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.
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,
For years, my vision couldn’t be corrected properly with glasses. Unlike most people, I’ve been waiting eagerly for the time to have cataract surgery where a new lens can be put into the eye. Usually it’s a simple, routine procedure, but with some damage to my corneas, it’s trickier. Thursday was the surgery on the left eye. It went well, but I won’t know the final outcome for a few weeks. Nervous the day before, I reflected, what does it mean to see clearly?
Seeing clearly is being fully present within the experiencing of seeing and what is seen; it’s an active process that can only happen in the present. Seeing this process clearly is mindfulness. Witnessing what’s happening right here through all the senses: seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, thinking, remembering, noticing what grabs our attention – this kind of seeing doesn’t depend on the eyes. It requires the humility to simply receive the moment in clear awareness. It requires the willingness to welcome each moment of sight, sound, taste, touch, thought, feeling, taking it all in, moment by moment.
This kind of seeing is creative, intelligent, awareness discerning how everything it perceives appears and then disappears. We don’t have to try hard, our natural awareness can easily see how a sight, sound or thought happens, peaks, fades, then passes away. We are life witnessing life being born, existing, vanishing. Seeing this way doesn’t depend on glasses or corrective surgery; it relies on cultivating invisible qualities of the heart, like tenderness and patience.
It takes generosity of spirit to receive life as it is. It calls for the inner vision we call mindfulness or loving awareness, an intuitive wisdom. As the little prince said: “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”(Antoine de Saint-Exupéry) May the light of seeing clearly, wisely, “rightly” what’s essential - LOVE - shine through all your holidays!
When I was little, I wanted to know about money, and why some people were called rich. I asked my mother, “Are we rich?” My father was an academic and my mother a homemaker who sewed and ironed our clothes and froze our tuna sandwiches in bulk. After they defrosted in our lunch boxes we ate them, damp and soggy… My mother answered, “We’re rich in love and happiness.” I felt frustrated. This answer didn’t address my wanting to know where we stood with the money part.
Years later, as a grown-up, I appreciate her answer. Love and happiness are indeed our truest riches. It was on my meditation cushion that I first learned to trust that there is ample love in the universe. I learned to open to and connect with my inner riches with metta, with creativity, with understanding, with the inner sources of love and happiness that are ever available to all.
It was through psychotherapy and continued meditation practice that I began to know and accept all parts of myself, to feel truly at home in my own life. I remember walking into my little Cambridge apartment one day and hearing an inner voice say, “Trudy, you are complete!” It was startling, and true; I felt completely at peace. I hadn’t felt such total ease in my own skin before. And now I did. It had happened gradually, but I realized it all at once.
Breath by breath, moment by moment, with loving awareness, we create a home for the heart and this home is our refuge. We build community and the community supports us. We reveal our minds and hearts and our minds & hearts strengthen us. We open to life and life opens to us. We open to love and love opens to us
This poem, Thanks, from W. S. Merwin, reminds me of the
last lines of Leonard Cohen’s song, Hallelujah:
“And even though it all goes wrong
I stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah”
Listen with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
standing by the windows looking out in our directions
back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
in the faces of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you
with the animals dying around us
taking our feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
thank you we are saying and waving
dark though it is
35 years ago, Adelaide Harrison, a kind white-haired lady from South Africa visiting her son Gavin in New England, confided to me in a hushed voice when he left the room, “He only does what he wants to do!” She was shocked at her son’s commitment to listening to his body and trusting his intuition about what he was called to do. I tried to reassure her: he’s not being selfish, he’s following in the footsteps of the Buddha, who taught that the best way to care for others is to be sure we’re taking wise care of our own life energy, too.
Gavin was diagnosed with HIV when it was a death sentence, before the medicines came that generously prolong life. Thanks to his fierce commitment to sustaining the health of his body, he was graced with enough additional years to fulfill his spiritual longing and live a truly enlightened life of meditation, beauty, service and joy. From his work with children orphaned by the AIDS epidemic in South Africa and with gay men living with HIV in the early days, to his poetic teaching, Gavin used his passion and talent to guide and love others.
In his spiritual community in Mt. Shasta, Gavin changed his name to express the profound transformation he went through there. Gavin became their cherished companion Saucha, meaning purity of heart. Three weeks ago, our beloved friend Gavin/Saucha died suddenly of a heart attack. His teacher, Devaji, is leading a meditation retreat in Saucha’s honor, attended by me and the friends who became his family in the last few years. Saucha is very present here. It’s as though I’m looking through his eyes at the twin peaks Shasta and Shastina on the towering volcanic mountain he loved.
Two peaks, one Mt. Shasta: a majestic symbol of the two-fold practice erupting from the depths of molten love at the center of our being. Just as it is one mountain, it is one life, one love we share – we only appear to be divided in two, as self and other. How fortunate we are to have practices to reveal this all-embracing love in both its oneness and twoness! Though we meet, care for each other, go apart, care for ourselves, and meet again in the whirlwind of life, in reality, there’s no separation -- just the twirling dance of falling in love with our self, with each other, and the whole topsy-turvy world. Like Saucha, may every one of us live with the joy and radiance of infinite love!
Beginning this Monday, we’re excited to welcome you to practice with many generous friends and dedicated teachers at our new center, InsightLA East Hollywood.
Until now, we’ve been retrofitting diversity and equity into the existing infrastructure of our growing teachers’ group, office team and community at InsightLA. The birth of our new center celebrates the further steps in our practice of collective and societal flourishing. We’re making big efforts to explore implicit bias in many forms, such as institutionalized racism, heterosexism, ableism, ageism, etc. This work is not separate from the teachings of awakening. This is a relational expression of our awakening hearts! Becoming more lovingly aware in the daily challenges of our lives is an integral part of supporting each other on our path.
To have our own center on the East side is a long-time dream come true. We’ll be posting the following welcome statement right on the front door. This is a fresh new place for us and we’re committed to making sure our center is a place where everyone can feel at home.
Welcome to InsightLA.
We’re glad you are here.
We offer practices of inner peace, compassion, mindfulness and love. We are open to all. Come in and join us!
Here is our commitment: In this world, with its great beauty and many difficulties, we will train our hearts in peace and kindness and courageously take a stand against all forms of greed, hatred, delusion, and cruelty. We acknowledge the implicit and overt violence that has been done to individuals based on race, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, gender identity, religion, body size, ability, race and class. We recognize the violence that has been done to our planet and to the first nations peoples who stewarded this land before us.
We pledge to undo the forces of ill-will and isolation in ourselves and in our world. We will offer to all who come practices of mindfulness, compassion and wisdom. And inwardly and in our actions, we pledge to hold all beings in a circle of mutual respect, love, and unity.
May our resolve and our practice together benefit all.
Radical inclusivity and social justice was the hallmark of the Buddha’s teaching, too. Thousands of years ago, from the Dalit (untouchable) caste to widows, courtesans, convicts -- all those divided from society, discriminated, disinherited – if you wanted a new life of practicing mindfulness together, you were welcome to join. The Buddha referred to everyone in his community as “sons and daughters of noble family”. I hope that by working together, we, too, can be leaders in bringing mindfulness and compassion practices to serve an ever-widening swath of the communities where we live -- in Los Angeles and beyond.