Why Sangha Matters

“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

 

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2018 Fall Retreat with Red Clay Sangha

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Fall Residential Retreat with Red Clay Sangha

Making the Mystery Clear
Led by Lisa Ernst
Thursday evening, September 29 – Sunday Noon, October 2

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Our practice is not to clear up the mystery. It is to make the mystery clear.
~ Robert Aitken Roshi

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 the way to letting go — remembering that the practice is not only to help us solve problems but to enter deeply into the great mystery of life and death.

This residential 4-day/3-night, held mostly in silence is recommended for both beginning and experienced meditators. Format will be Vipassana style sitting and walking segments. Cost is $150 and covers all meals and lodging. There will be a separate opportunity to make dana (generosity) offering the teacher. Location is the beautiful Sautee Lodge nestled in the mountains near Helen Georgia (about 4 1/2 hours from Nashville). Space is limited so its a good idea to sign up early. Registration is here.

Identity, Healing and Unconditional Love

Identity, Healing, and Unconditional Love

Lisa Ernst Retreat I attended a meditation retreat last weekend on the subject of identity. It offered immediate lessons I want to share, because I think they offer a very useful framework for looking at how we function in the world. Beyond that, though, the retreat gave me a lot to think about, some in the light of the recent post on “The Problem of Taking Yourself Too Seriously“, and more deeply on giving and receiving love. I think these lessons, if you are able to move towards them, have the power to change your world.

Examining Our Identity

Lisa Ernst, a Buddhist teacher from Nashville who led the retreat, delivered several talks on identity. She set up a framework of a two-layered identity which she described using the analogy of clothes:

  • Outer Identity: Like our everyday clothes, “business casual”, sportswear, monastic robes, or formal suits, this is the identity we wish to show the world. It is how we want people to think of us;
  • Inner Identity: This is our private identity. Like our underwear or sleeping attire, it is a personality we show only to a handful of intimate people. It is the person we think of as the “real” me.

We believe that the inner identity is our core and has some level of permanence to it, and that our outer constructed identity is one over which we exercise control, one which we can shift, if not quite at will, then pretty close to it. But actually, as we will see, the outer identity is far from under our control, and the inner identity is a lot less permanent than it might seem.

Tension in Identity

How do your inner and outer identity compare? Are they pretty similar or very different? Do you allow the world to see your strengths and weaknesses? To extend the clothing metaphor, do you allow people to see your dirty laundry?

The whole point of the inner/outer identity bifurcation in this analysis is to acknowledge that you don’t bare all your secrets to the world, that you reserve some for yourself. The outer identity is both a mask to protect parts of you that you don’t want to allow to be hurt, and also a practical persona that serves your external purposes in the world. For example a cheery, professional demeanor is an expected norm in a business meeting and will allow you to close the deal or wow your management with a presentation far better than allowing your sloppy, maybe somewhat crass or course inner persona to emerge.

It’s perfectly natural and even healthy for there to be differences between your inner and outer identities, but what happens as the difference between the two stretches? If your outer identity is vastly different from your inner, then it takes a great deal of effort to maintain it, and that effort creates stress. On top of that tension – which is palpable to those observing the outer persona – you will not be able to keep the two completely separate, and at times the inner identity will surface.

By way of example, I’d like to contrast my life today with that four or five years ago shortly before initiating divorce proceedings, ending an important business relationship, and severing the relationship with my spiritual teacher. You won’t be surprised to know that I was under a lot of stress back then! So while I think I manifest the same external identity today as I did then, the inner identity – the identity we think of as fixed – was very different in important ways. What today is peaceful and at ease, four or five years ago was swirling confusion and anxiety. So the gap between the external and internal identity back then was far greater. I thought I was pretty good at sustaining my outer identity when I was in a business meeting, but those with whom I interacted knew that something was wrong. For example there were far fewer “buy” decisions back then, largely, I am convinced, because the people I spoke to subconsciously registered the inter-identity tension in me.

The Arising Of Ego

When you take your inner identity to be permanent, you create an ego and you can become attached to it. But if you let yourself get attached to your identity, you can become stuck on it and create a problem. You move into the territory of taking yourself too seriously!

When we see someone with serious physical or mental condition who smiles and laughs, who delivers motivational speeches, who inspires and encourages others, we praise them and think them remarkable. They probably are remarkable, but beyond that they are people who have not allowed themselves to get stuck on their injury, their condition, the labels of their lives. They have not over-identified with such matters as their permanent self. Rather they have chosen to see possibility and opportunity. And in that they are a lesson to the rest of us. They are an inspiration that however tough it might be to look beyond what you see as your permanent inner self, it is possible to transcend it.

Don’t Completely Lose the Ego

A word of caution or acknowledgement before we move on: while it is important to hold the inner identity lightly and not to let it calcify into a fixed ego, equally it is important not to let it go completely. Just as functioning effectively in the world requires an outer identity that fits with the environment, so the outer identity must be founded on some inner core, some inner identity. And it is important, also, to examine the ego and see those elements that pop up from time to time. For example, you may occasionally express impatience or control tendencies that come from an inner anger, though without looking closely you may never have realized the source. And that anger itself could be a mask for some deeper identity which you don’t know.

The Importance of Falling Apart

If you take the long view, you can see the arc of your life from infancy through childhood, youth and adulthood into old-age and death. You can see that the outer identity you assumed as a teenager is very different from your outer identity as a lover, a business person, a parent – or whatever roles you move into through your life. And you can similarly see that your inner identity has shifted over time, perhaps as a result of being the victim of a horrible personal invasion, an illness or accident, or conversely as a result of a wonderfully intimate partnership which gave rise to children, grandchildren, and a vastly different world than you had ever imagined could be possible. You know that your identity shifts over time. But it is nonetheless all too easy to find yourself holding on to your inner identity and not wanting to let it shift.

But when you hold on to inner identity you allow do not allow your “real” self to shift with the shifting circumstances of your life and of your understanding. To hold on to your identity, your hold it down and wrap it up. You do not allow yourself to grow and open. You do not allow yourself to flower as a human being.

Healing and Love

We all want to receive unconditional love but most of us, in some way, have had this withheld from us. Most of us feel damaged in some way and want to be healed. And most of us look to relationships with others to heal us. Whether we had an abusive father or an alcoholic mother, whether it was parental expectation of academic or sports success or it was, we all carry forward scars that we want healed.

Identity is a practical tool in the world, but it is also a way of protecting our hurt, of hiding our damage, maybe even hiding it from ourselves.

Healing can be extraordinarily difficult, for the pain and suffering may be immense. It may be that you are not truly ready to deal with your suffering, and that is fine. But if you think you are, then know that it can never be truly healed from outside. The only way of healing your hurt is to allow yourself to be with it without judgment. And before you can do this, you must first see your suffering, which in turn requires allowing yourself, your ego, that scaffolding you have created to protect yourself, in a sense to fall apart.

We all want to receive unconditional love, but in doing so we misunderstand. What we need is to give unconditional love. We have been raised to believe that our love must be validated by another, but that is not true. Your love need only be validated by yourself. If you can allow your identity to soften, you can start to see this. And once you do so, all the rules change.

To visit Gareth’s informative and reflective blog go here.

Three Night Residential Retreat with Lisa Ernst

Making Peace: Being Self and Emptiness
Residential Retreat September 24 – 27, 2015
Sponsored by Red Clay Sangha
Sautee Lodge, Sautee Georgia

“Live in the nowhere that you come from, even though you have got an address here.” -Rumi

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Please join us in the beautiful North Georgia mountains for a residential 3 night retreat. In this silent retreat we will explore the nature of our identity and sense of self that 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 boundless, empty nature.

This retreat is recommended for both new and experienced meditators. Retreat fee is $150 plus dana to the teacher. Scholarships are available if you can’t pay the full fee. For more info and registration, go to here.

Lisa Ernst is the founder and guiding teacher at One Dharma Nashville. She has been meditating for over 25 years in the Zen and Vipassana Traditions. She received dharma transmission in the Thai Forest Lineage of Ajahn Chah, Jack Kornfield and Trudy Goodman. In her teaching, Lisa emphasizes both transformational insight and everyday awakening as an invitation to embrace all of the path’s possibilities. As a practicing visual artist Lisa also incorporates Dharma into painting and contemplative photography.

Recap of “Living the Questions” Fall Retreat with Red Clay Sangha

This past weekend I had the pleasure of leading a retreat in the North Georgia mountains, hosted by Atlanta’s  Red Clay Sangha. The theme was “Cultivating Clarity Through Living the Questions.” This is the second retreat I’ve led for Red Clay Sangha, which is a wonderful Zen community of dedicated practitioners committed to a welcoming, strong and supportive sangha. Because they are open to learning from and practicing in other traditions, I conducted the retreat Vipassana Style and a number of Atlanta Insight Meditation Community practitioners also attended the retreat.

Fall Retreat with Red Clay Sangha. Photo by RIchard Skoonberg

Fall Retreat with Red Clay Sangha. Photo by Richard Skoonberg

Gareth Young, a  deep and dedicated practitioner and one of the founders of Red Clay Sangha, wrote a blog post about his retreat experience, which you can read here. Gareth is very involved in Atlanta’s interfaith community and he writes often about his experiences participating in several faiths.

Our location for this retreat was The Sautee Lodge near Helen Georgia. Its a lovely rural spot, perfect for a silent meditation retreat.

View from Sautee Ranch

View from Sautee Ranch

Fall Three Night Residential Retreat in North Georgia

Cultivating Clarity thorough Living the Questions

Thursday Evening, September 18 – Sunday Noon, September 21, 2014

Sautee Lodge, Sautee Georgia

Led by Lisa Ernst and Sponsored by Red Clay Sangha

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“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and learn to love the questions themselves. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions.” Rainer Maria Rilke

Unanswered questions, intractable situations often appear to stand in the way of living from our deepest intentions.  At times we might feel blocked even from knowing what our true priorities are.  During this weekend of sitting and walking meditation, we will have the opportunity to practice opening our hearts to our unresolved inner dilemmas.  These questions contain a rich source of insight; learning to live with them brings about a radical shift that opens the door to clarity and equanimity.

Cost is $150 and includes all meals and lodging. Teacher dana is separate. The retreat will include periods of sitting and walking meditation, dharma talks, optional meetings with the teacher, practice instructions and Q&A. Please go to this link for additional details and registration.

Aching with Longing

This is a blog post from Gareth Young, a co-founder of Red Clay Sangha in Atlanta. His sangha, along with the Insight Meditation Community of Georgia hosted a Lovingkindess and Brahma Vihara retreat that I led March 2 – 5 in the North Georgia Mountains. Thanks to all who made this happen. Here’s Gareth’s post:

Aching with Longing

Today I finished a short meditation retreat led by Lisa Ernst from Nashville and co-hosted by the Red Clay Sangha and the Insight Meditation Group of Georgia: Zen-based and Vipassana traditions coming together for an interdenominational Buddhist retreat.  We had invited Lisa to lead the retreat using her own style of practice and she focused the retreat on metta.

Like most Buddhist teachings (for my mind this is actually an attribute of all legitimate Buddhist teachings) metta practice is a set of tools that can be used by anyone regardless of their faith tradition.  In simple terms it is is designed to cultivate loving kindness and compassion for self and other, and it centers upon repeating continuously a series of phrases such as:

May I/him/her/all beings be free from danger
May [I/they] have mental happiness
May [I/they] have physical happiness
May [I/they] have ease of well being.

It may sound banal, even silly, but it is extraordinary and it works – though it does require a lot of patience!  And by focusing on the self first it naturally allows one to deal with feelings of self-loathing, inadequacy, being unlovable and the like that are so common in our culture.  The premise, which I think is correct, is that only from a place of self-loving can one move into the world and unconditionally love the other.

The genesis of this blog post is not metta practice itself – though I commend it to you – but a beautiful poem by Tagore, a giant of Indian literature who I knew shamefully little about until I just read about him.  Lisa waited until this morning after our hearts had been opened up by a couple of days of metta practice before reading the poem to us and it blew the doors open for me.  It is a piece of pure beauty that hopefully will blow a tempting gust of air through your own doors, too:
On the day when the lotus bloomed, alas, my mind was straying, and I knew it not. My basket was empty and the flower remained unheeded.

Only now and again a sadness fell upon me, and I started up from my dream and felt a sweet trace of a strange smell in the south wind.

That vague fragrance made my heart ache with longing, and it seemed to me that it was the eager breath of the summer seeking for its completion.

I knew not then that it was so near, that it was mine, and this perfect sweetness had blossomed in the depth of my own heart.

To read more of Gareth’s blog, go here.

Three Day Lovingkindness and Brahma-Vihara Retreat

For those who would like to do a weekend retreat but can’t make my three day April Spring Renewal Retreat here in Nashville, I will be leading a weekend retreat in the North Georgia Mountains. The lodge is right next to a National Forest, about 4 1/2 hours from Nashville.

Red Clay Sangha and Insight Meditation Community of Georgia Present

Three Day Residential Retreat with Lisa Ernst

Lovingkindness and the Four Immeasurables

Thursday Evening May 2 – Sunday Noon May 5, 2013

Sautee Lodge, Sautee Georgia

sauteelodge  Please join us in the beautiful North Georgia Mountains for a weekend of sitting and walking meditation. During this silent retreat, we will cultivate what the Buddha called “the immeasurable states of heart and mind” – the Brahma Viharas or Divine Abodes. These are the qualities of love, compassion, joy and equanimity that reside in us all. Our innate lovingkindness will be strengthened and enhanced by sitting and walking practice, discussions and dharma talks. As our hearts awaken, we can discover a deeper sense of openness and interconnection with all of life.

This residential 4-day/3-night retreat is recommended for both beginning and experienced meditators. Sautee Lodge is located in the north Georgia Mountains, surrounded by a national forest. The retreat will begin Thursday evening and close at noon on Sunday. Cost is $150 plus dana (donation) to the teacher.

Lisa Ernst is the founder and guiding teacher at One Dharma Nashville. She began meditation practice in the late ’80’s in the Zen Buddhist tradition. Lisa has also studied and practiced in the Theravada tradition since the late 90’s. She has been teaching since 2005 and was given full dharma transmission from Trudy Goodman in 2010 in the lineage of the Thai Forest tradition of Ajahn Chah.

For more information or to register, go to here.