Among the important teachings presented at Insight Meditation Center (IMC) and our new Insight Retreat Center (IRC) are values conveyed in the very way our centers are run. Both centers operate on the remarkable power of generosity, volunteerism, and kind-heartedness.
What some said was not possible has been possible: we can run two centers where programs are offered freely at no cost and operations are run entirely by volunteers.
With this end-of-the-year fundraising letter we offer you a chance to contribute to sustaining and strengthening our two centers and our many programs.
At IMC, we have programs most evenings and most days, sometimes throughout the day. We hope to continue expanding our IMC programs as well as improving the facilities that house them. We would like to upgrade the meditation hall by replacing our large wall of colored glass windows with seismically safe windows. We would also like to replace the hard chairs in our meditation hall with ones more comfortable for meditation.
During Insight Retreat Center’s first year, we successfully offered fourteen residential retreats. The demand for IRC retreats is very high, and we plan to expand the number of retreats we offer next year. We would like to upgrade the facility by replacing the ageing decks that surround the building. In addition, we are fundraising for a solar water heater that would reduce our environmental impact and our costs.
We are very grateful for all donations we receive. Every donation we receive contributes to our ability to benefit innumerable people. We are inspired by these contributions that allow us to continue offering what we do.
Thanksgiving Day invites us to reflect upon the good in our lives, and to appreciate our good fortune. Even if we are feeling sad, low, grumpy or just not particularly fortunate, coming together in the stillness of meditation and the movement of yoga can revitalize our acceptance, gratitude and joy. Appropriate for beginners to yoga or meditation, as well as those with more experience. Bring a large towel and sticky mat, if you have one.
Buddhism teaches that personal practice and safeguarding our environment are closely connected. This is because both of these endeavors ask us to overcome the forces of greed, hate, and delusion. The intimate relationship between the world and ourselves means that when we properly care for ourselves we will care for the world, and when we do what’s best for the world, we benefit ourselves.
After his awakening, which took place as he sat outdoors underneath a tree, the Buddha continued to live and meditate in forests throughout his life. He explained that he did this for his own benefit and out of compassion for future generations. Because nature is a tremendous support for the path of liberation, the Buddha instructed his followers to meditate in nature.
Practicing mindfulness outdoors in nature cultivates a greater appreciation of the natural world. Building on this appreciation, a healthy respect for nature can come from understanding how dependent our lives are on the natural environment and how easily human activity can damage this support system. When the Buddha was alive, human impact on the natural world was evident mainly on a small, local scale. Today, the evidence of this interconnectedness is global—for instance, the greenhouse gases released through human activity in some parts of the world affect climates across the planet.
There’s an ancient Buddhist tale that tells of a mythic tree whose vast canopy provides shade and whose abundant fruit can be harvested freely by anyone. But when a greedy person stuffs himself with fruit and then breaks off one of the branches, the tree stops bearing fruit.
Another early Buddhist myth depicts an ideal world of abundance and ease that progressively falls into decay in response to the deteriorating ethics of the people who live there. The decline begins as people become greedy and continues with the gradual appearance of arrogance, lust, laziness, theft, lying, and violence.
These ancient myths no longer feel fanciful—they quite accurately represent our modern world. Rainforests have been clear-cut and the land can no longer support people living there. In some parts of the world the soil and water have become polluted with pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals, sickening nearby residents. The air in metropolitan areas is filled with smog, and children who breathe this pollution have higher rates of asthma and autism.
If we look closely, we can see that greed, hate, or delusion underlies all large scale human destruction of the environment. Greed drives exploitation of our natural resources, hate destroys vast lands through the ravages of war, and delusion perpetuates environmental harm when we don’t understand the impact our actions have on the natural world.
Of these forces, delusion (and its partner, indifference) is perhaps the most widespread and thus the most destructive. Even those of us with the best intentions can be blind to the effects our actions have, especially when the repercussions are out of sight, removed in space or time. For instance, large dams built in order to improve people’s lives have destroyed the watershed that sustained the very communities they were meant to serve. Cutting trees in the Himalayas in order to care for one’s family can have disastrous consequences when hundreds of thousands of people do the same thing. When farmers in Sumatra set fires to clear land, they neither know nor care much about the record air pollution that falls on Singapore as a result. One person thinks that his or her driving contributes a negligible amount of pollution, without considering what happens when that contribution is combined with the millions of cars driving in the same region. In the California Bay Area, for example, the smog from its 5 million cars kills trees in the Sierra Mountains, far out of sight of Bay Area residents.
Buddhism emphasizes the impact our individual actions have on our lives and the world around us, and it follows from this perspective that caring for the natural world begins with each of us. As practitioners on this path, it doesn’t make sense to ignore what we can personally do by relying on others to take responsibility for our environment. Instead we view our own actions as significant. Because of the staggering number of people now living on the earth—7 billion—the combined actions of many can either preserve vast ecosystems, or destroy them. If we fall into passive acquiescence in the face of environmental destruction, we give up our individual “response–ability”—our ability to respond.
Many of us can make the choice to consume fewer natural resources and to act out of compassion for the earth. Doing so doesn’t have to diminish the quality of our lives; it can increase it. We can choose to see reducing our carbon footprint not as an act of deprivation, but as an opportunity to gain the spiritual benefits of a simpler lifestyle. If the natural world is to be our teacher, as Buddhism suggests, maybe we can learn more by walking in a forest or a local park than by speeding by on the highway; perhaps we’re closer to the heart’s freedom when we sit undistracted in nature than when we’re plugged into our various electronic devices.
In each of our lives we’re presented with myriad opportunities to make small and large changes to reduce the negative impact we have on the natural world. When we make these changes as part of a spiritual practice, they support our spiritual growth. Contributing to the well-being of all of life can give joy and provide deeper meaning to our actions.
Still, as individuals we can’t make sweeping changes all by ourselves. Political action is needed to ensure that we all work together for sustainable usage of our natural resources. It takes public policies and laws to ensure that we all share in creating mass transit systems, reducing pollution, and protecting open spaces. History has shown that governmental action is needed as a safeguard against the nearsighted systems within which commercial and industrial interests often operate. Only governments have the ability to negotiate environmental agreements across many states and between nations.
So where does that leave us as Buddhist practitioners? When Buddhist practice is applied to our political efforts, generosity can be our motivation, goodwill and compassion our guide, and learning can replace our quick judgments. Guided by these wholesome qualities, political action can be passionate, energetic, and effective. Some people mistakenly believe that Buddhism, with its emphasis on equanimity, is incompatible with political action. But Buddhism doesn’t discourage political engagement. What it does discourage is divisive, hostile, and exclusively self-serving efforts at making political change.
There’s no doubt that human activity now challenges the health of our natural world more than at any other time in history. Unfortunately the damage to our environment has been increasing every year. If we are to reverse this trend, all but the poorest of us need to make changes in our lifestyle and patterns of consumption. Buddhism provides a way to embrace these changes as part of a path to freedom, peace, and compassion. Our ability to respond to these challenges is also our ability for spiritual growth. We can improve the quality of our environment while we deepen the capacity of our hearts.
As part of IMC efforts to lower our environmental impact we are currently fundraising with a goal of $15,000 to install a solar water heater at our retreat center, the Insight Retreat Center. This is currently one of the most significant steps we can take to lower our propane usage (and our ongoing expenses). Helping us install a solar water heater is a way to support IRC well into the future.
If you are interested in supporting our drive, either send a check payable to “Insight Retreat Center” and mail to Insight Retreat Center, 108 Birch St., Redwood City, CA 94062, or make an online donation at
During the first week of October, Insight Meditation teachers and centers around the globe will be celebrating Earth-Care Week. This is a newly minted event arising out of the International Vipassana Teachers’ meeting at Spirit Rock in June. It was one response from the teachers to a letter signed by over 2,000 people requesting that teachers provide “guidance and leadership in addressing the issue of climate change.”
With seeds planted this year we hope EarthCare Week will become a significant annual event among the worldwide communities of Insight Meditation practitioners.
IMC will be observing Earth-Care Week in the following way:
1. Gil will focus his talks on the connection between
Buddhist practice and caring for our natural world.
2. To reduce IRC’s carbon footprint we will have a drive to
raise money for a solar water heater at IRC.
3. We will encourage calculating one’s carbon footprint as a
mindfulness practice (see, e.g., nature.org/greenliving) .
4. We will encourage reducing gasoline consumption.
5. Our children’s programs in October will focus on caring
for the environment.
6. On Sunday October 13th, 11am to noon, everyone is invited to participate in small and large group discussion where we can learn and inspire each other in practical ways we can care for our planet and all life it houses.
Information about the wider Insight communities’ efforts for Earth-Care Week is found at 1earthsangha.org.
For the second year, IMC is offering an eight-month one-to-one mentoring program supporting individuals’ practice with the Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path represents the heart of the Buddhist path of practice. Those who sign up for this eight-month program will have the chance to explore, with one of IMC’s seasoned, senior practitioners, their relationship to the teachings and practices associated with each of the step the Eightfold Path. Mentoring meetings will be once a month for an hour. They will consist of a brief period of meditation and discussion structured around the eightfold path factor. Readings, exercises, reflections, and Gil’s recorded talks pertaining to the Eightfold Path will be assigned for each month of the program. Prerequisite is having completed IMC’s five week introduction to meditation course or the equivalent.
If you are interested please fill out the application found on top of the Special Events and Daylong Retreat page of IMC’s website.
“I felt encouraged, supported, and inspired to develop interest and confidence in the teaching and practice at a level that I had not heretofore known.”
In Buddhist practice, acquiring liberating insight goes hand-in-hand with mental cultivation. We cannot have deep insight without developing the mind, any more than a nearsighted person can see clearly without glasses. And we cannot benefit from insight without inner strength, any more than a hiker can climb a mountain without physical strength.
The three core insights of mindfulness practice are impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and not-self. Because of their importance, these “three characteristics” are often taught enthusiastically without reference to the mental development necessary to support them. Sometimes this leads to an excessively intellectual understanding where the “insights” become merely learned concepts rather than something directly understood or seen.
Overemphasizing the three characteristics can make Buddhist practice dreary, even discouraging. For someone whose life is falling apart because of radical social or personal change, being told that everything is impermanent can be disheartening or worse. For someone whose life is filled with unrelenting suffering, learning that all is unsatisfactory takes away all hope. And for someone whose confidence and self-identity has been stripped away or was never developed, the not-self teaching can put salt in a deep wound.
The insights are best supported by a variety of inner strengths. If we don’t already have these, it is useful to cultivate them. Paradoxically, the three strengths most needed are opposite in character from the three insights. The power of mental stability enables greater insight into impermanence; the potency of well-being provides the healthy context for insight into unsatisfactoriness; and the strength of confidence keeps us balanced when we are faced with the insight into not-self.
Stability, well-being, and confidence are cultivated through Buddhist practice. For example, meditation practice stabilizes the mind; practices such as generosity, ethics, and concentration are ways of cultivating well-being; and walking the path of practice is a way to develop confidence in our personal abilities.
Mental stability is related to calm, constancy, continuity, and commitment in practice. Deep, direct insight into impermanence cannot arise in an agitated, restless mind where a preoccupation with ideas, imaginings, or memories interferes with seeing clearly. In order to perceive change it helps for the mind to be still; inner stability allows peace in the midst of change. It keeps us from being easily buffeted in times of great social and personal instability.
The term “well-being” encompasses a host of positive emotions cultivated along the Buddhist path. They include the delight, contentment, joy, happiness, and rapture that arise as we practice the path. Many practices cultivate well-being. It can arise from practicing ethical integrity and by delighting in our own goodness and good actions. Even if we have acted unethically in the past, if we learn from this and resolve to do better, our resolve can be a reason to feel good about our self. Moreover, when we know we have nothing to hide, we experience what the Buddha calls the “bliss of blamelessness,” which allows for a deep relaxation.
Acting wisely on our generous impulses also promotes our own happiness. Giving to others weakens selfishness while helping develop a positive self-regard.
One of the important functions of meditation practice is to develop joy. While it certainly should not be expected all the time, sooner or later meditation should include joy. If it doesn’t, then this can be useful to discuss with a meditation teacher.
With well-being as a support, insight into the pervasive suffering and unsatisfactoriness of much of human life doesn’t have to be depressing or frightening. Rather, it can help us direct our attention and efforts to what is truly satisfying: spiritual freedom and compassion.
Not-self can be the most difficult insight because it can be destabilizing, even frightening. However, it can be a bit like learning to ride a bicycle. At first, one may be afraid and unsteady trying to keep one’s balance. Once one has become a strong, confident rider, the fear and uncertainty disappear.
Likewise, without confidence and personal strength, the insight into not-self can be quite disorienting and uncomfortable. When we feel confident and strong, we can experience this insight with equanimity.
Sometimes the teachings on not-self are interpreted to mean one should become self-effacing and humble. While it is certainly useful to overcome conceit, Buddhist practice also involves cultivating courageous strength. The personal strengths one cultivates on the Buddhist path include integrity, honesty, patience, kindness, resolve, wisdom, and confidence. With these as a foundation, the insight into not-self has the support needed to become a catalyst for releasing all self-attachments. The obvious benefits of such letting go of self-clinging can be seen most clearly when the mind is most still and happy. Letting go of clinging to self is then seen as a step further into peace and well-being rather than anything to be feared.
The path of insight and liberation does not leave us with nothing; it leaves us with the well-developed inner treasures of a steady, happy, and confident mind. When we see that this mind is, like everything else, impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not-self, it only adds to our peace and happiness.
Many volunteers have come to our new Insight Retreat Center (IRC) in Santa Cruz to help with gardening, maintenance, cleaning, cooking, office work and other tasks. They have provided not only the indispensable contributions that our all-volunteer center is built on, but have also become part of the growing community associated with it. We are very grateful for the continuing support of our volunteers. If you are interested in becoming part of the volunteer community at IRC, please click here: Volunteer at IRC
Begins Sunday, January 20, 7:00pm – 8:30pm
Future meetings will be held on 3rd Sunday of the month from 7:00pm – 8:30pm
We are entering the world, ready or not—meeting the challenges of school and work, relationships and intimacy, and finding meaning and purpose as independent adults. The perfect place to practice is right here where we are.This will be an open and ongoing group, meeting monthly, and addressing themes relevant to the lives of twentysomethings and thirtysomethings who want to grow a dharma practice that will be a refuge and inspiration as we make our way through the many worlds we inhabit.
Max Erdstein started practicing with IMC in 1999 just after graduating from Stanford. He has practiced Vipassana and Zen in America, Japan, Thailand, and Burma. He studied Buddhist chaplaincy with the Sati Center. He is being trained as a Dharma teacher by Gil Fronsdal and is participating in the Spirit Rock teacher training program. With Gil he taught the first weeklong retreat at IRC in November 2012. He is a husband and father of one girl.
Sign Ups – January 6 to February 3. Groups will meet monthly for 6 months: March – August, 2013
The groups will meet once a month for six months (March through August) in someone’s home at the best time for the majority based on indicated availability. If you choose to participate, please commit to attending all six meetings. Each meeting will consist of a short sit, a check-in and a discussion of the topic of the month. A volunteer will facilitate each meeting, rotating among members.
The purpose of the groups is to deepen our Dharma practice by sharing our practice experience and questions with a peer group. Dharma practice is relevant to all aspects of our lives including relationships, work, social engagement, and personal growth. Sharing some of our personal stories will naturally be a part of the discussion, but please keep in mind the purpose of these groups is to explore how the teachings of the Buddha can help us in these areas.
These groups will be a chance to practice Right Speech. Although this can be one of the most challenging elements of the Eightfold Path, it is also essential in establishing a safe and nurturing space for sharing our experiences, questions, insights and difficulties. The Buddha identified five characteristics of Right Speech:
It is spoken at the right time.
It is spoken in truth.
It is spoken affectionately.
It is spoken beneficially.
It is spoken with a mind of good-will.
We wish all participants a deepening of their practice and a greater feeling of inter-connectedness within the sangha. May the fruits of these gatherings bring greater peace within ourselves and to the world.
To join a community group, fill out the application below
“A wise person is motivated to benefit oneself, others, and both self and others.”
Some people live focused on benefiting themselves and those to whom they feel close. Some people are devoted to benefiting others, sometimes at the expense of themselves. To the Buddha, a wise person is someone who wishes for the good of all. Our lives are so interconnected that it is not possible to benefit oneself while neglecting others. And one can’t be of much benefit to others if one neglects oneself. The path of liberation the Buddha taught neglects neither oneself nor others; it is a path that lies at the intersection of oneself and the world.
One significant place to see how Buddhist practice balances caring for oneself and others is the Eightfold Path. Four of the path factors are practices aimed primarily at benefiting others. Part of the second factor, Right Intention, is to live motivated by goodwill and compassion for others. The next three factors, Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood, are all concerned with being in the world so that our speech, action, and livelihood benefit others.
In the practice of speech the Buddha encouraged people to speak in ways that are truthful, reliable, and trustworthy and in a manner that “reunites those who are divided, promotes friendship, and speaks words that promote concord.” He also encouraged speaking about what is good and beneficial.
Right Action is defined as not killing, not taking what is not given, not engaging in sexual misconduct, and not lying. While just following these guidelines provides others with the gift of safety, the Buddha went further by saying that in living a life that doesn’t harm practitioners, one should “abide compassionate to all living beings.”
For many people, one’s livelihood is how one has the most impact on the wider social world. The practice of Right Livelihood aims at being thoroughly ethical in how one works and supports others. Exploiting or harming others through our work is antithetical to Right Livelihood.
While Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood are practices that benefit others, we also benefit when we practice them. One of the great sources of well-being and peace is a clean conscience. Our own ethical integrity can become a meaningful refuge.
The last three factors of the Eightfold Path—Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration—are usually understood to emphasize caring for oneself. All three factors focus on improving the quality of our minds and hearts. Right Effort involves learning to do those things that increase our wholesome states of mind. Right Mindfulness gives us the presence of mind to differentiate between the wholesome and unwholesome. Right Concentration brings calm, ease, and peace.
The wholesomeness and well-being that Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration bring is a wellspring for both self-care and care for others. It shows us how meaningful and beautiful the developed heart can become. It is knowledge that strengthens empathy and appreciation of others. This is probably why the Buddha often presented concentration practice as an approach for cultivating goodwill and compassion for others.
Caring for others and for oneself are not distinct from each other. When we benefit others we are benefited in return, not least because it strengthens wholesome qualities in ourselves. When we benefit ourselves through developing our integrity, hearts, and wisdom, we will inevitably benefit others. Conversely, if we harm others we will sooner or later see how this also harms us. Even if others don’t retaliate, we cannot escape our own conscience forever.
The Buddhist approach to living a wise life can be called “a life of mutual benefit.” By benefiting others we are benefited ourselves; by benefiting ourselves we are benefiting others.
However, some people may feel that any emphasis on benefiting oneself is selfish. The Buddhist response is that selfishness harms the person who is selfish. If we understand what brings and supports personal well-being, we will avoid being selfish. We will not pursue our own well-being at the expense of others.
In Buddhism, benefiting oneself is not the same as acquiring pleasure, status, or wealth. It is developing beautiful and wholesome qualities of heart. It is cultivating the kind of inner wellbeing, love, and peace that helps make how we are in the world as helpful for others as what we do.
For similar reasons, we would not want to benefit others if it harmed our self in any significant ways. How can we really touch the hearts of others if our own heart is being harmed?
A person focused on mutual benefit does not view life as a competition that only some people can win. Rather, one considers what is best for the greater good, something the Buddha described in the above quote as benefiting both self and others. This is not the greater good that sacrifices some for the welfare of the majority. It requires creatively seeking ways to improve the lives of all.
In practice, a life of mutual benefit does not mean that everything we do has to benefit everyone. It means that when we care for ourselves in healthy ways, we can be reassured that this is for the greater good. And when we care for others in healthy ways, this is for our own benefit as well. At different times, in different situations, we will act on different ends of the self/other spectrum.
At times it is appropriate, and even important, to care for oneself. Meditating every morning may be immensely helpful for the meditator. It can be as important a form of self-care as making sure one eats healthily, gets enough sleep, and keeps one’s body healthy. At the same time, daily meditation may prepare us to care for others in calmer, wiser, and more compassionate ways.
There are other times when it is appropriate to care primarily for others; their needs may be greater than our own. However, one task of mindfulness practice is to help us care for others without giving in to attitudes and reactions that are harmful to ourselves. It is important to learn how to benefit others without harming ourselves.
A life of mutual benefit embraces a wider perspective than any stance that supports conflict. Without shrinking from conflict, it searches for the common ground that can work for the common good.
To understand Dharma practice as a life of mutual benefit clearly places our practice within the context of our social life. Even if one spends long periods of time in mostly solitary meditation practice, there is always a social dimension to one’s practice. We don’t walk the path of liberation for ourselves only. We practice for the sake of all beings.