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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Cultivating mindfulness

AN 3.91
PTS: A i 239 
Thai 3.93
Accayika Sutta: Urgent
translated from the Pali by
Thanissaro Bhikkhu
"There are these three urgent duties of a farming householder. Which three?
"There is the case where a farming householder quickly gets his field well-plowed & well-harrowed. Having quickly gotten his field well-plowed & well-harrowed, he quickly plants the seed. Having quickly planted the seed, he quickly lets in the water & then lets it out.
"These are the three urgent duties of a farming householder. Now, that farming householder does not have the power or might [to say:] 'May my crops spring up today, may the grains appear tomorrow, and may they ripen the next day.' But when the time has come, the farming householder's crops spring up, the grains appear, and they ripen.
"In the same way, there are these three urgent duties of a monk. Which three? The undertaking of heightened virtue, the undertaking of heightened mind, the undertaking of heightened discernment. These are the three urgent duties of a monk. Now, that monk does not have the power or might [to say:] 'May my mind be released from fermentations through lack of clinging/sustenance today or tomorrow or the next day.' But when the time has come, his mind is released from fermentations through lack of clinging/sustenance.
"Thus, monks, you should train yourselves: 'Strong will be our desire for the undertaking of heightened virtue. Strong will be our desire for the undertaking of heightened mind. Strong will be our desire for the undertaking of heightened discernment.' That's how you should train yourselves."
 "Accayika Sutta: Urgent" (AN 3.91), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight, 10 December 2011, . Retrieved on 24 May 2012.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Loving kindness (metta) meditation

Loving kindness or metta in the Pali is one of the four noble virtues, along with compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.  Although each of these virtues can be practiced as meditations, metta meditation is by far the more commonly practiced.  Loving kindness meditation is distinct from mindfulness meditation because it is a tranquility meditation in which specific objects are the focus.

In doing metta mediation, you focus on a person or being and wish them well.  The scripted words are as simple as "May X be happy, healthy, and peaceful."  The important thing is the intention, not the feeling of loving kindness itself.  In other words, don't try to force the feeling but do try to generate a genuine intention.  The feeling of loving kindness may or may not arise but do not worry about that.  The object of loving kindness should be held in mind while generating the intention.  A visual image or a felt sense of that person is best.   The usual sequence is to direct loving kindness towards yourself, first of all, and then go on to an admired person, such as a teacher or benefactor; a friend or loved one; an acquaintance about whom you have neither strong negative or positive feelings; and, finally, a difficult person or an enemy.  There are certain cautions.  If you direct loving kindness towards a loved one, it should not be mixed with sexual feelings; better to avoid that "hot" someone and choose someone with whom you have a more platonic relationship.  You should not direct loving kindness toward a dead person since grief will likely arise.  Directing loving kindness to a person with whom you are having significant difficulties can be quite challenging; this practice should probably be practiced only when you have had success with the other objects of loving kindness.  The most difficult thing for many is directing loving kindness towards themselves.  This can be for a variety of reasons.  Sometimes people have feelings of self-loathing that are difficult to overcome.  Sometimes people feel that it is unseemly to direct loving kindness towards themselves and think it selfish or proud.  Often the simple problem is that, while it is relatively easy to conjure up an image of another person or have a felt sense of someone else,  it hard to do this with yourself.  Ven. Khippapanno recommends that you have a recent photo of yourself and look at it while directing loving kindness to yourself and then see if you can retain the image when you close your eyes and direct loving kindness to the image.  You can do this repeatedly until you can form the image easily.  

Monday, May 14, 2012

Meditation on eating

The practice of mindfulness should not just be for special postures but should generalize throughout our days.  One of the examples that is often given is meditation on eating.  This is a great example, but usually the emphasis is on the sensual treat of really paying attention to what you are eating.  The standard exercise is eating a single raisin and doing so very slowly, noticing all its sensual qualities, its texture and taste, and noticing each stage from chewing to digestion.  When this exercise is done in a workshop, for instance, those new to the exercise marvel at how much they enjoyed it and what a treat it is to pay attention to that single raison rather than to gobble it down with a whole bunch of other raisins.

Although it is great that we see the difference that attention can make to an experience, the true value of mindfully eating is deeper.  When we eat, all the sense bases are involved–seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching, and knowing.   We see the food, we smell it, we touch it, we hear it, we taste it, and we are conscious of these activities.  Throughout the process, intentions arise as preludes to our overt actions. We have pleasant and unpleasant feelings, and, if we are not mindful as we eat, from our liking and disliking. attachment and aversion arise as well.  To be mindful while eating, we should be aware of all phases of the eating process, from the sensations of hunger that motivate us to eat, to seeing the food, to bringing the food to the mouth, to chewing, to swallowing, to the awareness that our desire for food has been satisfied.  Throughout we note what is happening at each moment.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Reflections on a retreat

I recently returned from a retreat at the Pannarama Meditation Center in Laval, Quebec.  The center where I go keeps to a schedule starting at 4:30 in the morning and ending at 10:00 at night.  There are two meals, one in the morning and one at about 11:30 AM.  There is a talk by the monk leading the retreat (Ven. Khippapanno) at about 7:30 PM, but since it is in Vietnamese, I don't attend it.  The rest of the time there are alternating periods of sitting and walking meditation and a chance to go for an interview with one of the monks every other day.

Even monks get sleepy during talks
I have always found that the first two or three days when I am on these retreats, I am extremely sleepy.  I am constantly falling asleep while I am doing sitting meditation, and I often cannot sustain walking meditation for more than about 20 minutes without wanting to sit down again and rest.  There is a period between 12:00 and 2:00 in the afternoon for a rest, so it is possible to fit in a substantial nap.  However, despite all these opportunities for sleep and rest, I am very sleepy.  However, about the third day I suddenly wake up.  I no longer fall asleep while meditating, and I don't feel the need to take such a long nap.  From that point onward I am energized.  When I leave the retreat I face a five to six hour drive to get home.  But I am totally energetic and find it hard to go to sleep until 1:00 in the morning when I return.

What is going on?  This phenomenon is not unique to me.  I have discussed it with others who have much the same experience.  I used to think it was because I was super stressed before the retreat and did not get enough rest, and I needed the extra sleep and rest to recuperate.  However, I was not super stressed this time. I had stayed with my daughter near Ottawa so I only had to drive about two hours to get there.  And I wasn't stressed in general since I am now semi-retired.

I have long realized the difference between being on a retreat and being "in the world."  When on retreat, there is not a lot of external stimulation.  We are supposed to observe "noble silence," but people do talk, although much less so than they would in ordinary life.  The meals are all prepared for us (and they are very good, by the way).  You have to do a few chores, but nothing very onerous.  You are not supposed to read or write.  Although no one enforces that rule, I don't feel the need to read or write and I recognize how it can interfere with meditation.  There is no internet to surf or email to follow, which is a big shift for me.  You can use the phone only in emergencies.  I generally stay at the center, although I occasionally take a walk in the neighborhood around the center.  But I don't buy anything in the stores in the area or interact with the people I encounter.

When on retreat, the big change is from an external focus to an internal one.  I think the explanation for the exhaustion of those first few days is simple.  Keeping up the external focus required for being in the world is exhausting.  When the need to keep it up is gone, we have to recuperate before we can tune into what is going on internally.  Once we rest and recuperate, we have the ability to focus inwardly and to meditate.  And having that ability to concentrate and focus comes with a burst of energy that carries over into the days following the retreat, provided you are not overwhelmed by the stress of a return to "real life."