In the week leading up to the Christmas holiday, three of our sitting groups had the opportunity to explore some of the compassion practices introduced by Joanna Macy in the body of her work described as “the Great Turning.” We worked with them again in our Meditation on New Year’s Day. These exercises are meant to cultivate the positive human emotions celebrated in this season of holidays––emotions such as kindness, compassion, and joy. Before moving into our usual shared silent meditation, as we sat quietly together in a circle, we were invited to open our eyes and look lightly and kindly around at one another. As we continued to look at these familiar individuals, we were guided in reflections. We were first encouraged to remember that each one of us has at some time experienced a deep loss, confusion, fear, loneliness, and chest-caving doubt. We have all, in this sense, suffered. Next, as the steadiness of our well-practiced hearts continued to support our ability to stay present in our own bodies, we shifted our reflections to consider the joy and the virtues that each one of us brings to the world. We kept looking. Finally, we were asked to acknowledge the fact that every one of us in the room will die one day. Further, we considered that perhaps these very faces would be some of the last we ever would see and that perhaps our own face would be among the last seen by some individuals in the group. We closed our eyes then and settled into silent meditation.
In our discussion afterwards, people spoke of the very powerful sense of connection they felt as they were guided through the reflections. We talked about the value of taking these practices into our daily life and committed ourselves to sometime reflect in this way as we walk through the world seeing the faces of friends and strangers. Such a practice can help us to feel safe and connected to those with whom we share the world. These thoughts can soften our tendency to feel separate, to take refuge in greed, hatred, fear and confusion. They can help us feel content and at ease with “our place in the family of things.” These simple words of the Buddha, recorded in the Dhammapada, reflect the wisdom inherent in this process: “We all must die. For those who know this, quarrels end.”
Practices like those described above are important to our development as human beings, just as are the more familiar Brahma Vihara practices of our tradition, those which help stabilize concentration through the use of the formal phrases used in metta, forgiveness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity. As you will see in the January newsletter, beginning in January 2015, VIMS will be regularly offering these Brahma Vihara practices in our second-Sunday monthly sit at AVA Gallery in Lebanon. In our meditations and discussion, we will focus on cultivating our natural benevolence, kindness, friendliness, and compassion.
Together with our regular mindfulness, or Insight meditation, these practices act as a kind of mental hygiene: they are changing us, changing the way we experience the world, as well as the way we behave in it. In a recent talk, senior Insight teacher Sylvia Boorstein stated that she has seen a huge change American Buddhism over the last thirty-five years, in its opening to this aspect of the Buddha-Dhamma. In the earlier days, people seemed to be focused on individual practice and attaining liberated states of mind; metta bhavana was relegated to one sit at the end of a retreat or to a few words and the end of a sit. Now, as we increasingly find ourselves interested in the relevance of practice to our daily lives and to the creation of community, we see how a gentle friendliness and a commitment to kindness provide the basis for liberation and compassion. Retreat centers regularly offer week-long and month-long metta retreats as part of their programs. Community-based groups like VIMS are offering classes and sitting groups with this focus.
John Peacock, an Insight Dhamma teacher and academic Buddhist scholar researching the early teachings of the Buddha, says that the Buddha’s main concern in his most basic teachings is “human flourishing.” He is telling us how we can best live in this world, which we share with others. Nibhana, described as the fruit of our practice, can be understood as the absence of greed, hatred, and delusion. We are learning to walk through the world as the Buddha did, “with bliss-bestowing hands.” Less often are we leaving a wake of destruction behind us as we move through our lives. Instead, we are walking the path of full human potential by cultivating kindness, compassion, appreciative joy, and an equanimity that is informed by a steady benevolence.
Most of us are probably aware that the field of Western Psychology has been changing rapidly over the last ten to fifteen years. The discovery of neuroplasticity has added immensely to the understanding of human resiliency and the value of a strong and clear subjective investigation of the mind. This ongoing laboratory-based exploration, coupled with the advent of a clinical interest in what is called “Positive Psychology,” has science advocating what the contemplative practices of Buddhism have been teaching for over 2,500 years. In the early twentieth century, Freud offered up his promised cure as “ordinary unhappiness,” where the Buddha’s cure as held out to us in the Third Noble Truth is the absence of suffering, i.e., the arising in our mental lives of contentment, happiness, peace, and good will towards all.
“And as the mind relinquishes spinning out into the future, into results, or into self-image, it steps out of its activity. A distinction between the mind as an activity and mind as a still knowing becomes clear. So even when the attention has to go out the heart doesn’t… as the world deconstructs, the openness remains. — A. Sucitto
HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!