Throughout the emotional skills portion of the retreat, we spent most of our time in lecture , discussion and group work but got started on mindfulness of breathing which is the first method taught for shamatha meditation. When Alan finally arrived we shifted gears into more of a retreat setting. The suggested rule was to maintain some degree of silence , although there was some meaningful chat as we went on walks after the evening teachings. There was also a lot of material to cover in a short time. Our day was broken down into 2, 3 hour chunks where we would spend roughly 1.5 hours in guided meditation and 1.5 hours lecture / discussion. The rest of the day was left for us to practice on our own. I had the great opportunity to offer yoga classes each day at lunch where i would try to incorporate the meditation we were doing that day into a yoga practice.
The first week we would focus on Shamatha or focused attention meditation in the three modes that Alan teaches : Mindfulness of breathing, Settling the mind in its natural state and Awareness of awareness.
Week two would be focused on the four application of mindfulness: mindfulness of the body, mindfulness of feelings, mindfulness of the mind and mindfulness of phenomena.
The last week focusing on the 4 immeasurables: Loving Kindness, Compassion, Empathetic Joy, and Equanimity
Before i describe the practice ill outline the framework in which these are all used in order to cultivate emotional balance. First of all it is helpful to have an understanding of Genuine Happiness.
When we think of happiness we might be able to break it down into two categories: Hedonic Happiness and Genuine Happiness or Eudaimonia. When most of us think of happiness we are most likely focused on the hedonic form of happiness. Which is short is the happiness we get “from” the world. This includes the things out there that will make us happy: money, a nice house, nice car, the perfect job, a healthy good looking body, a partner, fame, power, the newest iphone etc … The problem with hedonic happiness is that ultimately it is unsatisfying because it doesn’t last and it is based on things that are out of your control. What ever material possessions you acquire, just as easy as you got it you can lose it. As we get older our bodies don’t work the way they used to, we have to deal with illness and decay. What ever person we thought was the source of our happiness, will most likely change and not fulfill our unrealistic expectation of being an endless source of happiness. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with enjoying the hedonic pleasures of the world but in so far as there is attachment to them and they are our only source of happiness, we put of self’s in a very vulnerable position. Because as much as we want to hold on to these things that we think are the sources of our happiness they are impermanent and its not a matter of if they will change, it is only a matter of when. All that being said there are certain forms of hedonic happiness that are critical such as , food , shelter/clothing, medical care, education etc .. having our basic needs met. A funny thing about people in the modern world is that once we have our basic needs met, we are not struggling to survive, we have a decent job , friends , family , a house , a car , some entertainment etc … we are not satisfied. When we are really doing OK and there is nothing we should be complaining about for some reason we are still not happy, we need more , we need better, always thinking there is something out there that will finally make us happy.
This is where genuine happiness can finally bring some clarity to the situation. genuine happiness or eudaimonia is a sense of well being, of being at peace, at ease, contentment. It is not a happiness that comes “from” the world , but it is a happiness that comes from what we “bring to” the world. A type of happiness that arises right from the nature of having a balanced mind that is stable, clear and sees reality as it is. A type of happiness that comes from living a life of ethics and virtue. It does not depend on any external stimulus, but comes from within. It is something no one or thing can give us and no one or thing can take away. Its source is unlimited and boundless. You can reflect on your own life and see for your self where most of your time energy and effort is spent. Towards the hunter gatherer approach of trying to seek out and hold on to hedonic happiness or towards the cultivator approach of developing genuine happiness. If you can imagine making the shift where your priorities are towards to cultivation of genuine happiness a source of well being that is always with you, then you can still enjoy hedonic happiness but without attachment because it is not your only true source of happiness. So when things changes, when hedonicly times are good and bad, your happiness does not lie out of your control.
The only way these concepts move from something that sounds good to something that actually transforms your life, is to have some taste, some direct experience that genuine happiness does exist and there is a way to cultivate it. The way to cultivate it, is Dharma. Not only buddhist dharma but jewish, hindu, christian, non religious etc.. By definition the practice of dharma is a practice that leads you closer to genuine happiness, call it by what ever name you like. These particular practices offer one such framework that i can say from my own experience has given me a taste of genuine happiness.
Where the primary focus of the training was on Emotional balance, emotional balance its self isn’t directly achieved it arises as a symptom of cultivating conative balance , attentional balance and cognitive balance. Work on these other areas and you get emotional balance for free.
Conative balance has to do with our intention and motivation, a way of life that is rooted in ethics and virtue. We cant expect to be emotionally balanced our selves if we are living a life that creates emotional imbalance for others.
Attentional balance is making our mind serviceable. Being able to direct our attention at will. To think when you want and be able to keep the mind still when there is no need to think. To some extent we all suffer from what Alan calls OCDD ( Obsessive Compulsive Delusional Disorder ). We have a constant stream of thoughts running through our minds, we tend to identify with these thoughts and we think they are the truth and nothing but the truth. To attain attentional balance is to rid our self’s of this disorder and have a mind, instead of the mind having you.
Cognitive balance allows us to see reality as it actually is. By removing our cognitive bias and distinguishing what is actually being presented to our senses and what we are super imposing on that experience. To not identify with every thought or emotion that happens to us with out our asking. To see that all phenomena are impermanent, not intrinsically satisfying and not who we are.
More on meditation to come …