Retreat Talks by Bobbi Allan


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This is the first talk of three talks that are sign-posts in the journey of this retreat. Before we begin any journey, we take time to deeply appreciate, to be present – with – awareness, the inner and outer places from which we begin the journey – to the outer and inner landscape through which we travel.

‘Presence-with-awareness’ begins with appreciation for the unique gift of being human – with all its paradoxes and complexities. ‘Presence-with-awareness’ to the gift our human life, gives us a wide context for and perspective on our journey. It gives us a reliable starting place.


I start many days with a practice of quiet appreciation. As the early morning light filters through the canopy, I sit on a sandstone boulder on the edge of the forest next to my house, sipping the first cup of tea of the day. The dawn chorus fills the air – the insistent staccato cheeping of the Eastern Yellow Robin is joined by the soft boom of the fruit pigeons, the twittering of the wrens, the whistle and crack of the whip birds calling each other and, high in the canopy, the harsher cry of the currawongs. A few mosquitoes whine around my head.

Below the boulder where I sit, a young ‘Small Bulwarra’ tree, struggles to survive on the edge of its rainforest habitat. Once a year a single creamy, waxy, flower blooms on the growing tip – for just one day – then falls amongst the leaf litter on the forest floor. Somewhere in the forest is a weevil I have never seen, whose job it is to fertilise the flower. ‘Small Bulwarra’ trees have been around since dinosaurs roamed the ancient continent of Gondwanaland – thanks to the mutual appreciation of flower and weevil.

Sitting in the midst of the flow of life, breathing the sweetness of the forest air, I give thanks for the life and death all around me, and for the gift of my own brief life.

Appreciation for the gift of life is a solid foundation for spiritual practice. It flowers as generosity in thought, word and action and becomes the generosity of presence. Your presence is the present, the gift you will be giving to yourself and to others during the next seven days together. It begins with touching the earth in appreciation for the flow of life in which you now exist.

Two and a half thousand years ago, a young nobleman, Siddhartha, left home on the quest that led to his awakening, to becoming The Buddha. For seven years he joined a group of saddhus, doing harsh ascetic practices of self-denial and self-mortification, in a supreme – but vain – attempt to be free of the attachments and aversions that kept him spinning on the wheel of suffering.

(We all know what suffering is – any gap between how things are now, and how we would like them to be – anything from a small dissatisfaction to the anguish of a major tragedy).

After seven years, at the end of his physical endurance, he remembered a childhood experience. As a boy, he had sat under a rose-apple tree, watching his father plough the earth. Watching the soil being torn apart, he had observed all kinds of insect life destroyed, their eggs and larvae exposed to the birds. His heart had quite spontaneously gone out to them, and this unsentimental and unselfish impulse had tipped him into a quite natural state of gentle and clear presence.

This memory gave Siddhartha a new direction to turn in his practice. Perhaps freedom could be found not by resisting happiness, not by grabbing at it, not by placing himself at the centre of it, but by allowing it to develop naturally and deepening it.

After washing his poor emaciated body in the river, he sat down on soft grass under the Bodhi Tree and gratefully accepted some milk-rice and honey offered by a village woman. With his body refreshed and nourished and his heart filled with gratitude, he turned the full force of his mind towards freedom, and made an unbreakable vow not to move until he attained complete liberation.

Of course this immediately roused the full force of the demon ‘Mara’, the Buddhist personification of the mind’s craving, aversion and delusion that endlessly turn the wheels of suffering. It is said that Mara threw at Siddhartha temptation after temptation, challenge after challenge, trying to undermine his confidence in liberation and in his ability to achieve it. Finally, in frustration at Siddhartha’s unshakeableness, Mara launched the final assault. “Who are you to think you can possibly open the path of liberation where so many others have failed?” he thundered. “By what authority do you sit here making this claim – who is there to bear witness to you?”

It was true that Siddhartha could claim no authority for what he was about to do, and for a moment his mind wavered with the enormity of his own presumption.

Then he realised that the only authority he could claim lay beneath him – in layer after layer of individual acts of kindness, understanding and generosity of countless beings over countless lifetimes. Without moving from his seat, Siddhartha reached down and touched the earth he loved. It is said that as he did so, the earth goddess herself rose up to affirm him, and Mara fled.

That act of appreciation, of faith in the living body of the earth that had witnessed all comings and goings since the beginning of time, opened the final doors of complete liberation. Through the rest of the night, insight followed insight until his mind was completely clear and free.

In the dawn light he saw again the beauty of the earth. All things spoke to him of reality and truth. Every single thing, every thought, was a particular miracle, and had its own fragrance, its particular melody, to be cherished. He was now fully present, open-heartedly responsive to each gift of life in each moment. He was The Buddha.

After the Buddha’s awakening, he taught the wise and skilful use of the human capacity for reflexive thinking. Amongst the diversity of life, humans have the apparently unique gift of being ‘homo sapiens’ – the being who knows – or, more accurately, it is ‘homo sapiens sapiens’ – the being who knows they know – the gift of reflexive thinking.

Christian theologian Thomas Berry says the human capacity for reflexive thinking demonstrates that we humans are those beings in whom the universe reflects on itself.

The gift of our human knowing, our capacity for reflexive thinking, like all precious gifts in the great folktales of the world, is a double-edged sword.

Use the gift well, and you have the ability to reflect on yourself, both as one facet of the wondrous jewel of all creation and, within that, on your individual participation in the flow of all being. This leads to the unsurpassable gift of choice: you can choose to change your perception, to change your identity, to change your mind, to change your behaviour. Wise use of this gift leads towards the end of suffering, towards complete liberation.

The downside of this marvellous gift of reflection is that Mara tempts us to look into his distorted mirror, where we see only our individual self. Like Narcissus, we become obsessed with a limited reflection of reality. Our small fragment looms so large, it obscures the vast interconnected flow of being in which we exist – the web of life into which we were born, and from which we can never fall. With our gaze riveted to the false self, we fall into the absolutely terrifying delusion that we are separate from life; alone, alienated and unloved, adrift in an indifferent universe.

Then, you can bet that the first thing we do is to create some kind of identity that is going to reassure us we exist. But all identities arise from passing views and activities. However useful they are in the world, in our personal or professional lives, no created identity is ever going to feel absolutely authentic to us – because it’s not the whole of who we are. So we’re always going to be beset by doubts. In Buddhism toxic doubt is one of the 5 mental hindrances, and it directly attacks the mental power of Saddha or ‘trust and confidence’ – “that which lifts up the heart” and allows us to keep going.

In meditation language Saddha is ‘the clearly confident mind’ that arises when we reach a stage of practice where the usual mental turbulence and shallow conceptualisation of our every-day mind is pacified. Even if they only occur for a nano-second, each moment of clarity or insight makes the mind stronger, more confident.

Toxic doubt is not to be confused with healthy doubt. Healthy doubt is often the catalyst for positive change. It encourages us to ask useful questions, and to hold the questions, without prematurely grasping for answers and certainties. As Voltaire said, “Doubt may be an uncomfortable state of mind, but absolute certainty is ridiculous.”

The Buddha encouraged the reflections on impermanence, on uncertainty, because all things are impermanent, are uncertain and beyond our control.

Toxic doubts debilitate us and make us fearful. Fear and doubt stop clear thinking and clear seeing. Hafiz, the Sufi mystic poet said: “Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I’d like to see you in better living conditions.”

What most of do in that cheap room of fear is this: we lock the doors, pull down the blinds, and pick up a weapon. Internally and externally many of us spend a lot of our lives doing just that – whether we own a door lock or a weapon! We lock down on our identity. We arm ourselves with opinions and beliefs, and set up the barricades between ‘self and other’. In short, we close our minds.

But there’s no real security in locks, or weapons, or even identities. These things amplify our fears and lead us down the road of insecurity. In any case, most of our fears are about something that hasn’t happened yet. Mark Twain said, “My life has been filled with terrible misfortunes – most of which never happened”.

Fear and self-doubt are neuroses – the bad habits of the mind that have served us so poorly in the past, but which we trot out again and again to see if just perhaps, just maybe this time, they’ll achieve some good results. Our neuroses end up taking on a life of their own, of becoming identities.

One of Jung’s definitions of neurosis is “a failed attempt, on the part of an individual, to heal a problem of society, as it manifests in that individual’s life”. The great problem of our society in these times is its fragmentation – the alienation of one part of society from another – and of humans from nature. Feelings of alienation, separateness and lack are one of the major causes of both war and environmental destruction.

The logical outcome is a society of neurotic individuals, either succumbing to or over-compensating for toxic self-doubt. Of course the ego’s response to self-doubt is to try and make itself feel safe, loved and connected in some way.

At best, we may seek love and connection in religious gatherings, in a committed relationship or in service to the community. But at worst we seek love and connection through grasping on to status and possessions – either things or people. Surrounded by possessions, we may feel secure for a time, but always there is a lingering fear; deep down we know the impermanence of status and possessions; that they offer no real security, real connectedness, or real love.

D.H. Lawrence wrote,
“Oh, what a catastrophe, what a maiming of love when love was made a personal, merely personal feeling, taken away from the rising and setting of the sun, and cut off from the magic connection of the solstice and the equinox! This is what is the matter with us, we are bleeding at the roots, because we are cut off from the earth and sun and stars, and love is a grinning mockery, because, poor blossom, we plucked it from its stem on the tree of Life, and expected it to keep on blooming in our civilized vase on the table.”

This is a matter for our self-compassion, not our self-judgement. It is a tricky thing, this being a self-aware human being. Our self-reflexive consciousness so easily isolates us from each other, from our common humanity, our fellowship with other beings, the earth. The choices we have to make on a daily basis can be confusing. The questions we continue to ask ourselves “Am I good enough?” “What is enough?” “How am I to live?” etc – are exhausting.

Aaaaahhhhhh……poor humans. “Where to from here?”


Ancient word wisdoms:
Dhghem, the Earth
Indo-European Mother word.
Humus, Humility, Human
Her children.

Persona – Greek mask,
People, Person, Personality.
Masks, illusions and veils.
Concealing who?
Obscuring what?

‘Dghem’ (no I’m not clearing my throat) ‘dghem’ is the ancient Indo-European root word for earth.

Dhghem, humus, humility, human. Somewhere there are particles of soil that felt the bare soles of our ancestor’s feet, knew the touch of her hand, the warmth of her fire, the sound of his voice singing songs of praise to the wholeness of life. We are all indigenous to somewhere on this blue-green jewel of a planet.

Many of us here have Celtic ancestry. Here are some words from the Celtic Shaman, Amergrin:

I am the wind on the sea,
I am the wave on the ocean,
I am the roar of the sea,
I am a powerful ox,
I am a hawk on the cliff,
I am a dewdrop in the sunshine,
I am a boar for valour,
I am a salmon in the pools,
I am a lake in a plain,
I am the strength of art…. (2)

And from the ancient continent, the Warramirri people of Arnhem Land reply:

I am the reef God.
I am the crayfish; I am the octopus;
I am the sea creatures.
I am the calm water; I am the red
cloud; I am the north wind. (3)

In these verses we hear spoken an identity large enough, fluid enough to contain everything, including each of us, including the various identities that make up each of us. These verses are not expressions of concepts, or conceits of the ego. They are ecstatic declarations of an inclusive identity, celebratory expressions of an intimacy that only comes from a certain kind of attention – attentiveness of the heart-mind. They celebrate the indivisible intimacy of this life we share with all beings on this beautiful blue-green planet of ours.

They are expressions of an ‘attentive love’, of a wonder that dissolves the boundaries of dualistic thinking, dissolves the self/other boundary that is the source of all other dualities – the dualities of ‘this is me/ that is not me’, this is mine / that is not mine’. Dualities that manifest in the destruction of earth’s life-sustaining systems, in the destruction of human by human, in the cycles of greed and poverty.

In these words we hear a celebration of the beauty inherent in the being-ness, the ‘such-ness’ of each thing. Each thing, no matter what it is, is revealed as beautiful by the quality of attention in the one beholding it. Thus beauty is not a static thing, but a dynamic interplay between viewer and viewed. To behold beauty is to participate in the mystery of connection, of restoring wholeness.
When we pay attention, we see the spark of beauty in everything – even when most odiously disguised. Appreciative attention is a beautiful quality of the mind – a quality of non-resistant presence. If there is no resistance, there is wholeness – no separation between things, no making this “I, me and mine” and that “Not I, not me, not mine”. We don’t try to pin this beauty down, to own it. We flow with it as it arises. There is no resistance to the ephemeral, transparent and unreliable nature of the world; there is an appreciation of the fleeting reality we are given to behold – whether that’s in the world or in our minds.
As Rilke said:

“All things want to float.
yet we go around like burdens,
settling ourselves on everything,
ravishing them with our weight.
What deadly teachers we are,
when things, in fact, have the gift
of forever being children.” Rilke

Appreciative attention is intimately connected with humility, because it is possible only when the distorting effects of Narcissus’ false mirror have been overcome. This kind of attentive humility leads us through compassion to open-ness, curiosity, and participation – rather than domination. It leads away from fear of difference and towards an appreciation of diversity, towards welcoming strangeness, welcoming the stranger.

Appreciative attention reconnects us to the timeless rhythms of life and death.

The fullness, the deep ecology of ‘now’ contains all moments, present, past and future, all dimensions of time and space. Or, as science tells us, “The time we think we inhabit is neither simple, linear nor objective. We are immersed in pools of time and timelessness, in a sea of causality…..” (1)

Without awareness of the many layers of continuity that lead to and from this ‘now’ moment, we ‘privatise’ our insights, our awakenings, and settle for a shadow of their fullness. Without this depth we flail in the shallow ‘now’ so beloved of markets and advertising agents. Appreciative attention awakens us to the web of causality in which we inter-exist, to an active, compassionate awareness of our dynamic inter-existence with all life over all times.

As Zen teacher, Taigen Dan Leighton, says: “The point of time for the Bodhisattvas [Shambahla warriors] is to enter into and inhabit time, in all its temporal aspects, and not to escape into some timeless state.”


The practice of appreciative attention allows us to feel blessed, simply because we are alive, and is a powerful antidote to toxic doubt.

We weave ourselves deeply into the fabric of life through appreciation – through being present to every breath, every ray of sunshine, every tiny movement of your own holy body, every smile, every breath of the breeze, every being you meet.

To participate in the sacred mystery of these moments is to know what it means to be human; to know with humility that we are of humus, the earth.


I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not ever complete the last one,
But I give myself to it.

I have been circling for thousands of years,
and still I don’t know:
am I a falcon, a storm,
or a great song?
Rainer Maria Rilke

Every day, while we’re here together, use all encounters as an opportunity to practice appreciation and generosity. Here are some suggestions:

First, look around this room at all the other people here. Know that by the end of these five days you will have received some gift from every one of them – whether that’s a smile, a gesture, a kindness, something they said. And know that you will also have received a different gift from them; something they do or say, or the way they look or dress, will probably annoy you in some way. Accept that as a gift too – the gift of the diversity of life. By the end of the retreat you will know that the experience would not have been as rich, as deep, as exciting if everyone else was exactly like you. We will have formed a community of diversity – the community of life. Practice loving it.

Secondly “count your blessings”. This old saying has survived over countless years for the very good reason that it’s a practice of appreciation. Take a moment to count a few blessings now.

You may also like to keep an “appreciation list” in your journal – noting moments of appreciation, as you encounter them.

At mealtimes practice the appreciation and generosity of being fully present to the delicious food. As well as savoring the delights of the food, give thanks to the earth that nurtured it, to the sun that warmed it, to the rain that watered it, to the people who grew it, to the trucks that transported it, and the truck drivers, and to the shopkeepers who sold it…..make as many connections as you can, and give thanks for all of them. If you get caught up in judgmental thoughts about roads and trucks, let those thoughts go. This time is just for practicing non-discriminating appreciation of what you are now eating, and the myriad connections that have enabled you to eat it.

Be generous in your speech, express appreciation, thanks, praise. As the Christian mystic, Master Eckhardt says: “if the only prayer you say in your entire life is “thank you” it will be enough.

* For the section on The Buddha’s enlightenment experience, I have drawn heavily on Jinanda, Warrior of Peace: the life of the Buddha (2002) Windhorse Publications, Birmingham.


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The title of this talk comes from a saying by a Buddhist mystic of long ago, Santideva, who said:

“The heart that breaks open can contain the whole world.”

Take a moment to savour this beautiful poetic image ….. before I start to talk explain it in more prosaic language.

Most people know, at least in general terms, the story of how the young nobleman Siddhartha became the Buddha – but in case you don’t I will tell you the short story.

When Siddhartha was born, a holy man prophesied that he would become an ‘awakened one’, a Buddha.   His father, Suddhodana, was a leader of the Sakyan clan, one of the many warring tribal republics of that time.  He thought the survival of his clan depended on his son growing up to be a great warrior and leader of his people, so he was determined that the prophecy not come true.*

Suddhodana kept his son within the walls of the family compound, training him in the skills of battle and surrounding him with all manner of sensual pleasures including, in his twenties, a beautiful wife. The lame, the sick, the aged and the down-and-out were banished from sight.  He was so thoroughly protected and distracted, there was no time or need to explore his inner life.

Nevertheless, a restless curiosity grew in Siddhartha, and one day he ordered his charioteer to drive him out to explore his native city.  His Father, hearing of this, ordered that any people who were sick or maimed in body or mind should be kept indoors, so that Siddhartha should not be disturbed by what he saw.  Well, we still try this kind of thing today, for example when the Olympic Games come to town.  But we all know human lives are not so amenable to being ‘tidied up’.  Sure enough, the inevitable happened, and Siddhartha saw people who shook his secure world to the core; he saw a person who was sick, a person who was ageing, and a dead person.

Siddhartha was now in existential crisis.  As his charioteer explained, sickness, old age and death were inevitable for everyone.  He was shocked that if people knew this, they would still live such complacent, petty lives, chasing after one fleeting pleasure after another.

Intrigued and puzzled, he went out into the city once again.  This time he encountered a wandering holy man, whose sense of composure, warmth and silent integrity are said to have aroused in him feelings of Pasada - a mix of inspiration, faith, clarity and serene confidence.  In other words, this encounter inspired Siddhartha to have faith that there could be an end to suffering and the clarity and confidence that he could realise this end.

As this radical alternative opened up, Siddhartha’s whole world shifted on its axis.  He could see that most people seemed to be in a state of denial about sickness, old age and death.  More importantly, he saw that this denial undermined people’s ability to respond with compassion to one another.

“I considered how most people feel fearful, humiliated, and disgusted when they come across old age, sickness, and death in others, forgetting that they are subject to these things themselves.  For myself, such an uncompassionate response did not seem fitting….”  Anguttara -Nikaya 3:38

A life of complacent luxury, lived in denial and shored up by various psychological defense mechanisms, was no longer an option for Siddhartha.  He left his family and set out on his urgent quest to find an end to all suffering.


So what is this suffering of which the Buddha speaks, and how do we know it in our own lives.  It’s a big word, “suffering”, and not necessarily the best translation of the Pali word, dukkha, a term whose range of implications is difficult to capture with a single English word.  It literally means an axle of a cart that doesn’t fit properly into its hole in the wheel of the cart.  So some words that fit are: disharmony, friction, uneasiness, being uncomfortable, and dissatisfaction.  Or as one teacher says, ‘dukkha is any gap between how things are and how you want them to be!’  Because the range of meaning is large and subtle, I won’t translate dukkha as ‘suffering’ – I will simply use the word ‘dukkha’.

I think with this broader definition, you will recognize many aspects of your own experience at this retreat as dukkha.  You may have been dealing with a deep grief in your life, or some other strong emotion, or you may simply have been experiencing a difficult thought, a little bodily discomfort, or a desire for a different kind of food.  It’s all dukkha, and our task is to draw near to any of these experiences with gentle, aware compassion.  Too often, we recoil from or push away our experience of dukkha, and sometimes we even criticize ourselves for experiencing dukkha, which is absolutely not a gentle, aware and compassionate response!  But if we do find ourselves doing that, can we be gentle, aware and compassionate with our critical voice as well – for that is certainly dukkha. When we don’t or can’t face the reality of the dukkha in our lives, we lose our compassion for ourselves and others.

I remember a story told to me by a friend who worked as a social worker in Centrelink.  One of her colleagues was a refugee from Chile.  He had been imprisoned and tortured.  He had lost his family, his possessions, his homeland.  One day, when she was feeling irritated by what she perceived as an endless litany of complaining clients, she turned to him and said: “Peter, how can you – you who have known so much suffering, remain so patient and tolerant with these people with their petty complaints?”  “But Sue, he replied, this is their reality.” “This is their reality.”  This is one of the most intelligent, compassionate statements I have ever heard.

There are no hierarchies of dukkha.  There is just dukkha.

True compassion requires an open heart and a well-developed moral imagination and capacity for intelligent empathic reflection.

There’s an additional factor that I want to draw attention to now:  that is, the denial and distancing that can occur when we encounter dukkha – our own or another’s – and don’t know what to do to make it go away.  This arouses feelings of helplessness, which are linked to a sense of being ‘out of control’.  When we sense we can’t control something – whether that’s our own minds or other people or circumstances, it terrifies us.  What do most of us do when we’re terrified?  Deny it – either by shutting down in some way, or by lashing out and blaming someone else.  Either way, it reinforces our sense of helplessness, so we become as powerless as we fear we are.

I worked with Rural Australians for Refugees for several years. Jennifer Wilson, a fellow refugee activist says: “to truly bear witness to the suffering of the asylum seekers is to be confronted by the reality that our fortunes are determined by all manner of events over which we have no control.  Perhaps the fact that we are all so exquisitely vulnerable is what we flee from.  It enrages us, fills us with fear and intolerable discomfort and we want only to expel it, or hide it away in a fortress in the desert”.

Perhaps it is partly the flight from dukkha, from the inevitability of suffering, an unwillingness to engage intelligent, compassionate reflection, which aroused in many otherwise decent Australians a passionate hatred of the refugees.  (But I won’t get too sentimental -tribalism and ignorance – plus populist politics and ‘shock jocks’ also played their part.)

The sanest response to the dukkha of our vulnerable humanity is self-compassion.  Self-compassion involves three components.  They are: self-kindness – being kind and understanding to oneself, rather than self-critical; common humanity – viewing one’s difficult experiences as a normal part of the human condition; and mindful acceptance – not denying our difficulties, while not over-identifying with painful thoughts, feelings and stories.

Kristina Neff, who researches self-compassion tells her own story: “Four years ago when my son Rowan was two and a half we found out he had autism,” says Neff. “I processed a lot of the same emotions other parents experience when they get that news-I would sit on a playground or in a restaurant or be at a store and look at all of the moms with their ‘perfect’ kids and wonder why in the world I had been visited with such tragedy. Why couldn’t I have had one of those perfect, healthy, whole children? Was that too much to ask? How was I going to handle this?

“My husband and I supported and nurtured one another, of course, but it becomes essential for you to be able to give yourself what you need as well. I began very deliberately to give myself compassion, nurturance and soothing. I didn’t try to tell myself that the situation with which I was dealing wasn’t difficult, and I gave myself time to feel grief, despair and anger. Then I started to think about how all families have issues and difficulties related to their children at some point in life, even if their children are ‘normal’ and healthy. I began to see us as just another family and Rowan’s autism was just one of the unique features of the fabric of our family, not a punishment or defeating disaster. I started feeling a connection with other families rather than isolation.”

Empathic reflection on dukkha and its causes connects and empowers us;  denial of dukkha and its causes tears us apart.  The Buddha used dukkha as the basis for his universal teachings, because we all know what difficulty feels like.  Our capacity to experience physical, mental and emotional pain, links us across all divides of nationality, race, colour, religion, gender, sexual preference, political or other belief.  It’s like a common denominator of humanity.

(Please be clear I’m not ‘deifying’ dukkha, or ignoring the third and fourth Noble Truths – that extraordinary freedom and happiness are possible, and there is a path that guides us in that direction.  This talk is about the first two Noble Truths – the reality of dukkha and it’s causes; and it is about our capacity to grow, change and evolve by confronting it, rather than repressing or denying dukkha.)


Complacency and denial are side-effects of living in the palace of Western affluence.  We create endless distractions and defense mechanisms to dull and deny our personal pain, and blinker us to the suffering of ourselves and others.  Nevertheless, we are haunted by a sense of unease, stalked by a sense of vulnerability.

It is repression or denial of pain that is the big problem.  Denial is embedded in Western culture.  Distraction abounds, and job and time pressures continuously narrow our focus. It can be hard to get accurate information because of misinformation, cover-ups, organised lying and censorship.  Media reports bombard us with simplified accounts, while stereotyping, blaming, taking positions, but not investigating real causes and effects.  We come to fear our own city streets, barricading ourselves behind locked doors.  For the failures of consumer-oriented societies, we scapegoat each other, particularly our young men.

As an individual or as a society, the consequences of denying the pain we feel for the world are enormous.  Personally, the mind pays for its deadening to suffering by giving up its capacity for joy and flexibility.

I remember a day many years ago, when my daughter Chloe was about 8 or 9, and John and I were fighting.  I was in tears.  John was about to leave the house; he was telling me to ‘pull myself together, and stop crying’ when Chloe turned to him and said, “She has to cry now, so we can have fun later”.  Joy and flexibility returned, and we played.

Politically and socially, denial leads to passivity – leaving it all to the politicians – while bagging them and growing increasingly distrustful.   Or we burnout with bitterness, cynicism, depression, exhaustion, or illness.  Or we turn to displacement activities – desperate seeking after pleasure – or violence – or to drug abuse or even suicide.  Or we start blaming and scapegoating.  These are all terrible prices to pay, and there’s currently an epidemic of everything on this list.

Worse than these things is that, in avoiding painful information, we cut ourselves off from the vital feedback that has enabled humans to be the great survivors we are.

Facing pain is one of our essential survival skills.  We are here because all our ancestors, from amoeba to homo erectus learned to respond to feedback, to do something different, to evolve.

Perhaps it was more simple when were faced with a sabre-tooth tiger at the cave mouth.  Today, massive and complex dangers should rouse our collective energy – but more often make us want to pull down the blinds and watch TV.  We humans have taken so long to develop our large, complex brains.  What a tragedy it is that repressing pain diminishes our capacity to think.

No other animal consciously constructs their life in the way humans do.  This is the great gift of humans, and also our greatest liability.  We can construct our lives, and therefore our institutions, our systems of Government, for the good of all beings – or not.  We have choice.

The first step in being able to change anything is to know what you are dealing with.   Don’t be afraid to face what is dark, painful and confusing.   By shining the light of intelligent reflection into the darkness, we will find out things we need to know.  We will more easily know what to do, and what not to do, to help.


Empathic reflection on suffering begins with ourselves.

We come to retreats or go to churches or therapists to try and come to terms with the uncertainties of life.  But if we are really honest with ourselves, we will see that we are often after is consolation, not insight.  Then we hit a point in our practice when we see just how needy we are, and how we use our intellectual postures of being people dedicated to wisdom and insight as defenses against this neediness.

It’s an inescapable embarrassment that every sincere practitioner has to face on the path of insight.  It’s a beautiful paradox.  Acknowledging, feeling, this vulnerable neediness is itself a stage of insight because it links us directly to the Buddha’s first noble truth: the reality of dukkha. Then dukkha is not just a doctrine one learns, but is the reality of our own immediate experience. At this point we stop keeping the teachings at arms length, and really see that it’s about me.

When we go for consolation, rather than insight, the parts of ourselves that we can’t or don’t want to acknowledge or accept become like internal exiles. Most people who have done some meditation practice will have noticed the tendency to cling to some aspects of experience as ‘me’ and to ‘other-ise’ less desirable parts as ‘not me’ – or at least as ‘soon-to-be-’not-me’- because-I’m-going-to-get-rid-of-it’!

I suspect many more internal civil wars have raged silently in meditation halls than have than have been fought in the external world, and maybe there are more internal exiles and refugees in our psyches than in all the camps and detention centres in the world!

To ‘other-ise parts of our experience is to do violence to ourselves.  It perpetuates separation rather than wholeness, and the delusion that there is a ‘me’ and a ‘not me’.

In your meditation practice, I hope you have had many peaceful, happy, contented or even blissful moments.  And, you will probably have come up against dukkha in some form – whether that’s physical, mental or emotional.  The practice is to become intimate with everything that arises – including your dukkha – not resisting, rejecting or grasping anything – simply developing the ability to gently investigate it, to tolerate it.

Please remember the word ‘gentle’.  Sometimes we can have the ‘meditation from hell’ where we are overwhelmed by a strong emotion, a scene, a type of thinking or a memory.  In that case, it’s not necessary to grit your teeth and force yourself to stay with it.

Trust yourself to know your tolerance limit, and when you feel you’ve reached it, gently bring your attention to something that grounds you, like the touch of your hands or the breath or anything else you have found to be a good anchor at these times – maybe opening your eyes and noticing the colours in the room. Just let your attention become grounded for little while, and if the feelings, thoughts or memories return, let yourself go back into them again.  You may find you need to go back and forth between the experience and the grounding for a number of times.

Gradually you will build a tolerance for the difficulties, an ability to investigate them with gentle curiosity – to understand what keeps them going.

Truly facing the truth of our vulnerable humanity, and therefore the universality of Dukkha, is not essentially depressing.  Paradoxically it is ennobling and liberating.   Waking up to dukkha and its  implications, personally, in your own meditative experience is the first step on the path to wholeness and awakening.


[**see poem, next page]

Poem: “Descent into Love” – author unknown

Who would have known

that to burrow into your own shadows,

to step gently

into those dungeons

that hide their forbidden secrets

and sore and tender memories

that you’ve spent a lifetime avoiding

and running from -

That they would be the very passageway,

that begins with a crack,

a hairline splinter in the rock

that lets in a warm ray of light

that leads you down

into the fleshy rooms

of your heart,

and begins to soften that house

that has been vacant for years,

filling it with a sweetness,

an unimaginable openness -

where the hard boundaries that separated you

for so long

from the rigid edges of your world

start to become porous and dissolve.

And your skin becomes so thin

it starts to feel every impression of

this harsh and welcoming life.

And that’s where you come to know

the other

like your own.

And that’s where it begins -

the love you’ve waited for

starts moving

like the breath,

no longer making distinction

between inside and outside.

And that’s when you can’t help but fall in love with everything.


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This talk grew from hearing Dr Jeffrey Sachs give the 2007 Reith Lectures on ABC RadioNational.   Geoffrey Sachs is the Director of The Earth Institute, Professor of Sustainable Development, and Professor of Health Policy and Management at ColumbiaUniversity. He is also Special Advisor to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. From 2002 to 2006, he was Director of the UN Millennium Project and Special Advisor to Kofi Annan on the Millennium Development Goals, the internationally agreed goals to reduce extreme poverty, disease, and hunger by the year 2015.  What a list!

Dr Sachs pulled no punches and painted a vivid picture of the environmental, social and political challenges we face.  At the same time he was optimistic that we humans have enough good will, courage and technological know how to meet these challenges and prevent the worst impacts of climate change, famine and extreme poverty.

His talks challenge and inspire me to continue working for positive change.  I am inspired by his confidence that human wisdom, compassion and know-how are equal to the task.

I am challenged because, although we do have the technologies, the resources and even the theoretical political commitment, he was clear that we may not reach the goals we have set that will be necessary to prevent global suffering on an unprecedented scale.

In effect he says ‘we can, but we might not’.  Why?

The answers to this are not technological – we have the resources, we have the technologies.  Whether we go the course and meet the environmental, social and political challenges facing humanity depends primarily on whether we can meet the psychological and spiritual challenges involved.

At the end of the fifth and final lecture, Dr Sachs named a major aspect of this challenge when he said that the greatest threat to the world today is cynicism.

He said: “FDR [Roosevelt] said that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. John Kennedy said that to believe that war is inevitable is a dangerous, defeatist view. I say that cynicism is our worst enemy today. We must build on our successes, not feed our doubts. We have declared our goals and commitments, our Millennium Promises, but we lack the confidence to implement them.”

The power of the climate of cynicism, skepticism, and depressive thinking in the world today was directly and graphically evidenced by the responses of many of his audience members around the world.  Two of the lectures were delivered in England, one in Scotland, one in China and one in the U.S., and everywhere the majority of the responses – with a few notable exceptions – seemed to be affronted by his optimistic confidence and most gave a litany of reasons why what he was suggesting, could not happen.

In particular, audiences demonstrated a high degree of cynicism about something called ‘human nature’ which was not a concept used by Dr Sachs.  This mood is summed up by one person’s statement, “But what is the basis, the real basis for having such faith in human nature, because I’m not entirely convinced by the empirical evidence that you’ve produced.”

The big questions are these:  How does confidence in the human qualities of compassionate goodwill and intelligence, to at least soften the blow of major threats to humanity and nature, become so diminished?

In answering this question, I am going to suggest there are three major causes;  once we identify them, we can work with them so they become the remedies; they apply just as much to each of us individually, and to our meditation practice, as they do to our responses to global crises.

  • The first cause is a lack of the quality of mudita – appreciative joy, and joy itself.
  • The second cause is that confidence in ourselves and our abilities is undermined by toxic, fault-finding self-doubt.
  • The third cause is that our that the discriminating intelligence of awareness is confused and undermined by our perception of permanence and solidity.

Of course each of these causes gets tangled up with the others, each reinforcing one another, until it all starts to look like an intractable tangle.  The Buddha said to ‘untangle the tangled threads’, we need to grasp one thread and work with intelligent awareness, patient energy and persistence.  The first of the tangled threads we will grasp is:

Mudita – appreciative joy and joy itself

Mudita is one of the brahmaviharas, or divine abidings.  It is a type of emotional intelligence that includes the ability to value or appreciate good qualities in one-self and others.  As well as joy in others joy, it is also joy itself.

The direct opposites of Mudita are: cynicism, depression and boredom; mudita’s ‘near enemy’ (something it can be confused with) is vapid or undiscriminating enthusiasm.   When you get familiar with these distinctions, it’s easier to spot ‘disturbances in the mudita field.’

Looking at the dynamics of the audience response to Dr. Sachs, we see the personal is political.  The big challenge from a Buddhist perspective is to do whatever we can to heal the wound of cynicism and bring more Mudita into our lives.   Then we can engage whole heartedly in facing the personal and global challenges before us.

Let’s examine the responses of much of the audience to Dr Sachs’ confidence in the face of adversity.

  1. No one even said ‘thank you’ for the enormous efforts he puts in at the coal face of global challenges, let alone rejoiced with him at his perception that it is possible to actually make positive changes. (no Mudita)
  1. People in the audience attempted to show him as a naive or vapid enthusiast.  (i.e. as someone operating out from the ‘near enemy’ of Mudita)
  1. The attacks came from positions of cynicism and depression (the opposite of Mudita)
  1. Dr. Sachs, whilst acknowledging the problems, was still able to identify good qualities in people in general that could meet the challenges. (Mudita)
  1. He specifically identified cynicism, one of Mudita’s opposite qualities, as the key problem of our time.

I expect most of these audience responses arose in part, arise because the audience members themselves had not received sufficient mudita themselves.  It’s a rare person in our culture who has a ‘strong positive self regard’, who feels they have had sufficient ‘blessing’ with the good eye of real appreciation of our good qualities.   When we find it difficult to appreciate others and their positive points of view, to really en-joy them we are simply passing on the wound, the curse of the evil eye of fault finding and cynicism.

Cynicism is the most toxic and damaging form doubt.  It’s like a cancer of the human soul that eats away at passion, at compassion, at wisdom and robs us of joy.   Cynics tend to view life through their own shortcomings, which of course lead them to see shortcomings everywhere.

Cynics do not merely read bitter lessons from the past, they are also prematurely disappointed in the future.  Cynics give up on themselves, and on their children and grand-children and all future generations, even before they are born. It’s as though they’re mired in the destructive view of ‘original sin’.

Inspired Confidence

A Lao Buddhist monk once asked my husband John about his work for positive change. As John talked, the monk said several times, “I rejoice with you.”   This phrase ‘I rejoice with you’ is a Lao cultural expression of the appreciative energy of mudita.

To stop being cruel to oneself and others and practice kindness and appreciation for our good qualities, is the bedrock of faith.  When we rejoice in our own good qualities and the good qualities of others, we are inspired to live a life of greater fullness.

Inspiration is an excellent ally to mudita. Inspiration moves the heart and aspiration and intention move us into action.  We act on the basis of an ‘inspired confidence’.

In Pali, the language of the early texts, the word for confidence, ‘saddha’ is also translated as “faith” or “trust”.  Saddha literally means “to place your heart upon”, because confidence moves us into action.  It’s also called a ‘reasoned confidence’  as it is a developmental process of testing one’s ground, then going further. When we put our hearts into the practice, it is a sign of faith or confidence in that practice.

Often our first faith is what it called a ‘bright faith’ and may be more like enthusiasm than ‘reasoned confidence’.  We aspire to something different in our life, or we are inspired by someone or something, and we have sufficient blind faith or trust, for example to come to this retreat and sit down and close our eyes.  But until that moment, we are acting on trust, not direct experience.

The practice we do here, trusts the mind’s ability to discover processes that further its development, to discard bad habits and to become free.

As we begin to make friends with our minds, ‘bright faith’ gradually develops into mature faith and confidence.  Mature confidence is anchored in our own experience of the truth, centered in the deeper understanding of the nature of the mind and body that we discover in meditation practice. This deeper level of faith is grounded in our own enquiry, our own experience and knowledge, rather than belief in something or someone outside of ourselves.

As you meditated, the mind will have found itself in beneficial states such as awareness, happiness, stillness, contentment, inner peace – perhaps even accompanied by fresh insights and wisdom.  Some of the unwholesome states of mind such as self-criticism, worry, anger or craving will have loosened their grip, even if only momentarily. The progress is not linear, and the mind may seem to cycle back through ‘Groundhog Day’ more than you would like, but as your awareness deepens, you see subtle shifts, even in the midst of what seems like regression.

Then you become your own source of inspiration for positive change!

Of course it is also inspirational and confidence-building to practice mudita, appreciative joy on a daily basis.  Not all our sources of inspiration have to be the Jeffrey Sachs of this world.

An excellent practice is playing ‘Spot the Bodhisattva’ in the supermarket.  You never know for sure where a Bodhisattva will turn up.  They don’t wear any badges or insignia.  They look as ordinary as the rest of us.

Who is that somewhat harried woman pushing that trolley of coke and sweet biscuits toward the check-out?  Oh, she’s a local women’s refuge worker, supplying the kids with the only food they’re familiar with, so they won’t freak out too much while their mum gets some rest and kindness.  Say ‘thank you – I rejoice with your good work’.

And there is my friend from Adelaide, Peter Hawken.  He sent me a eulogy he wrote for the funeral of one his clients, who became his dear friend.  The following fragment demonstrates that presence, to both the truth of the moment and the truth of potential for change and growth, opens up creative thinking and flexibility.

“Stephen would never get out of the car to go into a cafe or visit someone’s house.  We had to bring the coffee out to him, open his car door and sit around him.  One day I decided to take him toMurrayBridgeto visit my sister and her children who were very open to people labeled ‘intellectually disabled’.  From experience, I knew that Stephen would get out of the car, go to the front door and run away as soon as somebody answered it.  I rang my sister first to ask if she and her family would leave the front door open, let us come in and sit in the sitting room and then they could quietly come in and gather round us.  This strategy worked and very soon after this, when Stephen realized he was perfectly safe to venture out with me, we started to go into shops, cafes, homes and public transport.

Many possibilities that enriched his life began to open up to him.  We would often catch the tram to Glenelg, which he loved to do.  We caught the Steam Ranger fromAdelaidetoVictorHarbourand picnicked on delicious Greek food his mother had prepared for us.  I established the goal of going on a camp together and in our third year together we went on a family camp where he did things we never thought possible including staying away from home at night AND sleeping!”

Thank you, Peter, I rejoice in your discernment – your clear noticing of the difficulties involved in Stephen’s life, and your skill in starting right where he was and just opening one door. Then by going forward with vision and commitment, step by slow step, your confirmed that change is possible and achievable.

Intelligent Discernment

Sati or ‘presence’, ‘mindfulness’ and ‘attentiveness’ is only one aspect of our practice. Awareness also requires intelligent discernment and judgment.  In Pali, this is called sampanjanna – the clarity of clear comprehension.

Comprehension and discernment come with experience, and experience depends on memory, recollecting what worked in the past and what didn’t work in the past.  As we practice, our awareness becomes more refined, and we see more subtle layers of cause and effect.  We become good diagnosticians of our own minds, and once we have a good diagnosis, we can find cures.

Our increasingly subtle discriminating intelligence tells us which pathways, both immediately and over time, lead the heart away from pain, and which pathways lead the heart towards pain.  Practicing this way, we begin to have confidence in our own good judgment – if you like, in our common sense.

From that we can make inferences (not hard and fast conclusions) about what paths may be useful in the future, and what may not be useful.  One reason why I encourage you to spend time recalling your meditation sitting is so that your mind can recall, thus strengthen, the pathways that lead the heart away from pain and towards wholeness. Additionally, when we recall we can often have further insights about the experiences we had in meditation.

One pitfall of enthusiastic ‘blind faith’ is idealistic expectations and fantasies of a state of permanent unshakeable bliss and wisdom where we will live happily ever after.

If we only focus on some ‘big picture’ of enlightenment, we will miss the sweet subtleties of the ‘small enlightenments’ on the path, the light shining through the opening doorways, the signs that tell us we are making progress.  These are what give rise to reasoned confidence in the path itself

Noticing and remembering the subtle differences, developing the capacity to discern, is a major break-through – because one of the things that keeps us trapped is making similar things ‘the Same’ – capital ‘S’.  Insight sees the changes and shifts, the rising and passing of processes.  Confusion sees static states, and rubber-stamps previous experiences on to current situations that may only be vaguely similar. Confusion believes a story in our heads more than the evidence we are experiencing now. It sees a W-H-O-L-E thing in a process that is actually full of holes!

In meditation, when we truly pay attention, we see both suffering and the roots of suffering.  When we see cause and effect in this way, we have a tool that can begin to untangle the threads of suffering. It becomes less personal, as we see how it arises, and how it ceases.  We stop being so caught up in our identity, in a sense of a solid, unchanging ‘I’.  By inference, we can also let go of a solid, unchanging idea of ‘human nature’.

There is no pre-ordained human nature, and no pre-ordained human destiny.  It is our kamma, our choice of actions in each moment, and the way they unfold, that precipitates our destiny; it is kamma, our actions, that ultimately fashions the entire variegated landscape of sentient existence itself, according to the ethical tone of its associated moral roots.

Inspiration and confidence in the world

To engage in creating positive social or environmental change is an act of faith, in the sense that we can never be assured of a ‘successful’ outcome.  More importantly I think it is an act of confidence in humanity, as Dr Jeffrey Sachs said – a confidence in human goodwill, compassion and intelligence as capabilities that can create positive change.

We perceive injustice and we act with confidence in justice as a quality that is good in itself; we perceive a lack of compassion and we act with confidence in compassion as a quality that is good in itself; we perceive damage to the earth and her creatures and we act with love to repair the damage, with confidence in love as a quality that is good in itself.

This doesn’t require any external source of faith. We know the qualities of justice, compassion and love in ourselves; from our own experience we know their goodness, their skilfullness.  Our actions based in these qualities may not always produce the outcomes we would like in the world, but that shouldn’t make us doubt the qualities themselves.

What it is useful to doubt is the means we have used.  That kind of doubt leads to realistic re-assessment and to creativity and renewed energy for finding new pathways.  This is the kind of balance between confidence and doubt that is useful in our work for the world, and leads to insight.  Even some of Dr Jeffrey Sachs methodologies and strategies have been critiqued, inviting him to reassess them – while staying true to his good heart, his values, intelligence and best intentions.

Sometimes we manage to live with uncertainty because we have hope.  Passive hope is more often a curse than a blessing.  The Buddha said, “hope and fear chase each other’s tails.”  Passive hope leads us away from where we are right now, towards some imaginary future state.  One might say that passive hope is a longing for a future condition over which one has no agency.   So that kind of hope can leave us powerless.  Worse still, false hopes bind us to unlivable situations, and blind us to real possibilities.

When you turn passive hope into active hope – a hope you are noticing around you – in your communities and in the rest of the world – a hope you are participating in – you turn away from fear and towards possibility

We go forth, we muddle on with confidence in ourselves.  With faith in the essential goodness of the human heart and the wisdom mind.  Each and every one of us in this room has experienced this – for yourself – over and over again.  And yes, everyone in this room has experienced times when we’ve not trusted and acted on our inner goodness and wisdom.

Nevertheless, I know that within each of you is a heart potent with the seeds of loving kindness, compassion, and wisdom.   Each time we nourish these seeds, we grow our confidence in ourselves, grow our courage to let go of old certainties and imagine new pathways on which to journey.

“To be confident in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places–and there are so many–where people, including us in our own small ways, have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”  Adapted from Howard Zinn.


The basic premise we have to test is the Buddha’s assertion that cause and effect does actually operate and that you personally, are agent of your own awakening.

Both the Buddha’s journey and teachings, and my own experience of walking the path have inspired in me a confidence that humans can learn, we can transform.  The Buddha’s simple and profound truth is that nothing arises without a cause, but nothing arises from a single cause.  Whatever has a causal arising has a causal ending.  In short what we do has consequences.  What we build up, we can take down.  It makes no difference whether the ‘structure’ you are dealing with is the story you tell yourself about who you are, or a massive environmental threat.

Here is how Dr Jeffrey Sachs concluded his fifth lecture:

“What I can tell you, with certainty, is that there is a role for everybody and every community, and a need for everybody to become engaged. You must be the peacemakers, development specialists, ecologists, all. Do not lose heart.

He quoted Robert Kennedy : ‘It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against an injustice, they send forward a tiny ripple of [confidence], and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.’ “

In an inter-existent and inter-dependent world, there are multiple realities and therefore multiple possibilities for solutions and positive change.  Thousands of those are being implemented right now; some will fail, and many will work.  Unless we know how to shift our gaze from the ‘all or nothing’ view, and look with the intelligently discriminating eyes of interdependence and possibility, we will fail to see them and will lose faith.  They are growing like small green shoots between the rubble of our collapsing superstructures; they need our helping hands.  Choose one of them, any one of them and pitch in.

As a tribute to Dr Jeffrey Sachs’ commitment to this journey, and to remind ourselves of ‘mudita’, I quote Andre Breton:  “I believe in the pure surrealist joy of the person who, forewarned that all others before them have failed, refuses to admit defeat, sets off from whatever point they choose, along any path save a reasonable one, and arrives where they can.”

Inspired and joyful action, active rather than passive hope, is the basis for true confidence.

Two and a half thousand years ago, the Buddha overcame his own doubts and committed himself to an unreasonable and ultimately joyful journey. Because of his commitment, we are here in this room together.  Don’t ever let the journey end.