Four Ways to Evaluate a Spiritual Teacher

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Why Spiritual Teachers are Important

Someone once asked the Dalai Lama if it was necessary to have a guru or spiritual teacher.  He said, “no, it’s not necessary, but it can save you a lot of time.”

Over my years of diving deep into Yoga & Buddhism, dabbling in several other traditions, and conversing with hundreds of other seekers, I’ve come to strongly agree with the Dalia Lama’s quote.

While the deepest truth is always inside us, a teacher helps point the way when we’re uncertain or stagnated, and likewise inspires or nudges us to keep on going forward.

Having a good teacher is considerably more effective than doing it alone.

However, a bad teacher can leave us the same or even worse than when we started.

In extreme cases, this might be the guru who sleeps with their students against their will.  In lighter cases, perhaps they just lead use to a false finish line, where we think we’ve “got it all figured out,” but are actually quite off course.  In other words, since it’s really helpful to have a good teacher, an essential question is:

How to evaluate a spiritual teacher?

The rest of this guide will break this question down into four major components.  Here’s the outline:

1) Way of Being (and a story)
2) Ethics, Integrity & Accountability
3) Accessibility (and how communities can be teachers) 
4) Their Actual Teachings
5) Conclusion

Note: for me, “a spiritual teacher” isn’t anything mystical or fancy; it’s simply a guide, mentor, or anyone who helps us into a deeper experience of what life is all about. Continue reading

Meditation Groups (Sanghas): Why Go & The Most Important Things To Look For

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In another post, I listed every single Buddhist meditation group in Portland, Oregon.  Today’s post is both a counterpart to that one, and also a more general piece that speaks to meditation communities in any location.  Here’s the rough outline of this post:

1) The major reasons why meditation groups are worthwhile
2) What to look for in a meditation group (objectively)
3) What to look for in a meditation group (subjectively)
4) Concluding challenge

As a note, I use the words community, group and sangha interchangeably — a collection of people that gather together to deepen their meditation/spiritual practice (internally, with each other, and in the world). Continue reading

Every Buddhist Meditation Group/Center in Portland Oregon

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Intro to Buddhist Meditation in Portland

When I first arrived in Portland, I spent countless hours both online and conversing with others trying to find the various Buddhist communities in town.  After some years of exploration, I’ve learned every single Buddhist group in Portland (I think!), and have organized them here on this page.

At the time of writing, I’ve personally visited about half of these groups.  However, I am not offering any specific endorsements.  The intention of this page is merely to state the options.  I will try my best to keep my comments factual and data-focused.

At the same time, it’s really helpful to have a framework on how to evaluate a meditation group.  There are some things we all want (like integrity and kindness), but there are also different desires (like prioritizing meditation instruction vs. community, or a strong teacher vs non-hierarchy, etc.).

In a companion post, I offer an in-depth guide on how to evaluate & choose a meditation group/community.  I highly recommend reading that article, and to consider what you’re looking for in a community.  This will greatly help you navigate which ones are “for you” and which ones aren’t.

Although, the best test is always just checking a few of them out and getting a feel for what seems to resonate.

 

Outline for this Guide

1. Vipassana / Theravada Buddhist Groups
2. Zen / Mahayana Buddhist Groups
3. Tibetan / Vajrayana Buddhist Groups
4. Traditional Buddhist Temples, Monasteries & Viharas
5. Buddhist Inspired Groups
6. Where to go on Buddhist Meditation Retreat Near Portland

A few final notes to keep in mind:

  • While every center has its own flavor, some centers have multiple groups throughout the week, led by different instructors, and may have a very different feel.  It can be helpful to check out multiple groups at the same center!
  • You don’t need to “join,” “sign up” or go through any “initiation” process to go to any of these groups.  You just show up, and are free to never come again, or keep coming back as long as you like!
  • You also don’t need to be a Buddhist.  In general, Buddhist communities tend to be very inclusive, and aren’t interested in converting anyone.
    Continue reading

A Meditation Teacher’s Reflection on a Solitary Three Week Vipassana Retreat

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I’ve previously written an in-depth guide to meditation retreat — why do it, where to go, and what to look for in choosing one.  Today, I wanted to give an inside look at my recent retreat.

I spent three weeks by myself in a rustic cabin deep in the Cascade-Siskiyou Wilderness, devoted to the practice of Vipassana meditation.

On an outward level, here’s what it looked like:

  • Woke up around 5 or 6am, and went to bed between 11pm and 12am.
  • Ate two meals a day – no snacks, caffeine or beverages (apart from water)
  • Did around 10 hours a day of sitting meditation, an hour of yoga, an of hour of mindful hiking, and an hour of dharma talks
  • Had two interactions with a human throughout the three weeks – each lasted about 5 minutes, and revolved around getting more water in the cabin.

Continue reading

What I Imagine It’s Like To Be Black In America: An Encounter With The Police

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Note: These days, I don’t often write or even talk about politics, social justice or the state of the world — my focus is more on individual hearts and minds. 

However, I used to be very involved in this arena.  Perhaps the climax was a year I spent living with an activist collective in Southern Mexico, doing social justice and community development work with oppressed peoples.  Since then, my views and thoughts haven’t changed much, just my approach/tactics (which you can see throughout this site).

In any case, last year I had an unfortunate encounter with the police that still occasionally cycles through my mind, so today I feel compelled to share the story, and some reflections I have on race, privilege, and what sort of reaction/feelings/intentions it leaves me with.  Here goes:

I rent an office space a couple days a week in a residential Portland neighborhood.  One day about an hour before dusk, a client had recently left, and I was sitting inside the office doing a little final computer work.

Suddenly, I head some aggressive banging on my door, as if with a twenty pound hammer.  I wasn’t expecting anyone, so I ignored it for a little bit.  But as the banging kept going, I went to the door to see what was going on.  As soon as I opened the door, I saw two police officers with a scary-looking canine. Continue reading

Mindfulness Meditation & Thinking: How To Work With It, And What The Goal Is

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The Overarching Approach to Thinking in Vipassana Meditation

In Mindfulness/Insight/Vipassana meditation, we are not trying to get rid of thinking, ignore it, or make it stop.  Thought is a necessary function of mind—without it we would literally be incapable of functioning in society.

However, there is a HUGE difference between skillfully using thinking, and doing what most people do: bouncing from one thought to the next, endlessly swirling in long chains of verbal thinking (usually about the “story of me”).

In turn, rather than getting rid of thinking, the objective of Vipassana is to break the habit of obsessive thinking—more specifically, it’s to build up enough awareness+wisdom that we can let thoughts float by without indulging them.

As our practice develops, we start to experience thoughts sort of like how we experience tastes, sounds, smells or body sensations.  They stop feeling so “sticky.”  We can notice them floating through awareness, but have a very real sense of choice on which ones we think and which ones we allow to keep on floating. Continue reading

Insight Meditation (aka Vipassana): The What, Why, How & The Difference from Secular Mindfulness

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I practice and teach a style of Buddhist meditation called Vipassana (aka Insight Meditation).

Many people have heard of the famous eight week course, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), which has helped make mindfulness meditation a household term.  What many people don’t know is that it’s mostly just a secularization of Vipassana meditation.

However, even though they initially seem to be the same thing, there is also a big difference between the two.

I sometimes joke that if the Buddha were a 21st century dharma teacher, he would describe Vipassana Meditation as Mindfulness-Based Wisdom Cultivation (MBWC).

The rest of this post will explore what is meant by MBWC, and will answer the following questions:

1) What is Vipassana meditation?
2) Why are we shifting our basic perceptions?
3) What are we shifting our basic perceptions towards?
4) How do we actually, tangibly, realistically, make this happen?

5) What is core difference between MBSR and MBWC; or, Secular Mindfulness vs. Vipassana Meditation?
6) What is the quickest, most efficient way to really learn Vipassana?


Continue reading

Mindfulness Meditation & Sleepiness: Three Ways To Work With It

yawning-1895561_1920 EDITED SQUAREOne of the most common challenges for new meditators is getting sleepy, or actually falling asleep while meditating. 

When students ask me what to do about this, the first thing I usually say is that meditation is like a mirror. 

If we’re falling asleep while meditating, this usually means something about our lifestyle is causing it.  Maybe we have poor sleep habits, we’re overworking ourselves, have a hyperactive mind or lots of stress, our diet or exercise habits are imbalanced, etc.  Just like looking in the mirror, noticing these things is powerful information we can use to make real changes.

However, even if we did everything right, we’re likely to have some days when we’re sleepy.  So what to do during meditation when this happens?  There are three basic options. Continue reading

Is it Best to Have Eyes Open or Closed while Meditating?

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I’ve spent several thousand hours doing both of these approaches, and I can definitively say that one isn’t better than the other.  Some of my most profound meditative experiences came with eyes open, and others with eyes closed.

Like most things, they each have their own advantages and disadvantages.  Here’s some brief reflections:

The primary advantage of eyes closed

By removing visual stimuli, a whole layer of ‘potential’ distraction is removed.  This makes it easier for many folks to stay aware.  This extra ease applies to all styles of meditation, but especially for concentration-centered practices.

The primary advantage of eyes open

It teaches us we don’t have to be sitting still with eyes closed to have a meditative mind.  We slowly learn that visual stimuli aren’t actually a distraction.  They are just another thing to be aware of, and can actually be an aid to awareness!  The major takeaway of this style is that it makes it easier to be aware in daily life (because, of course, we have our eyes open all day long!). Continue reading

On Becoming Vegan – Why I Did It, Why I’m Sticking With It, And How I Stay Healthy

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The following essay on veganism is a personal sharing, and is more about expressing my own sincerity journey than it is about evangelizing a particular ideology. 

I don’t judge people who eat meat or animal products.  I also don’t have a problem sharing a kitchen or a meal with those who have different dietary habits.  My basic life philosophy is that the best way to impart change is to dare to be radically myself, discover my own integrity, and to give others the space to do the same.

May this reflection be helpful in some way, fellow journeyer!

…………

For a variety of reasons, I became a vegetarian in 2009.  Although, as the years passed, only one of those reasons really stuck: I couldn’t justify the killing of another living being when there were plenty of other ways to get easily & fully nourished.

However, I never thought too much about becoming vegan.  Using animal byproducts wasn’t outright killing living beings, I thought, so what’s the big deal? Continue reading