Life with full attention: January - April 2015


Main group January 7 2015: Maitreyabandhu introduces mindfulness

This evening almost 50 people, which must be something of a record, were treated to a wide-ranging tour de force of a talk by Dharmachari Maitreyabandhu from the London Buddhist Centre, in which he introduced mindfulness and made some telling and thought-provoking points about mindfulness, the importance of working on your mind, and the connection between technology and depression! You can listen to it by clicking on the link below:

Maitreyabandhu talking about mindfulness

Meditation: the path unfolds: September - December 2014


Main group December 10: short talks

This evening we were treated to three delightful talks from members of the Sangha on why they meditate. You can listen to them by clicking on the link below:



Main group December 3: Flying across the sunrise

Akasharaja led the group in an evening of meditation and puja with an element of poetry.


Main group November 19: Letting go of success and failure

This evening Ratnaguna led the group, giving a talk on the various emotion groups as defined in modern neuropsychology and their relationship to the problem of success and failure when applied to the spiritual life. The talk was very personal and included an account of Ratnaguna's own time in the spiritual "wilderness", during which he realised that the whole idea of success and failure was unhelpful in the spiritual life. He shared with the group his own personal vision and style of practice which involves just being as present as possible and giving himself up to the Sangha.

The evening was recorded and you can listen to it here:

Ratnaguna part 1

Ratnaguna part 2


Main group November 12: Meditation with the Body

This evening Jnanakumara led the group in a body-based workshop, investigating, among other things, the relationship between posture and mood.


Main group November 5: The flow of experience

Jayaratna led the group this evening in place of Akasharaja. The group considered various aspects of direct experience, including contemplation of the five skandhas or aggregates, those elements of experience which, according to early Buddhism, make up the entirety of conditioned existence.


Main group October 29: Kamalashila

Kamalashila 

led the group in a just sitting followed by the Mindfulness of Breathing. You can listen to the whole thing by clicking on the link below:

http://yourlisten.com/akasharaja.bruton/kamalashila-leading-meditation-in-shrewsbury

There then followed a discussion on why we meditate. Topics included a physical connection with the environment and a sense of being grounded; the need to take time out; a greater ability to control one's mind. Kamalashila talked of the benefits of meditation practice in terms of "clarification" or "illumination" in his life. Listen to the discussion by clicking on this link:

http://yourlisten.com/akasharaja.bruton/kamalashila-leading-meditation-in-shrewsbury



Main group October 22: working with the Metta Bhavana

Last night at the class Sanghadeva offered an upbeat perspective on the Metta Bhavana practice by offering some useful advice including that of approaching meditation practice lightly rather than as a duty. He encouraged us to recall that meditation is not the be-all and end-all of our spiritual life - there will be times when we will focus on other  aspects of the spiritual life, such as the Dharma a and the Sangha - promoting positive mental states in everyday life. So it's good not to beat yourself up if meditation is not always top of your agenda - treating yourself with kindness is far more likely to lead you to resume meditation than berating yourself!  

After the meditation there was a discussion in small groups on the subject of our spiritual life, how we live it ourselves (what do we focus on ?): what are the challenges and what questions arise as we reflect on this. A discussion on the challenges of self metta in the Metta Bhavana and the western concept of low self esteem, which is something that that seems to be unknown to our Indian friends. Sanghadeva discussed his surprise that our Indian friends do not seem to suffer the same problems as the west with regard to low self esteem. He wondered whether this was in part due to an authoritarian and centralised religious tradition over many centuries. He also told an anecdote in which Bhante was once asked whom he most admired. He replied, after some thought, that it was Allan Ginsberg - who, whilst not always skilful was always authentic, always himself.

And that, Sanghadeva suggested, is the best thing we can strive for on our own spiritual journey.  


Main group October 15: Focusing

This evening Manjudeva led a session on focusing, which is a way of paying attention to the body as a means of being with our actual experience.

Manjudeva described how he got involved in the practice when meditating on a retreat was imposing a structure on an experience of grief that needed to emerge. Focusing is about listening to your body. Meditation isn't cognitive, even though the mind is amazing. You will be leaving a big part of yourself if you try to meditate without your body.

He quoted Eugene Gendlin, the founder of focusing, as follows:

“Focusing will enable you to find and change where your life is stuck, cramped, hemmed in, slowed down. 
And it will enable you to change – to live from a deeper place than just your thoughts and feelings”

We move away from difficult experience - instead, we can let it in. Focusing is about how the body knows things and invites us to listen to it. We learn about ourselves, to be compassionate and present to ourselves.

The session included some pairwork to explore what it is to experience with the senses other than vision and to investigate the nature of our own bodily experience as we were actually experiencing it. There then followed some discussion before the tea break.

After the tea break Manjudeva spoke at somewhat greater length about his experience of the benefits of focusing and led the group in meditation.

To find out more about what focusing is and what Manjudeva does, check out his website:
Living Focusing
Main group October 8: Opening up to heart space

This evening was led by Tejananda from the Vajraloka retreat centre in North Wales. We did various brief guided meditations aimed at becoming intimate with our actual experience, in particular looking at the "heart centre", that "space" in our body where we experience our emotions. Tejananda encouraged us to ask our heart a couple of questions: what is its desire and what is its deepest desire. He then led us through some short meditations in which we were encouraged to experience that space in which our senses operate and also to reflect on whether we experienced the "heart space" as limited or unlimited. The evening was a fascinating exploration of our actual experience as opposed to the way in which we habitually interpret our experience - and confuse the interpretation with the real thing!

You can listen to Tejananda here: Tejananda part 1 Tejananda part 2




Main group October 1: The Boundless Heart

Akasharaja led the group this evening. We listened to the last of Vessantara's talks on the Metta Bhavana, in which he particularly stressed that metta is all about action rather than just "thinking nice thoughts" in meditation. After the talk there was a period of reflection in which we were invited to consider what we might be able to do to intensify our actual practice of meditation, as well as looking at what we are already doing well.

After the tea break we did the full metta bhavana meditation and those who wanted to offered up their aspirations to the shrine in the course of a threefold puja.

Vessantara: fifth stage of the metta bhavana



Main group September 24th: changing hatred into compassion

This evening Utpalavajri led the group. We began by listening to Vessantara's talk on the fourth stage of the Metta Bhavana (see link below), in which he emphasised the fact that this stage represents a real opportunity to us to look within and to recognise that finding someone to dislike is a mechanism that gives what Sangharakshita calls our "quantum of negativity" an outlet. Vessantara argues that if we don't give such negativity expression we will be required to go within and recognise that the problem lies within us. He also points out that dislike and hatred come down to a lack of empathy; if we only didn't jump to conclusions but, instead, paused to reflect that the person we find difficult is basically motivated by a desire to be happy, just as we are, it would really open things up. What we and the difficult person both have in common is a fundamental misinterpretation of our experience that gives rise to the idea of a fixed and separate self. This is the root of all suffering: our own and that of the person we find difficult.

Utpalavajri made reference to Non-Violent Communication and encouraged us to examine our experience in terms of needs and to ask whether, in some way, a need on our part is being thwarted by the other person. This could, for instance, be a need for appreciation or security. There followed a discussion in small groups on the same subject.

After the tea break we did the entire Metta Bhavana meditation with a slightly longer fourth stage.




Main group September 17th: Am I bothered?

This evening the group was led by Akasharaja and Jayaratna, and the subject was the third stage of the Metta Bhavana, where we cultivate loving-kindness for a neutral person. We started by listening to the third of Vessantara's talks (see below), in which he offered some reflections for creating a connection with a person for whom we don't have strong feelings. He invited us to reflect on all we have in common, such as life history, friends and loved ones, and a desire to be happy, and told a salutory story about the risks of writing off neutral people, when they very often have extraordinary qualities of which we are unaware. He reminded us that neutrality is a quality of our mental states rather than of the person and finished by inviting us, if we get bored in this stage, to explore the quality of our boredom, boredom being the key to deeper experience of ourselves: "a dragon guarding treasure".

We then did exactly that: just sitting with our experience and bringing kindly awareness to bear on any uncomfortable experience, such as boredom.

In the second half, Jayaratna led us through a body scan and the first three stages of the metta practice, building on what we had done in the previous weeks.


     

Main group September 10th: Warming the Heart

Jayaratna lead the group this evening. We listened to the second of Vessantara's talks on the Metta Bhavana (see link below) and met in small groups to discuss ways in which we bring a good friend into the Metta practice. In the second half of the evening Jayaratna led the group in an extended, relaxed body scan as a means of getting in touch with self-metta through the cultivation of relaxation and contentment; he then suggested we bring a good friend into the practice and expand our metta to the extent that we felt it safe to do so: to the other people in the group and friends and family.



Main group September 3rd: Where Loving Kindness begins

We listened to the first of Vessantara's talks on the Metta Bhavana meditation (see link below), in which he presented two different ways of cultivating metta for oneself: the generative approach, for which he used the image of lighting a fire using straw, and approach which allows for unfolding, finding ways to allow metta to flow naturally, for which he took the image of the sun, which is always present behind the clouds. He talked about the need to really experience oneself as a prerequisite for developing metta. During the evening we explored direct, immediate experience using body scans and discussed the material, finishing with a period of meditation to contact the heart centre.

You can listen to Vessantara's talk on the first stage of the Metta Bhavana by clicking on the link below:





Ethics: the Path of the Spiritual Warrior

Main Group, August 20th

Simon and Katherine gave short talks about Buddhist ethics. You can listen to them by clicking on the links below:


Simon's talk on ethics

Main Group, July 2nd: 'Covetousness'


       
        Carolyn Lee dressed the main shrine, thank you!










Abandoning covetousness for tranquillity I purify my mind.                                                                                                            

I don’t often use the word ‘covetousness’ on an everyday basis, such as “oooh, I was coverting a lovely cake the other day” or “I was overcome with covetousness when I saw how lovely my friends garden was compared to mine”.

But when broadened out it can have shades of – Lust, unwholesome longing, desire, hunger, thirst or in Buddhist terms Tanha (likened to drinking salt water and never satisfying our thirst), drought, craving, greed, mental brooding. Seeking for material gain, sense experience, a high reputation, people etc, in fact anything outside of ourselves that may give us permanent pleasure or short term distraction.

And I think of our mind like a magnet, being pulled and drawn to anything that attracts it, any surface that it can attach to. This can be very obvious, simple attachments such as excessive food or the new updated PC, or it can be extreme and compulsive such as addictions, getting into debt because of our desires, sexual affairs, theft and many more destructive states.

This in turn can have an effect on our personal lives, our livelihoods and even seep into our spiritual lives such as our meditation practice or our ethical values. On a wider scale as we often witness in the world and indeed on our very doorstep sometimes how covetousness can play its part in warfare, environmental destruction and political gain. But still we live on a planet where this covetousness is hugely encouraged. Within media and advertising we are constantly exposed to bigger, better, faster things….new technology, faster cars, surgically enhanced this and that, new household products, updated fashions and the latest food ranges. Advertising and big brand companies are a very powerful tool that has a huge effect on how we live our lives.

Sangharakshita our teacher and founder of the Tiratana Buddhist community says in his book ‘the ten pillars of Buddhism’ that “Covetousness fills the yawning pit of its own inner poverty and emptiness” and reading this I asked myself the question…”So what do we fill our yawning pit of emptiness with?” ….it may be we fill it with busyness, just filling up our days busy being busy.

SR has also quoted Oscar Wilde “In this world there are only two tragedies, one is not getting what one wants and the other is getting it” J and this can be true with a whole number of things, when perhaps they go out of vogue, break or let us down or we simply become bored and start to eye up something new.

On the wheel of life which depicts the various realms of existence there is at the hub of the wheel a picture of a cockerel, snake and a pig, they keep the wheel going as they appear to chase themselves around and around. They represent: desirous attachment, hatred and delusion.  And at any given moment we can fall into these states and not even be fully aware of it. Also on the wheel is the realm of the hungry ghosts, these figures have swollen bellies and small necks and are always  hungry, never satisfied, never totally content, always wanting and waiting for the next thing, appearing to be in a constant state of covetousness.

Although I recognize myself more as an aversion type, I clearly remember my cravings as a child, they were perhaps more obvious and constant and I would verbalise these wants often….more sweets, pocket money, television programmes, clothes, toys, longer playtimes etc

Now older I think my cravings are more subtle and through reflection and dharma practice I have developed an inner contentment I never knew existed – although there is no doubt much more to ‘weed out’ from time to time.

So, I’m just going to quickly mention a few antidotes to covetousness. Sangharakshita talks about the practice of generosity bringing about a mind of tranquillity. Generosity can take many different forms. Also within meditation one can check in with this covetousness tendency and realise its futility, there are also other practices such as recollection of impermanence, impurity and 6 element practice.

I have also been reflecting on antidotes that may help in our daily lives:

Mindfulness – awareness of what arises and falls and how this uses our energy – is what we thirst after completely satisfactory?

Compassion – toward ourselves, others and our environment

Appreciation and gratitude – for what we have – particularly our precious human life.

Rejoicing in and being glad for others  -

Contemplating the Lakshanas – impermanent/insubstantial/unsatisfactory

Regular Meditation -

Confession or talking with our friends

And of course giving, in whatever way that may be.

And as we develop increased awareness and an open approach of investigation and curiosity to our covetousness mind we may well develop beyond it and open up to the mind of tranquillity and stillness.

 

Gill D -  Shrewsbury Tiratana Buddhist Community        2/7/2014

 



Abandoning Covetousness for Tranquility

A conversation between the Buddha and a king - 'could you sit here, doing nothing, for 7 days and be content?'

Not needing external things to be happy. 
Not thinking 'when I've got that iphone I'll be really happy'

The Buddha's mind didn't hanker after things, after experiences, wasn't made restless by wanting things, wasn't full of dissatisfaction with now/with this. 

He was tranquil, peaceful, fully present, contented with the present. 

But he teaches about the craving and aversion that afflicts the human mind - from his own experience - before enlightenment he had direct experience of that and gradually transformed that covetousness, that restlessness in his mind into tranquility. 

Covetousness - word association? 
Sex, food, money - the basics
Coveting my neighbour's asparagus bed

Not beating ourselves up for wanting stuff - however dodgy it is - harshness is not helpful

As usual I recommend mindfulness, curiosity (deepening of mindfulness/intensifying of attention) and metta 

And working to transform the unwholesome, unhelpful habit of covetousness - the hedonic treadmill - that causes unhappiness and takes away our freedom
Getting hooked on stuff breeds discontent 

The Buddha had nothing (very few possessions) and was happy 
He was happy in himself and therefore didn't need much - didnt hanker after things he didn't have

And we want things in part because we are unhappy (or at least not 100% content) - many of the things we want are not a matter of need - we're trying to fill a sense of lack, of not being enough

But material things can have the opposite effect and actually make us unhappy
Sometimes that can be quite immediate - I have felt sick after buying something I didn't need out of an unhappy state of mind. 
More often its subtler - we feel happier initially, pleased with our new thing, but after some months we just revert to our previous level, and then we need the next version, the upgrade - perhaps to stave off an inner sense of lack

And in doing that we keep going round that cycle - the hedonic treadmill - looking for the next thing and gradually we deepen that habit of looking outside ourselves and to material possessions for happiness, we deepen our dependence

But how to transform covetousness?

Ratnaguna's talk - stop buying stuff and learn to be happy instead

Stop looking outside ourselves for happiness - thinking material things will make us happy

Find happiness in simple pleasures that money can't buy - companionship, nature, laughter, place
Simplicity supports contentment 

Absorption in doing something positive/pleasurable that stretches us, demands concentration - gardening, singing, making something, mending something

Pleasure in meditation 
Developing the inner abundance of the Buddha

Saravantu





1. In meditation, what things does your mind move towards with covetousness - with an energy of 'wanting, wanting to have'?

2. Are they mainly things, or people, or experiences?

3. What happens after you get something that you have want? Immediately, one month later and one year later?

4. What needs do these things satisfy? What needs do they not satisfy?

5. Do you relate to the idea of the 'Hedonic Treadmill' - endlessly wanting the next source of pleasure and the next and the next....?

6. What gets in the way of being happy while sitting still and doing nothing? 

7. What is the warrior aspect of this precept? 

8. How does this precept relate to freedom? 


Covetousness into tranquillity

Sangaratshika in the 10 pillars of wisdom talks about the term ‘Abhijja’, ‘a mental state of intense thinking upon , a brooding over something which we are attracted to or desire’ and if not obtained leads to ‘domanassa’, ‘distress dejectedness, melancholy and grief’

I have discovered that covetousness  need not only be about acquiring material possessions, it can also be about craving continual approval  from someone or some authority,  that one  is competent and worthy in some way , and I have found that this can be a tendency as addictive as  wanting to buy clothes or going to the cinema when feeling restless and dissatisfied in an attempt to cheer up  and distract oneself .

Those who know me, will realise that I tend not to be someone who stays in my comfort zone for very long, and in part this is because I have learned I am an essentially restless person who finds the challenge of new ventures quite exciting, engaging and rewarding. I am and always probably have been a ‘future focused’ person This can often mean that I leave myself very little time to consolidate what I have learned about and put it into practice before moving on to the next project, bit like the white rabbit hurrying along in Alice in Wonderland .

 I did a personality test quite a while back and the scores were quite interesting in the different categories  and relevant to how I perceive myself behaving when unchecked . I scored highest in sensitivity, the desire for knowledge (called ‘questing’ behaviours )  and the need for affiliation with others , average on conscientiousness, inquisitiveness and drive  and low on resilience. This seemed quite accurate as I find I don’t bounce back from experiencing set- backs very easily, and take things very much to heart, but I do have a thirst for new things and experiences and achievements   I also notice however, that my need for challenge and success takes the form of me wanting  my efforts acknowledged in some way externally and I see this as part of the hedonic treadmill and a form of craving. I went on Ratnaguna’s Art of Reflection retreat , which was  a really good retreat  and one of the exercises involved sitting doing nothing for 20 minutes and this was a separate practice  from meditation – I found this very difficult to do every day, just sitting and watching the sky  rather than focusing as in meditation or engaging in any ‘ meaningful’ activity   

This tendency towards  gaining some  external stamp of approval has really come home to me since I took up learning to play the violin as an adult learner a few years back. I love the sound of the violin ,( particularly  when someone else is playing it !) I also have found that that the self discipline required to become a competent player (so that what you are playing sounds less like a cat in distress) involves daily regular playing and I have found that this is  much  improved for me if I have  the focus ( external discipline) provided of studying  for an exam. This is not surprising as my past jobs have required an element of CPD,  requiring a regular updating of existing professional qualifications in order to continue and advance in my career.

 As the years have passed ,  I have found taking the violin exams ( now  4 in total) which get harder every year  excruciatingly emotionally painful in terms of the anxiety taking them provokes . I have discovered that I am not  a natural performer with the required ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ pragmatic approach and I abandoned singing in a small performing acapella group  for this reason, loving the rehearsals but performance nerves becoming so disabling that I had to leave the group with much sadness

And so this suffering has increased as each grade exam has loomed , and yet I have continued to pursue this need for external validation as a marker of success . Why ?

I ask myself what am I really striving for in taking these exams which make me so acutely miserable  and anxious  for months on end ?

On reflection my thinking is

I am not competent or worthy as a player unless I have an exam certificate which says I am (lack of trust in self )

When I pass this exam   I will be happy –and then  I can give up ( I have done this 4 times now and have found that I always succumb to the temptation of just one more  ( accompanied admittedly by  encouragement from my music teacher ) of then being able to say ‘OK, just one more and I will really be there, I will really know that I am accomplished enough and can relax and enjoy my violin. The dejection of  not passing an exam   can be overwhelming.

 I would so like to be more like the Buddha and not to hanker after this type of validated achievement, to feel content with what I have got and to allay the restless sense of never being quite good enough as a player , which seems to get stronger as the years pass-- to experience tranquility rather than dejection and melancholy  when  I don’t achieve what I have set my sights on   would be a truly wonderful thing

So what helps me on this treadmill ?

1.Self metta Metta Bhavana always helps me when I reflect on this topic, as it reduces the self beating and deluded thinking that if I don’t pass an exam, I am not a proper violin player 

2.Engaging  in reflection (as Ratnaguna says) and developing curiosity as to what is going on here, and to question why I can’t enjoy playing the music I love  without submitting myself to the looming torture of exams – why do I ignore the pleasure of the freedom to enjoy what I can do?

3. Be curious about alternative ways to experience personal success and reach goals in keeping with my values without hooking into this strong need for external validation. Recognise and accept that part of this behaviour is a work led habit and  an old story  about needing to prove myself worthy to others in a challenging profession.

4. Consider how I can gain more self discipline to play regularly without the terror of ‘failure’ to spur me on , and find other ways which might enable me to practice that are not so adrenalin fuelled. Stay more in the moment and remember that this is a  beautiful instrument-immerse myself in the beauty of the music pieces and remember  I can play better the more I practice  

5. Reflect on ways I can continue to look inside myself to meet my needs  and trust my own judgement rather than to that of others to feel competent. Go on more retreats as these set up a range of helpful conditions  when such wordly winds pay a call

So I have decided to do the following

Stick to my resolution not to take any more exams beyond the current grade  and tell people so that I honour this 

Play every day  some scales and pieces and remind myself of what I am getting out of this. Practice relaxing and playing... 

Practice meditation and self metta to counteract and reduce recurring feelings of anxiety about not being quite good enough as a violin player. The Six Elements meditation retreat is one I would like to go on next year

Accept and enjoy what I can do rather than what I can’t do

Don’t make a drama of it all – be philosophical - any feelings of discomfort or frustration will soon pass

The eighth precept is a pillar of emerald, a cool rather than a hot colour and one of my favourite colours , it stands for a state in which the fever of covetousness has cooled down. So if you see  me wearing emerald  at future sangha meetings, it will be a visual self reminder of this intention to  enjoy what I’ve got and not to take any more violin exams! 

Annette



Beginners Group, July 2nd.



Richard Dawson reports on the last night of the beginners meditation course -

We did a long metta Bhavana in the first half followed by a Q&A session in the second which was preceded by Jackie and I talking about fruitful attitudes to meditation and setting up a regular practice. The group asked good questions and were quite reflective. We mentioned the intro to Buddhism course which starts next week

I referred to the meditation diary (handed out to group members at the beginning of the course ) quite a lot to encourage  the group to use it as a reminder for their practice at home and found this a v helpful aid to our discussion