Volume 14, Number 3


Letter from Barbara

From the Board President
Sandy Wiener

On Releasing Karma
Emerald Isle Retreat - On the Beach
May 2, 2006


Looking at Death
Dianne Austin

Susan and Martha Go To Thailand
Susan Klimist and Martha Zingo


Traveling with Beginner's Mind
Katy Mattingly

Aaron Quote

Letter from Barbara

Dear ones,

I write this short letter from the deck. I returned a few days ago from leading a long retreat and now am relaxing into summer routine. There's a joyful sense of expansiveness and ease, even though I do have ambitious summer projects: to finish a new book, and focus further on healing of these eyes and ears. Dawn finds me drifting on the lake in a kayak, to meditate and watch the sunrise. Then a long swim home and a morning spent writing. Afternoon gives time for some dhamma study and another swim. There's time to watch mama raccoon teach her babies to climb down the tree, time to learn the names of the wildflowers peeping out in the woods. Aaron says time is an illusion, but I admit I love the summer illusion of long days!

Aaron's transcript in this issue is a small part of a weeklong teaching on the simultaneity of relative and absolute and the release of karma, from Emerald Isle, a senior student retreat by the ocean. The entire set of transcripts can be found on the Deep Spring web site. These practices have been at the core of my own spiritual work the past few years, so it gives me special joy to pass them on to you. I have found them profound. They've made a real difference.

May you have a summer of joy, ease and fulfillment. I hope to see many of you as I travel again in the fall.

With love,

From the Board President
Sandy Wiener

Dear Members of our Deep Spring Sangha,

Here's a brief update on the news from the Board.

After much consideration of sharing space with the Interfaith Center, the board decided to cease further exploration of this option, as there was not a clear indication of support from the Sangha to go in that direction. Our current lease is up this December 15. We will soon be looking into what our various options are.

September marks transition time for the board. Much gratitude goes to David Coupland and Mary Grannan as they leave their posts. Each has served with amazing industriousness, skill, and dedication. Fortunately, each will continue to serve Deep Spring in their various other capacities. Carol Blotter, our wonderful and wonderfully hard-working treasurer, has agreed to stay one extra year in that important position before she retires from the Board. Also, the Board has invited me to be Board president for a second year, or until September 2007, and I have accepted with enthusiasm. The names of the new Board members will be announced soon.

Our initial projected budget showed a loss for the year. So far we are running a small surplus, which is good! But please remember to contribute to Deep Spring income – in classes as well as other Deep Spring events, of which there seem to be more and more, another good thing!

Your questions and comments are always welcome. Please contact me, or other board members, to let us know what is on your mind.

Finally, lots of appreciation and thanks are due to Sangha members who partake in our panoply of activities and who contribute to Deep Spring in so many ways.

Many blessings for the rest of the summer and for fall ahead,

On Releasing Karma
Emerald Isle Retreat - On the Beach
Tuesday, May 2, 2006

This entire body of teaching was given over 5 days on the ocean beach at Emerald Isle, N.C., May 2 – 5, 2006, senior student weeklong retreat. Day one was a refresher of basic Pure Awareness practice and was not recorded. For additional transcripts, see http://archives.deepspring.org/.


Aaron: The practice that I am going to begin to teach you today is a practice for releasing the old karma in body and mind. We will use contraction as a guide. Karma exists in contraction. Without contraction there is no karma. In your vipassana practice, you work with conditioned objects: the breath arising and falling away, thoughts and sensations arising and falling away. Your teachers have suggested being aware of contraction in the body, watching how certain kinds of thoughts or physical sensations serve as condition to contract the body, which contraction then releases. The Pure Awareness mind may not fully see or experience contraction. Contraction comes when you snap out of Awareness and back into the mundane experience.

Many of you have worked with the natural contractions of the body. In a balanced state, the body contracts, then releases, then contracts, then releases, as does all of nature. For example, hold out one hand. Bring forth the other hand as if you were going to put something in the first hand. Can you feel the subtle energy contraction with the expectation, waiting to receive. Then touch and feel it relax. Can you feel that reaching energy, and then the relaxation?

You can see the same energy in the ocean, watching the waves as they are just breaking on the shore (we are sitting on the beach). Watch as they build up and then slap down and come to a rest. As they wash back out, the energy builds up again.

This flow of energy is a constant rhythm. There's contraction and release, contraction and release, but the contraction is never held, just builds up and releases. All of life has that rhythm. It's necessary to life.

It's right there in the breath. Breathe in. Feel the subtle contraction at the top of the in-breath if you hold your breath longer than is comfortable. As you release, "Ahhh," and then it builds up into a contracted state again with the exhale. Every cell in your body carries this flow of contraction and release.

Right there within that contraction and release is spaciousness. If there is no secondary contraction around the contraction, the spaciousness is evident. While there is contraction around the contraction, there is still spaciousness. There is always spaciousness if we know where to find it! In vipassana we take contraction as object. That which is aware of contraction is not contracted. Spacious Awareness notes contraction. With the dzogchen practice, resting in Awareness, we watch contraction come and go. Resting in Awareness, there's no contraction around the contraction; we see contraction as arising naturally from conditions and realize the space around it. So long as you are resting in Awareness, nothing is solid. There's no sense of a solid self, or of solid objects; everything is arising out of spaciousness and releasing into spaciousness.

Literally everything is energy. There is nothing that is not energy. One of the primary expressions of energy is light. Another primary expression is space. It is not accurate, really, to call them expressions. Space and light are inherent to the energy. Where there is energy there is space and light. We call them "direct expressions."

Energy contracts and releases. That is the nature of energy. The contraction is motion. At the end of the release is stillness. Space is in both motion and stillness. Light is there too, but harder to perceive, so we'll focus first on space.

Many of you have learned in your vipassana practice to find the space between the objects. The breath; space. A thought arising and passing away, and the space after the thought is gone. A sensation, and the space when it dissolves. You've learned to observe those spaces. You learned to invite consciousness to be aware of both object and space as conditioned objects.

You have also learned how to rest in Pure Awareness and watch the arising of conditioned objects and the space between. In this practice you may have perceived the Unconditioned nature of space. Mundane consciousness cannot perceive the Unconditioned aspect but Awareness can. Thus, there is seeing on two levels. Mundane consciousness perceives the conditioned level of space. Awareness knows the Unconditioned essence of space.

All material or mental objects have a conditioned expression and an Unconditioned essence. Space has both a conditioned expression and an Unconditioned nature. With space as object, this insight into the conditioned expression and unconditioned nature is more accessible than with most objects.

So it's all there together, conditioned and Unconditioned. Resting in Awareness, you no longer take the conditioned objects as solid things, separate from a self, but simply see them. The hand opens and the sand pours out (doing this with the sand). The ground of being opens and expression pours out. Think of a giant cornucopia. All you see pouring out is sand and sea and sky and sun. Somewhere at the bottom is the Pure heart of it all.

We're talking about the simultaneity of relative and absolute. On the relative plane, objects arise out of conditions. On the ultimate plane, there is the Unborn, Undying, which we may call Source or Ground of Being, Love, God or Goddess, whatever you want to name it. It doesn't matter what you call it. This is the Ground out of which everything has exploded. Some people think that there was a Big Bang and everything came into being; others think God said, "Let it be" and it came into being. These concepts do not matter. There is this Ground and everything is expression of it.

So in vipassana you see the conditioned objects and you begin to see the Ground. You see the Ground in part through the space between objects, the bits of the Unconditioned that filter through between the objects. In dzogchen you rest in Pure Awareness mind touching everything. Nothing is solid. Everything that arises is simply expression of the Unconditioned, arising and passing away. You cease to distinguish between conditioned and Unconditioned objects with dzogchen. The sand of course rose out of conditions on the relative plane and yet right here is a handful of the Unconditioned. What else would it be?

In your personal experience, when something comes up that jars you, creates agitation, fear, or discomfort, you contract. It's not a release/contract kind of movement, it's contraction. It's held in the cellular tissues of your body, it's held karmically from this and many past lives, in the body. It's held in the emotions. It's held in the mind. There is the experience of contraction that feels solid.

I want you to try an experiment with me. I'd like you to think of something painful, unpleasant. Think about it as if it were really approaching you, a person you don't like, whom you see walking down the path, a big storm blowing in from the sea, or sharp pain in the body that might be building up. Feel the tension around it. Allow yourself to feel contraction. I want you to be able to label, "This is contraction."

long pause

Now release it. Send it on its way with the wind.

Now bring in a very pleasant thought. Something joyful, perhaps a thought of gratitude: how wonderful it is to be sitting on this beautiful beach sharing the dhamma together. What a gift! Feel the joy. Can you feel the spaciousness in your body? Can you feel that it is a very different experience than the contraction?

Resting in Awareness, when your thought comes, it's an unpleasant thought, there's contraction that pulls you out of rigpa, out of Awareness. The instruction is to ask: anything here that is other than the Unconditioned?

Your ability to answer that question is dependent upon your vipassana practice at first. If I asked the question of somebody who doesn't have any clue about what the Unconditioned is, they can't say, "Yes, this an expression of the Unconditioned." How would they know that? What is the Unconditioned?

But when you've done some vipassana practice, rested in that space and had glimpses of the Unconditioned, you start to be able to answer with more certainty. This negative thought, this angry or grudging thought: it's just an expression of the Unconditioned. This itch, this heat or cold — the Unconditioned expressing itself in myriad ways. You have learned not to create something separate.

But when you ask, "What is it?" there is an asker, and you snap back into mundane consciousness of the karmic field. Whatever karma is stored within the cellular tissue of the body, whatever karma is stored in the mind, it is then present again. With clarity you may be able to say, "Ah, this unpleasant object is just an expression of the Unconditioned" and return to Awareness. This shift doesn't release the stored karma; it simply takes you back out of the karmic field.

As long as you rest in rigpa, you are out of the karmic field, but the karmic field remains in the conditioned level of your being. Since none of you has totally stable capacity to rest in Awareness all the time, you keep coming into that karmic field and it keeps repeating. The habit energy we've been talking about is reinforced in the mind and the body repeatedly, over and over again.

So that you have spaces of time where there is the ability to touch deeply on Awareness, to respond to the world from Awareness, but then boom! Something happens. You snap back into the everyday mind. The self returns and with it, karma returns.

Here is an example. Let's say you've been sitting and doing dzogchen, eyes open, relaxed, nothing separate, very open and connected, experiencing a lot of joy. Objects are clear but there is no sense of a self and no fixation on what arises. Suddenly a very wet sandy dog leaps up onto your lap. You contract. You look at it, anything other-than the Unconditioned here? No. You relax and shift into Awareness. And then the dog is licking your face, trying to climb on you. You come out of Awareness again. There's irritation.

At this point we shift the practice, and bring attention to contraction itself. Can you see the light and space within the contracted experience? We literally release the contracted experience and allow it to dissolve in light and space.

Now you can't think your way through this, so just like the baby learning to walk, we have to take some baby steps. You can't just say, "Now I'm going to release this." So we practice in a very specific way with light and space. We begin with the dzogchen practice, resting in Awareness. When something comes in and pulls you out of Awareness, instead of asking, "Anything other-than?" and finding your way back to Awareness, you bring attention to the nature and texture of the contraction.

Whatever out there drew you out of Awareness, like a loud noise or the sloppy dog, the contraction itself becomes the primary object. The practice is to invite contraction to dissolve in light and space. Once the contraction is dissolved, if you find yourself back resting in Awareness, that's fine. If not, begin again as at the start of a sitting.

When there is another object that arises that pulls you out of Awareness again, instead of asking, "Anything other-than?" and returning to Awareness, note again, "A contracted state."

It's easy to say, see the light and space within the contracted space, but it's not so easy to do. Here's where the baby steps come in.

I'm going to ask you here to turn around so you can see the ocean. I'm going to lead you in a guided meditation here. Eyes soft and unfocused, just as in the traditional dzogchen practice. Yet let there be a recognition there is sky, there is sea, there is sand, and on your body you can feel the sunlight. This is the simultaneity of relative and absolute.

Feel the breeze blowing. Hear the waves. Feel the heat of the sun and of the sand beneath you.


Focus especially on the sight of sea and sky and the light reflecting from both.

Now here is what may seem at first a conceptual question. The sky is the sky and the sea is the sea. Is that not so? Let the sky become the sea and the sea become the sky. Let them mix. How can the sea not be in the sky—the sky is not filled with visible clouds, but of course there's water vapor in it. How can the sky not be in the sea, which certainly has oxygen as part of the water element.

Don't do this conceptually though; do it with a soft gaze that allows you to see that they are one. They are two expressions of the One. There's nothing separate there.


Once you have established the unity of sea and sky, bring in the sand, the earth element. Mingle the earth element with the sea and the sky.


You can add the fire element in either of two ways, with the feeling of the sun on your back or the brightness of the sun as it touches the sand and sea and sky. So practice in this way until all four elements are mingled together.

I'm going to pause my talk let you work for about ten minutes with this and then we'll talk.

long pause

Please note; while they mingle, the sea also remains sea, the sky is sky, the sand is sand, fire is fire. We're not denying the relative reality expression, only transcending that expression. Each element is unique and each element includes all of the others.


If you have come to a place where they seem to mingle, then include space in it. I can only give you clues here. For example, within your breath, the in-breath, space, and out-breath. The space you have found at the end of a thought before a new thought arises. Look at the sea and sky and sand that break up. Find all the space, not just mundane space as the space between molecules, but find the vastness, the Unconditioned, mingling with these elements.

long pause

When this tool becomes stable, this is the tool you will use within the contractions in the body and mind. I will talk further about that. So today please focus just on mingling sky, sea, sand, and fire and the space.

What have you experienced, what questions do you have? Let me begin with the simple question: did anybody feel it begin to mingle? Tell me about it, tell us all about it. How did that feel?

Q: Vipassana noted the mundane aspect of the elements as separate but I also was resting in awareness where the elements mingled. It came together.

Aaron: So consciousness observed the presence of the elements and then Awareness observed simultaneity, shifting back and forth. When you say shifting back into vipassana, you mean back into the conscious mind, (yes) and then back into Awareness. That's fine. It's very helpful that you recognized the shift.

Q: I rested in Awareness. Everything became blurred. Everything lacked substance including me. The wind was blowing through me, and I had a sharp awareness that everything expresses in just a different amount of solidity, but nothing is really solid. Everything dissolved.

Aaron: This relates to what the first questioner was experiencing. These two experiences are an essential part of the work that we'll be doing with karma and the release of the contraction. On one level, there is nothing to release. On another level, we release it. But we don't release it again and again; we simply come to that place where it all dissolves. There's nothing solid. But we come to that through the conscious mind and not just Awareness. The Awareness mind already knows this. We then bring it to a more conscious experience through the body, through the chakras. We will turn these outer elements into the inward air, water, fire and ground elements. We'll watch how they all intermingle with space. We'll watch the arising of the contraction into that intermingled space, and observe that the contraction is just that earth, air, water, fire energy.

Q: I felt a strong contraction when an airplane, a jet, made a lot of noise. Then the noise merged with all other sounds. At the time I heard the jet, there was a strong contraction in my spine and then this air just moved through it and dissolved.

Aaron: This relates to energy and it relates to the vibrational frequency of the body. The jet has a certain vibrational frequency. Your body was very open and (sound effect), interacted with that. It all becomes just as the air, water, ground, and fire; it becomes part of everything within you and dissolves into space.

Q: I was amazed at how solid the contraction was, and yet it was not solid.

Aaron: Exactly. This is the power of this practice. It's very, very powerful. I don't want to call it a beginner's luck, you have been practicing for many years, but it does demonstrate the power of this. But also don't expect it to happen regularly in that way until it stabilizes.

Q: I was confused.

Aaron: You were confused. Share it with us.

Q: It seems that when Pure Awareness is stable, there's no sense of body.

Aaron: There's no self. Yes.

Q: So I don't get the connection.

Aaron: When there's no sense of body, is there any sense of a separateness of sea and sky?

Q: No.

Aaron: That's fine. Can you carry that state with you 24 hours a day? No. When the umbrella blows or the jet flies through, does the body come back for a moment? [Q: Yes.] And then the sea is the sea and the sky is the sky.

At that point, instead of practicing in the old way of saying "Anything other-than?" and reminding yourself to come back into the Unconditioned, work with the conditioned experience of contraction. Relax into the intermingling of the elements on the conditioned level.

Q: So back to vipassana?

Aaron: Not quite. You come back to vipassana temporarily; you are back to conscious noting. But you are still resting in awareness. There is a self that begins the practice noting the intermingling of the elements, bringing it all together. And each time something jars you out of that connection, you remind yourself to re-invite it. The reason this is such a good place to practice is that we have the elements here. But then you're going to need to take it indoors, do it in a closed space, finding the elements within your body and working with them.

Q: Then when I'm in my body, that's not dzogchen?

Aaron: We begin dzogchen in the body. We invite the opening into the Pure Awareness in the body. As the Pure Awareness mind opens, there still may be a strong sense that there's a body present, it's simply no longer your body. There's no self-identity with it. But you're not spaced out into a place where the body is absent. One of the powerful facets of dzogchen is that mind remains, body remains. It's not like the deeper vipassana experience where the mind and body simply dissolve. There IS a body; there's no self-identity with the body. Within that body, mind can investigate the interplay of the elements, of the merging of the elements.

Then one brings that same practice to contraction within the body, so there has to be body awareness. But it's not conditioned consciousness that's aware of the body; it's Pure Awareness that's aware of the body. And then Pure Awareness that's aware of the arising of the contraction, just like it's aware of the jet flying through. And then one brings light and space into the contraction, sees the whole karmic nature of it and releases it. And at that point, it truly releases out of the system, not a temporary release. It can be reintroduced but for that moment it's released. I don't want to say for that moment; at that time, the whole karmic stream of that particular factor is released, although it can be reintroduced if one is not careful.

Q: When there is a contraction, do you bring light and space to the contraction or is the light and space inside the contraction?

Aaron: It's already inside the contraction but one may need to go through the process of practice before one recognizes it within. One practices in this step-by-step way, mingling the elements outside the body then mingling the elements inside the body, then mingling the elements and space outside the body, mingling them inside the body. Then bring that same Awareness to the contraction, seeing the elements in the contraction and mingling them with space and light. But you've got to practice; you've got to get stable at this in meditation before you turn to the contraction itself.

Q: I was watching it dissolve. It was very powerful.

Aaron: Yes, and eventually one literally finds the karmic knots in the karmic stream within the body that are holding that particular kind of thought or habit energy, and sees it as a knot. When rope is tangled, if you try to pull at it, it tangles more, but if you shake it, it comes apart. It releases. That's really what you're doing with karmic knots. There are more factors to this. Ideally if we had a month to work with this practice, with some vipassana but mostly this, I would have all of you working for the first week intensively with the chakras and identifying the core and back meridians of chakras. I would have all of you observing the varied vibrational frequencies in the body and getting to know high vibrational frequency of spaciousness, and the low vibrational frequency of the contraction, the karmic knot.

And then we would do this practice and begin to bring this deeper insight of the simultaneity of the elements, not separate from one another, into observed contraction. But we have just this week. Just stabilize this for now and if it feels stable, then turn your gaze in to the elements in the body and become aware of the non-duality of elements and space within the body. And then when that becomes somewhat stable, bring attention to habitual contraction. Begin to see it as a knot and see the elements in it, and feel the light and space in it and feel it shake apart.

Q: Is the light and space synonymous with Divine Love?

Aaron: That's a very hard question for me to answer. The light and space is in no way incompatible or different than Divine Love but I would not say it's synonymous. Divine Love is one expression or one face of that light and space, but it's not the only face of it. The light and space is an aspect of the Unconditioned, which you might call Divine Love. So it depends how you use the term Divine Love, but I think as you're using it, you're using it as one expression of the totality of divinity or Unconditioned.

We're getting to know all of these expressions and the ever-presence of them within what we had previously experienced as contracted. On the supramundane level there is no karma. There's nothing to release. Nevertheless, on the mundane level, there's karma. In order to release the karma, we have to do it from within the mundane level while knowing that there was nothing to release.

That's enough for today. My blessings to all of you.

Susan and Martha Go To Thailand
Susan Klimist and Martha Zingo

Our trips to Thailand were the result of many threads … longing to travel, wanting to see what life was like in a Buddhist country; wanting to be of service there (instead of just a tourist); wanting to open hearts in a new way; wanting to explore the borders, both personal and international. All of this rolled together! So in July 2004, Susan and Martha took off for three weeks to the Thai-Burmese border and landed in Mae Sot—a malaria-ridden border town, home to Dr. Cynthia Maung's Mae Tao Clinic. Susan would work in the clinic; Martha would teach English and assist with report writing in the office.

Although we went to offer service, we received much more than we contributed. Eyes and hearts wide open, we worked with refugees from one of the most brutal regimes in South East Asia. The refugees we encountered were deeply traumatized; they had been injured, starved, and imprisoned. They were also loving, resourceful, full of hope, longing for education and safety for themselves and their children.

And once you know what life is like on the border, with its endless challenges and rewards, how can you ever turn your back again? Two years later, Susan and Martha are now the co-directors of the Burmese Relief Center – USA. We are a non-profit organization that supplies direct material aid to the refugee groups on the Thai-Burma border, through grants for training programs and projects that will generate income, medical supplies and textbooks, and children's sweaters. Yes, it gets cold there in the winter! We've helped to build nursery schools and latrines; we have supplied food for the children, and much more.

We are preparing a 3rd border trip for November 2006. We will meet with refugee groups all over the Thai-Burma border. We will listen deeply. Sometimes that is exactly what is needed. We will convey the message that they are not forgotten. We will deliver supplies and offer both support and love. Along the way, we will do some hard traveling to incredibly beautiful places. We will visit temples and monasteries, waterfalls, and refugee camps. We will eat really well—or not, stay in some real dives, have some great adventures, and accept challenges on every level. We will probably continue to ask "who am I and why am I here? How can I help: How much can I open my heart to suffering without turning away? Do I really need a hot shower? A cold shower? A blanket? A bed? Where are the borders and how can I cross them? How can we dissolve the borders and come to the place where we are all one?"

Burmese Relief Center—USA (BRC)—is sponsoring a sweater drive, beginning in September, for refugee children on the Thai-Burmese border. Temperatures can range from 50° F to 29° F.

Clean children's sweaters and fleeces in good condition in all sizes will be delivered in November to refugee groups at the Thai-Burma border. New, outgrown, garage sale, or Salvation Army sweaters would be great. If you would like to donate sweaters to keep a child warm this winter, please contact Susan Klimist or Martha T. Zingo at 734-327-9369 or at brc.usa@gmail.com to arrange a drop-off time and place. BRC-USA is a 501(C)(3) non-profit organization. Receipts available upon request.

Looking at Death
Dianne Austin

Why does the Buddha want us to look at death? He wants us to look at death in general, yes, and the reality of impermanence. But he also wants us to stare unflinchingly at our own deaths, to look at each part of our precious bodies; hair, nails, teeth, skin, sinews, bone, bile, etc. until we are convinced we are not other than any object in nature. As such we are subject to the same inevitable laws of birth and death. He asks us not to be squeamish, but rather take a long look at the charnel grounds, and if we don't have one handy he is willing to describe the organic process of death for us in vivid detail.

But why is the Buddha so intent on keeping us from looking away? What can be learned here? Certainly we all know intellectually that some day—in that great distant future—there is that fuzzy likelihood that perhaps we too may in fact die. But heavens, why dwell on such a morbid and life defying thought?

We certainly have a fascination with death in this culture. When I looked at Amazon for some reference books dealing with death, there were 34,370 titles to choose from. Death is also evident in other media. So much in TV and the movies is about conflict, violence, and crime with murder as commonplace, all with more and more graphic visuals. In so many video games people role-play killing for sport. In most of these instances death is for entertainment, the spectacle of it. We have seen so many bodies blown up in spectacular explosions and whole armies being mowed down by the good guys. In most of these there is little, if any, emotional content for these deaths. Indeed, those that die are seen as the enemy, the bad guy, the other. That feeling of otherness is a safe insulator from evoking much sentiment. It seems we have a voracious appetite for the spectacle of death. But I think we may be using this familiarity to further isolate us from seeing death as "real."

Even when hearing about death on the news, watching "the top story tonight," complete with 10-30 seconds of a grieving family member, to us they are distant, separate, other. We may be moved by these stories, horrified or saddened, but there is not time to linger. The next political scandal or health report is coming up next!

We rarely slow down to let these deaths into our hearts. They bounce off that strong protective barrier we have grown around that most tender and vulnerable part of ourselves. I think we may use these images not to remind us of our own death, as the Buddha is suggesting, but to build and maintain the callous around our heart. It seems like a good strategy. We can't go around crying all the time for all the death in the world, or obsessing with fear and dread about our own and our loved one's deaths, right?

So where do we put these "facts of life?" For most of us, they are on the outside of our poor walled-off heart with all the other deaths, big and small. And if death in all its forms must be rejected, what else gets left outside our own circle of compassion? What about when the body is sick and in pain? That points dangerously to the frailty of this body and eventual death. So, for many of us, pain and illness have no place in our own heart. Pain is the enemy, the unwanted, something to get rid of as soon as possible by any means necessary. For most of us, the bigger the pain is, the more frantic and fearful we are to keep it away. Also left outside the gates of our heart are all the little and not so little deaths we suffer in our lives: the family member who doesn't think we measure up, the friend that has let us down, feeling left out, not getting what we want, day after day. All this gets left outside the walls of the heart with the ever-watchful sentries of fear, anger, disappointment, revenge, and depression. Each of us has our own favorites in the army against what hurts in life. But the important thing is it is the war of us against life.

So why does the Buddha ask us to open not just our minds but also our battle-hardened hearts to our own death? Because as we open, even the tiniest bit to that possibility, the habit of hardening our heart is reversed.

I have been re-reading Steven Levine's book Healing into Life and Death. It is a comforting and heart-centered book. His message is very simple: can we open our hearts to it all, or more realistically, to just a little more than before? Can we start, breath by breath, to stay with the hurt just a second or two longer before our protective army swarms into action?

He and his wife, Ondrea, have lots of experience working with people who have life threatening illnesses. He makes it clear that the healing he is talking about is not only returning the body to a pre-illness state, rather it is a healing of the heart. To finally be at peace with all of life, to let our battle weary heart soldiers rest, what would that be like? How do we learn to be at peace with all of life? How do we find peace, not just when things are running smoothly, but even in the face of great pain and illness, even death?

Levine describes this process as having mercy and compassionate awareness for all that is in our experience. Mercy for the sensation of pain itself, and mercy for the guards of the heart when they storm in to protect us. Can we have mercy and understanding for the General of Fear, compassion for the Sergeants of Hate and Panic, and love for the Foot Soldiers of Despair and Grief? It is a tall order, a big change for many of us. But, it is also what this Vipassana meditation is all about: choiceless compassionate awareness for whatever arises.

Levine writes that when these people stop the war and are able to let even the most distressing reality into their heart, they become "weller than well." For many that translates into a remission of the illness, some even experience "miracle cures." However, others who have done this work are able to meet their death with an open heart, with peace. These people have seen into the darkest, seemingly solid habits of self and have managed to change. They have been able to heal past wounds and conflicts with others and within themselves. They have let go, breath by breath, of self-hate and judgment. In so doing they have let judgments, fear and hatred of others go as well. There are stories of reunions with long-estranged loved ones, of completing the unfinished business of life, healing the hurts that were kept out of the heart for so long. Indeed, with so little armor left around the heart to keep life out, there is a new appreciation for each moment of life. They are present in this very moment, fully experiencing each new sensation with an open and merciful heart. Everything is seen as part of life itself. All is taken into this tender heart and seen as precious, as part of the divine, as love. Nothing is kept out; all is welcome and seen through this heart of love as love itself.

Back in December and January I had my own war with pain and illness. I thought because I'm a long-time mediator I could / should be able to watch what arises, label it, and not be reactive. But really what I was doing was trying to stay as far away from the experience as possible. I was able to note the discomfort, but instead of a softening of the heart, the energy was to get rid of it. And this aversion to the pain, the fear of what might come next, was hidden, kept out of my heart. It was like Mickey Mouse in the Sorcerer's Apprentice. The more I tried to chop away the pain, to get rid of the fear, the more fear would grow up from the splinters.

Another warrior on the barricade around my heart was depression. I was sick, and in pain, so I stayed in bed. When my energy was very low, suppressed, depressed, the fear wasn't so obvious. Then when that didn't make the pain and fear go away, anxiety mounted a full-scale attack. That is when I finally gave up and remembered that the healing that I was seeking was not going to be found in Doctors and more tests, but in the heart.

I talked with Barbara and Aaron. They reminded me it is my highest self's intention to open my heart to this life, even if that is pain in the body and a mind in distress. I listened to their advice and practiced the visualizations and energy exercises they gave me. I took appropriate medication to attend to the cycle of panic.

What Steven Levine writes about in his book happened to me. As I stayed with the pain and mental discomfort, my heart opened. It had opened not just to myself, but also to so many beings that have and have had this kind of pain, even to their death. Over and over I let in the truth of this suffering, mine, and so many others who also feel pain, fear, loss of control, and panic. I could open my heart to all of us. The war would ease up when it was no longer me against my pain and fear, but a recognition that all of us are in this together. All beings everywhere have pain in their bodies, and distress in their minds. I began to let it all into my heart, and I cried, and when I cried, the fear and pain would diminish. It was a cleansing grief for me. I opened to our frailties, our pain and self-judgments. My heart has begun to soften.

Peace and calm and even joy comes in when the heart remembers not just the universal pain, but that we are all part of the universal heart. We are a part of God, a part of the unconditioned. When my heart is open to all that is life, including my pain and even death, and open to all our pain and deaths, I am also in the one heart, where there is only peace.

I am not "there" yet. The warriors are quick to erect walls to protect me. More and more often I can let them rest, maybe just for a breath or two, but it is changing. What helps me is to remember my connection to all beings, to all of life. The First Foundation of Mindfulness tells me to be present in each breath, alive to this very moment, to whatever the body may be experiencing. The Buddha asks us to keep our hearts open to all of it, our pain and all beings' pain. Then when our inevitable death comes, we won't have to meet it with fear and panic. My wish for all of us is that when our death comes we will be at peace, with no regrets, resting in the one open heart.

I think this is why the Buddha asks us to take death as our closest companion and most honored teacher. To let death into our open heart means we can stay open to life itself, all of it, in this very moment.

Retreat Haiku
Susan Klimist




White sky turns deep blue
Night covers the sleeping tree:
A few stars shine through


A cloudless blue sky
Is obscured by the branches
The view from the ground


Snow falls on oak tree,
Willing to wear a new dress:
Black arms held up high.


Flocks of birds fly through,
February eaves trough drips
Can it really mean…

  Spring rain pouring down
Day after day of grey skies –
Daffodils shining


Sleep, eat, sleep, yoga
Eat, sleep, sit, walk, eat, sit, sleep
Repeat as needed


Sit, walk, sit, walk, sit
Sleep, eat, sit, walk, sit, walk, sleep
One seamless piece, whole

Still Pond
Mary Ledvina

I am the still pond
of consciousness.
A new amazing thought hits me like a drop of water.
I ripple
and more ripples go outwards
in circles.
My consciousness is expanding dramatically from this one drop of water.
I am completely changed
and will never be the same.
Then the pond
becomes still again
and I incorporate
the new thought
into my consciousness
as other thoughts evaporate
and still others drop through me,
expand me
and become a part of me.
I am either rippling with thoughts
or being still
and letting thoughts evaporate
and soak into myself.

Diane Kimball

Become a grain of sand
lifted by the wind
through the petal gate of a thistle,
soon bound to a bee's leg
you find shelter in the honeycomb
only later to sweeten the wine
poured in a village café
for travelers lost
in picture postcards of turquoise
mirrors catching beaches
in the sun's eye
you see your self
dissolve into the question
What is kindness?

Traveling with Beginner's Mind
Katy Mattingly

For some reason, I went to New Zealand last fall. For four and a half months. It was a massive, unprecedented exercise for me in being open to the present moment. I didn't know anyone there, I didn't have a place to stay, I didn't have a job, or a plan. I had a reservation for my first two nights at a hotel near the airport, $4,000 and an inexplicable longing to be there. That's it.

For years I'd been idly fantasizing about moving somewhere warmer, or maybe just going to a sunnier part of the U.S. But that's not really why I went.

I went to New Zealand because one day, at the Sunday morning meditation class, Susan walked in, sat down on a cushion, and announced that this week instead of talking about pure awareness states, we were going to go there together. And we did. I sat with a group of people, and after eight years of struggling to meditate, my mind emptied and I was no longer burdened by an attachment to mySelf. It was quiet and peaceful. It was astonishingly foreign and it felt like finally coming home. And when I came out of it, it had somehow, wordlessly become clear to me that I was to fly to New Zealand. If I remember correctly, this made me cry tears of shock and amazement.

A paragraph like the above would have really bugged me early on in my meditation practice. I would have had a thousand questions along the lines of WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT? And THAT DOESN'T MAKE ANY SENSE! For a while I thought that there just must be a lot of terrible translation from Japanese and Korean in the Zen texts I was reading. I mean for crying out loud: "form is emptiness, emptiness form"? That can't be right! Yep. It doesn't make any sense. I know. It just is.

Here's a little bit about what happened for me.

There may be people who love not knowing where to buy soy milk or how the toilet works. I'm not one of them. Beginner's Mind freaks me out. I got better at it, but for weeks and weeks I felt startled, clingy, and a little stunned most of the time. Traveling was actually so anxiety producing for me that I doubled my morning meditation time in defense. Getting shaken out of complacency? Turns out it feels like BEING SHAKEN.

I stumbled into a sangha called Friends of the Western Buddhist Order because I rode the wrong bus. We chanted the refuges in Pali with thick New Zealand accents (imagine the child of the Queen of England and a Texas oil baron). I began to experience Time Expansion. After a one-hour chanting and meditation service, we'd have tea and conversation. For hours. I'm sure there must be workaholics in New Zealand, but I never met them. Every person I came into contact with seemed to have hours and hours and hours of free time. Conversation was slow, service was slow, people I asked to point me toward the bus station would stop and talk to me for half an hour.

Cab drivers, students, working moms, immigration lawyers, the guy making my cappuccino … no one hurried. I spent six weeks in Auckland, the capital, where no one rushed but the American tourists.

At Friends of the Western Buddhist Order I met a dancer who invited me to come live with her for awhile after a half hour's conversation. Another day after services I smiled at a woman, thinking we'd met at the backpacker's. We hadn't, but after having lunch we decided to buy a car together. She was from Northern Ireland, and had just spent three months in Dharamsala, the home of the exiled Dalai Lama and the seat of Tibetan culture in India. We spent almost 3 months on the road together after that chance meeting.

Sometimes being constantly challenged to think and behave outside of my comfort zone felt exhilarating. My meditation and dream time was incredibly full and rich. I felt very Awake. Every day I met people who have chosen radically different ways to live on the planet, and they'd tell me stories about hundreds of others. From the young Steiner School parents selling chai out of teepees on the festival circuit, to the south islander who house sits for free on the ocean all winter, to the couple with adult children who left the big city to live in a macadamia nut orchard near hot water tide pools. The world is bigger than I ever thought possible. We all have so many choices.

My friend and I worked for ten days at a Tibetan Buddhist retreat center on the North Island. They had a bunch of American kids visiting on a year abroad program, and I loved them because I had someone in front of me all day who was MORE confused than I was.

The Kiwi Buddhists didn't know quite what to make of the American kids, and seemed surprised when they took hot showers or put sugar on their porridge (oatmeal). I, on the other hand, had a good idea what they were going through, and told them funny stories about blowing my nose during sittings and monkey mind and how angry I got when I had to wash the Toronto Zen temple's bathroom 1ten days in a row without any bleach or hot water. It was so satisfying to feel like I could help someone else after weeks of helplessness.

From the front porch of their Center you could look out over about ten acres of land, and beyond into the small valley around the town of Colville (literally one block long). The grounds are dotted with Buddha statues. I watched one of the monks lovingly wiping off a golden Buddha with ecologically correct soap powder. He wears the long, maroon robes of a Tibetan Buddhist and a giant Crocodile Dundee sunhat. Huge white lilies grow freely, as common as dandelions, and they're clustered down around the stream bed that leads toward town. About a third of the surrounding hills are covered with pasture for the cows and sheep, a third with pine forests as a cash crop, and a third with native "bush," which looks tropical and ferny. We took a three-hour hike up one of the mountains and got to see the teal and navy harbor waters on one side and the Pacific Ocean stretching away from the Bay of Plenty on the other.

Inside the gompa they have depictions of many Buddhas, including about 50 different Taras on all four walls inside, and you're not supposed to point the bottoms of your feet at any of them. You should have seen us trying to do yoga respectfully. On the outside someone painted a series of murals chronicling the Buddha's life in bright blues, oranges, golds, and reds. Every morning around 4:30 am I was woken by cows bellowing. Because of the valleys they get an enormous echo going and sound completely amplified, transforming this pedestrian animal into something worthy of the fantastic environment. We later met a man building a vegan community (by hand, with clay and straw) who explained that this bellow is actually the grieving of a mother whose calf is missing, taken away so humans can keep her milk.

The retreat center land was also dotted with small cabins, red and gold with tiny porches and more prayer flags. People can come from the city to rent one for a weekend, but they're mostly occupied by priests and nuns on long-term solitary retreats. One woman was in the first 30 days of a three-year silent retreat. I sent her metta, and wondered if she was disturbed by the giggling American teenagers sneaking a smoke behind the "ablution block" (showers). Some of the retreatants have their own gardens, and they also have food dropped off on their porches by a Czech couple who live here as caretakers. One of the nuns has a goat, which seems to me to be the way to go. If I were on a three-year silent retreat, I would like to have a feisty animal companion who eats my garbage.

Oddly enough, the locals had a harder time with my friend's lovely, broad Belfast accent than with my Flat Midwestern one, so I sometimes got to act as her translator. Here's a typical Adventure in English:

Kiwi Man: Deed inyone lead the miditytion yistahday? Or was it on yah owen?
Belfast: It was laid.
Kiwi Man: It was lid?
Belfast: It was laid.
Kiwi Man: It was lid?

Those CAPS indicate that in New Zealand, everyone always thought I was shouting. I spent my first month asking everyone to speak up before I realized it was on purpose. This former British colony is both tidy and unbelievably soft spoken. So imagine the Meditation Centers of an extremely quiet nation! I felt like a bull in a china shop.

Every day several people would ask me why I had come to New Zealand and where I was going next. I didn't know what to tell them. I started making stuff up. Imagine waking up tomorrow morning and every morning thereafter and being asked over breakfast "So what's your plan? What are you trying to accomplish here? Why are you here in this room right now?" It's like being asked to supply a thesis statement on your life every 24 hours. Sometimes I'd have an acceptable answer. For example: "I'm going to spend a few nights in Lake Taupo and then take the ferry to the South Island. At some point. Probably." But most of the time, I had No Answer to give.

And of course — the biggest pressure comes from my own internal questioning. Am I going back? When? Will I apply for citizenship? Should I go to Mexico? India? Can I go without getting typhoid? What about Plum Village? Hmm. Am I interested in taking vows? I would very much like to pretend to have a coherent life thesis, and a clearly marked path, but since New Zealand I find that I am less able to plan for the future than ever before.

One Day at a Time has a whole new resonance.

Aaron Quote

Look out your window and see the trees, the clouds, the small insect creeping up the glass.
You are all of that and more.
You are divine; you are love.

~ Aaron

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