Tempel Smith spent a year ordained as a monk in Burma and teaches Buddhist psychology and social activism in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is currently part of the IMS/Spirit Rock Teacher Training Program.
Setting up and devoting ourselves to a steady mettā (loving kindness) meditation practice, we start where it is easiest and where we can keep it simple. With a basis of blending a sense of ease and relaxation with patient steady attentiveness, we invite mettā to arise in our hearts supported internally by images and phrases. Though it takes some experimenting to find balance with these tools, the repetition of mettā phrases keeps directing our attention to the purpose of mettā practice. These phrases are so very helpful when we live into more complex or challenging situations.
As we practice mettā meditation we will have waves where the practice feels easy, intuitive and validating; and we will all have waves where we struggle. There are five very common states which visit us in meditation practice called the "five hindrances". These are commonly named in English as craving, aversion, dullness, restlessness, and doubt. For steady mettā practice our first response to these challenges is to practice more carefully with patience determination. The second response is to offer ourselves kindness and compassion during challenging times. For mettā meditation and for the other three brahmaviharas, our third response to challenging times is to turn wakefully towards the qualities of the challenge and see them as only temporary conditions. We can greatly reduce the experience of suffering in the hindrances when we have mindful experience of them.
There are so many ways to practice formal mettā (loving kindness) meditation, and they all benefit from a relaxed mind and body. The proximal cause for samadhi (concentration) to arise is from a deepening sense of happiness, calm, and contentment. Many practitioners are drawn to use will and force to concentrate their attention, and this leads to agitation, frustration, and fatigue. With mettā breathing and body awareness we can cultivate the ease so useful for our hindrances to subside.
Sariputta equated the stream of liberation to being the very same 8 fold path of the Buddha's main teachings. The 8 fold path can be summed up as the three higher trainings: training in Sīla, Samādhi, and Pañña. To stay in the stream which only flow in one direction - liberation - we only need to embrace Sīla (ethical attunement), Samādhi (cultivating beautiful aspects of heart), and Pañña (living with wise perspective). Whether you wear robes on the outside of your body or if you are a lay person, we want to ordain our hearts to wear the inner robes of Sīla, Samādhi, and Pañña.
To find equanimity within us we can reflect on how we naturally feel when in nature. We rarely judge nature or get rigidly stuck on our preferences. We can see a young sapling, a mature tree, a much older tree, and a fallen tree. We can see rabbits and coyotes, insects and birds who eat them. We let nature have its changing seasons. From these reflections we can find the open heart of caring equanimity, just wishing for respectful contact with the truth. Can we bring this to the human realm?
While the 3rd and fourth foundations of mindfulness can be taught as their own separate topics, it can be very useful to look at the language and instruction given in both of them together. In the 3rd foundation we rest mindfully in all cognitive and emotional states as they arise and pass with the courage not to change them. In the 4th foundation of mindfulness we use this deeper intimacy from the 3rd foundation to act most skillfully in how we let go of suffering states and welcome wholesome states.
After receiving many dharma talks and and expanding mindfulness into the 3rd and 4th Foundations of mindfulness, it is important to intentionally return every now and then to 1st and 2nd foundations of mindfulness. This keeps us grounded in the body as a continual pillar of our practice.
In truth we are in a stream of every changing experiences, both internally and externally. AS we develop greater mindfulness and concentration we see through our direct experience everything which arises also passes away. This is the true nature of all conditioned phenomena. Waking up on our Buddhist path reveals our streaming nature, and this is one way of describing the process of becoming a stream enterer.
In daily live many of our actions are habitual and unconscious. The Buddha asked us to be increasingly aware of our motivation and intention behind each action so we can better sort out what is wholesome and helpful, and which actions are connected with greed, harm and ignorance. On a silent retreat we have a chance to see the habits we have and how they drive our behavior.