving for power or revenge.” When you eat something sweet, “May this bite sweeten hearts everywhere.”
We can use our imagination to share what we love, the everyday pleasures of our life, posting them on the universe… Whatever joy, gratitude and love come our way, may they radiate to all beings everywhere, limitless and blessed.
P.S. I’m also grateful for the lively, fresh, and whimsical new community we’re creating on social media! A big shout out to Sarah Selders, InsightLA’s Director of Digital Content, and Mark Koberg, Director of Programming and Marketing, for their effort in developing this online space for our sangha to connect, share our love and support one another. We’d be so grateful if you’d join us on Facebook, Instagram & Twitter. It’s easy, just click the icons below.
Labor Day, the first Monday in September, was created to celebrate American workers; now the holiday heralds the end of summer. It’s hard for millenials to believe today, but in the 60’s, jobs were readily available. Especially if you were white with a little education, you could take your pick.
Just a few years after graduating from college, I became a single Mom ‘head of household’. Suddenly I needed a job to support my family. Sometimes it was discouraging to work hard at work and at home. I wished life was more spiritual and romantic. We know that when we work on automatic pilot, bored and fantasizing about being elsewhere, this is demeaning of ourselves and those we work with. But until I found a teacher and began practicing the Dharma -- the beautiful teachings of mindfulness and compassion we offer at InsightLA -- perhaps like you, I didn’t know any better.
Before and after work, I spent lots of time sitting in meditation. Trading child care with friends, I sat retreats whenever I could. I began to realize that it’s not just whatwe do that shapes who we are, but how we do it. You won’t be surprised -- but I was amazed to discover that my outlook played a big role in whether work felt depressing or interesting. Soen Nakagawa Roshi used to say that as our wisdom grows, “Our miserable karma becomes our wonderful dharma!” My “miserable karma” of feeling oppressed gradually changed to the “wonderful dharma” of appreciation and gratitude. This can happen anytime we remember to be mindful about how we approach our life.
When we deliberately practice being friendly and mindful, even work that is unchallenging and repetitious can become a fruitful field of practice. Through the quality of our attention, the miserable karma of restlessness and resentment can become the wonderful dharma of renewal and creativity. We come alive! Then we see our work, our labor, as spiritual practice. The whole experience can be transformed.
For almost a year now, I’ve noticed an underlying anxiety, a feeling of being off balance, craving to read the news more than I ever did before. There is a thread of fear stitched into our country, and I feel it, for we aren’t separate from our surroundings. In the midst of summer, there’s a chill in my heart. I’m grateful for the teachings and practice of mindfulness, calm, and equanimity.
What gives rise to the peace of mindfulness? The ancient texts tell us: mindfulness produces mindfulness. What we do with our minds right now conditions the next moment. How we breathe, how we pay attention to what arises in and around us, how we love… What are we doing moment to moment? We’re practicing something all the time. Are we practicing being aware? How are we actually spending the moments we have in this heart-breakingly unsafe, exquisite, magnificent life?
Flannery O’Connor wrote, “Faith comes and goes. It rises and falls like the tides of an invisible ocean. If it’s presumptuous to think that faith will stay with you forever, it’s just as presumptuous to think that unbelief will.” My Korean Zen teacher always encouraged us to “Believe in yourself!” With great humor and intensity, he asked us to have confidence in our minds, to believe in the stability and wisdom of awareness itself, our “not-moving mind.” His definition of faith was trust in awareness, our ability to see clearly.
Even so, sometimes what we see frightens and upsets us. We know our trust, confidence, faith will waver. When we’re mindful, we can see: wavering is both as real and ephemeral as trusting. Like all experiences, they appear and disappear. The skill is being willing to step back and observe the heart’s inevitable movement back and forth, in and out of fear and faltering, with as much kind, understanding awareness as we can summon.
This is how we learn to meet the inevitable ebb and flow of confidence with the “not-moving mind”. Sorrows, fears, joys, perceptions move — who watches and stays still? Awareness and presence are always here when we look deeply. This is how we cultivate mindfulness and compassion with all the insecurity of life. Practice means learning to recognize and support the courage, capacity, and strength already present in us. And mindfulness means remembering to look, again and again. “Believe in yourself!”
“If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”– Heather Heyer, who was tragically killed in Charlottesville, wrote this in what she did not know would be her last Facebook post.
We are saddened about the loss of a young woman who demonstrated against hate, and shocked by the neo-nazi demonstrators who think this violence is justified.
I find this tribute to forgiveness from Heather Heyer’s father profoundly moving. His words, spoken from his grieving heart, remind me of what Dr. King said, in what he did not know would be his last sermon, “I have decided to stick to love.” This is our path — to pay attention, and stick to love.
In the spirit of welcome, two of our wonderful team members at InsightLA, Mark and Sarah, chose our recent motto: “You Can Sit With Us”. It’s a reference to a scene in the movie “Mean Girls”. A popular girl who is sitting with her clique at lunch shrieks at a new girl (wearing sweatpants) who tries to join them, “You can’t sit with us!”. We are saying exactly the opposite: whoever you are, whatever kind of ‘clothes’ you wear (color, gender, age, class, abilities…), you can sit with us.
We’re following in the footsteps of the Buddha, who welcomed people from all walks of life into his Sangha. He lifted the lamp of Dharma and said, “Ehipassiko”. That’s Pali for “Come and see.” This is how he invited all suffering beings to walk through the Dharma door of liberty, insight and compassion — just like the poet Emma Lazarus’s sonnet, immortalized at the Statue of Liberty:
“…Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, … and her name
Mother of Exiles…
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses,
yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
At InsightLA, we’re working to make InsightLA a more inclusive space for everyone. However, we will inevitably make mistakes, for we aren’t separate from our society where prejudice and bias are institutionalized and widespread in ways that are mostly invisible to white people. In fact, this week it appears that some in our government intend to strengthen white privilege and exclude more people – “You can’t join us!” – rather than affirm the value and benefit of racial and gender equality, equity, refuge, and economic parity for our nation.
When I wrote about ‘white awareness’ three weeks ago, a friend felt excluded. Even though we don’t intend to offend, when the impact of what we say causes distress, our intention isn’t what matters. Attending to the impact matters most.
In all of our relationships, our efforts to grow in awareness and empathic response sometimes include missteps. We will always have a lot to forgive, in ourselves and in each other! This is how it is in our human world. Come and see.
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
Last week I wrote about the camaraderie and solidarity among the folks who’d sat the silent meditation retreat at Vallecitos. For that time together, we formed a community of shared experience. It made me wonder, how can we create common memory and connection with people who don’t share our views and experience, given how divided our country feels right now? How can we join to face history and ourselves with mindfulness and compassion?
At dinner last night, I was talking with the mother of two high school kids who told me that what they’re learning in history class doesn’t reflect much of the truth of our history. We know that our country owes much of its land and prosperity to broken treaties and slavery, and that many of our greatest founding fathers and mothers were also racist owners of native lands and African slaves. Until we are able to learn, acknowledge and freely share the truth about our history, the present moment will be colored with delusion.
I think of mindfulness as honesty, opening a window to seeing clearly and telling the truth. This is one path I know to healing and reconciliation of our differences and conflicts. At InsightLA you can walk on this path with us, a path of white awareness, equity, and inclusion of all – of all our stories, our past, present and future together. Georges Erasmus, an Aboriginal leader from Canada, said, “Where common memory is lacking… there can be no real community. Where community is to be formed, common memory must be created.”
I’m in the shuttle bus to Albuquerque after teaching a meditation retreat at Vallecitos Mountain Ranch in the mountains of northern New Mexico. After a bumpy 11 miles of dirt road we reach paved road, leaving the beautiful Carson National Forest wilderness behind. Half of the retreatants are on this bus.
Everyone is talking, sharing, laughing, leaning over seatbacks towards one another. What a contrast to the silence of retreat, only accentuated by birdsongs echoing across the granite walls of the valley, the low sigh of wind in the pine woods, the soft song of the river in the distance. The stillness of solitude in nature has vanished.
Though experiences are as different as we are, we all share a common memory of retreat adventures at Vallecitos—sitting and walking meditation, walking through Elk Meadow or along the Continental Divide Trail, lying on the forest floor watching huge clouds float across the cobalt blue sky. We all practiced together as the wild lupine began to bloom, daisies peeked above the grass, two mama does tended their fawns, and little chipmunks scurried around. Learning to be present with our various joys and sorrows, retreat is a time to walk peacefully through the interior topography of our lives.
From a disparate group of individuals arriving to deepen our practice of mindfulness and compassion, we now feel like family. Everyone is happier than when they arrived. A loving community has formed from the common memories we share.
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.