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RETREAT WITH JENNIFER WOODHULL

TURNING PAINFUL EMOTIONS INTO SPIRITUAL ALLIES

 

JENNIFER studied under PEMA CHODRON, well-known American Buddhist nun. PEMAís particular expertise was presenting the MIND TRAINING teachings known as LOJONG and TONGLEN. The purpose of these teachings is to reverse our habitual ego-based patterns, which close our hearts and keep us small and limited in our experience. Normally we try to protect our hearts because we are vulnerable and afraid of getting hurt. But our hearts are longing to open wider. We yearn for deep connection with ourselves, with others, and with our world. The teachings give us the courage needed to open our hearts. They consist of 59 mind-training slogans and a special meditation practice. We learnt some slogans during this weekend retreat, some of which are very briefly summarized below. We had a wonderful weekend and we learnt a lot. Thank you to Jennifer for presenting the teachings, and thank you to all our retreatants, brave spiritual warriors-in-training.  

 

DONíT TURN GODS INTO DEMONS

 

Our wisdom is like a message from the gods that tries to get our attention, but we perceive them as demons and run away. The demons are our shadow side - the parts of us that we are afraid of and reject. We must face our demons, our monsters, and get to know them - the more we know them, the less scary they get, and eventually they go away. It doesnít help to run away, because they will follow us. When demons are present, our challenge is to remain present and learn from them. We canít solve problems by running away, but we can change the way we relate to our experiences. So donít turn gods into demons Ė learn from them, they are messengers in disguise.   

 

REGARD ALL DHARMAS AS DREAMS

 

Reality is dream-like. Like a movie, life consists of a series of instants that follow each other in such quick succession that they appear continuous. Reality is here and now and then gone. Training to bring our mind back to this instant, this moment = training to be present to reality, instead of living in a dream. We have a linear approach to life, and a strong urge for resolution, for completion. This causes us to freeze our experience Ė we try to make our lives stand still, so we can control and manipulate our lives, then we can relax. But we canít control our experience, because life is beyond our control Ė just when we get it Ďrightí it changes. We donít like the uncertainty of being in the middle. BUDDHISM is known as the Middle Path Ė it teaches us to be in the middle. We need to retrain our minds to stay with present experience, knowing there is no end to it. We need to retrain our minds to relax with things as-they-are in each moment, which is a state of impermanence and flux. 

 

The MIDDLE WAY lies between the extremes of nihilism (nothing matters, itís all a dream and then we die and become nothing) and eternalism (everything is fixed, solid and permanent). The Middle Way is the way of not knowing, and this scares us to death! We are very attached to knowing and to trying to control. If we have the courage to stay with the not knowing, without freaking out Ö we let go and create space so that our hearts can open, and our innate love and compassion can manifest. We practice retraining our minds to be in a new model of reality, a new way of being. We gently train our minds, just as one would gently train muscles without straining or hurting them. In this way, we build up our strength and courage. All mystical traditions of all religions train one to be with the mystery Ė of being, of not knowing, of God, of reality, whatever you call it. 

 

PRACTICE THE THREE DIFFICULTIES

 

1. IDENTIFY YOUR REACTIVITY: We usually donít notice our reactivity until it is too late and we have already reacted - and said and done what we didnít want to say and do. Start to notice your patterns of reaction earlier and earlier, so that you can stop reacting. Remember that it all begins with a thought in the mind.  ĎWhen you are aware, it is impossible to cause suffering. When you are not aware, you can cause a lot of suffering.í [PEMA]

 

2. DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT: Pause, create some space. Watch your breath. Do Tonglen practice to open your heart. Cut the storyline of ĎI am right; you are wrong, therefore I am justifiedí. Drop thinking and feel it in your body. Breathe into it to release the feeling, and to relax and open up. This way you are not repressing and you are not expressing. Acting out hurts you more than it hurts the other. It is like eating rat poison and expecting the rat to die! Feel the feeling and let it pierce you to the heart. We are afraid of our feelings, so we have to train to be able to do this. But itís not a bad thing, because this opens our heart, and the more our heart is open, the less we suffer.

 

3. MAKE IT A WAY OF LIFE: Retraining of habitual patterns is hard. Much alertness and discipline is needed. Catch the habit energies again and again Ö and do something different to your usual reactions. Eventually you will establish a new and better habit energy. There will be a shift from habits of suffering and claustrophobia to habits of spaciousness and ultimately happiness. It is essential to be kind to yourself. Do Tonglen practice for yourself, for your own difficulties. Be compassionate towards yourself. Aspiration and compassion are our allies. It takes time to open our hearts, and it takes time to live with them open. We need to develop the skills needed to live with an open heart. 

 

DEDICATION

 

May we live long and be free of illness,

Enjoy freedom, great resources and happiness.

Next life, may we meet in the Pure Realm,

May we always practice Dharma and benefit beings.

 

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