Coming home

spirit-rockWhen I first arrived at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in the early 1990’s, it felt like a homecoming. Home to the lovely woodsy canyon surrounded by oak-studded hills. Home to the easy warmth and openness of the people — the teachers, staff and fellow students — the sweetness of sangha, the community of supportive fellow meditation practitioners. And home to the Buddha’s teachings that give me a framework to look at my own experience and insights. This was a place I could belong without ‘buying into’ some belief. Instead I was offered room to grow in my own way, at my own pace. It’s what teacher and Spirit Rock co-founder Jack Kornfield so aptly calls a path with heart.

So that’s what I want for my students when they come to my weekly class: To feel they have come home, and that there is room for them to grow into their true selves, aligned with their own inner wisdom. Together we cultivate spaciousness to be present with whatever arises in our moment by moment experience, and we meet it with friendliness, respect and curiosity. We learn that we have nothing to defend, nothing to hide and nothing to prove. We come home to ourselves as we come home to our breath in each moment.

Our purpose when we come together is not to learn about Buddhism, although we do become increasingly familiar with the teachings. We are not accumulating knowledge to become Buddhist scholars. We’re not here to accumulate anything. Instead we’re learning to gently let go of a lot of previously unexamined opinions, beliefs and judgments that cloud our view and keeps us from experiencing the joy and beauty of this life in every moment, no matter what our current experience. We are using the wise teachings of the Buddha as a framework, map or guide, so that our own individual explorations can be understood in greater context.

The Buddha told his students, ‘See for yourself.’ So that’s what we do here. If you give yourself the gift of meditation practice — on a daily basis, in a weekly class and in the extended silence of an occasional retreat — you can see for yourself how the practice benefits your life. All we are doing really is offering own inner wisdom what it needs in order to bloom within us. When that wisdom is heard and valued, there are gentle and sometimes remarkable internal shifts of perspective that are liberating.

Why Insight Meditation?
There are approximately 500 different schools of Buddhism. Not all of them have made their way to the US, but even here we have many choices, such as Zen, Tibetan, Shambhala and Vipassana/Insight Meditation. So how does one decide the one that’s a good fit? Since Spirit Rock was my first real experience of Buddhism, I can’t speak very knowledgeably about other traditions, but recently, at the Buddhist Insight Network conference I attended, Gil Fronsdal gave a dharma talk that included a helpful overview. He asked us to imagine a spectrum of Buddhist traditions ranging from very religious to totally secular. On the very religious end are deities, supernatural beings and ghosts, rituals, devotion, faith — all the makings of what we think of as religion.

Insight Meditation, especially as it is taught in the West, falls on the far other end of the spectrum. It is as secular as you can get and still follow the Buddha’s teachings. There are no deities, and the Buddha is not a god, but an enlightened teacher and inspiration. For those of us on this path, the more secular approach closely follows the Buddha’s own path 2600 years ago, since he kept it all very simple. He was an enlightened teacher generously sharing concepts that helped people to awaken to their own Buddha nature.

The Buddha’s interests were psychological rather than religious. Nothing that has been recorded of his teachings indicates any interest in whether there is a god — and if so how many — or what happens to us when we die. Those kinds of questions are at the heart of all religions, but the Buddha, the great investigator, seems to have had no interest in investigating such questions. He accepted reincarnation as true, it wasn’t the focus of his personal investigation or his teachings, and a Buddhist practitioner, at least in this tradition, can rest in the ‘I don’t know’ mind around that and pretty much anything, really. That resting in not knowing is at the heart of our practice. Like the Buddha. we can focus our interest on this life, right here, right now, and how to live it in a way that does not create suffering for ourselves and others.

As his wise teachings spread to different countries, they were incorporated into the already existing religious traditions, and became new schools of Buddhism. All forms of Buddhism adhere to the original teachings, but they emphasize different aspects and amalgamate the teachings into their cultural comfort zones. As Buddhism arrived in the West, the same thing is happening.

So we have a wide variety of traditions. Which one draws us? Which one, if any, feels like a homecoming?

The Insight Meditation tradition appeals to those who are not looking for God or a religion — either because they already have one or because they have no interest in one. Instead they are looking for ways to cope with life’s challenges. Even though we have a lot of fun in our class, nobody comes for the fun of it. The original impulse to find a meditation group comes more from heeding our own inner wisdom’s call to pay attention, and to develop the skills to do so.

You can see why this is the tradition that has been readily adopted by mental health professionals in the West. It has come to be taught in hospitals, schools, prisons, etc. without reference to the Buddha, just taught as Mindfulness.

There are scholars in this tradition, who study and translate the Pali Canon, the written record of the Buddha’s words as recorded 500 years after his death. (Before that it was an oral transmission down through generations of monks.) These scholars perform very important work. But this is a living tradition, and it is in the practice of meditation, in each of our own inner investigation and aha moments that the Buddha’s insights and wisdom lives on.

When I first ‘came home’ to Spirit Rock, I was already leading a meditation class a few miles away, having had my own deep experience of a series of insights that helped me recover from a debilitating illness. I had written a book and had been asked to teach. When my class went on a field trip to Spirit Rock, I had no idea it would change my life.

I really appreciated the way the Buddha’s mind worked, and how all the insights I’d had in my own practice fit so nicely within the framework he created. I could see how all that I had experienced was just a normal arising of a mind that has had the opportunity to quiet down and be present with compassion. What a relief! And what an inspiration! I decided to stop teaching for awhile and simply open myself to the teachings of the Buddha by attending a weekly class at Spirit Rock. Then about ten years ago, I was asked to teach, and I have been teaching ever since.

I don’t want to give the impression that Vipassana has no rituals. It comes from the monasteries of southeast Asia, and if you go there, certain rituals will be very apparent. But at Spirit Rock, IMS in Barre, MS; and in the many other smaller sanghas throughout the US and beyond, you will probably find just a few:

  • In general, shoes are removed before entering the meditation hall.
  • Silence is maintained during meditation periods and may be requested by the teacher at other times.
  • Bells are rung to end the meditation, sometimes at the beginning, and on retreats as calls to practice. (My favorite of all rituals!)
  • There is usually some kind of altar with a statue of Buddha on it.
  • And there is bowing. At first it was difficult for me to be in a room with an altar and to bow to it. How is this not bowing to a god? I wondered. But then I heard somewhere that when we bow we put our head below our heart, and that helped me to recognize the benefit of releasing the churning patterns of the thinking mind and allow the heartspace to inform me.
    Mostly we are not bowing in this deep way. We simply press our hands together at the end of meditation, which I see as a way to acknowledge the experience, and to thank myself for taking the time to meditate.
    If we bow to the Buddha, it is out of deep respect and gratitude to a great enlightened teacher.
    And we may bow to our own teachers as well, not because they are ‘masters’ but because we are grateful for their taking the time to practice, to learn, to awaken to whatever degree they are able, and to generously share their wisdom.
  • On retreat, depending on the teachers, sometimes there is chanting, especially in the evening after the dharma talk. Very lovely and deep.

Gil’s talk about where our tradition fits on the spectrum from religious to secular was very freeing for me. Not only did I see that I was in the right place for me — no surprise there — but I realized that I had felt I should know all about the other traditions. For example, I had felt I should know the names of the deities represented in Tibetan Buddhist art. ‘I should, I should’ — that’s always a clue. That word ‘should’ comes from a place of fear, of insufficiency, not-enough-ness, of craving to be accepted, to shore up my identity as a ‘true Buddhist’ or whatever idea I might have had. But now I could see that feeling I need to name all the deities of another tradition makes as much sense as a Presbyterian thinking there is some failing in their not knowing all the Catholic saints!

The real key is to practice wholeheartedly in the path we have chosen, the one that feels aligned with our truest nature. And for me that is this very secular, very portable practice of Insight Meditation.  What about you?

An Earth Day Meditation

earthAs mentioned in the last post, one question that is skillful to ask ourselves is ‘How am I in relationship to…’ whatever is our current area of concern. During the week around Earth Day I traditionally pause to look at how I’m doing in my relationship with the earth. It’s a chance to acknowledge whatever wise changes I’ve made during the year and to honestly assess any areas where I could become more mindful. This year we leased an electric car, a big step toward being part of the solution, and a fun one! We’ve named our Nissan Leaf ‘Zippy’ because it has more get up and go than any gas fueled car we’ve ever had, even our beloved Prius. And it’s the least expensive transportation we’ve ever had, which is very satisfying too.

Most of the rest of my earth-friendly ways are long established and easy habits to continue. The environment is the issue of most importance to me (How will we be able to work out our other challenges if our water, soil and air are poisoning us?) so that’s where I put my volunteer efforts and most of my donations. But of course I can also see that there were times in the past year when I was somewhat mindless in buying something without considering environmental consequences (Good color, it fits, the price is right = Buy it!)  It’s a process, and nobody’s perfect. At least no one I’d enjoy knowing!

What does all this have to do with meditation? The practice of meditation has made it possible for me to come into a healthier relationship with my feelings around my responsibility toward maintaining a healthy planet. In my twenties my emotions were so shot through with guilt and grief that I couldn’t look at them. It was too uncomfortable. So even though I wanted very much to save the planet, and did do many things, there was also some resistance to change. But through the insights that arise from quieting down and listening in, over the years I have been able to see that common sense environmental practices are not a burden to take on. They are expressions of love for the earth and all of nature. And that changes everything, doesn’t it?

But why did I feel so guilty? I had a sense of being so out of step with the natural systems of the rest of nature that we don’t belong here. I don’t know where that came from. It wasn’t something my parents ever taught me, and I don’t remember hearing it from anyone else. It was just the way I felt from a very young age. I was eventually able to work my way back from that cliff by recognizing that we are all made of the same stuff. Yes, our species may have taken a dangerously wrong turn somewhere and needs to dial it back through compassionate choices, but we belong here too. We do not need to erase our footprints in the sand. We just need to attune ourselves more to our natural way of being. We weren’t born to be isolated, destructive and oblivious.

It softens my sense of separation to see how other species adapt to our manmade objects, creating habitat and perches out of concrete and wire strung from pole to pole. They seem to see it as just another part of their world. I very much doubt they are judging it as an eyesore the way I do. There are many ways in which our development for our own purposes without regard to other species has caused great harm and even extinction, cutting them off from their natural routes, eliminating their means of survival and causing climate change. But I don’t believe they see humans as evil-doers. I don’t believe they see us as separate. We are just another kind of mammal.

The closest I came to getting a sense of how other species might see us was on a meditation retreat on Mount Tamalpais years ago. After a few days in silence I decided to walk down into Muir Woods, a stunning national park full of old growth redwoods that draws millions of visitors a year. I descended into the canyon through the ‘back’ of the park where few visitors walk, then slowly made my way toward the main entrance, staying fully present with my breath and my feet on the soft path of needles. When the path transitioned to decking, to protect the redwood roots from the heavy constant trampling of visitors, I paused to make sure I was up for this. I was. As I started walking among humans, I used the same kind of ‘beginner’s mind’ attention I had been paying the trees, the ferns, the water in the creek — seeing them as just another species of wildlife: colorful bipeds with a variety of mostly melodic sounds who walk in small groups at different speeds, looking up into the trees, but also engrossed with each other in a flurry of chatter. Not so different from busy song birds really. They were not alien to nature. They were part of it. And so was I. My judgments about crowds, noise, lack of appropriate reverence in that awe-inspiring place were gone. I could just see them, and feel a tenderness for them that I would not have imagined possible.

It doesn’t seem fanciful to see ourselves as just another form of life, one that dwells in a variety of habitats and dons hard shells for long distance movement on land, sea and air. Only to the degree we seem a personal and immediate threat to their survival do other species shun us. Out at Spirit Rock, where the bipeds on retreat walk slowly in silence and never harm other living beings, all species seem markedly friendlier and less skittish. As with all relationships, we learn how to be in the world, based on how we’re treated. Knowing that, can we treat all beings well, thus substantially improving our own likelihood of survival?

We don’t need to erase ourselves from the planet for it to thrive. We simply have to expand our understanding of the way of things — that we are not a species apart and we need the earth and all its inhabitants to be healthy in order for us to survive. The wealth of creative intelligence we have has already developed solutions that are easy to adopt.

In class this week, with our view of Mount Tamalpais and the hills of Marin County, we acknowledged how fortunate we are to live in a place full of people who are dedicated to the environment, and to be inspired by previous generations who have made major differences through their efforts. In particular, I think of my friend Martin Griffin, an MD and father of four who worked so hard to save this county from becoming yet another overdeveloped bedroom community after WWII where massive building projects went unchecked without regard to consequences to the wild world.

One person can make a huge difference. But Marty would be the first to say he didn’t do it alone. None of us do any of this kind of work alone. But with each person using whatever time, skills and resources they have, it is absolutely amazing what can be accomplished. There are plenty of dedicated people today working together to protect and defend the wild and the health of the planet. I am especially appreciative of the work of the local Sierra Club group with whom I work as the website administrator. They work tirelessly out of love for the earth and all its inhabitants, so that we may all have healthy water, air and soil to sustain us for generations to come. Thank you all!

Protecting the health of the planet is one area that each of us, throughout every day of our lives, makes choices that help or hurt the health of our planet. We may not get ‘active’ but we can make wise choices in what we buy, how we dispose of it and how we vote. These wise choices do make a difference! Look at the difference that has been made over the past decades. And with every decade, as more people participated, doing the right thing became easier and easier, because systems are in place to support it. And habits, once in place, are easy to sustain.

Marin County was an incubator for the development of community recycling and composting. In more recent decades it became the incubator for community aggregate alternative energy, so that even though our power comes through Pacific Gas & Electric lines, our local Marin Clean Energy assures that the power we are using is 100% green. (If you live in Marin and haven’t opted in for 100% Green, switch now as a gift to the earth on Earth Day!)  Other communities have joined Marin Clean Energy or set up their community aggregate, but it was a sangha sister of mine at Spirit Rock, Barbara George, who worked hard to make it happen. Talk about birthing pains! She needed that weekly quiet sit and supportive sangha to make it possible to face down the seemingly endless challenges that wanted her project to fail. But she and her cohorts did it! I couldn’t be more proud or grateful. Another great example of one person making a difference in a big way.

This Earth Day, when we see how some previous achievements being sabotaged and dismantled, it is easy to get totally disheartened, to lose hope, to even ask ‘Why bother?’ But this is a powerful world movement now, supported not just by environmental activists but by corporate leaders who are excited about the possibilities of renewable energy and intelligent care of the planet, and by governments who recognize the destabilizing potential of climate chaos. Our current president and his crew might be a little slow on the uptake, but the powerful engine of positive change has left the station. There’s no calling it back by a dwindling myopic band who cling to the idea that immediate profit for the few takes precedent over the well being of all in this and future generations. I believe that! And that gives me hope that with sufficient effort by all who are clear-seeing, we can save our species through recognizing how dependent we are on the well being of all earth systems — the water, the air, the soil, and the complex web of life.

So what keeps us from making wise choices? What exactly is the resistance? Meditation has given me a chance to understand how attached we get to certain identities. We define ourselves in a certain way and that way might include some pretty earth-unfriendly choices: gas guzzling SUVs and trucks that support our macho image of self, for example. Not being a wimp can seem more important than saving the planet for our children and grandchildren. But saving the planet is the job of everyday super-heroes, not wimps!

The more deeply we sense our true being, the easier it is to see through the fallacy of the advertising hype that has been perpetrated upon us by corporate branding. (I used to work in advertising, so I know full well the fear-based psychological methods employed to make us feel isolated and in need of shoring up with identity-glorification objects!)

Another way meditation has helped me is to not get caught up in some future goal of a perfect earth. That is a sure way to burn out and give up! Instead I recognize how important it is to simply live in this moment with as much wisdom and compassion as I can. If I do that, moment by moment, choice by choice, then I am co-creating the world I want to live in.

If we can see our wise choices as yet another way we express our love of life and of this amazing planet, then doing the right thing becomes not some external demand but an internal arising of our truest nature, to live in harmony with all being. In this way, through kindness, through understanding the nature of mind, through letting go of the need to prove anything to anyone, we can co-create the healthy, harmonious and peaceful world we want for ourselves, for all beings in this and all future generations.

Happy Earth Day, every day!

Barnacles can’t dance, but we can!

Every time I come home after a retreat I feel as if I’ve been released into a more natural way of being, as if I’m lightly dancing with life. I am able to see more clearly the nature of suffering and how I tend to create it.

barnacleAn image from my childhood comes to mind: The barnacles on the boats in the Marina where my friend and I used to play on sunny San Francisco days. We humans often act like barnacles, attaching ourselves to all manner of things.

We may do this in our relationships. Clinging is corrosive and can destroy natural loving bonds and connections. Think about how you react when someone clings to you. It feels more like a drain, an imposition or a demand that you are unable to fulfill, doesn’t it? The person who is clinging doesn’t realize that they are having the opposite effect of what they are trying so hard to achieve. They can’t see that what they are offering is not love or friendship at all. Love is like a dance of the interplay of energy. How does a barnacle dance? Not very well!

I think you get the idea. Where else in our lives might we be clinging rather than dancing?

We cling to our ideas of who we are. With barnacle-like persistence we fasten ourselves to an identity made up of all kinds of things to varying degrees: political affiliation, personal style, religious belief, culture, profession, physical characteristics, personality traits, possessions, family, ancestry, relationship roles, experiences, preferences, etc. These amalgams of how we see ourselves can get locked in early in life, long before we have the wisdom, experience, judgment, or understanding to question the veracity of these views. But it’s never too late to pause in a moment of mindfulness and question our barnacle grip.

The film critic Mick LaSalle was asked by a reader about his favorite films and actors. Mick replied “…I think self-definition through the announcement of favorites can sometimes shut the door on discovery.” Then he went on to list his favorites. But in that acknowledgement he kept the door open to discovery, didn’t he? And that’s what we all want to do, even while enjoying what we know and love.

In class we discussed how whole generations brand themselves by set ideas of fashion, music, hairstyles, vehicles, etc. Recently I heard the term ‘perennials’ to describe people of any generation who are less interested in age-based divisions and are fully engaged in life, ever new and unfolding. I liked that. I might even get a little attached to it!

So here we are, attached to these ideas about this self we hold ourselves to be. We may promote or berate this self, but we rarely question that it is exactly who we are. If we are not totally thrilled with this self, we want a makeover. We find the most offensive aspect or the one that is most readily changeable — weight, for example — and we focus all our distress, unhappiness and dissatisfaction on the idea that if only we lost some pounds, then we’d be happy. Or perhaps it’s wrinkles that worry us, and we invest in fancy creams, facials or surgery. Or maybe it’s fame or wealth that we believe will finally make us okay. Whatever it is, there is no end to the wanting. Achieving the perfect weight, flawless skin, rave reviews or mountains of money — none of it is ever quite enough. It doesn’t deliver on promised results. If we can check off a goal reached, we just reset the goal. It still leaves us in a state of ‘if only’.

Of course, there’s practical wisdom in maintaining a healthy weight, in taking care of our bodies and creating financial stability. But we are talking about the craving for perfection, the striving for some ideal that will right all the wrongs in our life. We expend a lot of energy chasing those ‘if only’ goals without seeing that none of them address the core challenge we face.

The core challenge is that barnacle behavior, the way we cling to the erroneous idea of self: that we are separate and must create the most appealing or impressive identity in order to navigate life’s dangerous waters.

Our meditation practice gives rise to insights that tell us something quite different. We begin to understand in an embodied way that we are natural expressions of life, interconnected to all life. We understand that all life forms a pattern — a dance, if you will — of ongoing cycles of birth, growth, death and decay that nourishes new life. What we thought was solid and permanent is instead processes, systems and patterns. Perhaps we watch a murmuration of sparrows in the sky at dusk and we realize our true nature is a dance of life, not an isolated fortress we need to defend. We no longer believe that our job is to keep repackaging ourselves to be the most attractive gift under the Christmas tree or the most impressive accumulator of stuff, power and experience

But it’s not just in our meditation practice that insights come. At any time, especially if we are troubled, we can ask skillful questions that help us see more clearly. We listen to what we are telling ourselves, and we ask, ‘Is this true?’ and ‘How do I know this is true? Another useful question is ‘How am I in relationship to this?’ Instead of running around in mental circles, telling ourselves a story about a situation, person or belief, we can examine the way we are relating to them. Can we recognize that we are grasping, clinging or pushing away? Through meditation we cultivate awareness and compassion. Then we can skillfully investigate what’s going on in any moment and gain insight. Aha!

Through the regular practice of meditation we don’t necessarily lose all the various elements of identity we believed ourselves to be. We just see them for what they are and we can hold them lightly. We let go. We un-barnacle. And in doing so we reveal the beauty of all life.

We awaken to our passion and purpose, not to claim it as ‘our thing’ or wear it as a badge that defines us, but to participate more fully in each moment, blooming where we are planted with naturally arising kindness, compassion, freedom and the grace of a dancer who’s attuned to the rhythms of life.

A very different kind of retreat

spiritrockI have just returned from a three day conference/retreat of Intersangha, the annual meeting of the Buddhist Insight Network held this year at Spirit Rock Meditation Center.

It’s always wonderful to stay on retreat at Spirit Rock: to be there when the sun sets, to go to bed after an inspiring dharma talk and a walk under the stars, to wake to a bell, to walk in the still dark morning to meditate wrapped in a shawl or blanket, and then to walk together in silence down to the dining hall as the sun rises.

On this retreat we had the most crystal clear blue sky with the hills as green as I’ve ever seen them, especially appreciated after our years of drought. I wasn’t taking photos but this one is a near approximation of the green we experienced.

Every retreat is different, but this gathering was a conference, held in the envelope of a retreat. We went into silence after the evening dharma talk as we went into the last meditation sit, and we stayed in silence through breakfast in the dining hall, which was especially sweet for me. Years ago I wrote this poem about the symphony of eating breakfast on retreat at Spirit Rock:

Breakfast, Day Four

The dining hall clatter becomes symphonic.

The ecstasy of scraping chairs and utensils!

I have never heard anything so beautiful

as the sound of a sangha in silence

earnestly clearing their plates.

                                                 – SN, June  2006

Happily I was able to re-enter that state of awareness on the first morning since there was no ‘Day Four’ this time!

Just like every other retreat we all had our yogi jobs to help maintain the space and to help the seven cooks keep us well-fed. I try to have a different yogi-job on each retreat, so over the years I have vacuumed dormitory halls, scrubbed showers, swept decks, cleaned bathrooms, washed vegetables, and cleaned the Council House. This time I maintained the foyer of the main meditation hall, washed glasses and refilled water for the teacher-presenters. 

The Buddhist Insight Network is a community of mostly North American sanghas (communities of meditation practitioners) in the Vipassana/Insight tradition. (There are over 500 schools of Buddhism, all on a wide spectrum from religious to secular. Our tradition is the most secular.) Those attending were teachers, community leaders and board members of their local sanghas. Some of what was shared were the practical aspects of how to best manage the challenges of administration of these non-profit organizations, but the formal talks were deep sharings of Buddhist teachings to a group of advanced meditation practitioners. Dharma teachers Rick Hanson (for whom I guest teach), Gil Fronsdal (founder of Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City and Insight Retreat Center in Santa Cruz), Kevin Griffin, Matthew Brensilver (who ran the conference) and Lori Wong, among others, gave inspiring talks. To share them now would be to parrot what was taught. I’d prefer let the teachings percolate within me, then let them influence my own explorations and sharings over the coming weeks and months. Such a rich experience, I definitely need time to digest!


The Intersangha was a group of 65 people adept at practicing wise speech, so even though this was not a silent retreat, the talking was skillful, supportive and inspiring. Even so, after so many talks, discussions and conversations, I felt full to bursting, like I couldn’t take in one more drop of information. And when I got home, I took a long deep nap.

With my class the next day, I shared the experience of being on retreat and encouraged them to give it a try. I asked them, and now I’m asking you:

  • Have you been on a silent meditation retreat? If yes, take a moment to reflect on the value you received. Remind yourself of that value from time to time, so that you may be inspired to attend again, perhaps once a year as a regular part of your practice.
  • If you haven’t been on a retreat, is it something you consider but then reject? Reflect now on any thoughts that come up in considering going on retreat. ‘Can’t afford it.’ ‘Don’t have the time.’ ‘I have too many responsibilities I can’t hand off.’ Or something else. For each of them, ask yourself: Is this true?
  • Is there something else that keeps you from attending? Perhaps fear of what the experience might entail? Perhaps the belief that you couldn’t possibly maintain silence, or maybe you’re just unwilling to do so? Maybe you’re worried that it will be a bad experience and you’ll feel stuck there. These are all typical concerns. And I certainly can’t guarantee that you won’t have a bad time. But if you do, it’s another opportunity to explore the nature of mind, of expectation, of preferences. And you can always leave. (Just be sure to tell the retreat manager!) Most attendees have some moments of discomfort amidst many moments of delight, awe and contentment. I encourage you to explore the possibility of going on a retreat. Find out for yourself!

Spirit Rock Meditation Center is a main retreat center but there are others as well. If you prefer something on the East Coast of the US, then check out Insight Meditation Society in Barrre, MS. Other smaller retreat centers are also worth checking out. You can go to the Buddhist Insight Network listing of residential retreats.

My experience with retreats deepens more and more each time I return to the sweet silence. What a relief from all the talking I normally love to do! Like anything else, it is something that needs to be tried in order to be understood. Resistance is typical. But attendance is so fruitful!

I am happy to answer any questions you may have about the retreat experience at Spirit Rock. Although I have been on retreats elsewhere, that is the only one I feel I have sufficient knowledge of to be able to provide information.

I have promised my class that I will set up a time for us to go on a field trip to Spirit Rock when no retreat is in session. Sometimes just being able to see exactly where you will be sleeping, eating and sitting helps to motivate a meditator to sign up for a retreat. If you are in the Bay Area and would like to join in the field trip, contact me and I’ll let you know when it will be.

I occasionally offer daylong retreats here in my home in San Rafael. We are most fortunate to have a beautiful space with views of Mount Tamalpais and garden paths to wander. We maintain silence throughout, alternating between sitting, walking and eating meditations. It’s a very deep and transformative experience. If you are interested in attending a daylong with me, let me know.


A final few words about yesterday’s class: For my students coming from one direction there was a challenge of a road closure. I had alerted them and offered alternate routes, one of which was quite a maze of small roads (It would have helped if I’d mentioned whether to turn right or left!) Everyone got there, but one student was late. At the end of class she shared that she did get utterly lost, but she remembered to stay fully present with the experience and had the most beautiful ride.

A beautiful example of one of the reasons we practice!


Just how powerful is meditation?

Some of my students have been meditating for many years, while others are new to the practice. The value of sangha, the community of practitioners that comes together on a weekly basis, is not just the teachings that are shared, but the inspiration of fellow members. This week a relatively new meditator said that, although she loved meditating in the group, it was difficult to develop a regular practice at home on her own. We all totally understood and shared suggestions as to how to proceed. But the real challenge in establishing any new habit is the lack of any tangible benefit to remind us why we are making the effort. Advanced meditators have developed the habit, and they keep going because they feel the benefits of regular practice in their lives.

Without any experiences of her own to motivate her, the new meditator was helped by hearing about the benefits that others have experienced, (while being reminded that focusing on a goal of benefits is counterproductive!) One group member talked about the difference regular practice has made in her life over the years. And then I shared a story that I recently heard from a friend of mine named Linda, a talented artist who has been meditating for the better part of a decade.

A few months ago Linda went on a meditation retreat on the beach in the Yucatan. Lucky Linda, right? She was having a lovely illuminating experience. On the fourth morning of the retreat she rose early per instructions and went out into the early morning dark and headed for the beach for a walking meditation.

She describes her experience that morning:

“On my way down to the beach in the dark, the cement path in front of me was blocked by a group of people, so I stepped to my left to let them go by. My left foot went down into a four-foot deep hole with a cement floor. It was a spot to rinse off sand when leaving beach. It was unlit and had no rail.  I fell on my side and couldn’t move so I called out in the darkness for help.

powerofmed“A couple of hours later in the hospital, the orthopedic surgeon told me I had broken both leg bones, some ankle bones, and my hip. He said that the hip must be replaced, and the ankle repaired with two metal plates and many screws. He told me that the surgery must be done at one time due to the severity and would require about nine hours.  Because I was geriatric, ‘a bad risk’ and might not survive the surgery, I had to have a family member sign for me.”

Her son was called, but he couldn’t get to her. So he called his brother, the one from whom Linda had been estranged for many years for reasons I won’t go into here. Suffice it to say that this lack of contact with her son and grandchildren has been a source of great sorrow, as any mother or grandmother can well imagine. Over the years, with the help of meditation, Linda had come to some state of equanimity around it, but of course she always held some hope of a reunion.

And here it was. In this moment of crisis, with his mother quite possibly confronting death, her long-estranged son rushed to her side, and there in the hospital they had a brief but deep conversation that did a lot to heal Linda’s heart. And as to all those broken bones, the surgery was successful! In fact, when I saw her at a party a few months later, she looked more healthy and beautiful than ever. When she told me all that happened to her, I could hardly believe it, but here’s the part that she wanted me to know:

“Stephanie, I never took any pain medications. The doctors and nurses couldn’t believe it. I credit my meditation practice. I wasn’t being brave. I just didn’t need it.”

Now, wait a minute. I’m a longtime meditator, yet I appreciated the proffered pain medication after my hip replacement surgery. But Linda’s story reminded of the woman I shared the hospital room with. We were both in pain after surgery, but she was in traction with her leg up in the air, having fallen off a horse. She cried and yelled for more medication all through the night. I always assumed the difference in our post-op experiences had to do with the fact that my surgery had been planned for and it was just a matter of waiting to be pain free after years of hip pain. So it was easy for me to simply be present with my various sensations, to accept with gratitude the kindness of the nursing staff and my husband, and to be patient, knowing that this too shall pass.

My roommate’s experience was quite different: She was perfectly fine and painfree yesterday, riding along on her trusty steed having a wonderful time, I assume, and in a split second she suddenly found herself in an extremely painful and unexpected situation. Who wouldn’t be grumpy and terrified of what the future might hold? I figured. But she was the biggest pain in my experience with her constant yelling and moaning. The nurses all night told her she already had the maximum amount of medication they could give her, and told her to practice breathing slowly.

It was a long night, and I dozed off and on, but much of the time I was groggily awake and feeling that I should help her. Some inner wisdom told me I was in no state to do so, and that I needed to focus on my own healing for now. But in the early morning hours when I was feeling clearer and more myself, I said to her, ‘I’m a meditation teacher. Do you want some help?’ She said YES!!!! So I worked with her a bit and she found the little exercises I was able to share with her very useful. But since she had never tried anything like it before, it only had limited potential to ease her pain.

For years since then I have wondered how might her experience have been different had she been a practicing meditator. Or, put another way, how might I or any other experienced meditator have managed such an experience? And now, here was Linda telling me a story that in many ways sounded far worse. She described it this way:

“After surgery I woke up in ICU.  There I had a beautiful, kind, loving nurse, an older Mexican woman, who was just an angel.  A week and two transfusions later, my surgeon filled me in on my adventure. He told me that I had never gone into shock, which was amazing considering the trauma, and pain. He said that I never asked for pain meds, and that I was amazing.

“Four different new friends I met at the retreat came to visit me in the hospital,  A good friend from home flew down to be with me, as my son had to return to work, and stayed with me for a week at the hotel, which was good enough to give us a room until I was well enough to fly home.  My surgeon gave me a gift of a walker. My ICU nurse came and gave me a present, saying I had touched her life!! I flew home and was greeted with loving friends and my son, and I never lacked for food, or help, or visitors.

“My neighbors were there every day, with food, or a call just to check on me, and ask what I needed.  I am truly filled with joy, and love; blessed beyond belief!!  I am now walking, need no more surgery, and, much to my therapist’s disbelief, I am walking without a limp.

“I am certain that after four days of meditation, and the joy and peace I felt, I came through all of this with an ease that amazes people.”

So that is Linda’s story. By her own account, it would have been a very different story, and in many ways a significantly different outcome, if she had not been meditating. I know, I know, if she hadn’t been at a meditation retreat, none of this would have happened! But falling down and breaking bones happens all the time to women of a certain age. The difference here is quite significant. Perhaps you are thinking that Linda is just a naturally resilient and indomitable spirit who looks at life that way. But no. When I first met Linda she was in quite a different space, with quite a different vantage point. She credits the regular practice of meditation for her ability to be present with this experience in a way that not only made it easier for her, but uplifted those around her. Now that’s something!

So if you don’t have the habit of meditation practice, let this story inspire you. It is said that we practice not just to feel better in our lives now, but for those moments in life when we are most in need: moments of loss, moments of pain and the ultimate moment of our own transition. Our meditation practice supports us now and always.

Does Linda’s story bring up anything for you? Please comment, share your own stories, comments or questions.

Meditating with Insight Timer

2017-03-05-09-48-24If you don’t have a regular meditation practice and would like to establish one, I highly recommend using Insight Timer. It is an app that you install on your phone, computer or tablet to help you stay on track with your regular meditation practice. (There are other apps of this nature, but I have only had experience with Insight Timer.)

Why use Insight Timer?

  • It will time your meditation so you don’t have to keep looking at the clock.
  • It provides a beginning and ending bell that is very satisfying.
  • It reminds you that you are not alone in this endeavor, that at this very moment thousands of people around the world are also meditating. There’s a map of where they all are as well as profile photos. A global sangha!
  • It provides guided meditations (including my own) for all different kinds of meditative experiences: To relax, to develop awareness or to get to sleep, for example.
  • It provides talks by teachers, although if you are seeking dharma talks, I would recommend
  • You can find community in the many different online groups that focus on various traditions or aspects. For example, I belong to ‘Women Who Meditate’ and ‘American Buddhists’.
  • It’s free! While there are advanced features that cost some minimal amount, this is a free service offered by people in the tradition of generosity.
  • It keeps track of how much you are meditating and gives you congrats and stars for consistent practice. While this may feel like being in grade school, it is not surprising that most of us still respond to stars, especially when aligned with our core intention.
  • You can set it up to remind you to meditate at whatever time you want. Especially useful for a beginner who hasn’t established the habit of meditating at a certain time of day.

How to use Insight Timer

First download the app.

If you are installing it on your phone, it’s wise to put your shortcut to it on your main screen so it is up front to remind you to meditate. Apps for mind traps like social media and games can be put on subsequent screens. You’ll find them! Besides Insight Timer’s Buddhist bell logo is a powerful emblem of your deepest intention to stay present and compassionate.

In the app, you will set up your profile. There are many privacy options so explore and see what works for you. As you feel more at ease with the program, you may want to revisit your profile and adjust. You may just want to start by sharing your first name and a peaceful nature photo. 

In settings (the little gear image), make ‘Timer’ your opening screen. This will help you stay on track and not get lost in checking out groups, etc. when your intention was to meditate. It’s so easy to get distracted in social media, so make it easier to start your meditation than to get caught up in the comments in the ‘groups’ section. Even though it is a supportive community, if it is keeping you from meditating, it’s just another distraction!

On the timer page you will put in how many minutes you want to meditate and what sounds you want at the beginning and end. The free bells are really nice. but perhaps you prefer something different.

Now you are all set to meditate!

If you are a beginner, I suggest setting the timer for ten or fifteen minutes at the most to start. You can always continue to meditate after the end bell rings if you feel like it. And, if you want ‘credit’ for the full time you meditated, just check the little box above ‘DONE’ that asks if you want to log your extra minutes.

Each day you can then add more time in five minute increments, until you are meditating anywhere between twenty and forty minutes a day. Find what works best for you. There is no rule. Just developing a regular daily practice of any length is something to celebrate.

After meditation, the phone is right there, so handy, but try not to get involved right away exploring the groups, checking email or browsing social media. Instead stay present with the quality you have cultivated in your meditation. Do some mindful self-care, make yourself a cup of something to drink with mindfulness, practice mindfulness as you do meal prep, household chores, dog-walking, etc., keeping that quality of spacious ease active. If your mind is busy with some challenge you are facing, this period of deeper awareness after meditation is a good time to do some inner inquiry, journaling, walking in nature, and being open to the wisdom that is more likely to come when you have cultivated quiet receptivity.

If at a different time you want to more fully explore Insight Timer, you might look into the communities. There are many! If you want to join in, it’s easy to request to be a member. If you like the conversations, you can visit often and get involved by ‘liking’ and/or commenting. Once you comment, you will get notifications whenever anyone else comments, so it may get more involving than you want. But it also might be just the sangha you are seeking. If you want to post in these communities, bring your Wise Speech to bear before posting: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it timely? What is my intention here? If you share an experience, try to give the gist of it rather than the details, especially if it involves other people. The groups on Insight Timer are meant to be about inspiring each other to practice, so if your sharing is not helpful in that way, reconsider sharing it. This is not a gossip mill or a therapist’s office.

Using Insight Timer, or another similar app, can be very skillful. But meditating with your phone by your side can be challenging. Set your phone to ‘Do Not Disturb’ if you are likely to get tantalizing sound notifications that you have a message, email or phone call. If this is too difficult, forget about Insight Timer! Meditate the old fashioned way with your phone in another room.

Whatever you do, may it support your ongoing meditative practice.

Working with the Eightfold Path

For eight weeks we have been exploring the Buddha’s Wise Eightfold Path in order to incorporate it into our lives in a way that truly serves us.

At any moment we may find ourselves distressed about something. When we recognize the turmoil in our minds, we have options: We can take ourselves into full freak-out mode, distract ourselves with mind-numbing addictions, climb back in bed and pull the covers over our head, mull the problem over endlessly in our thoughts and in conversations with our declining number of friends and family willing to listen, OR, here’s an idea: We can turn to the Eightfold Path to see how we got here and what to do about it.

For example:

If I just got some sad news and my heart is heavy, I can remember Wise Mindfulness and simply be present with what is arising. I can acknowledge that, as uncomfortable as the thoughts and emotions are, there is nothing to fix here. This is part of life loving itself. I can attend all that arises with the compassionate awareness that the pain will shift, change and diminish in time, as all experience does.

Or maybe I feel guilty about something. Can I greet guilt as a useful messenger? Can I open to receive the message, deal with it and then let the messenger go? Yes I can, if I stay present and do some inquiry: Do I feel guilty because of something I said? Then I can look to Wise Speech and see where I misspoke. Was it something I did? Then I can look at Wise Action. In either case, if I am being honest, I can see just how I got myself into trouble. If I can be more conscious of how my words and actions have an impact, I can make apologies and reparations to whatever degree is possible. Then, and only then,  I can let go of the guilt. It’s served its purpose.

Am I feeling ashamed for the way I’m making a living, investing or spending money? Then I can look at Wise Livelihood and see how I might make some adjustments. Sometimes it seems so challenging to make big changes, but the biggest change comes afterwards, with the sense of inner freedom attuning to Wise Livelihood brings.

When looking at any of those three — speech, action and livelihood — I can ask ‘What was my intention there?’ I might discover that my words and actions weren’t aligned with Wise Intention. I might say, ‘Oh, yes, I see that I wasn’t present in the moment. Instead my mind was elsewhere.’ And I might see that I wasn’t being compassionate, either with myself or another.

And if I wasn’t being present, wasn’t activating Wise Mindfulness, then I need to use Wise Concentration practices more in my meditation. So I rededicate my daily meditation practice, consider going on a silent retreat, and make a point of noticing in each moment all the beauty around me, with deep appreciation for this gift of life — even when it feels difficult, painful and challenging.

If I notice myself striving, so focused on some goal that I’m blinded to the moment, or if I see that I’ve fallen into a habit of mindless boredom, stuck on the couch with the remote, never getting the things done that I say I want to do, then I can revisit Wise Effort to see how to bring myself back into balance.

If I feel isolated, defensive, judgmental and am more concerned with how people see me than how I can contribute to the general well being, then I can look to Wise View. I can recognize how my skewed perceptions are causing me misery. Over time, through mindfulness practices, my view naturally shifts into deeper understanding of the way of things. But even without that, I can at least identify that this is where my current challenge lies, and that will inspire me to keep meditating, to do compassionate self-inquiry, to spend time in nature, the greatest dharma teacher of all.


See how all of the aspects of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path work together to guide us back to being fully present with joy and gratitude? What a useful tool! But the challenge for many people is how to remember all the aspects. How to become so comfortable with them that we can turn to them in our greatest need. For me, and for many of my students, a list is a hard thing to commit to memory in a way that is meaningful. So a number of years ago I came up with what I call the ‘Cooking Pot Analogy’. I have used it to teach the Eightfold Path over the years, and students agree it makes it so much easier to remember and work with.

31eb9-cooking-pot-analogy-8fp-tifHere is a downloadable copy of the Eightfold Path Cooking Analogy Sheet: 


for you to have on hand for any moment you feel you need it. Keep it handy! Feel free to share.
– Stephanie