curriculum

Training in Switzerland

By Marcel and Beatrice Geisser mb21-Training

Since 1995 House Tao has offered a three-year course in Buddhist philosophy, psychology, and meditation. Thich Nhat Hanh instructed Marcel to develop this program along the lines of the four-year cycle of winter retreats at Plum Village. To address the conditions of daily life and professional activity, the course is divided each year into two ten-day blocks plus four weekends. The daily schedule includes sitting and walking meditation, meditative movement, rituals, lectures, sutra studies, Dharma discussions, and individual conversations with the teachers.

We stress incorporating the teachings into daily activities through working meditation, including gardening, renovating the house, daily cleaning, and preparing meals. Participants find that living, practicing, and learning with 18 people supports them at House Tao and also later in daily life.

Continual study and practice of meditation touches people deeply. Gradually uncovering and dissolving deep-seated illusions may trigger the temporary emergence of anxieties, insecurities, or even strongly neurotic reactions. Thus, considerable care and attention must be applied when working with group dynamic processes and conflicts. Marcel and Beatrice Geisser both have years of experience as licensed psychotherapists.

During the past three years, five participants formally received the Five Mindfulness Trainings from Marcel. This spring, a new group will begin. At the request of participants from the first cycle, House Tao is offering an extension of the training in the form of additional retreats. Special retreats will also be offered to program graduates to meet the need for deeper examination within a Sangha of experienced practitioners.

Dharma teacher Marcel Geisser, True Realisation, and Order member Beatrice Geisser, True Mindfulness of Love, live and practice in House Tao, Wo(fhalden, Switzerland.

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Veterans of War and Peace

By Ted Sexauer How did we get into this? For the four-plus years that we of the Veteran Writers' Workshop have been meeting, our mentor, the noted writer Maxine Hong Kingston, has gently insisted that she has not only been instructing us in writing, and in listening, but also, ultimately, in how to lead such a workshop ourselves. "No, no, no, Maxine," we said, "we are veterans. We have learned too well that we must never volunteer."

But this past September, necessity finally forced our hands. Because the retreat at Santa Barbara took place during the first week of classes at DC Berkeley, where she teaches, Maxine would be able to attend only the last day of the retreat. Feeling the need to continue the program that has been so important to us, two brave souls stepped forward: my friend Dan Thompson of the East Coast group, and myself, of the West. We were assisted by Fred Allendorf from the Montana Sangha, a veteran who hadn't previously been part of a writers' group. (It's a well-kept secret, but this always happens in the military, too. Someone always volunteers, or at least is volunteered.)

Our first task was to define ourselves. Because there had been little advance publicity, we didn't start with an established group of participants. We wanted to be inclusive; we opened the group not only to war veterans, but essentially to anyone who wanted to participate-anyone who felt that they had been affected by war or by military experience. As a result, we wound up with the most wonderfully diverse blend of voices: Vietnam combat veterans; protestors against the war, male and female; a World War II veteran; veterans of non-combat service; wives and widows who had lost their husbands in combat, lost them to Agent Orange-induced disease long after the war, lost them to divorce.

Also because of the lack of advance notice, only a few of us had come prepared to write. And only a small number had prior training in writing. Writing our stories has been a central focus of the veterans' group practice because we have seen that it is the formal telling of our stories-writing them down and reading them, not just oral recitation-that brings about catharsis and change. Writing one's personal experience and reading it to a mindful, accepting audience retrieves the story from the nebulous nature of memory and validates it, validates the writer/reader. Makes it real.

Authenticates it. Prepares one to move on. So we pressed the group to write. We gave instruction on basic memoir writing; my contribution was to relate how I had taught myself to feel by writing poems about each incident in the war when I could remember going a little more numb. We guided the group in the spiritual practice of compassionate listening, which is fully half the work we do.

The results were remarkable. The writing that was produced on such short notice was striking in its power, depth, individuality, and honesty. These were not rote exercises. Because of the spiritual quality and intention of the gathering, members of the group were able to go to the heart of some of their deepest experience.

On Friday afternoon, the next-to-last day of the retreat, we graduated. We were given a five-hundred-seat lecture theater, which was filled to capacity with retreatants. Maxine Hong Kingston graciously moderated, and for two hours we read our stories to the most wonderfully attentive audience imaginable.

At the beginning of the retreat, I was very much afraid of failing in this undertaking. I was afraid of the organizational difficulties we had to face-the leaders of this unprecedentedly large I,200-person retreat had their hands full; they could not give us much attention. I was afraid that in our inexperience as teachers, Dan and I wouldn't be able to hold our diverse group together; that some would want more spiritual training than we had to offer, that others would find the writing instruction inadequate; that they would rise up in mutiny, or defect in large numbers. I found that the combination of old military discipline enhanced by the spiritUal ability to remain emotionally present, together with the soundness of Maxine's approach to writing instruction, carried us through. Not only carried us through, but made it a great success. I think we made a difference, not only to the twenty-two of us in our group, but to the entire Sangha.

The success of the group was also secured by the mindfulness of the participants, and by the practices we followed together. We sat in meditation together at each session, and observed the guidance of the bell in remembering to be present. With the help of an able tea master discovered within our ranks, Roger Voight, we enjoyed a lovely, grounding tea ceremony. And we were charmed and refreshed by a visit from the Children's Sangha, who persuaded us to sing wonderful songs with them, and who made us laugh.

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(On September 29,1997, Maxine Hong Kingston received the National Medal for the Humanities from President Clinton for her contribution to the nation's culture.)

Ted Sexauer lives in Sonoma, California, and practices with the Community of Mindful Living. He is a member of the Veteran Writers' Workshop, West Coast Group, which meets quarterly at Sebastopol, California.

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Healing

By Patrecia Lenore Last October, at the Omega retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh, a four-year-old dream came true. In 1993 at my first retreat with Thay at Omega I was in the midst of memories of incest and deep suffering. The Dharma discussion leaders were unable to answer my questions because of their inexperience with these issues. Luckily, I met other survivors of childhood abuse. We shared with each other and more or less got each other through the retreat. After watching the Vietnam veterans share their stories, I promised myself I would ftnd a way to provide support at retreats for survivors of physical and sexual abuse.

During the following months and years, I had so many questions about meditation. What do I do when memories of abuse arise during meditation? How do I forgive my father when I had only just gotten in touch with the memories and was understandably feeling a lot of anger? Smiling at the anger then seemed out of reach. I didn't want the anger, but it arose anyway. I felt a lot of shame. I wondered if the dissociation that often happened during meditation would ever cease.

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Since then, I have found answers to many of these questions, some from teachers in other traditions, some from our wonderful, compassionate Dharmacharya, Lyn Fine, and some just from my own experience. In 1994, my friend Meg Dellenbaugh and I spoke about the need for Dharma discussion groups for survivors at retreats, because inevitably, the kinds of questions we asked ourselves would come up for other survivors. Finally, in 1996, I overcame my shyness and fear and asked Therese Fitzgerald about Dharma discussion groups for survivors. Through her encouragement and the help of Leslie Rawls, Meg and I offered these discussion groups at the 1997 retreat.

The number of people in our group at Omega varied each day from 30 to 125. We were not surprised. Statistics for sex abuse alone indicate one in four women has been abused. Add physical and emotional abuse, and the statistics are much worse for women and men. This is a very big problem in our society.

Meg and I opened the discussions by acknowledging that retreats are often difficult for survivors because meditation sometimes brings up memories of the abuse, strong feelings, and shame which might prevent us from speaking. We wanted to provide a space in which people could share difficulties-and triumphs-in the practice that are specific to survivors. There was much deep sharing, both about the pain of childhood abuse and the hope of living in in the joy of the present moment. Many people wept. Some said they were sharing things they had never spoken of to anyone. Meg and I spoke about particular practices which can be helpful in the midst of memories or strong feelings. For instance, one of my favorite practices is the five steps of transforming feelings that Thay offers in Peace Is Every Step (p. 53). Another one that my teacher, Lyn Fine, often reminds me of is making gratitude lists (100 joys). I also offered loving kindness meditation and Meg offered a beautiful mindful movement exercise. One woman shared that each day she looks deeply and writes one gratitude on a list by her bedside. If she is having a bad day, she has the list to look at. Some people shared about how the Touching the Earth practice was helpful.

There were many perceptive questions. The dedication and sincerity of practice was strongly evident, as was the desire of everyone there to help each other. As I write this, tears of joy about the closeness and sharing in these groups come to my eyes. Several people came every day despite conflicts with other special interest groups, and there was a strong interest in continuing to have these groups at each retreat. Some people said they would not have been able to stay through the whole retreat if the survivors group hadn't been available. Meg and I thank everyone who helped make this possible and hope that this important practice will be able to continue.

In a similar vein, Lyn Fine and I offered a small retreat in June (12 people) for survivors of abuse at our Sangha in New York. In addition to sitting and walking meditation, we offered drawing and writing practice. Again, there was much deep sharing. One woman shared with me that she had felt peace for the first time in her 50 years. A week later, some of us offered what we had written to the CMNY, much as the veterans do at the Omega retreats. For me this was very healing. Most of the survivors I know are able to tell their stories only in therapy or special groups composed only of survivors of abuse. I think it is very important to be able to tell our stories to larger communities. As Judith Herman points out in Trauma and Recovery, it is important to tell our stories so that both the survivors and the community may heal. Sharing breaks the isolation, allowing us to see ourselves in each other. In the words of a song: "May we love, may we heal, may we open to the universe."

Patrecia Lenore, Flower of True Virtue, practices with the Community of Mindfulness/New York Metro.

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Volkshochschulen

By Manfred Folkers mb22-VolkshochschulenMany German workers have an annual, government-sponsored vacation for learning new skills. Most people use the week for training in their professions. Mindfulness, spiritual life, and compassion are not usually aspects of this training, in part because many people resist learning things which seem to have only an indirect influence on their work. But, our German Volkshochschulen (adult education schools) increasingly offer courses with spiritual components.

For several years, I have offered five-day "Mindfulness and Inner Peace" seminars at various Volkshochschulen. Participants are mainly social or educational workers on their "learning vacations." They range from 20 to 60 years old and most are women. Many complain of job stress. We discuss alienation, bum-out, motivation, and frustration before approaching the foundations of mindful living. Then, we examine the Five Mindfulness Trainings and discuss the importance of bringing heart and mind together. During the five days, participants enjoy sitting and walking meditation, noble silence, mindful meals, touching the earth, and of course, a tea ceremony.

These seminar participants don't want to become Buddhist. They seek the opportunity for mindfulness practice. Unfortunately, when the seminar is over, most of them must practice alone, because there isn't a Sangha or a Mindfulness Practice Center close to home. Without the support of a Sangha, it is very hard to continue the practice in daily life.

Manfred Folkers, True Great Togetherness, works for several Volkshochschulen in Germany. He lives and practices in Oldenburg.

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Cranberry Juice

Mindfulness for College Students By Ben Howard

For their first assignment in "The Art of Meditation," my course in mindfulness practice, I asked the students to read the opening chapter of Thich Nhat Hanh's, The Miracle of Mindfulness. I also urged them, whenever drinking, to use both hands, giving the act of drinking their full attention. When I asked the students, a week later, how their practice was coming along, a slender, restless student named Meredith reported a minor awakening. What she discovered, through mindful drinking, was that she really hated cranberry juice. "And I've been drinking it," she added, "all my life."

Meredith's discovery of vasana, or habit-energies and their power, was one of many positive outcomes of "The Art of Meditation," which I offered last fall as an honors course at Alfred University. Although the college atmosphere, with its noise and drugs and alcohol, may seem inimical to meditation, the course filled quickly, attracting the maximum enrollment-fifteen students. We met in a spacious, high-ceilinged room in our new Performing Arts Center, whose tall windows look out on green fields and wooded hills. The room offered ample space for doing Mindful Movements - a sequence of ten contemplative exercises developed by Thich Nhat Hanh - and for walking meditation. Students wore loose clothing and brought cushions and pillows of various shapes and sizes.

As our primary text, we read the Anapanasati Sutra (Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing), which also provided the structure of the course. As readers of The Mindfulness Bell know, the heart of the Anapanasati Sutra is a sequence of sixteen breathing exercises, grouped in tetrads. The tetrads deal respectively with mindfulness of the body, the feelings, the mind, and objects of mind. It might please (or amuse) the Buddha to know that the sixteen exercises of the Anapanasati sutra fit comfortably into the fifteen weeks of an American college semester. During the first half of the semester, we focused on mindfulness of the body and the feelings, giving special attention to the cultivation of compassion; during the second, we practiced mindfulness of thoughts, and we explored the realities of impermanence and interdependence. Broadly speaking, the first half of the course promoted samatha or "stopping"; the second encouraged vipassana, or "looking." In practice, of course, the two aspects of meditation, like the sixteen exercises of the Anapanasati Sutra, partake of each other.

No two sessions of the class were the same, but all followed a common pattern. We would begin with a fifteen minute guided meditation, using one of the exercises from Thich Nhat Hanh's The Blooming of a Lotus. That would be followed by a discussion of the students' recent experiences in the practice -their frustrations, challenges and discoveries. I would then give a talk on whichever aspect of practice we were learning, using the Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness ( discussed in Thich Nhat Hanh's Transformation and Healing) as a secondary source. We would then practice Mindful Movements, followed by a second sitting, in which the students were instructed to follow the breath and to give attention to one other thing: to parts of the body, or to the recognition of feelings, or to the rise, duration, and dissolution of mental formations. We would then do slow walking meditation - one step for the in-breath, one for the outbreath. Class would end with readings and a period of silent meditation.

Within this established structure there was room to experiment and to follow the natural evolution of the practice. On one cool October evening, we practiced walking meditation outdoors, climbing a long, uphill road and coming down again. A soft rain sprayed our faces. One student went barefoot. On another evening, we spent twenty minutes eating luscious, Clementine tangerines, having listened to the Buddha's discourse on eating tangerines. At our last class, we drank Tazo lemon-ginger tea, using both hands and giving full attention to its fragrance, its spicy taste, its travels through our bodies.

And what impact did this three-month experience have on the students who took part? If I may judge from their reports the effects ranged from salutary to radical, from pleasant to profound. "In attempting to be mindful of my actions," wrote one student, "I was quite surprised to discover that I had never brushed my teeth, shampooed my hair, or tied my shoes. Until this point in my life, I had lived a dream of performing these actions." Another said that meditation had given her a "subtle clarity in almost every aspect of her life." Others reported improvements in their studies, their performance, and their relationships, and they noted how their happiness had influenced people around them. In one striking instance a theater student told of going to New York City to audition for a play:

"It was a cold, windy day and the tension could be felt in the air. Everyone there knew that everyone else was competition for the part they wanted. After a while of getting nervous waiting to go in, I decided to meditate right there on the street with hundreds of people surrounding me. I sat down with the two friends that went with me and we begin to meditate. I instructed them using methods learned in class. Eventually, about fifteen people joined in the meditation with me leading them all. I feel this changed my life. I was able to take something that I learned, something that changed my life, and be able to share it with other people. Not only did I change my attitude in life, but I changed my outlook on life."

To foster such changes was my chief motive in offering 'The Art of Meditation." Although not every institution may be liberal enough to allow such a course to be offered, I would urge anyone who can do so to give it a try. In thirty years of college teaching, I have not had a more rewarding experience.

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Ben Howard received the Five Mindfulness Trainings in 1995. An English professor at Alfred University in New York, he teaches mindfulness classes offered to honors students and coordinates a sitting group for students and the community.

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