My Vipassana Catholicism

I come from a devout Catholic heritage and navigating my spiritual/religious identity over the years has been a rich and complex journey. One of the more interesting turns was my discovery a few years ago that my Vipassana meditation practice actually enabled me to understand, appreciate and connect with Catholicism in a whole new way.

Vipassana provided a bridge of sorts — the best way I can describe it is that the Catholic teaching I received throughout life seemed to impart clear directives about what values I should strive to embody, without providing concrete guidance about how to embody them. After learning Vipassana, I found that it was the missing link, the tool that illuminated for me how to embody these values. No matter how much I aspired to be a more loving and compassionate person before this, my efforts carried me only so far — my most earnest intentions were no match for my most deeply rooted mental habit patterns. I inevitably reacted to potent age-old triggers in fractions of a second, beyond the reach of my conscious mind’s ability to control my emotions, and often, my words and behaviors (think family dynamics). Through Vipassana, I have learned a technique to face the negativities within me, towards gradually weakening their grip on me at the deepest subconscious levels. I suspect that prayer the way it’s intended to be practiced more closely approximated Vipassana meditation once upon a time, but that the meditative and contemplative emphasis was lost to mainstream church teaching long ago.

Another way that Vipassana has deepened my connection to Catholicism is that scriptures, creeds, prayers, etc. have taken on entirely new and profound meanings as I find myself interpreting them through the lens of my Vipassana experiences. Sometimes it seems the teachings are alluding directly to Vipassana practice (or more accurately, its prayer equivalent). I’ll try to identify some examples to share in future blog posts. I find these parallels to be extremely exciting. They illuminate possibilities for people of various spiritual and faith traditions to converge with a shared basis in contemplative self-awareness. The journey continues.

“Start again.” — Goenkaji

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Effects of Music and Dance on Meditation

I went to a 5 Rhythms dance about 2 weeks after sitting a 10 day course.  The 5 rhythms is a free form dance style developed by Gabriel Roth which takes dancers through 5 distinct rhythms of flowing, staccato, chaos, lyrical and stillness. These rhythms mirror the rhythms of nature and the seasons. It’s about a 2 hour dance and is likened to a meditation in motion, there is no rigid form to adhere to rather you let your body dance according to how it wants to move.  I first got introduced by some meditator friends I was serving with at the Massachusetts Center many years ago. Since, I’ve found a dance close to where I live now.

I have enjoyed these dances, they can be deep and profound in their own right. I’ve approached it from the place of being aware and equanimous as I move and allow whatever sensations, thoughts, and feelings to come and go without getting caught in them.  Our bodies need movement and this is a way to move get out of the head and synch the mind with the body. It’s also a nice way to be in community with others. Here in the US many people sit all day at work and then if you practice vipassana you also sit for 2 hours a day, some body centered movement is a good balance I think.  Also for someone who has never taken a 10 day course it can be a way inwards.

Dance and music are very stimulating to the mind and is a gross sensory input especially coming from a 10 day course, I usually wait awhile after a course before I’m ready for a dance.  It’s obvious why the 7th precept of abstaining from sensual entertainment is there for serious meditation because music and dance greatly stimulate the mind and dissipate the subtly of one pointed Samadhi needed for penetrating wisdom. But once I acclimate back to the world and am more active it’s not as big of a jump.

There’s music to fit every mood and emotion. We resonate with music which connects with our emotions. If we want to know what the conscious or unconscious mind has been generating or moods we are inclined towards music will tell us right away.  A challenge with music can be the lure to get completely into emotions without equanimity and get lost and swept away. Let’s say someone is angry and they are drawn to angry music and the music makes them angrier or can make that tendency to react with anger stronger.  The difference as a meditator is that we have learned to observe the sensations underlying emotions with equanimity and maintain wisdom about them.  Music can also be very inspiring and uplifting, it can foster our feelings of metta, generosity and good will towards others, it can help give context and meaning to our personal experiences, articulate what we may have found hard to articulate, connect us to experience we had found hard to connect to before or to something greater than ourselves.  At the same time there’s the wisdom that whatever is arising is impersonal changing phenomenon which does not belong to us but rather are conditions of mind arising and passing away.

When I meditate in the evening after a dance I feel a buzzy flow of energy in the body, there may or may not be emotions that accompany that.  The mind isn’t fixated on particular thoughts as much, thought impressions are moving more quickly, one pointedness samadhi is less. It can make meditation less subtle, less still and peaceful.  More absorption into the sensual realm and less into the sublime. It is a trade off temporally but it’s also anicca. On the other hand the body is benefited- strength, dexterity and coordination is enhanced.  The sitting posture is benefited. The body and mind feel in better communication and there can be a freeing of mental and emotional material and a clearing of the mind.

When we are back in our daily lives in the world we strive to find balance and integration with our meditation practice. For me dance has been one balancing support in this process.

 

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“Don’t use your meditation practice to harm yourself, only use it to help yourself.”

Do you know about Dr. Paul Fleischman’s recent Old Student talks? The title of this blog post is a quote from one such talk, available for streaming audio or download by old students on the website pariyatti.org.

You can link to the talks here.

I am not always 100% successful at accomplishing my twice daily 1-hour sittings, and Dr. Fleischman’s perspectives are immensely helpful to remember not to beat myself up whenever I fall short of the goals I set for myself. It’s all about one’s dhamma volition.

Description of the talk, from Pariyatti:

Dr. Paul R. Fleischman talks specifically with Old Students highlighting the theme, “Don’t use your meditation practice to harm yourself, only use it to help yourself.” These two talks, recorded in San Francisco and Dhamma Kuñja, will inspire and help old-students who are working towards creating a daily practice in the throes of modern life.

Here are a couple of comments/reviews about the talk from other old students on the Pariyatti website:

simple and inspirational

This talk by Dr. Paul is a must for every individual who has ever taken a course of Vipassana. We all falter on the path and get confused – I found Dr. Paul’s simple approach and reassuring words to be very inspiring. Have listened to this talk numerous times and I recommend it to everyone.

Reviewed by: Nishant from West New York. on 11/11/2016

Supportive and encouraging

An assistant teacher just recommended this talk to me when I told her that I was trying to restart my practice after stopped when I had a baby 2 years ago. I feel so grateful and supported after listening to the San Francisco talk. The knowledge that so many other meditators deal with the same challenges to maintaini a practice is relieving, and Dr. Fleischman’s advice to help with those challenges is very encouraging. It’s okay that our minds wander! I could instantly relate to his question to the audience asking whether anyone had sat for an hour and realised at the end that they had forgotten to meditate for that whole hour, without observing any breath or feeling any sensations… two days ago I repeatedly tried to feel sensations from the top of my head and I kept forgetting what I was doing before I finished my scalp – I never made it to my forehead! I admit that I gave up after 15 very long minutes. I now I have added strength and volition to persist next time, smilingly. I’ve been reminded that we get benefit from each attempt, as long as our intention is there. Much thanks to Dr. Fleischman for helping me to set priorities and realistic expectations.

Reviewed by: Lara from Toronto. on 10/3/2016

Give these talks a listen, if you haven’t already. I hope that you will find them as helpful as I have.

“Start again.” — Goenkaji

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Success vs. Love

One reason I believe daily meditation is hard is because it’s not simply about setting aside time in your busy day to sit. It’s about actively shifting the way you live your life. For decades, most of us have been taught to measure the quality of our lives by our successes and failures. This implies that we can write a list of the things we’ve accomplished, like a resume, and that we never write down our failures because that would be a knock to our reputation. We haven’t been trained to be honest and authentic; We’ve been trained to create the perception of a perfect life.

Meditation immediately eats away at this training. Every time we sit, we face our weaknesses and shortcomings. Every time we sit we’re challenged to reflect on our imaginary list of failures and accept that each item on the list as a part of who we are. Instead of trying to glorify our strengths and cover up our weaknesses, meditation encourages us to accept, embrace, and love everything about me.

This acceptance of oneself and each other is so rich that the last day of a 10-day course has a natural high, but what about after you leave the Center? Most of the people in our communities are living by the old rules of glorifying strengths and diminishing weaknesses, so if I present my weaknesses, I will probably get trampled. In order to live the life of dhamma, we not only need to follow these new rules of unconditional love, but we need to convince the people in our lives to embrace these new rules too so they don’t trample us while we’re trying to change. Everyone would agree that the world would be a better place if we all lived with unconditional love, but it’s very difficult to love while being attacked or put down. To start shifting the tides of the world, we need leaders who are strong enough to do just that. Meditation and meditation communities can help. Time to meditate.

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Vipasssana Mediation vs “USS Callister” Episode of Black Mirror

“USS Callister” is the 1st episode of the fourth season of the Netflix TV show Black Mirror which debuted on 29 December 2017.

The episode follows Robert Daly, a reclusive but gifted programmer of a popular online game who is bitter over the lack of recognition he gets from his coworkers. He takes out his frustrations by simulating a Star Trek-like space adventure within the game, using his co-workers’ DNA to create digital clones of them. Acting as the captain of the USS Callister starship, Daly is able to order his co-workers around, submit them to his will, and mistreat them if they get out of line. When Daly brings newly hired Nanette Cole into his game, she encourages the other copies to revolt against Daly. (referenced from wiki)

1.

Walking into the room and sitting on a chair, Daly was starting to game by merging into his own Star trek-like space adventure gaming world… He is a god-like controller of other people in this world: control and suppress all of the people in the spaceship by mistreating them; control and suppress everyone’s behaviors with fear; control and suppress all these people by mistreating them; … He believes “controlling and suppressing” is the way to happiness. 

2.

Walking into the room and sitting on a cushion, I was starting to meditate and merging into my own Vipasssana meditation world… I am an observer of my own sensations in this world: observe sensation of a blood vessel jumping under the eyelid; observe sensation of itching on the lower neck; observe sensation of pain on the right shoulder; observe sensation of growing pain on the knees; observe sensation of temperature on both toes; …observe sensation of the disappearing of itching on the lower neck; … I believe “observing sensations and finding equanimity” is the way to happiness.

3.

In the USS Callister gaming world, Daly believed that “controlling and suppressing” is the action for liberation; fear is powerful. However,people being suppressed revolt against Daly; suppression is not the way to liberation.

In the Vipasssana meditation world, we believed that reaction is not the action; love and compassion are powerful. All sensations are equanimous and serve us to get out of suffering; Dhamma is the way to liberation.

Maybe nobody agrees with me to compare Vipassana meditation to the USS Callister game. It is funny that I found that behavior-wise, we do similar things; mentally, we are opposite. 

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Is This the Path?

When my practice starts to feel stale, or rote, or like a chore, it’s time to ask myself again—is this the path I want to walk? I need to dig deep and remind myself why my Vipassana meditation practice is so important to me, to tap into the inspiration I need to continue devoting 2 hours a day to meditating.

I need to remind myself that my most fundamental goal in this life is to be the most loving person I can be. After I remind myself of that, it’s pretty simple. My next thought is, oh yeah, duh—my Vipassana meditation practice is the best way I know how to pursue that goal. This thought process actually helped me a great deal yesterday morning when I didn’t feel like sitting, and I wanted to move on with my day after getting up a little late. I recognized in that instant just how at odds my impatience was with my desire to be loving. I realized that if I want to be loving, it would behoove me to start my day by connecting with my deepest intentions and cultivating my awareness and equanimity. And moreover, if my utmost goal is to be loving, what could be more important on my to do list than…pursuing being loving?? (again— duh)

Beyond the abstract goal of being the most loving person I can be, I remind myself that I am committed to figuring out how to build a successful dhamma household with Ryan as the foundation for our lives and relationship. We want to find others who share this goal, so we can all reaffirm and support each other in walking the dhamma path in this complex world. This is how I want to bring light into the world.

“Start again.” — Goenkaji

Have a great day!

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Community Building Through Insight Timer

Insight Timer is a great free app used by over 3,000,000 meditators. The app supports many different traditions by giving access to many different teachers and their teachings. I use the app because it allows me to log my daily meditations and connect to nearly 20,000 other Vipassana meditators trained by SN Goenka. I’m currently attempting to use the app to connect with other Goenka meditators in my region through a group called Goenka Vipassana Meditators near Dhamma Delaware. Even if it doesn’t work, the app helps me get to the cushion each day which is the most important goal. Maybe it can help you too. Time to meditate.

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Wings of Desire-a Great Dhamma Movie

Wings of Desire

There’s a great Dhamma movie called Wings of Desire that I highly recommend, it came out in 1987.   After finishing Peace Corps Sri Lanka in 1996 and sitting and serving  in India and Nepal, I came back to Sri Lanka to settle at a meditation center near Kandy.  I followed a daily schedule that included a lot of meditation. I befriended an Israeli meditator and we took a break to travel to Colombo. While there he took me to a German Cultural Center and said you got to see this movie because it had a lot of profound Dhamma meaning.  So I sat in a booth with some headphones to watch a German movie with English subtitles, the first movie I’d seen in quite awhile.

It’s filmed in Black and White, set in Berlin before the fall of the Berlin Wall.  There was something about that setting symbolic of human oppression.  The black and white background portrayed the dreamlke world as seen by angels and the somber mood of people trying to get by.  Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander)  are angels who watch over the city of Berlin, they travel through the city, listening to peoples thoughts and dreams, watching their actions and comforting those in distress. They make their presence known in subtle ways and usually only small children and other angels can see them.  They spend their days serenely observing, unable to physically interact  but through presence, help to comfort and lift up suffering people. While observing a beautiful female trapeze artist, Damiel falls in love and chooses to give up his immortality to become human and go through all the things humans go through to be with her. Once he switches over to being human, the film turns to color. It’s a masterpiece of poetry, cinematography and music. Here’s a couple links from two beautiful opening scenes, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7BpY6I9ZR3A, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ivnMDs2krX0.  There was a sequel to it in 1993 called  So Close So Far Away.

I think it especially struck a deep vein because I strongly related to the angels.  I’d been removed from the 10,000 things of the world and deep in meditation. The meditative concentration and equanimity felt like experiencing all the stuff in my mind and witnessing the world through the eyes of an angel, through a lens of detachment and compassion.  Before vipassana angels seemed far away.  Here I was living removed from having to get up to go to work, pay bills, wasn’t married, didn’t have many external needs, worries or responsibilities, my life in the US felt faded. When I’d go to Kandy or Colombo, it really felt like descending into the rougher daily grind of human existence and witnessing that suffering from the outside.  At the same time I was probing deep into my own humanity and facing the existential suffering that I brought into this life, the concentration and equanimity was kind of like having an angel there all the time to witness it. I was also nearing a cross roads of deciding on whether to continue or return home to the US. There was some fear with coming back of losing that connection and getting caught up in the grind.  I could relate with the angel deciding whether to stay or go.

The movie had a lot of symbolic meaning and shed light on the suffering people go can through and the experience of isolation and separateness that can sometimes come with the human experience. Also from a Dhamma perspective I was thinking is that guy out of his mind to get back into potential endless Samsara? Does he know what he’s getting into?  Likewise I was thinking am I out of my mind to consider going back?  I think of the Sutra about if you could collect all the tears one has shed over endless Samsara it would fill the 4 oceans, and likewise with all the blood shed. After I returned to the US I realized that coming out of Samsara rests more within myself and how I relate to my mind, it’s less on where I live.  Wherever I go I carry the same mind with me to either liberate or to increase bondage.  The choice is always mine, the angels never go away,  it’s only the mind that connects or disconnects from heaven.

 

 

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How Do We Live Loving Lives?

Since the first talk to my high school classes titled Are We Living Loving Lives? was well received, I gave a second talk that linked meditation to a life centered on truth and love. You can see the presentation slides here if you’re interested. I now have around 60 high school juniors choosing to meditate for 3 minutes before each class. I’m curious to see how many students stick with it and if they notice meditation having a positive impact on their lives.

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These books gave me insights to sign up for a 10-day Vipassana meditation

Solid evidences from neuroscience support that meditation not only reduces stress, but also changes the brain; i.e. meditators had more gray matter in the frontal cortex, which is associated with working memory and executive decision-making. According to Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School who studied  mediation, 8-week of 40 minutes of daily mediation practice can change the brain. She suggested finding a good teacher for mediation if you are serious on it.

However, knowing these scientific evidence is not enough to motivate me to be serious with mediation. Interestingly, several books I read in 2017 gave me significant insights, directly or indirectly, to sign up the 10-day Vipassana meditation (Dec. 20-31, 2017).

1. The Surrender Experiment: My Journey into Life’s Perfection (published in 2015).

This is a non-fiction book by Michael Singer.  It is rare because it is an autobiography-like book related to his life experience of meditation.

To shut down the noise-like talking in his mind, the author started meditation practice in his 20’s. He even got up at 3am to practice. During 1.5 years, to achieve the best meditation result, he only ate a salad every other day to avoid distraction from food. He described in detail one of his deep mediation experiences in nature during a hiking activity. He described deep meditation is “Absolute silence” and total no “I”. “Eventually, all consciousness of my body and my surroundings was gone. I was not there, only the flow was there.”

The meditation helps him find the voice of his true self. Later on, he incorporates his mediation in his daily life (the most amazing part!) and volunteered to teach meditation in prison for over 30 years. For meditation, he built a Temple of Universe, a 900-acre meditation center in Gainesville, FL.

Fascinated by his description of his meditation experiences, Similar to him, I really want to shut down those “I” or “my” voices in my mind. I am eager to experience of “absolute silence” .

2. The Razor’s Edge (published in 1944).

This is a novel by W. Somerset Maugham, the famous novelist who wrote The Moon and Sixpence.  The book tells the story of Larry Darrell, an American pilot traumatized by his experiences in World War I,  who sets off in search of some transcendent meaning in his life. The book described Larry’s deep meditation experience.

3. Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work (published in 2017)

The authors of this non-fiction book, Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal, spent 4 years investigating high performance. The book described the “flow” state, which a 10-day Vipassana meditation can lead to, which often shows up in the 7th or 8th day in the 10-day practice. (It is very interesting that I started to experience it on the 7th day of practice in my 10-day vipassana mediation.)

All these books directed me to sign up the serious 10-day vipassana mediation. I wish S.N. Goneka had an autobiography like “The Surrender Experiment”. In particular, Goenka is a poet. His lectures have a beautiful rhythm. I am curious what big masters like Goenka experienced during deep meditation.

As a life-long learner, I questioned myself regarding whether I did the right learning before. I wonder how these deep mediators experienced and how they achieved calmness and reached “flow” state. I would like to gain first-hand experience of how mediation can impact on my own mind.

p.s. It is interesting that Vipassana mediation did not emphasize deep mediation at all. “Everything is changing (Anicca)”.

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Re-establishing my daily practice

I am now several weeks into re-establishing my consistent practice of meditating 2 hours a day. Mostly, this was a personal decision motivated by my desire to re-center myself in Dhamma, but there is a bit of added motivation in the form of guidelines that old students accepted to sit a Satipatthana Sutta course should be trying to maintain a daily practice — I have registered to attend my first Satipatthana course this year.

So, how is it going, now several weeks in? It’s going well, actually. It is very grounding to structure my day around my twice daily sittings, and it has led to other improvements in my life as well. For example, the evening routine is to meditate, exercise and cook dinner — not always in that order, but these activities have now become linked in my mind, and therefore more automatic (cooking and exercise didn’t used to happen consistently, either, lol). But the bigger difference is that I am successfully feeling more anchored in Dhamma. As a result of consistent practice, I am more able to calm my mind, observe sensations and experience some degree of panna. I find myself having valuable insights about myself and about how to better navigate life’s challenges with wisdom. Some days are better than others, but continuity has provided positive reinforcement to keep going. Also, on days when it’s difficult to sit, I have been calling to mind a quip from an old student on the Insight Timer Vipassana group— “the only bad sitting is the one that you miss!” I draw support from knowing there are other people out there committing themselves to the same challenge each day. After a few years of inconsistent practice, it feels good to finally be in a place that I am able to do this.

“Start again.” — Goenkaji

Have a great day!

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My Humble Authentic Voice

Goenka’s stories and discourses are so good that for years I found myself using his language and sharing his stories in casual conversation as if they were my own. Vipassana was so novel and different from anything I had ever experienced that I hadn’t developed the necessary language to articulate my personal thoughts and feelings so I automatically borrowed Goenka’s language. I also adopted the belief that by meditating 2 hours a day and surrendering to dhamma, all of the problems in my life would go away. In practice, this didn’t turn out to be true.

There is no doubt that meditation brought tremendous benefit to my life. I was able to release strong feelings of anger, frustrations, and blame that were holding me back, but once I released the negative emotions, meditation didn’t give me a plan to move forward. I kept surrendering and being patient until I realized that I was in a new rut. My physical health had deteriorated and my financial stability was questionable. I had focussed so much energy on internal growth that I had been neglecting my external growth. Meditation had helped me clear out the emotional rubbish inside but it didn’t determine my destination outside. I needed to actively look out into the cleared meadow and set a course.

Part of this journey has been reconnecting to my pre-Vipassana wisdom and discovering how to integrate the lessons from Goenka and Vipassana into that framework. I needed to discover from my own experience where Vipassana could contribute to my life, and where I needed to keep working from my previous knowledge set. Instead of simply parroting Goenka’s language and stories, I needed to find my authentic voice and personal truth by creating my own language and stories. While my opinions may not resonate with the depth of truth of Goenka’s words, it’s my humble authenticity that people in my life can trust. Time to meditate.

 

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Away with snarkiness

I’ve been thinking about a comment on a blog I came across recently (okay, it’s Rivers Cuomo’s website…see my last post, lol :). Anyway, the comment was in response to a post by Cuomo about the benefits of Vipassana meditation in his life.

Inexplicably, the commenter felt the need to suggest his own meditation practice to Cuomo instead of Vipassana. He promoted his practice as “neutral” rather than life improving, in contrast to Vipassana, and stated that Vipassana meditation and eliminating undesired negative emotions “will make you flat rather than happy because there is nothing to contrast the happiness with.”

I felt annoyed and found myself wanting to add my own comment saying, “News flash–Vipassana meditation is precisely about life improvement, through equanimity and panna. It’s kind of the point. We aren’t interested in ‘neutral’ practice, whatever that means. And no, it doesn’t make you ‘flat.'” In the next instant, I caught myself and called out my own snarkiness (phew! my practice is working!). I tried to send that guy some metta instead. I’m glad he is meditating in a way that makes sense to him, and was probably just trying to be helpful in his own way.

But his comment did get me thinking about the uniqueness of our practice and why we practice Vipassana meditation rather than something else. In a nutshell, I would say that I practice Vipassana to be a more loving person, and more specifically, to cultivate my capacity for unconditional love and compassion. I feel that it is necessary to work with my deep-rooted mental habit patterns to do this.

Why do you meditate? To achieve liberation? To de-stress? To find deeper meaning in life? Any brave souls willing to give it a go in the comments? Perhaps sharing our perspectives can help inspire our collective daily practice. Have a great day!

“Continuity is the secret to success.”  — Goenka

 

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A Missed Opportunity?

As the mindfulness movement grows, I wonder if the Goenka organization is missing an opportunity to lead. While focusing on preserving Goenka’s teachings and enforcing the 2 hour a day minimum, teachers from other traditions have shown that as little as 3, 5, or 10 minutes of meditation a day can make a positive change in a person’s life. Many of these mindfulness programs lack the depth of understanding of Dhamma that Goenka presented, but it seems that 2 hours a day is not the minimum to see the benefits of meditation. I wonder if the Goenka organization is missing an opportunity to lead the mindfulness movement because they’re holding on to this regulation to tightly.

The key to growing in Dhamma is to incorporate meditation and mindfulness more and more into your daily life. If you’re currently meditating zero minutes a day and start meditating 3 minutes a day, this is progress in the right direction! You can build upon this positive growth, and maybe eventually you will be meditating 2 hours a day. Unfortunately, I believe many new old students hear the 2 hour minimum, try to make a dramatic shift in their life right away, fail, then leave the practice completely. This is sad and unfortunate.

I wonder if Goenka realized this towards the end of his life causing him to make the Anapana video. While the video is okay, I think we could do a much better job teaching and supporting people who aren’t ready to sit a 10-day course or 2 hours a day. Instead of focusing on empower every individual to seek liberation independently, I think we can build a community of meditators that will support each other in their daily meditations regardless of where they are on the path. If we join the mindfulness movement and the general conversation about meditation, we may connect more people with pure dhamma than by protecting the teaching through isolation. Goenka succeeded at spreading his message around the world, but he is no longer here. Who will be the next set of leaders that carry his message forward? Time to meditate.

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Weezer

I found myself Googling Rivers Cuomo, the Weezer guitarist, last night after a friend recently mentioned that he is a serious Goenka Vipassana meditator. I knew that at one point, but had forgotten.

Let me just say that after visiting his personal website, I am extremely humbled and inspired by him as a meditator. The first section/tab of the site is called “Dhamma” — ie the Dhamma part of his life isn’t hidden away somewhere in an obscure part of his bio. It’s the first and most prominent tab. Pretty neat. I further discovered that he has sat and served numerous 10-day courses, and even a handful of 30 and 45 day courses. He is also a father of two, and perhaps most impressively, one post mentioned that he sits 2 hours a day very consistently, missing his sits only the day he was in a serious bus accident in 2009 (not sure how up to date this is, but still).

In conclusion, I was inspired. I sat this morning with a little more resolution than usual. We can do this–live courageously as Vipassana meditators in this complex, modern, world, that is.

And I’m listening to Weezer as I stand here typing this post and drinking my coffee in my kitchen, ha! Have a great day!

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Love and Truth in My High School Classroom

With mass shootings and teen suicide on the rise, there is a need to discuss what is important in life, and what is not. Most of us are running around trying to accomplish short term goals not realizing that our efforts are leading us towards an undesirable destination harming ourselves and others along the way. In an effort to discuss these issues in my high school classroom, I challenged my students to evaluate 2 opposing sets of goals.

Set 1 vs. Set 2
Get a great job vs. Work hard to find a job where you can help society.
Get good grades vs. Measure your skills and growth to learn how best to serve.
Make lots of money vs. Make what you need, then share.
Fall in love and live happily ever after vs. Find a partner to share the up and down journey of life.
Build a resume vs. Find opportunities to contribute to your community.
Be the best at what you do vs. Accept and love who you are.
Stand up for your perspective vs. Listen and learn from people with different perspectives.
A message that was originally shared with just 23 students has now reached the ears of all 750 students in my high school as well as the faculty, administration, and parents. Here is the video based on my students presentation:
Time to meditate.
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Purpose in Life

I’m at a juncture in my life, re-evaluating my career direction. At a deeper level, I am really re-examining the question what is my fundamental purpose in life?

The instinctive rote answer, the one I long ago arrived at, is that my life is about “being the most loving person I can be.”

But what does this mean, concretely? And how is it that I have been living a life so disconnected from my purpose as I defined it long ago? “Being the most loving person I can be” was little more than an afterthought over the past several months, during which I was mostly caught up in my work, and stressed.

My meditation practice became less and less consistent, more and more perfunctory, optional and expendable, when I should have been prioritizing and protecting it. This, despite my fondness of the following quote:

“Half an hour’s meditation each day is essential, except when you are busy. Then a full hour is needed.” – Saint Francis de Sales (or Zen proverb?? the internet can’t decide)

In searching for clarity about my purpose in life, I know that my meditation practice is key. I can’t arrive at the answers purely intellectually. It’s tough to explain why meditation is key…I’d like to be able to explain this more articulately at some point, but for now, I’ll just say that meditation connects me with myself and with my truth. I know that I need to firmly re-establish and prioritize my daily practice and that the answers and the wisdom will come. I’ve made some bold decisions and am giving myself the space to do this. Have a great day!

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People Can Change

Vipassana has a special message to share with the world; People can change. Youthful optimism transforms into frustration, stubbornness, and pessimism with age as individuals repeatedly run into the same barriers in their efforts to make the world a better place. The expectation that everyone is acting according to their own volition has created the belief that some people want to be mean, disruptive, and disrespectful. As meditators, we know that most human actions are reactions to the conditioned subconscious mind. No matter how badly we want to change our relationships and experiences, we will remain stuck until we learn how to unpack the subconscious mind.

Vipassana is the secret weapon for change. Through meditation people discover that below the hardened surface, everyone is full of peaceful, joyful, unconditional love. Every negative action a person performs is simply their mind being overpowered by mental impurities. The individual doesn’t even know that their negativity is rooted within their own mind and not in the world around them. We need to discover how to spread this message beyond those ready to sit a 10 day course. This simple realization can greatly reduce the tension and animosity felt around the world. Any ideas? Time to meditate.

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I Believe

Dreams are a funny thing. When I believe my dreams are possible, I’m willing to sacrifice everything and work tirelessly to achieve them. When I submit to the struggles of life, I escape the difficulties through sensual pleasures and surrender to long term failure. Over the last few years I’ve been waiting for someone to lead me to a better place. In this crazy world, I’ve been searching for someone with great courage, strength, and intelligence to guide us all to a more compassionate, sophisticated, and civil world. I’ve been waiting because I haven’t had the gumption to stand up as a leader myself.

I’m sure there are tremendous leaders out there, but I haven’t found one in my spheres that has bigger dreams or more comprehensive ideas than me. While it would be so much easier to follow and support someone else’s vision of the future, in order to pursue my big dreams, I need to be willing to lead. Maybe I’m naive, and maybe I’ll fall short, but I’m always at my best when I’m shooting for the moon. It’s time to organize my thoughts, synthesize my ideas, and share my vision with the world. Hopefully I can sustain my optimism long enough to follow through on this intention. Time to meditate.

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Social Creatures

Meditating daily is great, but it’s not enough to be a healthy human being. SN Goenka made an amazing contribution to our planet by helping to spread the practice of Vipassana around the world, but after your 10-day course you’re essentially on your own, and this practice is too demanding for most of us to sustain it in isolation. I also appreciate the benchmark of sitting 2 hours a day to attend long courses, but this is not the minimum necessary to benefit from meditation. Most people are so disconnected from their inner reality, that any daily effort to slow the mind will help redirect them down a healthy path. Many meditation apps are showing that 5 to 10 minutes a day can make a big difference in a persons life. I’m not trying to contaminate the practice or lower the standard. I simply want to explore strategies to help more people achieve this high bar over time.

Finding social support is a critical part of most individual’s journeys. In order to find social support, you must be willing to share your experiences and understanding with the people in your life. Most of us are beginners and should refrain from speaking as teachers, but sharing your personal struggles and growths can be extremely helpful for everyone involved. I’m amazed at how similar everyone’s struggles are to integrate this practice into their lives. By talking about our experiences we develop a deeper understanding of dhamma and we improve our ability to communicate these very complicated experiences.

I believe that most new students give up because they can’t find the social support needed to walk this demanding path. While it’s possible to walk this path alone, that doesn’t mean we have to. If we all work together to maintain our motivation, we may be able to change the culture of an entire community, but this can’t happen if we isolate ourselves. Let’s talk and work together so we can make the world a better place. Time to meditate.

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Seeking Dhamma Wisdom

by Anonymous

I’ve been around awhile – growing older and more comfortable with the process of living. I’m still unsure of exactly who I am but as I sit Vipassana courses I realize my uncertainties are less important than my ability to forget about the ‘me’ and focus on breath or sensation.   So twice each day I make that attempt to rise above the internal and, may I say, incessant, chatter. Does it get easier as I grow older?  Not really!

Since my retirement I’ve immersed myself in Dhamma:  I live next door to a Dhamma center; I sit a long course every year; I join in sitting with the students on courses numerous times each week; I volunteer at the center.   And it is still a challenge to quiet the mind every day. So I do the best I can for that hour because the years have taught me that those two hours each day are the most important part of my life.  How else would I be able to teach my ego-centered mind to feel love for others. Not just kindness but a wellspring of love.   I have a child so I have felt unconditional love. But after sitting a Vipassana course I even felt love for the guy who cut in front of me on the drive home.  Gone were the harsh words or thoughts. I understand his rush isn’t personal. He doesn’t know me!  He’s just a guy caught up in the fast lane. He isn’t driving home from a life-changing Vipassana course!

I’ve definitely found my path. No reason to stray. I still get angry, sad; still say the wrong things and feel stupid afterward. But I now have a way to sit down and let go of all that and maybe even have a spark of equanimity arise.  Be happy 🙏🏼

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Jamie Metzler

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Introduction by Chris Hammond: I met Jamie around 2007. He had moved to Baltimore from Kansas City and was heading the registration for a local 3 day course I attended.  He later contacted me asking if he could sublet at my acupuncture space for seeing counseling clients.  That ended up working out and we shared space until he found a space of his own.  He’d met up with a couple of psychologists and they’d found a very nice space across from Baltimore Harbor. For sometime I flirted with the idea of renting a room from them and that finally materialized in Sept. 2016.  It’s been nice to work alongside a good dhamma friend who shares similar aspirations in dhamma.

We have a similar background of extensively traveling in the east and intensively sitting and serving over a long period in our younger years. We both reentered the householders life and have since been charting our lives forward, finding the balance between maintaining our meditation, being successful practitioners, and leading good family lives.  Jamie and I have occasionally sat together at our practices spaces and we sit one Saturday morning a month with another meditator friend.  Jamie has also been a great initiator in organizing a recent canoeing trip and several hikes. He’s helped to fill a real need of bringing dhamma friends together off the cushion to have fun and grow friendships.  I’m grateful to have him as friend.

Dhamma Story: I first heard about Vipassana and S.N. Goenka during my travels in Asia. I had just completed a year of teaching English in China and was visiting my aunt and uncle who were living in Nepal. Part of my intent in being in India and Nepal was to explore various types of meditation, likely not too different from many others drawn to the East. After asking my uncle for advice on different spiritual traditions, he directed me to a priest friend of his that had lived and worked in India for some time. One of the 10 suggestions for spiritual teachers was Goenka. So when a friend I met in Calcutta mentioned that there was a Vipassana retreat happening close by, I immediately jumped at the chance to take a course.

My first Vipassana course was like most others, very difficult but also very eye opening. I thought I had found something very significant and was motivated to give this technique a try. But what really stands out to me was my experience of returning to Calcutta’s main train station (from the “suburbs”) straight from the course. The cacophony and press of hundreds of people was overwhelming. I immediately began missing the peace and serenity of the 10 days of silent meditation I just left. I was of course craving what I had lost.

This experience reminds me of how often the difficulties and distractions of a householder’s life seem to pull me out of a more peaceful space. It can be discouraging, like the proverbial two steps forward and one step back. Which sets me up for aversion to life’s hardship. However, over the course of my practice I have come to learn that though adversity can seem like a hinderance to our practice and equanimity, it can also provide motivation to use our practice to overcome obstacles. When I notice negativity triggered by hardship arising, I try to retell “the internal story” to one of hopeful meaning: “Oh, this suffering is just an opportunity to grow in Dhamma”. I see these daily struggles as a gradual, lifelong process of letting go of my reactive need to fix and control my life to that of “letting go”, a continual lesson of finding a path to acceptance and equanimity in the face of suffering.

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Time with a Western Forest Monk in Sri Lanka

 

 

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With Bhikkhu Vappa 1996

 

I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a rural village near Tissamaharama in southeast Sri Lanka between 1994 and 1996. I feel fortunate to have been sent to a Buddhist country as that was my first coming into contact with Dhamma. From the first time I saw a Buddhist monk, I felt great fascination, resonance, and veneration.

With six months to go in my time there, some of my villager friends were talking about a western forest monk, the “sudhu hamduru”,  who lived about 5 miles away close to the ocean.  I told them I’d like to visit and asked if someone could communicate that to him.  I soon heard back that it was ok and within a day or so I got on my bike and rode down the pot holed village roads to his dwelling.  He lived in an area near Bundala, which is a National Park and wild life refuge.  To get there I rode through several adjoining villages, as usual people along the way would smile, wave and call out, “hello sudhu mahateya” ( a respectful name for a white man). Then, the houses became sparser and the arid desert forest more pronounced, a local villager led me the rest of the way. We got to a bend in the road where there was a trail and we walked our bikes through the trees, brush, and cactuses to his small hut. His hut was a one room dwelling called a kuti.  It was built out of brick, mortar, and plaster with a tin roof over it. There was a covered walking area outside his front door where he could do walking meditation and hang his robes to dry.

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His name was Bhikkhu Vappa and he was a young man about my age, 25 at the time. He was from the Netherlands and I believe he’d been a monk for a few years. Traditionally a monk stays close to his teacher for the first 5 years and then if given permission can go out his own. He’d recently moved out to this dwelling to live in seclusion and went through the local village of Bundala every morning to collect his food for the day. I remember him saying that a well known western monk living there in the 1950-60’s had committed suicide, apparently the monk claimed to be a sotapanna and suffered from severe gastric pain, here’s a wiki article on that monks life, (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nanavira_Thera),  the monk living there after Nanavira had died from a poisonous snake bite. After this, a Danish hermit monk named Nanadipa had lived there and to this day still practices out in the wilds of Sri Lanka. Here’s an article about him (http://bhanterahula.blogspot.com/2010/10/meetings-with-remarkable-monk.html ) Bhikkhu Vappa seemed ok with the history and his being there. He was very bright and learned and was very immersed in sutta study and pali translation. He also meditated and said that he had some powerful experiences on meditation retreats which led him to take robes.   He was very enthusiastic that I start meditating and encouraged me to read a book called “Mindfulness in Plain English” by Bante Gunaratana. We practiced anapana together and he was very encouraging that I go to Burma to ordain with Pa Auk Sayadaw after finishing Peace Corps as the conditions for supporting meditation was much better there he said.  After Peace Corps is when I came across vipassana as taught by Goenka and spent the next few years sitting and serving courses.  I also stayed at meditation centers and monasteries in Sri Lanka and then to Burma to become a monk for a short time.

At this point in Peace Corps, I had a lot of down time with projects completed, so I went out to visit him quite often. I was lonely from going weeks without the company of westerners and was very drawn to learn from him. We had long engaging conversations. One day he took me out to scout elephants in the forest outside of his kuti as they were migrating through the area. He said that you needed to be careful because sometimes they would stand still and you wouldn’t know that they were there and they could get scared and go wild. Nanadipa, the prior inhabitant of the kuti had been knocked down by an elephant at another location, you can read that story in the above link.  Bhikkhu Vappa was like a master animal tracker and would look, listen and pay close attention to the surroundings.  We came across a family of elephants and watched quietly from behind some trees. The ocean was about a 1/4th of a mile down a trail, and we’d walk out onto a pristine untouched beach where you did not see any people or human dwellings for as far as you could see.

Forest monk 4

Another time, he took me to a temple within Yala National Park called Sithulpawwa which was built in the 2nd century BC. There is an ancient stupa there from the Buddha’s time.  It was located in an area where there were enormous rock formations which formed caves where monks had meditated for over two thousand years. It is rumored that arahants had meditated there in ancient times and it had been a serious monastery for meditators.  It was way off the beaten path, not known to tourists at the time.  Only Sri Lankan pilgrims came to visit the temple, I never saw anyone who wandered up to the caves. Bhikkhu Vappa said that the temple monk wouldn’t let wandering lay people stay in the caves but it was ok because I was accompanied by a monk. We stayed for a few days in a spacious cave which overlooked the jungle with the ocean in the distance. The walls of the cave had inscriptions of the ancient Brahmi script and had chisel marks everywhere. The caves had been chiseled and crafted to make them habitable.  Some of the other caves had pictures from the Buddha’s time. It was very placid and quiet.  There was a serene sense of timelessness as if it was 2000 years ago. At night you could hear the animal sounds of the jungle and a distant remote light house flashed out in the Indian Ocean. Sleeping on the rocky ground gave a new meaning to the 8th precept of not sleeping on high cozy beds. We had a lot of life and Dhamma discussions, it was such a unique time having been immersed in Sri Lankan rural life for almost 2 years, far away from life in the US, my mind was wide open to take in new things.  I would go with him to the temple for the mid-day alms meals and bathe in an ancient man made bath which still had the ancient irrigation system flowing fresh water through it.  There were gray monkeys with black faces throughout the rocks and in the trees.  After staying there we hiked almost 18km through the jungle to Kataragama where I met some fellow Peace Corps Volunteers.  We encountered an elephant along the trail which we had to go around, we also saw leopard footprints and weathered many ticks. Looking back it was quite an adventure.

Sithulpawwa view

 

In the final weeks, he invited me to go to Kandy with him to visit Bhikkhu Bodhi who is an American monk and was the editor and president of the Buddhist Publication Society. He is well known for translating the Majjhima Nikaya and Samyutta Nikaya texts amongst other great scholarly work.  Bhikkhu Bodhi had given a talk to my Peace Corps class during training and later on, I would serve him for 3 months at Bodhi Monastery in New Jersey after he moved back to the states. Bhikkhu Vappa also took me to visit a couple of other long time western monks, one in Kandy and the other in Bandarawela before I finished Peace Corps.  I remember needing to learn the proper etiquette for being with a monk in public.

I later found out that Bhikkhu Vappa changed his name to Bhikkhu Nyanatusita and took over Bhikkhu Bodhi’s responsibility as editor of the Buddhist Publication Society.  He’s still presently serving in this role. If I go back to visit Sri Lanka I hope to visit him again.

I am very grateful to Bhikkhu Vappa (Nyanatusita), as he was my first substantial connection with the Dhamma. He encouraged and supported me in taking my first steps on the path. I feel very fortunate to have crossed paths with him and to have had these very impressionable experiences and in depth discussions on life and the Dhamma. These experiences greatly impacted me and give my Dhamma practice a much greater context.

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Dhamma at Work

By Maria D’Souza

I’m navigating some challenging circumstances at work, which I’ve been viewing very negatively. As a result of these circumstances, I’ve strengthened my meditation resolve and have returned to regular daily sitting recently. Such a difference it makes!

An example:

I noticed that I was experiencing every little email or comment from various work colleagues as intentional digs meant to heckle and harass me. These emails would throw me into a heated tailspin, and I would react with mushrooming agitation, allowing myself to become fully consumed in the subsequent crafting of an indignant response to shoot back to the sender. Fortunately, because of my meditation practice and increased self-awareness, I started to recognize my own reactivity at some point before sending the response (an improvement), but not before rolling in significant agitation for some time. And I was still defensive and filled with negativity and dread related to work, overall.

Then it dawned on me the other day—now several days into sitting for at least 1 hour daily—that I have in front of me such a great opportunity to grow in the wonderful path of dhamma! (let yourself hear that last part in Goenka’s voice :). I realized that these perceived insults may or may not be intentional abuses, and even if they are, it is because the poor individuals abusing me must be utterly miserable themselves…just doing the best they can while dealing with their own stressors and reactivity. So, I must have great compassion for them, and show them love rather than anger. Throw water rather than petrol at fires (and keep a water pump ready).

Next, I remembered and felt that the self is an illusion, that my ego must be dissolved. ”No I, no me, no mine…” We are all in this together.

And suddenly, I can see things as they really are.* I am ready to face my work challenges with a new perspective.

*sometimes 😉

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Entrepreneurship as a Meditator

I practice acupuncture and while there are a few paid positions here and there, most practitioners run their own practices. I have run my practice for the past 9 years and have earned my living while supporting my two daughters. Part of this requires me to bring in new patients, retain current patients and stay in contact with all patients. There is an entrepreneurial aspect to the business with putting myself out there and promoting myself. I haven’t had to do it for awhile because my business had been coasting and auto regulating, however, I’m finding myself needing to put some energy into that again. As all self-employed people know, business ebbs and flows.

Developing the qualities of an entrepreneur has been a work in progress, I didn’t enter my acupuncture career in 2008 especially inclined that way, in fact, friends might have described me as more introspective and monk like. Before acupuncture school, I’d spent 4 years meditating in South Asia. Given this, I’ve needed to work to develop those qualities.

The process of meditation uncovers all the inclinations of the mind. There are natural strengths which come to the surface to support one almost effortlessly. Then there are areas where someone finds they aren’t as practiced at and need to develop. Meditation by itself does not magically make someone an entrepreneur if they don’t already have those qualities developed in them. Conversely, there are many charismatic people in the world who are natural born entrepreneurs, who will never meditate a day in their life. The meditation part only brings wisdom to whatever conditioning we are working with, to come out of the minds unconscious habit of reacting to pleasant and unpleasant sensations with craving and aversion to purify the mind.

When starting my acupuncture practice, I found myself seeking out people who were good at entrepreneurship for advice and skill development. Then I would need to do things which would take me out of my comfort zone like give talks and put myself out there. It’s challenging to do things which bring up discomforts such as anxiety and fear. There was no discourse in the 10-day discourses which specifically touched on this subject. It was a process of integrating what I learned from the coaches instruction together with my experiential practice of vipassana. I think that’s such the case with integrating vipassana to life, there’s often not a discourse that specifically explains how to apply your practice to certain life experiences. Assistant teachers can be of great help to bridge that gap, especially those who’ve had experience with integrating similar things, but I found the greatest learning came experientially from within myself.

It was challenging to go from a humble meditator who valued quiet to someone who needed to put themselves out there, to direct and instruct people, to promote and be more vocal. My experience as a devoted meditator had been so antithetical to being an entrepreneur. The last thing I was developing while meditating in a cell was that of an entrepreneur. These have been two different worlds which have needed to be brought together for the sake of success for my business and my own development.  This makes going back to meditate on my next course in the cell all the more deep and rich.

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Balance

While meditating 2 hours a day for 6 years, I adopted some unhealthy patterns. I exercise less, spend less time developing relationships, go on less adventures, and I’m more passive when facing life’s challenges. By surrendering to dhamma, I surrendered control of my life and created an expectation that dhamma would fix everything for me. If life is simply the manifestation of my sensations, do I actually have control? Add that I’m dissolving my ego and the idea of self and life becomes pretty passive.

At the time I started meditating, my life was full of conflict and impossible challenges, and meditation helped me process this pain, find needed patience, and set my spiraling life in a positive direction. I owe a tremendous amount to my meditation practice, but I’ve surrendered too much. I’ve lost meaning and excitement. I’m not engaged in our worldly problems. I hoped that meditation would be the golden ticket to a better world, but meditation isn’t for everyone, and my current life isn’t a blissful example of greatness. I can’t simply hide behind my practice waiting for the world to become a better place, so what do I do?

I’ve been evaluating the importance of dhamma in my life. Why do I meditate and how does it make my life better? Is the purpose of my life to grow in dhamma and spread its teachings? How long was I simply checking the “2 hours a day” box without connecting my practice to my daily activities? How can I engage a world from the base of dhamma without proselytizing this technique which simply drives people further away from it? How do I spread love in communities that don’t relate to dhamma and meditation? How do I connect with meditators from different traditions without “mixing techniques”?

Years ago I pondered, “If dhamma is the greatest contribution I can make in this world, shouldn’t I become a monk?” My answer at that time was that I simply wasn’t mature enough in dhamma to give up the joys of a householder’s life. I’m also not interested in rejecting the population that has pursued spiritual paths outside of Goenka’s teachings. Dhamma has wonderful insights to introduce to my life, but I must also succeed as a husband, a son, a brother, a teacher, a friend, a community member, an American, and every other way h householder life demands.

My life must have balance, and to find this balance I must questions Goenka’s teachings. Instead of simply accepting and following, I must discover the appropriate healthy balance for my life. Maybe it was right for me to meditate 2 hours a day before but not now. Maybe I need to nurture my ego and community identity to sustain the confidence to engage life to the best of my ability. Maybe I need to focus on celebrating a little more and developing equanimity a little less. Maybe the dhamma path is a little too theoretical for me to truly engage it continuously in a healthy way. Regardless of the answers, I need to retake responsibility for my life and engage the challenges of the world to the best of my ability. I know dhamma has a role to play, but discovering how to create balance in my life is a new challenge.

Do any of you have advice regarding how to find a healthy balance between dhamma and your householder life? Or have you found a healthy and productive way to engage your spiritual community beyond Goenka’s tradition? I would enjoy hearing your thoughts. Time to meditate.

 

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Yoga as a Support for Sitting

I’ve practiced yoga for many years and have found it to be very complimentary to vipassana. I’m lucky to have a studio just 2 minutes away and have been pretty consistent this last year and a half. Goenkaji had talked about yoga as being very beneficial for the physical body and even more beneficial if you can do it with the awareness of sensations and equanimity. I’ve experienced benefits which have included greater strength, flexibility, balance, release of tension and also greater sensitivity and awareness of sensation. This has aided my sitting practice and has factored into deepening meditation on courses.

The origin of the physical asana practice from what I understand was to strengthen the body and help open the channels in support of sitting meditation. Although we tend to only hear about the asana practice, it’s actually only one of 8 limbs of yoga. The other limbs relate to ethical practices, developing virtues, and concentration; 1) The Yama’s- Moral Discipline (Sila) 2) Niyama’s- Positive disciplines which build character 3) Asana’s – The Physical poses 4) Pranayama- Breathing exercises 5) Pratyahara- Sense withdrawal 6) Dharana- Focused concentration 7) Dhyana- Meditative absorption 8) Samadhi- Liberation.

Most of these limbs are within what we practice in Dhamma. I focus on natural breathing instead of pranayama and also in yoga the emphasis seems on developing concentration than on developing wisdom into the impermanent nature of mind and matter. I do yoga with the focus on breath and sensations. The limbs of yoga developed in a class are the physical postures with a positive theme presented usually about developing virtue and character. There’s also the withdrawal of the senses and the development of concentration which is a support for wisdom.

We are very blessed to have come in contact with Dhamma and in order to get the most out of practice​ it’s important that we maintain the health and longevity of our body. Yoga is one support for that. Just as we take care of our car with servicing, it’s important that we take care of our body. Also in western culture, ​there is such an emphasis on being busy and in our heads all the time. Yoga is an aid to connecting to the body and sensations. Actually, yoga means to yoke the mind with the body which is something that we in western culture are especially in need of support with.

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Devika Patil

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Introduction by Ryan Shelton: I met Devika through a mutual friend at Dhamma Delaware shortly after her first course. She started getting involved with dhamma service immediately and we became friends through our service together. It has been exciting to see her grow in dhamma over the last 2 years, and I look forward to more movies, dinners, and games in the future.

Dhamma Story: I would like to share my experience from early Jan 2017. I woke up to an icy and freezing rainy Saturday morning. It irritated me as I would be confined indoors for rest of the Saturday. Finally getting out of the bed, I looked out of the window. Surprisingly, it didn’t feel gloomy anymore; in fact the light, powdered snow that covered trees and the grass looked beautiful. I made myself a nice, hot masala tea and pulled my tea table near the patio. The branches of tree that leaned towards the patio were covered in tiny icicles. Listening to the beautiful acoustic rendition of the song “La Vie En Rose” by Louis Armstrong and sipping my tea, I sat enjoying the view outside.

The hobbyist in me persuaded me to pick up the camera and capture the icicles. I watched as few icicles started to melt slowly. I remembered the law of impermanence and in that moment another realization dawned on me – enjoy all the good things and moments while they last, but don’t be sad when they are over. As for the bad things and phases, they will change too, so just be strong and patient and keep learning and gathering experience from such phases.

I was thankful to the nature for yet again teaching the lesson of “change” with something so simple and so beautiful.

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Beyond Pleasure and Pain

Nibhana sounds awful. Why would I want to strive for a state beyond mind and matter? Isn’t that simply non existence? Why am I supposed to believe that this state is blissful? Couldn’t it just as easily be hellish? The intellectual goal of seeking Nibhana is insufficient to motivate me to sit twice a day. It might even be a deterrent, but let’s observe this practice from a different direction.

Vipassana has made 2 states very apparent: pleasure and pain. We naturally are driven to escape pain and seek pleasure. Most of my life has been driven by this simple intuitive goal. Vipassana builds upon this intuitive apparent knowledge and teaches me that pleasure can be just as harmful as pain in the subtle levels of the mind. Choosing not to pursue pleasure initially seems counter intuitive until you look more closely.

People enjoy drinking in moderation because of the pleasant feeling, but many choose not to drink because of concerns of a hangover or alcoholism. People work extremely hard to accomplish company goals but are wary of the burden this places on family and know there is suffering if they can reach their goals. Wisdom shows us that in every example a temporary pleasure can quickly be replaced by pain if there is attachment.

I believe Vipassana is trying to show us the state beyond pleasure and pain. Both these sensations are so closely linked to suffering, but an experienced meditator understands the peace that comes with simply observing these sensations instead of reacting to them. By accepting these experiences we can let them go and witness the peace and love that remains. I think unconditional love is an experience beyond pain and pleasure, and since the mind and matter are directly linked to the sensations of pleasure and pain, maybe moving beyond pleasure and pain also means moving beyond mind and matter. Maybe I’m seeking Nibhana after all. Time to meditate.

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What Happens at Death?

I was inspired to share this article written by Goenkaji which describes what happens at the time of death. Reading this always brings the reflection that we could die at any time (Maranasati) and is a reminder to pay attention to states of mind, because​ the last mind moment determines the conditions for the next life. If I died at this moment what would my state of mind be? The habits of mind we cultivate throughout life create the conditions for what we experience​ at the end of life. Above all equanimity is the most important to cultivate, to be with whatever our experience is with a balanced mind and the awareness of anicca.

By S.N. Goenka

To understand what happens at death, let us first understand what death is. Death is like a bend in a continuous river of becoming. It appears that death is the end of a process of becoming, and certainly it may be so in the case of an arahant (a fully liberated being) or a Buddha; but with an ordinary person this flow of becoming continues even after death. Death puts an end to the activities of one life, and the very next moment starts the play of a new life. On the one side is the last moment of this life and on the other side is the first moment of the next life. It is as though the sun rises as soon as it sets with no interval of darkness in between, or as if the moment of death is the end of one chapter in the book of becoming, and another chapter of life begins the very next moment.

Although no simile can convey the exact process, still one might say that this flow of becoming is like a train running on a track. It reaches the station of death and there, slightly decreasing speed for a moment, carries on again with the same speed. It does not stop at the station even for a moment. For one who is not an arahant, the station of death is not a terminus but a junction from where thirty-one different tracks diverge. The train, as soon as it arrives at the station, moves onto one or another of these tracks and continues. This speeding “train of becoming,” fuelled by the electricity of the kammic reactions of the past, keeps on running from one station to the next, on one track or the other, a continuous journey that goes on without ceasing.

This changing of “tracks” happens automatically. As the melting of ice into water and the cooling of water to form ice happens according to laws of nature, so the transition from life to life is controlled by set laws of nature. According to these laws, the train not only changes tracks by itself, it also lays the next tracks itself. For this train of becoming the junction of death, where the change of tracks takes place, is of great importance. Here the present life is abandoned (this is called cuti-disappearance, death). The demise of the body takes place, and immediately the next life starts (a process which is called patisandhi – conception or taking up of the next birth). The moment of patisandhi is the result of the moment of death; the moment of death creates the moment of conception. Since every death moment creates the next birth moment, death is not only death, but birth as well. At this junction, life changes into death and death into birth.

Thus every life is a preparation for the next death. If someone is wise, he or she will use this life to the best advantage and prepare for a good death. The best death is the one that is the last, that is not a junction but a terminus: the death of an arahant. Here there will be no track on which the train can run further; but until such a terminus is reached, one can at least ensure that the next death gives rise to a good birth and that the terminus will be reached in due course. It all depends on us, on our own efforts. We are makers of our own future, we create our own welfare or misery as well as our own liberation.
How is it that we are the creators of the tracks that receive the onrushing train of becoming? To answer this we must understand what kamma (action) is.
The healthy or unhealthy volition of our mind is kamma. Before performing any action at the mental, vocal, or physical level, whatever wholesome or unwholesome volition arises in the mind is the root of that action. The consciousness arises due to a contact at a sense door, then the sañña (perception and recognition) evaluates the experience, sensations (vedana) arise, then a kammic reaction (sankhara) takes place. These volitional reactions are of various kinds. How strong is the volition? How slow, deep, shallow, heavy or light? According to this the intensity of these reactions will vary. Some are like a line drawn on water, some like a line drawn on sand and some a line on rock. If the volition is wholesome, then the action will be the same and the fruits will be beneficial; and if the volition is unwholesome, then the action will be the same-it will give fruits of misery.

Not all of these reactions result in a new birth. Some are so shallow that they do not give any substantial fruits. Some are a bit heavier but will be used up in this lifetime. They do not carry over into the next life. Others being still heavier continue with the flow of life into the next birth, but they themselves do not give new birth. Nevertheless they can continue to multiply during this life and the next. Many kammas however, are bhava-kammas, or bhava-sankharas, those that give a new birth, a new life. Each one of these bhava-kammas (actions that give rise to the process of becoming) carries a magnetic force that is in tune with the vibrations of a particular plane of existence. The vibrations of a particular bhava-kamma will unite with the vibrations of the bhava-loka (world, plane) that has the same intensity, and the two will attract each other according to the universal laws pertaining to forces of kamma.

As soon as one of these bhava-kammas is generated, this “railway train of becoming” gets attracted to one or the other of the thirty-one tracks at the station of death. Actually these thirty-one tracks are the thirty-one fields of existence. They are the eleven kama lokas (realms of sensuality: the four lower realms of existence, and the seven human and celestial realms); the sixteen rupa-brahma lokas (where fine material body remains), and the four arupa-brahma lokas (non-material realms, where only mind remains).

At the last moment of this life, a specific bhava-sankhara will arise. This sankhara capable of giving a new birth will get connected with the vibrations of the related realm of existence. At the moment of death the whole field of thirty-one realms is open, so it depends on which sankhara arises as to which track the train of existence runs on next. In the same way a train gets shunted onto a new track, the force of the bhava-kamma reaction provides the push to the flow of consciousness into the next existence. For example, the bhava-kamma of anger or malice, being of the nature of heat and agitation, will unite with some lower field of existence. Similarly, one with the nature of mettā (compassionate love), having peaceful and cool vibrations can only unite with some brahma-loka. This is the law of nature, and these laws are so perfectly “computerized” that there is never any flaw in the operation.

At the moment of death, generally, some intense sankhara will arise; it may be either of a wholesome nature or an unwholesome nature. For example, if one has murdered one’s father or mother, or perhaps some saintly person, in this lifetime, then the memory of this episode will arise at the moment of death. Likewise if one has done some deep meditation practice, a similar state of mind will arise.

When there is no such dense bhava-kamma to arise, then a comparatively less dense kamma will arise. Whatever memory is awakened will manifest as the kamma. For example, one may remember a wholesome kamma of giving food to a saintly person, or one may remember killing someone. Reflections on such past kammas as these may arise. Otherwise, objects related to the particular kamma may arise. One may see the plate full of food that was offered as dana, or the gun that was used to kill another. These are called the kamma-nimittas (signs).
In another case, a sign or a symbol of the next life may appear. This is called gati-nimitta (departing sign). These nimmitas correspond to whichever bhava-loka the flow is being attracted towards, such as the scene of some celestial world, or perhaps of an animal world. The dying person will often experience one of these signs as a forewarning, just as the train’s headlight illuminates the track ahead. The vibrations of these nimittas are identical to the vibrations of the plane of existence of the next birth.

A good Vipassana meditator has the capacity to avoid the tracks leading to the lower realms of existence. He clearly understands the laws of nature, and practises to keep himself ready for death at all times. If he has reached an advanced age, there is all the more reason to remain aware every moment. What preparations are undertaken? One practises Vipassana, remaining equanimous to whatever sensations arise on the body and thereby breaking the habit pattern of reacting to the unpleasant sensations. Thus the mind, which is usually generating new unwholesome sankharas, develops a new habit of remaining equanimous. Very often at the time of death, if there are no very heavy sankharas to arise, habitual reactions occur; and as the new sankhara is being made, an old one from the storehouse might get stirred up onto the surface, gaining in strength as it arises.

At the approach of death, it is very likely that one will experience very unpleasant sensations. Old age, disease and death are dukkha (misery). They produce unpleasant sensations of a grosser type. If one is not skilful in observing these sensations with equanimity, then one will be likely to react with feelings of anger, irritation, maybe malice, which provides an opportunity for a bhava-sankhara of like vibration to arise. However, as in the cases of some well developed meditators, one can work to avoid reacting to these immensely painful sensations by maintaining equanimity at the time of death. Then, even those related bhava-sankharas lying deep in the bhavanga (seat of birth-producing kamma) will not have an opportunity to arise. An ordinary person will usually remain apprehensive, even terror-stricken at the approach of death and thus will give occasion for a fearful bhava-sankhara to surface. In the same way, grief, sorrow, depression, and other feelings may arise at the thought of separation from loved ones, and the related sankhara will come up and dominate the mind.

A Vipassana meditator, by observing all his or her sensations with equanimity, weakens the sankhara and thus does not allow it to arise at the time of death. The real preparation for death is this: developing a habit pattern of repeatedly observing the sensations manifesting in the body and mind with equanimity and with the understanding of anicca.

At the time of death, this strong habit of equanimity will automatically appear and the train of existence will link up with a track on which it will be possible to practise Vipassana in the new life. In this way, one saves oneself from birth in a lower realm and attains one of the higher realms, which is very important because Vipassana cannot be practised in the lower realms.
A meditator who is on the point of death is fortunate to have close relatives or friends nearby who can help maintain a good Dhamma atmosphere, free from lamenting and gloom; people who can practise Vipassana and generate vibrations of mettā, which are most favourable for a peaceful death.

At times a non-meditator will attain a favourable rebirth at the time of death due to the manifestation of wholesome bhava-sankharas such as generosity, morality and other strong wholesome qualities. But the special achievement of an established Vipassana meditator is that he enables himself to attain an existence where he can continue to practise Vipassana. In this way, by slowly decreasing the stock of accumulated bhava-sankharas stored in the bhavanga of his flow of consciousness, one shortens one’s journey of becoming and reaches the goal sooner.

One comes into contact with the Dhamma in this life because of great merits one has performed in the past. Make this human life successful by practising Vipassana. Then whenever death comes, it will come with the experience of an equanimous mind, bringing with it well-being for the future.
N.B.: The analogy of a running train changing tracks should not be mistaken for transmigration, as no entity goes from one life to the next. Nothing passes to the next life except the force of the accumulated kamma sankharas.

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