Category Archives: Love

The Distinction Between Teachings and Presence (Awakened Mind or Buddha Mind)

A lovely person recently commented with perhaps some disappointment that the dialogue that took place in our group didn’t contain any teachings. What was meaningful for this person was the Buddhist teachings (and possibly other teachings, I imagine.)

I’ve been reflecting on what this person said. Here is what has come up for me.

There are many beautiful and powerful teachings in meditation traditions. There is no doubt about that. Some people may take teachings as sayings to be internalized and in difficult situations you should try to live according to the sayings, rather than according to one’s impulses in the other direction.

This is actually interesting to consider. If I get irritated with someone, I may be tempted to treat them unkindly, maybe complaining to them or speaking with a harsh voice. But something else may suddenly come into the mind, maybe the saying, “Do unto others…” or maybe a Buddhist teaching on practicing compassion. The amazing thing is that there was a gap between the impulse to act unkindly and the physical action of doing it. That gap is the miracle! The memory of “Do unto others…” or the memory of someone scolding me for being mean – those memories come afterwards, after the gap has occurred. Those memories come up into the space that comes along with the gap.

Another amazing thing about this is that before the gap there was just a concern with my own personal gain. When the gap has occurred, the mind is now aware of how others might feel or maybe we can say the mind is aware of the bigger picture.

What happens then could go either way. I speak unkindly anyway. Or I might do something different.

I think what happens for many of us is that those “teachings” that come into the mind when there is an opening can end up doing battle with the difficult impulse that originally arose. “I should try to be a nicer person.” And then there is a sort of compulsive application of will power to follow the “good” instead of the “bad.” I suppose it’s probably better if a violent person has learned to do this rather than punching or shooting people. But for myself I’m not satisfied with a battle between one way and another way, even if one way is the more “enlightened” way.

So how can it be that there is not a battle between the original impulse and the feeling that there is a different way (maybe through a teaching)?

First we have to really look and see if there is a battle going on in us. Maybe it’s a very small or gentle battle. For some of us it may be a more compulsive battle. It seems very helpful to look at this carefully. The mind seems to be almost continually in battle with itself in my experience. This is the root of conflict and separation, so it’s really good to look at this freshly.

It strikes me that one kind of “peaceful” battle is to think “Well, I’m going to practice being kinder right now and maybe in the future these impulses to be unkind to others may go away.” Wow. That’s feels to me like side-stepping the brewing battle. Maybe it avoids the battle at the moment but it also avoids really dealing with the essence of the conflict between acting unkindly and acting kindly. It puts “dealing with it” into the future.

What does “dealing with it” mean? It might mean really listening to that voice that wants to be mean to someone else. Really listening to it!! Really feeling what comes up when that voice is finally given the chance to speak (internally. I don’t mean speaking meanly to the other person.) Really listening to what is behind that voice. Is that voice afraid of something? Not knowing what to say to that voice. Not having a “teaching” for it. Just listening and feeling.

Let’s back up a minute and go back to that moment when there is the impulse to be unkind and then the gap and then a larger awareness that includes others. We could say there is a voice of unkindness and a voice or mind of compassion both operating. At times it might seem like these are in conflict (the battle) but in reality, at least in my experience, it is exactly that voice of compassion that does not want to do battle and instead wants to hear that voice of unkindness. It is the Big Mind that allows the voice of unkindness to unfold, to be heard, to open up. In this activity there is a complete interpenetration of wisdom mind and ignorant mind. Another way of saying this is that it is Love itself that allows the battle to end and the unfolding of difficult patterns to happen. Love is big enough to hold and feel and support the expression of violence and anguish of that voice of unkindness.

How does this work when we are in dialogue with each other? One person may bring up that they have a habit of being unkind to others sometimes. What happens then in the group? Someone might give a teaching about practicing compassion. That’s one approach. Another approach is to allow the mind of compassion to do its work right here together in the heat of the moment. To me that means inviting the voice of unkindness to speak, to open. Inviting the person who brought this up to allow the unkindness and everything that is behind it to open up right here in this gap, this space, that we are in together. It may be possible for others in the group to open up to this as well, together, because it is something that is in all of us.

As this happens together in dialogue, unexpected things come up. Unexpected responses to each other. Explorations of what one person is experiencing. And the whole time this fresh unfolding is happening. This is the end of the battle between difficult impulses and wisdom. It is difficulty opening in the embrace of wisdom. It is wisdom washed in the pain and difficulty but not tainted by it. It is the end of separation and the live functioning of Love and healing.

A person observing this might well say, “I didn’t hear anyone give any teachings.” A Buddhist teaching, to me, isn’t really a prescription of how to try to live in order to become better. It is a description of how a person functions when the mind is not at battle, when there is personal agenda is not narrowing the mind, when there is a spaciousness functioning. At best, such a teaching is a reminder. It points to something. It points to how we function when we are open, without agenda, vulnerable, having put aside the battle and having allowed ourselves to directly and intimately experience what is happening in us that has not wanted to be experienced. Teachings point to the functioning of the Wisdom mind, of Love.

When we are together, immersed in this functioning, exploring together, not afraid of what might be seen, then we are, in that moment, living in the mind and heart that teachings point to. We are alive. We are not separate.

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Love and Anger

I notice a deep pattern in myself in which Love is felt to be an opposite to anger/hostility. For example, if I’m talking to someone one who is expressing angry or hostile political ideas, I often feel an antagonism toward that person. I don’t want to be exposed to those feelings – the physical sensations that go along with anger and hostility. I feel an opposition between myself – who wants to have loving feelings in this body – and the other person – who I feel is making me feel bad.

If I look a little more closely at how I’m reacting, I can see that this opposition that I feel toward the other person creates antagonism. In other words my own reaction is really causing anger and hostility in me and is making me feel worse. The key or clue for me is this strongly felt, physical sense of opposition toward another person. Of course something in me justifies this reaction of opposition by saying that the other person is wrong or bad or negative (which they may be.) I am beginning to notice that the strong feeling of opposition is not helpful. Certainly not to me, to my immediate well being.

So if I’m faced with someone making very angry and hostile statements – perhaps very loudly and threateningly – what kind of response can their be other than creating a sense of opposition?

As soon as I posed this question above, I thought, “Well, I’ll be loving toward them,” but this may still involve seeing them as “wrong” or as threatening to my well being. In other words there may still be this sense of opposition going on in me, with its sense of danger, sense of separateness, sense of needing to protect myself – and the physical discomfort that goes along with this. This is a subtle point that needs to be considered carefully.

Is it possible that the sense of opposition doesn’t take hold? If I’m with someone I care about and they somehow say something that makes me defensive, I’ve noticed that if the energy goes into being defensive, I stop feeling close to them at that moment. I start to feel almost like they are a stranger. When this happens, I feel sad, though at the same time I may not be able to shake the feeling. Something in me doesn’t want to stay in that defensive, isolated place. I want to get back to feeling connected with my friend. But if a stranger makes me feel defensive, I probably never felt close to them in the first place and the defensiveness in me digs its heels in, becoming a stronger habit.

Because I don’t want the habit of defensiveness to ruin my close relationships, I don’t want to nourish it by letting it becoming stronger in my reactions to angry or hostile strangers. It happens anyway. But I don’t want it to grow, so I’m watching my reactions to everyone, whether I like them or not.

If a stranger (or a friend) is talking in an angry, fearful, or hostile way, and if I don’t immeditately slip into defending my feelings -trying to keep out angry feelings and trying to access loving feelings – then something different from my usual reaction happens. I’ve noticed this. I might feel in my own body the physical “echoes” of the other person’s anger. Because of that I might understand more intimately what is happening for them. Or I might feel both the angry vibrations and the sadness of that at the same time.

When this happens then I notice that at that moment for me there is both the anger/hostility becoming visible and feelable AND the love and affection that sees this and feels the sadness of it – the sadness of isolation and of a body exhausted by anger. In such moments it is clear that love and anger are not opposites. Love, interest, affection, sensitivity can all operate at any moment to shed light on any emotional state that is taking place. It doesn’t matter then whether it is happening in me or in a person standing across from me. It doesn’t really matter whether the body is experiencing difficult sensations in that moment. What seems important is that whatever is happening can be listened to and felt, wondered about.

When this happens for me, then the body seems at ease, even though there may be challenging sensations moving through it. And there is a sense of both humility and energy. Humility because I have let myself be affected by the world around me. Energy because the love and interest let the world’s vibrations be felt and move through the body in as healthy a way as possible. There is no sense of opposition in this. No sense of being a separate something. There is just the vast flow of life moving in this body, with its own wisdom and healing.

And what about this “other person” that is usually felt as causing the problematic feelings? For me there is often a sense of understanding where they are coming from. Of being able to hear their anger and, usually, the fear behind it. It’s not hard to understand that a person can have those feelings. But instead of guarding myself against those feelings, there is empathy for the other person.

So if someone I like says something that scares me and the whole defensive pattern is about to start up, then what? Is it ok if I don’t know what to do? Can I stay around that person even if I’m feeling scared? Can I stay open to that person, keep listening, continue to be sensitive to them, despite the thoughts that might be shouting out that I should be afraid?

Recently I let this happen, not knowing what was going on, nervous to be in unknown territory. Eventually I learned much about the other person and found that love reappeared. And I felt that certain deeply held strong reactions in me were exposed as pretty useless. That was a surprise and a relief.

What Needs Attention?

I have a friend who, when I asked him why he goes to so many retreats, replied “Because there is always something that needs attention and because of nothing at all.”

This struck me as a wonderful and true answer. There IS always something in us that needs attention, isn’t there? In fact it often feels like there is an overwhelming amount of “stuff” that needs attention.

How do we give attention to these things? It seems that our usual first attempt is to verbalize what’s going on. That’s a natural first step, although it has some limitations as well. What I “think” about what’s going on is often not very accurate. Sometimes the very act of identifying a “problem” actually reinforces it. Certainly, being able to verbalize an issue clearly is helpful but I’m just reporting what I’ve observed in myself. I need to take the verbalization with a grain of salt and I need to let go of it at some point.

A second step is to look for some help or insights outside of myself. This is also helpful, including reading books, talking with others, and getting professional guidance. I’ve found some really wonderful help this way.

Ultimately, there is another step that is different in that the first two involve what I know and what other people know. This “new” step involves moving beyond the limited realm of what is known and into the open space of being with the wholeness of what is happening inside and outside, beyond trying to know what is happening. In other words to really be with what is going on requires, in my experience, a letting go of that activity of the brain that tries to put new, fresh input into my existing knowledge. The key is that that activity of the brain lets up so that the brain can experience more fully and deeply what is right here. Knowing may happen or not happen but the brain can learn to relax away from the compulsive attempt to know so that the brain can operate in a new, direct sensing way.

In my experience deep healing of what needs attention comes most directly out of this unknowing, relaxed deep and still sensitivity.

This deep listening can operate in us even when we come together as a group for dialogue. In fact coming together – if we don’t wander to far away into trying to figure things out – can amplify this process of stillness and listening penetrating into the hidden areas that need attention. By habit we don’t usually talk and listening together in this way but we can learn to by coming together, if we give this process enough chance with each other.

So part of this shared healing process is making the effort to come together from time to time and learning – sometimes awkwardly – how to talk and listen together in a way that begins to penetrate into those areas that need attention. This is the purpose of our group activities in and out of retreat.

What about the “because of nothing at all?” This is a beautiful way of saying that healing, opening, growing together is a natural expression of life that just happens and takes care of itself if we give it a chance. We don’t have to struggle to do it. And while this healing and listening is happening for us in a group or alone, it is an expression of the wholeness of the world all around us at this very moment. Just as the sun sometimes pokes out from behind clouds, the heart sometimes open in joy or in pain, for its own sake. Not for some future goal. We can say that wholeness in a moment is exactly what heals and it happens for its own sake.

The Heart of Life

It’s now the coldest, darkest time of year. The winter holidays are nearly past. For unknown reasons this is a time when the sorrow of losses, disappointments, unmet hopes comes more readily to mind and drapes itself on and in the body.

This year the hope for having a government moved by intelligence, caring, and community has been – for the near future – dashed. The prospect of being treated harshly, manipulatively, hangs over the heads of millions of us.

How do we relate to loss – the loss of loved ones, the loss of opportunities for goodness, the loss of a sense of security and safety? How do we relate to dashed hopes and looming difficult times?

I notice that the mind wants to find some words to comfort itself. To read something inspiring. To regain a sense of positiveness or happiness. But I wonder if it is necessary to interfere with the sorrow that may be going on right now in the body/mind. Is there some interest in entering deeply into the sense of loss or sorrow at those moments when it presents itself? To be very sensitively in touch without trying to move away. To let these feelings open up and do whatever they need to do, to reveal anything they may need to reveal? To not short circuit that process by moving away from it? To maybe find out something new and fresh about the energy that we call sorrow.

Right now, sitting here, feeling into disappointment, anxiety, sorrow, there is also the feel of cool air on the skin, a sense of groundedness in the body, the sound of water trickling in the fountain and fans moving, dim light of a cloudy day. In listening deeply and openly with the heart, the mind, the body – and all of the emotions that have arisen – isn’t this life one energy without borders, including everything? When the heart opens with all of its emotions and sensations, isn’t it the heart of all life?

Psychology or Spirituality?

JW: You asked me to explain why I don’t want to come to dialogue groups. I am very religious as you know, but also very interested in spiritual practices, such as meditation, mindfulness and gratitude.  I am not particularly interested in solely dealing with relationship problems, because I believe that turning to our Source, our Creator, to God, is in reality the abiding solution to these and other problems.  What I’m trying to say is, I personally like you and your abilities as a facilitator, but I’m looking for the “divine spark,” that element in discourse and being which speaks of God.

Jay: Thanks for explaining. I have a better idea now of what you are talking about.

The issue of what is spiritual and what is merely psychological is one that I’ve looked at for a long time. My primary goal in dialogue is to work as directly spiritually as possible. This may not be evident all the time so I’ll try to explain a little how I see it.

First, what do I mean by spiritual? In the deepest sense, for me, a spiritual moment is a moment in which the feelings of separation have dropped away. Along with it, other things have usually dropped away as well, including a sense of being a physically limited body, of having problems that have to be solved, of antagonism or irritation with others, of the world being mechanical, dry, and empty. Such a moment, to me, feels infinitely expansive, timeless, not needing or lacking anything, full of simple beauty, in-touchness with the natural world, and radiant with affection, love, and wisdom.

All of these things that drop away are, in my observation, perceptions that come from how the brain tends to think about things. When the brain has become quiet, it isn’t making those interpretations. It is just participating in direct experience of this one, undivided world, which seems to carry with it love, affection, and wisdom.

So if we want to talk about the “truth” of spirituality, for me it is a moment or extended period in which this simple beauty of life is visible – not covered up by interpretations of the brain.

To put it in some other words, the brain has the habit of creating certain filters through which we interpret the world. For example, some of us are habitually suspicious of other people who treat us in certain ways. But this filter of the brain is not always activated. It can be “off line.”

From my experience I would say that there can be moments, sometimes extended, when the entire filtering process of the brain is not activated and instead of filtering, the brain is simply sensing, perceiving.

Of course most of us don’t live in that state most of the time. But if one has a strong sense of the importance of living without division and free of our painful interpretations, then one begins to wonder what’s happening the rest of the time. For me this means being very carefully in touch with WHATEVER state of mind is going on. In other words, most of the time our work is to let light shine on this filtering process – noticing it, feeling into what agendas are behind it, what keeps it going, what does it want, what happens if it drops.

I don’t think human beings generally are aware of these things or pay much attention to them. On the contrary, we firmly believe our interpretations about other people and our assumptions about who we are and what we need, even – or especially – about spirituality. But when one begins to examine these carefully and affectionately, the process of continually filtering life through blind assumptions begins to let up.  The more carefully we examine out filters, the more direct the process of them beginning to let up. And the more the filters begin to let up, the more frequently and groundedly they may drop away altogether for moments at a time.

In a moment when filters are not operating and we can see each other and the world clearly – with affection – it is possible to work together to shine light on these filters that we all have. This is the purpose of dialogue and of one-on-one meetings.

So if someone is angry at their boss and they bring it up in a dialogue, it may seem at first glance like a mundane, personal, psychological problem that doesn’t belong in a spiritual dialogue. But I have come to see it very differently. If the person just vents and other participants give suggestions for getting a better job or doing some breathing exercises to relax, then nothing much has really been revealed on a spiritual level.  But if we look together closely and try to open up the whole dynamic, we may both discover things about the filters of seeing people as “other” and of feeling threatened and needing to defend and the fear of not defending and the fear of the unknown.

When dialogue leads to a person coming in touch with these deep filters, then something begins to loosen up. In a moment of coming in touch, each of us is really letting go of filters for a microsecond and experiencing the profound spiritual power of listening to one’s inner workings without any defense or agenda. This is a moment of awakeness – the most profound experience – even though it is only for a fraction of a second.

If someone does not have much experience coming in touch with these inner motives and agendas, then doing this in a group dialogue may open up a flood of new energy and interest to watch oneself more closely. This movement of allowing the inner workings to become visible is exactly the function of One Mind. The whole universe supports this effort. And until a habit has been observed, carefully lived through, opened up, brought out into the light, it is very much an effort to live with it consciously. It takes a lot of energy. This is why we come together in a group to do this work together. It’s why we go off for seven days various times during the year to devote energy to this.

And the more this kind of work is done, the more frequently and deeply the moments of wholeness and love come to us and work through us.

When I first started participating in groups, I used to hear other people’s psychological problems and think “I’m beyond that. Why can’t this person live in the present right this moment and drop their problems?” But I began to discover that this was a very naive view on my part. First of all, I usually noticed later on that I DID have that problem. I just never had noticed it. Secondly, I began to realize that in the immediacy of a moment with someone else – sitting together in dialogue – this pattern that they were bringing up, this filter, WAS exactly what was here in this moment and we had a very precious opportunity to open up this filter together, for the benefit of both, or all, of us.

So for me if someone brings up a psychological or relationship issue in dialogue, it is far from mundane or superficial. It is a human being beginning to look into these hidden filters that operate automatically and blindly and cause so much pain and suffering in the world. It is the beginning of wisdom functioning and of wholeness blossoming. It is the most precious moment possible. It is all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas coming to us to shine light thoroughly on what a human being has started to become aware of.

I hope that gives you a perspective on what I see going on in dialogue.

If  you don’t relate to the kind of issues that people bring up in our groups, you’re welcome to meet with me just the two of us to explore what you see as spirituality. What I described above is only one way of working together.

Also, I’m experimenting with a first Thursday of the month event in which there will be some quiet sitting but no dialogue. After the sitting anyone can bring up an issue or question or explore something, but there will not be cross talk. I may respond, so it is sort of a one-on-one meeting time but with others present in the group but not responding.

JW: I believe I understand much of what you are saying, and am impressed with the depth of your insights and feelings.  The only major disconnect in our viewpoints is what can I say but “The God Factor.”  Those feelings of expansiveness, loving-kindness, evanescence and radiance emanate from God.  It is God speaking to our hearts, and that should be acknowledged.  “Love Me [God] that I may love thee.  If Thou lovest Me not, My love can in no wise reach thee.”  (Baha’u’llah)

Jay: Toni Packer would sometimes be asked by people why she didn’t talk more about love or Love. Her response was that Love takes care of itself and manifests in us when we are willing to be open with ourselves. The more openness and vulnerability, the more Love can work through us.

She did in later years refer to Love a little more but my feeling is that it doesn’t always necessarily needed to be given a name or a personification (God). When we are really listening vulnerably to each other, then it is felt very strongly.

Now it may be that there are some things about the image or sense or identity with the sense of God that are important images for you. Most of us feel more comfortable with an image of a caring “being” rather than a non-personal sense such as Love. But my feeling is that that is something important to look at. How does that function in my life? I’m not saying it’s not a valuable thing for you – how could I know what’s valuable for you or not??? – but it may not be important for other people.  And yet the work of uncovering the fears, anxieties and defenses in each of us is something that we can all participate in and which – I’d say without fail – brings that “divine” love into action and can be felt by all.

I’m just thinking that if the concept of a God is important to you, from my experience I would want to suggest that you treat it as a question, an exploration, rather than a fixed something to take refuge in.

By question I don’t mean something to think about necessarily or to “doubt”. However, there are many questions that may come up naturally for you. The whole sense of a separate being outside of me may feel very helpful but many “masters” and teachers actually negate this, so you can question for yourself “What are they talking about? Why doesn’t the Buddha refer to any god? Why does Krishnamurti point to concepts of heavenly beings guiding us as a false hope?”

I’m not saying to believe Buddha or Krishnamurti or other teachers who don’t refer to a god. But on the other hand it’s hard to discount such people completely. So you have to look very carefully for yourself.

I don’t think it’s productive to consider whether or not there is a God but to question things such as if there is a God and it is everpresent, where is it right now that I’m not experiencing joy, love or divine presence? If I am essentially of God, how is it that I feel very separate, even from God?

If one wants to find out for oneself, then questioning, looking freshly and ever more deeply, happens naturally, I feel. If one makes every moment an opportunity to feel more deeply into what one feels God is, it will begin to unfold in a fresh way.

Our natural tendency is to take refuge in certain types of feelings and concepts and no matter how noble, taking refuge in feelings and concepts can lead, in my experience, away from looking directly into myself and my relationship with the world, with life, with God. Looking this very moment is a different energy than resting in certain feelings and beliefs. If this is clear, then it can become increasingly clear what I am, how I really live, and the vast loving space in which everything happens – without separateness.

I just wanted to share these thoughts. I personally am very wary of the sense of a being – no matter how lofty. In my experience the reality of what the Buddha and so many other people have experienced and talked about is a living that is not divided up into separate beings and objects – nothing more holy or more profane than anything else.

This may not be at all how you see it but sharing our experiences when there are stark differences in perspective is one wonderful way for all of us to look more freshly, more clearly, and more deeply into ourselves, which is where the fears that keep us from opening up reside.

I hope this comes to you in the spirit of affection, sharing, and interest in which I feel I’m writing it!

Reflections on Near Death Experiences

I recently read an article about Near Death Experiences (NDE’s). The article took a scientific perspective and talked about studies that have evaluated the experiences of hundreds of people.

There are some common aspects of NDE’s. The most fundamental seems to be a sense of being in a place of deep peace and love. Often people feel that they are not “in” their body in the usual way – that they can see their body as though from the outside. Many people experience encountering certain entities or reliving experiences from their own past.

One thing that struck me was that people who had these NDE’s felt them to be very real – in fact more real in a way than ordinary life. For many their own life is transformed afterwards. The article didn’t describe exactly how, though it mentioned increased generosity – sometimes to an extreme – as one example.

When scientists try to describe NDE’s to these people as the result of hallucinations of a dying brain or anomalies caused by brain chemistry, the people tend to reject this as far too superficial for an experience that they found transformative, real, and perhaps healing.

This article brought several things to mind for me. One is the experience of neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor, who had a stroke in which her left (analytic) hemisphere shut down. As a result, she experienced life exclusively through the right hemisphere for a while,  including a radical shift in identity and being. She didn’t feel that she had an individual identity but rather experienced life as one whole, undivided energy, whose main characteristic was love. As she began to retrain herself in left brain thinking, she realized that she was sacrificing some of this beauty of being in order to function in the world. In other words, the left brain thinking somehow covered up or diminished the experience of life as one loving whole.

The article also brought to mind religious conversion experiences, often brought about by a group of people focusing on one person and that person experiencing something larger and more full of love than their usual way of being.

Finally, the article brought to mind stories that I’ve heard or read of people having a spontaneous awakening, without significant meditation experience.

In all these cases the people involved find their experience to be at least as real as ordinary life, and often find it much more real. What do they mean by this?

Reflecting on my own various experiences, I would say that at certain times the filters through which we see life drop away. It may be clear in that moment that life is being seen, experienced, felt, lived, in a way in which something that has distorted our experience of life is gone. This is very different from a drug- or disease-induced state in which something – a chemical imbalance – has been added.

So just as in taking off a smudged pair of sunglasses, one intuitively knows that what is seen now is more real, less distorted by filters of thinking. It’s simpler, clearer, more spacious, more full of love, without division or conflict.

We’ve all had such moments when the usual filters have dropped away for an instant and life is vast, spacious, and complete. We probably had more of these as young children. But as the mind matures, the filters become more and more pervasive. Moments of them dropping away become rare. For many of us, we forget what we had once experienced or remember it in an idealized – and distorted – way, distorted because such moments can’t be represented in memory.

So when an adult experiences life for a moment or some extended moments and is reminded again of the wholeness and vastness of life, of the vast  love that is what we are, of the absence of need for worrying, they are radically transformed. Their life turns inside out. They see how much their life has been based on a fundamentally distorted perception of life.

Unfortunately, in all the cases that I was reminded of, the tendency is for this radical awakening to our undivided nature to fade. As Jill Taylor describes, the functioning of the brain in daily life once again starts to diminish and weaken the ability to live in undivided presence.

What does this tell me about meditative work? First, that these sometimes tiny openings that we may experience in long retreat are vital. They are very brief reminders of something radical. Something with life and death importance. They are tiny moments of waking up from the complacency and seeming safety of our views of life. I say views of life because a moment of intimacy with life is possible when life is not being lived through any views at all. Views have dropped away.

I can’t help but feel an urgency in the need to question this whole way of usual living, which at its core divides life into “me” and “other than me”. And the most powerful tool for questioning this is long retreat. After 5, 6 or 7 days in silence, stillness, dialogue, among other people doing the same work, there may be brief moments of waking up to undivided Presence. Such a moment makes it clear again, for a while, what is real.

If one continues with long retreat year after year, this waking up becomes deeper and more profound and we might say that there is then one more person who is not adding continually to the sorrow of the world.

For myself I feel that what is important is finding the interest and strength to see, feel, be with the dark patterns of enclosure and self-protection that come up so pervasively in us. In other words, the ability to be still – listening, wanting to be with – these reactive patterns as they come up. Not being afraid to come in touch with whatever comes up, no matter how much it  may shake my sense of security. This coming in touch is something still and stable. It’s different from being swept away in reactions.  But even if I am swept away, there is always a moment in which stillness can return and there can be intouchness.

So stillness in the face of the life-or-death feeling of needing to defend myself. Moment after moment. Then intelligence begins to dawn. And love. And compassion. In the midst of suffering.

Doing this work  of being with the craziness as though our life depends on seeing what’s going on (which it does), when a moment of dropping away happens and one finds that the world is one undivided life, there may not be the pull to return to what has been seen so clearly as unhelpful – the world of imagined division, imagined conflict, imagined endless effort to survive.

An Invitation to Retreat

Retreat is an invitation to listen. And to be heard. What do I mean by this? In the quiet space of retreat it makes sense that I can listen to what is happening inside and outside. But what does it mean that I can be heard?

This question is making me touch into my desire to be heard. To be understood. Isn’t that a strong desire in us? Maybe it’s become dulled or atrophied after years of not being heard, after giving up on the possibility. Maybe we’ve come to believe that it’s immature to want to be heard. That we should learn to be independent. Maybe we don’t even hear the need any more. But it seems to me to be fundamental part of who we are. We want to be heard, understood, seen, touched. We want to be visible to the world.

So maybe one aspect of being heard in retreat is that I hear myself freshly and more honestly, more vulnerably. In sitting quietly, moving quietly, not having to rile up the mind with busy activities and distractions, hearing myself happens on its own. It’s unavoidable!

It strikes me that I usually think of “being heard” in the context of being heard by someone else, but it does make sense that if someone else is to hear me, I need to be able to speak clearly about what I need and want. To do that I have to listen to myself.

But on another level perhaps the real reason that we long to be heard by someone is because that opens up a space for us to hear ourselves and for self-healing to being. If someone can really hear how hurt I was by their comments – if they really hear it without making excuses, if they can just hear it vulnerably and feel my hurt for themselves – then maybe I can be done with that incident. At the same time the incident may open up for me so that there is some insight into the nature of that hurt in the first place.

So what I’m longing for in both of us is really the space to hear and feel openly, vulnerably, deeply, without moving away from the difficult feelings. It makes sense, then, as I sit alone with others in retreat, that entering into this vulnerable listening, being, each moment, is the same as what I long for from others.

In retreat we do have time for interacting, for putting this listening to work together with others. We can do this in the group dialogue and in one-on-one meetings. That’s why we have these opportunities and they can be very healing.

There’s no question that opening up, being vulnerable, carries with it the possibility of pain. And the possibility of pain carries the probability of reacting, of shutting down, of wanting to escape. Just the thought of signing up for a retreat raises all of this, maybe subconsciously. Even after years of retreat I still get a dry mouth and anxiety as retreat begins. It’s no different than realizing that one’s partner – or any other person for that matter – can ever really be “safe”. We can learn to be a source of comfort and support for each other but there is always the possibility of something being triggered. That doesn’t mean we avoid relationships. Or does it? Maybe we do. But underneath there is, I believe, a longing for vulnerability and intimacy.

In a relationship for there to be the possibility of vulnerability together there has to be a mutual understanding of how we can hurt each other and a willingness to learn about this through vulnerable listening. Similarly, when you are invited to retreat, it’s important for you to know that the retreat setting, the people facilitating, want to support this process of mutual listening. Of making it as safe as possible for you to listen to yourself and as safe as possible to explore the hurts inside that want to and need to be heard.

When I invite you to retreat (on behalf of all of us) it’s because we need each other. We need to come together for a number of days to make it easier for us to listen, to heal, and to come alive in open vulnerability, together.

Just as in our relationships with our partners, there’s a sort of speed bump that we have to get over to start listening together. When I talk to people about coming to retreat, the first thing most people talk about is how impossible it would be to do that, to take time off, to step out of the routine, to be in a strange place, to spend the money. It’s not too different than our therapist suggesting that I talk about how I feel and suddenly I can feel that speed bump in my throat and think of a hundred reasons why I shouldn’t do that.

But then I start talking. Because I need to. Despite having to get over the bump, over the fear, And some how it works out, no matter what it brings up. And there is a feeling of greater honesty and greater openness.

With coming to retreat, people who really need to come find ways to deal with the practicalities. I can make suggestions for you if you need to work that through.

Retreat is the rare opportunity to pay attention to that in our lives that most deeply needs attention. Without an opportunity like this once in a while, a time or two a year or more, doesn’t something inside sort of wither?

Together we can make it easier to listen, be heard, heal, and come alive again.