I spent a week at Cloud Mountain meditating and it was wonderful. Yet inevitably, challenges both big and small can arise in the course of deep practice. Some are comical, some poignant. I share a few of these experiences in this talk.
Meeting Once Monthly in Nashville, January – December 2019
Course Full email for the waitlist, firstname.lastname@example.org
Led by Lisa Ernst
In our death adverse culture, few of us reflect on the inevitability of our death or that it could happen at any time. Yet the Buddha recommended that we use death as an object of contemplation, not to frighten us, but to help us awaken to the fragile, fleeting, and precious nature of our lives.
Contemplating death as part of our meditation practice and inquiring together in community encourages us to be more real, more clear about our priorities, less self centered and more courageous. Paradoxically, many of us discover that contemplating our mortality is vital to putting us in touch with a deep sense of gratitude and a way of living that is more fully in alignment with our values, bringing forward our best, truest self.
We will meet once a month for 12 months to explore the values most vital to us when we recognize our time is limited. Each monthly class meets for 2 hours and is organized around a theme – from looking at our ideas and beliefs about death, to reflections on impermanence and emptiness, to writing a life review, to re-imagining our life purpose, to preparing for death, and most importantly, fully engaging our lives here and now.
This course is inspired by the book, A Year to Live, by the late, beloved teacher Stephen Levine. The book will be our guide, supplemented by source material, inquiry, meditations, deep listening, and writing exercises.
You will participate in a setting where everyone can safely explore their views about mortality and feel supported by compassionate, wise community. Guiding teacher Lisa Ernst will oversee the course and participants will have an optional chance to prepare and present some of the material. During this year we will have the opportunity to rise to the level of our deepest aspirations. Please join us!
Cost: Sliding scale $375 – $575. Please pay at the highest level you can afford so we can support those who need to pay less. A deposit of $100 reserves your spot with the balance due by 12/30. Please indicate the total amount you will pay. Paypal is here. Scholarship rates and payment plans are available in the case of financial need. An existing meditation practice is required to join this course and a commitment to participate for the full year. For questions, email Ernst.email@example.com.
Making Peace with Your Ego: Finding Freedom Through Letting Go
March 14 – 17, Southern Dharma Retreat Center, Hot Springs, NC
Led by Lisa Ernst
“Live in the nowhere you come from even though you have got an address here.” Rumi
During this retreat, we will explore the nature of our identity and sense of self we use to live in the world, as well as the wise space of heart and mind that lets go. As we practice meeting all of the activity of self with mindfulness, steadiness, and kindness, our insight and compassion grow. The more we make peace with our ego, the more we dwell in our own boundless, empty nature. These practices also empower and support us in our challenging everyday lives. This silent retreat will include periods of sitting and walking meditation, daily instructions, dharma talks, q&a and meetings with the teacher.
All experience levels welcome. For full info and registration, go here.
Much needed today and always.
“Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
This is from Brad Stroup, a long time meditator who sits with us in Nashville and who has helped many in India. Archana is the wife of his adopted grandson in Bodhgaya:
Archana Kumari urgently needs surgery to remove her gallbladder, which is now enlarged and very painful. Estimated costs for the surgery and after-care will run over 300,000 rupees or, at current exchange rate of 75 Indian rupees to a $1, about $4000. Her husband has been able to raise about $200. Such an operation in rural India is challenging.
Archana is 34 years old and her husband is Bablu Kumar, 35, is my adopted grandson. I found him, and he found me, in the village of Bodhgaya in 1998 while I was on a pilgrimage. Siddhartha Gautama became enlightened as the Buddha (5th c. BCE) in Bodhgaya and is the most sacred site on earth for Buddhists.
Archana and Bablu are Buddhists living in Bodhgaya in the poorest state (Bihar) in India. They have two children, 8 and 6 years old, and when Archana became ill, Bablu became full time caretaker while continuing to work. They have operated the JBS School Welfare Trust (see Facebook), a private school for impoverished children, in Bodhgaya for many years.
Bablu urgently needs funds to cover Archana’s operation and recovery, which may take several weeks. While India claims to have medical insurance for citizens, most Indians end up paying for costs out of their own pockets.
You may give directly by going to www.xoom.com to sign up, a secure site operated by PayPal. This site converts dollars into rupees at current rates. Bablu’s complete address there is:
NEW TARI DIH BODHGAYA
POST BODHGAYA, DISTT, GAYA
DISTT, GAYA, PIN CODE 824231, Bihar
Bablu can be contacted on cell phone +91-8507693838 or by email firstname.lastname@example.org. or email@example.com.
If you hold loving kindness and compassion for sentient beings everywhere, please help Archana with $5, $10, $20 or more. Any donation will help.
May you be well, may you be happy, may you be at peace. – Brad Stroup
As the Second Patriarch stood in the snow, he pleaded to Bodhidharma,
“My mind has no peace as yet! I beg you, master, please pacify my mind!”
“Bring your mind here and I will pacify it for you,” replied Bodhidharma.
“I have searched for my mind, and I cannot take hold of it,” said the Second Patriarch.
“Now your mind is pacified,” said Bodhidharma.
In practice, we often investigate how our idea of self is generated – craving, desire, pride, embarrassment and clinging. Usually we see this “self” in past or future – an impression of who we are arises related to a future situation or desire, or a past action. Even if we are mindful in the present moment, we may mistake sensations, emotions and thoughts to be ourselves. But right in the midst of this delusion, awakening is always possible. Why? Because the true mind is always present, free and unsullied by these impressions that come and go.
Here’s an inquiry to try that might help you illuminate this illusion of self:
When you are meditating, try creating a self. This may like seem like a strange instruction, but let’s break it down. Sit with your sensations, thoughts and emotions for a while until the mind begins to settle and your identification with “I, me, mine” dissipates. Then, from the ground of inquiry ask “what is this?” See if you can find a self taking form. Something solid and fixed, a definite “I.” You will probably find it totally impossible. The sense objects remain present and you may experience mental energy around this effort, but you can’t make a self harden or solidify. In fact, you may directly realize how truly illusive this “self” is. In the midst of seeking for self, you can see that the true mind, the unconditioned, is present at all times.
This simple exercise is an easy way see that the open space of mind is always present, naturally clear and without struggle. No striving necessary. And this is a moment of liberation.
About this mind –
In truth there is nothing
really wrong with it.
It is intrinsically pure.
Links included for events already open for registration.
The Power of Intention: Setting Your Course of the New Year and Beyond, Half Day Retreat, January 1, Nashville Friends House
A Year to Live: How to Live this Year as if it Were Your Last, Yearlong course meeting monthly. Starting January 2018. Details TBA.
Southern Dharma Retreat Center, Residential Retreat March 14 – 17 Making Peace with Your Ego: Finding Freedom through Letting Go. Register here.
Spring Renewal Residential Retreat, 3 or 7 night option, April 18 – 21, extended option to 4/25, Bethany Hills, Kingston Springs TN
The Power of Contemplative Inquiry: The Art of Embodying Mindful Presence for Facilitators and Practitioners. Four session intensive workshop, Spring/Summer, Details and dates TBA.
Spirit Rock Meditation Center, Woodacre, CA, June 21, The Power of Contemplative Inquiry: The Art of Embodying Mindful Presence for Facilitators and Practitioners.
Heartwood Refuge Retreat Center, Residential Retreat August 7 – 11, Finding Peace Where You Are: Befriending Your Mind, Accepting Your Emotions. Register here.
Fall Retreat with Red Clay Sangha, September 26 – 29, Sautee, GA. Details TBA
Buddhist Tour of India, November two week tour including Bodhgaya, Varanasi and Dharmsala. Starting 11/2. Details soon.
Late Fall Residential Retreat at Bethany Hills, Kingston Springs, TN. December 5 – 8 with extended option to 12/10
Several daylong and half day retreats and workshops will be added as scheduling permits.
Come join us for a morning in a beautiful urban garden!
On Saturday, October 13 from 10 AM – 12 PM we’ll be volunteering in one of The Nashville Food Project gardens. Then we’ll enjoy a potuck picnic at noon. Location: Wedgewood Urban Garden, 613 Wedgewood Avenue.
Small parking lot for volunteers by BBQ joint
Activities may include planting, weeding, composting & harvesting. The Nashville Food project is a full-circle organization, growing, cooking and serving meals, getting food from local soil to local people. Produce from this garden goes into delicious meals served to those with little or no access to fresh, healthy foods. All skill levels are welcomed in the garden, though any child should be accompanied by an adult. Plan to wear clothes you don’t mind getting dirty. Then stay for a potluck picnic at noon and bring a dish. There’s no refrigeration onsite, so bring a cooler if the food needs to stay cold. A grill will be available if you’d like to use it. If you would like to join this volunteer opportunity or just want more information email Julia Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org
Most times, what we think of as “self” is in foreground, the driver’s seat. Our identity, who we believe we are with our attendant desires, opinions, thoughts and feelings, is often running in a dream state. Usually this orientation operates unconsciously, with little or no awareness on our part. One reason many of us practice meditation and mindfulness to hone our lens of awareness to see through this dream of a separate self.
Through practice, the unconditioned mind, the unborn, as Buddha called it, is occasionally consciously accessed. With deeper practice, it comes forward, it advances on its own. As practice matures, the switch has been flipped for longer periods of time.
When we cultivate smadhi (meditative absorption) our awareness becomes established in the unconditioned mind for a time and “self” may try to come forward but doesn’t easily take hold.
When no-self is foreground, this is the mirror switch. From our mind’s perspective, they are two sides of a coin, front and back. Usually the unborn seems to be at the back, out of our conscious awareness and “self” in the driver’s seat. Of course it is only an illusion but our human perspective will give us a reference point that creates this appearance. So we practice and use tools as best we can to bring us to the unconditioned. This is as Buddha intended.
As a new Zen practitioner, when I had encounters with emptiness and no-self , the experience felt fragile and tentative, like something I needed to hold on to for as long as possible. But of course it always faded away. It took me a while to see the fluidity of this awareness and to realize it wasn’t a problem.
At a recent retreat I was enjoying an extended time of ease and equanimity. Self referential thoughts were not operating at all and the mind was spacious, responsive and awake. During meditation, I noticed subtle thoughts popping up about plans, ideas and self referencing but didn’t follow them. I saw the mind trying to engage, like an engine trying to start but without the fuel of desire and craving, it wouldn’t ignite. The mind of awareness kept the fuel from entering the engine of the self creating process.
During the retreat I happened to read this passage from Joseph Goldstein’s Mindfulness and found his experience and description nearly identical to my experience of subtle thoughts and self referencing trying to ignite the engine of self:
“On a recent retreat I had a revealing experience of how easily we fall under the spell of ignorance and how, in a moment, we can wake up from that spell. You are probably familiar with the experience of waking up in the morning and then, perhaps, slipping back into a dream state for a few minutes before waking again. This might happen just once or maybe several times before we’re fully alert. On this particular retreat, I was noticing that phenomenon very clearly. Then, later in the day, in times of walking meditation, I began to notice more clearly how often there is a thin layer of background thoughts, images, fragments of stories, floating like a thin layer of clouds across the mind. This stream of thoughts is really the hardly noticed but ongoing creation of the world we inhabit. And almost always the thoughts were self referential in one way or another, memories, plans, likes and dislikes. What struck me forcibly at the at that time was that the experience of slipping into and out of these background thought worlds was the same experience of slipping back into a dream state after being awake. I realized that we are simply dreaming the self into existence. And I found that occasionally repeating the phrase during the day “dreaming myself into existence” reinforced the strong aspiration to stay awake and notice more carefully the dream.”
During retreats and any time we have time and capacity for deep Samadhi, the experience of no-self advances to the foreground of consciousness and we can more readily see the mind dreaming itself into existence – we can observe the “self” grasping at returning to the foreground. Awareness can occasionally catch it before this fabrication takes over our equanimity and spacious great nature. This is not an easy practice and is more likely to be accessible during extended retreat, when distractions and external stimulation are minimized.
So you may ask if there’s any value in this practice when we are engaged in our busy daily lives. Yes, because once the mind has settled for a time in the unconditioned we can return home with fewer hooks, see our lives with new eyes and act from a more skillful, responsive place. Equanimity allows us to see our habits and self referential behavior and not immediately fall back into old, familiar patterns, at least for a while.
Buddha taught that true liberation is the end of craving – unchecked thirst, desire, longing and greed. As humans, we will invariably be driven by forms of craving. To try an eliminate it completely is not a path most of us will take. But we can cultivate awareness when craving is the primary driver that brings us back to self absorption and self referential thoughts. Unconscious craving, when acted on, leads us to drink salt water when we’re thirsty. When our awareness opens to wisdom and we see the futility of this craving, the effort to relieve the suffering of self identity, we have more room for a compassionate response to life.
Compassion is the active form of wisdom, which takes root as we let go of unconscious craving and our usual self referencing perspective, and open the lens of awareness to the truth of our interconnectedness to all of life.
With practice we can put down our craving for “something else, somewhere else,” for a while and instead allow our thirst to be quenched with the clear water of our true mind that is always right here.
“Sangha is crucial. If you are without a sangha you lose your practice very soon. In our tradition we say that without the Sangha you are like a tiger that has left his mountain and gone to the lowlands – he will be caught and killed by humans. If you practice without a Sangha you are abandoning your practice.” – Thich Nhat Hanh