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noble friendship, part deux

September 28, 2014

This weekend I had the opportunity to attend my third retreat at Wat Atam, and the second led by Sakula, the spiritual director of Portland Friends of the Dhamma. The theme of the retreat was based around the threefold practice of virtue, concentration, and discernment, and how they’re all integral to a successful practice.

The first night, when everyone attending was encouraged to observe the eight precepts while at the retreat, she talked about importance of virtue, which on the negative end consists of things we should refrain from doing, i.e., not harming living beings, not stealing, not committing sexual misconduct, not lying or using harsh speech, and not indulging in intoxicating drinks and drugs that lead to carelessness. But on the positive side, they encourage us to be kind and compassionate towards living beings, to be generous, to have safe and healthy relationships, to be honest and thoughtful in our speech, and to live in a clear and mindful way.

Besides helping to protect ourselves and others from the results of our unskillful actions, virtue is important because it acts as the foundation for our practice. For one, it helps to provide the meditator with a mind that’s free from remorse and regret; and a mind that’s free from remorse and regret is better able to develop deep states of concentration, which are difficult to develop when the mind is consistently worried or agitated (AN 11.2). And one thing Sakula had us do was to think of something skillful we did and delight in how good it made us feel.

(Believe me, a mind that’s happier and lighter is a lot easier to observe and train. I know from experience. It’s hard to meditate when you’ve done a lot of things you regret; they’re the first things that pop up when the mind starts to get quiet.)

For most of the second day, the focus shifted to concentration. Often, living according to our desires, we develop habits that aren’t necessarily good for us. We instinctually grasp for what’s pleasant and push away what’s not, rarely being fully aware of our intentions or what even we’re doing. The problem is, in doing so, we suffer when that changes and we’re separated with what’s pleasant or come face-to-face with what isn’t (SN 56.11). We may also do something because it gives us a short-term pleasure, only to end up suffering a great deal later on because of it. And this happens because our minds are untrained in restraint, mindfulness, and wisdom. To strengthen these tools, we need to first develop our virtue and then develop our powers concentration.

Just like a body that isn’t used to exercise finds relatively intense physical activity difficult, if not impossible, a mind that isn’t ‘exercised’ has difficulty turning inwards and being aware of the subtle mental activities and habits that give rise to suffering. We tend to take it for granted that what we’re doing or thinking is the ‘right’ thing, but oftentimes what we’re really doing is feeding our suffering. As Sakula mentioned, unpleasant thoughts and feelings will arise, but they’ll also soon cease, unless of course we feed and sustain them, not being mindful of how feeding them can actually cause more problems than the initial thoughts and feelings themselves. We simply can’t let them go.

We spent most of the day alternating between walking and sitting meditation, trying to focus on the breath or the soles of our feet while also trying to be aware of how our minds were reacting to thoughts and feelings and sensations, and when possible, letting them arise without pouncing on them and turning our attention away from our object. I had a lot of trouble with that, though, and found myself easily distracted.

At the end of the second day, as well as the last, she touched on wisdom. Wisdom is what can ultimately cut the roots of greed, hatred, and delusion. It’s the aspect of our mental faculty that’s capable of judging which of our intentions are skillful and unskillful, and more importantly, of abandoning what’s unskillful. It dives through our desires and the narratives that we create, allowing us to see the deep and subtle way the mid works and giving us the ability to to really go against the flow of our craving. With wisdom, we can enjoy the pleasant without indulging in it and getting carried away by it; and we can endure the unpleasant without having to become overwhelmed by it.

One of the similes she gave that I really liked was of a person walking on some train tracks who’s completely distracted by all the sights and sounds around them, unmindful of the train coming up behind them. The person is our mind, the sights and sounds are all the pleasant things we instinctually grasp, and the train represents both the unpleasant things in life and the changing nature of phenomena that tends to barrel us over. Concentration is what helps us turn around and see the train coming; wisdom is our ability to step off the track and watch it pass by rather than let it barrel us over unawares or to try and stop it in its tracks.

The last day was a special treat for me since it was not only Thai Vegan Day, with Wat Atam’s community of lay-followers providing a feast of vegetarian Thai food for everyone to share, but one of my old teachers, Ajahn Prasert from Wat Buddhanusorn, was visiting to help raise a fund for sick and injured monks in the US.

Admittedly, I had a hard time meditating or really cultivating any wisdom this weekend. I did gain a deeper appreciation of virtue, however, especially that of others, and felt a lot of gratitude the whole time for all the kindness and generosity that made this retreat even possible for me, from Ajahn Ritthi for hosting it and Sakula for leading it, to Greg and Alistair for lagging behind and braving the I-5 rush-hour traffic so I could carpool with them and Phil and Marie at work who gave me an extra hand so I could get out of work on time and actually catch my ride.

There was a lot more to the retreat, but those are a few things that stuck with me the most. It was disheartening to realize how much I’ve slacked on my meditation practice and how I was luck if I could be truly mindful of three breaths the entire weekend, but it was equally as heartening being surrounded by such encouraging and supportive people.

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