Martin Aylward continues his discussion with us how we can bring forth a more relevant, relational, and potent form of contemporary dharma practice. He begins by exploring the tendency for Western practitioners to rely too much on retreat practice, instead of on the juice that comes from their daily lives, and the need to work more skillfully with our everyday experience.
In particular he highlights the areas of money and sex, as being areas of our lives that have a lot of charge, and yet are usually nominalized in dharma teachings. In 2010 Martin will be leading a special urban-based retreat (or sandwich retreat) entitled Work, Sex, Money, Dharma that deals specifically with these parts of our human experience, in the hopes that we can create a practice of awakening that includes every aspect of our lives.
This is part 2 of a two part series. Listen to part 1, Freestyle Awakening
Vince: Recently we spoke to Rodney Smith. He’s the guiding teacher of the Seattle Insight group…
Martin: Yeah, yeah, I know him well.
Vince: Okay, great. And he’s also focusing on something like freestyle Buddhism, or he’s calling it “Urban Dharma,” but we talked to him a little bit about how that view, that approach, that retreat life, and life-life are not separate, that they’re part parcel of what we do, how that view has really changed the mechanics or the forms of how their community operates. And, I know on the one hand we’re trying to maintain this kind of paradox really of letting the forms arise and being open to intuition and just like you’re talking to this freestyle mentality, but on the other hand it seems like there have been some real changes to the form of how you specifically teach and how Rodney teaches when you have that view, and I was wondering if we could maybe explore some of that piece.
You talked a little about already, about the relational quality of some of your retreats, where people get a chance to talk. Could you say more about some of the specific ways that you’ve noticed the forms changing with that attitude?
Martin: Sure. And first I think it’s important to say that there’s something profound and wonderful and vital about the kind of retreat model. It’s not… I don’t want to in any way suggest a kind of dismissal of that for something that’s kind of freer and wilder and something else. And I think it’s entirely appropriate, actually, that at least within the vipassana tradition, there’s been a whole generation where that was the main focus: establishing centers, and ways of teaching, and a whole bunch of skillful means around retreats, that people have the opportunity, in kind of intensive silent retreat practice, to really get a taste for the depths of meditation. But, then we easily get kind of fixated.
I’m shocked sometimes to see how much the vipassana students are fixated on retreats as where their real practice is, and then the middle bit, of kind of the rest of your life, becomes a kind of limping along, with ever decreasing amounts of awareness until you can kind of go back and plug in to retreat again. We get very good instructions on a meditation retreat, but you might be there for a week, or ten days, and get very excellent, precise instructions for how to work with your mind and how different varieties of ways that it shows up. And then at the end of the retreat, you might get one single instruction for the whole of the rest of your life, which is go forth and be mindful, basically. Which is good advice, but it’s not sophisticated enough for the rest of life.
So in a more engaged relational practice, I myself working with people, I’ve found there to be three main ways to support awareness in daily life. Again, firstly, the problem is when silent retreats are your reference for what it’s like to be mindful, or to be aware, you’re kind of referencing that within the very rarified and refined conditions of a retreat, where there’s very little external stimulation, where quite naturally body settles and mind settles. There’s a degree of clarity and steadiness of the mind, which may not be available, or which will not be available, all the time in daily life. So if you’re measuring yourself against that, you’re kind of bound to find yourself lacking in capacity a lot, which is really a shame.
So the three things are firstly just body-based awareness, coming back to sensing your body, to knowing what’s actually happening in your field of awareness and that kind of sphere of your own presence, moment-by-moment. The kind of energetic contractions, the emotional life, the way you’re kind of invested in, or kind of leaning into, or resisting and moving away from what’s happening. What I sometimes call the three Ds of… Ah, now I can’t remember them [laughs]… demands, distraction, and defenses. That kind of corresponds to greed, hatred, and delusion. Making demands of life, in that kind of greedy, compulsive way; or defending against what’s happening, a kind of hatred or rejection of that; or distraction, a kind of turning around, a kind of confused, unfocused way. So, just really using your body as a kind of antenna, as the organ of consciousness, cause that’s where you get to recognize the most immediate, visceral impact of your moment-to-moment experience.
The second aspect working with people is often with their own tendency to doubt themselves, to criticize themselves, undermine themselves, and measure their practice in a really unhelpful way. So, we tend to measure our meditation in terms of the quality of the meditation practice, and again, it’s easy to find that kind of lacking in terms of our memories of retreat and of maybe deeper meditation. But, actually something quite mysterious happens around just the willingness to meditate. I often say to people the most important moment of meditation is the moment you actually commit to doing it. The fact that you orientate towards awareness, that you sit yourself down, and it’s very interesting that you might sit yourself down every day and have restless mind states, dull mind states, distracted mind states, and that you look out back over a few months of distraction, restlessness, and sleepiness, and you find “wow, something’s changed.” Somehow there’s more spaciousness, more capacity to abide with what’s happening than there was earlier on. So the measure of meditation is not in the quality of the mediation, as you have just experienced it in that half hour sitting; the only real measure of it is in the changing degree of spaciousness and sensitivity and care and the way our minds transform in that way. And so just, you know part of that is just really supporting people and kind of acknowledging the value of their practice, the goodness of their heart, their willingness to really undertake a practice of freedom and awakening, even if, and in fact especially if, much of the time it feels like hard work. There’s a lot of goodness in that willingness to do that.
And the third aspect in supporting people is kind of what happens emotionally when you’re practicing in a relational field; when you’re practicing freedom and awakening in contact with people, intimate relationships, working relationships, social relationships and all that gets stirred up in that. What we find ourselves wanting from others, what we find ourselves afraid of in others, what we find ourselves judging in others, or in ourselves in relating to others, and that’s a whole piece where I think having a teacher to explore with, and relate to, and discuss that stuff with is really crucial in a way that’s not really available in retreat. Cause what’s happening in retreat is different, it’s not getting stirred up in the same way, cause you’re not in a relational field in the same way as you are in your life. And that’s actually where I found Skype to be so great because it means I can stay in touch with people between retreats in the midst of their lives, meeting them in the evening and exploring together.
Vince: So, yeah, one thing that you do is Skype-based individual group calls. How does it work with a group? That sounds pretty interesting.
Martin: Yeah, well, particularly with London Insight we’ve been doing that for the last year or so, so we meet every three weeks or so. I think I’m either on a biggish screen or maybe projected on the wall in the house…
Vince: [Laughs] Nice.
Martin: …and they’re kind of sitting together in front of the screen, and so I offer a guided meditation, a little bit, some reflection for twenty minutes. That’s the bit that’s a little harder for me, because they’re kind of a slightly pixilated, amorphous bunch in front of the screen so I can’t quite tell how things are landing in the same way as if I was in the room, but okay. And then after some reflections, people may have questions or things they want to explore from what I’ve said, and then the person will just come up and sit in front of the webcam.
One of the things that’s very beautiful in that, and this is particularly noticeable working one-to-one with people, is how as we really listen to each other and as you kind of tune in to the various cues and the changes in breath that you can hear, and the intimacy of that, listening in headphones you can’t often hear quite subtle changes in breathing, is how the sense of the shared field of presence can be every bit as tangible as if we’re sitting face-to-face in the middle of a retreat. And you know, sometimes we’re separated, like you and I are now, by thousands of kilometers, and different time-zones, and all the rest of it, and yet there’s an immediacy and an inner interpenetration of their kind of fields of awareness there. That’s tangible and beautiful, you know, it’s a teaching in itself about interconnection. I think I wrote to you when we first spoke, it’s like one thinks of Indra’s Net. And even in its sound, that’s pretty similar to internet. And the internet is actually an extraordinary example of that kind of everything being inter-related and kind of mutually reflecting.
Vince: Interesting. It’s so interesting to hear a Dharma teacher share that kind of perspective on technology, because so often, even with the teachers I deeply love and appreciate, they just don’t seem to get that. And I think it’s a generational thing most of the time, but I feel kind of like, “Oh man, they’re really not in touch with the beauty of that medium,” which is changing so quickly, and which is becoming, at least in my experience and how you’re describing it, more dynamic and more interconnected, and more real in a way. So, thank you for sharing that kind of perspective because I feel sometimes that it’s kind of dissed in the Dharma world a little bit.
Martin: Yeah. Well I think it is a generational thing. There’s just that particular movement of the mind, as we get older. That newer things seem kind of complicated. And so you know, Dharma teachers don’t seem to be exempt from that. As you get older, this stuff about how the internet somehow is stopping people from having real conversations or something. You know, that kind of thing.
I’m really interested, you know there’s a quote by Lao Tzu, who was an exact contemporary of the Buddha. So living two and a half thousand years ago in rural China. And when he was an old man, he wrote: “When I was younger, life moved more slowly. People had time for each other. Nowadays, everything moves so quickly. Everything’s so complicated, people don’t have time for each other.” And such and such. And you know, that’s two and a half thousand years ago in China.
So one has to ask well, has life been constantly getting more and more crazy and complicated, and people having less and less time for each other over those two and a half thousand years? Or is it that there’s that tendency of mind as we get older, to look back and idealize something from our own memory as being simpler, and then kind of apply that to the outside world. And so that can happen in any generation, and it can happen around anything.
It can happen around whatever was going on in Lao Tzu’s world, it can certainly happen around the internet, seeming like all that’s sort of complicated, all that’s taking us away from ourselves. Rather than just being, you know, the latest tool just like a plow was the latest tool that made things really helpful for human beings. In Lao Tzu’s time, whatever it was.
Vince: Yeah. Thank you, that’s a really interesting perspective. You know, one other interesting form that you are exploring and I wanted to ask a little bit about is, in London next year you’re doing a retreat where there’s over the weekend an intensive period and then getting together with people in the evenings, throughout the rest of the week. So that gets them going to their jobs and so on, but they’d still be involved in this retreat. That sounded really interesting.
Martin: Yeah, and I’m kind of excited about that. It’s called Work, Sex, Money, Dharma. And the idea behind it, to give people an opportunity to explore and have teachings and look at those areas of their life while being kind of embedded in their relational lives and their working lives, etc. Rather than removing themselves and being in the kind of retreat environment, where those things aren’t getting stimulated so much.
Yeah, we do have the two full days of the weekends to introduce a little material, if you like, and then Monday through Friday we’ll meet in the evenings. And see what people are noticing about the impact of how they are around money, how they are around sexuality, how they are around the stuff of their life. And so there’s this sort of support of the retreat contained throughout those seven days. But they’re also staying really engaged with their lives. So that’s the first time I’ll do that, and I hope I’ll have as much fun as people who come.
Vince: Nice. And how are you inspired to try this out? Where did this come from
Martin: Well I guess that’s the freestyle…[laughs]…where I’ll be making it up as I go along.
Vince: Nice, nice. So this is kind of an original thought, like let’s try this and see what happens.
Martin: I think the form of doing something, like something at a weekend and then through the evenings…
Martin: …I don’t think that’s particularly new. I’ve heard it referred to as a “Sandwich Retreat.”
Martin: Or like both weekends, and then people having some kind of continuity in evenings through the week. But, I guess what we want to do with that is that the material, the content of that retreat is very specifically focused on the bits that don’t normally get that much attention.
Vince: Right, right.
Martin: You know, I heard somebody say recently when I was giving a talk about sexuality, they said “oh, I’ve been doing retreats for fifteen years, but that’s the first Dharma talk I’ve ever heard about sex. And you know similarly with money…
Martin: …we talk about money a little bit at the end when we’re saying about dana, and often that’s cloaked in something about “oh, it’s about generosity and purity of the tradition,” but basically what we’re saying is “please support us…”
Martin: To take those two examples, sex and money, if they’re not really being brought fully into awareness, something’s going to get lost, Vince, because I don’t know about you, but sex and money and how those things get a grip on my mind, you know these things take up space…
Martin: …they really need some attention.
Vince: No doubt. They take up a lot of RAM. [Laughs]
Martin: [Laughing] Right.
Vince: No, just as you were describing it, I was just imagining what it would be like to bring in the content of my life from work and from my sexual life and from my financial life and into a kind of retreat-esque environment. I was thinking “wow that would be weird!” So that’s interesting.
Martin: So that says something, that it would seem like a weird thing…
Vince: It totally does.
Martin: …to bring the stuff that actually really occupies a lot of space…
Martin: …and actually really has a lot of charge around it, and is actually the stuff where you get caught up a lot of the time, and then we say “oh, well to bring that into my spiritual practice, that would be strange.” Jeez! It’s pretty strange not to have a spiritual practice that’s supposed to transform your life and yet won’t bring that stuff in.
Vince: Yeah, it’s funny, I felt like I’ve needed to look to other methods, other philosophies, other teachings, to work with those and then kind of almost cobble those things together, that they’re not naturally interrelated. So, yeah, it is really interesting that you’re really trying to create a container that brings those things intimately together. That’s cool.
Vince: I’m excited. I wish I were there in London. Yeah, I wish I were there in March to check it out. And can people find out about that at londoninsight.org?
Martin: Yeah. I guess… I think we just registered worksexmoneydharma.org, and Rohan just gave me a little flip video camera to record a piece to put on that website. There’s not so much stuff up about it yet, but pretty soon if you Google “work sex money dharma,” I reckon… well, who knows what might come up. [Laughs] But you’ll probably be able to find out about it through that.
Vince: And then, just in closing I wondered if you had anything else kind of around these topics that you felt like didn’t get touched on, and didn’t get discussed that you wanted to bring up before we closed.
Martin: I guess, what’s been most helpful in my own practice, aside from the kind of richness of meditation, has been to really bring as much awareness as I could to what I’ve been calling a relational life. To what happens with these other kind of dreaded human beings that we’re in touch with. Because, I noticed after some years of meditation and so much of my understanding and reactivity that seemed to have gotten really, really moved through and changed and transformed and let go of in certain ways. But, there seemed to be just as much, a bunch of patterns of how I would relate to others, particularly those close to me, that the same kinds of reactive patterning were going on that hadn’t really got changed.
So, I guess what I most want to say is let’s not compartmentalize our practice in any way. But let’s wake up to anything that we’ve put somehow outside of our practice. Anything that our practice doesn’t include, that’s where we need to look. That’s what this slightly provocative kind of title of Work, Sex, Money, Dharma really means. It’s about let’s bring in all of the stuff where we actually get caught and make that part of our living practice of freedom and awakening.