How do we keep our hearts open and remember interconnection even when so much of our world is polarized right now? This talk explores these questions and focuses on what the Buddha recommends about kindness and compassion, even for our “enemies.”
“When your mind feels tight and constricted, you can make more space.” You’ve probably heard this before about meditation practice, but what specifically are we talking about here? The problem isn’t that there’s a lack of space, but the way our minds perceive space, which is related to our identity.
Most people think of the boundary of the body as a point of identity. That is, my thoughts, feelings, perceptions, heart, personality, all reside within my body. So the body is home and herein lies myself. This is who I am and where I exist. Everything I’m made of is inside is me, what’s outside is not me, or it may be related to me but still separate.
This boundary is useful and necessary living in the world. But it also has limitations when we only perceive ourselves through this narrow lens.
At times we may know that our hearts, our love, extend beyond the body. We may also feel compassion for the suffering of others and sense the boundary melting a bit. True lovingkindness and compassion function as a relative expression of emptiness or not-self. They are like a river that flows from a reservoir within our heart. But the reservoir doesn’t dry up – it has an infinite source because it isn’t limited to our body.
When we meditate we begin to see this perceived boundary of the body dissolve, we see that what we think of as “me” doesn’t have a distinct beginning and ending point. This is a liberating insight and is often an early aspect of understanding not-self. At times, we may feel less compelled to put so much energy into simply solving our own problems and “fixing myself.” This brings to mind Lenoard Cohen’s famous poem:
“Ring the bells that can still ring
Forget your perfect offering
There’s a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”
If we only view difficult emotions and as existing inside “me” there is often a feeling of tightness, a lack of space and confusion about what we should do. When the focus is mainly on myself, other conditions seem to disappear. Yet, as we sit, as our concentration deepens, the mental focus on self loosens up. The sensations of anger, sadness and fear are seen as conditions that arise and pass away and are not “myself,” even though we experience them in our bodies. As this happens, gradually, or perhaps quickly, a feeling of space opens.
When we understand that our minds are not simply in our physical bodies, our mental boundaries open and our awareness feels less constricted. From this perspective, our challenges and pain may still exist, but now the great sky of mind has room to include them all. We have access to our wise heart that sees conditions for what they are, without the limits of “inside and outside,” and our path becomes clearer.
“If you attain your true self, then if you die in one hour, in one day, or in one month, it is no problem. If you only do “fixing-your-body” meditation, you will mostly be concerned with your body. But some day, when it’s time for your body to die, this meditation will not help, so you will not believe in it. This means it is not correct meditation. If you do correct meditation, being sick sometimes is OK; suffering sometimes is OK; dying someday is OK. The Buddha said, “If you keep a clear mind moment to moment, then you will get happiness everywhere.” ― Zen Master Seung Sahn
To open our awareness to this clear mind, try my guided “Mind Like Sky” meditation here.
Our spiritual freedom is always available, even in the presence of difficulty, constriction and suffering. A moment of compassionate remembering and we can find release and freedom in this very moment.
Fall Retreat With Red Clay Sangha, North Georgia Mountains, Sautee, GA
Thursday evening, September 27 – Sunday Noon September 30
Led by Lisa Ernst
True refuge is turning toward our experience and finding freedom in the way things are. This silent retreat will provide a time to turn inward, to give our hearts and minds a respite during these challenging and often chaotic times. We will cultivate a quality compassionate presence that embraces our joys and sorrows with equanimity and insight. Through these practices, we begin to dissolve the illusion of separateness and taste the joy of interconnectedness to all things.
This retreat, held mostly in silence, will include periods of sitting and walking meditation, daily instructions and dharma talks, q&a and optional meetings with the teacher. All levels of experience are welcome. Cost is $175 and includes lodging and all meals. Teacher compensation is separate and is offered on a dana (generosity) basis.
Lisa Ernst is a meditation teacher, visual artist and founder of One Dharma Nashville. She has been meditating for over 25 years in the Zen and Vipassana traditions and received teaching authorization in the Thai Forest lineage of Ajahn Chah, Jack Kornfield and Trudy Goodman. Lisa offers meditation training and retreats nationally and she is a visiting teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, CA.
Go here to register.
An Awake and Responsive Heart: Working with Emotional and Political Distress in Chaotic Times
Wednesday Evening, August 8 – Sunday, August 12, 2018
Heartwood Refuge Retreat Center, Hendersonville, NC
During these challenging and chaotic times, how do we best utilize meditation and mindfulness to prepare for and meet these challenges skillfully? Can practice help us to stay engaged with a compassionate heart while also offering a respite from the nearly daily challenges to our principles, values, and sense of fairness that we encounter?
The dharma offers a wellspring of wisdom and tools that can refresh and renew us. In this workshop we will identify practices that support our mental stability, help us step out of our reactive patterns and reset our hearts to continue our journey with loving attentiveness and wise action. We will also identify practical approaches and insights for staying engaged in our communities and beyond.
Led by Lisa Ernst, this retreat in Western North Carolina, held mostly in silence, is suitable for newer and experienced meditators. It will include periods of sitting and walking meditation, daily instructions, dharma talks, q&a and private meetings with the teacher.
Full information, cost and registration here.
The unfolding immigration tragedy that has left children separated from their parents, detained in prison-like cages, has provoked one of the strongest outpourings I’ve seen of grief, despair, anger and confusion, along with fierce protests and calls to our politicians to end the practice immediately. Through these efforts we’ve seen some movement on this issue but know there’s much more to be done. Even in the midst of this energetic effort, I’m reminded that we also need to remember that there is no “other” out there, or anywhere, to hate. Otherwise, weariness and despair can easily overtake us. We can protest, speak out, call our politicians; we can also remember our interconnected nature at the deepest place in our hearts. We are capable of both. Recently I was moved by a quote from Phillip Moffitt and want to share it here:
“The Buddha said, “Hate never yet dispelled hate. Only love dispels hate.” By holding the truth of our interdependency and refusing to participate in this endless cycle of hatred, you can help to heal the wound of the world. Jesus said, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. But if you love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back, then your reward will be great.’
No one can accuse Jesus or Buddha of being cowards in the face of injustice; therefore, their teachings are about how to hold the difficult in the heart. You have to decide if you share their beliefs, and if so, you practice living in this manner as a reflection of your deepest values. It is a proactive, courageous way to live. This does not mean responding passively when you encounter wrong action, for you should always act to stop those who harm others.”
This reflection on interdependency reminds me of an article I wrote a few years ago after I watched a movie about a woman who was stoned to death in Iran. As the movie ended, I was overwhelmed and struggled to get to sleep that night. During the next morning’s meditation, however, I gradually remembered that the mental creation of good and bad, enemies and friends just brought about separation that prevented my heart from bearing the pain of this act. In remembering the truth of interconnection, I found that I could open my heart to the stunning pain I felt at the stoned woman’s plight and to feel compassion for the great suffering of her entire community, even the perpetrators. To experience interdependency at this level in no way precludes wise action to stop suffering. While there was little I could do personally to stop the practice of stoning in Iran, there is much I can do in this country to help turn the tide away from cruelty. I can’t know if my efforts will succeed, but I know they are worth doing.
The One Who Casts the Stone and The One Who is Hit
by Lisa Ernst
Recently the impending stoning death of an Iranian woman made worldwide headlines and sparked international outrage. The pressure on the Iranian government to change her sentence has been immense. For most of us, it is incomprehensible that death by stoning is still a form of capital punishment in some parts of the world.
I was especially moved by the cause of this woman because I had recently watched a movie about the stoning death of another Iranian woman, “The Stoning of Soyora M.” The movie is based on a book of the same name, the true story of a woman falsely accused of adultery and stoned to death in her home town in the 1980s. This movie depicted the woman’s stoning in a very accurate, unflinching way and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever watched on film. She was dressed in white and marched through the streets of her home town while men lined the way, rhythmically clapping stones together as a prelude to the execution. When she reached the stoning ground, her arms were bound to her sides and she was buried to her waist. A perimeter line was drawn, perhaps 20 feet away, behind which everyone in the town stood to stone her or to watch. A barrel of stones had been collected so the townsmen could all have their turn.
For a stoning execution, the stones are chosen for their size – not too large to kill the person immediately, but not too small as to do little harm. In Soroya’s case, I had hoped that her suffering would be brief, but stonings are deliberately stretched out over a period of time to create a gruesomely painful form of torture. The woman’s dignity was completely stripped away as her husband, her sons, and the men in her community threw stone after stone at her head, as she cried out in pain and disbelief, fell over to the ground, yet continually lifted herself back up with whatever strength she could muster. Slowly her white dress became completely stained with red. Finally, after perhaps an hour she was dead.
As the movie ended, I sat stunned and speechless, as tears spilled down my cheeks. It was just before bed and I wondered if I’d be able to sleep after witnessing such heinous torture. Somehow, I was able to fall into a restless sleep. The next morning I got up to meditate, having briefly forgotten what I had seen the night before. As I settled into meditation, the stillness of the morning and the sweet birdsong brought my heart fully awake. Then, in this place of stillness and open heartedness, the stoning images of the night before returned. There was great sadness in my heart, yet I didn’t close down or turn away. What I’ve learned through my practice is that when my heart fully awake, it has the capacity to accommodate not only great love but great suffering. This is the “door of compassion” that Thich Nhat Hahn beautifully speaks of in this poem:
“Please Call Me by My True Names”
I am the 12 year old girl, refugee on a boat, who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate. And I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.
I am member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my hands, and I am the man who has to pay his “debt of blood” to my people, dying slowly in a forced labor camp.
My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all walks of life.
My pain is like a river of tears, so full it fills up the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names, so I can hear all my cries and
my laughs at once, so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names so I can wake up,and so the door of my heart can open the door of compassion.
– Thich Nhat Hahn
Buddha taught that there is no inherent self separate from others; no self separate from all phenomena. This is called emptiness. Through committed meditation practice, we gradually increase our capacity to experience emptiness. We begin to understand at an experiential level that all of existence is none other than our own true nature. This insight is the basis for recognizing that all beings are Buddha, the awakened one. But what is often not stated, yet cannot be otherwise, is that we also are the pirate who rapes the 12 year old girl, and the man who stones his wife. If we selectively associate our understanding of non-separation with the highest of good, choosing to see only what we like and admire, we risk closing off our hearts to the often unspeakable suffering of our own humanity. Unconditional compassion and love can only arise when the heart is open to the full spectrum of experience, from great kindness to profound cruelty. This is true non-separation. Admittedly however, this kind of open- heartedness is not always easy; there are times when we may see or experience suffering that is beyond our heart’s capacity to bear. During these moments, some compassion for our own inevitable limits can soften the edges of our pain. At other times we may find the way to truly open our hearts and no longer look away:
You can hold back from
suffering of the world,
you have permission to do so,
and it is in accordance
with your nature,
but perhaps this very holding back
is the one suffering
you could have avoided
With a compassionate heart, we may weep at the inconceivable cruelty of this world and feel joyous when witnessing a deed of true kindness. During the quiet of the morning when my heart touched the great suffering inherent in the act of stoning, for a few moments I could see without flinching the depths of unkindness that is part of human nature. The same heart that fills with joy upon hearing a symphony of birds greeting the morning sun, also breaks for the woman who died the most unimaginable death at the hands of her own husband and community. They are all none other than me.
A few days ago I saw a social media post by a Zen teacher, commenting on a video in which CEOs revealed that meditation was their secret to success. The dharma teacher jokingly observed, “I’ve been doing this shit for 30 years. How come I’m not successful?” He went on to write a blog post about the conflict inherent in materialistic, idealized definitions of success related to meditation. The video showcased how meditation helped CEOs focus and overcome fear. One CEO said she spent her meditation time thinking about the goals she wanted to achieve. The narrator never mentioned how living a life of compassion, generosity and non-harming were also cornerstones to success, something that is integral to the Buddhist path of meditation. Without these qualities most people are hopelessly caught in the craving self that is never satisfied with wealth, fame and achievement. Meditation only becomes a means to an end, a way to strengthen our competitive muscles and along with it, our entrenched, relative sense of self.
Much of the time we define and experience our lives in the relative, conditioned realm. In this world we are tempted to focus on “myself” and how I am fairing against a yardstick that defines whether I am successful, attractive, healthy, having a good day or week, and generally living up to my (and our culture’s) ideas of the perfect life. This focus on me and my ideals in relation to others creates a barrier to experiencing the open space of awareness that is free from self identification, which can be all but forgotten during a busy day of running from one activity to the next, or trying to alleviate anxiety and boredom through social media, television and other distractions.
Out of this near exclusive focus on the conditioned world, a sense of restriction arises, a lack of space, a feeling that there’s always something else we need to do, another place we need to reach, a better “I” that needs to be built. But of course wherever we go, whatever we do, the relative self always feels incomplete and continues seeking fulfillment through yet another scheme or activity. A simple moment of coming back to this moment, seeing this endless loop of striving, can help us remember that when we define ourselves only through this lens of self, we are stuck at the very root of dissatisfaction or dkkha.
I think of hard relativity as the time I spend lost in the whirlpool of activity and craving, when I’ve completely forgotten what available to me right now, the mind that is open, unconditioned and spacious. When the balance tips so far into conditioned awareness and activity that nothing else seems to exist, I feel hopelessly lost. Yet with a moment of remembering, of waking up from the illusion, it becomes clear that I’m not as stuck as I thought. In fact, I’m not stuck at all because who is stuck?
Why do we so often forget and get lost in this “hard relativity?” We can easily flip that question to, “why do we suffer?” Take a moment to reflect: how do you define yourself? Are you frequently trying to alter and make your sense of identity other than what it is in this moment? Who are you without your goals, your achievements, all the ways you define yourself? What if you began to reflect on this question more often in your daily life?
I’m not suggesting we let go of our heartfelt aspirations to excel or achieve. These have their place. Without some ambition, not much in this world will get done. Instead, I’m suggesting we create an intention to find ways to include spacious awareness of the unconditioned in our busy days and not only when we meditate. It sounds simple, but we tend to make it complicated: relative and unconditioned are not mutually exclusive even though they seem otherwise. They are two sides of one coin. Unconditioned, open awareness is always accessible, even when we feel caught in the vise grip of our activities, wants and self-driven cravings.
As a wake up call, you may want to pay more attention to those moments when you feel pressured to get to the next thing, be the next better version of yourself, squeezed and lacking in any space. See if you can create an intention, like a mindfulness bell, to take a moment to remember and reconnect with the open space of unconditioned awareness. Here’s a simple, yet profound Zen koan you can ask yourself to open this up: “What is my original face before I was born?” The answer is right here and nowhere else.
This short piece from Pema Chodron fits into the them of a dayong retreat I’m teaching at Spirit Rock Saturday, so I’m sharing it here.
Ego clinging is our means of denial. Once we have the fixed idea “this is me,” then we see everything as a threat or a promise—or something we couldn’t care less about. Whatever we encounter, we’re either attracted to it or averse to it or indifferent to it, depending on how much of a threat to our self-image it represents. The fixed identity is our false security. We maintain it by filtering all of our experience through this perspective. When we like someone, it’s generally because they make us feel good. They don’t blow our trip, don’t disturb our fixed identity, so we’re buddies. When we don’t like someone—they’re not on our wavelength, so we don’t want to hang out with them—it’s generally because they challenge our fixed identity. We’re uncomfortable in their presence because they don’t confirm us in the ways we want to be confirmed, so we can’t function in the ways we want to function. Often we think of the people we don’t like as our enemies, but in fact, they’re all-important to us. They’re our greatest teachers: special messengers who show up just when we need them, to point out our fixed identity. – Pema Chodron
What is your primary practice? Are you drawn to the “baker” approach of direct experience or the “scientist” method of mindful observation? Is one better than the other? In this talk, Lisa also explores the idea of sudden enlightenment and gradual awakening related to practice approaches.
Daylong Meditation Retreat, Saturday 7/14/18
Nashville Friends Meeting, 9:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.
Led by Lisa Ernst
Life is a balance of effort and letting go. Meditation practice gives us tools to be present, to work with our minds and to uncover the heart’s true wisdom. This wisdom also points us toward letting go. As we release our personal agenda, spiritual joy arises through the capacity to touch this ever-changing life with a compassion and kindness that sees no ultimate separation.
The retreat is suitable for both beginning and experienced meditators; it will include periods of sitting and walking meditation, practice instructions, dharma talk and q&a.
Cost: $50 – 75 sliding scale, plus dana (donation) to the teacher. A scholarship spot is available in the case of financial need. Directions and additional information will be emailed prior to the retreat. Payment can be made through paypal here. If paying by check, instructions are at this link. For questions, email firstname.lastname@example.org