December 3, 2016 Saturday Morning, Seattle Retreat;

Combined retreat opening talk and morning instruction with Aaron

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Aaron: My blessings and love to you all. I am Aaron. We’re here to meditate, not to become vipassana practitioners but to deepen your spiritual practice, whatever form that deepening takes. We begin with refuges and precepts. Please join with me if you will: (stating, then repeating with the group)

I take refuge in the awakened Buddha that is deep within my own and every being’s heart; to remember that heart of awakening and carry it with me.

I take refuge in the dhamma, in the beautiful expression of the deepest truth of how things are, of the causes of suffering, and freedom from suffering.

I take refuge in the sangha, the beloved community of all of those who are working on this earth to bring forth the light and break through the darkness.

I offer the intention to do no harm to any sentient being, through my actions, through my speech, through my livelihood.

I offer the intention to bring into the light that which is still negative within me.

Throughout the retreat I offer the intention to watch the various voices, not only maintaining noble silence but also watching any expressions of negativity that burst forth from me, without shame that they have arisen, but with a strong intention immediately to be mindful and take care that they may not do harm.

Thank you. We are now in silence.

Three weeks ago, we led a retreat in North Carolina the weekend immediately following your presidential election. Many people there were, I can only use the word shell-shocked; frightened, upset, angry, confused. We spent a lot of time during the retreat talking about how this new president and all that he carries with him can be a powerful catalyst and teacher of transformation for those of you who are committed to loving kindness. I’m going to speak a bit further about that, with the focus of how you can bring this into your meditation practice this weekend.

Are you familiar with the Hindu goddess Kali?[1] Kali is the goddess of destruction and renewal. For there to be renewal, first there must be destruction. It seems to me you are entering the age of Kali. That doesn’t mean the world is going to be destroyed, I’m not suggesting that at all. Did any of you see a photograph posted in the past weeks on the internet, I’m not sure where it was posted, of an image of Kali on a large building in central New York City [Empire State Building]? Have any of you seen that? Very powerful.

What do I mean by “Age of Kali”? You as a nation and you as individuals, especially those of you with a deep commitment to the light, to service, to love, you have worked hard to push away that which is negative in you. You have looked at the arising of negative thought and in a loving way have said, “No, I won’t enact this;” I honor that. But there may tend to be a denial of the negative, a suppression of the negative. We do not end the negative through suppression, which is a contraction, but only through bringing it into the light. For anything to take birth, it must enter darkness before it emerges into the light. We cannot avoid the darkness.  Think of the small seed. You hold it up, you look at it. And then if you want it to grow, you press it down into the darkness, into the soil, where eventually it opens and shoots itself up into the light. But the seed cannot be afraid of entering the soil and the darkness. The seed knows that this is where it can take birth.

So many of you have come to me asking, “Aaron, what do I do about my negative thoughts, my fear, my anger?” We’ve offered the practice of noting simultaneity; right there with anger is love. That which is aware of anger is not angry. That which is aware of fear is not afraid. And this good, this is helpful. We see the simultaneity of the negative and that which is bright and beautiful.

At a certain point, you’re ready for the next step, and I’m going to assume that all of you here are thusly ready, even if you’re new to practicing with me, because if you were not ready you wouldn’t be here. As we get to a point where we can strongly connect with the light within us, and trust and ground in that light, then instead of saying, “Now I will grow the light and turn my back on the darkness,” we say, “Now with this grounding in light, this trust in light, I am ready to re-enter the darkness; to begin to truly know the darkness as non-dual with light; to break through into the negative, the places where I experience anger, greed, impatience or jealousy. I am ready to go into this.”

Those who have supported your president-elect, and this man himself, they bring forth to you all the homophobia, the anti-this and that, the hatred, the depth of negativity grounded in fear, and hold it up as a mirror for you, not so that you can smash the mirror but so that you can look in to the mirror. We do not smash the mirror, we look deep in the mirror, and find the place grounded in the light, grounded in your beautiful hearts, where you are able to look at those seeds of darkness, each in yourself, without fear. The places from which you have always run.

Some years ago, I offered the group at this retreat the second Milarepa practice. Not the serving tea practice, that’s Part 1. First we serve him tea. We get used to the demon. We stop running from or denying the demon. We open our hearts to ourselves and the demon. We serve him tea and say, “Shh, no dialogue. We’re not going to talk, but you may be here. I’ll let you be present.” To let him be present there must be a deep sense of, not your power, the power, when you rest in connection with the light. It is that connection that allows you to permit the demon to sit before you. But there’s still separation: me here, the demon there.

The second Milarepa practice. He comes back to the area of his cave carrying firewood on his back. As he approaches his home he finds it’s overrun by demons. His first impulse is to grab a stick of firewood. He starts chasing them with one big club. Of course, they’re delighted; they laugh. They were really getting to him! “Look how much anger! Ooo! More! More!” So the more he chases them, the more they take delight in his fear and anger.

Finally he realizes this isn’t working. He sits, he meditates, he thinks, “What can I do? I’ll send loving wishes to them.” They laugh. They don’t care about his loving wishes. They’re busy destroying his home. “What else can we do? How can we get him more riled up?” and proceed with their  destruction. Finally he looks around. He thinks, “maybe they’ve always been here and I just never noticed them before. I’ll just be here and present with them”. Most of them get bored when he’s no longer agitated, and they leave. But there’s one fierce demon with bulging eyes, big teeth, a huge, gaping mouth, and he follows Milarepa everywhere, 6 inches behind him, always right there, sometimes coming around face to face.

The days pass, the weeks pass. Finally, Milarepa understands there’s only one choice here. He approaches the demon, looks him in the eyes, says, “Eat me,” and puts his head in the demon’s mouth. What happens then? The demon disappears. Why?


Q: The demon has no power over Milarepa.

Aaron: Even more than that. Thank you, but one more step.


Q: Non-duality.

Aaron: He ends the duality. This is what we’re doing here, not just at the retreat, but this is what your world has invited you to. This is the whole image of Kali, the destroyer, destroying the duality. Fully embracing not only the light, but the darkness. Instead of clinging to the light and in any way trying to push the negative away, as we embrace the darkness and merge the light with the darkness, they dissolve into one. I use the image here of a huge dark cave; if you light one match the whole cave is lit even if dimly. You can’t see into the darkest corners, no. But as soon as there’s light, there’s light. It’s no longer dark.

Barbara and Hal once went on a tour of a large cave in Mexico. There were walkways. There were electric lights in different places along the cave walkways, not brilliant but adequate, and searchlights shining on special features of the cave. They were deep within the cave, a group of 30 or 40 people, when the power went out. The guides must have said, “Just sit down, we’ll get the power going.” But Barbara wasn’t holding Hal’s hand, she was perhaps 15 feet from him. She didn’t know who was near her. She sat down. I’m sure they were talking about what to do, and it will be fine, and no problem. I would say it was 4 or 5 minutes, probably time for the guide to go back and get a torch. And then in the distance she saw the light coming toward them. It was a vast cavern, and one little torch; the flicker of it could be seen from a great distance. As soon as you have that small torch, you’re no longer completely in the darkness.

 Where is that torch? Remember the torch of the loving heart. The torch remains burning even when not fully visible. You don’t need to see the light to know that it’s there. When you dim the torch by not holding to the torch with fear, simply trusting, “I know it’s here; I know love is here, and Light. Thus, I can walk into the darkness,” this empowers you to go into the darkness and truly learn what that darkness is. You begin to know that that torch, that light, is always there within the darkness and cannot be lost. This is the only way that light can eventually— all these words are dualistic words, “overcome” is dualistic— can eventually show itself to be the stronger expression than darkness. Light and darkness as non-dual, but light is the stronger component. But if you keep the bright lights burning to keep the darkness at bay, you can’t get to know the darkness and understand the power of light that is right there in the darkness.

Some of you are giving me skeptical looks. “Who, me? You want me to go into the darkness?” Yes, because you are ready. Your whole country is ready. Your world is ready. Your rainforests are dying, your seas are dying. Barbara read that every week there is the extinction of an unbelievably high number of species— every week, not just one every year but several a week.[2] I don’t know the exact numbers, but it’s alarming. The powers of fear and hatred and negativity will take root and grow as long as you create duality with them. And they will take power and grow if you do not come into them fully aware of the power of light, the seed that knows its ability, there in the dark, to feel the warming soil and the moisture around it, and break open and sprout.

These are the ways that we— again I’m struggling with the right word here, “use” is not the best word here— that we co-create with the darkness. We do not fear the darkness, not surrender to it, but literally co-create with it until light and darkness merge. And as with the torch in the cave, as soon as the light appears, the darkness is gone. It lingers in the deepest corners. You carry the torch around; it becomes brighter. Eventually light is the only thing that remains.

So, we go into our meditation practice not to become blissful, not to attain blissful states and open to some deeply loving attitude— this too, but we also move into our meditation practice asking, what needs to be seen here that I have been reluctant to approach? Where is the homophobia in me? Where is the greed in me? Where is the hatred in me? Unless you stop denying that but let it surface and see it for what it is, some of it simply mammalian reflex, until you see it for what it is, it cannot heal.

Many people have said to me in the North Carolina retreat, and actually the retreat before that also, “My intention is to strengthen the light within me, to be a torch in the world.” Well yes, that’s commendable, that’s beautiful. But you cannot do that by denial of anything. It takes enormous courage. I am not asking you to go beyond what is possible for you but to approach that edge where you think, “I can’t go another step.” Think of yourself in that dark cave and the guide has one torch lit. The cave is hundreds of yards across. You begin to walk away from the guide with the torch into the shadows, and deeper into the shadows. You knew there were bats, snakes, other creatures there. How far are you able to go? And then just sit and be present with fear, be present with uncertainty. Feel the possibility to take one more step into the places of immense grief, sadness, fear, or confusion, in yourself. Just one more step. And to know it as non-dual with light.

In our practice, and I know some of you have different practices, and I’m not going to force anything on you, and yet we are here this weekend also to practice vipassana together, because I know this is a practice which can bring true awakening. I hope you practice it this weekend along with your other practices.

We sit. Breathing in and breathing out. Breathing in a long breath, I know I am breathing in a long breath. Breathing out a long breath, I know I am breathing out a long breath. Breathing in a short breath, I know I am breathing in a short breath. Breathing out a short breath, I know I am breathing out a short breath. Just there with the body, the breath. Using the breath in this way as the primary object.

I know many of you use nada, luminosity, energy, and other objects as primary, and that’s fine. I’m using the breath here as an example. Whatever you use as a primary object, feel free to use it. If you are very focused, you may sit for a few minutes, just there with your primary object. But if the mind and body were agitated as you sat, very quickly you may notice restless energy in the body; agitation, the body contracting. It becomes predominant, so you move attention to it. Or you may notice the restless mind, that the mind stays present with a primary object for 5 or 10 seconds and then jumps off to planning thoughts, worrying thoughts, angry thoughts.

Whatever it is in the mind or the body that pulls your attention from the primary object, you are not trying to keep attention forced on the primary object but to stay present with what is predominant. It’s as simple as that. Not easy, but simple.

What is the experience of agitation in the mind, in the body? Which is predominant, the mind experience or the body experience? Bring attention to it. Contraction in the belly, perhaps, or a feeling of contraction through the whole body. The heart beating faster. Bring attention to one predominant expression and watch it.

Whatever has the nature to arise has the nature to cease. It will change. It will dissolve. As this predominant object changes— it doesn’t have to dissolve completely— as it’s no longer holding your attention, come back to your primary object. You may be with that primary object for five seconds or five minutes. When something pulls your attention away again, a new predominant object, maybe itching or a tingling sensation, bring attention to it. Note it. As it changes or dissolves, come back to the primary object.

The physical objects, just because you note them, do not go. The itch or the aching in the back, it may stay there, and feel strong. When it’s a mental object like planning and you note planning or worrying or fantasizing, as soon as you note it, mind is no longer doing it. Come right back to the primary object.

If the same fantasy, worry, planning arises again, note it again. If it keeps arising repeatedly, hold your hands out, willing to hold this object. What is it? Maybe it’s a repetition of planning, and you begin to ask, “what is it?” You may see what’s in there is fear, the tentative planning based on fear and wanting to control. And then the reality, I feel out of control. I feel helpless. Hold your hands out and bring that right into your heart. Allow yourself to deeply experience the sadness, fear, or whatever may be there with “helpless”. Is there rage in helpless? Or is there perhaps a sense of wanting to flee? Or of disaster. What comes with helpless? So many in this country are feeling helpless right now; the election has brought out the deep personal feelings of helplessness and feeling out of control.

Use your practice as a way of being as present as you can with whatever has arisen, but gently and with compassion for yourself. But don’t be afraid of the darkness. Rather, deeply enter the darkness, but without force. Use this image. The guide 50 yards back with one torch. You perhaps had wandered quite away from the group so you’re 100 yards back in a vast dark area of the cave. You can see the glimmer of the guide’s torch in the distance. But if you’re going to get to the light, you’re going to have to walk. Feel yourself there in the darkness seeing that small light in the distance, and what allows you to step out?

Here we come to one more piece of the practice, and I want to try to hold all of this together. The power of intention. For me what would allow me to step out in that moment is holding the intention, “I hold the intention to move toward the light. And in this moment, moving toward the light means moving into deeper darkness before I can fully engage with the light.” It takes enormous courage. Never with force. Holding with the same metaphor, it’s okay to just sit there on the floor of the cave and say, “I’m too afraid. I can’t walk any further into the darkness.” Take as long as is needed.

Picture, the image I’m using here is the guide holding the torch. The cave floor is not completely flat. You’re on a raised area, but to get back to the guide you must dip down. There’s a valley there in the cave. As you step down into that valley, you lose sight of the torch. You might see a little bit of it reflecting on the ceiling, so you have a sense of direction, but that’s all. You must enter the darkness to get back to the light.

This is a hard practice. It is a practice of awakening, because only by fully entering the darkness do you end the duality. But gently, always gently. There is no shame to pausing and saying, “That’s as far as I can go right now. The darkness has terrified me. I need to stop.” And then just stop and do some metta or karuna meditation, (loving kindness or compassion meditation). Wait until the heart feels a little more spaciousness and ease. And then in the next sitting, invite yourself: can I go back to it again?

Some of you may have read something Barbara wrote for an anthology, Being Bodies: Buddhist Women on the Dilemma of Embodiment. Her chapter was called, “No Eye, Ear, Nose, Tongue, Body, Mind.” Part of the Heart Sutra. No ear, no realm of hearing.[3] Barbara spent several years opening her heart to the experience of deafness. She became, I would not say comfortable with deafness but able to live with it so long as she diverted herself from the pain of it by remembering all the things she still could do. So, she said, and it was true, “I am not deaf. Simply, right now in this body I cannot hear. But I can see, and my heart is open.” And all of this was beautiful. And I honor her; it allowed her to go forth in her life and her work.

But finally, she knew she had to enter the darkness of her deafness. She talks in that chapter about sitting in meditation day after day, breaking into a sweat, shivering, shaking, crying. There were some places she needed to touch and it terrified her. The image that came to her, and that she uses in that chapter, was coming to the sea. Every morning she would come and sit on a beach where there was a sea with huge waves, and knowing she had to dive into the waves to break through to the other side. But it terrified her. So in her meditation, she would enter the water and come back, and then she would sit, keeping duality, separation, self and the waves.

Finally, one day she allowed herself to go in, to fully submerge herself, seeing a towering wave, to dive under it and come up in the still water beyond it. And then back to shore, and do it again and again.

I like this image because you don’t just do it once. You must keep reentering that surf, that fire, whatever it may be for you, and come up in the still water beyond, to find the place where you are always safe. Then the terror, of whatever it is, the terror of your own helplessness, of your own anger, fear, greed, whatever it may be, so that you can fully embrace this as a part of the human experience and know, “I do not have to enact this in the world, and I do not have to hate this. But instead I can be present with it, bear witness to it with love.” And this is the practice, to bear witness to it with love.

Many of you have read my book Human; this year in Ann Arbor we’re doing a whole year course based on the book. It’s a book of non-duality. Very simple text. How to be present in this moment with love, whatever is arising, and deeply look in its face. That image of Kali: how many people do you think are able to look at that image rather than to run away? Can you look Kali in the eyes and know that Kali is you? And Kali is both the destroyer and the creator. The creator is you, creating from the heart of love. But I beseech you, do this practice with gentleness and kindness. Don’t go in there with an axe. Enter gently to explore. Know that loving guidance and loving sangha and teachers are with you. We will support you in every way. But don’t be afraid to go into the dark places, because they are the path to the light.

(recording ends)

[1] From Wikipedia:

Kālī is the feminine form of kālam (“black, dark coloured”).[8] Kālī also shares the meaning of “time” or “the fullness of time” with the masculine noun “kāla”—and by extension, time as “changing aspect of nature that bring things to life or death. Other names include Kālarātri (“the black night”), and Kālikā (“the black one”)

[2] .

Although extinction is a natural phenomenon, it occurs at a natural “background” rate of about one to five species per year. Scientists estimate we’re now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day.


[3] Excerpt from the anthology, Being Bodies: Buddhist Women on the Paradox of Embodiment

– Shambala, October 28, 1997 by Lenore Friedman (Editor), Susan Moon  (Editor)

chapter by Barbara Brodsky.  In those years, my meditation practice changed and deepened.  My suffering was less intense but still present and increasingly, practice led me to investigate the nature of that suffering and to understand how it grew out of a sense of separation, an agony of aloneness. What was separate? How had I become ensnared in what my deepest meditations taught me was illusion?

At one point, I began to have nighttime dreams of a giant surf, of wanting to swim but finding the waves huge and forbidding. Every morning when I sat to meditate, the question would arise of whether I wanted to go down to the beach in my meditation, to a non-physical but still wild sea.  My answer was always “no.” It became harder and harder to meditate. My back began to ache, first just while I was sitting, then in anticipation of it. I knew I was running from something, but I still wasn’t clear what it was.

Finally, one morning during meditation I said “yes.” and went to the beach, opening to the experience of the waves while I sat. What follows comes from my journals,

Feb. 19: The surf is huge, the waves dark. I understand that I must submerge myself. I must take a single step into the unknown. A wave crashes down. I step into its ebb and see the next wave tower above me, black belly, white foam, feel it slap me under, roll me in its power. I am drowning. I can’t breathe. Desperately I force my eyes open. I breathe deeply, gasping breaths of cool air in the safety of my room. I stop trembling. I close my eyes. I am back on the same beach. I do the whole thing again. Over and over and over. How much time goes by? My watch tells me later that it really was hours.

I beg for help. No! Assurance that I can do it. Suddenly, in the midst of a terrible wave, Barbara, the strong swimmer, takes over. “Don’t fight it,” I hear my voice saying.  “Be one with it.” I start to swim with the wave. I gather momentum, I dive down and come up in the calmer swells beyond. I return to shore and do it again, and again, until I can enter the water, not without fear, but knowing how to harmonize with this previously overwhelming force. I am complete. All that I need to bring to this wave is within me.

Coming out of the sitting, I began to reflect: death is not an end but just another step. It is the step before birth. I need fear neither. It is all part of the process.

                                I began to do metta meditation. “May I be healed; may I find peace; may all beings be healed and find peace….”

                 So I had accepted my deafness as a death, and I had learned that I could survive that one step into the unknown, could allow myself to be overwhelmed, but I still didn’t know where this was going.

Feb. 20: This morning I felt like I’d never meditated before. I couldn’t sit still. I couldn’t quiet my mind from its turmoil. My back, which has continued to hurt through these weeks, ached horribly. My legs were cramped; my forehead itched; I was alternately freezing and sweating. Most of all I felt so totally alone.  “Sit with it,” I told myself. “Just watch it. Watch all the pain and anxiety and see where it’s going. Watch yourself wanting so desperately for things to be different.” After well over an hour I got up. I walked around for a few minutes. The aloneness, the agitation came with me. I sat again.

The isolation became overwhelming. Searching for something that might help, I reached for the lines of the 23rd psalm “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil…” Into the space I had opened through this small kindness to myself came the understanding:  “You are never alone, but this is the isolation into which you’ve bound yourself. When do you remember feeling like this before? When do you last remember really needing that psalm

And with a rush all the memories came back. I saw those first weeks of my illness. All sound was gone. I couldn’t focus my eyes. To turn my head even a bit brought waves of dizziness. I felt helpless and alone.  I realized, in this morning’s instant of remembered pain, that in 16 years I have never cried for my pain.

When I understood how I’d buried this pain, I just sat there on the floor and cried, and cried. The remembering hurt, but not nearly as badly as burying it had hurt. I wept for the loss of my hearing, I wept for the aloneness, I wept for the fear, I wept for the one in a glass prison, seeing, but totally cut off from the world. All that week I remembered and cried.

I had raged at my deafness but never allowed the pain into my heart. I simply buried it, and met any feelings of self-pity with contempt. I see that my deepest separation was from myself….

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Aaron is channeled by Barbara Brodsky.