IMS Online Mini Retreat with Walt Opie
Sunday, December 5, 2021
9:00 am – 12:45 pm ET
Walt Opie is a dharma teacher in the insight meditation tradition. He is a graduate of the Insight Meditation Society’s teacher training program and the Spirit Rock Community Dharma Leaders training program.
Walt began leading sitting groups specifically for people in addiction recovery in 2011. He started assisting and teaching on residential insight meditation retreats in 2017.
Walt’s writing appears in the book collection Still, in the City: Creating Peace of Mind in the Midst of Urban Chaos edited by Angela Dews.
He lives with his wife and daughter in Berkeley, CA, which is located on the ancestral and unceded land of the Chochenyo-speaking Ohlone people.
Here, Walt answers some questions about his upcoming mini retreat, “Freedom from Craving.”
What inspired you to focus on “Freedom from Craving” for the mini retreat?
This is a topic I have been exploring for quite a while now. As someone who has been in recovery from addiction for over three decades, I really resonate with this idea on many levels.
First, I had to find my way to freedom from craving these mind-altering substances I had been addicted to (mainly alcohol and marijuana) to stop trying to escape the pain of the present moment, and to help me begin to live a more manageable life. Once that was basically established, I found there were many other things I had to stop craving or gradually let go of to continue on this path of transformation and healing—things like negative thinking, unhealthy relationships, taking in too much sugar, and on and on.
After his enlightenment, the Buddha is said to have described the state of liberation in a poem as: “Realized is the unconditioned, achieved is the end of craving.” There is this idea in Buddhism that freedom from craving is an important aspect at the culmination of the path. Meanwhile, several of my teachers, such as Joseph Goldstein, have pointed out that all of us can experience—at least for brief periods of time—a mind “free from wanting,” especially during periods of dedicated practice, like on a retreat.
So, the topic of “freedom from craving” gives me a chance to share a bit about my personal journey in hopes that it will be relatable to others, whether they are in some form of recovery from addiction or not. As the distinguished neuroscientist Kent Berridge once said about the brain, “We are hardwired to be insatiable wanting machines.” We are all dealing with the powerful pull of craving one way or another. One key definition of tanha, which is the Pali word we often translate as craving, is “the fever of unsatisfied longing.” This seems very much related to what Berridge described.
I believe the Buddha was pointing to this same fact when he said in the Second Noble Truth, that the main cause of unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) in life is craving (tanha). Assuming that’s true, I think it’s important for us to understand this about ourselves and to learn how to work with it instead of letting the craving rule us. The renowned Thai Forest teacher Ajahn Sumedho has often said that he had to “become an expert in desire” as he deepened his understanding of Buddhist practice.
Of course, the Buddha also talked about more than just craving for sense pleasures. He included craving for renewed existence or becoming, and craving for non-becoming. We will touch on these, as well, during the retreat. It all seems related as you delve further into it.
How does craving lead to suffering?
Craving leads to suffering whenever we fail to see that what we crave won’t really provide us with the kind of lasting satisfaction or happiness that we are seeking. I recently heard one Buddhist teacher describe this as the false promise of craving. The nature of craving is not to be satisfied. It is about lack. When we get stuck in this place of lacking something that we believe will bring us happiness, then we can really suffer. We will talk more about this during the mini retreat.
How can we develop the internal empowerment needed to change our relationship to old habits?
As far as I can tell, there is no better way to learn how to begin to release this incessant craving and change old habit patterns than sustained insight meditation practice, especially if we focus on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. First, we get grounded in mindfulness of the body, next we raise our awareness of feeling tones present in our direct experience, and then we learn how to work with mind states (including emotions).
I’m not saying it won’t require lots of dedicated effort, but the potential rewards are tremendous. Eventually we stabilize the mind as our practice deepens, and then we cultivate insights into the impermanent, unsatisfactory, and inherently empty or self-less nature of all phenomena, including of that which we crave. This eventually leads us to a place of disenchantment, dispassion, and letting go. With the letting go we can experience a profound sense of peace and contentment.
What can attendees to the retreat expect?
Attendees can look forward to meditating together, hearing several short dharma talks on the subjects I’ve mentioned here, and discussing these ideas as a group. We will also have time for plenty of questions and individual sharing, as well.
Is there anything else you would like participants to know?
This mini retreat is open to everyone. I am deeply grateful to IMS for the opportunity to share this practice with you, as well as these teachings. I welcome open dialogue and skeptical inquiry. The Buddha often said not to simply take his word for it, but to try out these teachings and practices for ourselves first. I wholeheartedly agree with this approach. I’m not saying I have all the answers here. I just really enjoy sharing what I’ve learned along the way.
For more information, and to register for this IMS Online Mini Retreat, clickhere.