Five Daily Recollections by Nelle Oosterom, WIMG chair

For the next five weeks at St. Peter’s, we will be reflecting on what are known as the Five Daily Recollections, also called Subjects for Contemplation.

This teaching comes straight out of the Buddhist canon, from what is called the Upajjhatthana Sutta. The sutta asks that we reflect on some hard realities of life, namely aging, illness, death, loss, and the consequences of our actions. This may seem a little grim and depressing — and maybe not the thing to be doing when one is actually down in the dumps — but those who think about these realities in the right way will find this practice very beneficial.

For instance, in my own experience, when my mother was still alive, I dreaded the thought of losing her. When I became acquainted with the teachings in the mid-1990s, this was one practice that I latched onto fairly quickly because it seemed so appropriate to helping condition a person to the inevitable realities we all face. After all, most of us outlive our parents. So I would from time to time consciously imagine what my life would be like if my mother wasn’t in it.

Even so, when she died, suddenly and unexpectedly in 2002, it came as a shock. I had pictured something a bit more gradual and that I would somehow be there when it happened. So when I got the call, from 2,000 kilometres away, grief overwhelmed me, even knocked me over. For instance, I remember being in a pharmacy to fill a prescription I would need before I flew out the next day and being completely unable to communicate with the pharmacist.

Given my state of shock, what good had it done me to have contemplated my mother’s death beforehand?

In fact, these contemplations do not necessarily protect us from the natural hurt, the natural grief, that arises from loss. The emotion of grief, in itself, does not seem to be the problem. It is our tendencies to attach to grief and to loss, to create stories about how terrible things are, or to numb ourselves to reality, that are problematic.

In my own case, because of my practice, I believe I was able to have just enough awareness to separate the raw grief I was feeling about losing my mother — and actually, some of that sadness had a certain sweetness to it — from the additional grief that my mind was needlessly generating. I could not stop the sense of intense loss that was my reality in the present moment, but I didn’t have to generate more suffering by adding to the story. And in fact it didn’t take long for me to regain a sense of equilibrium.

The Five Daily Recollections can be used as a skillful means for letting go of our attachment to having things to be the way we want them to be. Contemplating them helps us become more grounded in the reality of existence, in the “ten thousand joys and the ten thousand sorrows.” We see that “things are like this.” And we can rest in that reality, even when it’s hard.

Here are the Five Daily Recollections:

I am subject to aging, have not gone beyond aging.

I am subject to illness, have not gone beyond illness.

I am subject to death, have not gone beyond death.

I will grow different, separate from all that is dear and appealing to me.

I am the owner of my actions [karma], heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir.

To read the text on which the Five Recollections are based, go to Thanissarro Bikkhu’s website, Access to Insight:

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an05/an05.057.than.html

Sitting with a Sutta by Marc Forest

The Importance of Spiritual Friendship — Kalyanamitta (‘spiritual friends’)

"As he was seated to one side, Ven. Ananda said to Buddha, 'This is half of the holy life: being a friend with admirable people, a companion with admirable people, a colleague with admirable people. Don't say that, Ananda. Don't say that. Being a friend with admirable people, a companion with admirable people, a colleague with admirable people is actually the whole of the holy life.' " (SN 45.2)

Over the last five years it has been a wonderful and fulfilling experience to witness the growth of spiritual bonds formed at WIMG. On more than one occasion I have heard from newcomers about how delighted they are to find such a group that shares a common interest in mediation and Dharma practice.

This should not come as a surprise to anyone. We are all human beings who walk the same ground, who seek the liberation and true happiness. What we have at WIMG is a safe, supportive, Sangha that nurtures spiritual relationship building through a shared curiosity of meditation and Dharma.

Many people think following the practice of meditation is a solitary exercise done in private. This perception is soon remedied when one sits in a Sangha environment like WIMG or on a retreat. The initial shock of realizing there are people just like you who meditate passes and friendships begin to cultivate.

Personal transformation cannot happen in isolation; we transform and help each other along this path. We may be responsible for our own actions (Karma) but those actions are also influenced by our relationships. This is why Buddha said what he said:

I don't envision any other single factor like friendship with admirable people in being so helpful for one who is a learner, who has not attained the goal but remains intent on the unsurpassed rest from the yoke. One who is a friend with admirable people abandons what is unskillful and develops what is skillful." (Iti 17)

If we think about, it is spiritual friendships that were formed 2600 years ago that have brought us the joy of the Dharma today. The Dharma friendships we form today will help continue the Dharma for those who come after us.

As friendships are so important to our spiritual development, Buddha gave us instruction on the qualities of a good spiritual friend. These qualities found in others will help us build the same qualities in ourselves. A spiritual friend is:

"A friend who is helpful

A friend who shares one’s happiness and suffering

A friend who points out what is good

A friend who is sympathetic" (DN 31)

"A friend gives what is hard to give and she does what is hard to do. She forgives you your harsh words and endures what is hard to endure.

She tells you her secrets,yet she preserves your secrets.She does not forsake you in difficulties, nor does she roughly despise you.

The person here in whom these qualities are found is a friend.One desiring a friendshould resort to such a person." (AN 7:36)

Through spiritual relationships we help each other deal with the vicissitudes of life. The strength we gain from relationship helps keep us on the path to awakening and true happiness. Our common ground is Vipassana meditation, the Dharma and each other.

Now that we have discovered each other in Sangha and have a common interest in meditation and the Dharma, there is a way to deepen this common bond to make it even more rewarding than it is. That is to continue practicing and nurture relationships with such people. Share what you will with all your spiritual friends at WIMG.

WIMG will be continuing to develop ways to build these important relationships that nurtures realization for each other.

"If you find a wise person

Who points out your faults and corrects you,

You should follow such a sage

As you would a revealer of treasures.

It is better, never worse

To follow such a sage." (Dhp 76)

 

May all beings be happy!

 

 

 

 

Exploring the Ten Perfections by Nelle Oosterom, WIMG Chair

For the next several Wednesdays at St. Peter’s, we will be exploring the Ten Paramis, also known as the Ten Perfections. These follow the themes we undertook in January and much of February   on the Five Precepts.

You will notice that these themes are about cultivating good behaviour, attitude, and qualities of character, not so much about the formal practice of meditation per se. Why not just concentrate on meditation technique?

Indeed, I have noticed that there are a lot of meditation apps available these days that promise instant peace and calm!

Why not just do that?

In our Western culture, there is a tendency to pursue meditation in reverse. We are in a hurry and want quick results. We might try vipassana — Insight Meditation — but, when confronted with our mental clutter, find the practice incredibly difficult and think, “This is neither calming nor insightful!”

In many traditional Eastern cultures, however, a person seeking to practice meditation doesn’t go in cold. They start with preliminary practices, beginning with keeping ethical precepts. In fact, all spiritual traditions are grounded in ethics. We are urged to refrain from doing harm as well to cultivate good qualities such as generosity, patience, and kindness.

Depending on the tradition, other preliminary practices also go into the mix: Rituals, chanting, mantras, special diets, yogic exercises, etc. This is often referred to as “purification.” The intended result of this purification process is a calm, steady heart-mind that is amenable to what we might all “serious” meditation practice.

Based on my own experience, I would say vipassana is not for the faint of heart. It takes courage, faith, patience, and plain old-fashioned stick-to-itiveness to go the distance.

Typically, instead of the peace and calm we are seeking, we experience the distressing reality of our untrained minds. And we might not understand or believe that the fleeting periods of awareness we do experience in meditation — those moments when we “wake up” — are actually very beneficial and much more valuable than achieving temporary calm. Awareness or wakefulness — remember that the word “Buddha” means “awakened one” — is actually key to the peace of mind we are seeking.

It is possible to use certain concentration techniques to experience peace in meditation and some people even have an innate ability to do that. But the peace of mind experienced does not last long beyond the cushion. Sometimes people become attached to the practice itself and avoid engaging in “real life.” However, avoiding life is not the point or the path of enlightenment.

Just as it would be wise to train the body before running a marathon, it’s wise to train the mind in preparation for and while undertaking the work of investigation, penetrative insight and liberating awareness.

Insight practice is sometimes compared to peeling away the layers of an onion. The layers represent our habits and conditioning, our clinging tendencies — which we take to be our “self.” But these layers actually obscure our true self — our inherent Buddha nature — which has nothing to do with our personality.

The outer layers everyone can see — strong habits and tendencies that are harmful, like substance abuse, unhealthy relationships, greedy behaviour, over-aggressiveness. It’s usually not too difficult to see how these habits lead to unhappiness, so we work to turn those habits around.

You start where you are. If you happen to be a serial killer, that’s where you start. Start by not killing. Angulimala was a sadistic serial killer in the Buddha’s time who dispatched 999 victims. He was looking to make it a thousand when he encountered the Buddha and had a sudden conversion. In other words, he woke up. He saw what he was doing, the effect it was having and the sorrow his actions were causing for himself and others.

As we learn to conduct ourselves harmlessly, we experience much more peace of mind, fewer worries, less stress. With this awareness, the most troublesome outer layers fall away and we come upon new, more subtle layers of habit that we might not have been conscious of before. We may look like we have it altogether on the outside but we also realize how quickly we can become triggered and return to the harmful mind states of greed, hatred, and confusion. In Buddhism, these are known as the three poisons.

So we work at a more refined level to counteract these poisons. For example, if we notice that we are carrying hatred in the form of anger (or depression, as the flip side of anger) we work on developing a quality that is opposite to anger, such as patience.

In short, awareness and harmless conduct reinforce each other. We can’t see our harmful conduct without some awareness. We can’t grow in awareness without refining our conduct.

In our work, we will at times come upon a layer of “self” so deeply ingrained and subtle that we can’t see it, we can’t penetrate it, it’s like we have hit a wall. We know there is something wrong but we don’t know what to do. Those are the times when having internalized the Paramis is really going to help.

The Paramis — the Ten Perfections — are by tradition the qualities the Buddha refined in his earlier lives. It is said that perfecting them over many lives gave him the foundation to attain enlightenment.

Whether we believe we have many lives or just one, we can benefit from cultivating the the Paramis. They ground us in our spiritual practice, which in turns brings ease to our worldly life.

Here are the Paramitias in the order that we’ll be studying them over the next several weeks. The brief descriptions below are mostly paraphrased from Ayya Khema’s Being Nobody, Going Nowhere.

February 15: Generosity. Jillian has already presented on this one and her skillful talk led to a good discussion afterwards. Generosity, as a parami, is considered a starting point. Generosity of any kind diminishes the ego, which is the essence of the path.

March 8: Morality and Renunciation: Nelle will bundle these two perfections together. Since the ethical precepts have already been covered in previous talks, the focus of this talk will mainly be on renunciation — or letting go. What we are actually letting go of is our egoic clinging, a practice we can do both on the cushion and off.

March 15: Wisdom: Bruce will lead this talk. This parami is very broad. According to Ayya Khema, cultivating wisdom can be seen as a process akin to feeding ourselves: First, we learn. We acquire knowledge and we put it on our plate. Then we chew on the knowledge for a while and swallow it. Then we digest the knowledge. What we can’t use, we let go of. What we can use, we keep; this may transform into wisdom. From a Buddhist perspective, wisdom is closely linked to an understanding of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths.

March 22: Energy: Jillian. This parami is about using our energy skillfully so that it moves us in the right direction — towards elevated conscious, towards liberation. When our energy is balanced with concentration, we avoid restlessness. Energy is also one of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment.

March 29: Patience. Nelle. Patience dissolves anger. Without patience, our wanting mind demands things to be way we want them to be, to go according to our plans. Patience has a quality of insight, of seeing the big picture and realizing that whatever plans we make, the natural flow and change of circumstances means the outcomes of our plans are not within our control

April 12: Truthfulness. Jillian. This parami has many facets. It’s in part about inner honesty, seeing the truth of ourselves as we really are. It’s also about knowing the truth of the dharma for ourselves — and not just taking it on as a belief. This kind of truth-seeking is about spiritual inquiry.

April 19: Resolution. Jeff. Resolve keeps us on the path, even when it gets uncomfortable, unpleasant, uninspiring. Resolution, or determination, arises when we clearly see that the usual distractions of our ordinary lives offer nothing of lasting benefit. We therefore resolve to pursue spiritual growth and final liberation.

April 26: Lovingkindness. Nelle. Lovingkindness (metta) — or good will —  refers to a quality of heart that makes no distinctions. It’s not about just loving those who are close to you or being friendly only to those whom you like. The aspiration is to embrace all beings as if they were your own children. Lovingkindness shows up in many places in the Buddha’s teachings. It’s one of the Brahma Viharas and its the subject of two well-known discourses, the Metta Suttas. It’s also a meditation practice in its own right.

May 3: Equanimity. Nelle. Equanimity is considered the crowning glory of emotions. It is even-mindedness grounded in wisdom and the insight that everything changes. True equanimity is warm and caring — unlike its near enemy, indifference, which is characterized by cold detachment. Equanimity is also one of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment.

Note: In the intervening weeks, Marc will be continuing with his series on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. Mindfulness of Mind on April 5 and Mindfulness of Dhamma on May 10.=

Additional references:

Study material on the Paramis can be found at Gil Fronsdal’s Inisght Meditation Centre website:

http://www.insightmeditationcenter.org/books-articles/articles/theparamis/

Thanissaro Bhikkhu has an online study guide to the Paramis on his Access to Insight website.

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/study/perfections.html

Learning About and Experiencing the First Noble Truth: Dukkha

By Catherine Sproat

Crossing the flood of Dukkha to the shore of freedom.

Crossing the flood of Dukkha to the shore of freedom.

Dukkha is the Pali word for suffering.  It’s not so much the ailments of physical suffering but also the mental suffering we go through. Dukkha includes sickness, the loss of someone or something, tragic events, as well as not having something go your way. 

Sometimes on the path, I am dumbfounded by the links between what I experience or see others experience and what I am learning. 
Sometimes the experience and lesson interconnect right at the same time. Often the information comes just as I need it. This was the case in a recent experience while beginning to study the First Noble Truth: there is suffering. 

I see dukkha being related to attachment as well as to the mental suffering caused by stories the mind creates. These stories create more dukkha as the mind plays out scenes of what could have happened and poses “what ifs?” I find that I can become attached to something that didn’t even happen or attached to something that is already finished. This adds to the dukkha and is known as the second arrow of dukkha in our practice with the first arrow being the actual bad event.

Recently my family experienced a very real scare and potentially tragic situation with my newborn granddaughter. My son and daughter-in-law came very close to losing her after she suddenly stopped breathing. The blessing was that when she stopped breathing my son was holding her and noticed something was wrong. Once the paramedics came and took her to the hospital, my son informed me and other members of the family about what happened. When I heard about the situation, I felt like I was hit with a brick. Right away, dukkha set in. I could not imagine what my son and daughter-in-law were going through and what stories or scenarios were going through their minds. Being a student of the Dharma and the Four Noble Truths, it was a time to use what I have been practicing daily. It was time to put my learning into practice.

I felt the fear and grief inside of me. The turning of the stomach, the mind racing and the breath quickening to keep up with the mind were just a few things that were happening inside of me. The more I looked inside at what my body was telling me, I realized that a lot of my suffering was from knowing that my son and daughter-in-law were suffering. I didn’t know how to ease their dukkha or what to do for them. Then came the mental suffering of “what ifs?” — the second arrow of dukkha we fling at ourselves. The stories I made up in my mind were worse than the actual event itself. 

Then I read and a quote by Ajahn Sumedho in the book I’m reading on the Four Noble Truths: This moment is like this. Reading this brought a moment of relief, respite from the suffering I was drowning in. It opened me up to accepting and sitting with my suffering and helped me focus on the event and the realization that everything was out of my control. The baby was safe and in the care of the doctors and nurses. It helped me stop my mind from creating stories and made me more present for my son and daughter-in-law.  

I’m definitely not saying that dukkha is over for me. I am still dealing with the lingering residue of the experience. But I’m in a lot better space than I was three weeks ago when this happened.  

Every day is a day to sit with dukkha and explore it instead of reacting to it or pushing it away. The tools I have learned from studying the Dharma and practicing mindfulness reinforced my ability to respond instead of react and allowed me to get over the main dukkha. Through my mindfulness practice I know this moment is like this.

Changes at WIMG

A message from the Chair, Nelle Oosterom

As a new year approaches, this seems like an appropriate time to announce some changes to the Winnipeg Insight Meditation Group — all of them positive.

The changes would be invisible to most of you who regularly receive our email reminders and attend our sits and other activities. They are about the behind-the-scenes activity that keeps a group like this running. Like the engines in our vehicles or the foundations of our homes, most of us don’t notice the work that goes into holding a community together until something breaks down.

Those of us who work to keep WIMG going, and growing, realized that we needed a more structured way of doing things if we are to continue moving forward. To that end, we recently formed an administrative body that includes a chair (myself), a vice-chair (Marc Forest), a treasurer (Jillian Preston-Gren), and an advisor (Thomas Steur). Together, we form a core group. This small group ensures that the day-to-day running of the sangha takes place and directs the activities that happen over the longterm. 

The core group does not work alone. There are a number of other people whose work is vital to our sangha. For instance, Kurt Schwarz, a spiritual care practitioner in his professional life, volunteers his time as one of the key practice leaders in our sangha. Bruce Johnson brings his organizational skills to bear in attending to the many details of our weekly sits and days of mindfulness, Amy Teakle works tirelessly as our retreat registrar, Paul Renault  designed and runs our website, Catherine Sproat edits our blog and newsletter, Barbara Barnett shares her time in leading contemplative walks at Fort Whyte and Marjolaine Pelletier recently initiated our social events committee.

In addition, many people participate on Wednesday evenings as dharma readers. Their voices, and the voices of all who participate by sharing their day-to-day experiences of dharma practice, help to energize our sessions and to build a diverse, inclusive community.

How is having a core group different from what existed before?

The main difference is that we now have a more defined leadership structure. Each member of the core group has a specific role and there is more clarity around who is responsible for what. The core also oversees several committees. These committees include finance, retreat, communication, social, and study groups.

Still, we who are members of the core group realize that running a meditation group is not like running a corporation, a co-op, a community club or even a self-help group. Nor is it the same as a faith community, although a group like ours does share some of the same features of a community that is bonded by spiritual life.

We often refer to our group as a sangha. In the Buddhist tradition, a sangha originally referred to the community of monks and nuns and dharma teachers who were supported by the lay community. As Buddhism has taken hold in the Western world, the meaning of sangha has expanded to include lay groups such as ours — groups that support the practice of the teachings of Buddhism.

Yet, even as a lay sangha, WIMG does not fit the usual mold. Many sanghas have designated guiding teachers — individuals who are trained and recognized as qualified dharma teachers. Our group is peer-led. In practice this means that a few of us with some degree of training have stepped forward to act as practice leaders. As practice leaders, we prepare dharma talks, or read prepared talks, during our sitting sessions, and do our best to guide those who have questions about their practice. 

We take care not to set ourselves up as spiritual authorities, however. In my own case, I have been functioning as a practice leader for close to twenty years. But I am still very much a beginner.

To help guide the group, we are reaching out to recognized Insight Meditation teachers. We envision being able to turn to them as informal advisors and/or mentors.  As a first step, we have invited a senior teacher from Spirit Rock in California — Howie Cohn — to lead a non-residential retreat next November. 

In addition, the core group is also seeking to start or strengthen connections with sanghas in other locations, particularly in Canada. For instance, a  Prairie Sangha consisting of meditation groups in the Prairie provinces is in the early stages of development. There is also the Buddhist Insight Network — Marc has attended past conferences of this American-based network and came back with helpful ideas and contacts.

Another important function of the core group is to manage the dana (donations) we receive. The dana is used to pay for expenses, such as rent, as well as to help ensure that our retreats are affordable for anyone. Practice leaders and core group members do all of their work on a volunteer basis and do not receive any payment. However, there will be expenses when we bring in outside teachers. These teachers rely on dana for their livelihood.

The core group’s other major challenge is to ensure we always have space to meet in. We currently gather at two different locations, which can be challenging. Ideally, we’d like to have our activities take place at one dedicated site. So this is something we are looking toward for the future.

The Winnipeg Insight Meditation Group has been around in various incarnations for more than two decades. It is a growing, evolving entity. The challenge is to grow at the right pace — neither too slow, nor too fast. 

For me, it brings to mind the growth of a plant. A plant “roots and shoots.” Its initial rooting stage takes place out of sight. This is the quiet work of establishing itself so that it has a base for nourishment. This cannot be forced. Once established, the plant shoots above ground and into the sunlight, where it grows into a blade of grass, a sunflower, or a tree. 

As members of a sangha, each of us does the quiet work of rooting ourselves in spiritual practice. As we become established, we collectively rise to the challenges of establishing our dharma practice within a community of spiritual friends. 

I will close with this well-known exchange between Ananda, the Buddha’s attendant, and the Buddha:

When Ananda observed that spiritual friendship (kalyana mittata) must surely be half of the spiritual life, the Buddha replied: “Ananda, you are mistaken. Spiritual friendship is not half the spiritual life; it’s the whole of it.”

Four Sacred Sites of Buddha's Life

by Jeff Newman

In April of 2015 I took a three-month trip to India by myself, partly as a spiritual pilgrimage and also to see the world and have new experiences. These photos represent the four sacred sites of Buddha's life and I will provide a brief description for each.

Picture 1 is Lumbini, Nepal. The building covers the archaeological site determined to be Buddha's birthplace. Buddha's mother Queen Mayadevi gave birth to Siddhartha Gautama in the town of Lumbinivana in 567 BCE. Mayadevi died about a week after Siddhartha's birth and he was raised by his maternal aunt Mahapajapati and his father King Suddhodana. This is a large archeological site and park with the ruins of Buddhist temples verified to date back to  the second century AD.

Picture 2 is the giant Japanese Buddha statue in Bodh Gaya. This statue is 82 feet tall and was built by the Daijokyo Buddhist Temple in 1975, taking seven years to complete. Cameras were not allowed at the sacred Bodhi tree site due to a terrorist attack there in 2013. The Mahabodhi temple complex at the Bodhi tree site is a beautiful monument with numerous temples and gardens. Buddha attained enlightenment there after 49 days of meditation at the age of 35.The sense of peace and spirituality at this place was amazing. I was too excited to have deep concentration while I meditated there, but the realization that Buddha had sat there was incredible.

Picture 3 is Dhamek stupa in the deer park at Sarnath just outside of modern day Varanasi. This site is where Buddha gave the first discourse on the Four Noble Truths after walking 246 km from Bodh Gaya. This monument was built in 249 BCE by King Ashoka, a devout Buddhist, he built another stupa at the same time which was totally destroyed in the 18th century. There are many temples at this site and many archeological discoveries are in the Sarnath museum.There were numerous ancient monasteries at Sarnath, historical records show that 12000 monks lived there in the second century.

Picture 4 is a statue commemorating Buddha's death at the age of 80. The statue was made in the 5th century and was restored in 1956 and the temple was built around it. This temple is located in Kusinigar and is shown in picture 5. Buddha died from food poisoning which was part of an alms offering. In his final teachings in the Maha Paranirvana Sutta, Buddha told his followers to make pilgrimage to these four sites if they wanted to increase their spiritual practices, he also told his followers to remember all things are impermanent and to practice his teachings with diligence.

If you want more information on these sites or on the life of Buddha there's excellent information easily found online.

 

Gulf Meditation

by Barbara Barnett

I walk the beach of the Gulf of Mexico at sunrise, paying attention first to the horizon –ships anchored, waiting to be piloted into the port.  The sky grows rosier. A sliver of sun glows as it slips into my view.  The ships are suddenly shining. 

Light reflects over the sea and shines on the sand as the waves break and recede. 

My attention is drawn closer. I begin to see imprints on the wet sand.
First the human – early morning beach walkers like me

Then the more than human, Laughing Gulls, tiny Sanderlings chasing the waves 

A Great Blue Heron was here, flown before sunrise.

The sun is high enough now to cast shadows, and I see the ever-changing tide line – each shell  shifted by every wave, traces left in the sand.  Grain by grain, imperceptibly creating a new beach. 

What a rich source of reflection for me.  A metaphor for meditation, for moving inward, for the thoughts, the traces they leave as they pass.

It sounds idyllic, and in so many ways it is.  But I came to walk and reflect with the intention of holding a friend who is undergoing major surgery for cancer at the same time that the sun is rising.  I want to bring this beauty to all the challenges that a cancer diagnosis presents.

The ships on the horizon become a symbol for this tension.  They are oil tankers. In another direction I can see drilling platforms.  Only a few years ago the Deep Water Horizon disaster threatened, and continues to threaten to this day, the sentient beings who find their home in the Gulf.

I find a place for metta for myself, for oil companies and executives and workers, for world leaders as they struggle to find a new way of living on this planet, for humans struggling with illness and fear.  And for all beings who find their home in this beautiful complex interconnected world.

I Am Here, I Am Present

by Catherine Sproat – Residential Retreat 2016

The deer and geese out in the field eating and resting during sunset;
I am here, I am present, I am grateful.

The sound of the leaves rustling as the wind blows around them;
I am here, I am present, I am grateful.

The soft hum of the traffic in the distance;
I am here, I am present, I am grateful.

The stars fading in and out as the clouds move along the night sky;
I am here, I am present, I am grateful.

The silhouette of a raccoon running across the path;
I am here, I am present, I am grateful.

The clanging of dishes and cutlery during meal times;
I am here, I am present, I am grateful.

The music sung by a variety of birds as they fly above me and perch in the trees;
I am here, I am present, I am grateful.

The splash of a goose as it lands on the river to the right of me;
I am here, I am present, I am grateful.

The cool breeze touching my face as I walk along the path;
I am here, I am present, I am grateful.

The vibrant colours of the sunrise over the river and landscape:
I am here, I am present, I am truly grateful and blessed!

 

WIMG Summer Walks & Meditation at Fort Whyte Alive

With the end of summer creeping up on us quickly, it’s nice to reflect on the three Fort Whyte Alive walks and meditations that WIMG offered to our Sangha once a month in place of our Sunday sits at Yoga North.

Meditating in a room with other Sangha members is truly a blessing, but being able to sit with members in nature is a gift that only happens a few times a year.

In the Reflection Area, WIMG has a plaque on a bench with our name on it. There are three other benches there and all four face each direction. This gives a lot of space for people to experience the sounds of nature while meditating and enjoying the peacefulness of being in nature.

During each walk and mediation this summer, those who joined us were able to experience the uniqueness of our lovely weather. 

Our first sitting was a rainy day with thunderstorms, so Barbara was able to find a room in the Interpreter Centre for us to sit and meditate that had a window looking out to a garden with bird feeders.

Before the meditation, Barb shared her thoughts on the rain and water, and has allowed me to share them here:

“Rain is our friend” – I remember a Kindergarten teacher on a Field trip to Fort Whyte asking his class in the middle of a downpour what they had learned about rain.

When Marc called at 7:10 on the morning of our June Sangha meditation walk and sit at Fort Whyte, I remembered those words, and the small group of damp children who were not the least bit bothered by the raindrops.

It was the lightning that kept us inside for our first Sangha walk, not the rain.  Before we walked over to the room I had found for our sit, I reflected with the small group about water in our lives. Water is essential to all life.  As humans, we are born on a gush of water, 60% of our body weight is water, we lose water through sweat, through tears, through urination, every time we breathe.  Water reminds us of our interconnectedness with all living beings. To many peoples, water is sacred, to be honoured, to be blessed, to be used in ritual and ceremony. The water that flows in and through our bodies is water that has been on our planet since the beginning.  It has evaporated from oceans, lakes, rivers, streams, formed fog and cloud, fallen again as rain or snow or dew.  It may have been locked for centuries, frozen in a glacier. It has been taken up through the roots of plants, and breathed out through their leaves.

So yes, rain is our friend.  Water is a blessing.

I’m grateful for Marc and Barbara’s efforts and time to put this opportunity out there for not only me, but for everyone to have the chance to participate and experience this part of meditation with Sangha members.

As a reminder, WIMG’s Sunday sittings will resume on September 11th at Yoga North at 10 am. Doors will be open at 9:30 am.

With Loving Kindness,
Catherine Sproat

 

Discovering Our True Nature

On Saturday June 4th, 2016, members of our Sangha were invited to attend a Day of Mindfulness. The theme for the day was “Discovering Our True Nature.”

It was actually a very good theme for the day that personally led me through a lot of my own personal history and reminded me of who I really am. That person I had buried under so many layers over the years, and actually forgot about. Between relationships, family, work, and other events in my life, the layers piled over top of each other and I had a mask for each role I assumed.

Sitting in silence and stillness allowed me to start chiseling away at the layers which started to bring me a better understanding of myself and who I am.

I know everyone’s experience is always different and I think that’s part of the beauty I enjoy the most at the end of the retreats.

I love hearing people share how their day went, the good and the bad and what made the day special for them.

St.B02.jpg

We are all different. We come from all different age groups, social statuses, histories and so much more. Yet we come together on retreats such as this one to practice and share in an experience.

My true nature is who I am and not forgetting to enjoy life and experiences.

This came to light when I was going to take a walk through the woods on a path that was blocked by a large puddle. My first reaction was to turn away and go a different way until two very equally important things reminded me of why I was there.

The first was Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” and the second one was how my 2-year-old grandson would handle this situation. After thinking of those things for a moment, I pulled up my pant legs and walked along the edge of the puddle until I was past it. My feet were soaked, but I was where I wanted to be, and the beauty along that path proved to be worth wet feet. Not only did I feel re-energized and revitalized, I felt the layers start to fall off me at that moment.

Not only did I learn more about my true nature, I was given the opportunity to see how others were doing with discovering that for themselves.

We’re philosophers, teachers, parents, co-workers, vets, retired, writers, photographers, students and many other things, but most importantly, we are spiritual friends and we get to share these experiences in a safe and supportive environment whether it’s on a retreat or during a sitting.

Personally I would love to see more of these retreats, but for now I’ll continue to be grateful for the ones that the WIMG puts on and that I can attend.

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Nelle, Marc, Amy, Bruce and Jillian for making this silent retreat a positive experience for me and hopefully for the other Sangha members who joined us on this day.

With Loving Kindness,
Catherine Sproat

Metta

by James McBride

“May all beings be safe and free from suffering. May all beings be well. May all beings be happy.”

In a recent Sunday morning sitting, during Kurt’s teaching focused on Metta, a thought occurred to me. I talked about it briefly during the discussion period and mentioned the documentary film, Cowspiracy, that Andre´ told me about last year. I would like to elaborate.

Metta meditation does not generate ethereal pulses of energy which directly affect external circumstances or beings. Metta or loving kindness meditation or the development of benevolence, the strong wish for the happiness of others, does result in personal health benefits and an increase in social connectedness as well as indirect benefits to others as a result of the meditator’s increase in empathy and caring. However, sitting there that Sunday morning after having shared the opportunity to hold another being with my eyes, it occurred to me that there is a significant and more concrete form of Metta that we could be radiating to all sentient beings – the reduction and elimination of support for the animal agricultural industry.

There are many reasons why animal agriculture causes suffering. First, according to a UN report, animal agriculture is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gases compared to transportation sources (all cars, trucks, buses, trains, ships, planes and so on) of 13%. Some other studies taking into account the loss of carbon sinks put the figure much higher than 18%, some close to 50%. Second, animal agriculture results in severe water depletion and water pollution as well as soil depletion and a stress on land use resulting in the destruction of rainforest and other forests. Third, animal agriculture has contributed greatly to social injustice and global inequality and extreme and selective consumerism that has been labelled “environmental terrorism.” Fourth, the animal agriculture industry treats animals horrendously, so badly that it is estimated that close to 80% of all antibiotics produced are fed to industry animals in order for them to survive their treatment and living conditions. It is also reported that Prozac has been added to their feed to numb them in order to deal with the extreme suffering and stress. Finally, it is well established that reliance on animal products for our nutrition has led to increased morbidity, heart attacks and strokes.

What can we do in addition to developing caring and compassion on the cushion? It seems to me that we should stop and be mindful, see things clearly, make an effort to inform ourselves about animal agriculture. “It’s like this now.” Then we should do what we can, given our life circumstances, to reduce and eliminate support for it as well as spreading the news, the Dharma of agriculture.

There are lots of articles and videos online that examine the impact of animal agriculture. The YouTube video of Chris Hedges interviewing the co-directors of Cowspiracy is informative. This is a link to the trailer of the documentary film itself. This is a link to a European documentary, The Meat File, which also discusses the issues.

There are some who dispute these claims or specific details. It is a controversial matter and a lot of energy has gone into downplaying the impact that animal agriculture has had including Ag-Gag laws squelching reporting of the atrocities of the animal agriculture industry. If you have the stomach for it, watch the film, Farm to Fridge.

So, what can we do to reduce and eliminate support for the animal agriculture industry given our life circumstances? What can we do while maintaining a gentle regard for ourselves keeping in mind our circles of concern and circles of influence? “May we be well and free from suffering.”  I started down the path about four years ago after watching the documentary, Forks Over Knives, and then buying the cookbook that resulted from the film.

As revealed in Cowspiracy, environmental groups have shown reluctance to even acknowledge a problem let alone address it for fear of alienating patrons who have strong meat and dairy food habits. Let’s not turn away from it. With Mindfulness (sati) and Clear Comprehension (sampajanna) of Purpose, we can set out on a path of transition to a plant based diet, gradual or abrupt, leading to reducing animal and dairy food products and eating vegetarian or vegan.

May our hearts open and love awaken for all sentient beings. May all beings be safe and free from suffering. May all beings be well. May all beings be happy.

Spring

With the warmer weather, it’s nice to finally be able to go outside and enjoy the sounds of nature and fresh air.

Last year, Winnipeg Insight Meditation Group donated money to have our name installed on a plaque for a bench at Fort Whyte Alive in the Reflection area as well as on a commemorative brick in the Carol Shields’ Memorial Labyrinth at King’s Park.

 

Fort Whyte Alive Reflection Area

“Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.”

Quoted from the poem “The Messenger” by Mary Oliver
Which appears in Thirst: Poems by Mary Oliver, 2007.

 

Reflection Area at Fort Whyte Alive

 

WIMG Plaque in Reflection Area

 

Mourning Dove at Fort Whyte Alive

 

Tree House @ Fort Whyte Alive

 

Carol Shields’ Labyrinth at King’s Park

Entrance to King’s Park

 

WIMG Commemorative Brick

 

Carol Shields’ Sign

 

Beauty at King’s Park

 

Carol Shields’ Memorial Labyrinth

 

With our Sunday sittings ending soon, WIMG is looking at having a few Sunday walks and mediations at both Fort Whyte and King’s Park during the summer.

Please watch for details on these walks and other upcoming group events to continue to bring our Sangha together in the wonderful outdoors with nature and friendship.

On behalf of WIMG,
With Metta,

Catherine Sproat  

 

It is better to travel well than to arrive.

- Buddha

From time to time individuals from our Sangha take time to travel to different countries. Currently, Sangha practitioner Barb Read is traveling throughout India. Barb has graciously sent some photos of her time there.
 
Barb’s travels are not over and we do hope that when she returns, she’ll share more of her experience and photos with us.

Tongsa Gumpa 1678

Tongsa Gumpa 1678

Tongsa Gumpa interior

Tongsa Gumpa interior

Snippet of Kalimpong

Snippet of Kalimpong

Typical transportation

Typical transportation

Kalimpong

Kalimpong

Kalimpong

Kalimpong

Thank you so much Barbara for sharing these beautiful photos with us. We wish you a safe trip as your adventure continues!

With Loving-Kindness,
WIMG  

Profile of Practice Leader Kurt Schwarz

WHAT LED YOU TO STUDYING AND PRACTICING BUDDHISM AND VIPASSANA MEDITATION?

I was first introduced to Buddhist meditation as a development in my personal spiritual practice after having studied hatha yoga.  Having developed flexibility and awareness in order to sit comfortably on the floor for extended periods of time following my breath, I turned to Buddhist-oriented meditation to help calm and still my mind.  I have written about this journey extensively over the past few years and have self-published a personal, spiritual memoir on this topic entitled, Moving into Stillness:  On Finding Meaningful Activities that Nurture and Sustain the Inner Life. (Available through McNally-Robinson Booksellers, 2015)

As I recount, my earliest Buddhist experience was with a Zen teacher who was from South Korea.  I learned some simple chants as well as the importance of a solid seated posture when practicing meditation.  These elements are still with me today after more than 20 years of practice.

I made a conscious shift in my practice after a conversation with a Zen teacher, Ed Espe Brown, who encouraged me to explore the mindfulness meditation tradition.  He said that it was more “user-friendly” and more readily accepted by students in the West.

HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN PRACTICING THIS FORM OF MEDITATION?

I have been practicing Insight Meditation for the past 20 years.  I have a strong interest in exploring the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha) and have read books from a wide variety of traditions although I have always come back to Insight Meditation as my core teaching.  The writings of Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, and Sharon Salzburg have been the foundations which have profoundly influenced my practice.  I look to Thich Nhat Hahn and Pema Chodron for additional encouragement and guidance in my practice of meditation.

WHO HAS BEEN YOUR MAIN MENTOR WHILE ON THIS PATH?

While the student-teacher relationship is traditional in Buddhism, I consider myself to be largely self-taught.  There have been some teachers.  For example, Steven Hick from Ottawa was a guide during a two year, Dharma study program that I participated in.

The Buddha, himself, emphasized that we are to be “a light unto one’s own self”.  The teachings of the Buddha have helped me to turn to my own self for the inspiration and the guidance that I need.  This has been a helpful teaching which has taught me to be self-reliant rather than seeking the approval of an external authority.

WHERE HAVE YOU GONE ON RETREATS, AS WELL AS STUDYING THE DHARMA?

I have participated in several silent, one week retreats in conjunction with the two year, Dharma study course that I took with Steven Hick. These were held in various retreat centers around Winnipeg.  

In 2009, I had the opportunity to travel to San Francisco where I participated in a three day Sesshin (intensive meditation retreat) at the San Francisco Zen Centre.  It was an amazing experience to practice at the centre founded by Suzuki Roshi, a Zen Master who helped to establish Buddhist practice in the West.

I enjoy visiting other Buddhist meditation groups when I am travelling.  I have visited other Buddhist meditation groups in Toronto, Chicago and New York.  Recently, I was able to visit Plum Village, a monastic community and retreat center located in Southwest France.

HOW HAS THIS PRACTICE CHANGED YOUR LIFE AND LIFE PATH? RELATIONSHIPS?

I would say that the greatest effect on my life has been in the way I have learned how to live in a calmer, more grounded way. The practice has taught me the importance of pauses or gaps before action rather than unconsciously reacting to things. I am a more responsive participant in life.  (My wife, Leona, would say that I still have a way to go!)

WHAT OTHER FORMS OF PRACTICE, OR MEDITATION, HAVE HELPED YOU GET TO WHERE YOU ARE TODAY?

I began my training and development in the Christian tradition. I am an ordained minister. I have also had postgraduate training in the fields of pastoral psychotherapy and chaplaincy training.  Over the years, I have turned to yoga and Buddhist-oriented meditation to supplement and support my spiritual, care-giving work.  My areas of specialization are in mental health, as well as in addictions.

HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN PROVIDING LEADERSHIP WITH THE WIMG?

I got involved with the Winnipeg Insight Meditation Group shortly after we moved back to Manitoba from Toronto in 2003.  After a while, I became interested in exploring the Dharma with others, so I started the Dharma Study Group, a book group focused on reading Buddhist-oriented Dharma books.  

I have been offering Dharma talks and leading meditation in our group for the past 8 years.  I consider it a privilege and an honour.

CAN YOU DESCRIBE THE TRANSITIONS THAT WIMG HAS GONE THROUGH?

While I am not a founding member of WIMG, I have witnessed several transitions.  These transitions have been mainly related to moving with Yoga North as they have moved to various locations in Winnipeg.  With each move, there have been some necessary adjustments to the new physical structure of the buildings and areas of the city.  After having made several moves with Yoga North, I feel happy to be at their current location in the Wolseley area.  It feels like “home” to me.  I am also happy that we have been able to expand our practiceto St. Peter’s Anglican Church which has been the WIMG home for Wednesday night sittings.  

WHAT ARE YOUR VISIONS AND DREAMS FOR THE FUTURE OF WIMG?

Over the past four years, our membership has grown, particularly as a result of adding the Wednesday sitting at St Peter’s.  My vision or dream, while perhaps a modest one, is for a stronger connection amongst group members.

I would like to see more opportunities for members to interact and get to know one another, events like nature walks and Winnipeg’s Peace Days Celebration.   We have already created more opportunities to practice together in Days of Mindfulness and silent three-day retreats.  I trust that we will continue to offer these retreats where we can learn and grow together.

ARE THERE ANY ADDITIONAL COMMENTS YOU’D LIKE TO ADD ABOUT YOUR PRACTICE AND WIMG?

I enjoy visiting art galleries and I have led evenings of Meditating with Art for our meditation group several times.  Sometimes I find an opportunity to "sit" and contemplate a piece of art.  Once while doing that, a security person came up to me and asked me what I was doing and if I was "okay".  "Yes", I replied, "I enjoy sitting with the art". 

A personal highlight was when I happened to see a performance art piece at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art by Marina Abrahmovic called The Artist is Present.  In this challenging work, she sat at a table and invited members of the audience to come and sit with her.  She was there for the entire day for a three month exhibition period!

Profile of Practice Leader: Thomas Steur

What led you to study and practise Buddhism and Vipassana Meditation?

Curiously enough, I think it was a book my father left lying around when I was in university and doing everything I could to avoid studying. It was Betty Edwards’ Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, still a classic text not only for drawing but for spurring creativity in general, and it kept mentioning something called “Zen” and an author named Frederick Franck and his book, The Zen of Seeing. For years afterward I kept drawing and painting and trying to connect these practices with a nascent curiosity about Zen and meditation and so on.

Robert M. Pirsig’s 1974 opus, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, was a major inspiration to me then too although I’m only now appreciating the profound things that man came up with way back then. I really didn’t have a clue what it was all about in those days – this was before the Internet and before McNally Robinson’s – so it is interesting now to reflect back on my early experiences and to pick out the seeds of what I know and do now. I encourage anyone to try this with your own life: What did you used to do, and think, and tell yourself, that turned out to be solid and true and the right path for you?

How long have you been practising this form of meditation?

My explorations without guidance led me to a brief involvement with a group who practised in a Vajrayana tradition, but I could feel that it wasn’t right for me so I respectfully dropped out. It’s a terrible cliché that “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear”, but that’s exactly how it happened many years later.

I had a major change in my life circumstances and suddenly found myself living alone and feeling lonely and sad with only two self-serving misbegotten cats for company. A new friend I’d made introduced me to the group which met at the Yoga Centre Winnipeg, and I started attending regularly. For months, I sat at the back, didn’t ask questions, and didn’t talk to anyone. And still I felt welcomed, and this habit of practising mindfulness took root and began to grow. There was no pressure to be anything or do anything. I hope our group still feels that way to anyone feeling small and perhaps in similar circumstances.  

Who has been your main mentor while on this path?  Other mentors?

Like Nelle, whom I met way back then, I learned the most from the man who started what is now the WIMG. And I learn lots from my fellow Dharma practice leaders and discussions with people in the group. And then there’s just life itself – family, friends, and clients. I learn so much from my work with my clients!

Where have you gone on retreats or places for studying the Dharma?

I do not have time, at this stage in my life, to attend retreats although I’ve been to some Day of Mindfulness retreats from which I’ve derived great benefit. I consider my family and my housework and my dishes part of my practice (ha-ha!).

How has this practice changed your life and life path? Relationships?

That’s hard to answer because we only live life forwards and only once, and that makes for lousy research with a very small sample size! All I can say is that I feel a solid, unshakable foundation in the Dharma, a tremendous sense of community in our little Sangha, and a deep peace in my knowledge of the Buddha. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I guess I could also say that when others are troubled, I am confident that I have something real to offer in terms of listening, compassion, humour, and perspective.

What other forms of practice or meditation have helped you get to where you are today

Yeah. Dishes. Walking with my dog, letting him walk me. Running and bicycling. Reading lots and doing research. Everything I learn in public health epidemiology, psychology and neurology, and any valid school of therapy confirms the Dharma teachings over and over again. This practice is so rooted in good science; for something so ancient, it is really the most remarkable human achievement. So after a while you start to see the Buddha’s teachings, and sometimes even the Buddha-nature, in everything!

What are your visions and dreams for the future of WIMG?

I really don’t know! We have excellent leadership happening organically in the group now, and I cannot see where it will all lead. But I don’t want to ever lose the sense of close connection that (I hope!) we have, and I would like anyone who doesn’t feel that we’re living up to the feeling of a Sangha to tell us. We’ll listen.

And like I said above, I hope that anyone who feels the way I did 20 years ago feels welcome to just come and take it in – no pressure, no commitment, and no sell job. Each of us can walk the path in our own way at our own speed. I’m not such a quick study myself.

Is there any other question that you’d like to answer as well? What do you think is the most important thing that people need to know about Insight Meditation?

I feel the most important thing is to clear up the myths and misconceptions about mindfulness meditation that may be out there.

Meditation will not make us levitate. Teachers do not give off light rays. We do not cure cancer. We who practice this path have our hurts and failings, and we suffer just like anyone else.

The essence of what I’ve gained thus far, really, is just a way of making sense of life’s unfairness and its paradoxes. It is something truly grand to inspire and guide me, but which I know I’ll never completely live up to. However, the joy is in the trying. In trying, we must be humble, flexible, and forgiving; trying too hard doesn’t work! The practice fosters goodwill, humour, compassion, irony, and love – that’s all! – no miracles.

Day of Mindfulness

On January 2nd, WIMG held its annual Day of Mindfulness with the theme of ‘Loving-Kindness’ (metta) at St. Peter’s Anglican Church from 8:30 am to 4:00 pm.

I always find this silent retreat a wonderful way to end the previous year and start the new year.  It’s nice to share this experience with other members in a safe environment, under the guidance of our practice leaders.

When I tell people I’m doing this or any retreat, their reactions are funny. Most think they could never be silent for that long, that it would be way too hard for them to accomplish. The thing I've found is, it’s not that hard. If I look at how often I’m in silence during the day (when I’m at home, at the lake, meditating, going for walks or on a photography adventure), I’m in silence. Even at work, when things are chaotic, I wish for silence and will take five minutes or use one of my breaks to be in silence. Silence just takes practice and an awareness of when you need to recharge.

Loving-kindness practice is about showing compassion to others and to yourself. It teaches us to see others in a different light. Instead of being judgmental toward those we barely know, those we just don't seem to get along with and even those who have caused us harm, this practice teaches us to wish them well.

It starts with ourselves and moves on to:

  • a respected, beloved person - such as a spiritual teacher;
  • a dearly beloved - which could be a close family member or friend;
  • a neutral person - somebody you know, but have no special feelings towards, e.g. a person who serves you in a shop;
  • a hostile person - someone you are currently having difficulty with.

I was fortunate because it was very easy for me to find a name or face of someone I know to fill each of those spots and to send loving-kindness to them with ease. I think, for the most part, it’s because I have been working on forgiveness (forgiving myself and others) as a daily personal practice for a while now.

This personal journey I’m on has had its ups and downs, but I see how far I’ve come in the last few years and know that my life has been enriched by these retreats and practices.

I hope others who have not taken part in WIMG’s retreats or Days of Mindfulness will look at attending at least one to see how it goes and to enrich their meditation practice. The experience is one that you can reflect on and go back to. And sharing the experience with other members of the Sangha in a safe environment is truly something I am grateful for.

I would like to thank Marc, Nelle, Bruce, Amy and Jillian for organizing this special event and for making it a peaceful and wonderful day!

With Loving-Kindness,
Catherine Sproat

Beginning Once Again

It’s the start of a new year, and many things come to mind.  Rather than a time for making resolutions, I think of it as a time for reflection, a time to think about the path of personal growth and change I have been following, things that I have started, things that have been accomplished, things that still need attention.

In the past few weeks, I have been looking again at the entries in Expressions, our newsletter and now, blog.  They have reminded me how wonderful it is to be part of WIMG where there is support and friendship and, most of all, where we can feel safe. I took on the role as editor of Expressions because I saw it as an opportunity to encourage us all to participate in building and strengthening our Sangha, our community.

I am grateful to WIMG for the opportunity we have to share our views and thoughts about our practices.  I am thankful for all the friends I’ve made and for the mentors who support us in our practices and answer questions about Buddhism and Vipassana Meditation.  I have enjoyed writing reports of WIMG activities and events such as the Sunday to Fort Whyte, Peace Days and retreats and looking at photographs and drawings and reading prose poems and profiles and commentaries.

I encourage everyone to look at our Expressions Blog again.  Read the articles from the first to the last and see how WIMG has evolved over the past year.  Also, think about what you might be interested in sharing such as photographs or drawings or by writing something, a poem perhaps or something that resonates with you about your practice.

May we all be open-hearted and inspired as this new year unfolds.

With Loving Kindness,
Catherine Sproat

List of readings on the Expressions Blog:

Sitting With a Sutta by Marc Forest
Question and Answer #1
Enso by Kurt Schwarz
Mindfulness and Photography by Catherine Sproat
Expression of Gratitude to WIMG
Tree Spirit Walk by Catherine Sproat
The Buddha’s Smile by James McBride
Profile of Practice Leader: Nelle Oosterom
Mindful Walk and Meditation at Fort Whyte Alive by Catherine Sproat
The Question by Bill
Carol Shields Labyrinth and Brick Installation Event by Catherine Sproat
Keeping Up With the Joneses by Catherine Sproat
Peace Days by Catherine Sproat
Residential Retreat 2015 by Catherine Sproat
Mindfulness in the Woodpile by Barbara Barnett
Alone Together by James McBride

Alone Together

by James McBride

“The necessary thing is after all but this; solitude, great inner solitude. Going into oneself for hours meeting no one – this, one must be able to attain.” 
― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

I’m glad that Sunday sittings have begun again. There is something about mornings. I look forward to solitary walks along a still slightly wild stretch of the river listening for leaves falling to the ground on the winding dirt path through the Cottonwoods whispering goodbye to summer and welcoming autumn and, soon, winter. Then across Sherbrook and Maryland, then along Westminster to Yoga North to WIMG where I can be alone together with others.

It was midway through my first long retreat many years ago that I realized how much I enjoyed being with others without feeling it necessary to talk. Walking, eating, and sitting in silence, shoulder to shoulder rather than eye to eye, became strangely comfortable.

In that sanctuary of solitude, as concentration grew stronger, my relationship with things around me started to change. I remember the delight I experienced one morning holding a cup of tea. The shape of the cup. The weight of it. The smoothness of the cup’s surface and the warmth. The aroma. I sat there for some time with those utterly amazing yet completely ordinary sensations.

Our sitting practice is a portal into that sanctuary of solitude. As Norman Fischer says in Aloneness and Togetherness, “We enter into a true solitude which means we go beyond the usual idea of self and our personal need, and in that true solitude we realize that we’re not alone or lonely because when we find ourselves at our deepest core, we find everything. When we learn how to be intimate with ourselves, completely accepting the whole of ourselves, we’re intimate with everything.”

I’m glad that Sunday sittings have begun again

Mindfulness in the Woodpile

by Barbara Barnett

I came to the retreat with a mind very much like the leaves being blown every which way in that strong warm wind.  It was hard to settle.

I had learned an exercise in contemplative photography from a good friend, a professional photographer and longtime Insight Meditation practitioner.  Take your camera out, be still, and wait to see what calls you.  Then stay, stay for an hour or so, and see what emerges.

I took my camera out on Saturday morning.  The woodpile called me to see what I was seeing. Stillness in the midst of that wild warm wind.

I was drawn first by the texture of the bark – but as I paid attention I could see whole worlds, landscapes, textures, colours.

And in the midst of that beautiful hypnotizing richness, I saw surprises.

This little beauty would soon be blown on her way.

But this one had been here for awhile.

And this one for even longer, living on the bark, long before the tree had been cut down.

And who knew what beings had found their home, deep in this ancient trunk, leaving traces of their passing.

This tree had grown for more than 130 years before it was cut down.  I could see the years of drought, the years of rainfall, and the traces of another being.

Just a woodpile – a time of stillness, of seeing what I was seeing, of seeing more than I believed it was possible to see. And since then, a time of reflection.  These words from All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, wandered into my mind. He is writing about coal, but shifting the time frame, and the substance, the concept still opens the mind and the heart in wonder at the interconnectedness  and impermanence of all beings.

Consider a single piece glowing in your family’s stove.....that chunk of coal was once a green plant, a fern or reed that lived one million years ago,.....or maybe one hundred million.....Every summer for the whole life of that plant, its leaves caught what light they could and transformed the sun’s energy into itself. Into bark, twigs stems.  Because plants eat light, in much the same way we eat food.  But then the plant died and fell, probably into water, and decayed into peat, and the peat was folded inside the earth for years upon years – eons in which something like a month or a decade or even your whole life was just a puff of air, a snap of two fingers.  And eventually the peat dried and became like stone, and someone dug it up, and the coal man brought it to your house and maybe you yourself carried it to the stove, and now that sunlight – sunlight one hundred million years old – is heating your home tonight.

What an insight to hold when you are seated by the bonfire, fed by that tree.

Barbara Barnett

Residential Retreat 2015

by Catherine Sproat

I don’t need to do a write-up after each WIMG event, but felt it would be truly out of character for me to not at least acknowledge this wonderful weekend retreat in some way.

The thing is, it was a very hard retreat for me this time around. Although I felt more grounded and calm, I was still in flux and heading back to the things that put me into that emotional and mental space in my life. It was a hard retreat, but I know that I got something out it. When we’re on retreat, whether it’s for day or a weekend, even if we don’t feel we are learning something, we are. Like every day when we practice, we are learning about ourselves and about finding ways to handle everyday situations. We are learning the Dharma and how to practice it in our daily lives.

Just after I left St. Benedict’s and turned south on Highway 9, a small (about the size of a dime), white-coloured spider appeared on my windshield. Pretty normal some would think, except for the fact it was inside my car, not on the outside. It danced on the windshield in front of me and not on the passenger side as I wished. Normally my first reaction would be to yell out something not so full of loving kindness and pull over quickly. But going at a speed of about 70 km per hour, my ‘normal’ options were the last thing on my mind. I quickly made peace with the spider that appeared to want to entertain me while I was driving. I had my window open a bit and just told it that I was driving so it had to behave or leave. I focused my attention on driving safely so I could make it home in one piece to see my dog that was waiting for me. I remembered people talking about the mosquitoes during our sharing circle and how in our precepts we said we wouldn’t harm anything or anyone. This spider didn’t seem to have been in the room during our talks! It started swaying around the windshield, getting closer to me. At this point I told it that I had enough so it was time to leave. Just as if it understood me, it swung across to my open window and left. I quickly closed my window and wished it well!

Thinking about the retreat, I’m reminded of the Breakfast Club. How a group of students from different ‘cliques’ and upbringings came together for a day and how they ended up relating to each other and finding a common ground. To me that’s what it felt like this time on retreat. There were many new faces and many old friends. We were there for the same reason, but different reasons brought us together for the weekend. Twenty-five people of all ages, came together from different backgrounds and social statuses, all with the need to sit, reflect, to find stillness, and to find bare awareness in silence. Nothing could be more beautiful than that. Hearing everyone’s experiences from the weekend was also very beautiful, and I’m glad to have been a part of all of it.

As usual, St. Benedict’s treated us with respect and the meals were fantastic (especially since we didn’t have to prepare them!). The grounds are amazing with nature right outside the walls of the Retreat Centre. Retreat members found lots to do while doing their walking meditations, inside and outside of the centre. Some found a hammock by the river, others found themselves walking the labyrinth or walking through the woods.  Others found trees to sit under to journal and reflect. Inside, the art room and peace room were available at all hours, so some people spent time in those rooms as well. Kurt offered yoga stretches in the mornings before our first sittings and he guided us through ‘mindful movements’ on Saturday after lunch. There were so many things to do, just to ‘be’ in the moment that it’s hard to remember them all, and what I saw, felt, heard, and tasted is different from everyone else’s experience this weekend.

Now it’s back to life as it was before the retreat. One thing I noticed since I’ve been home is that I’m still relaxed and still preferring silence. I’m reminded of the words which were mentioned on the retreat during a Dharma talk, “No mud, no Lotus.” I will use those words in my meditation for a while as they show hope and beauty to me.

A deep bow of gratitude to Marc, Kurt, Nelle and Amy for making this a safe, peaceful and respectful weekend for everyone who attended.  

Love and kindness,
Catherine Sproat