by Sherran Pickering
Sherran is a long time Buddhist student and meditator. She shares what she learned in Course 1A of the Sravasti Abbey Friends Education (SAFE) distance learning program and how it enriched her practice. The next SAFE session begins April 24.
My life has been affected in very positive ways after taking the SAFE course. It brought everything to the forefront of my mind after shaking me up and showing me that change is possible and necessary.
One of the most important aspects is that the course enables one to work from a pure Dharma perspective. It was challenging to think hard about the questions we answered each week, but doing so deepened my understanding, especially regarding the self-centered mind as the culprit behind the disturbing emotions.
Repairing the Pot
My meditation sessions improved, though I am not new to the practice. I found the pointers on how to meditate helpful, and my sessions now leave me with a peaceful mind. The biggest question now is how can I use my time better? Week by week I gained a more solid framework which has proven to be a good basis for repairing my “leaky pot,” that mind that tends not to retain teachings.
Reflections during the first weeks of the course showed me often lost in negative thinking and wondering why. I blamed it on circumstances and needed to steer my mind in a more solid direction. The drawn-out death of a friend made me think of my own inevitable end. The experience of ongoing volunteer work with a client who has Parkinson’s was a constant reminder of how we suffer. I wrote, “I often have emotional residue from the Hospice and am learning to have compassion for myself and others in the face of feelings that arise when facing death.”
As the course began, I actually wondered if my mind could function well enough to answer the questions. Maybe I am getting Alzheimer’s like my sister? But excuses and procrastinations aside, I persevered. I read and reread, and walked around asking myself questions like, “I read and understand but it doesn’t stay coherent. Why?” I figured I was like that pot with a hole in it that they talk about in Lamrim teachings. A phrase I recently read from Shantideva on Vigilance fits:
“With minds like water seeping from a jug
Their learning will not settle in their memories.”
Though I have been practicing for many years, I benefited from “beginners mind” in going over the basic teachings and having to explain them. Studying this firmed up my foundation in those important initial and middle level practices, and I had to patch up some concepts that I had not fully understood before.
The SAFE course outline reflects the Buddhist approach. All the participants posted ideas in the forum that, with much contemplation, helped us to figure out what we thought. How was it possible to get so much out of just a few pages of reading?
The process of reading, study, and writing began to build a framework we could refer back to. I learned to let go of fear and expectations in both my meditation sessions and in the forum. There was no perfect meditation or perfect answer. I only needed to state where I was at with it.
Prior to meditating, as I paused and took time to scan my body, settle my mind and concentrate on the breathing meditation, I found had better results. I confess I may have been doing my meditations too perfunctorily in the past, out of habit. I truly came to enjoy scanning my body, and focusing on the breath in between daily activities. It brought peacefulness into my interactions with others.
I eliminated things that were not helpful, such as listening to news, before sitting. It also worked to actually schedule my evening meditation before getting too tired. I kept it up because looking back through my day changed my perspective. I felt surrounded and protected by the Dharma.
Working with Emotions
The weeks of Working Effectively with Emotions helped reshape my thinking. I reflected, “This course is good for making me think.” I was really starting to look at my mind and see some of the disturbing emotions at work.
The following weeks were important for digging deep into attachment. I wrote “It is an ongoing struggle to keep ahead of attachment.” Through studying these emotions, I learned to see experiences with a different perspective. Instead of feeling my ego almost shatter, I recognized my reaction as just coming from the Eight Worldly Concerns.*
As we discussed the disturbing attitudes in the course, I wanted to put more serious effort into transforming them. I was dismayed at the power anger and attachment continue to have, not to mention my narrow-minded attitudes. I resolved to stop looking for escapes with radio and T.V. I wrote, “I notice my mind is more calm and present without entertainment.”
A line in Ven. Chodron’s book, Guided Meditations on the Stages of the Path, became a mantra for me, “We need to cultivate love continually and to do so with a focused mind.” Also an important thing was to keep in mind that “learning the Dharma is putting it into practice,” while not beating myself up because I am finally seeing my afflictions.
Mindfulness and Introspective Awareness
My meditations focused on mindfulness and introspective alertness, which went a long way to improving day-to-day awareness. Truly, “We are all the same in wanting happiness and not wanting to suffer.” The power of kindness as the cause for happiness was a ray of hope and brought home the teaching that, “Our mind is really the foundation for discerning constructive and destructive emotions and thoughts.” I learned that I was not alone in my afflictions, so there was no point in comparing myself to others any more.
Deciding to make my motivation and dedication more expansive did a great deal to improve my practice in terms of depth and understanding. As one of my classmates said, “Developing a motivation is in itself a training in compassion.”
A lot of the teachings past and present seemed to come together for me. I wrote that I wanted to be, “Persevering more with joy, not just focusing on undesirable circumstances.” But to do that I know I need a clearer mind free of resentment and rage. A healing thought is that the central point of the Buddha’s teaching, compassion, is more powerful than anger and forgiveness means letting go of anger.
Inspired to Keep Going
My aim is to simplify my life and, as much as possible, to let go of my attachment to the Eight Worldly Concerns. “So much suffering stems from pain and chaos caused by the three poisons** and the self centered thought.”
The work done in this course has helped pinpoint some of the confusion in my mind, most of all a tendency to spiral into brooding and feeling inadequate so that nothing I say could be of value.
I reflected that the box that I have myself in isn’t big enough! Seeing deeper, noticing when attachment is small is a good first step. After taking this course, I am inspired to work with my mind “until I get it right,” so hopefully I will continue taking more courses.
Following the Buddhist worldview—reading, listening to teachings, thinking about and discussing it with others—has helped me to learn and use my mind in a beneficial way.
* The eight worldly concerns—craving sense pleasures, possessions, praise, and a good reputation, as well as aversion to not getting these four— are the chief distractions to practicing the Dharma and transforming our minds. These eight thoughts dominate our lives, cause us problems, and make us waste our potential.
** The three poisons or three poisonous attitudes are ignorance, anger (hostility), and attachment. They poison our mind and motivate actions that poison our relationships.