Perception, Compassion and The Other

Sometimes during meditation I reflect on those I have put out of my heart. Not necessarily specific people at first: rather opening the doors where my heart feels closed. Whenever I do this I feel the underlying energy of what I’ve locked away. It isn’t pleasant but its totally ok. This practice shows me how “self and other” forms around subtle ideas of who I am and how I perceive others.

Buddha taught that there are three distortions of view – seeing what is impermanent as permanent, what is unsatisfying as satisfying and what is non-self as self.

Let’s look at the third one, seeing no self as self in terms of how we identify with and relate to others. Inadvertently we may use the idea of self to create views about others based on our own karma and conditioning. We make very complex decisions about other people in mere moments. Sometimes our perceptions are clear and intuitive, but often they are distorted simply because of our own conditioning. If we don’t bring awareness to this, we will then concretize those mistaken perceptions into reality. In many cases, the actual person is entirely different from the one in our head.

This hit home several years ago when I attended a celebration of life for a friend who died of cancer at an early age. As people enumerated the ways she touched their lives, I was shocked that the woman they described only vaguely resembled the one I knew, or thought I knew. This taught me a great lesson in letting go of fixed perceptions.

In the course of a day, week or month, how often do we create unexamined value judgments about others? This is far more pervasive than we might want to believe unless we examine it. Often we unconsciously favor those who help us uphold and solidify our sense of self over those who don’t. This can lead to loss of connection, it can also of course lead to prejudice and hatred.

Compassion practice can help us open our hearts to those we ignore or shut out; when practiced deeply, compassion shows us where our hearts are closed. When we are meditating we can examine our perceptions within a more spacious medium that includes our wise heart.

Take a moment to gently identify who you angry or frustrated with, who you have closed from your heart. Who do you ignore or attribute characteristics that you know in your heart may not be true? Sometimes the first step is simply to identify and acknowledge these beings. You don’t need to force people into your heart if you’re not ready. As you investigate, allow any sadness, anger or other emotions to be as they are. What thoughts are associated with these feelings? As you sit with it, does an action present itself, one you already identified but haven’t yet acted on, or an unexpected prompt to take your insight and compassion into the world? If not, that’s fine too.

More than once during challenging times I have discovered that the person who most needs including in my heart is me. First the “self” of my imagining, which allows me to see the ways I distort and cling to identity. Then I see the “imperfect self,” the one who will never live up to my ideals. Awareness dissolves this illusion of self into the open heart of kindness and wisdom.

This practice allows me to let go of self-identity and realize emptiness. As my false ideas of who I am fade away into silence, any rigid perceptions I hold about others also melt away. Interconnection is fully evident here. I’m left with a kinder, more open heart and a way forward that is far more inclusive than when I began.

For more on compassion practices for people we ignore or keep out of our hearts: Invisible People: Why They’re Important in Lovingkindss Practice.

New Dharma Talk: From Zen Koans to Liberation Through Life Inquiry

In this talk I describe my intensive practice with zen koans. I also explain how it laid the groundwork for deep inquiry into challenging life questions and how this practice can lead to insight and liberation. The talk includes a guided inquiry meditation.

Fall Retreat Next Weekend!

Lovingkindness and Interconnection in Challenging Times

Thursday evening, September 26 – Sunday Noon September 29

Led by Lisa Ernst

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Note: This retreat was rescheduled on very short notice because of a scheduling mixup with the retreat center. If you can get away on short notice, spots have opened up due to the date change. This is a very low cost retreat, $175 for room and board!

How do we keep our hearts open and remember interconnection even when so much of our world is polarized right now? The dharma offers a wellspring of wisdom and tools that can refresh and renew us. Surrounded by the peace of the rural landscape, we will engage in 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.

This retreat, hosted by Red Clay Sangha, will be held mostly in silence. It 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. This is a low cost retreat with additional financial support available to anyone in financial need.

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/Spirit Rock 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: https://redclaysangha.org/event-3228179

The Essence of Compassion

The essence of love and compassion is understanding, the ability to recognize the physical, material, and psychological suffering of others, to put ourselves “inside the skin” of the other. We “go inside” their body, feelings, and mental formations, and witness for ourselves their suffering. Shallow observation as an outsider is not enough to see their suffering. We must become one with the subject of our observation. When we are in contact with another’s suffering, a feeling of compassion is born in us. Compassion means, literally, “to suffer with.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

Practice Tip: Compassion For Unwanted Thoughts

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Normally when we direct self-compassion toward our suffering or challenges, we find the places inside where we feel stuck, inadequate or hurt. This includes identifying where the discomfort shows up on the physical body. But to do this, we need the capacity to pause and investigate what is happening.

Sometimes that’s hard when the mind is caught in the rapids of thought, rushing ahead, seemingly out of control. Most of us have certain thoughts that get caught on continuous loop, reactive, negative, critical or comparing. In traditional mindfulness training, we’re taught to find the place in our bodies where we feel the corresponding sensations to help us stabilize our attention in the present moment. This is very effective. Sometimes the mind is so busy, though, that finding this stopping point is difficult. Or we may do this briefly then get caught again in the rapids, perhaps thinking, “there’s that thought again, I wish it would stop but it won’t.” When you see this, why not pause briefly and offer compassion to unwanted or unwelcome thoughts rather than try and stop them? This may seem counter-intuitive, but just a moment’s pause can help slow the rapids.

We are simply directing our compassionate awareness to the mental activity that is present. This practice will begin to create a different relationship to the unwanted thoughts. Instead of aversion or over identification, just meet the thoughts with compassion and kindness. Once there is a little stability, you can then begin to expand the compassion to include your body and heart.

Remember that thoughts are not you, but are generated by some aspect of your conditioning. Liberation always begins where you are. Kind awareness, even toward unwanted thoughts, goes a long way when all else seems unworkable.

Lisa Ernst

New Dharma Talk: Attention is the Beginning of Devotion

As “devotion” is a loaded of a word some, we can also define it as loving attention and dedication. If you’re a familiar with Mary Oliver’s poetry, you’ll recognize “attention is the beginning of devotion” as a quote from her. In the talk I include a few of her poems that so perfectly reflect how attention leads to devotion through even the everyday elements of life and nature. I also talk about how devotion can be a balancing factor of heart and mind.

New Dharma Talk: The Wisdom Trifecta

This talk explores the powerful and illuminating trifecta of Beginner’s Mind, Don’t Know Mind and Inquiry and the concrete ways they support us in our practice and our lives.

Four Night Residential Meditation Retreat in Hendersonville, NC

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Difficult, anxious thoughts and emotions are often considered obstacles to meditation and peace of mind. A wiser view is available! Buddha’s path to liberation is designed to help us face the full experience of embodied human life. Through deep training we can learn how to be at peace with our overly energetic or painful body, our restless minds and hearts and even the most irritating and hard emotions. At this retreat we will learn how to bring acceptance, patience and love for ourselves into the process. We will learn how awareness can intervene, balancing reactivity, releasing identification and catastrophizing. Inner peace emerges (samadhi), so that meditative inquiry can help us learn from our inner lives, discover gems of wisdom and insight — and tenderness for the rest.

This retreat, held mostly in silence, will include periods of sitting and walking meditation, daily instructions, dharma talks, q&a and meetings with the teacher. All levels of experience are welcome. Registration and more info here.

Update – 2019 Buddhist Tour of India

Please join me for an adventure of a lifetime to India. On this tour we will be visiting some of the most important Buddhist pilgrimage sites as well as many other points of interest. We will meditate under the Bodhi tree, a descendant of the very tree where Buddha was enlightened 2500 years ago.This was one of the highlights for me of the 2017 tour and an experience not to be missed while in India. Pilgrims from all over the world travel here and it is truly an amazing experience to be at ground zero for the awakening of Buddha and Buddhism.

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Resident Monk Meditating on the Rocks Overlooking the Himalayas, Sangha Choeling Monastery, Sikkim, est. 1701

We’ll also visit Sarnath, where Buddha gave his first sermon. Sarnath is close to Varanasi, where the famous Aarti ceremony is held every night at sunset on the Ganges. This is another not to be missed highlight that can’t be fully captured in words. In addition, a tour of India wouldn’t be complete without visiting the Himalayas. This year, we’ll travel to Dharmsala, home to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan community in exile. Finally, there’s an optional two day extension to visit Amritsar and the Golden Temple.

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Young Monks Studying at the Sangha Choeling Monastery, Sikkim

The tour is guided by expert local guides in India, and I will offer meditation and dharma discussions along the way in various locations, from hotel gardens to Tibetan monasteries.

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Enjoying the Sunrise Ceremony on the Ganges in Varanasi

It is a fun adventure and is open to everyone interested in Buddhism and meditation. (No experience required.)

For the full itinerary and cost, go here. If you are considering this tour and would like to talk to me directly, feel free to email ernst.lisa@gmail.com.