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 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.

Cultivating Wise Attention: Awakening into Awareness and Insight

Three or Five Night Silent Meditation Retreat
Thursday Evening, 12/5 – Sunday Noon 12/8, Optional Extension to 12/10
Bethany Hills Retreat Center, Kingston Springs, TN
Registration opens September 3

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All of our joys and sorrows, thoughts and feelings arise and fall away in a field of awareness that is clear, expansive and open. In this retreat we will explore how mindfulness, concentration and open awareness support each other. We will learn how developing the capacity to rest in awareness creates a wider container to meet even our most challenging and stressful thoughts and emotions with presence and compassion. It also stabilizes concentration (samadhi) and strengthens insight (prajna). This retreat is designed to invigorate and nourish, not only our formal mindfulness and concentration practices, but also our daily activities.

This silent retreat will include sitting and walking meditation, instruction, dharma talks and private meetings with the teacher. Retreat cost is $330 if paid by November 7; $360 after. The five night option is $465 if paid by November 7; $495 after. A $100 deposit holds your spot. Please indicate if you will be attending the three or five night option. Fee covers lodging and all meals. There will be a separate opportunity at the retreat to make a *dana offering (donation) to the teacher.

Click here to Register

Lisa Ernst is a meditation teacher in the Thai Forest/Spirit Rock lineage of Ajahn Chah, Jack Kornfield and Trudy Goodman. Lisa leads classes and retreats nationally and is a visiting teacher at Spirit Rock meditation Center in Woodacre, CA.

Cancellation Refund Policy: More than four weeks from retreat start date – $30 cancellation fee; four weeks to 20 days from start date – $100 cancellation fee. No refunds are available for cancellations less than 20 days from retreat start date.

 

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

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

New Dharma Talk: Engaged Non-striving

Life is a balance of effort and letting go. This talk explores how we engage in our practice without over striving and find the sweet spot of the middle way.

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.

A Year to Live: How to Live This Year as if it Were Your Last

Meeting Once Monthly in Nashville, January – December 2019

Course Full email for the waitlist, ernst.lisa@gmail.com

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.lisa@gmail.com.

Flip the Switch: How Not to Ignite the Engine of Self

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.

Why Are Retreats a Vital Part of Practice?

Why Are Retreats a Vital Part of Practice?

Retreats are powerful. They give you a chance to reset, refresh, and de-clutter your mind. They offer time to resolve unfinished things in your heart, to learn to see yourself and the world with eyes of compassion and forgiveness.

Retreats help to attune to your inner rhythms and to the immense current of universal life flowing through you as you. On retreat you can let your guard down, let your heart open and your bodymind unwind. In the safety and refuge of community, you learn to relax and rest in the richness of life as it is. And at the end of the retreat the benefit is visible: whether it’s a day or a week or longer, everyone looks younger, more open, clear-eyed, and radiant.

Take a moment now and ask yourself: is it time for a retreat? Can a retreat serve you? What might be stopping you from taking time to support your being in this healthy way? Retreats can be healing, transformative and profound, so I encourage you to dip your toes in and explore. You’ll be glad you did!

Trudy Goodman
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I can certainly attest to the power of retreat in my own life. One week after my first time on a meditation cushion I attended a daylong meditation retreat. It was challenging and much of the time I had no idea what I was doing. But as I walked to my car at the end of the day, I felt a clarity and lightness that I had never known before. I knew right then that I would make retreats a priority in my life. They became an oasis of calm and lucidity during a turbulent time in my life. I continued to retreat regularly as my life settled down – they served as vital maintenance for my heart and mind. They still do.

For the committed practitioner, meditation retreats are not a luxury but an essential part of deepening their practice. Concentrated time spent away from daily distractions allows access to parts of our minds and hearts that are normally out of reach; retreats help us contact our deepest evaded realities.

Retreats of various duration are available year round, anywhere from half day or daylong retreats to 7 or 10 day retreats (or more). If your life situation prevents you from traveling afar or carving out chunks of time for retreats, take advantage of nearby half-day and daylong retreats as often as you can and shorter residential retreats that only last a weekend. But do make them a priority as you deepen and sustain your practice.

Lisa Ernst