Monthly Archives: December 2009

Hasta Luego!

I will not be teaching during January and February so I will not be posting dharma talks during that time. And I will probably take even longer than usual to remember to check and publish any comments.

During this hiatus I invite you to explore the 85 dharma talks posted on this blog, or revisit them. If you have been meditating, attending classes, reading this blog and other sources on the subject, you are in a very different place than you were when you first heard or read these talks. You will find something that feels new, or something familiar that now makes more sense to you.

I also encourage you to attend classes, day longs or retreats at Spirit Rock. If you are not sure what teachers might resonate with you, you can listen to dharma talks by most of the teachers there on dharmaseed.org. You can download the talks for free and donate to the organization out of appreciation for what is freely given. The beauty of dana!

I am happy to say that the Tuesday class will continue in my absence. This is the nature of sangha. A class at first is about the concepts and finding the teacher most suited to share them with us at any given time. But eventually the sangha, the community of meditation practitioners becomes strong enough to want to keep meeting, with or without the teacher. This happened in our Friday class at Spirit Rock, when our original teacher Anna Douglas moved away. She assumed the class would cease, but we insisted on continuing and we found another teacher. Anna has been helpful over the years since she left in helping us to find the right teachers for our class, but the sangha has sustained itself throughout.

The past 80+ weeks of sharing the dharma with this dear group of meditators has been a true growth opportunity for me as a teacher, and also as a practitioner. I had not taught in many years when I began this class, and I have felt supported and encouraged at every turn by this sangha’s enthusiasm for the subject, dedication to attending class, wisdom, generosity and sense of caring for me.

I am also grateful to those blog followers who have shared their appreciation of the posts, both verbally and through dana.

Upon my return to teaching, besides the Tuesday class, to which all of you have an open initiation, I plan to do another 6 week series for beginners. Let me know if you are interested in either of those. Students and non-students alike are always invited to request one on one coaching in meditation to help fine-tune the practice or clear up any misunderstandings.

When I look back at the first post in this series, the one that explains the name of this blog and set my intention, I feel such gratitude that I have undertaken this way of exploring the dharma. When I teach, I learn in an in-depth way that is very satisfying to me. I was tentative at first, but I see clearly now that teaching is my path, and that the dharma is what I feel most compelled to share with others. May it be for the benefit of all beings.

But everyone needs a little time out, and so these next two months I will let the whirring wheels of my teaching mind rest and renew, while I learn the lyrics to my favorite mariachi tunes and savor the moments in my adopted town of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico and the friends we have made there.
I will still be available by email, so please feel free to contact me.
Many blessings, Stephanie

The Wisdom of this Season

On the recent retreat I attended, Teja Bell, who led us in Qi Gong twice a day, would teach us a gesture and once we got the sense of it, he would ask us to feel what it was like to use just 70% effort. Dialing it back a bit. What a concept! Not part of our cultural construct, the idea to try not giving 100%, or even 110%. More is always better, is it not?

I was reminded of when I used to do Nia, an aerobic dance exercise class, and we were taught to work from the core and not over-extend.

Both of these recommendations are based on body wisdom. What does the body need to be strong, resilient, healthy and comfortable? It needs to be listened to instead of dictated to by mental constucts of competitive goal setting and ideals of perfection. It needs a regular pattern of movements that keep the muscles, joints, tendons and bones healthy. When we over-do and over-extend, we break the pattern. We then have to stop doing what the body likes to do in order to recover, and that sets up the possibility of decline. While we are nursing our injury, we may get out of shape and out of balance, as we make accommodations for functioning with an injury. And once we’ve stopped our routine, getting started up again is always challenging, and there’s always the chance we just won’t bother. So this idea of not pushing it too far, not over-efforting, even when it runs counter to the ‘no pain, no gain’ ethic, is really best in the long run. The body knows this and we benefit when we honor its inherent wisdom.

The mind also benefits from body wisdom. When we sense in to the body and trust what it tell us, we find we are able to be more peaceful, kind, generous, resilient, balanced and happy.

The human body is an ambulatory extension of the earth. As Wes Nisker, another teacher on the retreat pointed out, we are earthlings, made of the same complex substance as the rest of our precious planet and all that grows on it. We are deeply connected, not just spiritually but in a very science-based physical way, to our earth, our Milky Way galaxy and our universe.

Thinking of the body in this larger context, we tap into the wisdom of the earth, sensing in to the seasons and taking our cues from them. And what is this wisdom of this season? What does every little burrowing animal know that we, in our distraction and busyness, often ignore?

All over the northern hemisphere the rest of the animal kingdom is slowing down, nestling in and in some cases hibernating. We think because we can click on the heater and flip on the electric lights that we have conquered seasonal variations. But is this really true? Theoretically we could pop No Doz or some comparable stay awake pill every night to keep us from feeling the need for sleep. But would that mean we don’t need sleep? Research has found that people who don’t have the opportunity to dream develop extreme mental conditions.

Perhaps our skipping the seasonal slowing down that comes with the winter solstice does similar damage. It’s possible. We might each want to do our own personal research to see what’s true for us. For most of us, we know that our body wisdom asks that we slow down, nestle in, be cozy, do less, consume less, expend less energy and use less effort. But it is often over-ruled by the corporate-driven cultural imperative to get busy shopping, hustling, partying and over-indulging!

It’s no wonder that so many people dread this time of year. For some it is simply dealing with so much darkness, so much stale-air indoor time, and the resulting sense of disconnection from nature, resulting in boredom and even depression. But for most of us it is more likely the result of this convergence of a biological need on the one hand and thoughts that we ‘should’ be doing more on the other.

Our sense of inadequacy comes into full flower in this season. Did I give enough? Did I buy the right things? Did I remember everyone? Am I over-doing it? or Why do I have so few people in my life to buy gifts for or close enough to spend the holidays with?

With seasonal over-indulgences, our bodies, usually so reliable all year long when treated in a reasonable manner, suddenly rebel. Too much dessert! Too much liquor! Too much talking! And so at the very time we want to feel our best to meet this challenging time, we sabotage our physical well being, and end up either sick or grumpy.

Illness is our bodies’ last resort to enforce a slow down. I certainly learned that the hard way back in the early 1990’s when I came down with chronic fatigue and was forced to quit my career as an ad exec and quiet down enough to hear this body wisdom. After returning to wellness, I felt compelled to remind others of the importance of listening in, and so I published some of this inner wisdom, accessible by all in a slowed down and open state, in my book Tapping the Wisdom Within, A Guide to Joyous Living.

And even having ‘written the book’ I still find myself occasionally in periods where I am in a state of over-doing. This is one of those periods. Preparing for holidays, preparing for being away for two months and applying for an educational program, all put on hold for ten nights while I went on retreat, so that upon return I must work twice as fast – just crazy! So I am definitely speaking to myself here. The teacher teaches what she needs to learn. Isn’t that what they say? I have been making a case for the slows everywhere I go in order to remind myself of the importance of this message.

Sometimes the culture — the combined energies of all human interaction — will itself create conditions to enforce a slowing down, a dialing back of over-efforting in pursuit of amassing material wealth. Although no one would wish upon the world an economic downturn, still when one comes, people discover they have more time for each other, more time to take care of their bodies, their minds and their relationships, more time to devote to causes that have meaning for them, more time for satisfying creative pursuits, more time to discover who they really are and what really matters. If they are not spending all their time freaking out, that is!

So when the economy turns around, what happens? Is the body wisdom forgotten and the race begun again? Or do we allow that wisdom to inform us regardless of causes and conditions?

When it comes to this season so rich in traditions, this cultural shift offers an opportunity to implement some of the changes in the way we celebrate. We may see that some aspects of our traditions are really just collective habits compounding our collective misery. Others bring us real joy. Knowing the difference, we can refine our rituals and make them even more meaningful for us.

I know for me this time of year, I feel the need to slow down, to linger longer in the cozy nest of my warm bed, to take longer baths, to have longer conversations with loved ones, to linger over meals, to take slow walks and be available for any delights that show up – whether out in nature or walking along the main street of my town. I enjoy sensing in to the season by eating more root vegetables and winter fruits – apples, oranges and persimmons. I like to spend more time in the kitchen making soups and stews and the occasional batch of my grandmother’s oatmeal cookies. Yes, I want to spend time with family, enjoying being together without too much agenda.

Implementing what Teja Bell said, can I set my efforting at 70%, so that my body and mind can be healthy, resilient, responsive, rested and joyful?

This is my wish for my holidays and yours. May we slow down and sense in to our burrowing animal nature. May we give from our hearts in the form of time to really listen, to really laugh, to really treasure this finite gift of life in this magical season.

Bells, Bowing and Buddhas

Looking over this blog, you may have gotten it that I’m gaga over bells. There’s a bowl bell at the top of the blog and two big bells represented by photo and painting on the side and bottom. The one on the top is the bell I ring at the end of the meditation I lead every week in the class I teach in my home. It was purchased at the end of a retreat a few years ago, after Howie Cohn led a listening meditation ringing a variety of these bells. When we went to Mexico I took my bell bowl and left it in our casa, thinking I would buy another one for our home in San Rafael. But all bell bowls are not alike and I never found one as perfectly sonorous as the one I had. So on our next trip I brought my bell bowl back and my students enjoy its tone at then end of our meditation together.

The painting on the bottom of the blog is of the bell that sits outside the Community Hall at Spirit Rock, where classes and day longs are taught. I painted it so long ago that there was no bench or signage, and the foliage was less dense so you could see the golden hills through the trees. It is the bell that Jack Kornfield had us take turns ringing 108 times after the attack on the World Trade Center September 11th, 2001. It is the bell that first called me to Buddhist meditation practice and is very dear to my heart. Occasionally while on retreat we can hear that bell ringing down below as a call to practice to those attending a day long class. It rings out a lovely connection of well wishing between the retreatants above and below, a sending of metta and support each way.

The photograph on the right side of the blog is of the main retreat bell that sits outside the beautiful Spirit Rock Meditation Hall. It frames the ever-changing view of the valley where the Center is nestled. This is the bell I have developed a deep relationship with over the past years of going on retreat and having the honor to ring it.

Why am I gaga over these bells? Well, first and foremost because they call me to practice. They ring out across the silence of the valley and remind me and all of us in the sangha of the importance of meditative practice. It is so easy to forget! Especially in the early years of the practice, but even in later years if one gets very busy, we can forget to make room for meditation, forget how much of the calm, kind and often joyous way we feel is due to this regular practice. We might think we are just like that naturally! Until we go without it for a few weeks or months and whoa! We discover that our inner life has been taken over by a hoard of nasty squatters digging up the dirt and flinging it at us.

The bell calls me to practice, and as bell ringer I am very aware and appreciate of being a part of that call to practice of the sangha. While I am not a particularly ritualistic person, I do have a very formal way of ringing the bell. This was never taught to me but I can’t imagine doing it any other way. I stand four feet in front of the bell, pause a moment to really be present, to relax into gratitude, to take in the wonderful way the thick metal ring from which the bell hangs frames the view. Then I bring my hands together and bow to the bell. This bow sets my intention to be fully present for this experience. I then remove the banger from its holder, step to one side and begin to ring the bell.

Because Spirit Rock is a large campus and people go on hikes, we are asked to ring this bell as loud as we can, so I really swing that hammer-shaped ringer. The sight of a retreatant swinging with such gusto in the slow, peaceful quiet of a meditation retreat can be quite surprising. I ring it eight times, allowing about five waves of sound to play out between each striking of the bell. Then I replace the ringer, move in front of the bell again, pause, listening to the waves soften, never knowing for sure when they really end, or if they end at all. Then I bow in gratitude.

When the bell calms and quiets, it reminds me to do the same, and to notice that that’s how this calm experience is, of being repeatedly struck out in the world, by the to do list, the expectations, the rushing, the forgetting to be mindful, all culminating in huge waves of big noise, and then on retreat, the feeling of coming to stillness, settling in to a deep bottomless quiet.

On the last day of this recent retreat, it happened that I was the last bell ringer, calling the sangha to the closing meeting. And when I bowed to the bell the last time, I didn’t feel the sadness and sense of impending loss that I had felt on the August retreat. I just said, “Until we meet again,” because this is now a solid ongoing relationship I am in with this bell!

The 2:20 bell ringer on this retreat was a severely physically challenged woman who rode around in a motorized wheelchair plastered with bumper stickers full of messages of joy. There were some things on retreat that she couldn’t do, like the walking meditation, the Qi Gong and hiking in the hills. But she would just set her wheelchair up to face out at the view as the rest of us walked back and forth across the patio; or she would read a book. She couldn’t open doors and she struggled with her crippled hands getting in and out of her outerwear in the cloakroom. Over the ten days we all spent together, she became the heart of the sangha, sharing her impish joy as she sprung her arms open to let you unzip or zip her sweater. Whoever was closest to her helped with whatever was needed at the moment. She was the only one with whom we had eye contact, the only one we could touch, so she became very dear to us all.

Given her physical limitations, her volunteering to be a bell ringer was quite amazing. She positioned her chair in just the right place to make connection with the bell, and worked her hands around the ringer until she had a firm grasp. The first few rings were soft as she adjusted her stroke, but soon she was able to really bang that bell. It made my heart soar to hear those gongs, knowing what a triumph it was for her to be able to perform this very physical energetic task, and knowing from my own experience what an honor it is and joy it is to do so. True delicious mudita.

Bowing
I mentioned that I bow to the bell. I also bow at the end of meditation with gratitude for having taken the time to meditate and for whatever teacher has led the meditation. On retreat I bow when I first enter the Meditation Hall in the morning, setting my intention to be as present as possible for whatever arises during the day, and when I leave after the last meditation at night, my heart full of gratitude for the gift of a day full of spaciousness, mindfulness and peace, even if it also contained physical, mental or emotional pain.

I bow to anyone who bows to me, and I bow in gratitude to anyone who has performed a service or kindness, since we are all in silence. This all feels very natural to me.

Toward the end of the retreat, I found I was bowing at the beginning and ending of my yogi job, setting my intention to be mindful and ending with gratitude for the insights received while working and well-wishing for anyone who would be using the facilities I had just cleaned. Since I was the bathroom cleaner for my dormitory building, I am sure there was some wonder or amusement for anyone who happened to notice me bowing at the door of the bathroom!

I remember many years ago when I first observed people bowing, I didn’t understand it and I was very uncomfortable with it. Fortunately bowing is a totally optional personal choice! My resistance came from my background of attending church as a child. From a Christian perspective, putting ones hands together in front of the chest and lowering the head is a sign of prayer. One prays to God, so doing this position to non-Christian altars and to people seemed to be making them gods.

And in one way that is so. There is the Sanskrit greeting ‘namaste’ that basically means ‘the god in me greets the god in you.’ This Hindu-based but multi-religious greeting is done with this bowing gesture. From a Christian viewpoint this could seem heretical to some, but I believe Jesus would have understood, for he saw the holy fingerprint of God in every being, regardless of their social status. His devotion to the poor and outcasts exemplified this recognition that we are all children of God. And that is the same with this expression and with bowing.

Coming from a Christian background, it is hard to see an altar and not be uncomfortable if God, Jesus or Mary are not upon it. Altars are to pray to, are they not? Well not in Buddhist practice, even though with the bowing it certainly looks that way. With a statue of Buddha on the altar (and at Spirit Rock the altars have both Buddha and Kwan Yin, the Asian goddess of mercy and compassion), it certainly looks like prayer and supplication.

But Buddha is not a god, and he made that very clear from the start. The first person Buddha met along the road after he had his great awakening was a man who was stricken by the illumination emanating from this stranger. “Are you a God?” he asked. “No,” the Buddha replied. “Are you a man?” “No,” he replied. “I am awake.”

The word ‘Buddha’ means awakened. It is a state of awareness possible in any given moment for any of us, rare though it may be to be able to sustain it indefinitely. The Buddha deflected all attempts to make him into a god. Therefore Buddhists don’t pray to him. They aspire to walk the path he taught in order to be present and compassionate beings.

On retreat I did notice a great variety of bowing. Some people bowed every time they entered and exited the meditation hall all during the day, and some bowed much deeper than others. There is in some Buddhist traditions ritual prostration, not something that I with my hip replacement would ever get into! But even without that physical limitation, it would not be in my nature to do so. Some people are just by nature more devotional. This is often called a bhakti path, and one of the teachers on this retreat, Robert Hall, says he is very much of the devotional path, the path of surrender.

I am not on a devotional path, except in the sense of feeling a welling of gratitude for sensing connection to all that is (what some might call divinity) when it comes. But surrendering to another person, which is the path some people take when they follow a master or guru in some religious traditions, is anathema to me. It’s just not in my DNA. I appreciate that Spirit Rock teachers deflect any attempts by students to be devotional towards them. They protect themselves by team teaching retreats, by staying very authentic and honest, often using their human foibles for dharma teachings, and by remembering that the Buddha himself deflected all such attempts.

Fortunately there is plenty of room for non-devotional types like me in Buddhism and for devotional types as well. That’s part of what I like so much about being part of a Buddhist sangha. We are not all alike either in our beliefs, in the way we look or anything else. What we have in common is our intention to be present as much as we possibly can be, and to be as kind to ourselves and others as we can be. That is a lot to have in common really, and the subsequent sense of community, trust and loving-kindness that arises naturally out of that shared intention is a treasure of great value.

Buddhas Everywhere!
So, one might ask, if Buddha is not a god, then why are there statues of him all over the place? At Spirit Rock there are not just statues on altars. Outside there is a blue-ish Buddha statue in the reflection pool and a huge stone one just above the dining hall with a nice curved bench for you to sit in the shade of an oak tree and have a private session. On many hiking paths all over the vast property you will come across Buddhas, sitting or standing. In the dormitories there are lying down Buddhas. And there are lots of Buddha statues of all sizes in the Spirit Rock bookstore that you can buy and take home with you if you are so inclined.

So what are they for, these Buddha statues? They are a reminder to be present, to access our inner Buddha nature, that part of ourselves that knows its connection to all beings everywhere. Spending time with one of these statues, one might be inspired to ponder the life of Siddhartha Gautama and his awakening under the Bodhi tree after a long night of being taunted and tempted by Mara. But even without that story, the statues with their warmth, calmness and serenity will either resonate and increase our own inner calm, or make us aware of the degree to which we are tense or feel disconnected, and bring us back to the practice in order to make room for that peace and deep connection in our lives.

On this retreat I began seeing Buddhas everywhere, even when there weren’t statues! In the meditation hall, while sitting on a chair in the rear of the room for a change of position, I saw the hunched shape of a retreatant leaning forward and somehow her brown patterned shawl took on the look of a curly-haired flat-faced Buddha head, like a large stone head sitting on the ground.

Then one morning at breakfast, looking out the double-paned window, pierced by the sun rising over the hills, the dancing reflections of the leaves against the glass revealed the small smiling face of a gentle Thai Buddha.

I felt incredibly supported in my practice by these lovely encounters. Having taken hallucinogens in my youth, I understood that the mind has the ability to create images out of patterns, so I wasn’t at all alarmed. I just realized that Buddhas are everywhere in every moment. The only time they don’t exist is whenever you strive too hard to find them.

So that’s what I know so far about bells, bowing and Buddhas! Bells are a call to practice. Bowing is a greeting, a setting the intention to practice and an expression of gratitude to others and for the practice. And representations of Buddha are the ever-present inspiration that spacious awareness is possible in any moment.

May it be so for you in this moment.

The Sweet Silence of the Sangha on Retreat

In an August post I gave a pretty thorough accounting of the retreat experience at Spirit Rock. This late November retreat was ten nights instead of six in August, we had Teja Bell teaching Qi Gong instead of Janice Gates and Anne Cushman teaching yoga, it was a Thanksgiving retreat so we had a lovely celebration in silence, it was winter instead of summer, we had totally different teachers, and I cleaned toilets instead of vacuuming halls. Other than that it was very much the same! Okay, it was totally different!

But the main thing about any retreat I have attended was the same: the sweetness of the sangha in silence. Here are some thoughts I wrote down about that aspect of my experience:

The sweetest thing in all the world, besides babies and small children, is a sangha (community of retreatants) in silence. The quiet itself is delicious.

Internally the release from interaction is restful. I imagine it’s like the difference between a big box of 100 ping pong balls, bouncing off the walls and also bouncing off each other; and one ping pong ball in a small box, still bouncing off the walls (interior conversation) but able to come to rest more easily because there aren’t all the other surfaces to interact with.

The silence is like fine wine becoming more mellow as it ages. Each day of the retreat the sangha becomes more synchronized and sensate. No one bumps into anyone, as if the energy field around each person is more strongly sensed, and we all weave our way around each other, aware of each other without eye contact.

Slowing down in the silence, there’s presence, awareness and what arises out of that is a civility that feels incredibly loving and supportive. Doors are held for each other because we are aware of the others in a way that moving at a faster pace and in the blur of being caught up in conversation, we might not.

Silence is golden. And like gold, it’s value is determined by the collective. If people stop valuing it, it loses its value, because it can’t really be partially held in a close-knit sangha. It has to be universally valued and protected. Some people on this retreat were challenged in this regard. Once you start talking, it can be like starting back smoking or drinking for an addict. It’s impossible to have just one. And your behavior affects everyone, though you think you are being discreet. It’s like a small pin prick at first, but grows as more people succumb to the temptation. Still, for the most part, the sangha was in silence and it was magical.

Apparently not all retreats everywhere hold the same traditions around silence. My roommate Yun from LA had not been to Spirit Rock before and her experience of retreats was that you could have eye contact and use ‘functional talk.’ I told her that there were some yogi jobs in the kitchen, where functional talk might be necessary, but other than that, no. She was shocked! But at the end of the retreat, she was quite blissful and grateful for this stricter interpretation of silence.

On the last evening of the retreat we were told to experiment talking for the dinner hour. The first thing I noticed about talking is that the questions we ask each other automatically take us out of the moment. ‘How has the retreat been for you? Where do you head off to tomorrow?” Suddenly we’re in the past or the future instead of the present moment.

Released from the cocoon of the silence, I was amazed how incredibly unskillful I became in my actions, forgetting to do things like eat! like take my pills! like go to my room to get my coat because it was getting cold! I also noticed we all started bumping into each other. “Excuse me” and “Oh, sorry” were suddenly necessary. It became then even more clear that the silence had energetically connected us in a symbiotic union, like cells that know they are in the same body, not separate beings. And the talking made us think of ourselves as separate again.

In this state of symbiotic union it was easy to understand how birds fly en masse, turning all at the same time. Now this could be creepy (think of the Borg on Startrek Next Generation), but this was not a one-mind situation. We were all very much our own individual selves, making individual choices, but in our interactions things became very simple and slow.

Last night, a week after the retreat had ended, I went to my circle singing group taught by the extremely talented singer and gifted teacher Pollyanna Bush. When the time came for us to take turns singing impromptu solos, I created an ode to the sweet silence of the sangha. The others in the group were so grateful to have that glimpse into the restful quality of retreat life, they didn’t want to change the mood, so the next singer, the extremely talented painter Jane Wilson, asked for the same tune (Pollyanna plays the piano for us) and sang a thank you song. Lovely!

Often people who haven’t sat a retreat say they could never go that long without talking, especially people who consider themselves talkative. But surprisingly it is the people who are most talkative who find the greatest relief and release in the comfort of silence. I consider myself talkative, and that has certainly been the case for me. The silence is the absolutely best thing about a retreat, as wonderful as the teachings, the food, the setting and the care of the staff are, the silence is the greatest teacher, the softest comforter and the pure sweetness of any retreat.