All posts by Christina Feldman

The Loveliness of the Ordinary

Several years ago I resolved to renounce hurrying for a year.  It was immediately obvious that hurrying had less to do with how quickly or slowly I moved, and more to do with agitation and preoccupation with being somewhere I was not.  The blessing of this renunciation was to be increasingly aware of the loveliness of the ordinary.  The journey of going places became as important as the arrival; instead of waiting for something to begin or end I discovered a deepening appreciation of attending to what was right before me.  So much that had escaped my attention came alive – the warmth of the sun on my face, the sounds of life, the touch of my feet on the ground.  A new found joy in the simple and ordinary connections, events and people in my life deepened.

Our lives can be filled with countless lost moments.  In the haste of our lives, juggling the demands of family, work, friends and the needs of our own body and mind, connection with the present is replaced by preoccupation with the future.  Lost in thought and busyness our attention is prone to simply slide over the surface of life. It is all too easy to simply miss the countless lovely moments in our day that make our heart sing.  The sound of a child’s laughter,  the shape of a cloud, the coolness of a summers breeze, the wildflower growing in the crack of a sidewalk, the beat of our own heart – we live and breathe amidst the miracle of life.  For it to touch our heart, we need to be present.  The precious moments of calm and stillness our hearts long for, are born of our willingness to live the moment we are in.

Meditation practice shows the way to reclaim our capacity for profound, sensitive attentiveness and in turn to reclaim all the lost moments. Resting in an awakened heart we can deeply appreciate all that is joyful in our life, embrace that which is difficult and increasingly discover the loveliness of the ordinary.

In the moments and events of our life that are dramatic and intense we are likely to be immediately attentive.  Excitement, pleasure, success, love and happiness are eagerly welcomed and are heroically pursued.   Events that are painful, unpleasant, sorrowful are met with equally heroic efforts of avoidance and resistance.  We may realize that it is only when all of our efforts of avoidance and distraction have been exhausted, that we are willing to reluctantly attend to the difficult, often with the agenda of fixing or getting rid of all that disturbs our heart.

Intensity awakens us, offering a sense of vitality and richness that can be felt to be lacking in life.  Once sitting on a train beside a young man whose face and body were marked with multiple body piercings, I asked him if it wasn’t excruciating to have so much inflicted on his body.  He answered, “It is deeply painful, but it makes me feel so alive.”  We can be intensity addicts.  Busyness can be exhausting but offers apparent meaning, direction and identity.  A roller-coaster ride, an exhilarating meditation, the excitement of a new love, offer a longed-for wakefulness and sense of being fully alive.   A broken heart, an illness, a grieving friend, an argument with a loved one, bring pain and sorrow, but are also events that capture and enliven our attention.  Wisdom teaches us that the home of this precious sensitivity, awareness is not in the events of our lives, but in our own hearts.

There is so much in our life which is simply ordinary, neither exciting nor disturbing.  Trees grow, birds fly, the sun shines, the rain falls.  We go from morning to night, breathing, walking and moving through our day, meeting countless moments, people and events that we may barely notice.  Within the ordinary, the tendency is to disconnect, at times feel these moments are undeserving of our attention.  The ordinary is dismissed as boring, lacking in richness, intensity and completeness.  Accustomed to externalizing happiness and vitality, in the midst of any moment that is simply ordinary, neither dramatic or intense we may begin to detect an inner unease or discontent.

The ordinary can seem to deprive us of purpose and consequently of identity.  Non-doing appears at first deeply uncomfortable in its unfamiliarity, often becoming a springboard for the pursuit of some new, more exiting event or moment.  In reality the ordinary moments in our life are doorways to a deeper wisdom, discovering the richness and vitality that live within our own hearts and a profound connection to life just as it is.

Awareness is designed to illuminate our life inwardly and outwardly.  Awareness makes visible all that has lain in the shadows of our heart and life, shrouded in confusion, busyness or denial.  The power of wise attention is to awaken the world.  To understand anything deeply, we need to be connected with it – this is the birthplace of sensitivity, peace and compassion.  Each of us is asked to explore what it means to be consciously engaged with our life and a participant in the awakening of our world.

The path of awareness invites us to deeply question the inclination to externalize both happiness and unhappiness and the belief that the wakefulness of our heart depends upon intensity.  In the exploration of what it means to feel truly alive, connected and awake we begin to understand that a meditative life is an invitation to awaken our capacity to be delighted, to see beneath the surface of all things and rest in the richness of an enlivened heart.  Our capacity to be delighted and touched by life, lives within our own heart.  Honouring each moment unconditionally with our attention is to live in a sacred way, embracing the lovely, the difficult and the countless moments in our life which are neither pleasant nor unpleasant.  In our capacity to be delighted we learn to discover the loveliness of the ordinary.

Awakening our capacity for sensitivity is to begin to appreciate the calm and ease of a heart that is not entranced by drama and intensity.  No-one’s life is endlessly exciting or painful, filled with an uninterrupted succession of high and low experiences.  No one has a mind that only ever enjoys lovely, uplifting thoughts or a body that is continuously bursting with health and vitality.  None of us has a meditation practice that is continually exciting and rapturous… Our days have countless ordinary moments – sitting on the bus, shopping, preparing a meal, answering the telephone and walking from one place to another as we attend to all the ordinary tasks of our life…  We move through a world meeting countless ordinary events, meeting numerous people who may barely touch our heart.  These moments are not less worthy simply because they are lacking in intensity or drama.  Learning to embrace the ordinary with a wholehearted sensitivity and attention, our world is illuminated and awakened.  We learn what it means to listen more deeply, see more fully and sense an awakened heart that sees the special in the ordinary and the ordinary in the special.

Learning to attend wholeheartedly to the ordinary, we begin to discover a heart that can rest in non doing and deep receptivity.  Stepping out of addiction to intensity, we find within all the ordinary moments of our life, a chance to pause, to breathe and sense glimmers of a profound calmness.  The many sights, sounds, tastes and people we have overlooked because of their ordinariness are seen in a new way.  We begin to be curious about all the ordinary encounters and activities we have ignored or neglected and discover their uniqueness and depth.  Reclaiming the lost moments in our days we are reclaiming our lives and our capacity to celebrate the loveliness of the ordinary, it is a place of deep ease and calm.  The miracle of being alive is celebrated through the sensitivity and connectedness we cultivate.

Guided Meditation – Touching the Ordinary

Settle into a meditative posture that is relaxed and as ease filled as possible.  Close your eyes and for a few moments rest your attention within your breathing, allowing yourself to calm and find your seat in this moment.  Scan your attention through your whole body, sensing the spectrum of sensations and feelings that are present in this moment.  Notice how your attention is drawn towards the sensations that are either pleasant or unpleasant.  Be as aware as you can of how you respond to these sensations – the way in which you delight in the pleasant and how you might tighten around or resist the unpleasant.  Moving your attention through your body sense the places where no sensation appears – areas you might describe as neutral – the touch of your lips together, the palms of your hands, your ears.  Bring your attention to explore these areas and sense how the interest, sensitivity and calmness brings them to life, how they are seen in a new way.  Sense what it means to rest within the ordinary, exploring the ease and peace to be found.

Expanding your attention to sense the range of sounds presenting themselves – notice the sounds that are pleasant and those that grate upon you.  Sense the way you may be attracted to those you enjoy and resist those that are unpleasant.  Notice the sounds of the ordinary – the hum of your refrigerator, the wind outside your window, the car passing on the street.  Explore what it means to listen deeply to those sounds and to rest just in pure listening.

Bring your attention to notice the range of thoughts passing through your mind – planning, remembering, worrying – attend to them all equally with a calm, unbiased attentiveness that sees their arising and their passing.  Sense what it might be to rest in the seeing, allowing the mind to do what a mind does, without taking hold of any of the thoughts that appear.  Expand your awareness to receive everything that is present in this moment – your body, feelings, thoughts, sounds.  Explore what it is to receive the moment, to rest in awareness.  Sense the loveliness born of interest, connection and ease and the way that your world is awakened by the attention you bring.  What would it mean to bring these qualities into our life; to attend wholeheartedly to all that we neglect or dismiss?

The Invitation of Silence

Beginning one of my early meditation retreats, I read the information describing the retreat and gave only a cursory glance to the line that stated that Noble Silence would be observed for a period each day.  As the retreat proceeded I was startled to discover the impact that these daily periods of silence had upon me.  We were 100 people living and practising meditation side by side, yet those hours we spent in silence together each day were some of the loneliest moments.  I had anticipated that silence would be only a minor facet of the retreat; it became the place of deep discovery and understanding.  Before the retreat I had probably never consciously been silent in a community of other people and initially I experienced it as a disturbing and even threatening place to inhabit.  Emotionally I was reminded of times in my life when silence had been a tool of punishment and a withdrawal of affection.  At times I felt deeply bereft, as if I was deprived of all of my familiar ways of knowing that I was accepted, approved of and loved.  I became aware of how I would seek to make eye contact with other students, hoping for a sign of acknowledgement, a smile or a gesture of recognition.  When they weren’t forthcoming, old familiar patterns of feelings of unworthiness and inadequacy would follow.  I found myself longing for the end of the silent periods, immediately finding someone to talk for, looking for reassurance and affirmation that I was seen, heard and visible.  I began to understand that silence was going to be a powerful teacher in my life.

Over years of teaching silent meditation retreats, I have come to understand that the initial discomfort I experienced with silence was not an experience unique to me.  In the moments when we feel most overwhelmed by the volume of sound in our life, we long for silence.  We put in our earplugs, turn off our telephones of seek out the nearest monastery.  The sigh of relief with which we first greet the quiet is frequently followed by an awareness of how much activity and busyness we carry within ourselves.  Silence reveals the intensity of the repetitive thoughts, conversations, images, rehearsals and agitation that can shape the landscape of our  mind and heart.  Bombarded by sound, information and sensory input from the world and from the busyness of our own minds we deeply feel the undermining effects of being exiled from stillness.   Perhaps it is not so much the absence of sound we thirst for, after all what would life be without sound,  but a genuine sense of spaciousness and stillness within ourselves.

As I undertook longer and longer periods of silence, both alone and with others, it became a powerful gateway to awareness and self understanding.  Consciously spending time alone in silence became a powerful vehicle for learning to listen to the subtle rhythms of my body, heart and mind and learning to dive beneath the endless chatter of the inner voices that camouflaged inner stillness.  Silence is a path that returns us to ourselves.  It teaches us to gently release some of the historical patterns of self abandonment and anxiety.  Our flights into fantasy, perpetual rehearsals of the future, the busyness of our judgements, comparisons and replaying of the past can gently calm as we learn to be at ease in silence.  Silence teaches us not only to listen to ourselves but equally the way to bring a deeper, sensitive and more compassionate listening to our life and all the people we encounter.   Years later I came across a piece of writing that suggested that much of our unhappiness stems from not being able to sit quietly in a room by ourselves for even 10 minutes.

Over the years I have spent more and more time in silence and have come to honor and love it.  Through centuries silence has been a vehicle of profound transformation – personal, social and spiritual. The great spiritual mystics of the past and the present have embraced silence as a beloved, seeking the silence of the deserts, the mountain tops and the forests.  In the tribal traditions of the native American, silence is honored as the home of renewal and of communion with the natural world.  The elders teach that silence is the absolute pose and balance of body, mind and spirit, referring to silence as the ‘Great Mystery’.  Throughout his life Mahatma Gandhi advocated the unshakeable power and creativity of silence, it is at the roots of the tradition on non-violent protest and transformation.  Gandhi counselled that it was not difficult for people to resist words, but few people could resist the power of silent truth.  During the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S and in the silent revolution in Czechoslovakia  the silent dignity, integrity and truth of all who participated changed peoples’ hearts and ultimately their world.  At the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the Bodhi Tree in Bodhgaya, the Black Stone in Mecca or on the banks of the River Ganges in India there is a tangible silence that has little to do with the absence of sound.  They are dedicated places that remind us of the ancient quest for peace, wisdom and stillness.

Silence lies at the heart of all of the great spiritual traditions and pilgrimages.  It is the vehicle that encourages us to dive beneath the words, the opinions, the chatter and the images and discover the unspoken truths and the unfathomable mystery of being.  The variety of forms of contemplation, prayer and meditation meet together in their reverence of silence.  Through them we learn to still the clamour of our hearts the competing voices that cascade through our mind and discover a place of profound receptivity and stillness.  It is understood that silence is not a vacuum, a barren desert of the heart, but a potential and the source from which creativity, love, compassion and transforming wisdom emerge.  Spiritual traditions embrace silence as a beloved friend, cultivate it, celebrate it and probe its potential.

The discovery and reclaiming of silence is a path an art that asks for attention and dedication.  The commuter on the train and the hermit on the mountain top face the same challenge – to calm the waves of agitation and anxiety that lead them to flee from themselves and the moment.  We do not need to abandon the world, our families or responsibilities to begin to taste the sweetness of silence.  We may need to learn the art of creating oasis of stillness and calm within the clamour and haste of our own life.  We cannot always control the speed and activity of our world, we can choose how we engage with it.

We can all create sanctuaries of stillness in our days, precious moments of ‘sacred idleness’ in which we reconnect with ourselves, our deepest values and the landscape of our heart and mind.  What difference would it make in the quality of our life if we were to take a time in the beginning and ending of our day that was simply dedicated to stillness.  In the morning before the activity of your day begins take a few moments when you leave the radio silent, the phone unplugged and explore intentionally what it means to be simply still.  Let your body relax and dedicate the time to listening with great sensitivity and wholeheartedness to you body, mind and heart.  Bring a gentle and curious awareness to the life of your body with all its sensations, its places of tightness and ease and feeling the contact of your feet with the ground or your back on the chair.  Tune into the thoughts and images that arise and fade away, to the emotional tones of the inner voices clamouring for your attention, simply exploring what it means to listen without being lost.  Receive with the same sensitivity the variety of sounds that invite your attention.  The hum of the refrigerator, the sound of the birds or the traffic outside your window.  Notice that we tend to call noise are the sounds that we judge, reject or struggle with.  As you begin to learn what it means to rest in listening, inwardly and outwardly, notice too the spaces that are present between the sounds, the thoughts and the sensations.

Silence is never far away from us.  Our challenge is to untangle the habits of haste and restlessness that can govern our lives.  The many moments we may habitually fill with distraction or busyness are the same moments that are an invitation to explore the richness of silence.  We learn to pay attention to those moments we wait for a bus, stand in a line, sit in a traffic jam or unexpectedly discover an empty space in  our appointment calendar.  Instead of floundering in frustration or impatience we can allow ourselves to be silent, to listen and receive with clear attention our inner and outer world.  In all the activities and events of our lives we can explore what it means to create a ‘sacred space’.

What difference would it make in our lives to eat one meal a day in silence, truly savouring and appreciating the food that we eat?  What difference would it make in the quality of our life,  for one week or even for one day, to consciously renounce the habit of ‘hurrying’ and move through our life with calmness.  One of the most significant areas of living truly enhanced by silence is within the countless conversations that fill our days.  Meaningful, clear and effective speech is born of our capacity to be at ease is silence.  Compassionate, wise and kind speech grows from our ability to silently listen to another.  We learn to listen to what lies beneath the words, the moods and feelings evoked by our contact with another person.

The fostering of silence and stillness is a gift we offer to ourselves, a time of healing, renewal and of nurturing spiritual depth.  We are engaged in the awakening of our heart and our capacity to live fully and deeply.  Silence is an ally on the path to awakening, a doorway to profound inner stillness and a richness of connection with our life and all it brings to us.  We find ourselves renewed and restore through all of the moments we dedicate to ‘doing nothing’ and remembering what it means to ‘be’.

The Three Jewels: Buddha, Dharma, Sangha

People embark on a meditative journey through many different doorways.  Initially we may begin to practice meditation as a way of finding a little more peace and calm in the midst of a chaotic life and turbulent mind.  Some begin to meditate to find a way to meet the adversities and challenges of their life with greater understanding and balance.  Some are drawn to meditation through experiences of joy – glimpses of stillness, intimacy, connectedness inspire us to question whether they need be just accidental encounters in our life.  Both  sorrow and joy can bring us to a point where we acknowledge the urgency of finding ways to be more at peace with ourselves, to live a life of greater kindness and compassion and to learn simply how to be more present in all the moments of our life.

Practising with sincerity, persevering through the peaks and valleys that are part of every spiritual path, we begin to discover that our practice begins to bear fruit.  A calm and steady mind begins to be more accessible to us, we are less prone to be reactive or judgmental, there arise a greater sensitivity and mindfulness that allows us to feel more present and connected.  Our capacity to be delighted by life’s beauty is awakened as is our ability to meet hardship without being overwhelmed.  This is not the end of the journey.

As our own meditation and mindfulness practice deepens so too are our eyes opened to the deeper possibilities held within our practice.  The possibilities of an unshakeable liberation, a timeless wisdom and a true sense of being part of a community of people who treasure the same compassion and integrity we do.  We may find ourselves inspired to discover and understand  the origins of the path we travel and the liberation it is dedicated to.   We do not suffer alone, we do not awaken alone; our path is an ancient one walked by many before us and the wisdom and compassion we develop affects countless beings around us.  Many people practising this  path find themselves beginning to question what is meant by the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha, the three jewels or treasures and why such importance is given to them.  The practice of meditation is deeply healing on a personal level; out of the calmness of our own hearts we begin to question more deeply, not just what meditation is but what it means to live a meditative life.

The Buddha

The Buddha is the personification of an awakened being, a person who knows a unshakeable inner freedom, peace and compassion.  The Buddha is not only the historical Siddhartha we are most familiar with, but all the great teachers, mentors and guides throughout time who embody a depth of wisdom and compassion that touches and changes the world around them.  The Buddha is a symbol of the Third Noble Truth – that is truly possible in this life to know the end of anguish and struggle, to discover for ourselves a heart that is liberated from confusion and pain.   The Buddha also points to the potential for awakening and freedom that lives in each of us and encourages us to find the courage and wisdom to walk a path that leads us to discover for ourselves the same freedom that Buddha’s throughout time have found. The Buddha is a symbol of possibility – encouraging us not to despair but to dive deeply into our hearts to find the wisdom that can heal and liberate.  In the early years after the Buddha’s death there were no Buddha statues – the liberated heart was portrayed in the symbols of footprints in the sand or an empty hut.  The ongoing teaching of the Buddha was the encouragement to reclaim for ourselves our own Buddha nature.

Thinking of the Buddha our most immediate association may be with the statue seated on a lotus flower who lives on our alter and even in our garden.  We can be inspired by the stories of the Buddha, yet again feel minimal relationship with this historical figure.  The invitation of our path and practice is to bring the Buddha to life.  Many of us have glimpsed the Buddha in others and ourselves.  It is our Buddha nature that inspires us to reach out a hand on comfort and support to a friend in need, to forgive someone who has harmed us and to say no to injustice.  It is our Buddha nature that grieves at the pain in the world and rejoices at the happiness and love that can be found.  Our Buddha nature brings us back to the cushion in times of adversity and pain, trusting we can find within the understanding and steadfastness to meet our life.

When our eyes and hearts are open we glimpse Buddha nature shining in countless moments.    My first teacher lived in a simple mud hut, never knowing where his next meal would come from, yet who welcomed us unruly westerners with a beaming smile and a limitless willingness to offer the teaching of wisdom and compassion to us.  I have friends who raise a severely disabled child with boundless patience and love – it is for them a spiritual journey.  My own heart and practice is touched on a daily basis not only by the great people of this world who have dedicated themselves to justice, peace and compassion but also by the many acts of generosity and kindness offered by strangers.

Trying one day to return home, only to experience one of the catastrophic travel experiences familiar to many of us, with flights cancelled, baggage lost and endless treks down sterile airport corridors, an airline agent took me under his wing rearranging everything with ease and kindness.  He seemed surprised when I said to him, “You must be a bodhisattva.” Our practice of awareness opens our eyes to the many acts of peace, kindness and compassion we encounter in our lives, that touch our hearts and inspire us to reach for depths of wisdom and compassion we didn’t even know were possible for us.

The Buddha was also a teacher, a healer, a guide showing people the way to peace and liberation.  He empowered students to discover the same liberation within themselves that he had found, the Buddha wanted graduates.  With boundless compassion he showed the way to the end of suffering, he offered the dhamma.  The teachers I have been privileged to practice with in my own life have offered the same generosity.  As westerners we are prone to be either in awe of or mistrustful of authority, including the authority of teachers.  The Buddha discouraged blind faith in teachers, but also honoured their place in the journey of discovery and transformation. To find a teacher who will not only console us in times of difficulty but will also challenge our delusion is a great blessing.  We sense their Buddha nature in the fact they want nothing from us – not honour, flattery or allegiance, but only that we find our own Buddha nature.  Inviting the Buddha into our heart is in the deepest sense is to also invite the dhamma and the sangha into our life.  It means taking upon ourselves the willingness and responsibility to embody our Buddha nature.

The Dhamma

The dhamma is the path that leads to the realization of our Buddha nature.  The dhamma is the teaching of the universal story of change, unsatisfactoriness and non self that run through all of our lives.  It is the teaching of our inter-connectedness, clouded only be delusion and fear.  The dhamma teaches us of the interwoven threads of  a life of integrity, a mind that is collected and calm and a heart that ripens in wisdom and that leads to liberation.  The dhamma is what we practice when we sit down with the intention to let go, to calm the waves of agitation in our hearts, to understand what is true.  When we go out into our day with the commitment to not harm and to protect the well being of all living beings we are practising the dhamma.  When we are generous with our time, attention and love we embody the dhamma.  Our resolve to be truthful and honest in our words and acts, to treasure a clear mind and to engage with the world with respect and appreciation is to live the dhamma.

The teachings of profound wisdom found in the volumes of scriptures available to us are not intended to be absorbed only as an intellectual exercise, but to be assimilated, naturalized and embodied.  All of us are asked to take the teachings off the bookshelves and into every dimension of our lives, leaving nothing untouched.  We come to know the wisdom of a Buddha when the dhamma is our life and our life is the dhamma.  This is a practice, why it is called a path.  We are practising to be Buddhas and it is a journey that asks for the patience, perseverance, commitment and forgiveness of a Buddha.

The dhamma is our heart’s commitment to all that is healing and liberating..  It is not a commitment we make just once but countless times in a single day.  It is a commitment not to an ideology or belief system, but to our own Buddha nature.  It is only when we begin to wake up and be more mindful and present in our life that we realize how remarkably forgetful we can be.  We begin to appreciate how easy it is to be lost in historical habits of aversion, resistance, greed and heedlessness.  Every time we can let go just a little, find the willingness just to be with what is and step out of the cycles of resistance and forgetfulness we are renewing our commitment to the dhamma.  Each time we choose a path of kindness rather than aversion, seek peace rather than conflict, speak with truthfulness rather than dissembling we are practising the dhamma.  In the path of compassion it is said that delusion and suffering are endless, yet we vow to bring them to an end.

All these small moments of commitment where we renew our intention to be awake in our life do bear fruit.  The ability to live with integrity, clarity and compassion in the beginning feel effortful, almost heroic, at times even impossible.  With practice it becomes more effortless and truly possible and our hearts and lives are changed by those commitments.  There is a greater peace and openness, we fall in love with awareness, our mind becomes our friend and we experience the peace of compassion and freedom.

The Sangha

The sangha,  or the community of the wise can be understood on at least three levels.  One is called the noble sangha, the community of those who are awakened and embody that wisdom.  These are the Buddhas and teachers who inspire and encourage us, who guide and support us. They are the people of the past and present who have touched us with their unwavering commitment to justice, social and political transformation and to the end of suffering and anguish in our world.

The sangha is also the monastic order of monks and nuns, people who inspire us with the simplicity and integrity of their lives.  I feel a boundless appreciation for the monastics among us, aware of how profound the challenge is to truly surrender to a life which is bereft on the supports many of us rely on for safety and meaning.  In a recent teacher meeting when many teachers were reporting on the projects and ventures their centers were undertaking, one the ordained sangha reported simply, that the monks and nuns’ really didn’t do very much’.  On one level it is true; they have no mission to build and support centers, create programs or fund-raise.  On another level it is by ‘not doing very much’ that the ordained community does so much, reminding us just by their presence how deeply important it is to dedicate our hearts and lives to ethics, mindfulness and liberation. They are a living presence of simplicity, renunciation and commitment.

Throughout centuries this long lineage of the monastic sangha has offered refuge to those who have no refuge, brought life to the dhamma and been sustained reminders of the most precious gem of all, the treasure of liberation.  Monasteries in Asia are homes to those who have left the world but who are also endlessly available to the world.  They support children who are orphaned, the elderly who have no family, they educate and speak out for social justice and bear witness to the births and deaths of the laypeople in their communities.  The monastic community in a very real way endeavours to be a microcosmic view of a just and compassionate society, rooted in ethics, respect and wise relationship.

The sangha is also found in the communities and relationships of trust and integrity we nurture in our own lives.  Genuine sangha is any relationship that treasures harmony and practices the wisdom of inter-connectedness.  It is challenging to go on silent retreats and to cultivate a practice where we sit with ourselves on a cushion.  In our individualistic culture it is far more challenging for many people to cultivate community and true friendship.  Each one of us gets up off our cushion and enters into the world of relationship.  Bringing our practice and our commitment to wakefulness into that world is what enriches our practice and gives it meaning.  Our path remains incomplete as long as the third treasure is omitted.

It is in community that we discover how hard it is to live in a truly ethical way.  A friend said, “if practising the precepts does not make your life more uncomfortable, you haven’t understood them well”.   It is in community that our commitment to kindness and openness is challenged, that we begin to understand that generosity and forgiveness are practices of letting go and of wisdom.  Nowhere else in our lives are we so vulnerable as in our relationships and the teaching of freedom encourages us to cultivate a wise vulnerability.  To learn how to speak truthfully, to listen without defensiveness, to learn how to offer and receive kindness, to learn to let go of our personal story and listen deeply to our universal story are all the lessons of wise community.

As our practice deepens we increasingly understood the truth of our inter-connectedness and our inter-dependence.  All beings long for happiness, to be understood, to be protected and for peace.  All beings long to be free from pain, struggle and fear.  In a very real way my happiness is linked to yours, my fear and sorrow also linked to yours.  We cannot even seek our own awakening, but only take part in the awakening of all beings.

The cultivation of community or sangha, is ultimately to commit ourselves to relationships of respect, integrity and appreciation.  It is a commitment to discovering the Buddha nature in all beings and to embody our dhamma, our understanding.  It is not always possible for us to connect with and be part of established dhamma communities, it is always possible for us to nurture community within the relationships already present in our lives.  We can all learn what it means to be a true friend to another, offering kindness, honesty and understanding and to receive the friendship of another.  Making time for friendship to develop, persevering with the challenges that relationship inevitably brings is a valuing of the place that community, sangha, plays in our path.

The triple gem holds within it the whole of the teaching and path of liberation.  Buddha, dhamma and sangha are referred to as the three jewels or treasure because of their profound and enduring value.  They are interwoven, nurtured together and lead to profound and unshakeable liberation.


Compassion is no stranger to any of us, we know in our hearts what it feels like to be deeply moved by pain and suffering.  We all receive our own measure of sorrow and struggle in this life.  Loved ones experience illness, pain and heartache and we long to ease the burden of their suffering.  Our bodies age, our health is fragile, our minds can be beset by confusion and obsession, our hearts can be broken.  On a daily basis we are exposed to the large and small sorrows that are woven through the fabric of countless lives.  We see the many people in our world being asked to bear the unbearable – starvation, tragedy and hardship beyond our imagining.  The human story can be a story of love, redemption, kindness and generosity.  It is can also be a story of violence, division, neglect and cruelty.  Faced with all of this we can soften, reach out and do all that we are able to do to ease suffering wherever it is found.  We can also live with fear and denial – doing all we can to guard our hearts from being touched, afraid of drowning in this ocean of sorrow. Again and again we are asked to learn one of life’s clearest lessons – to run from suffering, to harden our hearts, to turn away from pain is to deny life and to live in fear.  As difficult as it is – to turn toward suffering, to open our hearts in all of the places we are prone to close, to commit ourselves to understanding and easing sorrow, is the most direct path to transformation and liberation.  It is the path of compassion.

We may be tempted to see compassion as a feeling, an emotional response we occasionally experience when we are sufficiently aware to be touched by an encounter with acute distress or pain.  In those moments of openness the layers of our defences crumble, intuitively we feel an immediacy of response and we glimpse the power of understanding non separation.  Milarepa, a great Indian sage expressed this saying, “Just as I instinctively reach out to touch and heal and wound in my leg as part of my own body, so too I reach out to touch and heal the pain in another as part of this body.”  Too often these moment and glimpses of profound compassion fade and once more we find ourselves protecting, defending and distancing ourselves from pain.  Yet they are powerful glimpses that encourage us to question whether compassion can be something more than an accident we stumble across.  The Buddha spoke often of the path of liberating the heart through loving kindness and compassion.  A path in which compassion in something much deeper than a fleeting emotional response, but is an embodiment of profound understanding cultivated and nurtured moment to moment in our lives.

Compassion and wisdom are placed at the heart of the path of awakening taught by the Buddha.  In the early Buddhist stories we find young men and women asking the same questions we ask today.  How can we respond to the suffering and pain that is woven into the very fabric of life?  How can we discover a heart that is truly liberated from fear, anger and alienation?  Is there a way to discover such a depth of wisdom and compassion that can genuinely make a difference in this world, outer and inner, that feels so often lost in confusion and destruction?  We cannot make ourselves feel compassionate as hard as we may try.  It is possible to incline our hearts toward compassion.  In one of the stories in the early literature, the ascetic Sumedha reflects upon the vast inner journey to discover unshakeable wisdom and compassion.  He describes compassion as a tapestry woven of many threads.  Generosity, virtue, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, determination, loving kindness and equanimity cultivated together, embodied in our life, culminate in the compassion that has the power to heal suffering.

An elderly monk arrived in India, having fled from prison in Tibet.  Meeting with the Dalai Lama he recounted the years he had been imprisoned, the hardship and beatings he had endured, the hunger and loneliness he had lived with and the torture he had faced.  At one point the Dalai Lama asked him, “Was there ever a point in all these years that you felt that your life was truly in danger?”  The old monk answered, “In truth, the only time I felt truly at risk were the moments I felt in danger of losing compassion for my jailers.”  Hearing stories like this when human beings have met unimaginable suffering with equally unimaginable courage and compassion we are often left feeling sceptical and bewildered.  We may be tempted to idealize both the individuals and the quality of compassion itself.  We imagine these people as saints, possessed of qualities and powers inaccessible to us and can feel even more personally disheartened.  Yet stories of great suffering are often stories of ordinary people who have found greatness of heart.  To discover an awakened heart within ourselves it is crucial not to idealize or romanticize compassion.  It grows in our willingness to meet pain rather than to flee from it.  Compassion can emerge in the darkest moments of our life, when all doors of escape are closed and our hearts feel to have turned to stone.

We may never find ourselves in situations of such peril that our lives are endangered, yet anguish and pain are undeniable aspects of each of our lives.  Every human journey has its stories of tragedy and loss, disappointment and fear.  None of us can build walls around our hearts that are immune to being breached by life.  Facing the sorrow we meet in this life we have a choice – our hearts can close, our minds recoil, our bodies contract and we can experience the heart that lives in a state of painful refusal.  We can also dive deeply within ourselves to nurture the courage, balance, patience and wisdom that enables us to deepen and care.  Compassion is not a state but a way of engaging with this fragile and unpredictable world.  Compassion is embodied through our willingness to engage with tragedy, loss and pain.  Its domain in not only the world of those you love and care for, but equally the world of those who threaten and disturb you, who cause harm and the countless beings you may never meet who are facing a life that feels unendurable.  The ultimate journey of a human being is to discover how encompassing our hearts can be.  Anger, hatred and cruelty as well as forgiveness, generosity and loving kindness live as possibilities within all of our hearts.  Our capacity to be a cause of suffering as well as a healer of suffering live side by side within us.  The challenge and invitation of every human life is to discover the wisdom and compassion that can heal the schisms that divide us from one another.

In the first century A.D. in northern India, in what is now possibly Afghanistan, one of the most graceful and powerful texts in the Buddhist tradition was composed in Sanskrit, know as the Lotus Sutta.  It is a celebration of the liberated hearts expressed in a powerful and boundless compassion, pervading all corners of the universe, relieving anguish, pain and suffering wherever it touches.  When the Lotus Sutta was translated into Chinese, the Kuan Yin, ‘one who hears the cries of the world’  emerged, an embodiment of compassion that has continued to occupy a central place in Buddhist teaching and practice ever since.  Over the centuries Kuan Yin has been portrayed in a variety of different forms.  At times she is depicted as a feminine presence, her face serene, arms outstretched and her eyes open.  At times she holds a willow branch, symbolizing her resilience – able to bend in the face of the most fierce storms and winds of life without being broken.  At other times she is portrayed with a thousand arms and hands, in the center of each hand an open eye depicting her constant awareness of anguish and her all embracing responsiveness.  Sometimes she takes the form of a warrior laden with a multitude of weapons embodying the fierce and fearless aspect of compassion that is committed to uprooting the causes of suffering and pain.  She is a protector and a guardian, she is engaged with life.

To cultivate the willingness and capacity to listen deeply to anguish and sorrow wherever and whenever that are met in our live is to take the first steps on the journey of compassion. Our capacity to listen follows on the heels of our willingness.  Heroic efforts are made in our lives to shield ourselves from the anguish that can surround us and live within us.  We can become master of avoidance and denial feeling it is simply too hard to open to the ocean of sorrow.  In truth it is much harder on us not to take the step to listen deeply.  A life of avoidance, a life of defence is a life of anxiety and painful separation.  True compassion is not forged at a distance from pain but in its fires.  We do not always have a solution for suffering, we do not always have the power to repair anguish, we cannot always fix pain – we can find the commitment to stay connected and to listen deeply.  Compassion does not always demand heroic acts or great words.  In the times of darkest distress and pain it is not always actions or words that are needed.  What is mostly deeply need and is most healing is the fearless presence of a person who can be wholeheartedly present and receptive.

It can seem that awareness and opening our hearts to sorrow makes us suffer.  Awareness brings with it an increased sensitivity with our inner and outer world.  Awareness teaches us to read between the lines and to see beneath the world of appearances.  Awareness opens our heart and mind to a world of pain and distress that previously only glanced off the surface of our consciousness like a stone skipping across water.  We begin to sense the loneliness, need and fear in others that was previously invisible.  Beneath words of anger, blame and agitation we hear the fragility of another person’s heart.  Awareness deepens because we choose to listen and we hear more acutely the cries of the world.  Each of those cries has written within it the plea to be received and understood.  We can be afraid of this intimacy with pain because we are afraid of helplessness.  We fear that we don’t have the inner balance to embrace suffering without being overwhelmed.  Yet each time we find the willingness to meet adversity and affliction, rather than resisting them, we discover we are not powerless.  Awareness rescues us from helplessness, teaching us the ways of kindness, patience, resilience and courage.  Awareness is the forerunner of understanding, understanding is the prerequisite of bringing suffering to an end.  Awareness is born of intimacy.  We can only fear and hate what we do not understand and from a distance.  We can only find compassion and freedom in intimacy.

Shantideva, a deeply compassionate master of the past, taught “Whatever you are doing, be aware of the state of your mind.  Accomplish good, this is the path of compassion.”   How would our life be if we carried this commitment with us through our days and into all of the encounters we meet – to be aware of the state of our mind.  To ask ourselves what it is we are dedicated to when we meet a homeless person on the street, a child in tears, a person we have long struggled with or someone who disappoints us.  We can not always change the heart or the life of  another person.  Neither awareness or compassion are magical devices that can instantly dispel all suffering.  We can always take care of the state of our own mind.  Can we let go of our resistance, our judgments, our prejudice and fear?  Can we bring into all of those encounters a commitment to listen wholeheartedly, to find the empathy to understand another person’s world?  Can we find the patience, tolerance and courage to remain present in all the moments we are tempted to flee?  Can we equally find the compassion to forgive our own very wish to disconnect, dismiss and distance?  Compassion is a journey, every step, every moment of cultivation is gesture of deep wisdom.

Living in Asia for several years, I encountered along with all travellers, the endless people begging on the streets.  Faced with a forlorn, gaunt child I would find myself judging a society that couldn’t care for its deprived children, sometimes would feel irritated, perhaps dropping a few coins into the child’s hand while ensuring I kept my distance from him.  I would debate with myself whether I was just perpetuating the culture of begging by responding to the child’s pleas.  It took me a long time to understand that, as much as the coins may have been appreciated, they were secondary to the fact that I rarely connected to the child.  Compassion is our ability to ‘feel with’ that involves a leap of empathy and a willingness to go beyond the borders or our own experience and judgments.  What would it mean to place myself in the life and heart of that begging child?  What would it be like to never know if I will eat today and to have my life dependent on the handouts of strangers?  Caring for the state of our mind is to make that journey beyond the borders of our own fears, assumption and prejudice.  Then our hearts can tremble, we have the possibility of accomplishing good.

Milarepa once said, “Long accustomed to contemplating compassion, I have forgotten all difference between self and other.”  Genuine compassion is without boundaries or hierarchies.  The smallest sorrow is as worthy as compassion as the greatest anguish.  The heartache we experience in the face of loss or betrayal asks as much for compassion as does a person caught in the midst of tragedy.  Those we love and those we disdain ask for compassion, those who are blameless and those who cause suffering are all embraced in the folds of the tapestry of compassion.  An old Zen monk once proclaimed, “O, that my monks robes were wide enough to gather up all of the suffering in this floating world.”  Compassion is the liberated heart’s response to suffering and pain wherever it is met.

When we see those we love and care for in pain, our compassion is instinctive.  Our heart can be broken by seeing a loved one in pain, it can also be broken open. Our capacity for forbearance, patience and courage is most sorely tested when we are faced with a loved one’s pain that we cannot fix or heal.  We reach out to shield those we love from harm or sorrow but life continues to teach us that our power has limits.  Wisdom tells us that to insist that impermanence and frailty should not touch those we love, is to fall into the near enemy of compassion which is attachment to result and the insistence that life must be other than it actually is.  Compassion is to offer a refuge to those who have no refuge.  The refuge is born of our willingness to bear what at times feels unbearable- to see a loved one suffer.  The letting go of our insistence that those we love should not suffer is not a relinquishment of love but a release of illusion – the illusion that love can protect us or our loved ones from life’s natural rhythms.  In the face of a loved one’s pain we are asked to understand what it means to be steadfast and patient in the midst of our own fear.  In our most intimate relationships love and fear can grow simultaneously.  A compassionate heart knows this to be true, does not demand that fear disappears but knows that it is only in the midst of fear that we can begin to discover the fearlessness of compassion.

Some people, carrying long histories of a lack of self-worth or denial find it most difficult to extend compassion toward themselves.  Aware of the vastness of suffering in the world they may feel it is self-indulgent to care for their aching body, their broken heart or the confusion of their mind.  Yet this too is suffering and genuine compassion makes no distinction between self and other.  If we do not know how to embrace our own frailties and imperfections with generosity, patience and forgiveness, how do we imagine we could find room in our heart for anyone else in this world.  The Buddha one said that you could search the whole world over and not find anyone more deserving of your love and compassion than you, yourself.  Instead too many people find themselves extending inwardly levels of harshness, demand and judgment that they would never dream of extending to another person, knowing the harm that would be incurred or else in the pursuit of an idealized compassion become self-neglectful. Compassion ‘listens to the cries of the world’ and we are part of that world.  The path of compassion does not ask us to abandon ourselves on the alter of some idealized state of perfection.  A path of healing makes no distinctions – within the sorrow of our own frustrations, disappointments, fears and bitterness we learn the lessons of patience, acceptance, generosity and ultimately, compassion.

The deepest compassion is nurtured in the midst of the deepest pain and suffering.  Faced with the struggle and sorrow of those we love or those who are blameless in this world, compassion and empathy arise naturally and instinctively.  Faced with people who inflict harm and pain upon others we are asked to dive deeply within ourselves to find the steadfastness and understanding that enables us to listen deeply and remain open.  Connecting with those who perpetrate harm is ‘hard’ practice, yet compassion is somewhat shallow if it turns away those who, lost in ignorance, rage and fear, harm others.  The mountain of suffering in the world can never be lessened by adding yet more bitterness, resentment, rage and blame to it.  Thick Nhat Hanh, the beloved Vietnamese teacher said, “anger and hatred are the materials from which hell is made”.  It is not that the compassionate heart will never feel anger.  Faced with the terrible injustice, oppression and violence in our world our hearts tremble, not only with compassion but also with anger.  A person without anger may be a person who has not been deeply touched by the acts of violence, oppression and prejudice that scar the lives of too many people.  Anger can be the beginning of abandonment or part of the fabric of commitment.

We can be startled into wakefulness by the exposure to suffering and this wakefulness can become part of the fabric of our own rage or part of the fabric of wise and compassionate response and action.  If we align ourselves with hatred and bitterness we equally align ourselves with the perpetrators of harm.  We can also align ourselves with a commitment to healing, to bringing to an end the causes of suffering.  It is easy to forget the portrayal of Kuan Yin as an armed warrior, profoundly dedicated to protecting all beings, fearless and resolved to bring suffering to an end.  The courage, balance and determination needed to end suffering are made manifest through the words and acts that are our bridges to the world we live in.   Rarely are words and acts of healing, reconciliation and wisdom born of an agitated and enraged heart.  One of the great arts in the cultivation of compassion is to ask if we can embrace anger without blame.  Blame agitates our hearts, keeps us locked in contractedness and ultimately leads to despair.  To surrender blame is not to surrender discriminating wisdom that knows clearly what suffering is and what is it’s cause.  To surrender blame is to surrender the separation and disconnection that too often makes compassion impossible.

The path of compassion is altruistic but not idealistic.  Walking this path we are not asked to lay down our life, find a solution for all of the struggles in this world or immediately rescue all being.  We are asked to explore how we may transform our own heart and mind in the moment.  Can we understand the transparency of division and separation?  Can we liberate our hearts from ill will, fear and cruelty?  Can we find the steadfastness, patience, generosity and commitment to not abandon anyone or anything in this world?  Can we learn how to listen deeply and discover the heart that trembles in the face of suffering?  The path of compassion is cultivated one step and one moment at a time.  Each of those steps lessens the mountain of sorrow in our world.


When my house burned down I gained

an unobstructed view of the moonlit sky


Some years ago I went into a Thai monastery for a period of retreat.  The first morning I took my seat in the meditation hall and waited for the teacher arrive with instructions on how to meditate.  I waited and waited.  On the third day I summoned the courage to ask the abbot, “What should I be doing when I sit on a cushion?”, expecting to receive a complex formula of meditation instructions.”  He looked at me with a puzzled expression on his face before answering, “Sit down and let go.”

Is it possible that the heart of a meditative path can be so simple; to sit down and let go?  Is it equally possible that this is the path to true simplicity, calmness and freedom in our lives; to live wholeheartedly and then let go?  The lessons of simplicity teach us to love deeply and to let go;  to savour each sound, taste, sight and smell and to let go; to cherish each moment as a precious gift and to let go; to appreciate with profound sensitivity each connection with others, every thought and feeling, every birth and death and to be a calm presence and a conscious participant in  their natural unfoldment and passing.  The path of simplicity is learning to live in harmony with the rhythms of life and each moment.  It is a path of joy and freedom.

Hearing the word renunciation we may find our hearts quivering not with the anticipation of joy and freedom, but with fear and resistance.  Images of ourselves homeless and bereft, deprived of comfort and drowning in loneliness pass through our minds..  Renunciation may be equated with vulnerability and loss, a life of passivity and meaninglessness.  We are faced with one of our deepest anxieties of not knowing how we would define ourselves, live and find meaning in the absence of the vast array of possessions, opinions, beliefs, roles and achievements we call our own.  A life of simplicity and a heart of peace have as their inseparable companion, a spirit of renunciation, a genuine willingness to let go.  Culturally we are encouraged to believe that possession, attainment and achievement are the pathways to happiness.  In the quest for simplicity we are invited to entertain another paradigm; that it is craving, holding and possessiveness that brings complexity, confusion and sorrow and renunciation that is the mother of joy, simplicity and freedom.

Complexity and entanglement have many sources in our lives.  One of the primary causes lies in the fear of losing what we have and the deeply rooted anxiety of never having enough, a generator of immense complexity.  Out of the fear of solitude and aloneness we fill our lives and minds with distraction and busyness.  Personal productivity has become the mantra of our time, the idea of stillness and simplicity terrifying – a sign of worthlessness.  In the rush to be endlessly occupied, the fear of being deprived of stimulation we neglect our relationships and ourselves, forget the simple joys of listening to the song of a bird, the laugh of a child and the richness of one step taken with complete attention.  A Christian mystic once said, “Total, unmixed attention is the essence of prayer.”  We may dream of a time when we could lay down beneath the night sky and do nothing but be present with its vastness with total attention but our dreams our sabotaged by the busyness generated by anxiety.  Even boredom has come to be regarded as one of our greatest enemies that we feel we will avoid through generating endless complexity and busyness. Boredom may be no more than a surrender of sensitivity, yet rather than turning our hearts and minds to rediscover that lost sensitivity we thirst for ever more exciting experience, drama and intensity.  In the search for calm simplicity it may be important for us to remember our dreams of intimacy, stillness and happiness, to value their discovery and to learn to let go.

Some time ago the keepers at the New York zoo became concerned when Gus the polar bear was observed swimming repetitively back and forth in his pool for hours on end.  Animal psychologists and experts were called for consultation and the final conclusion was that Gus was bored.  Not that Gus may been somewhat aggrieved at living in New York rather than bounding through snowdrifts or may have missed his freedom, boredom was the problem.  The solution – fill his pool with toys and distraction.  As one keeper stated “Hey, it works for us.”

The times when we fee most discontented in ourselves are the times our minds will flee most readily to the past and the future in an endless search for guarantees, control and safety.  Inner complexity is not a difficult experience to identify – the mind swirls with a burden of thoughts, images, anxiety, speculation and obsession that we become lost in.  The feeling of “I can’t let go” is a painful one.  Seeking to end the pain we make confused and at times desperate choices that lead not to greater simplicity and clarity but to greater entanglement.  Feeling adrift, fragmented and uneasy we search for happiness in the world of people, things and fantasy and find ourselves falling into familiar pits of frustration and discord.

We find simplicity in our hearts and lives through paying attention to the roots of complexity and learning to let go.  Albert Einstein wisely advised, ‘Out of clutter, find simplicity.  From discord, find harmony.  In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.’  Simplicity does not rely upon divorcing ourselves from the world or adopting a path of austerity but in carefully examining our relationship to all the acquisitions, opinions, objects, dreams that can so crowd our world and mind.  Into this maze of complexity we bring a simple question – What is it that leads to happiness and what leads to complexity and confusion?

Baker Roshi, an American Zen master, once said that the definition of an enlightened person is that they always have what they need.  Whether sitting alone on a mountain peak, or in the midst of a  crowd there is never a sense of there being anything absent or lacking.  Every moment, every situation and every encounter offers everything that is needed for deepening sensitivity, compassion, peace and understanding as long as we are paying attention.  In letting go of the compelling urges to gain more of the pleasant experience and avoid the unpleasant that can so govern our lives there is found a profound contentment and simplicity.  The mind calms, we step back a little from the powerful forces of craving and aversion and turn our attention to this moment, discovering our capacity to be delighted by all that is right before us.

We live in a culture that trains us to believe that we never truly have enough of anything and that we always need more than we have in order to be happy.  It is a training in anxiety and complexity as we search the world to find a way to end the insatiable appetite generated by the feeling of insufficiency.  In the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism there is depicted a realm of beings called ‘hungry  ghosts’ who sadly inhabit bodies with enormous stomachs yet a throat that is as narrow as a needle.  Unable to satisfy their insatiable appetite they roam the world desperately in search of gratification that can never be found.  Trained in anxiety and complexity we come to believe that life is made meaningful by possessing more, gaining more, achieving more and protecting ourselves from loss and deprivation by holding as tightly as possible to all that we gain.

Every year my insurance salesman visits me to assess the various insurance policies I have on my house, car etc.. Of course his unspoken agenda is to convince me of the need to purchase more insurance cover.  With a smile on his face he begins a long discourse on the unspeakable terrors and tragedies that may befall me in my life.  What if you had no work?  What if your partner or you became ill with a terminal illness?  What if your children should be in an accident?  The list of possible disasters seems endless.  Listening to him my eyes grow wider and wider, yet I also glimpse the bottomless chasm of fear I could live in if I lived by the rules of “what if”.  The choice seems simple; do I choose to make fear my companion in life or do I choose to live with trust and skilful means.

We tend to believe that there will always be a better and more perfect moment for us to find the simplicity and happiness we seek for, than the moment we are in.  We cling tightly to all that we have and want as a means of relieving anxiety, not seeing that in our desperate holding and wanting we only generate greater depths of fear.  Endless streams of thought and emotion are produced as we attempt to plot and strategize our way to happiness.  We look upon the world as an enemy or thief intent upon depriving us of all we have accumulated and desperately want to protect.  There the story of an elderly cantankerous man, miserly with everything including his love and trust, who awoke one night to find his house on fire.  Climbing to the roof for safety he looked down to see his son below holding a blanket for him to jump into.  “jump, father, jump, we’ll save you.”  They called.  He answered, “Why should I believe you?  What do you want in return?”  “Father, this is no time for arguments.  Either jump or you’ll lose your life.”  “I know you boys” he shouted.  “lay the blanket on the ground and I’ll jump.”

We believe that it is difficult to let go but in truth there is much greater difficulty and pain involved in holding and protecting.  Reflect upon anything in your lives you grasp hold of tightly; an opinion, a historical resentment, an ambition, an unfulfilled fantasy.  Sense the tightness, fear, defensiveness and tumult of thought that surrounds that holding.  It is a painful, anxious, experience of unhappiness.    We do not let go in order to make ourselves impoverished, bereft or conflicted.  We let go in order to discover happiness and peace.  To grasp and hold serves only to perpetuate anxiety, defensiveness and turmoil.  A Chinese master once said,

We accept the graceful falling

Of mountain cherry blossoms,

But it is much harder for us

To fall away from our own

Attachment to the world.

In the search for simplicity we are drawn to ask ourselves ‘What in this moment is truly lacking.’  Would more thoughts, possessions, experiences, sights or sounds actually have the power to liberate us from complexity and unhappiness or would they simply add more clutter to an already overcluttered life and heart.  When we are lost in these states of want and need and all our obsessions about them contentment, simplicity and peace feel to be far away from us.  We become fixated upon the next moment, the moment we arrive at the rainbows end, fulfilling our desires and gratifying our needs.  Into the perfect moment, the next attainment, the ideal relationship, the more exciting experience is projected the promise of happiness and peace.  Despite all of our experience in life that tells us of how easily we become dissatisfied, bored and disinterested with what we gain, we find ourselves continuing to invest our happiness and well being in this projected promise of happiness, always lying in the next moment.  Pursuing our obsessions we forget that this acute sense of deprivation is rooted not in the world but in our own minds that are fixated upon getting and attaining.  Simplicity is not concerned with resignation or passivity nor with surrendering vision and direction in our lives.  It is concerned with surrendering our obsessions and addictions and all the anxiety and unhappiness they generate.  Over and over we learn to ask ourselves, “What in this moment, is truly lacking?”

In my early years of meditation practice I had a great longing for stillness, believing that my progress was dependent upon finding the perfectly quiet mind.  I found myself pursuing the perfectly quiet world believing it to be a precondition for the quiet mind.  First I had a room in a tiny village but soon became dissatisfied.  The occasional truck or sound of a market pedlar disturbed whatever quiet I managed to find.  So I moved further up the mountain to a small house, convinced that here it would be perfect.  Before long I was increasingly irritated with the sounds of passing herdsmen, the occasional barking of a dog so once more I moved further up the mountain to an isolated hut, far removed from any human contact.  I covered the windows with blankets so even the sun wouldn’t distract and at last breathed a sigh of relief – perfect quiet.  In that part of India lived tribes of large, silver haired monkeys who discovered the delight of my tin roof.  One day, finding myself outside shouting and pouring abuse upon the monkeys it finally occurred to me that perfect calm was perhaps more a state of mind that a state of environment.

Fixated upon getting, possessing and arriving at the ‘perfect moment’ we overlook the reality that we have delegated to these objects and goals the authority to define our happiness and well-being that comes to depend upon the fulfilment of our desires and goals.  We believe we will be happy when we have ordered the world to suit our desires, expectations and ambitions.  Strangely this ‘perfect moment’ and promise of fulfilment never arrives as it is ceaselessly pushed over and over into the future as yet one more need or desire arises within us. One of the richest men in America, after finally reaching the goal of possessing three billion dollars, remarked to a friend, “You know, I really don’t feel all that secure.  Maybe if I had four billion”.  Peace and simplicity are truly not so complicated; they will be born not of having but of being.  Each time we become lost in our obsessions and cravings we deprive ourselves of the simplicity, contentment and freedom that is to be found in ourselves and in moment that is embraced with attention and the willingness to be touched.  An ancient Sufi saying tells us, ‘Within your own house swells the treasure of joy, so why do you go begging from door to door.’

One of my first teachers once told me, ‘Letting go is an act of compassion for yourself’.  We drive ourselves into deep states of sorrow and anxiety in our quest for gratification and happiness outside of ourselves.  Driven by what the Buddha described as two deepest fears of a human being, the fear of having nothing and being no-one, we try to grasp the ungraspable, preserve the changing, secure the unpredictable and guarantee the unknowable.  It is an act of great kindness to learn how to let go in this life, to be with what us, to harmonize ourselves with life’s inevitable changes and to open to the mystery of the unknown.  When we no longer live in fear of losing what we have we can begin to learn how to love and appreciate what is already with us.  We learn to reclaim the inner authority to discover happiness within ourselves and within each moment when we no longer delegate happiness into what we do not have and the moment that has not yet arrived.  Breaking free from the domination and oppression of wanting and craving we find the possibility of contentment and simplicity in each moment.   In a path of renunciation all that we are truly letting go of is a world of unease and discontent.  Coco Chanel once remarked, ‘How many care one loses when one decides not to be something but to be someone’.

In his first discourse the Buddha stated simply that craving is the cause of sorrow and pain.  The craving to gain that which we do not have; to craving to get rid of what we do not want, the craving for experience and identity are all manifestations of one energy that leads us to depart from the truth of what is in each moment.   The Buddha went on to say so clearly that the cause of sorrow lies in our own hearts and minds; the cause of happiness lies in our own hearts and minds.  Our immediate response may be to say this is too simplistic.  There appear to be so many things that cause us sorrow – the job we dislike, the traffic jams we struggle with, the aches in our body, the unpleasant experiences or circumstances that are inflicted upon us – the list is endless.  As we look more deeply we would ask, do any of these actually hold the power to lead us to be lost in sorrow, pain or confusion.  Or is it instead the movements of our minds that dismiss, judge, reject and avoid that cause the greatest pain and sorrow.  We can go through life with the mantras ‘This shouldn’t be happening, I want something else to happen.  This should be different than it is.’  Pursuing what we do not have and want, trying to get rid of what we have and don’t want, losing interest in that which previously fascinated us are all the tentacles of a single energy of craving.  It is a powerful energy that leads us to flee from the moment and ourselves, never content or happy.  As our appetites become jaded we find ourselves needing ever more intense excitement and experience to interest us.  The Buddha compared this energy of craving to a forest fire that consumes the very ground that sustains it.  Our energy, time, well being and peace are consumed in the fires of craving.  Renunciation, learning to let go gently and clearly in our lives is extinguishing the fire, the antidote to craving.  It is one of the greatest of all skills that restores to us the possibility of profound happiness, simplicity and ease.

There is a sacred hunger rooted in our hearts – the yearning for freedom, happiness, connectedness and peace.  It is a sacred hunger that prevents us from surrendering to despair and disconnection; that inspires us to continue searching for a way of being in this world where we feel truly intimate, at one with life, free from conflict and sorrow.  Out of confusion this sacred hunger for peace and intimacy becomes distorted and diverted and turns into craving and the pursuit of projected promise that is invested in experience and things outside of ourselves.  Projected promise is the belief that people, objects, experiences and circumstances have the power to provide us with the happiness and peace we feel powerless to offer to ourselves.

Renunciation is not a dismissal of the world.  It does not involve surrendering the joy found in all the precious and delightful impressions and experiences that will visit us in this life.  Through withdrawing the projected promise so easily invested in sensation, impression and experience we learn to find a sense of balance that equally embraces the pleasant, unpleasant and neutral experience.  Appreciating the pleasant, steady in the midst of the unpleasant and sensitive to the neutral impression we discover the root of happiness lies not in what we are experiencing but how we are experiencing it.  It is the withdrawal of projected promise and surrendering the fear of deprivation that enables a relationship to all of life that is rooted in sensitivity, compassion and intimacy rather than grasping and anxiety.  Craving propels us outwardly, away from ourselves and this moment into an endless quest for certainty and identity that fails to offer any true refuge.  Exploring the energy of craving, loosening its hold we are returned to ourselves, able to acknowledge the sacred hunger within us for intimacy and awakening.  At ease within ourselves we discover a profound refuge and happiness rooted in our own capacities for awareness and balance.

The Buddha spoke about the distinction between an enlightened and an unenlightened person.  Both the enlightened and the unenlightened experience feelings, sensations, sounds, sights and experiences that can be pleasant, unpleasant and neutral.  When an unenlightened person encounters the unpleasant experience they grieve, lament, wail and become distraught and distracted.  Two levels of sorrow are experienced, one in the actual experience and one in the reactions and story about it.  It is as if a person crossing the pathway of an archer were to be shot by an arrow, whether enlightened or unenlightened both would experience pain.  The difference lies in the level of both story and fear that are added to the experience.  In seeing the archer prepare to shoot a second arrow the unenlightened person would already be anticipating its pain, building a story centered around living with a wounded leg and entertaining thoughts of anger towards the archer.   In the heart of the unenlightened person layers of aversion, association with past and future lead them to depart from the reality of what is actually being experienced in that moment.  The unpleasant experience is layered with aversion and resistance.  We try to end the unpleasant experience through finding one that is more pleasant or by suppressing or avoiding it.  In the midst of any of the unpleasant experiences that will come to us in this life we need to ask ourselves what is more painful – the actual experience or all of the stories, fear and resistance with which we surround it.  Calm simplicity does not depend upon the annihilation or control of the unpleasant experience but if born of our willingness to let go of the layers of our stories.

The pleasant experience evokes a different response and different story line.  We want more, we don’t want it to end, we strategize the ways to defend it – it is layered with craving and grasping.  We have a moment of calm in meditation and find ourselves rehearsing our debut as the next world teacher.  A smile from a colleague and we are already in our minds embroiled in the romance of the century.  Once more our stories divorce us from the simplicity of the moment and we are puzzled and disappointed when our stories are frustrated.  Pleasant experiences are hijacked by craving and wanting and once more we live not in the simplicity of this moment but in the dramas of our minds that make us feel alive.  In the midst of the pleasant experience, here too we can learn to let go of our stories, projections and fantasies.  We can learn to love what is.

The countless neutral experiences, sounds, sights, sensations we meet in our lives become layered with voices of confusion that tell us that something is missing and needs to be added.  If the things of this world neither delight nor threaten us they are often dismissed, ignored or simply missed.  The tree outside our window, made familiar by time no longer appears to offer anything to entice our attention.  We fail to notice the texture of its leaves, its changing colours, its growing and ageing, the way the sun reflects on its leaves.  We believe we need something more stimulating and exciting for it to be worthy of our attention.  In learning to stay present we discover that it is actually the power of our attention that makes all things worthy.

The enlightened person is not exempted from any form of feeling, whether pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, but is not bound to any of them.  The arrow will hurt, but the pain of the body will not be matched by sorrow in the mind.  Surrendering the story is not a dismissal of the wounded leg but is actually an empowerment – releasing the capacity to care for what needs to be cared for with compassion and responsiveness and to let go of all the extra layers of fear and speculation.

There are experiences of pain that are inevitable in this life, rooted in our bodies as they age or are ill.  Loss, separation, contact with those who threaten us, we will all meet these experiences in our lives.  There are levels of sorrow and pain that are optional, rooted in fear, aversion and grasping.  Learning to let go, with understanding, of the stories that carry our fears and wanting we learn to see life, ourselves, others, as they actually are.  Simplicity is always available.  Learning to let go of the extra layers of our stories and craving, learning to let go of our craving for the pleasant and our aversion for the unpleasant is the discovery of peace.

In the Tao it is said “In the pursuit of knowledge, every day something is gained.  In the pursuit of freedom, every day something is let go of.  We easily tend to hold grandiose ideas of renunciation, regarding it as some spiritually heroic task or breakthrough experience in our path that will happen at some future time.  A spiritual life asks us to hold onto nothing – not our opinions, beliefs, judgements, past or dreams of the future.  It seems a formidable task but we are not asked to do it all at once.  Life is a journey of 10,000 renunciations, sometimes in a single day.  We are not asked to be an expert, but always a beginner.  The only moment we can let go is the moment we are present in.

As we reflect upon the nature of life and ourselves we discover that there is also an innate naturalness to letting go.  The nature of all life is to change; winter lets go its hold to release spring.  For summer to emerge spring must fall away; this season can only last for a time before it fades into autumn which in turn lets go for winter to emerge once more.  Our infancy was let go of to release our childhood.  Every stage of our own growth relies upon the letting go of what went before.  No matter how strenuous our own efforts we cannot make one single thing last.  No matter how much we delight in a pleasant thought, experience or connection we cannot force it to stay.  No matter how much we dislike or fear any experience or impression, it is already in the process of changing into something else.  There is a remarkable simplicity discovered as we harmonize our own life with the natural story of all life, which is change.  From the moment of our birth our life has been teaching us about letting go.  There is remarkable complexity in seeking to bend and mould life’s story to support our personal agendas of craving and aversion.  We are not separate in any way from this process of change, not just a detached observer.  We are part of this life with all of its seasons and movements.

Aitken Roshi, a much beloved Western Zen master, once said, “Renunciation is not getting rid of the things of this world, but accepting that they pass away.”  A deep understanding of impermanence is an insight that has the power to radically transform our lives.  Understanding the nature of change on a cellular level loosens the hold of craving and aversion bringing calmness and great simplicity.  To study life is to study impermanence.  The insight into impermanence is not a breakthrough experience but an ongoing exploration of what is true.  Take a walk through the rooms of your home – can you find one single thing that is eternal, that is not already in a process of change.  Explore your body – it speaks to us of the inevitable process of ageing and change.  Walk through the rooms of your mind with its cascade of thoughts, plans, anxieties, memories and images.  Can you hold on to any of them?  Can you decide only to have pleasant thoughts or ideas, only pleasant feelings or sensations?  Neither sorrow or complexity is born of this changing world; it is born of our grasping and aversion and our desire to seek the unchanging in anything that is essentially changing.  As you take those walks through the rooms of your life and mind ask yourself whether anything you encounter truly holds the power to dictate your own happiness or sorrow or is it more true that the source of happiness and sorrow lies within our own heart and mind.

When we hear the word impermanence we tend to nod our heads wisely in agreement – it is an obvious truth.  Yet when caught in either craving or aversion we suffer bouts of amnesia, convinced that everything is impermanent except this experience, feeling or thought.  Life continues to be our greatest teacher, penetrating these moments of forgetfulness, if we are willing to listen and pay attention.  In truth there is no choice in letting go, the nature of impermanence and life tells us that no matter how desperately we hold onto anything at all, by nature it is already in the process of change and leaving us.  Our choice is whether we suffer or not in meeting the inevitable arrivals and departures, the beginnings and endings held in every moment of our lives.  Each time we are lost in craving or aversion we open the door to a flood of thoughts, stories, strategies and images.  Each time we learn to let go, we open the door to peace and simplicity, to joy and appreciation.

Renunciation is not a spiritual destination we arrive at nor a heroic experience dependent upon great striving and will.  Renunciation is a practice of kindness and compassion undertaken in the midst of all of the small details and intense experiences of our lives.  It is the heart of meditation practice.  We learn to sit down and let go.  Each time we return our attention to the breath or to the moment we are in we are practising renunciation.  We have in that moment let go of the pathways of stories, speculation about what is happening and turning our attention to what is actual and true in each moment.  The practice of renunciation is essentially a dedication to what is true in each moment and a celebration of simplicity.

A group of  businessmen, somewhat renowned for their dishonesty went to visit a great Indian saint, intent on earning the merit they hoped would balance their unskilful actions.  Sitting down they proceeded to sing her praises, extolling her great virtues of wisdom, renunciation and simplicity.  After listening some minutes her face creased into a smile and she began to laugh.  Disconcerted the group asked what was so amusing to her.  Answering she said, “It is not I who is the great renunciate, it is you, because you are living in a way that you have renounced the truth.”

Letting go is a present moment practice.  We learn to sit down and let go.  We love deeply and let go.  We embrace wholeheartedly the laughter and joy of our lives and let go.  We meet the challenging, disturbing and unpleasant and let go.  We are always beginners in the practice of renunciation.  Each moment we begin we are following the pathways of freedom rather than the pathways of sorrow.

Studying life we see the truth of the process of change from which nothing is exempt.  Understanding this deeply we live in accord with its truth and we live peacefully and simply.  We liberate the world, other people, ourselves to unfold and change according to their own rhythms, withdrawing our personal agendas rooted in craving and aversion.  Letting go we liberate ourselves from the burden of unfulfilled or frustrated desire.  We learn to rest in ourselves and in each moment.  Reflecting on impermanence we begin to deeply appreciation the futility and unnecessary sorrow of being lost in craving or resistance.

Renunciation comes effortlessly to us in times of calm and ease.  Nothing stops; sounds, sights, thoughts, feelings all continue to arise and pass – seen and appreciated wholeheartedly.  Yet none of them find a foothold in our mind and heart, our inner balance and well being is undisturbed, there is a natural letting go.  We also meet times in our lives when calm and balance seem only to be a distant dream as we find ourselves lost in turmoil, struggle or distress.  In those moments we remember the freedom of being able to let go yet the intensity of our struggle overwhelms our capacity to let go.  In those moments the first step towards peace is to recognise that we are lost.  In those moments it is not more thinking, analysing or struggle that is asked for, we are invited to look for simplicity.  In these moments of complexity letting go asks for investigation, effort and dedication – not born of aversion but of recognizing the sorrow of being entangled.

The Buddha spoke of wise avoidance, a word that may carry for us associations of denial or suppression.  There is a difference between wise avoidance and suppression.  Suppression is the unwillingness to see, wise avoidance is born of the willingness to see but the unwillingness to engage in pathways of suffering.  Some of our mostly deeply rooted patterns of holding are habitual.  We have made familiar dwelling places in patterns of judgement, fantasy, aversion and greed.  In these moment renunciation is made possible through undoing the habit, turning our attention away from those familiar places to connect with something that is tangible and accessible to us in that moment.  A sight, a sound, a sensation in our body are all gates we can enter that help us to recover simplicity.  It is an effort in the service of calmness and happiness.   We turn our attention to the fostering of calm and balance.  Bringing our attention into our body, to listening, to touching, to breathing to learn to loosen the grip of struggle and confusion.  We can begin to breathe out and let go.

Investigation and the cultivation of understanding are important ingredients both in ripening our capacity to let go and nurturing simplicity.  Gripped by an intense moment of grasping, whether it is wanting something from the person before us or obsessing about a familiar wound from the past, it is not so helpful just to tell ourselves to let go.  It might be more skilful to ask ourselves “why am I holding on?”  “What is it that I truly want from this person, memory or image?”  “what is the effect on myself of this holding?”  Wisdom helps us to let go, to live more freely, to find simplicity.

It is easy to let go when there is nothing that we particularly crave or resist. Yet is in the midst of our deepest obsessions and resistances that renunciation holds the power to transform our heart and world.  Our capacity to let go is often clouded by ambivalence and reluctance.  We know we suffer through overeating but the second plate of food really does taste so good.  We know that our anger towards another person makes us suffer, but if we were to let it go they may get away with the suffering they inflicted.  We know that fantasy is a substitute for happiness but its flavour is pleasurable.  We know we may suffer through exaggerated ambitiousness but the feelings of pride when we attain our goals feels worth the pain.  Pleasure and happiness are too often equated with being the same; in reality they are very different.  Pleasure comes.  It also goes.  The unpleasant comes.  It also goes.  They are the flavour and content of many of the impressions we encounter in our lives.   Happiness has not so much to do with the content of our experiences or impression but with our capacity to find balance and peace amidst all the myriad impressions of our lives.  Treasuring happiness and freedom we learn to live our lives with openness and serenity.  Not enslaved to the pleasant sensation, we no longer fear the unpleasant.  We love, laugh and delight and hold onto nothing.  We also cry and grieve and hold onto nothing.

The appetite of craving arises from the pain of disconnection.  The painfulness of believing to be incomplete, lacking drives us outwardly in the search for gratification.  This painfulness of disconnection is not always acute, we at times describe it as boredom, forgetting the boredom is never a description of reality but a description of a state of mind that is superimposed upon reality.  Boredom is often a surrender of sensitivity, clouding our capacity to see, listen to and touch each moment as if we have never encountered it before.  The antidote to boredom is not more sounds, sensations or experiences but recovering our capacity to see anew in each moment.  The world we think we know, the people we think we know, the sounds and experiences we have encountered countless times before – come alive to us in new ways each moment we give them our wholehearted attention.  Our house of image, association, history and concept is burned down in the light of compassionate, full attention.

Renunciation is not the territory of the saints or ascetics; it is the territory of each one of us who treasure freedom.  Each moment we let go we embody freedom and follow the pathway of happiness.  A present moment practise, every moment is the right moment to learn how to let go.


Take a moment to sit quietly, relax your body, close your eyes and breathe out.  Reflect for a moment upon the places in your mind and heart you visit the most often, yet feel to be the places of greatest sorrow.  A failed relationship, a childhood hurt, a tension with another person, a frustrated hope.  Be aware of the stickiness and tightness of these places, felt in your body, mind and heart.  What is need for you to be able to let go, to make a new beginning, to find peace.  Is it forgiveness, compassion for yourself or another, tolerance or understanding?  How could you find simplicity in this moment?  Take a moment to reflect upon the times of greatest happiness in your life – found in intimacy with another, moments of true appreciation and sensitivity in nature, moments when you have felt that this moment is complete.  Be aware of what it is that opens those doors of appreciation, connection and calm.  The laying down of expectation, fear, wanting and distractedness.  Take a moment to hold in your heart the question, “What in this moment is lacking?”

A Question of Meaning

We all want for our lives to have meaning—but sometimes we’re unsure what that is. This question of meaning has many significant threads; it’s a question that touches upon our sense of identity and worthiness, and asks us to explore what we’re committed to in this life. George Elliot once wrote, “It seems to me that we can never give up longing and wishing while we are alive. There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good and we must hunger for them.”
I would suggest that it is the beautiful and the good that we aspire to and value above all else. In the midst of the beautiful and the good, we feel most alive, most awake, and most present. The Buddha’s teachings are about cultivating the beautiful and the good, the seeds of possibility that live in every human heart: generosity, kindness, and compassion. These qualities ennoble our hearts and leave little residue of regret in our minds.

A few weeks ago I was in a conversation with a woman I mentor, a woman who has achieved many things. She develops mindfulness treatments for cancer patients, writes books, and teaches. She lives an incredibly worthy life by any standard. She talked about being of an age where it is time for her to pull back and to give up some of that activity, but she found herself questioning how much meaning her life would have as she retreated from her worthy, worthwhile work. It became apparent how complex the word meaning is—how that longing to live a meaningful, creative, fulfilling life is such a powerful aspiration.

In our culture, this word, meaning, is weighty. We ask children what they’re going to be when they grow up, rather than who they’ll be. Early in our lives, the seeds are planted to imagine that the meaning of our lives is going to be defined by what we do, our identities, or by how we are perceived by others.

I’ve met so many people who, when they wake up without a plan or project for the day, feel that this renders their life meaningless. At the same time I’m increasingly aware of how we live in a culture of exhausted people. This includes dharma teachers! I’m embarrassed when we get together and everybody reports how tired they are. Some of you may sense this when you go on retreat. It feels like the reservoir is empty. You spend the first two days of retreat simply recovering from life. Thomas Merton spoke about the contemporary violence of our times: being answerable to too many people, saying yes to too many things, taking on too much. But in our culture even the exhaustion can seem admirable because we’re so needed. For some the luxury of waking up to a “don’t-know” day, a day empty of projects, is a distant memory. (I do appreciate that for those who are prone to low mood, “don’t-know” days can feel very bleak and depressing.)

In the Buddha’s teaching, desire is a very interesting word. In fact, it’s not one word alone; there are 15 different words in Pali for “desire.” The Buddha teaches that there are many wholesome desires: the desire to serve, the desire to give, the desire to be free, the desire to cultivate qualities of heart that ennoble our lives and lead us to connect with others. It’s desire that causes us to seek depth and understanding. It is desire that brings about wholesome social change and justice. Our desires are catalysts for all change and transformation, both outwardly and inwardly. They are at the root of skillful effort.

Yet there are also desires that aren’t so noble. These are the insatiable appetites that create stress. One of the subtlest of these desires is called bhava tanha, which translates as “the craving to become.” This is the endless desire to become the kind of person who only has pleasant experiences, who is admired and applauded and loved. It’s a desire to become the kind of person who is secure and safe; a person without blemish or imperfection; a person who never fails, who’s never criticized, who’s never judged. Often, we’re barely aware of how powerful and compulsive this craving to become is, the degree to which it organizes our world, our relationships, and our choices. It makes us really busy. In order to become this person we have to engage in many activities and rearrange the conditions of our lives. The pursuit of this desire is equated with success. It’s about finding an identity, which in turn is about worthiness. If I become a person who only has good meditations, who only gets positive feedback, who is successful, and who manages to defend against the unpleasant, then I’ve reached a state of worthiness. I believe my life will have meaning.

If we look at bhava tanha from a reasonable point of view, we might ask, “Is it possible?” From a rational perspective, we would say, “No.” None of us have the power to control and re-arrange the conditions of our lives so that we only have pleasant experiences. The Buddha suggested that bhava tanha, the eternal quest for perfection and the ideal self, is the source of the greatest suffering in our lives. But we may find ourselves wondering: What would we do without bhava tanha? What would motivate us? What would give meaning to our lives if we weren’t always striving to become?

From the angle of contemplative practice, it’s really helpful to release the word meaning as we usually understand it and to explore the word meaningfulness. There’s a vast difference between these two. Meaningfulness is not about great achievement or success; it’s not about grand identities or roles. It’s about how we live our moments. It’s about how we attend to the details of our lives. As I was sitting in conversation with my mentee, the thought came to me: “Why isn’t it considered meaningful to look out my window and appreciate the camellia blooming? Why isn’t this as meaningful as finishing a grand project or becoming someone?” It was clear to me in that moment that if I attended to the camellia wholeheartedly, the moment filled with appreciation and beauty. Right then, there was no sense of lack and no need to improve upon the moment. There was no need to be anyone. The camellia didn’t affirm a “me,” but by observing it with my whole being it affirmed a capacity for stillness, receptivity, and appreciation. It didn’t mean that I was going to sit in that chair forever. I wasn’t going to tell my publisher that my book would never be finished or my children that I’d retired as a mother. But it pointed to the way we dichotomize doing and being.

What do I mean by being? In the exhaustion of our busyness, the thought of “just being” sounds attractive. I hear people say, “I don’t want to expend any more effort to settle my mind, to be mindful, to be awake. I just want to be.” I understand why this sentiment arises, but we need to be careful. The Buddha’s teaching is a profoundly aspirational one. It points to the deep and transformational possibilities that live in every human heart. The Buddha pointed out that the seeds of liberative understanding and clarity, of kindness and compassion, lie within each of us. And the path to their fruition lies in our commitment. These intentions translate into an embodied way of being. It’s said that the whole of this path rests upon the head of the pin of intention, but effort is the second-most frequently used word in the Pali canon. Effort sets us on a path to awakening.

And yet in our practice, we discover how our intentions can slide into becoming another project. So often, I hear the word work mentioned these days. Everybody’s working on something! Is this what the practice is about? Be aware of how we translate this desire “to become” into our practice. Have you ever wondered where the end of that work is? If the core sense of self remains unquestioned, it’s always going to find something new to work on. We arrive on retreat with a project of what we have to work on and find ourselves engaged in another quest for identity, worthiness, and meaning with a capital “m.” We want to be a good meditator. We want a perfectly collected mind and to be eternally mindful, compassionate, and kind. When it’s elusive, we tell ourselves to sit more. Sitting more alone won’t bring aspiration to embodiment and fulfillment—only understanding and commitment can do that. This includes the commitment to relinquish the endless search for becoming that governs our lives. When that desire “to become” remains empty and unfulfilled, we think, “Maybe it’s just not possible for me.” When we collapse into that exhaustion, then “just being” suddenly looks good.

But we need to be aware of this ideology of “just being,” too. With an attachment to “just being,” how easy it is to yield our hunger for the beautiful and the good. “Just being” can be a yielding to doubt. The toxic companion of the craving “to become” is the craving for non-becoming. This is when we push away everything that delivers an identity we don’t want: difficult thoughts, bodily experiences, events, and even challenging meditations. We try to annihilate the identity we don’t want, annihilating our sense of aspiration in the process. We flounder and despair, convincing ourselves of impossibility and meaninglessness.

It’s difficult to find an equivalent word for being in Pali. Instead, there are phrases that point to a way of being present and inhabiting this life. One phrase the Buddha uses is “calm abiding.” Another is “equanimity.” He uses the word stillness as a way of being present within all moments when there is de-centering of “me,” of self, of identity. These phrases are worthy of deep contemplation and exploration.

When I looked at the camellia, for example, a door opened. I saw what it meant to rest in a quality of profound easefulness where I’m alive and dynamic. There’s a clear sense of not-wanting and sufficiency. The meaningfulness is not in the object—the meaningfulness is in the seeing. Buddhist practice is constantly inviting us to explore that calm abiding. In this way, we may discover that doing and being aren’t so polarized. They work in unison, cooperating to allow a wakeful presence in all the moments and details of our lives. This presence is responsive and creative, a way of being that isn’t born of wanting or not wanting, but of stillness.

Craving “to become” is an impulse that makes us lean forward, away from here, into a better moment, a better self. When we do so, we separate that idealized moment from the actuality of what is just here. It’s only when we learn to end the separation of the possible and the actual that we also learn to end this dichotomy between doing and being. Calm abiding is a present-tense phrase, a way of being in the midst of our lives. We learn to calmly abide in the body, in the mind, in the midst of reactivity. Nothing has to go away. It’s the camellia blooming outside the window again. It’s the shift from the object orientation to the seeing orientation. All of our likes and all of our dislikes, our wanting and not wanting, are born of object orientation. This object orientation and defining identity by objects (including the contents of our consciousness), limits us. We’ll always have a sense of unease within it.

We find ourselves feeling that praise will make me a better self and blame will make me a worse self. A good meditation, whatever that is, says something important about who I am. And a so-called bad meditation really is that: just affirming a sense of unworthiness or failure in capacity. We see how easily we define ourselves by the contents of experience and our minds. In the search for this idealized self, we look at the world through self-referential eyes: “What does this mean to me?” If it means something positive based on the past, my life somehow becomes meaningful. If I look at the world and receive something that challenges or shakes my identity, life becomes impossible and bleak.

Calm abiding is something different. It’s a deep knowing of the ways in which events come and go, both unlovely and lovely. It’s a knowing that we can’t control or define ourselves by those events. It’s learning to rest in a non-preferential, non-reactive relationship that is sensitive, receptive, and free from the demand that things go one way or another. Calm abiding is established through intention and commitment. It limits the tide of events and experience. As the Buddha put it, it is knowing “This does not belong to me. This is not who I am. This is not me.”

As we learn to rest in that state of calm abiding amidst the river of events and experience, we learn to attend to the details. Leonard Cohen once said, “Don’t ignore the cracks. This is where the light comes in.” By learning to rest in this caring, sensitive, friendly seeing, we get a taste of equanimity, which the Buddha uses interchangeably with nibbana, or liberation. In the Pali canon there’s discourse in praise of equanimity where the Buddha says, “For one who clings, motion exists, but for one who does not cling, there is no motion. Where no motion is, there is stillness. Where stillness is, there no craving is, there is neither coming nor going. Where no coming or going is, there is no arising or passing away. There is neither this world, nor a world beyond, nor a state between. This verily is the end of suffering.”

When we rest, we begin to see the interwoven nature of how events and identity bind together through misperception and clinging to create suffering. We learn to unbind from that perpetual contractedness through awareness. We are less prone to launch ourselves into the compulsive and agitated activities of doing and fixing, getting rid of, in the endless search for the ideal self. We learn to befriend not-knowing, to be still and learn responsiveness, and to foster an intention to bring to each moment just what is needed. It doesn’t mean that there are no objects or events, but that we explore the landscape of meaningfulness. Meaningfulness is found not only in the dramatic and the intense, but in the small moments, illuminated by a curious awareness. We discover that meaningfulness is in our being present. We don’t need to seek meaning, but to understand our capacity to be present in this responsive, still way. It’s in how our foot touches the ground, how we meet another person, how we meet ourselves. The camellia is actually enough. There’s nothing as impoverished as the deeply un-awakened heart and nothing enriches us more, and brings more life and meaningfulness, than the awakened heart.

The Long View – Perils and Possibilities

This morning I want to talk about the Long View.  Its said that all we are now, in this moment is the result of all that we have been.  And all that we will be tomorrow or even in the next moment will be the result of all that we are now.  This is true of us individually and it is true of us collectively as a community occupying a central role in how mindfulness will develop over the coming years.  Each of us has a story, mindfulness also has a story and I would like to begin my presentation with telling, at least a version, of the story of mindfulness as it began to  develop in our culture.  We are all part of that story. Every story has a beginning.  Some 40 years ago a relatively small group of westerners began to return to the west after years of studying and practising meditative pathways in Asia.  We began to teach.  It is not as if meditation was something new in western culture or contemplative traditions yet the mid 1970’s was a radical change in how ancient meditative pathways could be accessed.  The pathway of awakening was taken out of the monasteries, stripped of religiosity and ritual and made accessible.  We had retreats, open to all, that offered contemplative training in the classroom of their lives, emphasising the immediacy of awakening.  We had pathways that could be cultivated in the midst of our communities, our relationships, our work. We had means of translating an ancient teaching into our moment to moment experience.  We had ways to begin to understand distress and struggle, their causes and the means to their end. We were presented with a teaching that had at its heart a profound transformation of heart and mind, yet was dynamically engaged with life.

What has come to be called the insight meditation or vipassana tradition, that rest upon the development of mindfulness, in reality carries the imprints of many ancient lineages., practices and teachings.  In time this imprints have also permeated contemporary mindfulness in ways that are not always obvious to us.  It is perhaps equally not so evident, that all of us here, endeavouring to do our best to teach pathways of transformation, are part of a long contemplative tradition.

What are those imprints, what have we learned, what are we continuing to learn.  From the Tibetan community, in which some of us lived for a number of years we learnt to place compassion as the motivation at the heart of all that we do.  Living in a community of refugees we came to know a group of people who had the courage and resilience to meet extreme suffering without despair, hatred and blame, but with an unshakeable compassion.  Each person carried their own story of loss, separation from loved ones, violence, oppression yet their hearts were intact.  From the teaching we were exposed to we learnt that compassion, the committed intention to ease suffering was the highest motivation in any life, the deepest intention in any life of serving others.

We learnt that suffering could be turned towards rather than fled from, suffering could be understood rather than rejected and that compassion was not an emotion but an embodied way of engaging with a world we cannot always control.  Compassion we came to understand was the most noble and dignified way of being in this world where suffering and distress can feel bottomless.  Equally we learnt that compassion was a seed of potentiality that lives in every human heart.

Compassion has always been central to any path of waking up, the deep commitment to serve, the intention to understand and ease distress is as relevant to the contemporary teaching of mindfulness today as it was 2500 years ago.  As the Buddha put it – out of compassion we practice, out of compassion we teach, out of compassion we serve.  It is an intention and a commitment to important to forget. It is an imprint increasingly valued in contemporary mindfulness, understanding compassion is a behavioural gesture of the mind/ heart that can be cultivated as much as mindfulness can be cultivated. We learn to embrace the afflictions and adversities in our own minds and lives with compassion rather than with shame or judgment, we learn to turn outwardly and embrace the affliction and pain of another with a heart that can tremble with empathy and respond with immediacy. We learn the fearlessness of compassion, that allows us to meet distress with a responsiveness of care rather than with the patterns of fear and aversion that bind us to distress and helplessness.

From the Burmese lineage of U Ba Khin, carried forward through Goenka, we learnt first of the primary place that understanding somatic experience has in psychological transformation.  We learnt about the body scan and what it meant to establish mindfulness in the body and in present moment experience.  We learnt that the most significant lessons of transformation that are brought to understanding our world of experience and world of distress are learnt primarily with the body.  The lessons of impermanence, instability and unpredictability revealed in the life of the body can be met, not with fear and aversion but with mindfulness and equanimity.  We learnt experientially about systematically training the mind in non reactivity through bringing sustained attention to the life of the body with an attitude of kindness and curiosity. Through mindfulness of the body we learnt it is possible to come closer to the beginnings of our psychological and emotional constructions, to simplify and to know the body as the body, feeling as feeling, mind as mind rather than being entangled in the narrative and reactions to experience. Learning to distinguish the difference between felt experience and out narrative about that experience was a powerful lesson.

From the lineage of Mahasi Sayadaw we learn to develop an inner literacy that had a vocabulary for the stream of psychological and physiological events of the moment.  We learnt the ways in which mindfulness slowed down the processes of mind so they could be seen without being identified with. We learnt of the ways that our capacity to meet each present moment of experience with skilful attention was a powerful way to protect the mind from the surges of impulse and habit that lead us to dissociate from the moment as it is.  We learnt that an attitude of kind befriending could be cultivated in all moments of aversion. We discovered the ways in which the mind and all its processes could be turned into an object of mindfulness, held within sustained attention and investigated.

From Munindra we learnt about mindfulness in the marketplace – how to bring mindfulness into every moment as an embodied way of being.  The simplicity of his person and way of teaching stressed that if understanding, compassion and change could not be found in the lived experience of our lives, it would not be found at all.  Munindra embodied the core teaching of the Buddha that life was our classroom of awakening and that there was no curriculum apart from learning to live a life wakefully, wholeheartedly, with patience, kindness and perseverance.  Buying a cabbage in the market, with mindfulness and care, was to him, as important as an hour spent in meditation with ones eyes closed.  Through his teaching and way of being we learnt something profound about the art of being present, something greater and broader than a technique or practice, but a way of being in the midst of a chaotic world without being overwhelmed.

From the Zen tradition the lessons of perseverance, humour, spaciousness and developing a malleable, responsive mind that could question all views was woven into peoples practice.  The lessons of continuing to show up, to be undeterred gave a strength and courage that was inwardly generated, to the practice and to life. Soeng sa nim who taught many western teachers and students, directly spoke to the possibility of not taking it all so personally, that it really is not all about me.  The possibility of seeing the transparency of our constructions, beliefs and fabrications delivered a powerful message of liberating the mind from distress and its causes.

The story of mindfulness does of course have a much earlier beginning, 2600 years ago the Buddha placed mindfulness as the cornerstone of waking up and transforming our mind, our societies, our communities.  Mindfulness is presented as basic tool of meditative development, not an end in itself, but a means of establishing a calm, receptive, intentional way of being – the climate of mind most acutely receptive to understanding.  The discourse on the 4 ways of establishing mindfulness is the discourse that has probably most directly affected mindfulness based approaches today.  It is a discourse that describes the establishing of mindfulness in body, feeling, mind and mental process as a direct way of liberating the mind from distress and discontent, through understanding.

Beginning with Jon Kabat-Zinn in the 1970’s, mindfulness began to meet science.  Jon’s  realization that these ancient and classical teachings could be placed under a microscope, examined, translated into a format that could be applied to the world of physical and psychological distress has indelibly changed our cultural understanding of distress and health.  Jon’s brilliant capacity to present mindfulness in a language and format appropriate to our culture has in very real ways contributed to the well being and healing of tens of thousands of people. There is a thirst in our culture to live a more wakeful, compassionate and insightful life. The accessibility and simplicity of mindfulness as we know it today, allows people to be a conscious participant in their own healing and well being.

Beginning with Jon, continuing with Mark Williams, John Teasdale and Zindal Seigal and many others, many of you her and too many to thank individually, science has brought a rigour to the world of mindfulness – it can be scrutinised, not only its theory but how it works can be researched and  understood, the effects on peoples well being can be measured.  Just as many western psychological approaches are increasingly incorporating mindfulness, so too have teachers of traditional mindfulness in meditative settings been challenged to clarify their own understanding of what this word mindfulness actually means. Probing the word mindfulness we discover how difficult it is to produce an adequate working definition.

What is clear in the early teachings is that mindfulness is a spectrum word that includes being able to hold an object in sustained attention.  The capacity to do this protects the mind from the governance of impulse and habit, allows discernment of what is helpful and what is unhelpful to arise, allows us to investigate what is present and to re-frame our views.  On the bases of this we learn to walk new pathways psychologically and emotionally that are rooted in a present moment responsiveness resting upon an attitude of care.

8 week programmes were devised, tailored for people with chronic pain, depression and the abundance of applications that have been born of those 8 week programmes. Rigorous training centres for training teachers have been established. It is another step in the translations of these ancient teaching as they shift from culture to culture. An ongoing exploration in which many people here have and are playing a significant role.

All that we are now is a result of all that we were, all that we will be tomorrow will be the result of all that we are now.  What are the perils and what are the possibilities.  There are many parallels between the naturalization of meditation into our world and the spread and growth of mindfulness based applications.  In the early days meditation gained a popularity, long lost in Asia, books proliferated, retreat centres were built, journalists smuggled themselves into retreats, it became rather trendy to meditate. Nirvana became the name of a rock group and samsara the name of a perfume.  Many people felt daunted by a path that would be life long and short cuts were sought for.  There was a proliferation of techniques to alter the mind, sometimes just a newly disguised strategy to find a quick solution for inner discontent. The fast track to awakening was presented as a real possibility.  Meditation was at times presented as an answer to all of life’s afflictions.   People with sometimes very little understanding of the teaching presented themselves as experts, there was no system of accreditation of competency guidelines. It seemed a lot of people were searching for ways to understand themselves, to bring alienation and distress to an end and to find ways of befriending their minds.  Does any of this ring any bells for you in seeing how mindfulness is developing in our culture?

Meditation seemed filled with promise, its perceived promise also held the seeds of its implosion.  In establishing this ancient teaching in the west, meditation was abstracted from a path of awakening that included every aspect of our lives and gained primacy. The foundations of ethics, compassion and generosity were at times given only a cursory acknowledgement.  Retreats became the primary container for developing meditative skill, easily forgotten that this is a training for our lives. Meditation became equated with  techniques rather than a pathway of understanding that invited us often to change our lives and our ways of relating to the world.  Became something you do, not necessarily something embodied in every moment of experience.  Sometimes just as I have reservations about the word sati being translated as mindfulness and becoming one dimensional rather than a ground for understanding, so too I deeply regret the word bhavana (from the pali of the early texts) being translated as meditation rather than its more accurate translation of cultivation, or bringing into being.

The last forty years has seen some maturing of meditative traditions.  We learn to be more honest with ourselves and the meeting with science and western psychological teaching encourages that honesty.  We established agreed upon internationally recognised ethical guidelines.  We have learnt the importance of paying attention to diversity and inclusivity. We have learnt to offer much more rigorous training programmes for new teachers.

Forty years ago some of us asked the question – in establishing this teaching in this culture – what is it important to retain and what is it important to relinquish.  Today we asking those same questions.  I believe the mindfulness community is asked to examine the very same questions in its own development.  What is important to keep and develop, what is important to let go of in the service of making this pathway culturally appropriate. My sense has always been that teaching is a great privilege, it also comes with great responsibility.  Both meditation and contemporary mindfulness have plenty of sceptics.  This is a good thing.  Sceptics encourage us to place what we do under the microscope of investigation.  To question what we are teaching, to be honest about its possibilities and outcomes and to continue to learn. The future of this teaching that holds so much promise, truly does lie in our hands.  The great explosion of mindfulness in our culture may also hold the seeds of its own implosion.

Learning to live a more wakeful life, to be increasingly emotionally intelligent, to reclaim our capacity to be a participant in our own healing and freedom are the great gifts that lie at the heart of this teaching.  Learning what is means to be an embodied human being, where compassion, intentionality, dignity and responsive pervade our thoughts, words and acts is the genuine invitation of this path.  Relearning the timeless lessons of what leads to distress and what leads to the end of distress we learn through the willingness to turn toward our lives, our minds, bodies and hearts.  Changing the shape of our own minds we can contribute to changing our society and world, through the understanding, wakefulness and compassion we develop within.  This pathway holds great promise for our own well being and the well being of our society.  For that promise to be fulfilled we also need to embrace the perils.

I would like to share with you some of the lessons I and colleagues have learned and are continuing to learn in 45 years of teaching about perils and possibilities.  They are I sense the same lessons the contemporary mindfulness community is learning.  Perhaps we are all asking important questions that will shape how these pathways develop in the future.

Traditionally it is said that generosity and ethics protects the integrity of the teaching and the path.  In meditative communities there is nothing that does so much harm as a failure of ethical guidelines by the leaders and teachers in those communities.  Yet integrity is difficult to define and perhaps even more challenging to embody. Colleague – if the investigation of ethics does not make you uncomfortable you haven’t understood the question correctly.  Classically ethics is much deeper than a set of rules although in traditional meditative communities ethics is formulated in agreements and guidelines just as they are in many of your professional organisations, there are of course also many teaching mindfulness that no formal ties to professional organisations and their ethical standards.

Classically ethics is described as an embodied way of living in which all of our thoughts, words and actions are rooted in kindness and compassion.  Integrity is concerned not with obedience to rules only, but with a commitment to care, respect and dignity.  Mindfulness itself is sometimes translated as to care, as an embodied ethical way of being.  What is the place of ethics in contemporary mindfulness, is it a set of rules our a shared commitment you consciously and collectively make as teachers and trainers

In contemporary mindfulness in our culture, just as in meditative communities, I feel the question of ethics is too important to ignore and has nuances not known in ancient Indian communities.  Non harming is the heart of integrity but there are other dimensions of ethics that raise challenging questions for us all.  Teaching mindfulness could be described as wise livelihood but no livelihood is implicitly wise or skilful – the skilfulness in teaching meditation or contemporary mindfulness is I would suggest directly linked to our own motivation, our deeply felt sense of our work being guided by compassion and a wish to serve.   In meditation communities today we are asking important and difficult questions, they are ethical questions.  Do we want our retreats or our programmes to be populated primarily by white middle class who can afford to attend.  Do we have a responsibility to reach out, to commit to inclusivity and diversity – to find the ways to remove the barriers, real or perceived that exclude people.  Teachers need to make a living, do we find the ways to provide places in programmes for those who cannot afford to attend, to understand cultural differences in which our language, our poetry, our stories feel to be exclusive.

Money is a real question, not always a comfortable question – it raises I think an even deeper and more possibly troubling question.  Is teaching mindfulness a career choice or is it a way of living, serving and working born of a deep inner commitment to contribute to the healing of distress. – it is possible , as one newspaper remarked recently, to make a lot of money teaching mindfulness, just as in Asia it is possible to be intent on being a rich monastery or a monastery deeply committed to serving all. I am also aware of how many of you offer endless hours of unpaid service and work out of generosity and a deep commitment to making this path inclusive. We live in a time when financial hardship and all of the difficulties that come with it plays a major contributing role in psychological distress, despair and depression.  So many young people face levels of pressure that they crumble psychologically, so many in our society feel excluded and disaffected.  Mindfulness as an embodied ethic teaches us to widen the circle of concern, to contribute to a culture of health, a healthy society.  Its ability to do this rests upon our capacity to include the whole of our communities and societies in the work we do.  There are no easy answers to this question of inclusivity and accessibility and I am not proposing solutions – but it is an important question and a responsibility that will have much to do with protecting the future of mindfulness and let us sleep at night without regret.

Meditative communities in the west have faced true difficulty when teachers have forgotten to be students – instead becoming identified with a role and forgetting that this is a journey of a lifetime.  Forgetting too that our capacity to embody this teaching is directly linked to the aliveness of our own practice.   Mindfulness I think is something much deeper than a technique we learn solely as a means to teach others.    In developing and deepening our understanding of mindfulness there are two simultaneous journeys being made.  One is the journey of learning and developing the skills and practices that support the development of mindfulness based applications.  The second journey, equally if not more significant, is the journey we make inwardly in understanding how our own world of experience is shaped, understanding what it means in that experience to find a freedom from being governed by habitual patterns and narratives that create personal distress.

Through dedicated and sustained personal practice we begin to develop an inner awareness of our own mind/heart processes that is the root of compassion, warmth, acceptance and understanding we are able to bring to being with others.   Through the development of our own practice and investigation we begin to learn not only what it means to be established in a mindful awareness in our own life but what it means to be a mindful teacher, a mindful clinician who is able to embody the qualities we encourage clients and patients to develop.  This is a learning of a lifetime.

The greatest and most frequently repeated complaint I hear from those teaching mindfulness is the uncomfortable awareness of the moments when they are asking their clients to develop kindness, compassion, intention and investigation, yet are not developing and applying those same skills and qualities in their own lives.  Some mindfulness teachers report feeling fraudulent.  They lead a group and go home find themselves snapping at their partner, irritated with their children and so busy they cannot find the space for personal practice.  I welcome these reports.  Dissonance is an uncomfortable awareness – the gap between our aspirations, our intentions and indeed what we emphasise in our teaching and how we ourselves live, act and speak.  Dissonance is not to be judged, it is the classroom of a dedicated mindfulness teacher and student.  We need critical friends, to develop a critical mind within ourselves to know when dissonance is not being attended to.  We need to develop our own capacity to receive feedback and criticism.  We may benefit from seeking out peers who can guide us. We need to know when it might be important for us to stop teaching for a time and attend to our own well being.  Dissonance judged or unattended to disables our capacity to be with ourselves or to be with others in a skilful and kind way. We do not need to be perfectly mindful, perfectly compassionate, perfectly calm in order to teach.  We could wait a long time.  But perhaps we do need to hold embodiment as our aspiration and the heart of the teaching.

What do we mean by embodiment.   Mindfulness has key elements – kindness, unconditional positive regard, intentionality, sensitivity, investigation, empathy and present moment attentiveness.  My current working definition – the willingness and capacity to be equally near all events and experience with kindness, curiosity and discernment.  These are not abstract theories or qualities – the invitation of this path is to live in this way, to embody these qualities in all moments and relationships as a direct way of caring for ourselves and others.  This can almost seem a frightening invitation as mindfulness reveals to us all the moments of heedlessness and reactivity in our own lives.  Embodiment in my understanding is not a future, remote goal it is a present moment invitation and commitment that is developed nowhere else except in the moments of dissonance.

There has been sufficient research done to draw clear parallels between the embodied mindful presence of the teacher and the positive outcomes for the clients.  We can never guarantee positive outcomes and indeed it would be unhelpful to assume that exaggerated responsibility.  Yet in teaching vulnerable populations who may have life long patterns of self judgment, despair, depression and anxiety there comes a huge responsibility. We may teach people who have no life experience of what compassion or acceptance feels like.  In teaching session people absorb the clues and change in attitudes that are embodied in the accepting, welcoming, empathic, compassionate teacher.  We cannot pretend or contrive these qualities, they have been developed in the classroom of our relationship to ourselves.

It is not the skills or techniques alone that have the power to transform suffering, it is the shift from aversion to befriending, from fear to capacity, from habit to mindfulness, from reactivity to responsiveness, from patterns of abandonment to relationships of curiosity and connectedness that transform suffering.  The most significant shift I ever see anyone make in mindfulness training is the shift from aversion and abandonment to the capacity to befriend their minds and lives. These primary shifts in attitude are guide by the teacher, embodied by the teacher.

As we all know there are numerous lively and at times difficult conversations about competency taking place.  They are necessary conversation if mindfulness is to have a viable possibility of becoming more deeply integrated into our society.  You can take a week long on line training and become a mindfulness teacher.  You can take a postgraduate training that will incorporate personal retreat experience, supervision, understanding the core Buddhist psychological underpinnings of mindfulness and academic rigour.  There are pressures from services and organisations that people work for to present mindfulness training to clients even if they have done little training themselves.   There are pressures from services to deliver shortened trainings in order to meet demand.  We live in interesting times.  Competence may simply be another word for embodiment, it can and most likely will be increasingly regulated outwardly, most significantly I feel it needs to be honestly regulated inwardly.  Competence means more than accreditation, it is the primary way of protecting our own well being, safeguarding the well being of all those we teach and protecting the integrity of the path so mindfulness is not just the trend of the moment, but a genuine way of  easing suffering, facilitating healing that has a future.

We may need to hold the long view for the practice, ourselves and those we work with.  Understandably service and organisation will be primarily concerned with the measurable outcomes of mindfulness training and the economics of mindfulness.  We are easily drawn into being solution centred.  Mindfulness can be seen as a therapeutic tool for managing life or can be seen as part of  transformative pathway concerned with understanding and uprooting the causes of distress and developing liberative understanding.  There are those in more traditional meditative lineages who see contemporary mindfulness as a movement that has abstracted one aspect of the path from the training in liberation and presenting that fragment as being the whole of the teaching.  There are those in contemporary mindfulness who feel misunderstood and judged by the traditional communities, who are unaware of the ongoing investigation in secular mindfulness into ethics, and the whole of the path of awakening.  There are the voices that suggest that to deeply understand mindfulness relies upon deeply understanding core psychological process outlined not only in Buddhist psychology but increasingly in western psychology.  There are voices that suggest that understanding the origins of mindfulness in the ancient teachings is irrelevant.

The perspective of mindfulness being a skill and attitude that helps us to navigate our way through life and the perspective of mindfulness being one significant feature of a path of transformation are not in my mind mutually exclusive.  There is an immediacy to mindfulness and there is the long view.  Any of you who have undertaken a serious path of cultivating awareness, stillness, calm and understanding know this is the work of a life time.  8 week courses are offered to people who often come to startling understanding and changes in a short period of time.  Yet it is a beginning.  Just as for someone doing an introductory course in meditation or a week-long retreat – it is a beginning. We have yet to fully develop a comprehensive way sustaining and supporting  people over the long term.   In traditional meditative communities in the west we were good at establishing centres and offering retreats.  We have also come to understand the need to provide means of people feeling supported and inspired in their lives when retreats come to an end.  Post an 8 week course how do we continue to encourage people not just to survive but to thrive, to build upon the learning that has taken place in the 8 weeks.   It is a work in progress just as I feel it will be another significant step in developing contemporary mindfulness in our society.

Perils – what we have learned in developing meditative pathways in this culture is the peril of sectarianism.  One lineage claiming supremacy over another, one tradition disdaining another.  A similar peril exists in the contemporary mindfulness world.  Whose teaching is better or more comprehensive.  We can take it all to personally.  The heart of all transformation rests in learning to take the self out of the centre of experience.  We need to learn lessons of respect and dignity.  Rather than personalising it perhaps we can, as is happening, simply outline what the components of good teaching and practice are and commit to developing those components.  At the heart of all that we do is compassion, the commitment to understanding the ways to the end of distress and learning to be a conscious participant in the healing and awakening of our world.  Effectiveness relies upon skill and upon understanding.  This is what we commit to.

In times of greatest distress the first capacities and qualities to disappear are kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity.  In times of greatest distress these are the very qualities that are our greatest allies that guide us though the landscapes of bleakness, depression, anxiety and pain.  In traditional Buddhist psychology these qualities were sidelined for the last 1500 years.  Seen to be secondary to mindfulness and insight.  There is considerable change currently going on through the exploration of the early texts where the Buddha describes kindness and compassion as a mindfulness and a path to awakening in themselves.  They are qualities that can be cultivated, trained and rest upon the same intentionality as any form of mindfulness.

In the first decades of contemporary mindfulness it was accepted that kindness and compassion are implicitly interwoven in the 8 week programmes.  Mindfulness is not the cold stare of attention but imbued with the willingness to welcome, accept and befriend all experience.  We cannot assume that we instinctively embrace pain and suffering in our lives with compassion.  We are hard wired to primarily perceive what is wrong and broken.  We respond far more easily to suffering in others with compassion than to the suffering we encounter in ourselves. The shift from aversion to kindness is a transformative one, but deeply challenging.  Much research is going on focussed around the ways in which these core attitudes of kindness and compassion can be cultivated and trained.

Clearly the attitudinal presence of the teacher is central to communicating the significance and centrality of compassion and kindness in the deepening of mindfulness and changing the shape of our minds. Is a mindfulness teacher automatically a compassionate teacher.  Does this rely upon the lessons of compassion they have learnt in the classroom of their own distress and resistance to distress.  Learning inwardly to release our own judgmental, aversive and blaming tendencies is perhaps the ground of the ways we learn to engage with those we teach. We cannot pretend or contrive kindness and compassion, it would never be convincing but we can commit to them. Mindfulness teachers are frequently working with people who’s lives have been bereft of compassion and kindness.  The look to the teacher for the clues of what compassion looks like.  How do we bring this into our teaching other than through having learnt to make that shift from aversion to befriending within ourselves..  Yet we are aware when this is possible it is what creates a container of safety and respect in which people can deepen.

I think we can acknowledge that contemporary mindfulness as a therapeutic tool and path of healing is still in its infancy.  I do not say this in a pejorative way – in a very real sense that is its strength.  We are learning together, exploring together, finding together the ways of deepening in mindfulness inwardly and offering it to others in ways that can be most effective.  Yet we are asked I believe to walk this path with care.  To be open to scrutiny, to be honest inwardly, to be the best teachers we can be.

My understanding is that a gathering like this offers us the opportunity to support one another, to learn from one another and to inspire one another.  It also offers us a moment to stand back as a community with a shared commitment to the development of mindfulness, and take an honest look at how mindfulness is developing in our society.  We all know this is some wonderful and significant work being undertaken, there are countless people committed to serving others from the basis of their own rigorous training and understanding.  You do not need me to tell you, please don’t be offended, that there is too much flakiness out there under the umbrella of mindfulness.  If this field is to flourish it needs its scientific basis, it needs competence, it needs people willing to consistently examine their own motivations and embodiment.  We can all do our best to take personal responsibility for our own teaching and practice.  Yet if mindfulness is truly to be embedded in our culture, the services and organisations we work for will ask us to take collective responsibility for good practice and competence.  What do we do when we see bad practice, untrained teachers or trainings that are not comprehensive.  Compassion can be receptive, it also can be fierce if it is to protect people from harm.  These are difficult questions – yet they are raised on a regular basis from our mainstream organisations and service and we need not flinch from the difficult.

All that we are now is a result of all that we have been, all that we will be tomorrow will be the result of all that we are now.  Mindfulness is a rigorous training, developed in the midst of confusion and adversity.  We cannot take responsibility completely for the outcomes of any teaching we offer.  We can take responsibility for the comprehensiveness of our own training and practice.  We can take care to root our teaching in the deepest motivations of service and compassion.  We can widen the circle of our concern to include those in our world who would or could not walk easily through our doors.  We can commit ourselves to learning the craft and the art of mindfulness that allows the seeds of empathy, integrity, compassion and care to deepen in ourselves.  We can commit to being students of awakening and compassion.

Kisagotami’s Mustard Seed

Kisagotami’s story is the story of every mother who loses a child, the story of every human being who knows in their heart that to love, cherish and care for another is to risk heartache and loss.  As women we hold in our lives a timeless human dilemma – to know how to love, wholeheartedly and deeply and to know how to lose that which we love with compassion and wisdom.

The Buddha did not admonish Kisagotami for her grief and distress, nor did he lecture her on the inarguable laws of impermanence.  Instead he sent her into the village to find even one person who did not know the barren landscape of grief, the deep painfulness of being separated from those we hold most dear.  Every home she went to, every person she spoke to could only reveal to her how vast is the landscape of loss.

Each of us holds within us our personal story and a universal story.  Our personal story born of all that we have experienced and felt in this life is unique to us.  Our families, our joys and sorrows,  our values, aspirations and hopes, our disappointments, the countless events of our lives have shaped who we are and how we see in ways that no single other human being can know as we know it.  Yet our personal story holds within the story of all human beings who long for peace, love, freedom and to find a way to live their life with inner authority and wakefulness.  The language of fear and trust, sorrow and joy, heartache and love is a universal language that transcends all boundaries of ‘I’ and ‘you’, us and them.

Knowing that all mothers could experience just the same pain as Kisagotami did not diminish her grief, but she came to understand she was not alone and she began to be able to accept and embrace that which had felt so deeply unacceptable and impossible.  Acknowledging this she embarked upon a path of seeking an unshakeable inner freedom.

So much of the path of liberation is woven into the story of Kisagotami.  Some of the most profound insights that liberate our hearts from struggle are found with the most deeply challenging moments of our lives.  When our worlds crumble, our certainties dissolve we face a choice – to turn toward those moments with compassion or to flee.  Our own experience tells us again and again that flight will almost certainly ensure we find no healing or freedom.

Impermanence is the law that governs all experience.  We live with our feet on shifting sands when all could crumble in a moment.  Loss, death, separation reveal to us so poignantly that as long as we are misaligned with this core truth we will live in a state of argument and contention with our lives.  To embrace this truth wholeheartedly, deeply, unshakably will not save us from grief and sorrow but perhaps teach us to embrace the moments of deepest pain in our lives without dispute. I do not imagine that Kisagotamis embracing of a nun’s life meant an end to her grieving.  The memory of her son would live in her heart and very bones but perhaps the pain could be borne.

The Buddhas teachings of impermanence and equanimity show us how to live in this world of change and uncertainty without being shattered.  None of us can control the world of conditions that are intrinsically unstable and unreliable.  We can learn to cultivate an inner poise that allows us to be a conscious participant in this life without our hearts being hostage to conditions.  There are a few lines from a Sri Lankan text on equanimity that say:

Life is a play of joy and sorrow

May I remain unshaken by life’s rise and fall

I care for you deeply

But sadly, I cannot protect you from distress.

The places we love and care most deeply are for us also the places we are asked to cultivate the greatest equanimity, insight and compassion.



In the talk this afternoon, I’d like to reflect on the third noble truth, usually referred to as nibbana, or liberation, or the end of suffering, and I hope you will appreciate that it is actually quite impossible to address such a weighty theme in a single talk, but nevertheless, we will endeavour to do so. Now nibbana is offered as being the essence, the heart, the ultimate goal of the spiritual life so I would like to try in some small way to begin to demystify this word nibbana, or what is meant by this unshakeable liberation of the heart. Basically, I’d like you to feel comfortable with the word nibbana because in my experience in teaching in the west, most people don’t feel at all comfortable with the word nibbana, in fact, asking someone if they practice in order to be liberated is a little bit like asking someone if they are going to die. Most people say, ‘No!’

I’d like you to see nibbana as something you can relate to something that is not reserved for cloistered monks and nuns. And most importantly, I’d like you to feel that the third noble truth does indeed have everything to do with why you practice. In truth, every hour you sit on your cushion or walk on your path, it is in the service of this unshakeable liberation. Every breath you are mindful of, every moment you contemplate everything your body can experience, it is in the service of liberation. Every moment you contemplate your emotions, the lovely and the difficult, and everything your mind can do, this is also in the service of liberation. Every moment you find the willingness to meet and understand suffering and its causes rather than fleeing from it and every moment that you are willing to begin again and to persevere in the face of doubt, all of this too is in reality a training in liberation.

In speaking about nibbana, the third noble truth, again I want to touch on this subject of goals, because sometimes it is this allergy that we have to the word goals that makes nibbana difficult for us to reflect on. But again, just remembering that this path does have a direction and it does have an outcome in mind, and in reality, we speak about goals all the time. The search for loving-kindness, for peace, for compassion. If they are not present in this moment in our practice in our life, then we aspire to cultivate them, to bring them into being. In truth, they are both aspirations and they are goals, and of course, we need to know when we turn these aspirations or goals into something less wholesome and when they begin to cause suffering rather than ending suffering.

Now the four noble truths describe the whole map, the whole mandala of awakening. In a way, the first noble truth describes the problem, the issue, the dis-ease that there is in our life dissatisfactoriness, discontent, there is at times struggle and pain. None of us is exempt, it is part of our shared language and experience. Now the question is, when does this reality become a noble truth rather than just bad news? Rather than something just to fix or overcome? Now it becomes a noble truth when suffering or dissatisfactoriness is seen as the ground of our awakening, when it is the beginning of a journey of investigation and waking up.

Now the second noble truth is that there is a cause of suffering. Often this kind of relentless restlessness of our hearts that leads us to be locked into this ongoing tension of trying to pursue one thing and avoid something else. In a way we are trying to ease the pain of this  sense of incompleteness or lack. And again this reality becomes a noble truth when we understand that suffering and struggle are not accidents, they are not failures, they are not bad luck, but that this thirst or sense of lack is something that can be understood, it can be healed and  liberated and so too can suffering come to an end.

Now the third noble truth describes the freedom from this dis-ease, or this sense of lack. And the fourth noble truth is simply the path to liberation or nibbana. The fourth noble truth is also sometimes called the stream of the dhamma and the embodiment, the manifestation of a liberated heart. A heart that is free from greed and hatred and delusion and that lives with a natural nobility and integrity and freedom.

So what is held within the four noble truths is a map of awakening. But the Buddha also spoke of a number of doorways into the liberated heart. Essentially, he offered a lot of different maps. Liberation through loving-kindness, through concentration as a basis for insight, he spoke about liberation through compassion, through equanimity and faith, and liberation through understanding the meaning of emptiness and insubstantiality. But this afternoon I’d like to focus on just one of those maps which presents what is called the four stages of awakening but first I’d like to explore a little more what this mysterious word nibbana points towards. I mean, to a certain extent, nibbana or nirvana, is a word that has actually entered our cultural vocabulary. There’s a perfume called nirvana, (there’s also one called samsara), there’s a rock group called Nirvana, It’s a word that’s used in advertising to describe this kind of utopian vacation, but I must say it’s used a little bit differently in the dhamma, as really being the heart of the path. Now certainly in Asia, there’s much more comfort and ease with this real possibility of liberation and awakening, in fact it’s really considered why we practice.
You know, if you are a tourist in England and you turn up in a village and say, ‘Where is your nearest castle?’ someone will say, ’Well you go down this road, turn right and the castle is there’. And in Asia if you go into a monastery and ask, ‘Any liberated beings around here?’ They’ll respond, ‘Well there’s a couple over there and a few down the road’,  but it’s not a concept or a possibility which is so embedded in our more psychologically oriented culture. In the suttas, in the discourses, nibbana is often described in the negative, words like ‘cessation’ are used or ‘blowing out the fire’ or ‘absolute coolness’ or it is sometimes described as ‘going beyond’. But if you look carefully, nibbana is also described in more glowing terms as the ‘unconditioned’ or ‘ultimate peace’ or as ‘unshakeable freedom’ or ‘the deathless’. Now I think that when we hear these terms, it’s very easy to see nibbana as some distant destination that has nothing to do with us, and in reality, nibbana is sometimes described as ‘the end of seeking’. But it’s also important to remember that pali is a language of verbs and process so in truth, practice is a process of liberating, of cooling and this has everything to do with our practice right now and in every moment because we are all learning moment to moment about calming and stilling about seeing and understanding about liberating the moment. And what are we liberating the moment from? We are liberating the moment from the heat and the fire of misunderstanding, of craving and aversion.

Now there are a number of stories in the suttas that describe these sudden enlightenments. I mean, according to the story, Siddartha sat down under the bodhi tree a deluded young man and got up a Buddha. We hear stories of the Buddha giving a talk and suddenly there are five hundred liberated beings in front of him. We hear these stories and it’s all too easy to think of liberation as an experience, a moment in time. There are also many stories and anecdotes that speak about liberating as a path, a path of cultivating the wholesome and the free, moment to moment, cultivating ethics and calmness and kindness and wisdom, all in the service of inclining our hearts towards unshakeable wisdom. The path is often described as a process of understanding suffering, change and non-self. It’s really a path of learning to develop the unshakeable and that development ends in a profound unshakeability. As is said in one of the stories, ‘Wood turns into ashes but ashes don’t turn back into wood’.

Now the Buddha described this development in what are called stages of liberation, called ‘noble understandings’. There are words for these stages and you might be familiar with some of these words. He called these stages of awakening the understanding of a sotopanna a sakadagami, an anagami and an arahant. Now again, this can sound like it has nothing to do with someone like us who gets up in the morning, goes to work, cooks the dinner, pays the mortgage, but quite frankly our job is to convince you that this does have something to do with you.

Firstly, I think it’s very important to distinguish between stages and states, because we often think of states as an experience and as we know all experiences have a beginning and an ending, they arise and they pass. But I think ‘stages’ puts the path in a different light because I think quite frankly we all see stages of deepening in our practice. I mean, you can begin to sit very confused and agitated and you practice and you see you are more calm. It’s a stage of deepening.
Now for those of you who have a longer practice, you will have seen that practice marked by stages of deepening and that deepening is often marked by what has been let go of and what has become increasingly embedded in our hearts. If you practice you see that, over time, there’s more loving-kindness, more clarity, there’s a deeper capacity for compassion. Increasingly, you see a capacity to see the difference between what causes suffering and what ends suffering and, more importantly, to live in accord with those understandings. Many of you will have seen in the time of your practice things fall away. You may have seen doubt or layers of greed or fear simply begin to fall away and sometimes this surprises us, but why should it surprise us? I remember a friend of mine practising once and going to the teacher and saying, ‘There’s something wrong, there’s nothing happening’, and he replied, ‘I think this might be peace’, and she said, ‘It can’t be. I don’t do peace!’ But these things show us that there are actually fruits to this practice and what we are seeing in those stages of deepening is the liberating of our heart.

Now the stages of awakening are simply a continuation of that journey. The first stage of awakening is called the stream enterer, or one who has firmly entered the stream of the dharma. And one of the characteristics of the stream enterer is this unshakeable confidence and faith. The stream of the dharma has become natural, authentic so the stream enterer embodies the eightfold path. They live with a natural wise view and intention, wise speech and action. Wise livelihood and effort, concentration and mindfulness are simply the fabric of their being. But they have also reached this place of natural authority and wisdom through  cultivating the same eightfold path.

Now I think that stream entry arguably could be said to be the most significant point of awakening because the stream enterer is said to be free of the first three obstacles or unwise views that bind us to suffering. So what has fallen away is the belief in personality view. All the ideas of a solid or enduring self have disappeared. They are free from the obstacle of sceptical doubt and from the attachment to rites and rituals. So I would like to speak about these three obstacles that fall away. Now nobody I think needs to tell us that personality belief and personality view is a powerful source of suffering in our lives. ‘I am my body and everything that happens in my body happens to me’. ‘I am my mind, my thoughts’. So I’m ‘wonderful, terrible, obsessive’. ‘I am my emotions’, so I’m ‘happy, sad, elated, depressed’. ‘I am a success, or a failure’. Now I think we have all heard this endless symphony that flows through our life. The mantra of, ‘This is me, this belongs to me, this is who I am’. This is personality view, personality belief. And this is what we are actually encouraged to question and investigate. Is it true? Now what the Buddha encouraged is not to push this away, not to judge it but simply to question it. To bring into all the places of identification and clinging the question of, ‘This is not me. This does not belong to me. This is not who I am’. This contemplation is not trying to annihilate or erase this sense of ‘I’ , it is trying to uproot wrong view. To uproot the view of self which is born moment to moment of clinging and grasping. The view of self that is bound to whatever is clung to. If you cling to a thought, you become the thinker. If you cling to pain, you become the sufferer. If you cling to an emotion, you become sad or exhilarated or depressed. And you have the self of the moment which is very convincing. Now this first insight of a stream enterer is not something which is abstract or esoteric but we can see some understanding that we are often dragged to quite reluctantly because we are in truth just a little bit attached to our personality view.
Now this is not to suggest that we have no personality, of course we all do, but it is to suggest that clinging creates a constructed view of who we are. And it is really to see that these constructed views of who we are is really an event in the mind. In truth, none of us can really be described by a changing event. When we say, ‘I’m terrible, I’m wonderful, I’m a mother, I’m a success, or I’m a failure’, these are only describing the event of the moment. They can never describe the whole truth of anything. Instead, these descriptions only describe often what we have clung to in that moment. The insight into the insubstantial nature of these constructions is the insight of a stream enterer. To know deeply and unshakably that there is no independent, enduring self. In fact, there is only our view of self. And when there is no clinging to any event, no view of self is born. Now again, I want to put this into the context of your own practice. Think of the moments when you are really locked into a view of yourself. So, ‘I’m so judgemental, I’m really the sufferer, I’m the meditator’. Now isn’t it true that in our practice we learn to hold those statements just a little more lightly? As I mentioned this morning, we learn to cultivate a little more creative disbelief and we really do start to see how the view of the moment is the clinging of the moment. And as we do this we’re actually really practising to be a stream enterer. (I do admit, this can take quite some practice). But this understanding does ripen and mature until it becomes a cellular understanding and it’s an understanding that transforms our life. You see, in all these stages of awakening there’s both the path and there’s the fruit of the path. So we walk the path of non-clinging, and with practice, there is a deepening and a fruit of non-clinging.

Now I think this understanding of the emptiness of personality view is perhaps the most important insight in the stages of awakening because that insight changes our perspective on all the other views and obstacles that remain. We can start to see that doubt and ill-will and craving and clinging are kind of like habits of ignorance. Rather than being my problems, my obstacles, you actually know very deeply that these are not me and not mine and they can be held with a little more ease and curiosity rather than governing our hearts. Now this understanding of the emptiness of any independent self existence certainly leads to the second insight of the stream enterer, which is the cessation of sceptical doubt. Sceptical doubt is a kind of disabling and paralysing kind of doubt and we see that sceptical doubt mostly arises out of personality view. We say, ‘Is freedom from suffering possible for me? I doubt it.’ We say, ‘I’m too inadequate, I’m too unworthy’ or ‘my story is so big’. Sceptical doubt says, ‘Is this the right path for me? Is this the right teacher for me? Is this the right tradition for me?’ ‘I don’t know, I can’t decide’. And we see how sceptical doubt shadows us and plagues us through our life. You know, ‘Should I do this or that?’ ‘Is this the right decision to make?’ ‘Am I in the right relationship or the right job?’ ‘Should I be a renunciate or should I get married?’ Some of these questions are of course appropriate questions to ask but the nature of sceptical doubt is that there is never a right answer, there’s never a satisfying answer. So we find ourselves continually wavering and being uncertain. What sceptical doubt is really looking for is a kind of solid ground to stand on but the truth is that this changing and unpredictable world is essentially groundless. Now the faith and the confidence of a stream enterer is not something that is blind or rigid but it is informed, and  it is wise, and it is rooted in one’s own experience. For example, in this practice we come to know with confidence what leads to suffering and what leads to the end of suffering. We come to know that the path of ethics and calmness and understanding only has one outcome, and it is the outcome of freedom. We come to know with confidence that the causes of sorrow and the causes of joy live within our own hearts, and that confidence and knowing truly becomes unshakeable because we begin to taste a freedom that cannot be denied. Again, the cessation of doubt and the coming into being of confidence has the aspects of cultivation and fruition.

The third characteristic of stream entry is the letting go of the attachment to rites and rituals and really this is speaking to the very nature of attachment itself and all the things we do in our lives to try to guarantee safety and certainty. Basically we see the attachment to rites and rituals is actually pretty widespread in our lives. How we are constantly trying to arrange our world, our mind and our life in ways that guarantee, or seem to guarantee, happiness and safety. Now the cessation of attachment does not mean that we surrender wise and informed choices, it is simply the cessation of attachment. It’s the willingness to live our lives without guarantees and that is actually to live a life that is free from disappointment. It is to know a liberation of heart that is not dependent upon conditions. Now sometimes I think we hear this and it can sound impossible, but it is possible.

I love these Tibetan lines, they say:

‘Sometimes when we hear the great trials and hardships of the yogis and Buddhas of the past we imagine that they could only face them because they were great yogis and Buddhas’, but it goes on to say ‘but this is not so. It’s simply by acting like great Buddhas that they became so’.

And in many ways this is the encouragement of our practice, to trust in the training and to trust in the path and that path and that training will ripen and it will bear fruit. And the fruit is the unshakeable liberation of the heart.

Calming the Inner Critic

Santideva, the renowned eighth-century Indian Buddhist monk taught:

Unruly beings are like space
There’s not enough time to overcome them
Overcoming these angry thoughts
Is like defeating all of our enemies.

The Buddha sat beneath the Bodhi tree on the eve of his enlightenment as was assailed by all the afflictions we meet in the landscape of our own minds.  Mara, in the forms of worry and restlessness, dullness and resistance, craving, aversion and doubt all made their appearance.  The one affliction that is conspicuously absent in this story is the powerful voice of the inner critic, the inner judge that can torment us on a daily basis, undermining our own well being and distorting our relationship with life.  The inner critic is the voice of shame, blame, belittlement, aversion and contempt, so familiar to many that it seems almost hard wired into their hearts.

Before exploring the nature of the judgmental mind it is essential to mark the distinction between the voice of the inner critic and our capacity for discernment and discriminating wisdom.  Discriminating wisdom is what brings us to our cushion to practice, to reach out to another in pain and to act in ways that bring suffering and harm to an end.  Discriminating wisdom is the source of every wise act, word, choice and step we take that leads to the end of suffering and struggle.  Discernment draws upon ethics, compassion and wisdom and teaches us moment to moment to discover the Buddha in ourselves and in others.

The inner critic is a creature of a different nature.  We may still come to our cushion but accompanied by the inner story that tells us that we are unworthy, inadequate.  We will still act, speak and make choices yet moment to moment feel our acts, words and choices endlessly criticised, compared and belittled.  The judgmental mind draws not upon all that is wise but upon Mara, the patterns of aversion, doubt, ill will and fear.  Rarely is the judgmental heart the source of wise action, speech or choice, nor lead to the end of suffering.  The judgmental mind is suffering and compounds suffering, closing the door to all that is true, fear and worthy in ourselves.  Ethics, the guidelines of kindness and care are suffocated by the inner critic, it serves only to harm and wound our hearts and lives.

Discriminating wisdom is essential in our lives, to be cultivated.  The judging mind is optional, can be understood and released.    Thomas Merton, the great Christian mystic described the essence of the spiritual path as a search for truth that springs from love.   Beneath the Bodhi tree Mara’s power over the Siddhartha ended the moment he was able to look Mara in the eye and simply say ‘I know you’.  These few words were a statement of a profound shift in Siddhartha’s heart; the shift from being intimidated by Mara and consequently overpowered to the courage and willingness to open a dialogue of understanding with Mara and bring intimidation to an end.

The judgmental mind that causes so much pain in our lives, cannot be exempted from our practice but asks to be met with the same courage and investigation we bring to any other afflictive emotion.  The judgmental mind does not respond well to suppression, avoidance or yet more aversion, but only to kindness and understanding.  Roshi Kennett, a Zen teacher, only said that the training of liberation begins with compassion for the self and that to cultivate a non judgmental mind is the key to opening our hearts to a genuine compassion for all beings.  We begin by asking what a non judgmental mind looks like, what does it mean to be free of the burden of the inner critic.  To understand these questions experientially we need to turn our attention to the judgmental mind and embrace its painfulness with the same mindfulness we would bring to a pain in our body or a sorrow we meet in another.

The essence of mindfulness is to stand near to, to see, to understand and to find freedom within everything that feels intractable and clouded by confusion.  Mindfulness is a present moment experience, concerned with embracing and understanding the entirety of each moment with tenderness, warmth and interest.  In the light of this engaged attention we discover it is impossible to hate or fear anything we truly understand, including the judgmental mind.  We perhaps begin to see that the greatest barrier to compassion and freedom is not the pain or adversity we meet in our lives but the ongoing tendency to judge, criticise and fear the simple truths of the moment.  Instead of just wanting the judgmental mind to go away we could begin to ask what it is teaching us.  An early nun once said, meditate on the unconditioned.  Liberate the tendency to judge yourself above, below or the same as others.  By penetrating deeply into judgment you will live at peace.

Although it may seem so, we were not born with a judgmental, aversive mind.  It is a learned and well practices way of seeing and relating; it can be unlearned.  Looking closely at the judgmental mind we see that it is rarely a truthful, able to see the whole, the entirety of anything.  Instead the judgmental mind is governed by seizing upon the particulars of ourselves and others and mistaking those particulars for the truth. A friend neglects to return a phone call triggering a cascade of anxious thinking that convinces us they are an indifferent person or we are unworthy of their attention.  We arrive late for an appointment and in moments the inner critic has determined we are a mindless failure.  The truth of the moment is born of the judgmental mind.  The practice of meditation, of discovering what is true suggests there is another path that can be followed.

In the Sufi tradition it is suggested that to discover what is true our thoughts should pass through three gates.  At the first gate we ask of our thought – is it true?  If so to let the thought pass through.  At the second gate we ask of the thought – is this necessary, is this useful?  If so let the thought continue on its way.  At the third gate, we ask – is this thought rooted in love and in kindness?  This last question is perhaps the most important, the judgmental mind would appear to falter at all of the gates – not true, helpful or kind.  The next question we could ask is what is it that fuels the inner critic and keeps the endless loops of blame and shame going?

Students often ask why the judgmental mind does not appear in the traditional list of the afflictions Siddhartha met under the Bodhi tree. It is not because the inner critic is an invention of our times.  The judgmental mind is perhaps not one affliction or hindrance but a compounded hindrance.  If you explore just on moment the inner critic is operating you can sense how the winds of all of the hindrances flow through it.  There is craving – it takes form in all the expectations, shoulds, demands and ideals we hold about ourselves and others.  Restlessness and worry make their appearance – the shoulds and expectations generating endless thought and emotion as we strive and struggle to meet them, sitting alongside our fear of failure and imperfection.  Clearly in the judgmental mind there is aversion and ill will, directed towards ourselves and others as our shoulds and expectations are too often disappointed.  Doubt makes a powerful appearance – doubt in our worthiness, goodness and capacity simply to be who we are in that moment.  The affliction of dullness makes a disguised appearance in the form of despair, resignation and numbness.

Holding all of these afflictions together is the inner tyrant, the view of self, the beliefs in who we are and who we are not that continually fuels and fires the afflictive emotions.  This is the invitation of the path of awakening, to understand this compound, to learn how to loosen its hold and power, and to rediscover all that is true and possible within ourselves and others.  This is the invitation of the path of compassion – to extend to ourselves and all beings, kindness rather than harshness.  It is also the path of mindfulness in which we learn to see a thought as a thought rather than a description of reality.  We can begin to see that self judgment or judgment of another is no more than a thought that is laden with ill will and aversion. There is a profound liberation in knowing this so deeply that the ill will can be let go of.

The Buddha taught so clearly, what we dwell upon becomes the shape of our mind.  If we dwell in ill will, directed outwardly or inwardly in the form of blame, disparagement or aversion it will become the shape of our mind and a habit until all that we see is that which is broken, flawed, imperfect and impossible.  In India there is a saying that when a pickpocket meets a saint in the marketplace, all that is seen is the saint’s pockets.  What we frequently dwell upon also becomes a habit of the mind.  Habit and awareness do not co-exist.  Nurturing our capacity to be mindful and present is the first step of understanding and disempowering the identity and power of the inner critic.

We can learn to pause and to listen deeply to the voice of the inner judge with its endless symphony of blame and shame.  We can surround it with the kindness of mindfulness.  We can investigate the truth of its story.  We can begin to sense that the inner critic truly does warrant compassion as does any suffering and affliction.  We can begin to take the ‘my’ out of the story and see a thought as a thought.  Instead of fleeing the painfulness of the judgmental mind we can turn toward it, sensing that everything we are invited to understand in the journey of awakening can be understood within the judgmental mind.  Letting go, compassion, the emptiness of self, equanimity and wisdom are the lessons we are invited to explore in this most powerful of afflictions.  The alchemy of mindfulness is to nurture a sense of possibility into all the moments that at first appear impossible.  We are encouraged to imagine a life free from ill will, blame and shame.  It is a life and a heart of compassion, wisdom and peace.






The Long Journey to a Bow

When news swept through the village of the impending death of their beloved and esteemed teacher, well wishers gathered to pay their last respects and honour him.  Standing around the master’s bedside, one by one they sang his praises and extolled his virtues as he listened and smiled weakly.  “Such kindness, you have shown us”, said one devotee.  Another extolled his depth of knowledge, another lamented that never again would they find a teacher with such eloquence.  The tributes to his wisdom, compassion and nobility continued until the master’s wife noticed signs of restlessness and thanking his devotees, asked them to leave.  Turning to her husband, she asked why he was disturbed, remarking upon all the wonderful tributes that had been showered upon him.  “Yes, it was all wonderful” he whispered.  “But did you notice that no-one mentioned my humility?”

The conceit of self (in Pali: Mana) is said to be the last of the great obstacles to full awakening.  Conceit is an ingenious creature, at times masquerading as humility, empathy or virtue.  Conceit manifests in the feelings of being superior to or better than another, the belief in being inferior to or worse than others and lastly the conceit of being equal to or the same as others.  Within these three dimensions of conceit are held the whole tormented world of comparing, evaluating, judging and measuring that afflicts our hearts.  Jealousy, envy, resentment, fear and beliefs in unworthiness spring from this deeply embedded pattern of conceit.  Conceit perpetuates the dualities of ‘self’ and ‘other’, the schisms that are the root of such depths of alienation and suffering in our world.  Our commitment to awakening and the end of suffering asks us to honestly explore the ways that conceit manifest in our lives and to find the way to its end.  The Buddha taught that ‘one who has truly penetrated this three fold conceit of superiority, inferiority and equality, is said to have put an end to suffering’.  The cessation of conceit allows the fruition of empathy, kindness, compassion and awakening.

Although I didn’t recognize it at the time, my first encounter with conceit happened in the very beginning of my practice in the Tibetan tradition, a serious bowing culture.  Not a tradition of just inclining the head slightly, but a culture in which Tibetans undertake pilgrimages of hundreds of miles doing full prostrations the entire way.  In Tibetan communities the serious bowers can be spotted by the callous in the center of their forehead. Walking into my teachers room for the first time, I found myself shocked to see people prostrating themselves at his feet. My reaction was visceral, I saw their bowing as an act of abasement, humiliation, self effacement and I determined never to do the same.  My conceit appeared in the thoughts that questioned what this plump, unsmiling man swaddled in his robes had done to merit this attention or make him better and loftier than his students.  The recurrent words of ‘I’, ‘me’, better, worse, higher, lower, worthy and unworthy provided fuel for plenty of story telling and resistance.

Over the years as my respect and appreciation for his generosity, kindness and wisdom grew I found myself inching towards a bow, often a token bow with just a slight bob of my head, at other times a more heartfelt bow born of a deeper gratitude, but still an element of tension and withholding remained.

I continued to practice in other bowing cultures.  In Asia I saw elderly nuns with many years of practice and wisdom kneeling before teenage monks who had yet to find the way to sit still for five minutes.  In Korea I saw a practice environment where everyone bowed to everyone and everything with respect and a smile.  It dawned on me that bowing was not, for me, just a physical gesture, but an investigation and a pathway to understand conceit.  The bow, I came to understand, was a metaphor for understanding many aspects of the teaching – pride, selfing, conceit, discriminating wisdom and self-image.

My first challenge on this journey was to distinguish the difference between a bow as an act of letting go of conceit and duality, and a bow which expressed beliefs in unworthiness that reinforced one of the most lethal faces of conceit. As Kate Wheeler once put it, ‘A true bow is not a scrape’.   Many on this path, men and women,  carry a legacy of too many years of scraping, cowering, self belittlement rooted in beliefs in unworthiness, one of the expressions of inferiority conceit.  The path to renounce scraping can be long and liberating, a reclaiming of dignity, respect, a letting go of patterns of fear, self abandonment and inner reliance.  Discriminating wisdom, which we are never encouraged to renounce, clearly understands the difference between a bow and a scrape.  A true bow, in my understanding, can be a radical act of love and freedom.  As Suzuki Roshi put it, “When you bow, there is no Buddha and there is no you.  One complete bow takes place.  That is all.  This is nirvana.”.  A true bow is not a statement of worthiness, unworthiness or sameness – it is a gesture of a profound understanding of the emptiness of all ideas of ‘self’ and ‘other’.

Conceit describes the ways we contract around a sense of ‘self’ and ‘other’, construct identities and belief systems, believe them to be true and enable those beliefs to be the source of our acts, words, thoughts, choices and relationships.  Superiority conceit is the belief in being better than, worthier than or superior to another.  It is as kind of conceit that can build itself upon our appearance, our body, our mind, our intelligence, our attainments, stature and achievements.  It can even gather around our meditative superiority.  We see someone shuffling and restless on their meditation cushion and congratulate ourselves on our transcendence of such activity.  We might go through life hyper-critical, quick to spot the flaws and imperfections in others, sure we would never behave in such unacceptable ways.

Superiority conceit is easily spotted when it manifest in arrogance, bragging or the tendency to proclaim our excellence to the world.  It can be subtle in our inner beliefs in our specialness, rightness or invulnerability.  Superiority conceit superficially looks preferable to and to be a safer refuge than inferiority conceit, but in truth both cause the same suffering.  The feeling of superiority has the power to distort compassion into its near enemy of pity, stifles  empathy and the capacity to listen deeply and to learn.  Superiority conceit disables our capacity to receive criticism, so convinced are we in the truth of our views and opinions.

Inferiority conceit is more familiar territory for many – the chronic sense of unworthiness so endemic in our culture.  The torment of feeling worse than others, not good enough, intrinsically flawed and imperfect is the daily diet of inferiority conceit.  It gathers in the same places as superiority conceit – the body, mind, appearance and the long list of failures and mistakes we have made through our lives.  Inferiority conceit is fertile in its production of envy, resentment, judgment and blame that go round and round in a vicious circle of story telling that serves only to solidify our belief in an imperfect self.  It is a belief that is often the forerunner of scraping as we create heroes and heroines occupying a landscape of success and perfection we believe to be impossible for us, just as we may see genuine liberation as impossible.

Governed by inferiority conceit we may be adept at bowing to others, yet find it impossible to bow to ourselves, to acknowledge the worthy, the wholesome and the sincerity that keeps us persevering on our path in the face of a belief system that seems insurmountable.  Learning to make that first bow to ourselves is perhaps a step to realizing a bow is just a bow, where all ideas of ‘self’ and ‘other’, worthy and unworthy have fallen away. It is a step of committing  ourselves with confidence to realizing the same freedom and compassion that all Buddhas throughout time have discovered, acknowledging that we practice to be liberated.  We practice because it seems impossible, we practice to reclaim that sense of possibility.  We learn to bow to each moment knowing it is an invitation to understand what it means to liberate just one moment from the burden of self judgment, blame, envy and fear.  Letting go of inferiority conceit awakens our capacity for appreciative joy, to celebrate the lovely and reclaim the confidence so needed to travel this path of awakening.

Seeing the suffering of superiority and inferiority conceit we might be tempted to think that equality conceit is the middle path, instead it is more a conceit of reductionism.  We tell ourselves that we all share in the same delusion, confusion, self-centredness and greed; we all swim in the same cesspit of suffering.  Sameness can seem both comforting and reassuring.  We can feel relieved from responsibility or the need to hold aspirations that ask for effort and commitment.

Equality conceit can express disillusionment with human possibility.  We look at those who appear happier or more enlightened than ourselves and primarily see their flaws.  We see those who seem more confused or deluded than ourselves and we know we have been there.  We see our own delusions and struggles reflected in the lives of others and in a way feel relieved of bowing at all.  The offspring of equality conceit can be a terminal sense of disappointment, resignation and cynicism.

All forms of conceit give rise to endless thought and story telling about ourselves and others, all solidifying the beliefs we hold about ourselves and others.  Liberating ourselves from conceit and the agitation it brings, begins with our willingness to sensitize ourselves to the subtle and obvious manifestations of conceit as it appears.  The clues lie in our judgments, comparisons, the views we construct about ourselves and others.  Suffering, struggle, evaluating, envy and fear are all signals asking us to pause and listen more deeply.  We learn to bow to those moments, knowing they are moments where we can solidify conceit or we can liberate conceit.  Instead of feeding the story of self and conceit, we may be able to nurture our capacities for mindfulness, restraint and letting go.  Instead of volunteering for suffering we may be able to volunteer for freedom.  It is not an easy undertaking, yet each moment we are present and aware in the process of conceit building, approach it with kindness and clarity, we are learning to bow and take a step on the path of freedom.

Life, seen wisely, is a powerful ally in offering us the opportunities to let go of the conceit of self.  There are times when our world crumbles or falls apart.  Unpredictable illness, loss and hardship come into our lives and we face the reality once more that we are not in control, do not have the power to always fix adversity or make it disappear.  Sometimes there is simply no more that ‘I’ can do.  In those moments we can become agitated or fearful or acknowledge that we are meeting the first noble truth – there is unsatisfactoriness and at times suffering in life.  We can sink into despair or realize when we face the limitations of our power and control, all we can do is bow to that moment.  The conceit of self is being challenged and eroded not only by the circumstances of our lives but by our willingness to meet those circumstances with grace rather than with fear.  These moments of adversity can be greeted as enemies or seen as moments pregnant with insight and freedom.

A teacher was asked, “What is the secret of your happiness and equanimity?”  She answered, “A wholehearted, unrestricted co-operation with the unavoidable.”.  We could say that this is the secret and the essence of a bow.  It is the heart of mindfulness and compassion. To bow is no longer hold ourselves apart from the unavoidable and unpredictable, the nature of all of our lives.  It is to cultivate a heart that can unconditionally welcome and respect all things.  We bow to what is, to all of life.  Liberating our minds from all ideas of better than, worse than or the same as, we liberate ourselves from all views of ‘self’ and ‘other’.  The bow is a way to the end of suffering, to an awakened heart.

The journey to a bow is a moment to moment practice of letting go of the conceit that keeps us stuck in a small world of competitiveness, fear, striving and despair.  We can begin to hold that world with compassion, just as we learn to hold the vast amounts of suffering in the world that is born of conceit with the same compassion.  Not all pain or hardship in life can be fixed or avoided, but all pain can be met with a bow.  The pain of judgment, unworthiness and struggle that is born of conceit can be healed with the wisdom that sees and knows conceit just as it is and with the compassion that can let it go.