I had the privilege to lead a retreat recently where I had not chosen the theme. I’d been asked to step in for a friend who was unable to lead it. The topic had already been set and blurb had been publicised for a while before I took it on. The main theme was the Brahma Viharas (divine abodes) and their relation to Insight and I knew the previous leader had intended a particular way of approaching the insight component.
I may have previously said on this blog (as I say on many of the retreats I lead) that I’m a bit of a one trick pony! I’ve immersed myself in a particular approach to practice for many years and I know it really well. To a large extent, it is the framework through which I view the Dharma and spiritual practice. Awareness as an Insight practice is a thrilling and fascinating journey, even whilst the average ‘sit’ can be full of mind wandering or physical discomfort.
So, here I was, with a theme I was not unfamiliar with, but not one that I felt I knew in my bones, or that I loved as a way of practice. This is not unusual for many dharma teachers I know who can turn their hand to a multitude of facets of the Buddha’s teachings, but it was for me, especially to do so for a whole week. I was intrigued as to how it might work, how I might work, and how my existing way of looking at the Dharma through the lens of mindfulness practice would influence the practices of loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity.
Each morning session started with a short led meditation encouraging the traditional forerunners of the Brahma Viharas; generosity and gratitude. I pointed us to notice the small or large moments of appreciation, of giving and receiving, and the gratitude that can quite naturally arise. It was early autumn and we had some bright, clear days and the gardens at Rivendell were looking stunningly beautiful. It wasn’t hard to be in touch with gratitude for all the work by volunteers that had gone into that. Then there were the broader factors. Some were there because their partner was generously prepared to be a solo parent for the week. Others had been helped financially to be there. So many conditions had had to come together for each of us to be on retreat that week.
You barely had to think about it once the thought of gratitude or generosity was in the mind. The heart was just touched and the mind and body responded as these qualities came more into being. Recognising things like the physical relaxation and ease in the body, or a pleasurable mental softening brought further appreciation. From these moments of noticing, of awareness, it was a very small and natural step into the open mind of metta (loving-kindness).
The ‘barely having to think about it’ attitude of receptivity to what was already there in experience was one of the main ways I felt the retreat was influenced by awareness. Noticing where the qualities of compassion or equanimity were already present, even in slight or subtle forms was deeply pleasurable and encouraging to practice, helping those qualities flourish. Noticing too, the near or far ‘enemies’ (in a mean thought or an indifference to someone else’s suffering) without rejecting or indulging them, which would only feed these unhelpful tendencies. A clear-sighted recognition was often enough to allow a deactivation of their power and energy.
We followed the practices through the usual structure and brought specific people to mind but then moved into a more ‘objectless’ mode where we simply allowed metta or mudita to radiate beyond the perceived boundary of the physical body in all directions. This led to a greater sense of freedom from restriction and fixity for many of the retreatants.
What I hadn’t anticipated is what effect the retreat would have on my existing practice. A quality of joy and ease was much more accessible in sitting where I often have a considerable level of physical discomfort. The specific reminders of these beautiful qualities of heart and mind helped me register more clearly where they were present in my experience. I found it profoundly encouraging to clearly recognise e.g. compassion and equanimity in the mind and know their value.
Clearly, there is much more that could be brought out of bringing the Brahma Viharas and the Satipatthana Sutta together, and I hope to lead another retreat on the theme again.