Shaila begins to speak. Her voice, like her personality, fits her well. It is like a warm whisper that washes over the gathered crowd at this public talk. I am moved by her peaceful and calm demeanor and awed by her experience in meditation and the clarity with which she is able to describe the most subtle of concepts. Shaila has been practicing meditation since 1980, with more than eight years of accumulated silent retreat experience and has studied with masters in India, Nepal and Thailand. She has taught since 1996 in the USA and internationally, and is the founder/lead teacher at Insight Meditation South Bay.
Vlad: You have done many long retreats in your life, what is the longest period that you have been silent on retreat, and where?
My longest retreat was a ten-month retreat at the Forest Refuge in Massachusetts in 2003-2004. During this retreat I emphasized concentration, and practiced jhana as the basis for insight for the first time. Following that retreat I wrote my first book, Focused and Fearless in order to encourage the cultivation of concentration, and to share the techniques I had learned for establishing the deep absorption states of jhana.
We must use whatever opportunities we have, and not long for opportunities that we don’t have. A meditation student who has young children is not going to run off and attend a ten-month retreat—that would be irresponsible. But even with many worldly responsibilities, we can take a lot of care with the daily practice and the continuity of mindfulness throughout the day.
Generally I don’t encourage the average practitioner to do multi-month retreats. Only a small proportion of students have sufficient interest and enough skill in meditation, and also have the social and economic opportunities to make use of such extended periods of seclusion. I usually encourage students to attend regular and frequent retreats of one week, a few weeks, or a month. These are long enough for the mind to settle, for the concentration to develop, and for a rich experience of insight to occur. I introduce jhana practice in ten-day retreats and am pleased with the results.
Vlad: You teach jhana and vipassana meditation. Many people have never heard of jhana, can you tell me briefly what the difference is?
Jhana refers to deeply concentrated meditative states in which attention is steadily absorbed by the perception of a single meditation object. The Theravada tradition describes four particular absorption states. Skilled meditators can cultivate these peaceful and blissful states, and allow the mind to abide in them for whatever period of time they wish. But the purpose of deepening concentration is not to indulge in meditative bliss. Strong concentration allows deep insight to happen. I never teach concentration or jhana divorced from insight (vipassana). The purpose of cultivating concentration is to realize liberating insight.
Different kinds of concentration develop with different types of meditation objects. For example, when practicing insight meditation (vipassana) we contemplate the characteristics of changing mental or material phenomena, and develop a type of momentary concentration called khanika samadhi. The mind becomes unified through the momentary knowing of perceptions as they arise and perish. Jhana, however, refers to a subset of samadhi practices that use fixed, rather than changing, objects for meditation. When practicing with the breath as a jhana subject, for example, we steadily focus on the breath at the area of the nostrils until it transforms into a mental reflection of the breath, called a nimitta. Essentially, the objects that lead to jhana include certain concepts and mental objects; absorptions do not develop when observing changing sensations or fluctuating feelings.
Vipassana practice is liberating. When we devote time to develop strong concentration, we do so to strengthen our vipassana. A steady mind makes it possible to see things very clearly. The Theravada Buddhist tradition offers a carefully crafted sequence of exercises designed to guide the mind from distracted and obstructed habitual states, to liberation. First we learn to calm, strengthen, and energize the mind through concentration practices. Next, we use the concentrated mind to carefully discern the nature and functions of matter, mind, and their causes and effects. Once the concentrated mind has discerned mind and matter, then we contemplate mind and matter as impermanent, unsatisfactory, and empty of self. Clear seeing of these universal characteristics propels the mind through a sequence of insights that culminate in the realization of nibbana (nirvana in Sanskrit).
Although monastics and very dedicated lay practitioners have, for centuries, practiced deep concentration, most lay people don’t have the time, inclination, or conducive living conditions to engage in rigorous traditional training. Some time ago, a historic movement began to emphasize forms of meditation that could be practiced by lay people. Emphasis was wisely placed on mindfulness and shorter retreats, which can be easily integrated into a lay lifestyle. Mindfulness is the basis of all these practice, and may be the most important factor for developing both concentration and insight.
I really could not say that there is one single teacher in my life; I feel deep gratitude for several teachers who have guided me, and several meditation centers that have provided the opportunity for practice. I started meditating in 1980, and in the mid 80’s I met Christopher Titmuss, an English dhamma teacher who startled me with a rather direct approach to enquiry. I continued to attend retreats with many different teachers, but noticed that my practice progressed most rapidly with Christopher’s guidance. Over the years I returned to his retreats with some regularity, and gradually he came to know my practice well. It was Christopher Titmuss who asked me to serve as a dhamma teacher, and he has remained my mentor.
I cherish the years that I spent in Asia—practicing in monasteries in Thailand, and studying with a guru named H.W.L Poonja in northern India. I lived in Poonjaji’s home for several years in the early and mid 1990’s. He taught a direct realization of the mind and stirred a powerful love of freedom. I also have sat many retreats at the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts and I continue to appreciate the clarity and integrity in this community of western dhamma teachers.
In 2006 I met Venerable Pa-Auk Sayadaw—a highly skilled practitioner and teacher of jhana and vipassana. Practicing with him has refined my approach to both jhana and vipassana. I wrote my second book, Wisdom Wide and Deep, at his request—to present this systematic training in a form that would be accessible to Western practitioners.
Long retreats help us get past our personal stories and particular attachments. Once you settle into the silence and let go of the busyness of daily activities, an impersonal and objective way of seeing the mind and body tends to arise. On retreat we are just less caught up in all the things that stimulate our identities, so we will see how attachment functions as an impersonal process, rather than focus on personal attachments to particular things.
I like long retreats—they are lovely, and allow me to go very deep in the practice. But I also like short retreats, because they allow me to integrate the dhamma into daily life. So I try to do both long retreats and short retreats so that there is both a deepening and integration of the meditative experience.
Vlad: That state, the universal or impersonal, does that experience last after the retreat is over?
Well, we live our lives. We don’t live anybody else’s lives, and we don’t live sequestered in retreat. By “impersonal” I am referring to what is not bound by my particular story, my life, my roles, or my activities. We must integrate our understandings and insight with how we live as unique individuals interacting through personal relationships and making daily choices.
During meditation we might see, in refined detail, how misperception functions. For example, we might have a fleeting experience of seeing something attractive, and then blinded by ignorance and desire, we misperceive that sight as something that might bring us happiness, if only we could possess it, control it, or keep it. But no impermanent perception can be a reliable source of happiness. With insight we recognize the misperception, contemplate the impermanence of the experience, and discover that when we see with wisdom, equanimity naturally arises. Wisdom, clarity, and equanimity certainly influence our experiences long after a retreat ends. Nothing that we find in the world can actually be possessed as mine, or be identified with as who I am. Attachments fall away, and then we live our individual lives fully, but without, or at least with less, attachment. Suffering diminishes.
To find out more about Shaila Catherine, her books, classes, and retreats check out Insight Meditation South Bay.