My focus in teaching is to provide the support that students need to turn their life to the dharma, to truth, and to find ways to come out of their pain and suffering. The retreat experience is an invaluable aid to this exploration; however, what matters more is how one integrates this under- standing into everyday life.
I care that students see through the illusory wall between formal meditation and their daily life. Then, what remains is a meditative attitude to all that occurs.
Vipassana practice helps us to become respectful and caring towards ourselves and others. This generates the conditions of mind and heart that allow us to awaken to the truth of who we are, rather than believing in our limited assumptions. As we see the impersonal nature of our own mind, we then experience a deep engagement with life that allows for a complete transformation of the heart. When we know this deeply, we can no longer unconsciously engage in actions that will lead to suffering and the ongoing destruction of our planet.
As a teacher, I am accessible and able to meet people at an intimate level. I am interested in how the language that we use can show where we are holding on. I look to the concepts about reality that people believe in as the key that unlocks the door to liberating insight. People can easily discount their experiences and forget that they hold the seeds to liberation, that the wisdom is already within them. As people speak what is in their hearts, affirmation brings about the confidence needed to take the next step, which can often seem confusing and daunting as one walks into the unknown territory of the mind.
The most compelling part of my practice right now comes in the form of my writing. For a long time, I've focused my teaching and writing on lovingkindness. Now as I look more deeply into lovingkindness, I find that it actually rests on another foundation, the expression of faith.
Faith is the topic I am exploring most in teaching and writing. Today there is a tremendous upsurge of interest in a new kind of faith, based on a practice where people can experience a direct spirituality, one without rigid dogma or compulsory belief in a specific cosmology. This is a spirituality that rests on personal transformation.
Vipassana allows us to take a method of mind training and craft a way of life that is more compassionate, more ethical and more powerful than our unawakened lives. The Buddha's teachings give us an immediate experience of what we can do to change. Faith in the teachings means we align ourselves with a vision of our greatest possibilities. This is the heart of the practice.
Shelly Graf is Common Ground's Associate Director and is currently being trained by Insight Meditation Society as part of their four-year Teacher Training. (Note: Shelly uses they/them pronouns.) They are a staff dharma teacher, like Mark Nunberg, the Guiding Teacher. Shelly provides direct support to the guiding teacher with developing and clarifying the center’s vision, policies, and priorities. Currently they teach Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Weekly Practice Groups, and co-lead the DharmaCore Queer Meditation Community.
Shelly is also a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker and received their Masters degree in Social Work from the University of Minnesota in 2003. For a long time she has been interested in what it means to serve as a white social worker in brown communities. She is also a huge MN Lynx fan!
Sky Dawson has practiced vipassana meditation since 1981, and also has extensive experience in hospice and palliative care in Western Australia. She has taught at IMS for several years and is now the Teacher-in-Residence at IMS's Forest Refuge.
Spring Washam is a well-known meditation teacher, author and visionary leader based in Oakland, California. She is the author of A Fierce Heart: Finding Strength, Courage, and Wisdom in Any Moment. Spring is considered a pioneer in bringing mindfulness-based healing practices to diverse communities. She is one of the founders and core teachers at the East Bay Meditation Center, located in downtown Oakland, CA. She is also the co-founder of a new organization called Communities Rizing, which is dedicated to providing yoga and meditation teacher training programs for communities of color. She received extensive training by Jack Kornfield, is a member of the teacher's council at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in northern California, and has practiced and studied Buddhist philosophy in both the Theravada and Tibetan schools of Buddhism for the last 20 years. In addition to being a teacher, she is also a shamanic practitioner and has studied indigenous healing practices for over a decade. She is the founder of Lotus Vine Journeys, an organization that blends indigenous healing practices with Buddhist wisdom. Her writing and teachings have appeared in many online journals and publications such as Lions Roar, Tricycle, and Belief.net. She has been a guest on many popular podcasts and radio shows. She currently travels and teaches meditation retreats, workshops and classes worldwide. In addition to being a teacher she also considers herself a healer, burgeoning writer, facilitator and spiritual activist. Spring has studied indigenous healing practices and works with students individually from around the world. She currently teaches workshops, large groups, compassion meditation and loving kindness retreats throughout the country. Her work includes earth based practices, awakening in the body, movement, dance and yoga.
My biding motivation for the practice of teaching is to share my interest, my understanding and my confidence in the Buddha's way for a balanced and deeply happy life. Given the pace of our culture and the direction in which it is going, mindfulness is essential to sanity. Since my first vipassana retreat in 1975, I've experienced the wisdom of sanity, peace and freedom.
Now, the challenge in sharing the dhamma is to translate the Buddha's understanding into an idiom that speaks to the whole of our lives. As practice matures, the focus in guiding others shifts from informing the skeptic, inspiring the depressed and doubtful, soothing the suffering, energizing the lazy, cautioning the ambitious to discovering the subtler sources of suffering and happiness in our understanding and behavior. With deepening vipassana insight, students joyfully and confidently disentangle their minds.
In all of this, what sustains me as a teacher is the unwavering confidence that mindfulness is the source of our healing, sanity and freedom. Vipassana practice offers us a perspective on reality that is liberating, both personally and at every level of human interaction. Initially, my unwavering commitment was to the practice. Now my commitment includes service in sharing the dhamma and wherever possible informing, inspiring and encouraging others in the practice.
The millennium question I hear students asking is how they can integrate the path of self-liberation with the path of paying attention to the welfare of others. My focus is guiding practitioners to do both. The dharmic brilliance is that liberation, the core teaching, creates a deep, transformative experience of who we are, which, in turn, transforms our care for the state of all beings everywhere.
I love storytelling as a vehicle for the dharma. I find that creating a non-ordinary reality of time and place carries the Buddhist spirit beneath the intellect and straight into the heart. Since we are all on a mythic journey inside the story of our lives, creating a timeless dimension through storytelling fires up our natural wisdom and compassion.
One of my deepest passions is engaging with an earth dharma. Dharmic awareness gives us a way to create a profound relationship to the land. We can learn to show care, honor and respect, loving the environment as the true extension of our hearts and minds that it is, feeling one with it in our blood.
People all over are seeking and longing for a sense of connection, community and an inner life. When we fuse the traditions of the dharma as self-liberation and as compassionate action, we infuse our daily lives with the power of the ancient lineage of Buddhism. We learn about the true nature of who we are and what it means to lead a compassionate life with ourselves, with others and our environment.
Susan O'Brien has been practicing vipassana meditation since 1980 and has studied with a variety of Asian and Western teachers. She began teaching in 1996 and coordinates the Insight Meditation correspondence course.