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.

Practice Tip: Three Steps to Releasing Difficult Thoughts in Meditation

When we meditate, at times difficult, unresolved encounters with friends, loved ones or co-workers may dominate our thoughts. If we don’t repress them (and normally we shouldn’t) they may instead begin to take over our meditation session as we swing from replaying the encounter to trying to figure out how to address it. So what to do? How do we find the wise middle way between over-identification and repression?

As an example, let’s say you and your boss were brainstorming how to solve a problem and your boss failed to listen to an idea you felt was important based on your firsthand knowledge of the situation. Instead, your boss decided on a plan you knew missed important information. You tried to convey this but your boss wouldn’t listen and ended the session. You left the encounter feeling frustrated and unheard.

The next morning during meditation, the situation came back full force. You replayed the encounter several times wondering what you could have done differently, then tried to figure out the next step, whether to approach you boss about it and what to say. Then you realize 10 plus minutes have passed on the cushion and you were completely unaware of your breath, body and immediate surroundings.

In situations like this, I have found a three step process helpful for creating space to work with unresolved situations. Staying with our example, first recognize the thoughts replaying the meeting with your boss as “past.” This may sound obvious but consciously noting that the thought content is focused on the past, without repressing it, can reduce its seeming solidity. Then notice and explore what sensations and emotions are present that accompany these thoughts.

Now, looking forward to your thoughts of how to address the situation with your boss, note that these thoughts are about the “future” but also be aware of how these thoughts show up here and now. Perhaps when you think back to the encounter with your boss you notice anger or even sadness for not being heard. When you think ahead to your possible next step, maybe you notice anxiety and tension.

Now bring it all into the present. Of course thoughts only exist in the present moment. While we may think about the past or future, every thought is only arising in the present moment. So now we see the past and future thoughts as “present” and our physical responses, sensations and emotions as “present.”

Past, future and present are all just this moment of awareness. As we see them coalesce, chances are they will lose their grip, soften and begin to settle. The sense of me against the other begins to fade. From this more settled, less self identified place, we have more possibility of seeing the situation clearly and with insight. This is not about passivity. In fact, a clear plan of action may arise from this emptier, steadier state. (If nothing arises, that’s fine too.)

You can use this three step process for most situations that begin to dominate your meditation. Occasionally a situation may be too charged to work this way. In that case, its fine to move to a more neutral focus of attention such as the breath, body or sound. Only return to the investigation if you feel able.

This practice can help us let go of the sense of self at the center of our narratives. Seeing our challenges with the clarity of present moment awareness broadens perspective, reduces the suffering of reactivity and opens new possibilities.

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

The Power of Contemplative Inquiry: The Art of Embodying Mindful Presence for Facilitators and Practitioners

Daylong Workshop led by Lisa Ernst

Saturday, October 19, 9:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m., Nashville Friends Meeting

Contemplative inquiry is a vital skill for practitioners and facilitators for cultivating focused, open attention. It is the art of embodying presence and mindful listening, while reflecting a deep and heart-felt sense of kindness and curiosity. These qualities ground and support us in the unfolding nature of experience, expanding awareness and inviting reflection on what we experientially observe. Through the practice of inquiry, we begin to disrupt and release rumination, limiting beliefs and conditioned responses, while bringing more intention and joy to our lives and interactions.

In this daylong you will learn to incorporate inquiry practices inro your own meditation and strengthen your ability to incorporate these skills when working with others. Inquiry practices free the mind from habitual stories, narratives and patterns of avoidance that prevent present moment awareness and compassion from unfolding. These skills are suitable for personal investigation, facilitating groups and working one on one with clients.

This workshop, led by Lisa Ernst, will include instruction, meditation, group interaction and practice in the inquiry process. The cost is $75 – $125 sliding scale. Please pay at the highest level you can afford so that others who need to pay less can also attend. (This is not a “dana” daylong and compensation to the teacher is included in your fee.) A scholarship spot is available. Email onedharmaretreat@gmail.com Payment can be made here.

Fall Residential Retreat in the North Georgia Mountains

Lovingkindness and Interconnection in Challenging Times

Thursday evening, September 19 – Sunday Noon September 22

Led by Lisa Ernst

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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

New Dharma Talk: Investigating States, Traits and Identity

The radical teaching of Buddhist mindfulness is cultivating presence when the mind wants to turn away. We begin to remember that all emotions and moods are sankhara – impermanent conditioned states and not our identity. This is a doorway to freedom.

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.

Half Day Retreat: Awakening to the Sublime States with Lovingkindness, Forgiveness and Tonglen

Saturday, June 15, 9 a.m. – Noon, Nashville Friends Meeting
Led by Lisa Ernst

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Metta is the Pali word for friendship or lovingkindness. It is taught as a meditation that opens our innate capacity for a joyful, loving heart. Metta is traditionally offered along with forgiveness practices that deepen compassion and equanimity. We will also include the powerful sending and receiving practice of Tonglen. One of the most significant aspects of Tonglen is that we naturally move out of the “self center” where we primarily identify with our own suffering and find a deep sense of interconnection with others where compassion fully comes alive.

These practices support and deepen the development of concentration,
ease and a greater ability to give and receive unconditional love. In these difficult times, our world needs these qualities more than ever.

This silent retreat will include sitting and walking meditation, instructions and q&a. It is suitable for all levels of experience. Cost is $50, payment can be made by Paypal here. Instructions are here if paying by check. Be sure to include your email address. A reduced fee spot is available in the case of financial need. For questions, email onedharmaretreat@gmail.com

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.

February Day Retreat: The Four Foundations of Mindfulness

Led by Jeffrey Samuels
February 23, from 8:30 a.m. – 2 p.m. Nashville Friends Meeting

Retreat full

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A key Buddhist text outlining the practice of Mindfulness are the “Mahasatipatthana Sutta” and its the shorter version, the “Satipatthana Sutta.” These texts are often translated as the “Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness.” This text is, in fact, the very ground for mindfulness meditation practice. The Buddha himself called Satipatthana the direct path to awakening. In this text, the Buddha outlines four specific foundations of mindfulness and describes the best way to cultivate them correctly.

In this day retreat, we will explore the four foundations of mindfulness theoretically and practically, with chances to reflect on and work through each of them. By looking into these teachings more deeply, we can begin to understand clearly what leads us out of suffering and into greater ease and joy in our lives. We will also have the chance to explore different approaches to mindfulness itself, including focused attention and open awareness.

The retreat is suitable for newer meditators as well as more experienced practitioners who wish to refresh and deepen the foundations of their practice. The day will include periods of sitting and walking meditation, instruction and discussion. Cost is $50 plus donation to the teacher. A scholarship spot is available. Email onedharmaretreat@gmail.com to inquire. Payment can be made through Paypal here. Instructions for paying by check are at this link. Be sure to include your email address. For questions about the retreat email Jeffrey.samuels@wku.edu.

Jeffrey Samuels completed his first meditation retreat in Thailand in 1987 under the direction of Ajahn Buddhadasa. Since then he has completed a number of retreats in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Mexico, and the United States, both in the Mahasi Sayadaw and the Thai Forest traditions. He also completed a Ph.D. in Buddhist studies at the University of Virginia in 2002. He has been studying with Lisa Ernst since 2012 and completed biannual retreats with her since then. He is currently a Professor of Buddhism at Western Kentucky University.