Shaila Catherine is the founder of Bodhi Courses (bodhicourses.org) an online Dhamma classroom, and Insight Meditation South Bay, a meditation center in Mountain View, California (imsb.org). She has been practicing meditation since 1980, with more than eight years of accumulated silent retreat experience, and has taught since 1996 in the USA, and internationally. Shaila has dedicated several years to studying with masters in India, Nepal and Thailand, completed a one year intensive meditation retreat with the focus on concentration and jhana, and authored Focused and Fearless: A Meditator's Guide to States of Deep Joy, Calm, and Clarity, (Wisdom Publications, 2008). She has extensive experience practicing and teaching mindfulness, loving kindness, concentration, and a broad range of approaches to liberating insight. Since 2006, Shaila has continued her study of jhana and insight under the direction of Venerable Pa-Auk Sayadaw, and authored Wisdom Wide and Deep: A Practical Handbook for Mastering Jhana and Vipassana (Wisdom Publications, 2011).
This talk explores the practice meditation in silent retreats. What are the reasons and benefits for attending a meditation retreat? How can one undertake retreat most effectively. Retreats offer opportunities for deep relaxation; time to set down our worldly identities; let go of the pressures we place upon ourselves to produce and perform; and deeply rest. In the silence of retreat we meet ourselves as we are; we see our patterns, habits, and tendencies; and we discover the causes of suffering and can glimpse the potential to end suffering. We become aware of subtle internal dynamics and thought patterns; we get to know our own minds. Shaila shares that some of the happiest moments of her life have been on retreat, content with little, present and aware of the simple things happening around her. Having spent more than 7 years in silence, Shaila offers helpful tips about what to expect on retreats regarding schedule, instruction, and interaction with the teachers; how to prepare for a retreat including what to pack or not pack; and how to transition back home after the retreat has ended and integrate the insights gleaned through intensive meditation into the complex encounters of everyday life.
We are all vulnerable to aging, illness, and death. Everything born will eventually die. How can we contemplate death in a way that brings us to realize the deathless liberation of mind? How can we go beyond birth and death by facing the reality of our existence? Reflecting on death is one traditional way to contemplate the nature of the body. These meditations include contemplating the decaying corpse, body contemplations, noticing that our friends and loved ones perish. We are all friends who share birth, old age, sickness, and death.
Doubt can be an obstacle to meditation or a form of healthy inquiry. It is helpful to ask questions, to ponder, and be willing to doubt our beliefs and opinions. Ask yourself: are my views true? We hold many unexamined beliefs—beliefs about self, about how things should be, about what other people should do. The Kalama Sutta encourages us to question what we think, and to not adopt beliefs based on hearsay or mere tradition. We can use our minds to critically inquire into how things actually are. Doubt as an obstacle, on the other hand, is a painful state that leads to confusion, fear, indecision, and uncertainty. It manifests as obsessive thinking, planning, and anxiety. The Discourse to Malunkyaputta (Middle Length Discourses, M. 63) proposes that if we indulge in speculative thinking we might miss the opportunity to free ourselves from suffering. Specific suggestions are offered for working skillfully with the hindrance of doubt.
Desire is usually described as a hindrance to meditation, but to realize deathless liberation we must want to be free. A burning desire to awaken opens the heart and mind to a possibility of freedom otherwise not known. This talk examines the force of desire as both a form of craving that perpetuates suffering, and as a necessary and wholesome factor that supports the realization of nibbana (nirvana) and the end of suffering. We examine hindrances, pain, and obstacles from which we want to be free in order to realize unconditioned awakening. Working with desire has some risks, but it is a powerful force that encourages curiosity, investigation, and openness to possibility—the possibility of discovering a profound fearlessness, and enduring happiness, the possibility of enlightenment.