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The Knowing Heart: A Daylong Retreat with Thanissara
Interviewed by Joel Groover

 

 
Knowledge is easy to come by—especially in an age when smartphones and iPads provide instant access to the likes of Google, YouTube and Wikipedia. But for the forest meditation masters of Thailand who trained Thanissara—a veteran insight meditation teacher and former Buddhist nun who now lives in Chattanooga, Tenn.—this kind of superficial knowledge was of limited value. Rather than the bookishness of academics and intellectuals, Thanissara’s teachers (including the revered Ajahn Chah) stressed the importance of true wisdom, “the heart that knows.”

In keeping with this training, Thanissara will explore precisely such themes on June 25th when she teaches a daylong retreat at the Atlanta Friends Meeting house in Decatur, Ga. Titled “The Knowing Heart,” the retreat runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and will include dharma talks, mindfulness meditation, inquiry and other practices in an atmosphere of contemplative silence. Insight Meditation Community of Georgia is sponsoring the event.

British-born Thanissara (formerly Linda Mary Peacock) began practicing Buddhism in 1975 and was a nun for 12 years in the Thai forest tradition, in which yogis spend long stints in remote wilderness as part of their spiritual practice. A trained psychotherapist, she routinely teaches insight meditation retreats alongside her American-born husband, the former monk Kittisaro, at major centers such as Spirit Rock in Woodacre, Calif., and Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass. The couple co-founded Dharmagiri Outreach, which works to improve the lives of impoverished South Africans, as well as Dharmagiri, a Buddhist hermitage and contemplative community near the border of South Africa and Lesotho.

Below is a brief interview with Thanissara by ATH Assistant Editor Joel Groover.

Joel: Thanks so much for taking time out to talk with us. For starters, I wondered if you could say a bit about the focus of your teaching these days?

Thanissara: My teaching has always really been very much about the contemplative journey. The heart of which is a process of integration of the deepest unfolding that happens when we touch into themes of stillness, understanding, peace, but also themes of negotiating the deeper wounds that we hold, from our personal lives, from our collective karma we share—from society, the global situation. Those wounds are very present. We feel them. I feel them.

The focus of the contemplative life is often about transcendence of the self, and of the particular, and of the society. That is how I was trained, first of all—that spiritual life was about transcendence. But my understanding now is more about integration. It’s about the deeper truth where we understand ourselves as interconnected with everything else in a very profound and intimate way. What does that mean in terms of how we live and our responses within the world? How does that inform our response?

Joel: It makes a lot of sense. I think there are a lot of people who get a whiff of transcendence and have maybe even some kind of initial awakening, but then they really struggle with the integration part of that, right? It seems like there are a lot of people who have been meditating for a long time, but they don’t quite know how to balance that impulse toward transcendence and yet the need to integrate also.

Thanissara: That is exactly it. It seems to me that that is the edge. In Buddhist teaching and Buddhist metaphor, there is a sense that the path of liberation is something to work out internally. Other people around you—sangha—are there for support. I have spent many years living in communities where there was a sense of sangha, but the primary idea was that you as an individual somehow work out your own liberation or enlightenment, however you frame that. I’m seeing it very differently these days. I’m seeing that once you begin to, not so much transcend the sense of personal self, but loosen your identification around the personal self, what then is my ‘self’ has a much more global sense. There is much more a sense of real intimacy and interconnection with everything. I feel that. And so the personal journey of liberation almost becomes meaningless. It is not meaningless. It is very meaningful, but it becomes less of a priority. It is not even a priority—it does not even fit the template from where my understanding has taken me. Does that make sense?

Joel: It does, because if it is your own personal liberation, if a person has actually seen through that to some degree, then whose personal liberation is it, actually? There is a paradox there.

Thanissara: Well, we are dealing in paradox. That is exactly it: personal liberation takes you into the interconnectedness. There isn’t a person to liberate. But I think in that context I really see the self, the function of the self—you know, again in Buddhist metaphor, the self is often seen as a problem, something that we kind of have to get rid of. But I don’t see it like that. I see the self (really, the personal self here; obviously, if you look at it from the view of insight you would see its innate fluidity, emptiness, interconnectedness) … but I also see each personal self as very unique. It is a sort of a medium through which this process of integration happens. It is absolutely necessary. So I’m much less interested in getting rid of my ‘self’ or trying to transcend my ‘self.’ I notice that in loosening identification with self I actually honor my ‘self’ and understand it as the vehicle through which I take this journey of integration.

Joel: Yes. And so when you’re walking around in the world and interacting with other people, it isn’t that you see only them and your self is utterly abolished. It is this middle way where yeah, you are there as a person and so are they, and it is neither one extreme nor the other?

Thanissara: Exactly. The middle way.

Joel: One of the things I’m very interested in is what is vipassana, or insight meditation, versus, say, just focusing on a mantra or your breath, which I guess in the insight world would be known as concentration meditation. I wonder if you could say a word about the distinction?

Thanissara: Interestingly enough, the Pali word vipassana, from which the Western school of insight meditation emerged, is actually not really used that often in the Theravada canon. So in some ways the very starting point for us understanding meditation is often a bit skewed because we have this category of insight, when actually the [Pali] word more commonly used was bhavana, which means development or cultivation. This implies the whole of your being. So again insight tends to focus on a particularity. But, you know, in the way that we were trained, with Ajahn Chah’s approach, there was a distinction between samatha and vipassana types of meditation. Basically, samatha is calming or stilling the thinking process. It is dependent upon taking an object, whether it be a mantra, the breath, body sensations, like the [S.N.] Goenka people, whether it be a candle flame or some subtle sensory experience (for example, my former abbot used to use the sound of silence). You take something and you focus on it to the exclusion of everything else until there is a certain calming. If you do it well, if you don’t do it in a sort of rigid or willful way, then you begin to integrate the energies of the body, mind and heart into awareness. So there is a filling up within the body of the energy of the mind, which is awareness, and in turn the mind steadies on the slower rhythms of the body.

So you get this sense of stillness, calm, integration, but it is very dependent upon certain internal and external factors. For example, having enough will to sustain attention, having external calm and a controlled environment in which to do it, like sitting in stillness on a meditation cushion. So there’s a limit.

Insight meditation—I suppose you could call it contemplative meditation; I prefer the term contemplative or reflective—is more interested in what happens when you get disturbed. So then you start to see the nature of mind. You see the nature of hindrances. You see the nature of different positive qualities, the brahma viharas or the enlightenment factors. You develop the wholesome; you let go of the unwholesome. That is the basic template. You need some insight, some discernment to see what the mind is, what those states of mind and intentionality are, and further, insight ultimately even explores the very nature of mind itself. It reveals impermanence and ultimately the emptiness of mind. That is the terrain of insight. It is not so much technique-oriented. You’re not holding attention to a certain object; you’re actually moving toward a more choice-less field of awareness. But you need some steadiness to do that. So insight and calming are related. They support each other.

Joel: I felt that in my practice I spent a long time just kind of coming back to the present moment, and it seemed like at a certain point there was a lot that I had never looked at, like the process of breaking down ‘here is how you feel something that hurts and then respond with aversion or anger, and then act.’ All that stuff, all of the body sensations and the reactions to them, it seemed like I maybe ignored that and had this practice that really worked in the moment, just coming back to the present, but left a lot of corners in which more light needed to shine, if that makes any sense.

Thanissara: It makes total sense. And I think that is exactly where a lot of people get to, and it is exactly related to the first area we were talking about, which is integration. Ajahn Chah, our teacher, would deliberately disturb you if he saw you getting too attached to your refined states of calm and presence. He would find ways to stir up your anger, your resentment. As you start to open into the habits of the mind, the conditioning and the habits, it is not pretty, mostly. So with insight you begin to realize that what Ajahn Chah would call the sharpening stones of wisdom—the very things that come to irritate us and annoy us and make us angry, the so-called ‘poisons’ of the mind—are the very things that will actually start to energize our practice. They will challenge us. If we are lucky we will get to a point where just trying to be present won’t work. We really then have to let go of our strategies and contemplate, for example, the themes of the Four Noble Truths: suffering, our reactivity, how we generate suffering—all of that. You need some steadiness of mind and some insight, or inner reflection, to support that inquiry.

Joel: And how about the retreat? Could you say a word about what you’re planning?

Thanissara: I am aiming to make it as simple as possible, but as essential as possible, with an emphasis on integration. It is called ‘The Knowing Heart.’ So I really want to explore what that means. What is this quality of knowing, which is essential to awakening? In Pali, ‘to know’ is buddhi. It is the reflective quality that is connected with the essential nature of the mind and heart; there is awareness and presence and yet there is discernment, intuitive wisdom, intelligence. I want to talk about that territory of the knowing heart and mind, and do some exercises and meditation to keep connecting us to that. This is really about refuge. I want to also bring in metaphors from other traditions which speak to the same understanding.

The Knowing Heart: A Daylong Retreat with Thanissara

Sat., June 25
9 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Atlanta Friends Meeting (Quakers)
701 W. Howard Avenue
Decatur, GA 30030
Cost of registration: $35 per person
Deadline for registration: Tues., June 20.
For more information, visit www.imcgatlanta.wordpress.com.

 

 

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More About Thanissara


British-born Thanissara (formerly Linda Mary Peacock) began practicing Buddhism in 1975 and was a nun for 12 years in the Thai forest tradition, in which yogis spend long stints in remote wilderness as part of their spiritual practice. A trained psychotherapist, she routinely teaches insight meditation retreats alongside her American-born husband, the former monk Kittisaro, at major centers such as Spirit Rock in Woodacre, Calif., and Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass. The couple co-founded Dharmagiri Outreach, which works to improve the lives of impoverished South Africans, as well as Dharmagiri, a Buddhist hermitage and contemplative community near the border of South Africa and Lesotho.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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