Volume 13, Number 3 - Fall 2005


Letter from Barbara
On Viveka: Just Put Your Feet Down

From the Board President
Corty Cammann

Dana for Barbara

Progression of Practice
Barbara Brodsky

Kalayana Mitra (Spiritual Friends) Groups Forming

Opening Talk, Emerald Isle Retreat
April 24, 2005

Support Practices
Emerald Isle Retreat
Monday, April 25, 2005

Working with Difficult Experiences
Barbara Brodsky

Alice Britt

Aaron Quote

Letter from Barbara
On Viveka: Just Put Your Feet Down
Summer 2005

Dear friends,

Many years ago I swam in a fast-flowing river, jumping off high rocks beside a waterfall into the turbulent pool below. There the wild water caught me and pulled me quickly downstream, where the water became shallow and quiet. Each time I jumped I was tossed by the current, part of the fun of the ride. But I would become disoriented because I have no inner ear balance, and fear would come. Then Aaron said to me, "Just put your feet down." I did so, and stood up easily in the waist-deep, swirling water. This advice has been timely in many situations, and has become a key phrase for me this year.

I've been riding the waters of a turbulent stream of body changes this year, though no more wild a ride than many of us experience. When I last wrote, I reported improving vision. Since then, necessary laser surgery by the retinal specialist set the right eye vision all the way back to 20/200. Now it's slowly returning.

It's so easy to get caught in a cycle of hope and despair. I can see; I can't see; I can see again; I can't see again. Then I'm caught in the swirling waters of a hope-despair stream. When I "put my feet down," I come back to this moment. The "better/worse" cycle is relative. Is my vision as good as it was when I was three years old? Is it better or worse than it was yesterday? Will it be better tomorrow? All these questions have nothing to do with the fact that, in this moment, I can see the multi-hued green forest around my cabin, the blue lake glinting through the foliage, and the red flame of the nearly setting sun. It's exquisite, though certainly different in appearance than it was last year, or even last night. Everything changes. Why should I expect this view not to change?

In April there were no leaves. The lake was laid clearly before me, to the hills across the way. Do I long for that view to return? Certainly it will when winter comes! For now it's green everywhere, carrying its own perfection! Last month before the laser surgery the vision had more detail. Perhaps it will again. But for now, it is just as it is, and also perfect, soft and with colors blending. Is there a "right" way to see the scene?

When vision is dark, little color or form coming through, I put my feet down into the solidity of this moment. What is the direct experience of that dimness? In this moment as it is, there's no suffering. Despair that vision will never improve and hope that tomorrow it will be "better" both bring suffering because they take me from appreciation of the Now. In this moment the eyes see a lightness that was never seen before, allowed by the lack of detail. And if there were no lightness? Then that would be the experience of the moment, just as it is.

I've been learning how to do this putting down of the feet, resting in the moment, and still attend to what must be attended to. Learning to care for this body, these eyes, in this Now, and from a place of love rather than fear, teaches me also to attend to everything in life in that way. This is the "Right Effort" of the Eightfold Path. We can't just say nothing matters. We must take action. But so often fear is the habitual motivator for action. We act to make something happen, or to prevent its happening. Then we're out of the moment.

I just put in the eye drops I must use twice a day. Why put them in if the vision is "perfect"? If I use them because the retinal specialist says that pressure will create blindness without them, each time I put them in I practice fear. I move into a "what could happen" story. If I refuse to use them I'm in denial about relative reality. But kindness can put the drop into the eye with no thought of past or future, just the way I drink water when the body feels thirst without creating a story that I'm preventing an untimely death from lack of moisture. When inserted in this way, there is only this moment. The past and future are stories. The drop is inserted and the eye appreciates it the way the parched throat is grateful for the water. Body consciousness may not be developed enough to feel the eye's gratitude; then again, it may be thus felt. But it is an act of kindness from emptiness, not an act of fear from the small self.

It isn't easy to rest in this emptiness. Fear's stories come; they visit often. The practice has been to learn to know fear as fear and to choose not to entertain the stories. There's a wonderful teaching story about the Tibetan saint, Milarepa. He was meditating at the mouth of his cave when the demons of fear, greed and anger appeared. They were hideous, with shredded flesh hanging from the bones, gore dripping out through open wounds. They had a foul stench. They dangled bloody knives and swords. Milarepa looked up and said, "I've been expecting you. Come and sit by my fire. Have tea." "Aren't you afraid of us?" they asked. "No," he replied. "Your hideous appearance only reminds me to be aware, to have mercy. Sit by my fire and have tea."

Thus we invite our demons in for tea. Fear does come to visit regularly! But please note that while Milarepa seats them by the fire, he doesn't have to get into a dialogue with them. In the same way, while fear comes, I don't get drawn into the stories, at least not too often!

Vipassana practice is the greatest help. Through practice we invite viveka, usually defined as seclusion. This is an incomplete definition. Viveka deepens as non-attachment, allowing a larger perspective. It is the stepping back, with kindness and clarity, which allows us to see the big picture. When the details are seen as part of the whole, it changes everything. On the forest floor this morning I found a partially eaten baby bird. "How terrible," was the mind's first reaction. A few minutes later I saw baby raccoons out with mama, perhaps the eaters of that bird and, high above, a hawk eyeing the baby coons. Stepping back, I know this as the cycle of life: birth and death; birth and death. Not good or bad, just as it is.

From the perspective of the self, to lose vision is a terrible calamity. From a larger perspective, the whole body is decaying from the moment of birth. Clear insight into the nature of becoming and dissolution teaches us we can't hold on to anything. There's a deep peace to that knowledge. So we need to cultivate viveka to move from the fear of "me" and "mine" into the perspective that knows everything as arising and passing away based on conditions.

The Viveka Sutta, (Samyutta Nikaya, IX-1) says in small part:

Don't let the dust
of the sensual

There is always desire to experience through the senses and fear when one of the senses is impaired. But when I put my feet down, I see the senses for what they are, just the sense organs of the body. It will all decay. I don't need to put my feet on a surface that's dissolving. "Put your feet down," means put them down on the "ground," on that which is unshakeable, which is awakened nature and dhamma.

With the spaciousness of viveka as support, I'm able to go deeper into fear. Then I use the factors of vitakka and vicara. These are translated as holding and penetrating. The metaphor often used is that of polishing an urn. I must hold it to polish it, and I must apply pressure. I can't apply pressure if I'm not holding it, or as I press it will recede. I can hold it forever but if I don't polish, don't penetrate deeply, the tarnish remains. Just so with our experience of objects. I must hold attention to the object of fear, but to get deep into its nature, I must also apply vicara, investigative presence.

Fear is a distinct experience in the mind and body. When I look deeply into fear, I find belly tension, tight breath, mind hard and agitated. These are expressions of fear, and filled with stories. Without viveka I leap into those stories. With viveka, I can step back to note the predominant experience, for me usually the sensation in the belly, and know, "This is fear." The belly sensation is not a story. Neither is the impulse energy that wants to pick up the story. Awareness stays with the direct experience, holding it as object. Whatever is predominant in the experience, that is the object.

Then vicara looks deeply into it and knows it for what it is, not arisen from a separate self but arisen from conditions, impermanent. Impulse to react is an experience almost like looking at a beautiful, but red-hot object. There's impulse to grasp and the knowing that to grab it will bring terrible pain. Mind lets go easily of the impulse to grasp at the stories. It becomes more spacious, more at ease with things as they are, and more in the moment.

Some of you may feel that I can do this practice only because of the years of experience. I don't think that's so. How long does it take a baby to learn not to touch the hot stove? But we have to know what's hot, what brings suffering. I can't blame suffering on lack of vision. I know this. I've been deaf for 33 years. For a decade I blamed the suffering on the deafness, with the story, "if only I was not deaf, everything would be fine." Now I no longer suffer deafness; I just experience it. It brings no problem. So how can I get snared into the same story again? Ah, but I do, at times, spinning in, "If only…"! So the practice is there and supports the remembering, "Just put your feet down."

Please understand there's still sadness. That's not suffering. Joy and sorrow will come. Tonight, sitting on the dock watching the sunset, the angle of light was such that vision was quite poor. The eyes work better in some light than others. There was sadness, but no grasping. Just recognition of sadness. Then the sun lowered, and vision improved. The colors were extremely vivid, and there was enormous joy, not at the improved vision but at the beauty, and gratitude to be there on the dock.

I want to add this because what I'm speaking of with these practices is not a sterile and totally passionless way of living. It is not disassociation but full presence. There's more passion because there is no grasping.

The "Just put your feet down," applies to so many situations. I use it when anger or confusion comes. Whenever I find myself head over heels, lost in self's stories, the instruction comes back, "Just put your feet down." I hope you find it helpful too.

With love,

From the Board President
Corty Cammann

Over the past four months, Deep Spring Center has made a great deal of progress in the creation of its vision for the future. We have received valuable input from many members of the Sangha and had a lively discussion of the issues and options at our Sangha meeting. These discussions have touched on the nature of our purposes, our teachings, our activities and our community. The task is well begun.

The results of the discussions in the Sangha meeting are being framed into a draft of a vision for Deep Spring by the Board. They will be working on this over the summer and discussing the points of agreement and the points where we have differences. A draft will be available for input and discussion by the Sangha at some point in the fall. In addition, another group, coordinated by Cassie Cammann, is developing different scenarios that reflect the future directions that Sangha members saw for the ways in which our vision might manifest, particularly in the areas of space and form. These, too, will be ready for discussion by the Sangha in the fall.

It is our hope that by the end of the year we will have a fairly clear idea of the direction in which we wish to evolve over the next five years and that we will be able to give the Board the guidance it needs to make decisions about the future.

I would like to thank everyone for their participation thus far. The process moves forward in small steps as we all share our hopes and develop the future directions that we will travel together. There are many ideas and possibilities and through these discussions we develop the picture of what we would like to become. Sangha members have been generous and patient in their participation in this process to date, and if we can continue in this spirit of exploration as we face more concrete choices during the fall, we should be able to craft a vision that we can all support.

May joy fill your day.

Corty Cammann

Dana for Barbara

Barbara Brodsky is not paid a salary nor does she receive money from your donations to Deep Spring Center. She is supported by your direct donations. Such support permits her to do full-time teaching and channeling and work on Aaron's books. Offer such donations directly to Barbara.

Donations for Barbara may also be offered into the Roth Retirement Account started for her by sangha members. Send checks to: Smith Barney, c/o Gary Austin, 2001 Commonwealth Blvd., Suite 102, Ann Arbor, MI 48105. If you have questions, contact Gary at 734-827-0544 or gary.s.austin@smithbarney.com

Progression of Practice
Excerpted from a talk
Barbara Brodsky

Most people come to practice because they're suffering. They see the physical and/or emotional tensions in their lives, see the places where they get hooked into unskillful response, and want to ease all of that. There's nothing wrong with that aspiration! It does get us to practice. There is often a sincere interest to live in a more loving way, for themselves and for others. As they begin to practice, they do find some real ease, more space.

They may come with that "beginner's mind" or not, depending on their background. There may or may not be set expectations, and a sense of how it "should" be. But as people practice, and are more willing to be with things rather than tensing into an argument with everything, "don't know" mind develops.

Let's call this the beginning and the honeymoon stages of practice. What's most important here is getting the basics of noting and presence, and beginning to bring balance to the practice.

For most people, as practice deepens here, there will come a time when there's some dis-infatuation. They see that while they can note things such as anger or fear or a feeling of shame, it still comes. Then there's frustration with the practice or with one's self because, although the basics are mastered, there is the dilemma that there's still suffering. At this middle level of practice, people tend to work more with the tools such as metta and the other brahma-viharas, with the elements, body energy, devotional meditation, even chanting and prostrations. The intent is often to finally find a way to fix the suffering or, phrased in a different way, to find more comfort and control, to get away from the unpleasant arisings of mind and body. This can be done. If there is intense shame, metta can ease it, for example. The support practices do bring balance. This stage is necessary. We are accumulating tools and learning their use.

Some people will persist at this level for a long time, caught in a web of hope and despair, seeking a way out. Whatever they do, the heavy mind states still come. There's still suffering—grasping and aversion. Hopefully, with proper guidance, practice will deepen and people will stop taking their situations so personally. There will be a greater perspective about suffering and real insight into the first two of the Four Noble Truths. Even with that insight, discouragement continues. The third truth tells us there is a way out, but this is still conceptual. The fullness of the Path is still not realized. The practitioner is still searching for that way out on the mundane level, that if they just "get it right," somehow the dis-ease of life will go. It takes a long time to really accept that we'll never get it right, that we're not going to survive the incarnation and live happily ever after.

Let's call this a mundane phase of the "change of lineage" knowledge. In the higher level, that knowledge is the point of "looking through the fingers" with the understanding that what I seek is not here in the mundane realm. Look through … It's the place where we finally acknowledge in the deepest sense, "Yes, there is dukha; this is the nature of conditioned human experience. And I will not be exempt from it." It's the point where we acknowledge the futility of both hope and despair, where the accrued wisdom begins to see everything as arisen from conditions, impermanent and not self. In giving up hope of finally getting our lives or our selves "fixed," we become open to the real possibilities. The goal shifts from comfort to liberation!

There is more ease in our lives and practice. The factors of enlightenment are balanced. Effort is placed naturally, without grasping.

To develop that readiness to let go of using the practice for comfort, to acknowledge the reality of dukha, and to "incline toward liberation," as the suttas sometimes phrase it, takes much maturity of practice and of personality, too. It takes learning to use the many tools we have available for balance, and to see deeply into the impulse or habit to use those tools to get away from a difficult experience rather than to allow us to move deeper into wisdom and compassion with that experience, and find freedom in that way.

Some people go through these phases in a matter of months or even weeks. Others may spend years at the first level. There's no pace at which people "should" move. It takes as long as it takes. It's all process toward liberation.

Kalayana Mitra (Spiritual Friends) Groups Forming

There is a story about Ananda coming up to the Buddha and remarking that having friends traveling the dharma path with one was half of the spiritual life. The Buddha replied that Ananda had it halfway right—that noble friends and noble conversation could be considered the whole of the spiritual path.

Kalayana mitra groups are circles of 6-12 people, typically meeting one evening a month, to support practice and deepen friendships within the sangha. A number of groups are already active at Deep Spring Center. Here's what members say about them:

"There's a marvelous healing miracle in my life. It's the monthly meeting of my kalayana mitra (spiritual friendship) group. Two or three years ago one of the women in the sangha suggested that a few of us get together and share our dreams. We still call ourselves "The Dreamers," but we have progressed on to a very real sharing of the ups and downs of our lives and how we are realizing the values of our mindfulness practices. Each evening that we gather I find myself enriched with the love and the support that is so abundantly shared around the circle. I drive away filled with the very possible dream that life's moments of both joy and challenge can be lived with kindness, presence and freedom." (Dottie Coyne)

"Our group of spiritual friends is called the Dharma Dudes or just the Men's Group. We meet the first Friday of each month and lead the meeting on a rotating basis. The leader for the month picks the topic and may send out reading in advance. Some recent topics have been The Fool as a psychological archetype, a nature walk in Bird Hills, and learning to sense body energy. Each meeting begins with silent meditation and includes a check-in time where members relate current events in their lives and how they feel about them. For me, it's a wonderful forum for discussing life and spiritual practice with like-minded folk and building friendships with other men." (David Coupland)

If you are interested in being a member of such a circle, new groups are forming this fall. An e-mail has been sent out, and there are sign up sheets at the Center, with a few simple questions such as which evenings or weekend times would work for you. Please either respond to the e-mail or fill out a sheet and leave it in the office by the end of September.

Susan Weir will be collecting the responses and contacting people to get the ball rolling. Hope to see you at a circle soon!

Opening Talk, Emerald Isle Retreat
April 24, 2005

Aaron: Good evening. My blessings and love to you all. I am Aaron. I hope you have had a very pleasant day, one filled with insights and ease. It is a great gift to be here by the sea.

Tonight I will speak about balance, not just the balance of everyday life and the spaciousness of spirit, but the various techniques of balance by which you may come to that ultimate balance. To begin, several paragraphs from a book.

Reading from Gift from the Sea (1955) by Anne Morrow Lindbergh:

The problem: how to remain whole in the midst of the distractions of life. How to remain balanced no matter what centrifugal forces tend to pull one off center. How to remain strong no matter what shocks come in at the periphery and then tend to crack the hub of the wheel. What is the answer? There is no easy answer, no complete answer. I have only clues, shells from the sea. The bare beauty of the channeled whelk tells me that one answer, perhaps a first step, is in simplification of life, in cutting out some of the distractions. But how? Total retirement is not possible. I cannot shed my responsibilities. I cannot permanently inhabit a desert island. I cannot be a nun in the midst of family life. I would not want to be.

The solution for me surely is in neither total renunciation of the world nor in total acceptance of it. I must find a balance somewhere or an alternating rhythm between these two extremes, swinging of the pendulum between solitude and communion, between retreat and return. In my periods of retreat, perhaps I can learn something to carry back into my worldly life. I can at least practice for these two weeks the simplification of outward life as a beginning. I can follow the superficial clue and see where it leads. Here, beach living, I can try.

Some of you, when you come to a retreat, have very profound experiences, very blissful experiences. Then you return home and you lust after that experience. "Where did it go? I want it back." You then wage a war with your everyday life, thinking, "How many more weeks or months until I can have another retreat?" Some of you have the opposite experience. You come into a retreat and there is no peacefulness, perhaps in part because you're grasping after it so much.

In the long run, your practice is only as valuable as your ability to integrate that practice into your daily life. If there is no integration, no matter what kinds of experiences you have, they're not very useful.

This is a vipassana retreat. Some of you have probably heard the story of my final lifetime in which through this practice of vipassana I found liberation. You may raise a question at my use of the word "I." How can there be an "I," a self that finds liberation? That karmic collection that I was, that human being that was the outflow of all the karma of all the chain of beings before, and who found liberation. Vipassana is a beautiful vehicle, and it will take you home. It's enough.

But some of you are impatient. You want to do it faster. Speed is not always the most important thing; in fact, speed can be an impediment. Integrity is more important. Carefulness is more important. But, also, once you have that ground, and are working to integrate practice and everyday life, it's certainly wholesome to bring in those practices that help to provide balance. Otherwise, you're like the tightrope walker who says, "I don't need this balancing pole." It's harder to walk on the tightrope without the balancing pole, why not use it?

So you have certain support practices that will help to bring balance. This is my core focus tonight. First I want to describe to you briefly what vipassana is best at. With vipassana, you note the arising of conditioned physical sensations, emotions, feelings, thoughts, and consciousness, called the skandas. With careful watching, you see how they arise and pass away, that there is no self inherent in them. Rather, what arises is situation. It arises because the conditions are present for it; then it passes away. These are the first two characteristics of conditioned experience, that what arises is impermanent and does not arise based on a separate self. You also see deeply into the third characteristic of conditioned experience, that when you grasp what has arisen, or push it away with aversion, you suffer, because you can't hold on to anything and you can't really push anything away. It comes when the conditions are ripe; it goes when the conditions are released. Insight into impermanence, the no-self nature of conditioned experience, and the causes of suffering, these are the first fruits of the vipassana practice.

Within the vipassana practice, you come to a point where you have deep insight into the nature of arising and dissolution. You see that the liberation that is sought is not anywhere to be found in the conditioned realm, that you must break through into the Unconditioned mind. The everyday mind that observes the movements of conditioned reality cannot know this liberation. But you don't know how to invite that shift. At first you flounder. You know what is needed but not where it is. Ironically, it's always right there, you just can't see it, so you look elsewhere. This may be compared to the person who goes out looking for the elephant that is sitting in his front doorway. In his front yard he sees elephant footprints all around. He goes off tracking it. Where is it? Where is it? But it circled around and it's sitting in his front yard.

So you go around tracking the Unconditioned. Where is it? How will I ever find it? Finally, you relax in exhaustion because your tracking has done you no good. And in that moment of letting go, "Ah, there it is!" At least, there it was, that brief glimpse and then it's gone. It comes, it goes. It's always there, it just plays hide and seek. I sometimes have thought that the children's game of Hide and Seek could be an excellent introduction to knowing the Unconditioned. One could develop that game first for the child to find you, the conditioned human. Then you introduce the child to the idea of resting in awareness. Children take very quickly to this. You simply sound the bell and invite the child to stay with the sound and go where the sound goes. Let's do it.


Was there a moment for you when everything stopped, before the sound of the waves or a thought like "What next?" came? Did some of you feel that moment? The child can learn to identify that moment. Then one can play Hide and Seek with the child. Where is it? One doesn't need to call it rigpa with a child, just stillness. Spaciousness. Or let the child make up a name for it. When you're busy with conditioned things, in that moment ask the child, "Where did spaciousness go? Can you find it? Ah, yes."

I'm not telling you this so you can teach your own children or grandchildren, but to teach the child in yourself to stop frequently and ask, "Right now, where is the Unconditioned? Where is spaciousness?" To be able to recognize it, first you have to have a better sense of what it is. It's very hard to know what it is because it's not concrete. We can better say what it is not. That beautiful definition of the Buddha's: "the unborn, undying, unchanging, uncreated." It expresses certain qualities of love, light, space, peacefulness. There are certain sounds and senses associated with it. But it's very hard to pin it down.

This is where the practice of dzogchen or pure awareness practice becomes very useful. In dzogchen, we step beyond the arisings and dissolutions of the conditioned realm. We don't deny their existence, but we open to that vast view of spaciousness, rest in that space, and then observe the whole conditioned realm popping out and fading away, like fireworks in the sky, just exploding out.

When the fireworks explode into the sky, you do not mistake them for the sky. Nor do you get lost in the fireworks and think the sky has disappeared. The fireworks are there and the sky is there, as object and ground. Resting in Pure Awareness teaches you this. It teaches you to be present with the fireworks of your life and still rest stably in that spaciousness and know it as the Unconditioned. Perhaps it's not a deep entry into the Unconditioned, just touching around the edges. You don't have to jump into the ocean two miles out to know ocean. It's enough to look out the window, or walk in and wet your toes. It's still ocean.

So dzogchen may not immerse you two miles out and a hundred yards down in the Unconditioned. You wet your toes. But you know the quality of it. You learn how to rest in and hold that spaciousness. This is the greatest aid I know to the integration that will be called for later when, through your vipassana practice, you have a deep immersion into the Unconditioned, that "two miles out and a hundred yards down." When you come out of that experience, you'll know what it is.

Dzogchen is also helpful for those of you who come to that edge that we call no-self, and panic. Everything is dissolving, including the ego and the body! "Will I annihilate myself?" You all know this experience. The self begins to dissolve, the ego begins to dissolve, and fear comes up.

Imagine if you had never seen the ocean, and I brought you by helicopter to the edge of a cliff on a very foggy day, right at the edge, with the ocean below. The sea was calm that day, only small waves hitting the rock wall, almost a sheer cliff, very safe to jump, but you couldn't see anything, and I said, "Well, we're here, why don't you jump?" Could you? Pretty scary! Where is "here"? Where are we?

Suppose I led you down a long path toward the water. We wade in from the beach. We swim out a ways. Small swells are rising and falling. Waves are hitting the rock wall but not in a dangerous way. They're not going to dash you against the rocks. From up close you can see the cliff rising 15 feet above you. Can't see all the way up, just the first 15 feet. Then it fades into mist, but you get a sense of where you are. We swim back, climb the path, come to the edge of the cliff, and I say, "Jump." "Jump? Into what?" you inquire. "Into the sea you were just in. No different. After you land in the water you can swim a bit and then swim back to the beach we just came through and out." It's much easier now, is it not? Yes, you know what's there. Dzogchen gives you that taste of the Unconditioned so you don't have to take it completely on faith. Mind knows, "I will not annihilate myself" when there is a move into this vast spaciousness in the vipassana practice. It allows for the letting go that's so essential, because there's much less fear. You know where you're going. At least you've had a taste of it.

Within your vipassana practice and within your daily life, many experiences arise, variations of peacefulness and anger, joy and sorrow, ease and grasping, and so forth. Greed may arise, and all of the hindrances. The mind that is aware of these arisings is not caught in them. We begin to see the personal, every-day mind and the big mind, and know the ground of that Pure Awareness. Such knowing brings balance.

There are so many wonderful practices for balance. Last night you took the precepts. Simply holding to the precepts as a guideline, remembering the precepts, supports balance. So often there's an impulse energy born of old habit, and you stop and you remember the precepts. It makes it much simpler. You don't have to think, "Should I do this? Should I not?" No, you've taken the precepts. You know what to do. Here is this hornet flying around the room. You reach for a shoe. You're about to smack it. But you took a precept not to kill. But the hornet may sting you! But you took a precept not to kill, not only when it's convenient but always. Then how can you work skillfully with the fear you feel of the hornet, bring more balance in so that you have more choice, rather than just to kill to avoid fear? With the ground of the precepts, you are reminded to stop and invite metta, karuna, mudita, and other beautiful qualities of the loving heart. This is to invite balance.

We work with the hindrances and the factors of enlightenment to bring forth balance. With each of the hindrances we find factors of enlightenment that will bring balance. These factors are mindfulness in the middle, energized factors and tranquil factors. When you're agitated with fear, working with some of the tranquil factors like concentration can help to balance the fear. When you're working with lethargy or sluggishness, inviting some of the more energized factors like investigation will help bring in more energy. Again, balance. This is just the basic balance for your practice and for living.

One seldom-offered practice in these days that used to be used quite a bit and that I learned 500 years ago is a simple practice called "Buddha-gazing." Simply breathing out, breathing in, resting the gaze on the Buddha. It may be done with or without a physical reminder of the Buddha, a picture or statue. Bring awareness to a quality in yourself that has either been troublesome today or a quality in yourself that you would more fully like to develop.

Let's start with the latter, with the quality of equanimity. Perhaps you've had a restless day and mind has been judgmental, opinionated, and you've sought more equanimity. Know the equanimity in the Buddha. Breathing in, breathe it into yourself. Breathing out, really feel this equanimity. It's not a practice you can do in just two minutes of sitting. It's something to which you'd want to devote at least 15 minutes, choosing that quality and knowing it in the Buddha with absolute certainty, and then seeing the reflection of it in yourself and beginning to feel it. Right there with all the agitation and judgmental mind, feel the innate equanimity.

If there has been a lot of anger in you, you can look at the Buddha and see deep compassion, spaciousness of heart and mind, freedom from anger. You are not creating something in yourself; you're using the Awakened One as a mirror to reflect back to you that quality that you seek, to reawaken the memory of it, and know it in yourself. Then you can close your eyes and just be present with that quality.

Working with the brahma viharas is a wonderful practice, bringing into your experience any of these very beautiful qualities. You are not creating them, you are reawakening the memory of them, allowing yourself to experience. As we do this, working with the brahma viharas, working with Buddha-gazing, working with the factors of enlightenment, sometimes we need to ask ourselves, "What is blocking the experience of this already-intrinsic quality? If there is already equanimity, why can't it be felt? If there is love, why do I feel so much anger? What blocks the experience of loving kindness?"

Here we come to another practice that I would like to speak about at a bit more length. This is practice with the 4 Elements and this site is a wonderful place to do this practice. Actually there are 5 elements: the four basic elements of earth, air, fire, and water, and space. We call space the Great Mother out of which the other elements arise. Space is that infinite openness in which we find earth, air, fire, and water.

Each of you is born with an imbalance in the elements. If you came into the incarnation with the elements perfectly balanced, you'd already be an enlightened being, for only those enlightened beings have perfect balance of the elements. Some of you have more subtle imbalance, some greater imbalance. If you reflect on yourself, each of you, I think you'll find a predominant element. Earth is the heavy grounded energy, but sometimes it can be too grounded. When it's balanced, it's just a ground. When it's imbalanced, it becomes a lead weight, too heavy. Air, when air is in balance there's spaciousness and ease, but unbalance air and your energy is too high. There's no grounding at all. Fire, without the fire element there's no energy, so a balanced fire element is energetic. An imbalanced fire element is filled with anger, filled with restlessness and tension. Balanced water element is fluid. Imbalanced water element is undependable. It's either stagnant or in frantic motion. There's no patterned flow to it.

You'll notice I'm using some of the same words. It's obvious that water and fire would seem to be opposites. An easy remedy for great anger is just to go sit in a cool wet stream. Very hard to maintain the anger sitting under a cool waterfall. We don't think much about why, but of course you're bringing in the water element and it cools the fire. When your energy is low and you're feeling sleepy here in the meditation, and you go out and walk briskly on the beach, with the onrush of cool air, it brings up energy. You're bringing in the air element to balance the heaviness of the earth element.

I said that each of you is born with certain element imbalances. This is why each being is unique. One of Barbara and Hal's children rarely cried after birth. He was a very peaceful infant. Another one screamed as he was coming out of the birth canal and continued to scream for weeks. There was a lot of fire energy. Clearly each individual is unique and brings this difference in from birth, karmically conditioned.

For a start, then, begin to reflect on which elements feel balanced in your physical body, in your emotional body, in your mental body. The balance may be different in each body. The mental body may be very balanced and the physical body imbalanced, for example. Begin to reflect, when you're feeling a strong imbalance whether it's expressing itself in an external way or not, in other words, when you're feeling agitation without a large external expression or when you're feeling agitation and anger as the external voice of the agitation. The simple reflection, "There is imbalance here. My intention is to bring back balance so as to support harmony, so as to support my intention to live the precepts, so as to support my intention to liberation." This brings in the practice of Clear Comprehension. What is my highest purpose in this moment. Is my response suitable to that purpose? And clear comprehension of the dhamma: what conditions give rise to a suitable or an unsuitable response?

Holding up that intention, the next step will not be one of grasping but one of easeful positive choice. What do you need to bring balance? In order to know that, you're going to need to spend some time sitting on the beach and getting to know each of the elements as they appear in the outer world and as they appear in yourself. Sit and look at the ocean and feel the energy of it. See the waves surging and breaking, building and ebbing. Hear the sound of it. And focus in to the water element of your body, both the literal water element of the whole water structure of the body, the blood in the veins, the high water content of the cells, and also, let's call it the energetic tides of the body. Learn it from the ocean so that you are in better contact with it in the body.

Close your eyes and feel the sand, feel the deep earth underneath you. Here at the seashore there's a lot of water mixed in with the sand so it's a little harder to find, but you can find it. Dig yourself a little hole in the sand and sit in it. Even lie down in it, in a depression to hold the body so that you're deep into the sand. Feel the earth element in your body. Learn it from sand.

Feel the hot sun shining on you (we hope the rain will cease!). Feel the hot fire on you: please do not look into the sun, but look at the light of the sun hitting the sand and the sea, feeling its heat; that's enough. Feel the fire element in your body. A core of the fire element in the body is right behind the navel. Begin to imagine a hot sun burning there. Feel it radiating through the body. How is the fire element in the body? Is it awake? Is it out of balance or in balance?

The air, lots of breeze here. Feel the air element, external and internal, in the same way, and in this way, familiarize yourself with how the elements are in your body. Then during your day, if you feel lethargy or restlessness, mental agitation, anger, or sadness, stop and ask yourself what imbalance exists in the elements right now that is contributing to this mental or physical state? Of course, there's not just one cause of any state, but there can be a decision to invite balance. What happens when you sit down and say, "Instead of perpetuating the present agitation I feel, I'm going to bring in balance. The fire element is out of balance. I can either release some of the fire element or I can bring in more water to balance it, bring in more earth to balance it. Which is most appropriate in this moment?"

How do you bring in water? Look at the ocean. Begin to feel the water element in yourself, how it neutralizes the fire element. Feel the sand. Feel how it grounds and neutralizes the fire element. And, conversely, if you're sitting here falling asleep and during the walking period you go out and feel great lethargy, and you would prefer to go to your room and go to sleep, instead feel how the earth element may be too heavy in you in that moment. Bring in more fire and more air. Feel the movement of them in the body.

This is where we come back to vipassana practice. You start to see that there are certain habit energies whereby you move into a specific element imbalance. It's very helpful to see how you do that, and that it's just habit energy. You don't have to do it. It's just the habitual response. The air is a little warm, you're sitting still, lethargy comes. With lethargy, the fire element dwindles, or the earth element becomes very heavy. Watch it. I'm not telling you to push the elements around, but you're the one who chooses. The elements simply come as habit energy. You're not stuck with them forever in those imbalanced patterns. For some of you, the imbalanced patterns of the elements have led to physical ailments, and some of these physical ailments can literally be healed through work with the elements. This can become a very important part of your practice, then, when there is some specific physical ailment.

Finally, working with the elements, there is the opportunity to realize the true nature of the body in another way, that the body is simply composed of the various aggregates and the elements. We don't talk much about the elements when we talk about the aggregates, but the elements are right there within the physical body, within the form aggregate, within the feeling aggregate, within the thought aggregate, and so forth. When we go beyond just the aggregates themselves, we begin to see the whole element composition of them. Insight into that is a great aid to releasing self-identification with the experience of the aggregate. If, within the mental aggregate you're experiencing a depressed state, it's simply the outplay of the heavier earth element. That's not the only reason why you're experiencing that depression, but if you resolve to balance that element within the emotional body, then you can see what happens to the depression. Almost certainly there will be a change. More important, you cease to take the depression as self. You see how it simply has arisen from many conditions, including the imbalance of the elements. You attend to it appropriately but you don't have to fix it. That perfect balanced state is always there.

This brings us back full circle. You can see how valuable your vipassana practice is because it gives you the means to look at what is arising. Without vipassana you feel anger or depression, you don't even know what you're feeling. Or supposing you have the ability to say, "Well, I'm angry." There's such a big I! "I am angry!" There's so much self-identification, and there's no clarity about the nature of the anger.

So vipassana is the starting place and the ending place. Everything else is support, but very valuable support. I was speaking at length about the elements because of the site here, and practice with the elements is a wonderful support here where you have them so very accessible to you. But all the supports are of value.

Remember that there is nothing that you need to create. That balanced, enlightened being is right here. I know you'd like to meet him or her! He or she is here and will not depart, simply waiting for you to wake up to the experience of that aspect of your being and know it. I hope that will be the path of this retreat for all of us: deeper insight into that Buddha nature, deeper recognition of it. Thank you for this opportunity to speak with you tonight. Let me ask here before I stop if there are any questions.

Q: Aaron, my question is, what element is linked to the emotional state of fear? And how can you work with that emotional state through the elements?

Aaron: An imbalance in the elements does not cause fear. Fear arises mostly on the basis of the delusion of a separate self and other. Seeing the self as impermanent, for one example, but seeing without perspective so impermanence threatens, then the habit energy is for fear to arise. The whole mind and body contract with fear, reinforcing the experience of separation as a way of protecting the self.

Once fear has arisen, certain elements will come into play. Fear can have many different voices. One common expression of fear is anger. If anger arises in relation to fear, as expression of fear, then the element of fire will be out of balance. That may mean there is not enough of the balancing elements, that fire is at a normal level but water and earth have diminished and need to be elevated. Or it may mean that fire is supercharged and it needs to be released to come down into a level with earth and water.

Another example, with fear there may be closure, contraction, shutting out, and a kind of withdrawal. Here there's too heavy an earth energy. You'll have to be intuitive about this, but it's not the fear itself that you need to look at but the expression of that fear in the mind and body, and then ask, "What is out of balance here?" As you bring the anger into balance, releasing the fire or bring in more earth or water, you may come back to the direct experience of fear and an impulse energy to push the elements out of balance again to build up the anger or withdrawal, to express the anger or withdrawal as a way of avoiding the direct experience of fear. Here you've got to be very kind and patient with yourself, acknowledging the fear, holding a space for the direct experience of fear without stories of anger or withdrawal or whatever other story may arise. We work with vitakka and vicara. That is another talk!

Support Practices
Emerald Isle Retreat
Monday, April 25, 2005

Aaron: Good morning. My blessings and love to you on this lovely day.

Regarding the element practice and using the elements as a tool to assist with balancing, I am asked: Is it recommended when needed during meditation as well as at other times? Yes, of course, use it whenever it feels appropriate. If in sitting you feel a lot of lethargy during the formal sitting practice, first note it as lethargy. That noting in itself may be all that is needed to bring more energy and balance. If the lethargy persists, it is perfectly appropriate at that point to scan the body and see if there is element imbalance. Possibly the earth element is very heavy. There may be need for more fire element, or more release of the earth element. If there is a lot of anger or fear, feeling contracted, the sound of the ocean is a wonderful balance to feelings of contraction. When fear and other contractedness come up, just stop and listen to the ocean. Let it pour through you. Use care though that you use this element balancing for skillful attendance and not to fix, from a contracted self, or you will simply further imbalance.

The practice of Buddha-gazing that I mentioned last night, that and the element practice have something very important in common. This is the clear seeing of that quality that you wish to bring forth more powerfully in yourself, that you wish to nurture in yourself. Invite it in through seeing that it exists not only in the Buddha, not only in the sun or the ocean, but that it already exists in yourself. This is very important. You are not creating something that does not exist. You are using this reflection to remind you of what is already there, and of your capacity to bring it forth.

I will read another question: "You and Aaron both spoke beautifully about vastness, this endless ocean of love, compassion, light and space, which in essence is our true nature. I know this to be true from the bottom of my heart, yet when I start to let go and fall into this space, a kind of trembling and fear comes up. Why is this so?"

All of you know the truth of the Buddha nature that is reflected everywhere and is carried within the self. Most of you do not yet feel ready to be responsible to that nature. This is why you tremble when you sense that vastness. What if you really are that vast? What if this truly is the deepest essence of your being? There is the fear, "I cannot live that," and so you get lost in the small self, using that as an escape from knowing of the vastness. But you are both.

I do not ask you to go into the vastness in denial of the small self but to hold both together. This is the key: nothing is denied. When fear comes up, you don't try to use the concept of vastness to brush aside the fear nor do you back yourself into the fear to push away the vastness, but you know the vastness and you know the direct experience of fear in the human, and you take both as the primary objects of your practice.

For today's instructions, let us review the process of experiencing phenomena and then talk about how we can apply some of these other practices within that process. To begin I will talk about dependent origination, very precise and basic material.

We have contact. The sense organ or the mind touches the object. The eye touches the object. The ear touches the object. Out of this base of sense organ touching object arises sense consciousness: seeing, hearing, and so forth. The mind touches and object and thinking consciousness arises. Remembering, planning, fantasizing are different forms of mind consciousness. Whatever arises, it will have a feeling of pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. With the word "feeling," we're not implying emotions, just the base feelings of pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Is the ocean a pleasant sound? What if you were sitting here in a hurricane and you heard it crashing and coming closer and closer; would it still be a pleasant sound? (No.) So the ocean is not inherently a pleasant sound. The ocean is a pleasant sound based on certain external conditions. If it were 90 degrees and you went into the water, would that touch be pleasant? In February would it be pleasant? The pleasantness or unpleasantness is based on external conditions.

There are certain very painful sensations, such as if you touched the hot stove and experienced burning; there is probably no time in which that could be construed as pleasant. For the human, touching a hot stove is always unpleasant, but very few things are always unpleasant.

If we can hold unpleasant as unpleasant, and know pleasant just as pleasant, it doesn't go any further. But what usually happens is when something is pleasant, grasping comes up. You've been served delicious food this week. I've seen a lot of grasping. People take one taste and they say, "Oh, I want more of that!" Pleasant, then grasping.

With unpleasant feeling, aversion comes. If you know grasping as grasping, it can stop there. It doesn't build itself up with a lot of stories. If you know aversion as aversion, a lot of stories don't build. Barbara was sitting with her eyes open on the beach this morning and a seagull with a bad limp landed in front of her. He was struggling when other birds seemed to gang up on him. She cannot hear but it looked and felt to her from his energy that he was calling out to other birds. Other birds came and some seemed to protect him, some seemed aggressive to him. It was very interesting to watch.

Her first response to seeing the bird was neutral, neither pleasant or unpleasant. There was a lot of compassion for the bird. Then a grasping energy came, wanting to help him. Mind started to spin up into a story. Maybe we can catch him in a net and see what's wrong with his leg. Maybe there's a vet we can take him to. So the stories started to proliferate. At that point I asked her to stop and just come back to seeing the bird. Contact eye to bird, vision consciousness. A feeling of neutrality, actually, but some unpleasantness, a feeling, "This is not the way it should be," that sort of contraction. Then moving into aversion to the bird's infirmity, and grasping to fix the bird. I asked her to ask herself, "Is this the bird we're talking about or you?" And she immediately saw it was her. Limp eye, no ears. That subtle grasping to fix these body distortions.

She settled down and began a practice of formal metta for the bird and herself. The tension released. She began to see the perfection in the bird just as it was. Let us call it the Buddha nature, the awakened nature of the bird expressing itself now in this limping seagull, and the Buddha nature in herself. And at that point the practice settled down. The eyes were still open, the bird was still there. But there was no more grasping; the mind ceased moving into stories. Mind was able to hold the object just as it is.

Most of you have heard the teaching of holding and penetrating. This relates to the Buddha's teaching with an urn. The Buddha said: if you want to polish the urn, you've got to hold it. If you try to polish and you're not holding it, it just wiggles away from you. You can't polish it if it's not held firmly. You can't apply pressure to go into it. If you want to polish it, you can't just hold it. No matter how long you hold it, you cannot penetrate into the tarnish that surrounds it unless you use pressure.

This holding and penetrating is what Barbara came to today, seeing the need to hold the object in order to see deeply. The object changes. First she was holding the aversion itself, that feeling of wanting to fix. The primary object became contraction and tension, and the holding of that tension with an unwavering mind and attention. Polishing her way into it, she could feel the sadness underneath. Sadness that a year ago sitting on this beach, everything was visually clear and now it's not clear. Sadness. And right there with the sadness, joy. Joy because she still can see the ocean. Because even if it's not as clear as it might be, it's still beautiful. Joy for this human experience.

Each object came in turn, and went. Peacefulness. Holding peacefulness. Fear. Holding fear. Penetrating each. As it dissolved, coming back to the breath. Before mind opened into that depth, though, there was an abundance of mental formation. By this I mean that as she looked at the limping bird, stories started to arise. The stories are not part of the moment. "How did the bird get hurt? Can we fix the bird? Can we save the bird? Will the bird live or die? Could we feed it? How will we keep the other gulls away so that it could get enough food so it could survive through this week and its leg would heal?" So many stories!

When you know the story as story, you let go of it. The story is a story; the impulse to enter the story is a direct experience. That is what you hold and move into. This is part of the practice. Often the stories are very enticing. You don't want to let go of them. There must be a conscious decision to let go. When there is resistance to letting go of the story, that feeling of resistance becomes the primary object.

If resistance is strong and there is a primary experience of hardness or tension, at that point one can shift into the element practice if it's helpful. One feels the tension, the resistance. For Barbara this morning, the nature of that resistance was very earthbound, heavy. She was cold. The sun was just coming up. She turned herself slightly to focus more on the sun, to bring in more warmth. She wasn't looking into the sun but looking more in the direction of the lit sea. Feeling the experience of the sun, literally breathing it in to the hara area, to the area behind the navel. Feeling the motion of the water. Bringing that sense of motion into herself. She could feel the resistance and tension beginning to loosen, more balance coming into the body.

During her sitting this morning I reviewed with her what I taught you last night. As a part of the illustration of those instructions, after attending to resistance, I asked her to do something equivalent to the Buddha-gazing we talked about. Here she was not staring with her eyes open at a Buddha statue, but using the bird, seeing the Buddha nature of the bird, opening to equanimity. She looked at all the shells on the beach, each of them the one-time home of a living creature that was no longer alive, and saw equanimity about the whole process of birth and death. Everything comes to be out of conditions, and when the conditions cease, it ceases. There is this moment of life, and it goes. For you it seems like 80 or 90 or 100 years, but for me, it's a moment. Life is like that. You slip from one moment into another moment, from one life into another life into another life.

So for Barbara, the first step was to be aware of the stories that were coming up about the bird, of the nature of those stories, and willing to release the stories by focusing on the tension that wanted to hold the story. The story was a kind of protection. If she let go of the story of "how can we save the poor infirm bird?" and so forth, she had to come into her own sense of sadness and vulnerability about her human situation and be present with it. It was very skillful to then turn to the Buddha-gazing practice using the bird as a reminder of the Buddha nature, because she could easily see the Buddha nature in the bird and she could see equanimity. The bird was clearly unable to walk well, but he wasn't exhibiting a panicked behavior at all about his walking. There was real equanimity. Through him, she could perceive her own already existent equanimity. Looking at the shells, all of these creatures having taken birth and died, but not disappearing, now expressing as part of the sand, enhanced connection to equanimity. As you nurture equanimity, as you nurture insight into the whole process of birth and death, your practice will lead you to freedom.

Let us simplify the instructions for today. Please bring into awareness the knowing of contact, consciousness, feelings of pleasant, unpleasant and neutral, the shift into grasping or aversion if it happens, the arising mental formations that come with grasping and aversion. Please focus on this process through the entire day, not just the formal sittings. I've noticed that many of you are very happily relaxing at your meals, and of course the food is delicious, the view is lovely. But bring more mindfulness into it. Don't just eat your food. Really feel the energy of the food. Take the taste into your mouth and know tasting. If it's pleasant, and undoubtedly it is, know pleasant. Be aware if craving comes up. What led you to take the next mouthful? Can you take one mouthful of something delicious, put your fork down, and just watch for a minute or two? Be aware of that craving energy. Watch if the craving energy subsides again when you pay attention to it. Wait for the next mouthful until you are led into that mouthful by an openhearted joy, not grasping. You can feel the difference in your energy field. When you pause and put the fork down, is there a contracted energy that comes? It's the body itself speaking. It often does not come from the mind, even; it's just the body speaking, habit energy speaking. Wanting more!

Put the fork down and breathe. Be there with the taste. Acknowledge the process. Take the grasping as the primary object and watch if it will subside when you look into it. Maybe some sense of fear or sadness will come, a fear about a whole lifetime of being uncertain that your needs would be met. Just be with the sadness. Then as it subsides, open your eyes and look at this delicious meal, and let your heart open in joy. Take another mouthful. After a while you'll find you're able to take food in and pause without any grasping energy because you have acknowledged a … let us call it simply deeply ingrained habit of many lifetimes, a neediness in the self, and found that which is not needy right there with the neediness. You've done this without denying the feeling of neediness, but you've ascertained that right there with the neediness is that which is not needy. Let that which is not needy do the eating, not that which is needy, but without denying the experience of that which is needy. Don't push it away, don't try to bury it. Just hold it tenderly, and wait until non-neediness is ready to eat some more.

For some of you, there is grasping energy of different sorts. Some can't wait to get outside. Some can't wait to get in; it's cold outside. It's the same thing. Watch the grasping energy. Try to make each move one that comes from the open heart, accessed by being present with whatever contraction, sadness, fear, anger, or greed is seen, present with those, acknowledging of those, understanding that they are arisen out of conditions, that they are part of your habit energy, and that that which is not needy, not fearful, not angry, and so forth, is right there. Touch that. Then go outside with joy. Come into the warmth with joy. You'll see how it works.

So, have deep awareness of this whole process of dependent origination. We call it dependent origination or arising because each object arises dependent on the conditions that preceded it. Be aware of this throughout the day. Slow down today. Walk slowly, eat slowly. There's no rush to do anything.

Working with Difficult Experiences
Barbara Brodsky
Excerpt from a Letter

When something difficult arises, Aaron asks me (or by now I ask myself):

What is predominant in my experience in this moment?
How am I relating to it?
If old conditioning is present, building stories, am I able to take the experience of story-making itself as object, rather than be pulled aside by it?
What helps me to do this?
What do the teachings say?
In this moment, where is liberation?
How do the non-dual teachings and practice support freedom in this moment?

No fixing; just presence.

Of course we will not all have the same difficult experiences in terms of the details, but the basics are the same—the hindrances really, aversion and grasping, restlessness, fear and doubt, confusion. There are many points of wisdom that guide us. What do the teachings say?

For example, fear is a very basic bare experience. What is fear, before its stories come? How do I hold the balance (use the tools available) to give me the support to stay present with fear, with no stories? Or if stories come, can I know them as stories?

In the Bhayabherava Sutta, the Buddha (before his enlightenment) speaks of his intention to meditate at a haunted shrine that has powerful energy, but he's deterred by fear and dread. He says, "I held the intention to acknowledge that fear and dread and allow the experience of it until it resolved itself." Here is a powerful teaching. He doesn't say here how he will stay with it. We have to learn that from other teachings. But he says he will stay with it, and that if he does, it will resolve itself. He doesn't say he will destroy fear and dread, or evade it, but just stay with it.

If we take such teachings as they relate to our direct experience, we can use these with our predominant situations to bring not just comfort but liberation.

Alice Britt

The creation of self is a moment-by-moment process. Maintaining a self is like breathing without exhaling—bringing more and more in, pressure increasing, until there's no ease or space at all. What a relief it is to let go of holding, to exhale what was, to empty the self and start fresh with a new breath.

Beware the "selfing" of the one who lets go and is empty, which is another holding of identity. This is the pattern of creation, which does not end until total cessation. Just be aware of it.

In coming to know this pattern and process intimately, the edges of identification smooth. Interest and intrigue wane such that the created self is no longer the central character and star performer of the drama but rather an undifferentiated part of the harmonious-discordant chorus.

Aaron Quote

You are beyond worthy and unworthy.
You are divine.
The shadow is a natural part
of the human condition….
You came into incarnation
willing to investigate the shadow
and find that it is not dual
with the radiance.

~ Aaron

Copyrights © 2005