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Student Reflections On DRBU's Infinite Heart Retreat
DRBU held its beloved Contemplative Exercise Immersion (CEI) during the week of September 14 focusing on cultivating the brahmavihāras within the realm of sacred space. Students, faculty, and staff spent four days together on Zoom learning about, understanding, and ways to put the brahmavihāras into practice. What are the brahmavihāras? Roughly translated, the brahmavihāras are four “divine abodes” of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. The thoughtfully planned CEI was organized by a dedicated committee of faculty and staff members described the event as the following:
“This semester’s CEI will explore creating sacred space, what in Buddhism has been called a bodhimaṇḍa (place of awakening). Through reading primary texts like the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa Sūtra and the Visuddhimagga, talks from senior teachers, and visceral visualizations, the DRBU community will explore the physical and mental components that contribute to creating sacred space. According to the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa Sūtra, the four brahmavihāras (divine abidings) are, among many other things, places of awakening. The brahmavihāras are described in Buddhist texts as apramāṇa (Pāli appamañña), which means without measure, immeasurable, infinite, limitless, boundless. Why? Because such a mind encounters no obstacles that could limit it. Does that mean that there are no obstacles arising in the mind? No, it means that whatever arises is met with an attitude of friendliness, compassion, joy, and equanimity.”
Loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity were themes for each day. The CEI was structured and balanced between the activities of body movement and stretching, instruction, guided meditation, group activities with discussion, and a guest speaker. Students share their experiences from attending the CEI:
I first read about metta in Alice Walker's "We Are the Ones" when I was fifteen. I understood metta to be a recitation of phrases simple enough to say: "may I be well, may I be happy, may I be at ease." My mouth shaped itself around the words and I wondered how to shape my heart into a shape sincere enough to receive such mantras.
What is it like to shape your heart, your whole being around loving kindness? To feel its lapping waves coaxing the heart out of conditioned seclusion, the warmth of gently held kindness for oneself asmosing through the body, the awareness of eyes shining through a lidded gaze and the eyes of all sentient beings shining too - and what would it be like to move through the world this way?
Each day of CEI returned us to this warm-hearted place and unlocked new areas of our internal map. From loving kindness we traversed the path to compassion, an emanating splay of beaming rays beyond the boundary of this body toward sentient beings, to the empty spaces between and within being receiving our honey-like hot, to the aspiration of equanimity, the zooming from a self-bound perception and peering through the body to witness the mechanisms of the four brahmavihāras.
What is it like to shape your being this way, to study the inner landscape of boundless hearts? It is like visiting a temple, a sacred space in your body, requiring only breadcrumb, visceral memory to return to a place of worship.
Sjon, BA ‘24
This semester’s CEI’s biggest impact for me was to restore hope. I began to feel a sense that I could let go of the attachments that are weighing me down. Metta is described in the Visuddhimagga as having a quality of ‘solvency,’ of dissolving hard or stuck places. For me, sitting in that shared energy and being with kind people and mentors watered an old dry garden and let it start shifting again. I started to see how I could let go of the self-punishing attitude I’ve carried around for decades and start to support myself in simply having a life pursuing goodness, clarity, joy, and friendliness.
Quinn, BA ‘23
This CEI came at the right time. I really cherish this CEI and the experience from the bottom of my heart because nowhere in the world can you really see people collectively internalizing such beautiful...no these 'beyond beautiful' principles - this invisible beauty - virtue. The remarkable difference in my life I could say is this empowerment because before I would say to myself plenty of affirmations to dispel negative thinking, yet they weren't the answer for everything life gave and dealt. So, because of this suffusion with loving-kindness and its friends did only the affirmations' original intention strengthen from the bottom up.
Norbel, BA ‘22
While my classes have been enriching, the week of CEI was a great opportunity to step away from studying theory and into applying practice. The spirit of the retreat was to see things not just cognitively, but to really see it and experience it for ourselves. During our group check-ins over the course of the week, there was a joy in seeing people change from not understanding metta (loving-kindness), to then speaking directly from what they saw for themselves, and having their descriptions match my own experiences. It brings the teachings alive, so that they’re not just some abstract concept, but a real part of how we can see the world in our day-to-day lives.
James, MA ’22
CEI week really shook me up in the best of ways. I went into it not expecting a lot from an online, non-silent experience. Now, looking back a week later, I feel like this is one of the most transformative retreats I’ve had the good fortune to be a part of. Something about that combination of Doug’s deep, direct teaching and the experiential lessons learned through the paired meditations, really knitted together theory and practice in a fundamental way. The retreat high may have worn off, but I can still feel a welcome, fresh thread of solidity weaving through my core and spinning new light into my life. I’m feeling very grateful for this community.
Rachel, MA ‘22
It all started from the loving-kindness, compassion, gladness and equanimity of the instructors and organizers. They brought the teachings alive and through guided meditations we participants were able to develop the same states of mind. In the end, the CEI created a synergetic field where everyone, beginner or practitioner, rejoiced in each other's stillness and open-heartedness. Though the session was over, the expansion of this field is being carried out by each one of us in our own way.”
Simon, MA ‘21
I always felt that the four Brahma Viharas are very important qualities to develop but I wasn't sure how to develop them. When I learnt about those instructions such as "May I be happy," "May they be free from affliction" etc, my mind wasn't impressed. But on Day 3, during Stacy's guided meditation on metta, my mind just followed the instruction and used these phrases on myself. Surprisingly, the feeling of metta did arise, along with stillness and stability. I could almost see how such simple phrases could lead to metta, all the way to absorption. My insight on this incident is that we don't need to "outsmart" the instructions. Just be willing, follow them, be patient and see what happens. Being "stupid" this way is the way to success. One does not need to over-think about what metta is. Simply do and experience it.
Jianqiu, MA ‘21
At some time, shortly after the CEI was over, I was struck to discover that a shift in my perspective had taken place. For me, the key moment of the CEI was the final guided meditation, in which the instructor led us to reflect on the whole world and its many ailments. This was an easy image for my mind to conjure up, for, for almost as long as I remember "the world" has always been a mostly problematic place, full of injustices that should be fixed and, not only they are not, they just seem to get ever so much worse. Coming to a monastery sometimes feels like the only option to avoid dealing with "everything else out there," a vague monster too big and too depressing to even look at for too long. It's hard not to be a cynic when things seem irresolvable. While Buddhism has saved me, I think, of a complete loss of hope, it always seemed like something that belongs to a different realm. The boundaries between "inside" the monastery and "outside" have always been clear-cut barriers separating two realities too distinct to even converse with each other.
However, the next step in the meditation was to "realize how we are creating the world with our minds." I must have recited hundreds of times during evening ceremony "if people want to understand/ all the Buddhas of the three times/ contemplate the Dharma Realm/ all things are created from mind..." Yeah, we know this. However, at that time it "clicked," and for the first time I made the direct connection between the principle and the way I always think about "the world." "The world" I see is nothing other than my own interpretation of it. My own impression, my own projection of it. It is terrible and hopeless and dark because I conceive of it that way. And my failure to be aware of this mental act gives it the impression of corresponding to something truly "out there."
And then the meditation guide pointed out how, armed with this knowledge, we could actually create the world we wanted to live in. This is when all the loving-kindness, compassion and joy we had been cultivating for the past 4 days came in really handy. I realized I have a choice. I can decide (for we always have that freedom) to use a lens of kindness, acceptance and compassion to interpret all of reality, and as a result the whole "world" will be transformed. Literally, for I do not exist in any world beyond my interpretations.
I have already extended beyond the scope of what I was asked to write (they told me "a few sentences"), so, to put it very briefly, I want to say that I realized that after the CEI that feeling of heaviness about the world seemed less solid, and, perhaps for the first time in my life, I had hope for it and a sense of direction. I am deeply grateful to the organizers.
Omar, MA ‘21
As a diamond full of dust and mud, my heart had forgotten its intrinsic nature. This awareness is the most valuable I could get from the CEI because, even if I have not been able to get rid of all the impurities in my heart, I could taste again, a little bit of its brightness. As a good jewelry cleaner, I will patiently clean that diamond to go back to my real self that connects with true love.
Nahelia, MA ‘21
My biggest takeaway from the CEI is a new understanding of mettā (loving-kindness) as a state of mind in which everything else can be viewed in. When mettā is paired with equanimity, I am able to actively not engage in the thoughts that arise, and am able to observe them without taking them personally. I've been able to accept the pleasant, unpleasant, and the neutral as if they are all raindrops falling into the great ocean. This clarity of mind has been a major breakthrough, for previously, I was stuck in a cycle of overthinking for most of my life.
Xuan, TC ‘21
The CEI this year was refreshing and multifaceted in terms of the texts we read, the teacher (Doug Powers) we had, the well-thought-out theme, and the guided practices and activities. As the outside world seems to be contracting in greed and anger, it feels wholesome to do the inner expanding work with a focus on loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. Much gratitude for the collective experience in-person and online.
Xiaojuan, TC ‘21