Open Practice: Fierce Compassion

may you be happy and peaceful

Last week I attended a two-day weekend retreat led by Sharon Salzberg at Nalanda West via Seattle Insight Meditation Society (SIMS). The theme for the weekend was “fierce compassion”. It was my first time to attend a two-day retreat. It was also my first time to sit with one of the pioneers who popularized vipassana and metta Buddhist meditations here in the West.

I had no idea how the retreat would be structured. I also had no idea on Sharon’s style of teaching. I just knew she’s popular in the Buddhist circle and she authored a number of books. I haven’t read any of her books, but I’m aware that her dharma style is “metta” (or lovingkindness) meditation. To be honest, I’m not the metta kind of guy. I’m more of hardcore-intellectual-gung-ho type when it comes to meditation practice. And that’s exactly the reason why I attended the retreat: To balance the “head” and the “heart.”

When I first saw Sharon Salzberg she striked me as very ordinary. She’s like a motherly figure who smiles a lot. Her dharma talks were not structured and non-technical. Sometimes she would use some Buddhist (Sanskrit or Pali) terminologies but most of the time she just used plain English when answering questions from the audience. Her talks and techniques centered around her specialty: lovingkindness meditation. So it’s no surprise to me that most attendees were women (about 90-95%). Go figure 🙂

Sharon drew a lot of examples from her life experiences during the dharma talks. She was very down to earth. She seemed very honest in answering questions and sharing her own stories (including stories about her friends, Jack Kornfield, and Joseph Goldstein). She talked about how compassion doesn’t mean saying “yes” all the time. She expounded on the four Brahmaviharas (or the Four Immeasurables)–lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. I like her discussion of the extreme and near-enemies of those four virtues.

Sharon didn’t make any grand claims when it comes to practice. She didn’t promise that the practice will bring about “enlightenment.” In fact, she didn’t even talk about enlightenment at all, aside from a passing mention. I felt a mixed feeling about it. I don’t think that Sharon is intentionally watering down the dharma. She was just responding to the questions from the audience. Most of the questions were about how to apply compassion and use lovingkindness practice to deal with other people, one’s psychological baggage, and life in general. In short, how to apply Buddhist practice as a psychological coping mechanism. Nothing wrong with that. But as a hardcore practitioner I think this is a limited view of Buddhist practice. For me, Buddhist meditation practice is first and foremost a liberation-oriented technology. The psychological benefits are side-effects. Those side-effects are more than welcome, but they’re side-effects nonetheless.

During the retreat I wanted to ask Sharon what her definition of “enlightenment” is, how her experience of  “classical” enlightenment changed her life, and how she relates to the concept of enlightenment nowadays. But I chickened out. Those are rhetorical questions, by the way. I wanted to hear her answer it in front of an audience. Maybe next time I attend her retreat.

The two-day retreat was structured like this:

1) About 20 minutes of guided sitting meditation.

2) Dharma talks and Q&A.

3) Walking meditation — People could walk outside the building around the neighborhood (as long as they look “normal” and not walk like zombies in slow motion so as not to freak out the neighbors). For those who prefer the traditional slow walking meditation, they could do it inside the building or at the back of the compound. I did my walking meditation around the neighborhood.

In the spirit of Open Practice, I tweeted during retreat (but only during breaks and before actual meditation practice begins). I didn’t break the  rule of “silence” because I didn’t talk during the retreat. There was no specific rule on tweeting anyway 😉 Below are some of my tweets:

silent walking meditation… touch, sight, sound, tweet… #openpractice http://yfrog.com/7e1c1j [10:08 AM Jul 25th]

lovingkindness walking meditation… may I be happy, may I be peaceful… may you be happy, may you be peaceful… #openpractice [2:38 PM Jul 25th]

stereotype for Western #Buddhism holds. people in the retreat are mostly middle-aged white people, mostly women. #openpractice [8:40 AM Jul 26th]

retreat about to start… i’m using a chair today. my lower back hurts on the mat. tweeting=off; concentration/equanimity=on #openpractice [8:56 AM Jul 26th]

while doing lovingkindness meditation on all sentient beings, for a brief moment I felt a subtle expansive flow of awareness #openpractice [12:18 PM Jul 26th]

for those wondering why I’m tweeting during a meditation retreat, my tweets are also my notes. i don’t call it #openpractice for nothing. [12:38 PM Jul 26th]

#coat4d: equanimity = wisdom of not being in control ~Sharon Salzberg #openpractice #vipassana [2:02 PM Jul 26th]

here’s a flower ~ may you be safe, be happy, be healthy, and live with ease… #openpractice http://yfrog.com/7h3nzj [2:53 PM Jul 26th]

All in all, I find the retreat rejuvenating and insightful. I’ve learned a lot in terms of lovingkindness meditation. To sum it up: Lovingkindness meditation is a specific practice for increasing one’s circle of compassion and care–from oneself, to family, to friends, to all humanity, and to all sentient beings. (In Integral lingo, this is an exercise in increasing compassion and care from egocentric, to ethnocentric, to worldcentric, and to kosmocentric.)

Although lovingkindness is not my main practice, I’m now including it on my list of practices. I now use the practice regularly when not in formal sitting. For example, when I’m walking around or driving on the freeway, I look at people and I recite the lovingkindness mantra in my head. This reminds me that, enlightenment or no enlightenment, every sentient being just wants to be happy.

So to all of you who are reading this at this very moment: May you be safe, be happy, be healthy, and live with ease.

P.S. After Sharon Salzberg’s Friday night talk prior to the retreat, I met a Twitter friend in person who also attended the talk. She’s a yoga teacher named Nikki, and also a kindred Shinzen Young geek who goes by the Twitter id @dragonc. We had a good conversation about practice and some of our common interests. She’s cool, hip, upbeat, and geeky. So if you see her on Twitter, drop by and say hi.

P.P.S. Here’s a video of Sharon Salzberg’s Friday dharma talk (via SIMS beta site. Thanks, Alden!)

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