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I am a writer, editor, reviewer and dance teacher based in Perth, Western Australia.

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The first two novels of my trilogy, The Talismans, are available as e-books from Smashwords. I do have paperbacks of The Dagger of Dresnia at the low price of $AU25 including postage within Australia. I also have a short story, 'La Belle Dame', in print - see Mythic Resonance below. The best way to contact me is via Facebook!

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The first two books of The Talismans trilogy were published by Satalyte Publications, which, sadly, has gone out of business. I hope to see my books back on Amazon under a new publisher in the near future.

The Dagger of Dresnia

The Dagger of Dresnia
Want a copy? Contact me at satimafn(at)gmail.com

The Cloak of Challiver

The Cloak of Challiver
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Places I've lived: Lynton, Devon, UK

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Places I've lived: Braemar, Scotland

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Places I've lived: Barre, MA, USA

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Monday, 9 September 2013

When sitting, just sit

I've just returned from a nine-day Vipassana retreat.

'You've just what?' I hear my non-Buddhist friends ask, so some explanation is no doubt in order.

Vipassana, or Insight meditation (also Mindfulness meditation, although not everyone likes the translation of Vipassana as Mindfulness) is a technique that calms the mind and body and allows us to see things more clearly. What we see first is our discomfort, but soon we start to see our thoughts,  reactions and emotions, which can also be very painful at first. The value lies in the development of the ability to see these things without judging ourselves or others, so we learn to act more skilfully in everyday life.

There is a great deal more to Vipassana meditation than this, but these facets alone make the practice the most worthwhile endeavour I have undertaken. From being a psychological mess twenty-five years ago, I have learnt, through applying the strict personal honesty that Vipassana demands, how to manage my emotions and be more open and caring in my dealings with others.

The practice goes back some 2,600 years, to the time of the Buddha. From its Buddhist roots, Mindfulness has spread into Western thought, especially in the field of psychology. Meditation teachers and psychologists versed in the technique now have corporate clients who want their staff to learn Mindfulness. It's powerful stuff.

So how do you do it? Well, you go to a nice quiet place with a few dozen other people, then you sit and walk in silence under the direction of a teacher. That's all there is to it, but it takes self-discipline to refrain from speaking, to sit with your eyes closed for an hour at time, to walk so slowly you look as if you're doing some weird form of Tai Chi, over and over again for at least 12 hours a day for a week or more.

This was not a hard retreat. It was held at the beautiful Jhana Grove retreat centre, about an hour's drive south of the city of Perth. This has to be the five-star hotel of retreat centres - individual rooms with ensuite, lovely gardens, the poshest meditation hall I've ever sat in, and a kind, caring teacher.

The first Insight retreat I did, back in 1991, was a boot camp. The teacher was the late Namgyal Rinpoche, a tough teacher. He wasn't uncaring - it was just that he wanted us enlightened - NOW! Under his strict regime I learnt how to behave in a retreat centre (silent at all times, no eye contact with other retreatants, move slowly and mindfully at all times) and how to walk so slowly I almost fell over. He wanted us to take an hour to walk twenty paces, I never managed that, but I came close.

Rinpoche was an interesting man. Canadian by birth, he was ordained in both the Theravadan (where his name was Anandabodhi) and Tibetan traditions (where he was recognised as an incarnation of a high lama). He had what bordered on a psychic ability to read his students. I remember a fellow retreatant putting his hand up in class one day (the one hour of the day when we could speak, if we had a question!) to ask what turned out to be something I wanted to ask, too. Rinpoche listened to the student, then turned to me and said 'And I don't want to have to say this again!' before answering. That kind of thing happened all the time with Rinpoche.

One day, he took us rookies (there were four of us) to his quarters and taught us the four Brahma Viharas - the practices of friendliness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. They have remained the core of my practice ever since.

Since then I have attended twenty-odd  insight retreats, but after all these years I am still a beginner. This recent retreat was my first in some time. I've moved around a lot in recent years, and my daily sitting practice has slipped. My concentration is poor and I am plagued by sleepiness. I've kept telling myself that my practice would come back as soon as I had chance to do a retreat, but that proved not to be the case. It was only on Saturday - the last full day of practice - that my sitting sessions showed the odd moment of clarity. It was as if it was the first day of a retreat, not the last.

At his closing talk, the teacher, Dhammaruwen, said that not only must we have a regular daily practice, but also do regular retreats and belong to a practice group. As so often happened with Dhammaruwen, I felt he was speaking directly to me! He has a lovely light touch as a teacher, often poking gentle fun at the bad habits of 'yogis' (retreatants or practitioners) and sometimes I squirmed under his little jibes as they were so often things I noticed in myself! Ouch.

Dhammaruwen is another unusual person. As a child, he chanted Buddhist scriptures in their original language, Pali, before he had studied them. He still chants beautifully. Had he not become a meditation teacher he could probably have done very well in opera!

Dhammaruwen and I have sat with some of the same teachers, notably Bhante Henepola Gunaratana at the Bhavana Center in High View, West Virginia, USA, and Joseph Goldstein. The world of Insight Meditation is a small one, and at almost every retreat I find I meet someone who has either sat with the same teachers or been to the same centres as I have. In the 1990s, I was on staff at both the Bhavana Center and the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, which Joseph Goldstein founded with Sharon Salzberg and Jack Kornfield two other teachers I regard highly.

I did very different jobs at the two centres. I arrived at the Bhavana Center expecting to be a housekeeper or a kitchen hand, but on the first morning Bhante G. announced that I was to be the new cook! Now, cooking is something I avoid like the plague. I cannot cook, have never been able to cook, and had then, as now, no desire to learn how to cook! I told Bhante that I couldn't cook but he obviously didn't believe me. After a few days of stir-fries and salads, I expect he realised I'd told the truth!

I felt sorry for the monks, for their one meal a day must surely have been a highlight. I did my best, but I suspect they were all very relieved when a Thai woman turned up and took over the cooking, and I moved on to IMS.

I was the Registrar at IMS - a very busy job as we ran nine-day retreats almost back-to-back for nine months of the year, with the remaining months being devoted to the famous three-month retreat that so many yogis aspire to attend. When I worked there I could sit as much of each retreat as my work allowed, and I took full advantage of that. 

These days, I just buy lottery tickets now and then in the hope of winning enough to pay the 3-month retreat fees and my air fare to America! But even without a winning ticket, after what Dhammaruwen said, I intend to make at least one retreat a year a priority in my budget. I don't want to lose my practice again.


7 comments:

Jo said...

Sounds absolutely fascinating Satima, I don't surprise I will manage it, but I would love to do a retreat, they sound great.

Satima Flavell said...

There is plenty of meditation in Canada, Jo. You might just fall over something you'd like to try. It's probably best to start with a weekend of Vipassana as a week might be too intense for starters.

Jo said...

Trouble is there are a couple of other considerations, money being one, and Matt being t'other. I can't just up and leave him.

Satima Flavell said...

Yes, it's hard to get away when someone else needs you. Keep your eyes open for workshops or courses, though - you might be able sneak out for a few hours now and then!

As for money, in my experience the money turns up when you need it. There's a saying in Buddhist circles that 'If you take care of the Dhamma, (teachings) the Dhamma will take care of you'. I've always found this to be true.

Satima Flavell said...

And if nothing else, you can look for books in the library. Look for the works of Sharon Salzberg, Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein and you won't go far wrong.

Glying Shido said...

Vipassana meditation is something good and help us be mindful all day as well increase our wisdom. I met a guru who practice for over 30years, he is Venerable Vimokkha and did share his teaching in MP3 files in my blog. Free download and learn the vipassana meditation technique at:
http://www.kidbuxblog.com/ajahn-wimoak/

Satima Flavell said...

I have not had the privelge of sitting with Ajan Wimoak, Shido, but it is good that you are spreading his teachings through your blog!

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