It's so wonderful to be here together. And I say this knowing full well that for some of us right now it's also really hard to be here. Our practice helps us in so many ways but one of my favorite ways is how it broadens our capacity to hold apparent opposities. It can be hard to be here and wonderful to be here at the same time. It doesn't have to be nice to be wonderful, no know?
Another opposite is how hard it can be to essentially do nothing much for these five days. On the one hand what's your problem anyway? You chose to come here. You are fed and housed and your days are all organized for you. You get to be in one of the most beautiful and peaceful places on the planet for about a week. Life is good. Life is perfect.
And yet it's also not. It's also just hard to be quiet, to not busy yourself with projects and communication and checking in all the time. It's hard not to have a clear role to play. It's hard to leave other's be even when they seem to be suffering - and we do want you to do that actually. I wanted to mention a bit more about silence. The practice of silence includes not speaking to your neighbors when they appear to be in distress. Just give them space and trust that they will reach out to me or the other teachers and leaders if they need help. To really release yourself from the idea that it's your to take care of them in that overt way. We all support each other with our presence and our concern. You might try this if you see somehow who looks like they are in physical or emotional pain - just silentlyoffer some wishes of loving-kindness - "may you be happy and free from suffering" - and leave them be. Really we want you to do that. It is not the conventional thing I know where it would be seen as cold or uncompassionate not to reach out. I know it's different. But in this context and you'll just have to trust me at least provisionally if you doub this idea - in this context it's compassionate to be restrained. To not speak. To not pat someone on the shoulder and whisper "are you okay?". Why? Because you're inadvertently short-circuiting the process of retreat and lessening the possibility for their healing and growth. You're interupting you practice as absolutely well meant as the action is. So do leave people be okay? I'm here. Audrey's here. Annie's here. We have several medical and mental health professionals here we can call on if we need them.
And if you have already broken silence to check in on someone. That's okay. No need to beat yourself up. But do be very very scrupulous and complete about the silence ok? It really is important - so important - for each of us to have total space and trust for our own process to unfold the way it needs to unfold. We need to be free of worry that if I let my guard down and start trying or physically show that there's pain in the body that someone will swoop in and try to help us. Does that make sense?
And I know that isn't easy for us. But it's really important. And then bring your awareness back to your own experience to the only one here you really know even a little bit. Pay attention to everything here. Notice the others. Appreciate the others. Care for the others, for sure. But leave them be and practice with this one here. That's the assignment. That's the shape of compassionate action in this situation.
It's also hard not to be important. Of course everyone here is important - critical actually - but that part of you that gets it's nourishment and validation from playing your usual roles in life - whatever those may be - is not getting that this week is it? You're just another person sitting here. Just another person being quiet. Just another person. Nothing special. Is that okay with you? And if it is, or if it isn't, who is this "you" whose doing the evaluating about what's okay and what's not okay anyway?
And how could anything not be okay with you anyway? Things are just as they are. Our idea of "this isn't okay with me" is interesting: doesn't it imply that through force of will or something we are saying there should be a whole different reality going on that the one that is going on? "This isn't okay with me" so you should also get busy fixing the shape of this not okay reality for me. And not later, buddy: right now.
So I do enjoy giving these talks very much and trying to say something about the Buddhist roots of these mindfulness and compassion practices we do but in a way there's nothing much to say other than: be with yourself. See what happens. See how it feels. Notice the ways you can easily make things harder or more easeful. Start again: be with yourself, see what happens, see how it feels, notice the ways you are in it all. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
In a way "teaching" these retreats is the easiest thing to do in the world. I don't need to teach you anything. Your experience is already on the job!
And yet talk I shall. This year we're returning to a great set of teachings from the Indo-Tibetan ist Buddhist tradition called "lojong" in Tibetan which simply means mind training. These are teachings for training the mind. Training it how you might ask?
A deep root of the lojong training is disrupting our habitual self-centeredness. We are all, to be sure, nice people but we do get a little obsessed with this one in the middle. And that can cause so very many problems. Our self-focus can make us brittle and defensive. It can inspire us to be aggressive and negative towards others. It can run the other way an inspire us to e fearful and withdrawn. What if the others aren't kind to me or don't give me what I need? Can I trust them?
Here's a bit of what the great Tibetan scholar and teacher Thubten Jinpa says about this:
A central theme of mind training practice is the profound reorientation of our basic attitude toward both our own self and fellow sentient beings, as well as toward the events we experience. In our current naïve everyday attitude, we not only grasp at an intrinsically real "self" as being who we truly are, we also cherish this "me" at the expense of all others. We feel hurt when someone insults us, disappointed when someone we love betrays us, outraged when provokes for not reason, pangs of jealousy when others are successful, and all of these tend to strike us more intensely the strong our self-cherishing.
There should be a part of you that just let out a big internal "huhn?" Isn't it common sense and normal that we are hurt when someone insults us, disappointed when someone we love betrays us, outraged when provokes for not reason, pangs of jealousy when others are successful? Well maybe we agree that jealousy at other's success is kind of lame but isn't the rest of this just how it is?
He goes on:
The mind training teaching challenges us to question this. By deeply understanding others as friends "more precious than a wish-fulfilling jewel" - as Langri Thangpa put it in his Eight Verses on Mind Training - and recognizing that our true enemy lies inside ourselves, we overturn our habitual self-centeredness. It is self-cherishing that opens up to painful and undersirable experiences. Mind training teachings admonish us to instead, "Banish all blames to a single source. / Toward all beings contemplate their kindness."
We have so many ideas of that's normal and automatic and just how it is. My Zen teacher used to say, "everyone's a philosopher" meaning we all have well developed theories of who we are, what the world is, and how it all works. But the problem is we take our theories to be more solid and true and immuatable that then actually are.
Someone insults us we feel hurt. That's in our philosophy of being. Just how it goes.
But as all of us know the basic instructions as mindfulness is introduced include a powerful idea that between stimulus and response there's a space, and in that space is our power to choose our response, and that this possibility to respond wisely is our growth and our freedom. Someone insults us and instead of defending or fighting back or even feeling hurt perhaps we start to get curious instead about self-cherishing and self-protection. Why does what she said or the look he gave me bother me? Does it actually bother me or am I generating a bothered state out of habit? Are there times - perhaps times we don't even notice - when someone's a little off toward us and it doesn't bother us? Do we hold it or respond to it in another way?
Jinpa-la goes on to say that we can become more less self-centered and more other-centered:
As an important step toward this other-centeredness, the mind training masters admonish us to view our fellow beings not with rivalry and antagonism but rather with a feeling of gratitude. We cultivate this feeling of appreciation regardless of whether others mean to be kind to us or not, for the fact is that we owe everything in our life to others. From birth to basic survival, from simple joys of eating a meal to a deeper sense of contentment, in every way, the presence of others is indispensible . Today research on happiness increasingly points to the truth of this basic lojong teaching.
There is a very very powerful sentence here: "the fact is that we owe everything in our life to others." That'd be worth spending the whole week steadily contemplating. You could say to yourself when you first wake up, "I owe everything in my life to others, without others I would not have a life." At the wonderful meals here there's an obvious reminder: without others I would never, ever be able to eat. What a huge gift so many others give me when I lift my fork to my mouth.
We talk a lot about being rational and sensible but our often blasé attitude about all of these gifts we receive isn't very rational or sensible really. Wouldn't the sensible and rational response to having the gift of good food to eat, and any of the other everyday gifts we receive, actually be to utterly awestruck? To be overwhelmed with gratitude? Perhaps to be a bit concerned about why it is that so many others are giving you so much? Do you actually deserve any of this? Do I? I don't know. I really don't. And yet here it is: these incredible gifts that are given to us every single day. Just opening our eyes in the morning - even if we don't feel quite ready for that miracle at 5:45am - is overwhelmingly amazing and a huge gift if you think about it. Wow! I am still here! Incredible. What shall I do with this day I have been given?
We may feel this way once in a while. After getting through something difficult perhaps. "Whew I got through that, wow, so grateful." But then it can fade. We forget the treasure that is this life. So this is a fundamental thing that supports all growth and change and "progress" in mindfulness and compassion studies. Reconditioning our mind away from self-centeredness and complaint and outwards towards gratitude for this life and appreciation of the many many other people and animals and plants and natural systems and so on that make this day of being alive possible.
Is this system of mind training there are short phrases and teachings - slogans - to focus on. There are 59 slogans organized into 7 groups. Each group is called a "point." The first point is called "preliminaries" or as my Zen teacher Norman Fischer rewrites it "resolve to begin."
So here we are on the first morning of our retreat. It's time to resolve to begin. To begin this day of practice with a good strong intention not to take anything for granted. To be compassionate and clear within the context we find ourselves. And to to deeply contemplate the way things are.
The single slogan in this first point is called "Train in the preliminaries" which refers to takes a fresh look at our life, our attitude, our assumptions. And that this project isn't easy because of our deeply held habitual ideas of who we are and how it's all supposed to work. The practice of retreat is helpful partly because it pushes a bit against some of those assumptions: like the idea that it's compassionate to walk right by someone who's sitting there in tears sobbing. That sounds cold doesn't it? And yet in this context it's helpful. So that pushes against some of our beliefs most likely. So we put ourself in different situations to help us train in the preliminaries. The other thing we do is practice meditation. We start by grounding ourselves in the body and breath as a way to take some of the attention away from the mind that's doing all the philosophy about who and what we are. You can't exactly make the mind stop all of that and we do want it to do all of that it's just we need to learn it's not the whole story. But moving attention steadily and repeatedly over and over for a sustained period - 20 minutes, a day, or a week or good, even better for years or decades - to move the attention gently out of our theorizing heads and into the felt sense of the breath and body as Audrey was leading us in this morning. This helps us find that space our famous Victor Frankl quote points to that space between stimulus and response where we have more freedom. So much more freedom. We didn't know we were just a victim of our thoughts and theories until we found a taste of this other kind of freedom did we?
So that's a second aspect of "train in the preliminaries" - practice meditation. Just sit. Just walk. Just eat. Just be. With full attention on the moment by moment experience and lots of curiousity. The fine edge there is not to let the curiousity just feed right back into our theorizing mind. Be curious just to be curious not to start developing a better theory of who you are.
And the third aspect of "train in the preliminaries" I want to mention is a 4-fold contemplation from Buddhism:
1) Life is precious and rare. We are all very forunate to be a living person.
2) Death is certain, this precious life is brief. Only the time of death is uncertain.
3) Our choices are powerful: they affect us and others in infinite ways. It really matters what we do with our body, our speech, and our mind. We are powerful.
4) There is no life in this ordinary world we can see and hear and feel without suffering and pain threaded through it. There is pain in love. The good news being of course that there is love in pain too.
A shorter way to say this - and I'll write these out on a white board in the dining hall too. Whenever I give a list I try to do that. So you can hopefully be free from that kind of graspy desire to remember everything. Just like I mentioned about any poems we share at the end of meditations or something. We'll get those to you.
Here's a shorter list of these 4 contemplations
1) Life is precious
2) Life is short
3) Choices matter
4) Suffering is a part of it all
So we put ourselves in different situations in which we'll learn more, we practice meditation, and we consider deeply how rare, short, and important this life into which such huge suffering and great joy is woven. We remember that we aren't just going through the motions until whenever we think that "later" time is when we'll really live and really matter. We are really alive and we really matter right now. Right now.
In Zen training temples there's a signal board that's hit with a mallet to call the monks and nuns to the zendo - the meditation hall - to practice. On it there's a traditional phrase that these contemplations make me think of.
Great is the matter of
Birth and death
Quickly passing, gone, gone
Awake each one, awaken
Don't waste this life
Zen is full of enthusastic language and in a way I always feel a little sorry to unleash it on anyone as it can make people very uptight and tense but it's also really true. Great is this matter of birth and death, quickly passing gone gone, awake each one, awaken! Don't waste this life.
We can kind of sleepwalk through our days can't we? Aren't we so very lucky to have these practicse of mindfulness and compassion and this context of practice to help us? Let's see what happens the rest of the day as we just tune in more to our experience. That's what they mean in this mind training system that's going to help us be more compassionate when they start with "train in the preliminaries" - the preliminaries here aren't just some brief preliminary thing before the real show gets going. The preliminaries in this system are our whole life and how are we living it.
Thank you very much.