Read an Excerpt
1. The Possibility of Change: A Cinderella Story
When I was a child, the Cinderella story made me distinctly uncomfortable. So did Anne of Green Gables. Here were these images of people who were just too good to be true: They were generous, they were sweet, they were diligent, they worked hard, they were compassionate, they never seemed angry or judgmental or shaming or hating. At some level, I longed to be like them, but I felt that I was more like Cinderella's ugly sisters: They were jealous of each other, they were nasty, they were competitive, and they were social climbers. They thought that they were not good enough, and yet they were self-consciously proud. Not until many years later did I learn that within the practice of Insight Meditation I could embrace such seemingly contradictory feelings with peace and even affection. - AW
Many people experience this rift within themselves. Sometimes we feel anger, jealousy, envy, and desire like Cinderella's ugly sisters, who will eventually be relegated to the dim kitchen in the Prince's palace or to a dark place in our hearts. At the same time, we yearn to have the qualities of Cinderella and the Prince-beauty, virtue, generosity-and to live happily ever after. The good news is that no matter how powerfully we may feel torn between such conflicting feelings, the Buddhist tradition known as Insight Meditation, or Vipassana, invites us to heal that division.
Insight Meditation teachings do not demand that we live life as an eternal bliss trip by judging or cutting off what feels difficult or negative. That is simply not a realistic expectation for any human being. Instead, when energies such as anger, hatred, doubt, and anxiety-traditionally called the hindrances in this practice (chapter 3)-arise, we can learn to hold them in our hearts with kindness and with acceptance. We acknowledge them and even honor them, saying, "Aha, here are these energies inside me. May I hold them with kindness. May I hold them with softness." That conscious relationship-it is like Cinderella and the ugly sisters merged-is where transformation happens.
If we could not envision how we would like to live and if we did not have the perseverance to make that vision a reality, we could not change. One of our greatest advantages as human beings is that as long as we are alive, we can change.
This capacity feels to me like such a critical piece because when I was growing up I was not very happy. I was quite shut down and judgmental. I'm not saying this out of any sense of shame -- it is just a pure acknowledgment of how I was, of how unhappy I was. If it were not for the possibility of change, I would still be caught in those negative energies. - AW
Even though we sometimes feel as if we are being clutched by hurtful energies, the fundamentally good part of our nature is always there and can be awakened. The heart of Insight Meditation calls upon our inner potential for wisdom, kindness, illumination, and a deep sense of connection to the beauty of all life. When this potential unfurls without obstruction, we are free-free of suffering, living with happiness that is not dependent on any particular thing, experience, or circumstance. This is our possibility. It is not just theoretical or something we are asked to accept on blind faith. Proof of it exists in the lives of our spiritual teachers and people such as the Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi, Hildegard of Bingen, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, and the Dalai Lama.
Nelson Mandela elegantly invited us to express our possibility in his 1994 inaugural speech as president of South Africa.
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deep fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?
Actually who are you not to be?
You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you.
We were born to manifest the glory of God that is within us.
It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to be the same.
As we are liberated from our own fears, our presence automatically liberates others.
The Nature of Suffering in Our Lives
Insight Meditation teachings recognize the challenges we face in living as human beings and the reality that we often experience pain and sometimes tremendous suffering. Suffering does not mean we are failures or awful persons or should feel ashamed about what is happening to us. The process of healing begins when we acknowledge our suffering and explore it, when we admit what is happening-and accept it.
As we open to our lives, we face the difficulty of illness. Some of us lose our health in a permanent way, for example, through cancer, heart disease, or arthritis. We all undergo the process of aging. Our bodies disintegrate in different ways and at different rates, but the changes due to aging are unavoidable and often painful. And we will all die-a scary prospect for many of us.
For some of us, our deepest challenges may be not physical but emotional, as psychic wounds keep opening up and bringing suffering. Even when no great difficulties are confronting us, a general sense of dissatisfaction may permeate us. We may believe things are going well, but we may still feel unfulfilled, or that we are not living our deepest purpose, or even that our life is out of control.
The Buddha said that we cannot deny these difficulties. It would be foolish and unrealistic to even try, for we would just be repressing a part of ourselves. Insight Meditation is not about repression; nor is it about splitting ourselves off from ourselves or pretending to be some sort of perfect spiritual model that excludes half of our lives. This practice, rather, is about relating to ourselves as we are. It is about saying, "Okay, let me find a way to work with these difficulties. How do I do that?" The Buddha said, "This is the way," and he laid out teachings so that we could live with the challenges of life and still find happiness. The teachings are revolutionary because they acknowledge our difficulties and in doing so inspire us to embrace a spiritual practice that can bring us peace.
You may have picked up this book because you know, at some level, that this is the moment for you to seek your spiritual truth. Or perhaps your life partner just died, you lost a job that was very important to you, or you have developed a chronic physical disability or experienced some other huge challenge. You say to yourself, "I know I cannot pretend this did not happen. Of course it happened. But how do I live with peace and equanimity? How can I live with kindness to myself?" Within Insight Meditation practice there are answers to these kinds of questions.
Our first step together could be to take the Refuges.
The Three Refuges
Over the centuries many people seeking the path of awakening, happiness, and freedom have begun their commitment by a practice known as taking the Three Refuges. But this practice is much more than a historical ritual. It is an affirmation of our capacity to change. It acknowledges, first, that there is a possibility of our awakening; second, that there is a way of living or practicing that can create the conditions for this awakening; and third, that we are not alone in this endeavor-we are joined and supported by thousands of other beings and communities.
Some phrases for taking the refuges are:
May I take refuge in my capacity to awaken.
May I take refuge in the ways of living that bring about my freedom and happiness.
May I take refuge in those who are fully awakened and feel open to all those who can support me on this path of freedom.
Taking the First Refuge means taking refuge in our fundamental Buddha-nature, with its potential for enlightenment. Taking the Second Refuge means taking refuge in the teachings that awaken this nature (known as the Dharma). Taking the Third Refuge means taking refuge in those who are fully awakened and opening to the community that practices together (known as the Sangha), which provides a resting place that is safe, nourishing, and transformative.
We often find ourselves taking refuge in other things that we think are going to bring us happiness. We have been taught that happiness comes about through having, owning, and accumulating. If we have a serviceable car, we might still find ourselves desiring a better model. We may wish for a new house, longer vacations in more beautiful places, or better relationships. These things are not bad, but they do not bring lasting happiness. A lasting happiness is one that illuminates our being whether we have a nice car or not, better furniture or not, a longer vacation or not. This possibility of achieving a lasting happiness that is not dependent on any thing or circumstance is called our fundamental nature, or Buddha-nature.
Taking the First Refuge means acknowledging that we have the capacity to be happy in this way. It is a treasure we carry in our hearts, more valuable, the Buddha said, than the most precious jewels in the world, than all the treasures of royalty. This happiness is not born of greed or hatred. It is not the kind of happiness someone might feel if they have longed for something and through treachery finally gotten it. It is not the kind of happiness people feel who gain power over others and can make them do exactly what they want. This kind of happiness, rather, comes from deep kindness and respect for all beings and all life. It comes with a clear wisdom that always sees what is skillful, appropriate, timely, and true. This happiness lives in a heart that has no boundaries of "us" and "them" but comes through our intimate connection with all of life. It is a happiness that expresses being at peace. It is a happiness that comes from being present in each moment. This happiness is our possibility, and the refuges remind us that we can find it.
The First Refuge acknowledges the beautiful part of our being and encourages us to say, "No matter what I have done or said or thought, no matter what my job is, no matter whether I'm married or have children or not, whether I think I'm a failure or a success, no matter what, I have this capacity inside of me for transformation, and it can bring lasting happiness." Immediately, our relationship to ourselves changes. We enter into a relationship of honor and respect with ourselves by affirming our fundamental nature. Each time we take the First Refuge, we connect with the possibility of transformation.
The Second Refuge-taking refuge in the Dharma-is the refuge of training ourselves to see clearly how things are. In this clarity there is no conflict, confusion, or suffering. Just as a mirror reflects back whatever image is in front of it at that moment without picking and choosing, we can train ourselves to see how things are without the personal distortions of our projections, desires, aversions, or stories. Insight Meditation calls this type of seeing wisdom, and wisdom is not distant or cold. On the contrary, the space created when we let go of our attachments brings a heart that is vast in its kindness. Without our personal prejudices and attachments, we develop a natural friendliness and contentment toward all our experiences and for all beings. Taking refuge in the Dharma supports our development of wisdom and compassion.
The Buddha taught only what was helpful in finding the truth through this refuge-he was not interested in obtuse theories. So taking refuge in the Dharma is a straightforward practice of cultivating what brings happiness and renouncing what brings suffering. Through it we can create the conditions for lasting transformation where all obstacles to freedom disappear.
Finally, the Third Refuge-taking refuge in the Sangha-affirms that we are not alone, that many thousands of beings like us have the same questions and the same search and are attempting to live in freedom. Originally the word Sangha referred to the fully enlightened disciples of the Buddha in his lifetime, but today, in Insight Meditation, we refer to both formal and informal communities, including our teachers, as Sanghas (see chapter 10).
We can also extend Sangha to include all of life. When we are drinking a cup of tea, we can feel we are with sangha, with the water that nourishes us, the fire that heated the tea water, and the earth where the tea was grown and from which the cup took form. The universe joins us in drinking the tea. We are all in communion. Walking along in a daydream, we hear a bird call, and it brings us back to being present with ourselves, so we could say that the bird is also part of the sangha supporting our practice.
Exercise: Taking Refuge
The Buddha did not demand that we become Buddhists or renounce our other religious practices. His teachings do not require our unquestioning obedience. Rather, the Three Refuges involve strengthening our intentions to let go of suffering and to cultivate happiness. Would you like to take the refuges?
Spend a few moments considering your intentions, then take the refuges formally, using the phrases at the beginning of this section, or others that express your intentions, or the traditional phrases for taking the Three Refuges:
I take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in the Dharma.
I take refuge in the Sangha.
If you would like to, bring your palms together with your fingers pointing to your chin at the level of your heart while you say the refuges.
You can take the refuges as many times as you like during the day and/or at the beginning of your meditation practice (chapter 2).
From the Trade Paperback edition.