The April – June 2017 Newsletter is Now Available
The Buddha before Buddhism: Wisdom from the Early Teachings by Gil Fronsdal is now available.
The October – December 2016 Newsletter is Now Available
The Summer/Fall 2016 Insight Retreat Center Newsletter is now available:
The July – September 2016 Newsletter is Now Available
The January – March 2016 Newsletter is Now Available
On Saturday, November 14 the Sati Center will host a symposium highlighting the accomplishments of women scholars in the early years of Buddhist Studies in the West, on the one hand, and portraits of women as presented in the scriptures of early Buddhist literature on the other. We will celebrate the contributions of these women as part of a benefit to support the pioneering Theravada Buddhist nuns living at Aloka Vihara in the Sierra foothills.
Bring a bag lunch.
Lunch will be at 11 am and include a meal offering for the nuns attending.
No registration needed.
The symposium is a benefit for the Aloka Vihara nuns’ community.
9:00 a.m. – Welcome and opening remarks – Gil Fronsdal
11:00 a.m. – Food offering to the nuns (everyone invited to make an offering)
2:00 p.m. – Session III: Women in Pāli Literature (2): Tales of Accomplished Nuns
3:30 p.m. – Concluding remarks
For more information about the nuns, visit their website at Saranaloka Foundation — which supports Theraveda Buddhist Nuns of the Forest Tradition in the West.
The great value of mindfulness practice can be found in the ordinary activities of daily life. It is not necessary to engage in extraordinary pursuits to realize the full depth and breadth of Buddhist practice. Listening is one of the ordinary, daily activities that can serve as a powerful vehicle for cultivating mindfulness, insight, and freedom. Dharma practice is to develop the ability to “see clearly;” listening well is a way to do this. Through listening we can better appreciate what others are saying and gain greater self-understanding.
Imagine yourself standing in front of a great wall stretching far to the right and far to the left. In the middle is a closed door. You open the door, and step through. On the other side of the wall is a vast sky and a great panorama of mountains and valleys receding toward a far distant horizon. From this view you appreciate the great vastness and spaciousness of the world. Then you turn around and step back through the door to the other side of the wall. Standing on the other side you see that here is a vista of a vast ocean sprinkled with beautiful islands. In fact, on either side of the door there is an equally wide, large world to be explored and studied. Listening can be understood as the door between two vast worlds, the world outside of yourself and the world inside yourself. The first is what your ears can hear. The second is what is going on in your body, mind, and heart as you listen. To practice mindful listening is to reside in the doorway between these two worlds so you can be attentive and wise in both.
To listen well, it is helpful to distinguish listening from hearing. Listening is an active, deliberate activity while hearing doesn’t require any effort or intention. With a loud sound, no effort is needed to hear it. However, one might need to intentionally listen to identify the source of the sound. If we were to mime someone listening we might cup a hand behind one ear and lean in the direction of a sound. It is much more difficult to mime ‘hearing’ because hearing is not an activity we do, it is a mode of receptivity to whatever sounds that might occur. By having a clear distinction between listening and hearing we can then choose one over the other. Sometimes, it can be deeply relaxing to make no effort to listen except to rest in the hearing, especially with meditation, music, or sounds of nature. More often in daily life however, we either listen actively or not very well, for example, when we don’t fully listen to what others are saying.
One form of active listening is to listen mindfully, that is, with clear attention and interest. Listening mindfully is to intentionally bring greater awareness to the experience of listening rather than listening habitually or perhaps half-heartedly. To make it a mindfulness practice we also give priority to listening for the purpose of listening rather than letting another purpose dominate. We attend to listening in such a way that we both listen better and are aware of our attitude while listening.
The better your understanding of what goes on within you as you listen, the better you can understand the obstruction to listening well and what you can do to listen more mindfully. Mindful listening requires a willingness to put aside, at least temporarily, the agendas, preferences, opinions, and judgments that interfere with being able to listen well. At the same time, it can involve actively noticing the internal impact and response you have to what is heard. Then, you can choose to keep your focus on the different dimensions of what you listening to rather than easily wandering off in thought. Not only can you listen more carefully to the content of what someone is saying, you can notice their facial expressions, tone of voice, posture, and attitidude.
Without mindfulness, listening can sometimes be done with eagerness—even impatience—for someone who is talking to finish. An internal pressure to speak, or having anticipatory thoughts, can interfere with our full listening to what others are saying. In contrast, to listen mindfully is to be generous with our time; to live in the flow of time, each thing allowed its own time.
You know you are listening mindfully when you continue to listen after someone has stopped speaking. Listen to the silence. Or let the receptivity with which you listened become an additional occasion to notice what is happening within yourself or with the person to whom you are listening. Such a pause—even a two second pause—gives you time to digest what was said. It is also a time to discover what you want to say before you actually say it. Such self-awareness can protect you from saying things you later regret. The pause may also give others a chance to discover what is going on in their own minds and bodies.
Mindful listening is embodied listening. This means that you don’t just listen with your ears. You can feel the physical impact of what you hear. What sensations arise in the body in response to what is heard? What parts of your body get energized in the hearing? What gets tense, what relaxes?
Embodied listening includes assuming a posture that supports better listening. Perhaps sitting up straighter with the chest open. Perhaps turning toward the person who is speaking. It can be helpful to assume a posture or a gesture that indicates you are listening. Perhaps leaning forward slightly. Or nodding your head to the points the person is making. By being actively involved in listening we listen better. It also helps the speaker to know we are really listening.
A famous story from the Ramayana, an epic poem in the Hindu tradition, illustrates the power of careful listening. The story tells of Rama walking in the forest with some companions. When Rama starts hearing the faint whisper of a voice, he asks his companions if they can hear it. They say, “No.” Rama begins to walk toward the whisper. As he gets closer he recognizes it is his name that is being spoken, “Rama…Rama.” As the voice becomes louder, his friends still say they can’t hear it. Finally Rama comes to a large boulder from which the sound comes. He then places his two hands gently on the boulder. At this point the rock breaks open and inside is a person who has been stuck in the rock through a magic spell. By listening to the whisper he was able to discover what was locked up and then release it.
In this way, to listen mindfully is to give care in order to hear the faint whispers inside others and ourselves and to discover the significant thoughts, feelings, and desires that may be shy or overlooked. Once discovered, the quiet whispers then have the opportunity to be heard.
Listening—as all forms of active attention—is an intentional act, and as such is connected to our desires, emotions, attitudes, values, and preferences. Because of this connection it can be helpful to use the following questions to help explore your listening. You might take your time with each question, perhaps giving yourself a week to reflect on it before exploring the next one.
Mindful listening is a great way to cultivate greater mindfulness in daily life. Listening is always a present moment activity; when we listen we are present. When we listen actively and receptively we are developing the faculties needed for the practice of mindfulness. Practicing mindful listening is a foundation for the more difficult task of speaking mindfully. Until we have a strong capacity to stay mindful while we speak, it is good to remember the saying that “we have two ears and one mouth so we can listen more than we speak.”
October – December 2015 Newsletter is now Available
The Summer-Fall 2015 IRC Newsletter is now available.
Renunciation is one of the most beneficial, empowering, and freeing practices of Buddhism. As its purpose is to heighten the best qualities of our hearts and minds, renunciation is not meant to diminish our lives but rather to enhance them. Abstaining from intoxicating drinks and drugs—the fifth ethical precept—is an important Buddhist practice that can reveal the power of renunciation.
On the surface, the fifth precept differs from the first four in being more personal than interpersonal. Killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, and lying all directly involve other people. In contrast, consuming intoxicating drinks and drugs is a personal choice that does not inherently affect others.
The immense personal and interpersonal damage that comes from alcohol and drugs is often invisible in the personal, seemingly innocuous decisions to consume them. This harm can be masked when intoxication, even mild inebriation, temporarily alleviates pain and brings longed-for relief. Its negative effects can also be invisible when intoxication’s temporary pleasure, relaxation, and lack of fear can seem preferable to less pleasant feelings. And yet, we’re all aware of the tremendous personal and social costs of intoxication. Under the influence of these substances—and in their aftermath—people frequently make poor choices, often with long-term consequences. The cost of human lives lost or relationships destroyed due to intoxication are incalculable.
The issue of intoxication is not only a modern one. More than 2,500 years ago, the Buddha said that intoxication can lead to “the loss of wealth, increased quarreling, susceptibility to illness, disrepute, and weakening of wisdom.” What is modern is the incredibly wide range of addicting substances and unwholesome pleasures that are readily available.
With its emphasis on mindfulness and wise intention, Buddhism helps us see how intoxication clouds the mind and diminishes our ability to make wise choices. A traditional Buddhist reason for abstaining from alcohol and drugs is that intoxication increases the chances a person will violate the first four precepts. For example, we are more likely to speak what is not true or to flirt inappropriately, if we are even a little bit intoxicated. And, as wisdom is often lacking when intoxicated, these can easily lead to greater and more damaging problems. Children can grow up in fear when drunk parents are prone to anger, violence, and neglect. Our prisons are filled with people who committed crimes while intoxicated.
The literal English translation of the fifth precept is “I undertake the training precept to abstain from alcohol, liquor, or spirits that are a cause for heedlessness.” The mention of heedlessness points to the way in which intoxication involves a loss in care, caring, and carefulness. While Buddhism links intoxication with heedlessness and lack of mindfulness, modern psychology discusses this in terms of decreased cognitive abilities, increased attention deficits, and poor judgment.
Ideally, abstaining from intoxication is not only about avoiding harm and heedlessness. Abstinence can also be motivated by the personal and interpersonal benefits it brings, which can be deeply nourishing. Any time the desire for intoxicating substances is strong and we refrain from acting on that desire, we strengthen our capacity for renunciation and self-mastery. The stronger the desire, the greater we need to rely on commitment and wisdom to avoid giving in to it. Doing so strengthens us. It also can improve our relationships with family, friends, and others.
By refraining from drinking and drugs we maintain the mental clarity that is essential for mindfulness practice. Furthermore, mindfulness can be increased by staying alert to the ways in which desire for substances can get the upper hand. Restraining these desires strengthens our will power, a faculty that can free us from all kinds of compulsive desires, not just ones for alcohol or drugs.
Abstinence also develops and supports wisdom. Through it we can better understand how the mind works, how it can delude us and how it can heal us. We’re better able to recognize the desire to get intoxicated as an indicator that something in our life is out of balance. Are we using alcohol as a way to deal with stress? Do we drink or take drugs due to social pressure from friends or colleagues who do so?
For those walking the Buddhist path, abstaining from intoxication is a strategy for our long-term happiness. It is a training in personal maturation and growth. Rather than relying on short-term pleasures and highs, the Buddhist path relies on an increasing self-understanding that brings enduring wisdom, on developing compassion that provides ongoing forgiveness, and on cultivating personal strengths that keep us steady in the face of life’s challenges.
One of the biggest supports for abstaining from intoxication is the faith that it’s worthwhile to do so, and confidence that we can do it. Such faith and confidence grow best in community with people who inspire it in us. To be around others who restrain themselves from drinking or taking drugs can inspire us to do the same. To be accompanied in our efforts by friends and other practitioners means we don’t have to rely solely on our own efforts. If we are less likely to consume alcohol or drugs when we have the support of others, making sure we have this support may help us to relax effort that may be too forceful, and thus counterproductive. To have the loving acceptance of community can help us to be more self-compassionate and less moralistically harsh toward ourselves. All too often the regular use of alcohol and drugs ruptures relationships, and with them our own self-worth; practicing the precepts in a community of other practitioners can be a way to heal this wounded part of ourselves.
Practicing with the fifth precept has a lot to do with being truthful with ourselves, which is a very significant form of mindfulness. One way we can know we’re being truthful is by having a friend or a community with whom we can tell the truth. If you are using alcohol and drugs and aren’t willing to tell this to your friend or community, you’re probably not being truthful even to yourself. Done wisely with people who support you, truthfulness is one of the most powerful supports for the fifth precept.
While some people live by the fifth precept as a way to avoid the dangers that come with intoxication, it’s also helpful to be motivated by the benefits it can bring. Having increased clarity, wisdom, personal freedom and improved social relations can provide motivation to use every act of renunciation as an opportunity for much more than abstention. Renunciation has the power to bring out the best in us. It is an opportunity for making the world a better place for ourselves and others.
The July-September 2015 IMC Newsletter is now available.
The April-June 2015 IMC Newsletter is now available.
The Winter-Spring 2015 IRC Newsletter is now available.