[If you’d like to listen to (rather than read) this talk, click here: AIM.]
Note: Last night I gave a final dhamma talk at Asheville Insight Meditation. I ended up writing a script and decided I would post it here since in it I provide an update on my year-long sabbatical, which is what my blog has been about this year.
Tonight I want to introduce you – if you aren’t already familiar – to the concept of going forth. I will do that by sharing my experience of going forth and I especially want to share with all of you, some of the great resources I’ve discovered during my journey or sabbatical.
When I retired and moved to Asheville in the fall of 2014, I had a vision but not necessarily a plan. I knew I wanted to live differently and more wholesomely…more skillfully…to start a business with sound massage and singing bowl concerts. Not a bread and butter business but more a business of service to others.
I spent my first few months engaged in volunteer services like Brother Wolf and for the first time in my life, just waking up in the morning with nowhere I had to be…nothing I had to do.
Then I found AIM and all it had to offer…the teachings…the gatherings…the sense of community. It was so easy to connect with others because while our experiences were different, we shared a language, a value system…we took the five precepts and studied the four noble truths and eightfold path. I no longer had to explain why I wanted to go away for ten days and not speak.
I felt extremely blessed when Ronya invited me to join the Facilitator Training Program. She guided us through a deeper level of understanding the dhamma and introduced us to some of the resources she had encountered during her ongoing training.
Two years later, when the training program came to a close, I felt ready for something more…an even deeper level of experience and study. But I had made a commitment to avoid long retreats while my aging dog is still in my life.
I’ve shared before that in 2004, I gave away or sold most of my belongings. A dear friend agreed to take care of my cat until I returned. It was a time of letting go on many levels. One day while in Botswana I was talking to a friend in the states about some challenges I was having…challenges I had experienced here in the states but this time I had no safety net of known cultural norms…friends, teachers, or therapist who really understood the American psyche and my life in Botswana. I explained how many of my unhealthy life patterns were showing up. And told her that I felt like I was on retreat…I couldn’t escape myself and I only had my self and my practice to rely on.
Last year I found myself thinking a lot about that experience. And as the FTP came to an end, I considered how I might go forward. At some point it occurred to me that I was in a very unique situation. I’m turning 60 this year – great time to reflect on one’s life. I’m retired and if I live within my means – my pension – I don’t need to work. I’m responsible for no one other than my boys, Paz and Buddha Baby. And at the time I was only responsible to my volunteer engagements. What a perfect time to go on sabbatical…to take an entire year to do kind of what I did while in Botswana but to have resources here – the sangha, friends, the internet, teachers, retreats…
I really wasn’t sure what my sabbatical was going to look like. I disengaged from my dream circle and sangha circle, I resigned from the retreat coordinator position and my hospice service, and I told Ronya I wanted to reduce my facilitating or teaching schedule. I wanted as few distractions as possible because I wanted first hand experience without a lot of influence from others.
I began the year with a week-long retreat and I’m of course half way through the year having just passed summer solstice. I’d like to say I’ve lost 40 pounds, developed a four hour a day meditation practice, and become enlightened. But that’s just not the case.
As a teenager, I expected the worst and hoped for the best. After years of therapy and wisdom gained through life experience, (and maybe a healthy dose of the new age law of attraction) I learned to just be with the flow of life…to mindfully set my intention and surrender to the impermanence of life. To have an idea of what I want but not be attached to how it has to happen or what it needs to look like.
I have never interpreted Buddha’s teachings as all being must suffer. The first noble truth is simply; all beings suffer. And I feel fortunate to have suffered deeply in my early life so I could test the remaining noble truths…determine on my own if indeed create my own suffering…and do I really have the power to relieve that suffering. I am ever so grateful that through the fourth noble truth, Buddha gave me a roadmap or path on exactly how to navigate and ultimately relieve that pain and suffering.
I share this to introduce a couple of resources that came into my life through sheer synchronicity. With pure intention I put out into the world my desire for a year of contemplation and reflection and what hit my inbox? An email from our sangha sister Trish who suggested I read Journal of Solitude by May Sarton and a Tricycle course with teacher Andrew Olendzki titled, “Going Forth.”
My favorite type of book is the memoir. I am extremely interested in the process of life and how others manage their way through it. I’m not nearly as interested in the lessons someone learned, as I am their experience of learning those lessons. And since May was sharing her journal of a year so similar to what I desired, I found the book perfect to kick off my own year of solitude.
Andrew’s course is an eight-week course that is still available although its of course no longer live. The course offers everything I was looking for to guide me on sabbatical…Andrew teaches from the suttas…something I wanted more of…he provides commentary on what the suttas meant in the day of the Buddha and how we might interpret that meaning in modern life. He offers practical guidance on how we might experience the act of going forth in our own lives and at the time, offered space for discussion groups. I don’t mean to market the course but if going forth interests you, I highly recommend checking out the course.
Andrew began the course by reviewing Discourse 27 from the Middle Length Discourses – the Majjhima Nikaya. Here the Buddha encourages us to go forth…basically to leave our lives as householders and become homeless. To live a wanderer’s life, dedicated to the experience of the dhamma. This way of life is a bit unrealistic for most of us. It’s not something our culture encourages or even supports. Although I know many people who have found “their version” of going forth…hiking the Appalachian Trail or Camino with nothing but what they can carry…teaching English as a second language in countries other than the U.S…. and even going on a year long sabbatical in their own home.
So hear I’d like to talk about the suttas…the Pali Canon or Buddhist scriptures. I’ve always been intimidated by them and find them hard to read. I don’t like the redundancy of writing. But once I learned that the redundancy had a purpose, I was more able to open up to them. I mean, I can read Jack or Joseph’s interpretation or I can read translations by noted scholars like Bhikkhu Bodhi and develop my own interpretation – not to deny the benefit of teachers, I love reading books by those guys and Tara and Sharon and others. But when I gave up the intimidation and began to read the discourses on my own, my level of understanding really did go deeper. I had to learn how to skim the redundancy and not be annoyed with it, and how to consider practically word by word, the meaning of each lesson.
If like me, you have some challenge reading the text or believing that what you’re reading is actually true, I offer this…during the time of the Buddha, oral communication was much more valued than writing. We’ve all probably played the telephone game where I whisper something to someone who whispers it to the next person and so on until the last person shares out loud what she heard and it’s nothing like what I said. We’ve developed skills through evolution that we value the most, and accurate verbal communication is not necessarily one of those skills. We’ve learned to depend on the written word. So the repetition we find in the Pali Canon was intentional to ensure consistency and accuracy of what was taught and what continues to be taught. You might be interested in an article titled, “The Authenticity of the Early Buddhists Text.” I don’t remember the authors but Google will tell you.
If you go on Amazon you can find the discourses as translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi. While he himself is a scholar, his writings and teachings are very accessible to us common folk. Many of us here tonight had the honor to sit with him a couple weeks ago as he took us through an entire sutta, explaining its context from the time of the Buddha and in our modern times. It is so important to understand that ancient scriptures of any religion or belief were written for that time period and culture. While we easily find relevance to our daily lives, it’s important that we are able to critically analyze its relevance and not blindly follow a teaching. It’s that blind following that will manifest in extremist views.
I’d also like to share some thoughts on solitude…for me and many of you, solitude is easy. Our friend Nancy has an awesome shirt about it being “too peoply” out there. For others, solitude is a bit more challenging…less is more. My intention was (and is) to live a life with more solitude, allowing deep contemplation and reflection. This meant disengaging from most social and service obligations. I made the determination of what I felt would serve that desire and what wouldn’t.
When I walk with the same friends every day or most days, I tend to talk out loud about things I haven’t really processed – I’m processing out loud which is not my natural strength. I tend to take on the projections and judgments of those with whom I am so comfortable. I also tend to project on and judge them. I had observed this pattern very clearly. I didn’t feel the need to completely disengage, but rather choose my walking partners and visits discriminately.
I found most of my friends extremely supportive; again, the joy of being in sangha. We might see one another less often or when we do see one another like for a walk, we might not talk so much; respecting the desire for solitude yet maintaining connection. For those who couldn’t support me, I made a conscious decision to let go. This has been scary because there is a part of me that can worry about disengaging too much and people letting go of me. But that’s the practice…can I be with the fear of people letting go of me…can I clearly see the patterns of my life…the abandonment issues…and without a therapist or a teacher or a good friend, turn toward those fears all by myself in a healthy way?
There is a beautiful poem by Rumi that goes…
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
Some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!…
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Here, Rumi is talking about what Buddhists refer to as Mara; basically a demon who tempts us…a metaphor for dark thoughts or our shadow side. I think of the many stories I’ve heard of or read about Mara. In Jack’s book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry he says, “the Buddha regards Mara not just as a guest, but as a friend:
“Oh, my old friend has come,” says the Buddha, as he warmly greets Mara, inviting him in for tea.
Solitude gives us the space to invite Mara to tea…without the worldly distractions of TV, radio, internet, and yes… conversation. We find ourselves alone with only our thoughts. And if we are committed to the practice, we can skillfully be with those thoughts turning toward rather than away. Finding our deepest truths rather than accepting the projections or judgments of others.
Please know that I’m not at all telling you that therapists, teachers, and friends aren’t important and helpful. Far from that…when I look back over my life I’m not sure I would be alive today if I hadn’t trusted others to help me. And I may find myself in need of that help again in my life. Who knows? But having done all of that work and having the resources that are available to us now, and having faith in the four noble truths and eightfold path, I can trust that when Mara visits there is something for me to learn AND that as surely as that visitor arrives, it will subside or maybe even go away. I also want to make very clear that I’m not talking about clinical depression here, which I have experienced and found to be the embodiment of Mara; having no ability to rationally experience my pain and suffering without help.
In Andrew’s course he shared that, “The entire science of early Buddhist psychology is a way of understanding our own inner life. Buddha told us to Hear the Teachings, Learn the Teachings, Remember the Teachings, Investigate the Teachings for ourselves, and Put the Teachings Into Practice.”
In the Middle Discourse 82, we learn the typical reasons why one might go forth. We might experience great loss or tragedy, reach a stage in life when it feels natural to go forth, or find ourselves a slave of desire and consciously choose to break free. For me it was a bit of all of those reasons but mainly I wanted to step out of the conventional world and live in a more existential state. I want to sit on the deck and contemplate aging, illness, and death – the losses I’ve experienced and those yet to come. I want to watch CNN and look on Facebook to observe how I feel when faced with current politics and the health of our culture, economy, Mother Earth. I’m not disengaging with the world; I’m merely changing the way that I engage.
In the Middle Discourse 39, the Buddha laid out seven qualities of going forth…
- Commitment to intentional practice
- Conducting oneself with self-respect and respect of others
- Purifying the mind
- Guarding the sense doors
- Being moderate in eating
- Being devoted to wakefulness
- Being possessed of mindfulness
These qualities might be seen as just living the practice and one might ask what’s the difference in a daily practice and going forth. My only response is that in going forth, we intentionally set up a discipline or structure that support these qualities a bit beyond a daily intention of practice. Each of us has probably made some commitment to intentional practice. I’ve meditated for a long time. Sometimes I’m very disciplined and sometimes not so much. For me, in going forth I’ve extended this quality to mean meditation and study. I’ve attended several retreats since I began my sabbatical and I’ve put forth more effort to attend talks from various teachers, I subscribe now to Audible on Amazon…so I can “read/listen to” books while I drive or walk. I love reading and I am a very slow reader. So the Audible app helps me. It also motivates me to walk alone – I love walking and hearing nature. I also love that I can walk for an hour or more while I listen to a good book. This is my commitment to intentional practice.
I have spent many hours contemplating respect for myself and others. Recently I’ve managed to spend time with several people I truly love and who are very conservative. A friend I worked with in the Department of Defense came for a short visit and last week I visited friends and family in Georgia. Many of those people are Trump supporters.
It would be quite easy to call them all idiots and have pity on them for their ignorance. (As they may feel for me.) But is that respectful? I recognize we have differences and honestly, I’ve learned to have more compassion than judgment for those who get caught up in the fear machine of FOX news and radical right radio. By experiencing my own fear that our country is going straight to hell, I’m able to understand and have compassion for their fear. I may not understand what they are afraid of, but through love and respect for these people, and experience with my own possibly irrational fears, I’m able to let go of my need for them to think just like me and I can relate to feeling fearful.
Honestly these aren’t people I want to spend all my time with…Of course I enjoy being with like-minded individuals. But my heart is capable of holding space – and visits – with those who think differently than me. In fact, it is respect for myself that I open my mind to the possibility that not every single thing they say or believe is wrong. And out of respect for one another, we’ve learned how to focus on our sameness or oneness, rather than our differences.
All of that said, it really is important for me to purify the mind…to stay away from unwholesome experiences and people. I’ve found myself in toxic relationships with people I consider liberal and in very loving relationships with those who are very conservative. Is it possible that the mind’s need to categorize and label and experience a world of duality is actually toxic to our happiness?
Guarding the sense doors is one way in which we might purify the mind. The sense doors are those that allow information into the brain…seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, sensing, and thoughts too are considered a sense door. I enjoy watching TV. There is a LOT of judgment around that statement. Some believe it is fine to watch Masterpiece Theater but if you’re watching a reality show, you’ve got issues. And it’s true that paying attention to what we watch on television or listen to on the radio – and how much time we spend on those activities – is critical to a calm and peaceful mind. We can become addicted to the distractions we take in.
I was out at Heartwood Refuge several months ago and two teachers were talking. One teacher mentioned watching a dharma show on television with Pannavati, the head of the Refuge. Pannavati laughed as she does and we were all curious what dharma show she was watching on TV. It turned out to be the very dark and demented political drama, Scandal. I loved when she admitted this! Because I love watching TV shows, movies, and live theater through the dhamma…what makes that person tick…how did her choice set in motion a series of events? Character development. Still, I have to be mindful to guard the sense doors – how am I processing the information I’m taking in? I can’t watch horror films because the content gets stuck in my psyche. I have nightmares and feel completely out of whack when I’m doing deep spiritual work. One way I guard the sense doors is to not watch horror films.
I love that one of the qualities of going forth is to be moderate in eating! One of my reasons for sabbatical was to finally understand my relationship with food. I’ve given up drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, spending money I don’t have, and sexual promiscuity. But the same drivers that manifested those unskillful behaviors serve my relationship with food. And I know how to deny myself to lose weight…only to gain it back. But what if eating was something I did to nurture and support a healthy body rather than how I deal with emotions or to make my self skinny enough to be loved or wanted by others? A resource I’d like to share with you is a book titled, “The Mindful Diet.” It’s written by doctors who work in the Duke Integrative Medicine program. I swore I would never buy another diet book. I don’t like that it has the word diet in the title. But…it’s helping me put mindfulness into practice. And isn’t that what our meditation practice is for…learning mindfulness so we can take it off the cushion and into the world?
The last two qualities of going forth are being devoted to wakefulness and being possessed of mindfulness. Like all of us, the Buddha was a seeker. He was a human being who wanted to be happy. The word Buddha means the Awakened One or to wake up. He tried various spiritual paths available at the time and he finally realized none of those paths could deliver him to liberation; freedom from pain and suffering. So he finally went out on his own and when he woke up, he shared his experience with us. We are all capable of waking up. But maybe enlightenment is too lofty a goal for some of us, right now. Maybe we’re able to get intellectually that we’re capable of our own enlightenment but it doesn’t really feel real to us…it isn’t easy to become enlightened on the way to picking the kids up from school. So what if we just practice mindfulness and trust that enlightenment is possible but not a required goal. Think of it like yoga where our goal isn’t a perfectly posed asana but rather meeting our body where it is right now, in this present moment.
When Andrew spoke of mindfulness he said, “the content of what is happening in our mind isn’t important, the process of what is happening is important.” Are we completely lost in thought or are we mindful of our thoughts and feelings?
Many of us use a resource called Insight Timer. It’s for smart phones. I’ve created a preset for mindful walking. When I go into the forest, it’s easy for me to get lost in thought. I notice the beauty and sensations of the walk but I probably miss more than I observe because of mind. So I created a preset called walking. I’ve set alerts – bells – that go off every ten minutes. These bells remind me to remain mindful of my experience…and lately I don’t just observe what feels pleasant or unpleasant but I notice the neutral experiences of my walk…what my clothes feel like on my body – I don’t usually pay attention to that…how my legs feel when I’m walking on flat ground rather than walking up an incline.
I’ve shared that going forth is a bit more than our daily mindfulness and meditation practice. I’ve touched on what I learned in the Going Forth course – there is so much more in that course! I’ve learned so very much in this first six months. And now I’m taking the opportunity to consider what I might want for the next six months. Can I deepen my commitment even further? Am I willing to spend even more time in solitude? Can I spend less time in passive engagement – less TV, Facebook, Radio? Is this how I’d like to spend the remainder of life?
I am definitely realizing that solitude suits me…my relationships are actually much stronger, my connection to nature is stronger, and my relationship with my self is stronger. Maybe I’ll take the opportunity to spend more time in silent retreat – I don’t need to go on retreat to do that, although going on silent retreat where all of one’s needs are met and the only thing I need to do is meditate is like a mega boost to my practice.
One thing I’ve done to support the next six months is resign from our leadership team. This is my last talk at AIM, at least for now. I am humbly and deeply grateful to Ronya and to all of you for your support and encouragement. My professional role before retirement was that of a facilitator, to help make things easy for others. And I’ve always seen my talks as an opportunity to possibly make the dhamma – the work – a little easier by sharing that no matter who we are, it’s hard work…don’t be discouraged… give yourself lots of breaks… and most of all, be kind to yourself.
And as with every talk I’ve given here at AIM I will end with these words of the Buddha…
“Believe nothing just because a so-called wise person said it. Believe nothing just because a belief is generally held. Believe nothing just because it is said in ancient books. Believe nothing just because it is said to be of divine origin. Believe nothing just because someone else believes it. Believe only what you yourself test and judge to be true.”