The following reflection originally appeared in the twice-a-month newsletter I sent out on March 11th, 2023.
Ten Short Dhamma Reflections
Usually, in this newsletter, I share a long-form reflection on a single topic. Today, I thought it would be fun to switch it up a little and share some of my unruly backlog of short dhamma reflections. Each one stands on its own, so feel free to bounce around. Here goes!!
- On retreat intentions. In my upcoming three-month retreat, I have a clear intention to spend at least a month on samatha meditation. Beyond that, I mostly just want to practice earnestly. Having three months to go inwards is a precious opportunity, and I feel a powerful movement in my heart to make the most of this time. To the degree that I’m able, I aspire to go beyond my likes and dislikes to awaken to deeper levels of insight. And, for good measure, to be kind to myself along the way!.
- On forms of meditation. Daily formal meditation, across-the-day mindfulness, and intensive retreats are three primary pillars of meditation practice. The more you do one, the more the other two benefit. If you are skipping one (or two) of these three, you are limiting the freedom meditation has to offer you. .
- On guided meditations. I see two primary purposes in listening to guided meditations: inspiration and information. For inspiration, the talking voice in your ear is essentially encouraging you to keep going until the bell rings. When our meditation habit is shaky or we’re going through a tough period, some inspiration via guided meditation is very helpful. For information, having someone describe exactly what to do with your attention, while you are meditating, is incredibly useful. For this latter purpose, once we listen to a particular guided meditation once (or several times), we can then apply what we’ve learned in silence. .
- On moods, emotions & mindstates. Our moods, emotions & mindstates are like houseplants. The ones we “water” with our thoughts and emotional energy are the ones that grow & flourish. Inversely, the ones we cease “watering” don’t always disappear immediately, but they tend to slowly wither away due to lack of sustenance. The stronger your meditation practice, the more you develop a genuine capacity to choose which moods, emotions and mindstates to “water” and “not water.”.
- On anxiety. There are so many different angles one can take to become free from anxiety, but at the core, anxiety is a product of “wrong view.” It’s an overestimation of danger and an underestimation of our resilience. If you really contemplate either of those two points deeply, anxiety will crumble from the ground up.
However, as it can often have a pretty strong grip on people’s minds, there are many mini-trainings we take on to inch towards freedom. These include mindfulness practices of shifting out of thoughts & into the body, noticing the cycle between emotion/thought/behavior, practicing self-compassion, finding external supports like friends/pets/nature, or putting on the Deep Wisdom lens and seeing the emptiness of it, among other things.
- On affection. In thinking of affection, my first thoughts go not to romance or family, but to attention. How affectionately / kindly / gently / tenderly / caringly do I attend to all the moments of my life? To myself when I’m feeling a bit off? To all the people I encounter on a daily basis, from students to grocery clerks to friends? To the little dogs who sit in the office with me all day long? And, of course, to my partner, to my parents, to my dear friends? I think of affection less as a mechanical formula of touch, words, time spent together, or anything else, and much more about the quality of present-moment-attention I bring to each of those people & situations. More simply, when I bring an affectionate attention, everything else usually works out just fine. .Note, the compassionate body scan and affectionate breathing were perhaps the first two meditations I encountered that unlocked many years of exploration on this theme. .
- On spiritual practice. When someone asks me, “what is your [spiritual] practice?” I think “The Noble Eightfold Path.” Of course, meditation is a huge part of this; but it’s an eightfold path to awakening, not a onefold path of being mindful. In turn, I think about the precepts nearly every day. I’m constantly refining my intentions, cultivating love & spiritual joy, and contemplating deeper wisdom. .Sometimes I find it useful to explore complexity, diving into each of the eight parts & all the sub-parts. Other times, I find it more useful to keep it simple, and fall back on something like this quote from the Buddha, “To avoid the unwholesome, to cultivate the wholesome, and to purify the mind — this is the teaching of the Awakened Ones.” What is your spiritual practice?.
- On Intoxicants. The 5th Buddhist precept says to “abstain from intoxicants that lead to headlessness.” This requires some critical thinking & a lot of self-honesty. For example, there is a difference between taking opiates when recovering from surgery and when feeling bored or depressed on a Saturday night. There is also a difference between using psychedelics therapeutically and recreationally. .When we reflect even more deeply, we begin to look at all types of consumption. For example, it’s easy to see how modern media, from movies to smartphones to social media can be used for noble purposes, but probably more often than not, they have the effect of intoxicating/polluting the mind. At essence, the fifth precept asks us which inputs are polluting our mind and which ones are beautifying it?.
- On the question beneath the question. As we go on in our spiritual practice, various questions inevitably arise. For example, “why is it so hard to stay present?” “how to become less anxious?” “what is truly important?” “do I take this opportunity or let it go?” “when to trust myself and when to listen to others?” The list could go on. .But whatever your question is, it’s helpful to spend some time wholeheartedly sitting with the question. Letting it permeate your being. Usually, there is a question beneath the question; a deeper, more personal inquiry that is obscured by the initial question. It’s that question beneath the question that is often the one to truly contemplate, get feedback on, and sort out within yourself. .
- On stages of dhamma practice. One frequent quote from the Buddha is that the dhamma is good in the beginning, good in the middle, and good in the end. Here, good basically means it carries some benefit or sweetness. Perhaps it’s just a touch more relaxation or calm, resilience amidst difficulties, or smoothness in your relationships. Perhaps it’s a radically deep shift into love or emptiness. The pointer is that if you’ve been practicing some for while and it doesn’t feel like it’s good/beneficial, something about your practice isn’t quite right — investigate that with the utmost sincerity!