Meditation Timers: Modern Gadgets Meet Mindfulness

At our Tuesday Sangha Nights we usually do things in a pretty traditional way. We salute the shrine, we chant the Refuges and Precepts, both in Pāli and in English, and then we sit to meditate. There’s a meditation leader, usually an order member or someone who’s asked for ordination, and he or she marks the beginning of the meditation and the start of each stage with a tingsha meditation bell, pictured here. The ambience is peaceful, with candles and incense, and a groupdragon tingsha of sangha members sitting on cushions in various postures, or on chairs, and soon enough the noise of the city fades away as we get into our meditations.

At home, a lot of us use more modern tools. There are several different timed meditations on the Triratna-NYC site, and you can simply play them from your computer to do a 20, 30, 40, or 60 minute Metta Bhavana or Mindfulness of Breathing.

And as with most things in life these days, there’s an app for that. My informal survey of our sangha has the Insight Timer as the clear favorite, but there are plenty of others. I’m in the Insight Timer camp myself, and I have several pre-programmed meditations of different lengths that I use. If you like a social media angle, you can make a profile of yourself, have ‘friends,’ join groups, send messages… all of that stuff. Personally I don’t use those features, but I can see the appeal if you want to have a kind of virtual sangha and see who, across the planet, you’ve just been meditating with.

insight timer

You can also keep a journal, adding notes on each time you sit – which meditation you did, what hindrances may have arisen, and so on. If you’re a lover of stats, you can see how your meditation practice has been going by the numbers – total number of days meditating, consecutive days, amount of time spent, etc. Of course you can ignore all of that, too, and just meditate.

The great thing about these timers is that you simply touch “start,” and then you don’t have to worry about keeping an eye on a clock or watch. Not that a clock or watch isn’t a perfectly suitable alternative if you prefer not to use a smart phone.

There are also links to several other meditation tools, including special clocks and timers of the physical, non-app variety, as well as CDs and MP3s. If you have other favorites that are not included, leave a comment and let us know.


Bringing Mindfulness to Habits

by Vishvapani | Mar 21, 2014 |

Many of our ways of coping with the challenges of daily life seem like a good idea, but they turn out to be unhelpful. What happens when mindfulness meets multitasking, rushing, tensing, keeping up and keeping going?


1.     Multi-tasking

Time is precious, so it makes sense to do as many things as you can at the same time … right? That’s an attitude our culture encourages, but if our attention is spread across several things, how fully can we take in any of them? And what effect does multi-tasking have on our state of mind? Research suggests that you don’t actually get more done by multi-tasking. It’s more efficient, as well as more satisfying, to give your full attention to whatever your doing so you can do it properly.

A mindful alternative: doing one thing at a time (at least when that’s possible).


2.     Tensing Up

Perhaps your experience sometimes goes like this. You know it’s going to be a difficult conversation. You turn it over in my head beforehand. You think you’ve worked out what to say, but when it comes to it, you’re feeling tense. The other person responds badly and you tense up even more. You snap at them. This isn’t going well …

A mindful alternative: staying open to what’s happening. This means noticing tension whenever it arises and finding the space to be open to what the other person is saying, even if you don’t like it. Mindfulness practices can help.


3.     Keeping Going When You Really Need to Stop

It’s late afternoon and you notice strain creeping into your work, but you’re on a roll so you just keep going. That evening you’re shattered and realise that the strain was actually much greater than you felt at the time.

A mindful alternative: pacing yourself. Pacing means slowing down or stopping before you want to. That can be a challenge, but the experience of running long distances or managing pain shows that if you pace yourself you can achieve much more.


 4.     Rushing

Rushing happens when we’re so focused on a deadline that we prioritise speed over everything else. It can go like this: It’s morning and you’re trying to get yourself and the kids out of the house. You clean your teeth faster, eat your breakfast faster, talk faster. By the time you’re all on the road, you’ve had a couple of arguments and you’re rushing to work … and the day hasn’t really started yet.

A mindful alternative: getting off ‘autopilot’. It’s true that some things need to be done quickly, but bringing awareness to what’s happening interrupts the tendency to rush. We need cues to remind ourselves to get off autopilot and take things steadily.


5.    Trying to keep up with what’s happening

So much of the information that comes at us through the mainstream and social media carries a hidden message: ‘It’s important that you keep up stay in touch, otherwise you’ll be left behind.’ So we keep cramming more stimulation into our limited minds, squeezing out a the space in which we might feel calm and spacious

A mindful alternative: paying attention to what we take in through the senses and reducing input. Our attention is a precious commodity, we need to guard it carefully.

Link to original article 


The Five Precepts

handleaf[Image Source] If you’re not familiar with Buddhism, you may never have heard of the Five Precepts. They’re the ethical base of Buddhist practice, a sort of code that practicing Buddhists live by. They’re very closely tied to the Right Action spoke of the Eightfold Path, which, along with Right Livelihood and Right Speech, is part of the Ethical Conduct path of Buddhism. The Five Precepts are, in a word, central to Buddhist thought and practice.

In the West we’re quite used to commandments, and it’s easy to confuse the Five Precepts with some sort of list of commandments. They’re not. Nowhere in the precepts will you see a “thou shalt” or a “thou shalt not.” Instead, they’re formulated as choices, as voluntary undertakings, as decisions made by the individual because they make sense to the individual through practice and reflection, not because some cosmic (and potentially vengeful) being commanded them. Buddhists chant or recite them as reminders, as a kind of affirmation of the choice to practice.

The precepts have both negative and positive formulations, and in both, you can see how the practicing Buddhist enters into a kind of equal partnership with them. Take a look at the negative formulations first.

1. I undertake to abstain from taking or harming life.
2. I undertake to abstain from taking what is not freely given.
3. I undertake to abstain from causing harm through sexuality.

4. I undertake to abstain from false speech.
5. I undertake to abstain from taking intoxicants that dull the mind.

Notice that they all begin with “I undertake to abstain from…” Not “I vow not to…” or even “I will not...” For many Buddhists, in intention and in actual behavior, they do amount to vows, but they come from a humbler place, a place that recognizes that we don’t always get it right, even with the best of intentions. That doesn’t imply a lax attitude toward the precepts, but rather a compassionate attitude to ourselves.

We’ll look more closely at each of the precepts in later posts, but here’s a quick summary of how they’re usually understood:

1. The first precept is related to the practice of avihimsā, which is nonviolence, harmlessness, the absence of cruelty. For many Buddhists, but not all, this means vegetarianism, or even veganism. The central aim is to abstain from causing suffering to other sentient beings, human and non-human alike.

2. The second precept is obviously about not stealing, but it’s also a little more subtle. It’s about not manipulating people into giving, doing or saying things that they don’t give, do or say freely and voluntarily.

3. The third precept does not take the kind of moralistic attitude toward sex that we often see in the West. There’s no sense that sex itself is bad or sinful, but rather that since it’s such a basic human urge, it’s very susceptible to being misused, to being the source of harm. Obviously this covers issues like rape or sexual abuse, but it also covers sex that causes harm or pain to another married or partnered couple, or compulsive sex that causes harm to ourselves.

4. The fourth precept is about telling the truth, but not just in the sense of not lying. Buddhists are very concerned with attaining a vision of reality as it really is, and speech is one way that we can (further) distort reality for one another, not just through lying, but also through exaggerating, gossiping, and speaking ill of people.

5. The fifth precept is about drinking and taking drugs. Again, it’s not so much that these things are sinful in themselves, but rather that they interfere with mindfulness, the truthful and direct experience of the here-and-now. Some people take the fifth precept as a call to complete abstention, while others (usually the ones with more self-control!) take it as a reminder to stop after one or two.

We’ll end with the positive formulations of the five precepts, the flip side of the same coin in each case.

1. With deeds of loving kindness, I purify my body.
2. With open-handed generosity, I purify my body.
3. With stillness, simplicity and contentment, I purify my body.
4. With truthful communication, I purify my speech.
5. With mindfulness clear and radiant, I purify my mind.

If the negative formulations are the stick, at least of a sort, the positive formulations are the carrot. They are the benefits that one may gain, “purified” body, speech, and mind that are not as vulnerable to the urges, the whims, the moods, the dissatisfaction, and the general uncertainty – the suffering – that we live with.


Metta from a Lifeboat


Image (c) Robert Blackwood

The metta bhavana can be a tough nut to crack. Its five stages, outlined in a recent post, are meant to evoke feelings of loving-kindness for different people, first for oneself, then for a friend, then for a neutral person, then for an enemy, and finally for everyone in the earlier stages, with an increasingly expanding circle that eventually includes all sentient beings.

I’ve learned a few ways of going about the meditation from different sources, including teachers, fellow sangha members, books, and even Google searches. The goal is to create a sense of loving-kindness, and how you get there in your own practice seems to be unimportant, so many people have advised me to try different approaches until I find one that works for me. Right now I’m using varying approaches that seem to work better for the different stages.

For Stage 1, where the focus is oneself, I usually visualize myself in a happy and safe setting. I’ve called up images from childhood, probably more iconic than historical, because I doubt I’m the only person who finds it much easier to feel loving-kindness for the child version of myself than for the adult version of myself. But using this kind of visualization opens the door to running away with the storyline, and a metta bhavana meditation can become a stroll down memory lane. Other times I’ll simply imagine myself sitting there on the cushion, from the vantage point of an observer who thinks, “this guy isn’t so bad after all…” That’s not quite metta, but it at least prepares the way.

For Stage 2, visualizing a close friend smiling or laughing usually does the trick, but I sometimes find myself wanting to know what my friend is laughing about. So off I go, following the storyline as I create it. Other times I’ll recite (some version of) the lines that many people use in the metta bhavana: May you be happy. May you be free from suffering. May you be loved…  The danger there of course is that it’s easy to simply recite the lines and forget about the metta itself, to just go through the motions without any emotion. But Stage 2 is generally the easiest stage, probably for most people, because you start from a point of naturally feeling metta for a close friend. That’s why one of my teachers sometimes reverses the order of the first two stages, starting with the one that comes prepackaged with a good amount of metta to get the ball rolling.

In Stage 3, I’ve found that what works best for me, so far at least, is to imagine that neutral person doing something mundane that I’ve never actually seen him or her do. Riding the subway, waking up in the morning, smiling at a partner or friend. There’s no storyline for me to fall into, but there is a sense of familiarity. This person does the same sort of things that everyone else does, myself included. So these images come with a sense of camaraderie, with that crucial recognition that we’re all in this together. That makes metta easier to cultivate.

I’ll skip to Stage 5 now, and then come back to Stage 4, and the lifeboat. Stage 5 starts out easily enough for me, with all four of us in a room, and me feeling by that point in the meditation enough metta to go from face to face and look on each of the players with loving-kindness. It’s the spreading-out that’s challenging for me. The expanding sphere image doesn’t work for me for the admittedly ridiculous reason that a sphere will include the layers of the earth before it reaches people on the other side of the globe, and I find myself fixating on images from high school geology textbooks. (I’ve admitted that this is ridiculous.) Spreading out over the surface of the planet is good enough, but I’m a bit of a map geek, so there are geographical distractions. Plus, it’s all so abstract, with a bit too many special effects for my tastes. What I usually do is a kind of shuffle of faces that I’ve encountered through the day, some real, most composites or complete fiction, and I try to look on each one as a real person, with all the same desires and challenges that I have. It’s a bit like walking down a crowded street and making an effort to look on each passer-by with metta, with a recognition of similarity rather than otherness.

Stage 4 is of course the most challenging, and the technique I use depends on whether I’m calling to mind simply someone who annoys me, or someone who I actually think of as an Enemy. Smiling, happy images tend to work for the former, while using the moon trick works for the latter. One of my teachers, the one who shared the moon trick with me, recently had another great suggestion for when I’m having a hard time getting past the past:

Imagine yourself in a very rough sea, with waves crashing around and on top of you. You’re coughing up water and at risk of going under, of drowning, but your Enemy is a few feet away in a lifeboat, and he or she is reaching out to you, trying to pull you out of danger, to save your life.

That really changes the dynamic! Suddenly the Enemy is not all bad, and maybe even quite good. You can imagine the look on his or her face, reaching as far out as possible to grasp your hands, really desperate to save you from drowning. Obviously you feel gratitude, which isn’t quite the same as metta, but which is at least something you can work with as a foundation for evoking feelings of metta.

I have a feeling that the metta bhavana is always going to be a work in progress, and it’s probably the case that people develop different approaches at different times, or with different players in the mix. The good news is that there’s an endless supply of practice opportunities off the cushion. The guy on his cellphone in the elevator next to me? May he be happy, may he be free from suffering… The woman paying by check in line at the grocery store ahead of me? May she be safe from inner and outer harm… And me? May I be filled with loving-kindness, at least some of the time


Put Them on the Moon


Photo © Falk Kienas/iStockphoto

In case you’re new to meditation and have never heard of the metta bhavana, it’s a very old and basic meditation meant to cultivate feelings of metta, usually translated as loving-kindness. It’s not romantic love, or attached love, or even familial love, but rather the kind of love, compassion, kindness, courtesy, empathy, and all of those other good things that, if universally applied, would make the world a much nicer place.

You can get far better instruction on the metta bhavana than these few words here, but in a very quick nutshell, it’s divided into five stages. In each stage, your focus is a different person (people in the last stage), but the aim is the same. You actively seek to evoke and feel metta for the person (or people) you’re focusing on, maybe by conjuring up an image of the person in a tranquil and safe setting, maybe by saying his/her name, maybe by reciting – with heart! – words like “May you be happy. May you be at peace. May you…” You get the picture.

The stages of the metta bhavana have as their focal points or objects of concentration:

  • Stage 1: Yourself
  • Stage 2: A good friend, someone you love dearly but not in a sexual way, ideally with as little baggage and as few attached strings as possible
  • Stage 3: A neutral person, someone who you see regularly and maybe know by name, but don’t have strong feelings for one way or the other
  • Stage 4: An enemy, someone you know and dislike, have a negative history with, or someone who you’re bothered by or are having difficulties with
  • Stage 5: Everyone from stages 1 through 4, then gradually a wider circle that expands to include all living beings.

When I first learned the metta bhavana, I remember thinking, “I don’t have any real enemies!” And it was probably even true at that time. I had people who annoyed me, just as I annoyed them, I’m sure, but that didn’t seem like much of a challenge. How hard is it to evoke feelings of compassion and kindness for someone who only annoys you?

As it so happens, I would soon enough be supplied with someone who genuinely rises to the level of enemy for me. A person who, on some days at least, I can’t think of without feeling a whole host of bitter and negative emotions. I don’t wish harm on this person, but I certainly have a hard time wringing any sort of compassion and kindness out of the tangle of emotions I do feel. Usually, I simply don’t think of this person, but every so often, when I’m feeling strong, I have my enemy for Stage 4 of the metta bhavana.

This can be tricky. On the one hand, it seems to be precisely the kind of challenge the metta bhavana offers us. If we can bring ourselves to feel compassion and kindness when it’s hard to do so, to say “we’re all human beings in the same boat, so I feel for you and your suffering because it’s mine, too,” we’d all be better people for everyone, ourselves included. On the other hand, most of us aren’t immune to flashes of strong emotion, and a perfectly well-intentioned metta bhavana can wind up creating hatred and ill will, and that’s not something we want to let ourselves steep in.

My solution is usually to simply pick an “easy” enemy. Someone who’s bothering me for some silly reason. But every once in a while I feel that my practice deepens if I come back to the Enemy, and actively look within myself to find and nurture the part of me that recognizes common suffering, that’s able to set aside a very real and bitter history and simply say, “despite it all, we have dukkha in common,” and that’s enough to create even a small spark of compassion and loving-kindness.

It helps that one of my teachers, a Triratna Order Member, had a very simple trick for me to use. I’d gone to him with the concern that my practice was getting clouded by feelings of hatred and ill will, and that I wasn’t able to handle a real enemy in the metta bhavana. He said that I didn’t always have to force myself to confront such a difficult person, that sometimes the “easy enemy” is practice enough. As for the Enemy with a capital E, he said, “put them on the moon!” It took me a moment, but I think I understood what he meant. Make distance, give yourself space. Encourage so wide a perspective that you don’t see the details of betrayal and anger and all the rest, just the outline of a person, far away, who’s trying to get through life the same as you are. Slowly, you can bring them back toward the Earth, and slowly the negative emotions will be replaced by genuine compassion and loving-kindness, with time and practice.

And if you have set-backs, hey, there’s always Pluto.


That Eureka Posture

I think it’s safe to say that right after I began meditating, the object of my concentration was neither the breath nor the cultivation of metta, but rather the pins and needles in my feet, the cramps in my legs, the ropey knot in my back, and the soreness in my buttocks. I tried many different postures – sitting on the mat, sitting further forward on the mat so that my knees touched the ground, sitting in a chair, straddling the cushion… they all seemed great at first, but within five minutes or so, the pins and needles, cramps, knots, and soreness began, then slowly got so bad that I was silently begging for the final bells.

Many of the books I was reading at the time had sections or entire chapters devoted to posture. At first I scanned them only because posture just didn’t seem important. I wanted to get on to the “real” stuff of meditation, and I couldn’t imagine that to be related to how one places one’s butt on a cushion. But soon enough I saw that my failure to take meditation posture seriously was going to be a huge hindrance to my practice. I went back to those books and read those sections carefully, but I still couldn’t quite understand what, exactly, I was doing wrong.

It wasn’t until my first retreat that I asked more experienced meditators for advice. We eventually decided that straddling was the best position for me, and then several of my sangha mates when to work erecting some strange contraption involving a folded yoga mat, two meditation cushions, a rolled up towel, some blankets, and some sort of foam block. The keys ingredients of my position on the contraption were:

  • knees on mat, foam, or something soft
  • proper height of cushions so that I was neither slumping nor teetering, so that…
  • …my sitz bone acted like a fulcrum, balancing the weight of my body above it
  • …and my ankles were lifted a bit off the ground so that my feet weren’t bent under too much weight

I was a bit skeptical, but we sat for an hour-long meditation, and at the end, I was thrilled to report that I felt no cramps, anywhere. When I got home from retreat I quickly reconstructed my meditation contraption.

cushions_mat_ankle restkneeling_medititation_posture

If you’re new to meditating, do not underestimate the importance of posture. And do not underestimate the advice of experienced meditators who can help you work your way through a few different options. Straddling the cushion is just one solution, and it worked for me, but it may not be the best solution for you. In our sangha we have people who straddle the cushion, people who sit cross-legged on it, and people who sit upright in chairs, with all sorts of minor variations. You’ll know when you’ve found your eureka posture, and then you can get back to the actual practice of meditation.


Right Tweets, Right Posts, Right Comments

Speak only the speechThe concept of Right Speech comes up a lot in the Dharma. One of the Eightfold Path steps or spokes is dedicated to it, it’s one of the Five Precepts, and it’s a part of various suttas, for example the Subhasita Sutta of the Sutta Nipata. That makes perfect sense. Today, as in the Buddha’s time one imagines, most of us do more day-to-day harm with our speech than with any weapon. We lie, we insult, we belittle, we speak without thinking, we say things that bring others to anger or indignation.

Truthful speech is a major part of Right Speech, but for most of us telling the truth is not terribly difficult. It might be uncomfortable at times, but we don’t (usually) outright lie out of habit, and we don’t (usually) have to make a special effort to tell the truth.

It’s all those other kinds of Unskillful Speech that are the real challenges! Thoughtless speech, provocative speech, insulting speech, belittling speech, gossip… And it seems that there’s no easier place to engage in all of that unskillfulness than on the internet.

Go to the comments of just about any article of an online newspaper, and you’re likely to find an insane amount of vitriol being flung back and forth between anonymous strangers. The article can be about anything; some people seem bent on turning even the most innocuous topic into a chance to vent their anger, their prejudices, their political tribalism, their sense of religious supremacy, their hatred for anyone who thinks differently than they do.

It’s entirely possible that some of these comments are nothing more than sport. People are engaging in a virtual conversation, not with other people, but with strange screen names that aren’t attached to real human beings. And maybe everyone knows the rules of the game, so no pain or mental suffering is actually caused.

I don’t really buy that. I’m sure it’s true for some, but for those of us who don’t spend a lot of time in comments sections, reading some of that is just depressing. And it’s hard to imagine that none of the anger that one sees is genuine, that the cycle of insult and counter-insult doesn’t heap on more and more anger, hatred, and ill will.

I used to be guilty of this on Facebook. If I found a gem of a gotcha article or meme that insulted people of a different political leaning than my own, I was all too happy to share it. This obviously wasn’t anonymous. I was sharing these things with people I knew, real human beings I’d gone to school with, or worked with, or friended for whatever reason. I suppose I told myself that I was in the right, and by sharing these things, I was making a case for that ‘enlightened’ position.

But that’s just wrong. How often do snarky Facebook exchanges turn anyone’s political opinions? And, in the un-virtual world, if we set out to explain our thinking on an issue, how often would we start with an insult? And hey, maybe, just maybe, my opinion isn’t the best!

So the first manifestation of Right Speech that I recognized I needed to work on was Right Online Speech. I’ve never been one for leaving anonymous comments, but I admit that I enjoyed a bit of snark in my Facebook updates. I’ve made an effort to put an end to that, and I’ve vowed not to read comments on online articles. Mostly I’ve been successful, but Practice will make (at least something closer to) Perfect.



Change Your Mind by Paramananda

Change Your MindOne of the first books I read after coming to Triratna-NYC was Change Your Mind: A Practical Guide to Buddhist Meditation, by Paramananda. It was a wonderful resource as I started to practice meditation, with a simple and friendly tone, and clear instructions and advice on everything from cushions and posture to tips on how to bring the benefits of a Buddhist practice into your daily life. I’ve since recommended Change Your Mind to family and friends as an excellent introduction, or as an approachable tool to get back in the habit of regular practice.

Change Your Mind starts with the basics, answering the question What is meditation? and then moves to the essentials in an inviting and personal way. The author gives a thorough explanation of the importance of posture and the different postures a meditator may use. This was particularly helpful to me, since invariably my back knotted up, or my foot fell asleep, or my leg began to ache about five minutes into any meditation I started.

The first meditation covered is a simple body meditation, which helps new meditators become acquainted with their own physical presence as they sit. It’s a very accessible approach that helps beginners learn to focus on the now. Then the author covers the two traditional meditations we do at Triratna, the Mindfulness of Breathing and the Metta Bhavana, or the cultivation of Loving-Kindness, with clear explanations as well as led practices. The author also discusses the role of intention and balanced effort in meditation, and the link between mental, emotional, and physical states and meditation, and how all of that is connected to how we (can) lead our lives.

While Change Your Mind does not focus on Buddhist philosophy, even basic points such as the Four Noble Truths or the Eightfold Path, there is an introduction to the brahmavihāras, or the Four Immeasurables, the compassionate virtues that arise from practice of the Metta Bhavana. This is written in the same friendly, down-to-earth style as the rest of the book, inviting practitioners to experience for themselves the link between meditation and living in a healthier, more compassionate way.

Finally, anyone who’s meditated is doubtlessly familiar with the Five Hindrances, which are also covered, along with time-tested methods for dealing with them and always coming home to the object of concentration. These tools are key to sustaining a practice, especially when you’ve reached a plateau, which most people experience.

All in all, Change Your Mind is a wonderful book to read if you’re a beginner, or if you’ve been meditating for a while but want to go back to the basics for a fresh, friendly, creative, and inspirational point of view. It is neither dry and mechanical nor full of Pali and Sanskrit terms for unfamiliar Buddhist philosophical concepts. It goes right for the middle path, and makes it easy for the reader to follow along.




Head and Heart


I found Triratna-NYC by googling something like ‘meditation classes nyc’ or ‘Buddhist meditation Manhattan’. I had at best a superficial understanding of Buddhism. I’d taken a class on Eastern religions in college, more than two decades earlier, so I was foggily familiar with very basic concepts like the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. I’d read a little on Buddhist philosophy, and that small taste appealed to me, although almost entirely on an academic level. I had the obligatory copy of the Dhammapada, not to mention a Buddha statue or two. I’d meditated, but honestly only understood meditation as a relaxation technique. The closest I ever came to a sangha – and to be clear I had no idea what a sangha was – was a Buddhist Explorer’s Group at a Unitarian Universalist church I belonged to.

So when I first found Triratna, I’d never practiced Buddhism in any real sense.

Practice wasn’t my goal at first. I didn’t even understand the concept well enough to have it as a goal. I just went because I wanted to meditate, and I didn’t think much beyond that. I enjoyed the Introductory Classes because classes appeal to me on that familiar head-level. I learned more about Buddhism, asked questions, took part in discussions, and quickly began to get a sense of how much more there was for me to learn.

At the same time, I was growing fonder and fonder of the people at Triratna, and of the experience of being together with them for a purpose that was increasingly about more than just the head. Slowly, as I made my way through the classes and moved into the regular sangha, Buddhist practice began to make space for itself in my life, and, at the risk of sounding sappy, in my heart. I began to meditate every day, and I caught glimpses of how it was changing me. I found myself looking for expressions of the Five Precepts in my behavior, I noticed that I was becoming more patient with myself and others, I started to think more carefully about what I was saying and how I was saying it. I was more present, more attentive, less distracted. I kept reading books on the dharma, but more and more, I was feeling Buddhism rather than just thinking about it.

At this point I know enough about Buddhism to know how much more there is to learn. And that’s nice; it means that there is a lot more food for thought ahead. But I’ve also had the pleasure at Triratna of being surprised by what happens when the head and heart are in it together. And that’s a comforting feeling.




Screen Shot 2013-12-14 at 1.04.58 AM “Love where there is no reason to love”
― SangharakshitaMind: Reactive & Creative

“Through the eyes of a real friendship an individual is larger than their everyday actions, and through the eyes of another we receive a greater sense of a self we can aspire to, the one in whom they have most faith. Friendship is a moving frontier of understanding, not only of self and other, but of a possible future.
– David Whyte: Excerpt from Readers’ Circle Essay, “Friendship”

I’m always conscious of the need to keep my practice alive and connected to the endeavor to wake up, and it is the Sangha jewel that remains always the most relevant and potent in this journey.  That’s because the practice of Sangha, rather than the theory of Sangha, requires reaching beyond myself in so many ways.

Within the confines of my meditation practice and study, it can all become a bit self-centred, or to use a phrase of Bhante’s, it can become superficial.  I can study in order to be more knowledgeable; I can meditate to have strong experiences; I can even practice ethics to be looked upon as a good person.  But what this path is truly about is becoming more aware and more compassionate – and ultimately trying to undermine selfishness and harshness and gain more wisdom and equanimity.

When I’m engaged regularly in working on teams and supporting classes, I’m rubbing up against my limitations endlessly.  I love that.  It keeps it real and keeps my feet on the ground.  So whilst sometimes it seems that the biggest trials I meet on the spiritual path are the people around me; they are in fact my greatest teachers.  And if I’m honest I can feel sometimes I’d be better off without all the emotional messiness of my interaction with others.

Yet without communication with my friends in the Sangha, even ones that have been painful and challenging, there would be no path and no progress. The path is not distinct from the people in it, and it is the communication between us that keeps the teachings of Buddhism alive and fully embodied, both as the way of compassion and the way of Wisdom.

It is in the practice of creating and maintaining spiritual community that ego transcendence is most potently and directly approached. And of course we are going to be hindered and sometimes disappointed by the expectations we hold of ourselves and others.  Yet for Sangha to function and remain potent, it requires enough of us to take that leap into the unknown and risk what friendship can reveal.

To take that leap, we need to hold in our minds and hearts the twin realities of a spiritual community that is imperfect, inadequate, stumbling and struggling, alongside a spiritual community that is the embodiment of the Bodhisattva Ideal – a manifestation of the compassion of Avalokitesvara. These two realities are the same reality – one is trapped in time and the literal mindedness of self-centredness, and the other is free of the limitations of time and always creating itself anew in the free space of imagination.

As we move into a new year, let’s celebrate this precious jewel of Sangha.  Let us celebrate this, “moving frontier of understanding… of a possible future.”  To acknowledge the love that can be expressed through the generosity of giving and sharing with others; to work together to bring into existence the possibility of growth and of awakening.  Make a New Year’s resolution to, “love where there is no reason to love.”