This morning was warm (relatively) and there was a feeling of Spring in the air. The air was thick with moisture in a different way than in previous days and weeks. Some of the native birds were singing and the sun was noticeably higher in the sky for the particular time of day it was. Yet, it was the sum total —the gestalt of the experience — that was being known. The whole body system was experiencing Spring. It just was. …

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This past Monday, a staff member at the Insight Meditation Society where I work suddenly died. I mean suddenly. Like, we all saw him on Friday at work and on Sunday he was having lunch with friends. 

When people die so suddenly like this, it’s a very big shock. The sense of loss is just so palpable. Walking by his office and knowing that he’s not in there is almost too much to comprehend. The heart becomes tenderized and can feel the loss deeply. Life is put into perspective as the presence of death cuts through all that is not important. 

So, on the one hand, death is an incredibly potent and heart opening and wrenching event. And, on the other hand, nothing happened that is not always happening. All conditioned experience is subject to decay and death. It’s the world we live in. 

Someone once asked the Buddha, “The world, the world, what is the world?” The Buddha replied, “In so far as it disintegrates, it is the world.” Life doesn’t skip a beat when someone dies, because it’s not outside of what is always happening. Monday after work I went to the shop and picked up my car that was being worked on, went home, and had dinner.

I find these two facets of death living side by side fascinating. How can we fully inhabit both? I don’t think there is a teaching that will tell us how to do that. I think we each have to live into this question in our own way. 


Your Island Insight steering committee is engaged in practice to unravel the deep conditioning of white privilege, racism, and oppression. As part of this practice, we are reading and discussing Ruth King's new book: Mindful of Race: Transforming Racism from the Inside Out. In this blog entry, the steering committee shares an adapted version of a piece Chas wrote in the context of Insight Meditation Society's commitment to healing racism within individual yogis and within IMS as an institution. 

In our meditative journey we become aware of, open to, and become intimate with, more and more of the inner and outer world. Some things come into view more easily than others. For various reasons, there can be aspects of our inner and outer worlds that remain hidden from us. To see and understand these hidden aspects and our relationship to them, we often need more than meditation practice alone. For example, with stuck emotional places, sometimes therapy is needed to help bring them into view, hold them gently, and allow them to unwind. 

For many white people, racism and other forms of oppression such as anti-semitism and nationalism also do not come into view very easily. It requires intentional investigation and connection …

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The Supreme Court nomination process and the charges of sexual assault that have arisen are bringing up difficult emotions for many people. I thought I would revisit the teaching and acronym R.A.I.N. as a support for working with difficult emotions.

The R stands for Recognize.Clearly notice what is happening. Name it. Just the act of naming something, to some degree, gives us some distance from it. We can’t be completely lost in rage and know it at the same time…..

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When we are in relationship with another human being (could be anyone from our intimate life partner to the person ringing us out at the store), our attention often becomes unconsciously drawn fully to the other person and we lose contact with ourselves. We lose relationship with our body and we are often not aware of how the interaction with this person is impacting us. When we are not aware of how we are feeling in relationship with another, it puts us at a great disadvantage in terms of our own happiness and that of the relationship. The reason for this is …

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It can be easy to think that all we need to do to walk the Noble Eightfold Path is to be mindful. Although mindfulness is the cornerstone of all Buddhist practice, it alone is not enough. We want to be mindful of what is happening, and then investigate what is happening. One form of investigation is to notice whether there is reactivity or Equanimity in the heart/mind in relation to whatever it is that we are being mindful of. The clear comprehension part (or at least one aspect of clear comprehension) is to know what our relationship is to the object of mindfulness. 

For example…

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Aversion covers a wide variety of mind states and emotions that include: Frustration, annoyance, anger, ill will, rage, fear, irritation, fury, resentment, disappointment, dissatisfaction, and more. 

Aversion includes all the mind states and emotions where the mind is saying “NO” to whatever is happening. It is a form of reactivity and therefore, the opposite of equanimity. Of course, when there is aversion in the heart/mind, there is suffering, which is why we want to know when it’s present. This way, we have a chance to let go and stop suffering. 

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In some ways, Doubt is the most difficult of the Hindrances. One of the reasons is because it can be difficult to be aware of its presence.  Doubt has an ability to appear in many different guises and forms. Just when we think we know what it looks like, it changes into something else ....

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Includes: Wanting, Needing, Lust, Longing, Craving, Thirst, Yearning, Wishing for, Addiction

This is the quality of mind that wishes for something to be happening, usually pleasant, that isn’t happening in the moment. It’s the sense that things as they are right now are somehow not OK. It can range from the slightest movement towards something more pleasant than what’ is happening, to the most severe addictive qualities of mind.

When working with Desire or any of the Hindrances, using the R.A.I.N. acronym can be helpful:

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The Hindrances are mind states that are deeply habituated in us. Without mindfulness, they arise in the mind and dominate our experience without us even knowing they are present, let alone being aware of the results.

These mind states are called “Hindrances” because they hinder or occlude the arising and development of Samadhi (the non distracted mind) and clear seeing, which means seeing the truth of the way things are (Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta).

The five Hindrances include: Desire, Aversion, Sloth and Torpor, Restlessness, and Doubt. We will explore these in detail, including how to work skillfully with each of them in the coming months, but for now, just a few words about each Hindrance.

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It is very common for people to believe that Anatta means that there is “no self,” but the Buddha never said this. In fact, when asked whether the self existed or not, he refused to answer. Why? Because the question of whether a self exists or not is not directly related to freedom from suffering. The only reason the Buddha taught about Anatta was because it is directly linked to freedom from suffering.

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The Connection Between Anatta-Not Self and The Other Characteristics (Anicca –Change and Dukkha – Unstable, Unsatisfactory)

I like to think of the Three Characteristics as three different ways to describe one truth, the truth of the way things are. A good analogy is the way light goes through a prism. It manifest as different colors, but, it is only one light. The truth of the way things are manifests in Anicca, Dukkha, and Anatta, but it is only one truth. Each characteristic is composed of the other two.

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FOUR SKILLS A MEDITATOR NEEDS TO DEVELOP: NUMBER FOUR: Keeping the three Universals in Mind -- Dukkha, Anicca, Anatta

It is said that understanding change is the gateway to understanding Stress and Not Self. This is because change is an integral part of Stress and Not Self. One could say that these three characteristics are three angles in on one truth. Similarly to the way light goes through a prism and reveals itself in different colors, the truth of the way things are reveals itself in Change, Stress and Not Self. Yet, it is still just one truth. The three characteristics can’t be separated.

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In a nutshell, we want to know when and how, to move away from experience.

We want to have the clarity that knows this is not right or good for me, as well as the self care that knows I deserve to not be in such a difficult or unhealthy and/or dangerous situation. Both these forms of Wisdom and Compassion need to be present.

We’re not talking about moving away from experience just because we don’t like it, or just don’t want to deal with it anymore. This is about experience that is so difficult for us that it overwhelms our ability to be with it.

Before going further, it’s important to understand what do we mean by overwhelm? It means that we are totally overtaken by experience and have no ability to step back and witness what is happening. For example, when we are so angry that we are just acting out the anger and have no ability to know, “I’m angry right now”.

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You may be wondering why, in the middle of exploring the four skills a meditator needs to develop (Calming the heart and mind, moving closer to experience, moving farther from experience, keeping the three universal characteristics in mind), we have gone on a two month tangent with the Hindrances? The answer is two-fold:

First, in order to accomplish skills one and two, you need to be able to work with the Hindrances. That is, to not have them totally running the show all the time.

Second, is that if there were to be a fifth skill a meditator needs to develop, it would be working with the Hindrances!!

Here are the details of working with the Hindrances I spoke of during our May 13, 2017 practice together:

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Given that Skill Number Two is "moving closer to experience" and that Skill Number Two arises from Skill Number One, which is "calming the heart and mind," folks can be confused as to why we would want to move farther from experience. Shouldn’t we simply continue to move closer to experience, so that we can understand its true nature (Skill Number Four)?  Well, yes and no. Let me explain:

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Practicing With the First Skill: Calming and Collecting the Heart & Mind

Two things come to mind that can be helpful:

  • DO IT! You can’t learn how to play an instrument by looking at it, you have to pick it up and practice with it. Same holds true for cultivating a heart & mind that is somewhat steady and at ease. Take time to practice formally every day. There’s no getting around this. Don’t fall into the trap of, “I practice by being mindful of what I do during the day.” Yes, we want to be mindful during the day, but it’s not a substitute for the clear intentionality of sitting still, not talking, not doing anything, and cultivating presence.

  • Having said that, you do want to also practice during the day. To be mindful of what you are doing, yes. Also, and just as importantly, to find moments of being present, when you can connect with the body and allow it to relax. Keep the attention on this relaxation process and enjoy whatever level of stillness manifests. This could be three seconds or a few minutes. The idea is to do it often. Start to get into the habit of the heart and mind settling frequently. This can pick up momentum and being to happen more spontaneously over time. 


Practicing With The Second Skill: Moving Closer to Experience

There are many meditation suggestions, teachings and instructions in this arena. To simplify things and add some structure, I want to offer a template of sorts that can be helpful. We can apply this template to any experience that arises.

The idea is that we want to stay away from two opposite extremes of how we could relate to experience. On one side of things there is repression, denial and suppression. We literally don’t connect with it. One way or another, the experience is pushed or kept out of consciousness. The opposite extreme is being lost in, identified with and overtaken by experience. We’re not really with it, we’ve become it!

The middle ground is that we are aware that the experience, (naming it is very helpful) is happening, so in this way, we’re not repressing it. And yet, we’re not carried away by it. There’s something that is not the experience that is knowing it. It doesn’t mean we don’t feel the experience or aren’t affected by it. It means we know it’s happening and aren’t totally lost in it.

One area where most people find difficulty moving closer to experience is when the experience is unpleasant, especially with unpleasant or difficult emotions. I want to offer you a very simple way to practice with this particular arena of experience. First is to name the difficult emotion. Jealousy, anger, lust, fear, etc. The reason to do this is because if you can name it, it means, at least for that moment, you are not completely identified with it (one of the extremes we want to stay away from), and it means you are aware of it and not suppressing it (the other extreme we want to stay away from).

Once you can name the emotion, then bring your attention to your body and see if you can notice where the emotion is manifesting in the body. Is it anger manifesting as tight stomach? Fear as a clenched jaw? Anxiety as a rapid heart beat? Etc. Sometimes you will be able to notice the emotion in the body, sometimes you won’t. It almost doesn’t matter as the reason we want the attention in the body is so that it’s not caught up in the looping thoughts and stories that often accompany difficult emotions. As long as the attention is in the body feeling the emotion, or trying to feel the emotion, it won’t be caught in the mind.

Now, if you can ascertain where the emotion is in the body, then let your attention stay with the sensation that you feel. Perhaps name them. Tightness, pressure, vibration, etc. Stay with the sensations and notice how they change and notice when they are no longer there.