Friday, November 27, 2009

A month at the monastery

I'm off for a month's retreat at the Santi Forest Monastery - a Buddhist monastery located in the Southern Highlands of NSW (a few hours from Sydney). Santi doesn't run formal, structured, retreats but is a 'living monastery' consisting of a community of around 20 monks, nuns and laypeople.  

It's set in a large area of bushland; with alpine gums trees, craggy rock formations, caves, and wildlife.  The monastery borders the Morton National Park, a huge park which stretches from the hills to the sea, 80 kms away. It's a beautiful, peaceful place to have a meditation retreat.

Here's a few photos I took last year, the first time I went to Santi.  This photo is of a little meditation platform, wedged into a cliff face...

And here's the view you get as you sit on the platform...gorgeous huh? I can't say I spent much time sitting there with my eyes closed - I just kept my eyes open,  looking at the view and listening to the sounds of the wind, the birds, and the nearby waterfall.

There won't be any posts for December, because I will be sans internet (eek!).  But, I'm hoping to do some writing whilst I'm at Santi, so I might do a few posts and put them on the blog when I get back. 

Monday, November 23, 2009

Hope Begins in the Dark

Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: You don't give up. 

I read this quote yesterday and smiled grimly to myself, because it pretty much pins down how I'm feeling at the moment. If I had to draw a picture of how I feel there'd be a cartoon character hanging by one fingernail to the side of a cliff while a bunch of coyotes waited at the bottom (with a few buzzards circling in the sky too - just for good measure).

OK, a bit dramatic - and I'm not so sure buzzards can even fly - but I'm sure you get my drift.  I'm just hanging in there; stubbornly hoping, and not giving up.

This meditation caper aint easy!  True, there are occasional moments of insight and peace, but I'm spending an awful lot of time just feeling pain, feeling distress, feeling despair, feeling hopelesness. Just to make life a little bit harder for myself I'm also feeling that if I was a better meditator, if I just 'got this', then I wouldn't be feeling all this...this...CRAP!

So, it's good to come across quotes like the one above.  I just hope my stubborness will see me through. 'One more breath, just one more breath...'
An hour later... 

Well! Waddaya know?!  Buzzards can fly  - and here's one doing it...

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Staying tactics

It struck me last week that most of my meditation practice is about learning ways to stay with whatever physical sensation, thought, or emotion is presenting itself in the moment. I don't do a lot of meditation where I concentrate on a single sensation, such as my breath.  Most of what I'm doing is just showing up for the moment - being present. I think, in Buddhism, this would be called more a mindfulness meditation practice than a concentration practice.
Over the last few years I've developed some different techniques that help me to stay with what's happening.  The interesting thing about these techniques - which could involve words or images - is that they change all the time. Maybe for a week or so, I repeat one phrase - 'yes, this is really happening' - to help me stay with difficult thoughts or feelings. Then I listen to a meditation podcast and hear another phrase which resonates with me and I find myself saying - 'this feeling is difficult, but somewhere it has meaning for my life.'
At first, when I noticed that I was changing my little 'staying tactics' every few weeks I was a bit concerned.  'Don't I have to have steadiness in my practice?' I thought. 'Shouldn't I just be saying the one thing, and not jumping around all over the place?'  I thought this was yet another example of my impatient, easily bored mind.
Then I saw the bigger picture - that my little techniques might change, but what I was using them for wasn't changing. I was using them to deepen my ability to stay, and that ability was slowly becoming steadier, and deeper, and richer.  I could see that sometimes I needed the simplicity of just one word to try to stay with a feeling - 'yes, yes' - and sometimes I needed some support from outside myself -  perhaps the image of a kind person placing their hand on my arm and saying 'yes, this is difficult...just try to stay.'
It was good to see that there was some pattern, and some progression, in my practice. It was also comforting to just start trusting my intuition about what might help me stay present at a particular time - and to recognise that I do have some internal wisdom that helps guide me in this practice (however much I might second-guess that wisdom at times!)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Stealth Metta

Metta Bhavana is a type of Buddhist meditation that involves sending loving kindness to ourselves and all sentient beings.  In Pali (the language the Buddha spoke), metta means love, or lovingkindness, and bhavana is the word for cultivation - so this is a meditation on cultivating loving kindness.

I really like the use of the word 'cultivation.'  Its use shows that the Buddha came from an agrarian culture, where people related easily to language linked to their livelihoods. I think it's also a very gentle way to describe a meditation practice; we just plant the seeds, till the soil, water the plants, and protect them from harm, and one day we'll have some delicious food to eat!  It can feel awkward if we try to force feelings of lovingkindness, but this meditation encourages us to just take it slowly -  dropping a few small seeds of kindness and compassion into the soil at one time.

Metta Bhavana usually consists of sending loving kindness to yourself, then to a loved person, a neutral person, a person you have difficulties with, and finally, the whole world.  This is a link to a free audio podcast of a guided Loving Kindness meditation and here's a longer written description of the meditation.

There's also something called 'Stealth Metta' - which I heard Tara Brach talk about a few days ago in one of her podcasts.  This is where you use opportunities during the day to secretly send lovingkindness to people. You might spend two minutes while waiting at a traffic light to send lovingkindness to other drivers around you: 'May you be safe, may you be peaceful.' Or waiting in a doctor's surgery you could send the thought, 'May we be well, may we be happy,' to everyone in the waiting room.  If you're lying in bed listening to the radio you could send out feelings of lovingkindness to every talkback caller.

Like all meditation practice, a routine can be helpful. I had a practice for a while that involved sending feelings of lovingkindness to anyone I handed money to.  So, whenever I was in a shop and paying for something, I'd think, 'May you be happy,' as I handed the money over.  It can also help to visualise that person being happy while you say the words.  That seems to help connect the words to the feeling you're trying to cultivate.

If you're doing this type of practice and find yourself thinking, 'Actually, I don't really care that much about you. Why do I care whether you're happy or not?' - don't worry!  Noticing who we care about, and who we don't care about, is all part of the practice.  Just let feelings of ambivalence, or even dislike, be there as you keep going  with the practice. If you judge yourself for not feeling enough lovingkindness, just try to notice those judgements, but don't buy into them - this is also just part of the meditation.  Slowly, your metta muscle will build up.

If you have any other 'stealth metta' ideas, please let me know - I love to get your comments.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Simple, but not easy.

I've just been listening to an interview with Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn,who founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Mass Medical School.  He's also the author of many books on mindfulness, including 'Wherever you go - there you are.'  Such a good book title, becuase it's true...dammit! 

I haven't read any of Kabat-Zinn's books yet, but, after this interview  I'll be tracking some down. He seems to be an excellent communicator, describing meditation as 'simple, but not easy,'  and saying the process of meditation is about 'bringing out own shadow back into the light.' 

Part of the interview was about some common misconceptions about meditation.   If I ever write a book about meditation it'll be called 'It's not about the breath'  - becuase I spent about 10 years fixated on the idea that clinging rigidly to my breath (and slaying my thoughts and feelings) was what meditation was all about.  Doh!  So, these misconceptions abound, and I don't think they're addressed often enough in meditation classes, or teachings. 

Here are Kabat-Zin's top three meditation misconceptions - 

1) Meditation is 'kind of like making your mind go blank,' so you'll be like a 'glowing, lightbulb of happiness,' with no worries or thoughts.  This is a misconception;  meditation is about really getting us in touch with all of life -  not being blank, or empty. 

2) The aim of meditation is to achieve a state of pure bliss. A lot of what we experience moment-to-moment isn't blissful.  We can aim to chase a certain state, like bliss, overlooking the fact that the bliss comes from  just being in contact with life as it is. State-chasing can result in a lot of frustration and confusion in meditation practice.

3) Meditation involves stopping.  Yes, formal meditation does involve stopping, but it's possible to meditate running, chopping vegetables, making love.  We don't have to stop our lives to meditate. We can meditate wherever we are, however we're feeling.

Interesting stuff.  I wish I'd listened to this interview when I began my meditation practice. But, hey, maybe learning the hard way is my karma.  (What the hell did I do in my last life?  I hope it was fun, that's all I can say.)

Here is a list of Kabat-Zinn's books -

  • Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness (Dell, 1990)
  • Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life (Hyperion, 1994)
  • Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting (Hyperion, 1997) 
  • Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness (Hyperion, 2005)
  • The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness (with Williams, Teasdale, and Segal - Guildford, 2007)

Temple - Chiang Mai, Thailand

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Photoshop meditation analogy

 Over the last few days I've been fiddling around with Photoshop - trying to learn how to use the darned thing!  Determined to overcome this little Everest of computer software I started looking around for some on-line tutorials and, joy oh joy, finally worked out how to open a photo. My next task was looking at layers.  If you haven't used Photoshop, the layers are a little bit like working with transparencies. You can layer image upon image. Then, you lock all the layers together to form one picture.

Yesterday I did a little meditation session and realised how like 'layers' my mind is. I would have a thought, let's say - "I really haven't been feeling so well the last few days." And then, layer upon layer, other thoughts and emotions would start appearing -

"Actually, I haven't been so well all this year, is that right? Yes, I think that's right."
"Maybe I'm slowly getting worse.  Not only will I never get well, I'm going to get worse!"
"It's my fault, I've always push myself too much, my body is just wearing out."
"But, heaps of other people have been as sick as me and got well."
"But, really?  Could that happen to me?  I don't think so."

And then, just like in photoshop, all these layers lock together. They become one picture, which then plays over and over in my mind. Maybe one of the tricks with meditation is to learn to see these layers, and then become adept at recognising, 'OK...I'm layering my thoughts and then creating a mental picture of what I think is happening. Hmmm...let's just watch that.'

In truth, I really don't know what is happening with my health, and that makes me anxious. Living in the unknown, with no definite picture, is very difficult. But, having the 'layers' image in my head has helped to give me a little bit more perspective on my thoughts and feelings. I'm trying not to dismiss or fight these layering thoughts, but  just let them exist without investing too much energy into them.  A tricky balance.

So!  Enough of's something I've been mucking around with in photoshop. It's a photo of my sister that I've turned into black and white, and then into a stencil design. (She said it was very 'first year art school' which I'm taking as a yuuuuge compliment!)

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Sharon Salzberg - retreat podcasts

I've come across some podcasts of a day-long retreat with Sharon Salzberg.  

Sharon's a Buddhist meditation teacher and I really love to hear her talks becuase she sounds so down-to-earth.  I don't get the idea she's floating around on some spiritual cloud ten miles above the rest of us poor sods -  she just seems like regular folk.

Sharon has a particular interest in vipassana (insight) meditation, and Loving Kindness (metta) meditation, and leads retreats and workshops around the world. I was thrilled to see that the Insight Meditation Community of Washington's website has the audio of a day-long workshop that Sharon led in Febuary 2009. The workshop was titled "Working with Your Enemies: Finding Freedom from Hostility and Fear."

The audio includes Sharon leading a Loving Kindness meditation, a balance meditation, and doing question and answer sessions with participants. I've been listening to it over and over again over the last few days, and have really enjoyed it.  

 May you be happy :)

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