It took a while for me to adjust to Willow, and I am still adjusting 1.5 years after my first day. The training itself consists of adjusting how we live, bringing aspirations and daily living into harmony. Parts of this adjustment include: getting up at 6 or 5 or 4:40, waking up with an intention to practice (to cultivate the mind for the benefit of all beings) and to continue (begin-again) practicing immediately, chanting whole-heartedly, meditating deeply, exercising vigourously, eating mindfully, and moving through each part of the day while finding a way to hold and be held by our highest aspiration. Adjustment comes with persistence.

Read more about Virabahdra’s journey on his blog:

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Phil, James, Brooks, Virabhadra – Late April 2021

For my first few weeks at Willow, it was Brooks, Phil, and myself. James and others joined as the weeks went on. (Seishin/Jasna was at MAPLE for 4 months of intensive training to become a teacher-leader.) Willow was still embryonic, not yet born: it was a couple of people co-working together and following a schedule inspired by monastic living, in particular, Rinzai Zen Buddhism, via Brooks, via Soryu Forall of MAPLE, primarily via Harada Roshi of Sogenji.

One main difference between lay/householder living and Willow’s modern monastic living is that, at Willow, we meditate for an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening: these two (or more) hours every day are dedicated to doing one thing (one technique) at a time to purify the mind.

Enter: Meditation

After morning chanting, we go directly into sitting. Sitting consists of a 26 minute sit, 4 minute stretch break, and 30 minute sit; relative silence and stillness; and an appropriately energized and stable posture of standing, sitting, lying down, or a rotation between postures.

Do one thing.

Solitude; seculsion from worldly ways.

When you begin to mediate, you enter a different world (in the paraphrased words of Soryu Forall).

In those first few weeks and months, there was a decent amount of discomfort from sitting/postural pain, mental impurity, and so on, and there still is now, 1.5 years later, though now I hold all of it with a lot more equanimity (and concentration power and sensory clarity – see Shinzen Young’s What is Mindfulness). Every sit is a struggle, an embodied and em-mind-ied workout. Whatever comes up, that is what is worked with. Do the technique. Do the technique. Do it. Go.

Then the 5 hindrances show themselves, on and on: Want, Hate, Stupor, Worry, Doubt & Combinations Thereof.

Distraction after distraction, coming back to the technique, minute after minute, coming back, sit after sit, technique, day after day, and eventually, retreat after retreat.

Despite the difficulty and discomfort of meditation, from early on in my stay I would find myself sitting for an extra 30 minutes, 60 minutes, or longer into the night after evening chanting #yaza (night-sit).

I was persistent.

That said, I didn’t have a clear understanding of why we meditated for at least the first year, and I am still not really there (abiding in deep states of joy and peace, understanding the Buddha’s purpose for sitting). One main way I looked at the purpose of the practice earlier on was that I was collecting special experiences that came with insights. The first big example of this that stuck with me came in those first few weeks.

One evening, we were circling, a practice of presence, connection, and truth seeking, kind of like meditating-in-relationship. The practice that day brought up a lot of “stuff” for me, revealing tensions internally and socially.

After the circling, we finished the evenings as usual, with sitting and chanting. There was something deep and heavy that kept me glued to that cushion. Part of it was the way I felt in my body after circling, something to do with a deep sense of loneliness that had been there for as long as I could remember, yet stayed hidden in my guts. I kept sitting, and 30-60 minutes later I was having a pretty wild experience, deep breathing and weeping, feeling a kind of remorse for and insight into how I’d lived and made some of my major life decisions thus far.

The next day, I had the honour of sharing this experience with Brooks who offered me some of the practical wisdom that Soryu had offered to many MAPLE trainees. At Sogenji, when Soryu had a powerful experience of insight he soon after shared it with the Roshi who responded by saying something like “don’t get caught on shadows”.

I soaked up “my” experience for all that it was. I dropped it and kept practicing.

Though meditation practice seemed powerful, I had very little understanding of how it worked and what the ultimate purpose of it was.

Before coming to Willow, I had a sense that meditation would help me regain energy after burning out gradually for a year or so and that it would help me understand myself and the world. After my first few weeks at Willow and through seeing Brooks as my friend and first meditation coach, I had a sense that meditation would help me connect with deeper parts of myself and others thus bringing forth a more trustworthy version of myself as a leader and friend. After months at Willow, Seishin returned and became my first meditation teacher, a living and immediate example of someone who, despite great difficulties, makes clear commitments and sticks by them thereby demonstrating trustworthiness and a care for herself, the dharma, and the world.

Meditation became much more than the 2 hours of daily formal practice.

Meditation affords constantly investigating reality and choosing how to live in each moment.

Ask questions. Get answers.

Kokoro – 心日々新 Kokoro hibi arata nari. “Our mind – new and fresh every day.” Harada Roshi’s calligraphy

Approaching a year after my first day at Willow, meditating for 2 hours a day became tolerable and even enjoyable! The practice bears fruit in life enduringly and momentarily.

My body still has many years to go before it can settle into a form that combines relaxation and energy, stability and uprightness. I continue to work on posture through most hours of the day and reap the benefits of a clearer and more relaxed and energetic mind and body. Meditation is something done with the body.

The path of meditation in circulation with the rest of the eightfold path drives towards many auspicious gates on the horizon. When one’s practice is diligent, ardent, and resolute then they will reach the Jhanas, blameless well-being; and Nibbana, no blowing/windiness.

May all beings abide in blameless wellness and cycle between that and virtuous activity.

Meditation & Sutra, Miscellaneous Excerpts

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“Householders, there are these four types of individuals to be found existing in the world. Which four? There is the case where a certain individual torments himself and is devoted to the practice of torturing himself. There is the case where a certain individual torments others and is devoted to the practice of torturing others. There is the case where a certain individual torments himself and is devoted to the practice of torturing himself, and also torments others and is devoted to the practice of torturing others. There is the case where a certain individual neither torments himself nor is he devoted to the practice of torturing himself, neither torments others nor is he devoted to the practice of torturing others. Neither tormenting himself nor tormenting others, he dwells in the here-&-now free of hunger, unbound, cooled, sensitive to happiness, with a Brahma-like mind.

MN 60 PTS: M i 400 – Apannaka Sutta: A Safe Bet
translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu © 2008
https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.060.than.html

Realization

“I thought: ‘I recall once, when my father the Sakyan was working, and I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, then — quite secluded from sensuality, secluded from unskillful mental qualities — I entered & remained in the first jhana: rapture & pleasure born from seclusion, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation. Could that be the path to Awakening?’ Then following on that memory came the realization: ‘That is the path to Awakening.’ I thought: ‘So why am I afraid of that pleasure that has nothing to do with sensuality, nothing to do with unskillful mental qualities?’ I thought: ‘I am no longer afraid of that pleasure that has nothing to do with sensuality, nothing to do with unskillful mental qualities, but that pleasure is not easy to achieve with a body so extremely emaciated. Suppose I were to take some solid food: some rice & porridge.’ So I took some solid food: some rice & porridge.

MN 36 PTS: M i 237 – Maha-Saccaka Sutta: The Longer Discourse to Saccaka
translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu © 2008
https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.036.than.html

Four Jhanas

“Having abandoned these five hindrances — imperfections of awareness that weaken discernment — then, quite secluded from sensuality, secluded from unskillful qualities, he enters and remains in the first jhana: rapture & pleasure born of seclusion, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation.

“Then, with the stilling of directed thoughts & evaluations, he enters and remains in the second jhana: rapture & pleasure born of concentration, unification of awareness free from directed thought & evaluation — internal assurance.

“Then, with the fading of rapture, he remains equanimous, mindful, & alert, and senses pleasure with the body. He enters and remains in the third jhana, of which the noble ones declare, ‘Equanimous & mindful, he has a pleasant abiding.’

“Then, with the abandoning of pleasure & pain — as with the earlier disappearance of elation & distress — he enters and remains in the fourth jhana: purity of equanimity & mindfulness, neither-pleasure-nor-pain.

MN 60 PTS: M i 400 – Apannaka Sutta: A Safe Bet
translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu © 2008
https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.060.than.html

Resources

Meditation Tips For a Lifetime of Practice – Tasshin

Anything with Shinzen Young:

The Real Deal:

  • Find a teacher who is a trustworthy friend & listen to them
  • Incorporate practice into your daily life
  • Seek monastic training

If you value this post, consider supporting Willow Monastic Academy through making a donation or training with usThis article exists thanks to the support of Willow, a modern monastic training center dedicated to creating wise, loving, and powerful leaders.

Dispatches from Willow is a blog series that offers glimpses in the personal experiences and insights of the residents training at Willow Monastic Academy in Canada.

Presently, there are seven residents (Ryushin Daniel Thorson, Seishin Jasna Todorovic, Vīrabhadra Colin Bested, Jim Drinkle, Cheryl Hsu, Nathan Vanderpool, Dana Lahey) living together at Willow as part of a three-month intensive around Harmonization until November 11, 2021. [Learn more about the ecology of practices in a Stoa talk between Ryushin, Seishin and John Vervaeke]

Each individual has been on their unique paths of healing, growth and meaning-making, as we ask ourselves: “what is worth loving?”