Tara Mulay teaches and mentors Insight Meditation practitioners to refine their mindfulness practice, both on the meditation cushion and in daily life. Her teachings stem from the lineage of Mahasi Sayadaw. Tara is of South Asian (Indian) descent. She believes classical Buddhist practices, designed to cultivate compassion, non-greed, non-hatred, and non-delusion, are uniquely potent vehicles for empowering people in marginalized communities and effecting social change. For more information, visit Taramulay.com.
This is a shortened version of a dharma talk Tara gave during the Unification of Mind: Concentration Retreat at the IMS Retreat Center.
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it.
Because the world needs people who have come alive.”—Rev. Howard Thurman
Samvega is often translated as “spiritual urgency” or the call to liberation. It’s the sense that what one has been doing to try to be happy in the midst of all these conditions has been going in the wrong direction. And there must be another way. And that the Dhamma might be the other way.
Bhikkhu Bodhi describes it as, “The inner commotion or shock we experience when we are jolted out of our usual complacency by a stark encounter with truths whose full gravity we normally refuse to face.”
This can come for us either with a singular stark event or the accumulation of them. For me, my initial samvega experience came with my mother’s death when I was 31. That was what called me to practice—that encounter with mortality, that loss.
Samvega can also come through the accumulation of suffering in this life. It can come from living under oppressive circumstances. Some of us must manage life in this world in marginalized communities within systems of oppression and this also can be a call to practice.
Samvega is this sense that freedom is calling the heart.
It’s important to explore and understand samvega. Because when we know and understand our samvega, it can help with the faith part of the practice. The other reason it’s important to explore this and get in touch with it in your own life is that it has a seed of wisdom in it. It’s the beginning of wise view.
It’s also supportive to know that many people have samvega. It’s normal to feel this. You’re not alone.
Sometimes it can be very poignant because we hear the Dharma, e.g., the Four Noble Truths, and it hits us that somebody’s talking about these real things that we never hear spoken aloud. The teachings unveil a truth that we’ve unknowingly been longing to hear, and what we hear is a call to freedom. The resulting samvega may feel like an agitation. It may feel unpleasant at times. It’s what’s called a wholesome, unpleasant, unworldly feeling.
Not all our wholesome feelings are entirely pleasant. But it’s pointing us towards the practice—away from greed, hatred, and delusion. So, it’s wholesome.
It can feel agitating, but it’s balanced with a form of faith or confidence called pasada. When samvega is balanced with confidence in the direction of the path of the Dharma, it can feel like we have an internal compass for our heart-mind.
Pasada is defined as a serene confidence in the dharma. Another word for confidence is saddhā which means “faith.”
When confidence and faith are in balance, we find ourselves propelled towards transformation. This doesn’t mean necessarily going off on a bunch of long retreats. It can mean just letting the practice infuse your life, following the compass gifted us by that initial samvega
You might be wondering about samvega involving a type of wanting, and you might question how it can be wholesome. There are a few wholesome kinds of desires in terms of the practice, samvega represents one, also chanda which is translated as “zeal.”
These feelings that cause us to seek out practice are wholesome when they’re infused or imbued with patience. So, it does feel like we’re following a compass; we’re following along the lines of the practice and it’s onward leading. We’re not going to drop it because we have this samvega, we have this chanda, but we also understand that it’s a gradual training, and that we’re working with this heart and mind to refine it as much as we can.
When the conditions for practice change, such as when we leave retreat, it may feel like the changed circumstances get in the way. But we’ve got this commitment, and samvega gives us that, guiding us to remain with the practice when the flow of our life changes.
Sometimes the samvega we feel can sneak up on us and you may think, “Wait, that wasn’t my plan in life.” Or perhaps you came from a different background, and you’re not so sure. I speak about this from personal experience, because I came to this practice extremely anti-spiritual, believe it or not, and here I am. But just know that this confidence you have in the buddhadharma doesn’t require shedding deeply held convictions, beliefs, or life paths. It’s just taking the Dharma into your life and having that infuse it in addition to what was already there.
Ramona Peters, a Mashpee Wampanoag elder living in Mashpee, Mass. and a guest speaker with the IMS Online program Indigenous Insight, is deeply practiced in the buddhadharma and maintains the spirituality from her Mashpee Wampanoag heritage. She said this in a recent IMS newsletter, “This is a path that embraces all traditions, it’s not something that discredits others, it’s a practice that doesn’t make choices for you.”
The only thing we need to have confidence in on this path is what IMS Guiding Teacher Winnie Nazarko calls “running the experiment.”
It is enough to run the dharma experiment in our own bodies and minds. We don’t need to have confidence in anything else. It’s all right here, the sitting down, the walking, you’re doing it with what’s here, and checking it out. There’s nothing outside of ourselves that we need to have faith or belief in—ehipassiko or “come and see for yourself.” It’s all verifiable—in here.
After we have enough confidence to run the experiment of: “Does the Dharma work?” we see it work a little bit. That’s when we start to get that kind of confidence that can become really strong, which is a verified faith. It’s verified through our own experience. That’s where saddhā starts to get strong.
And it comes with the simple seeing, “Oh, mindfulness can bring more clarity, supporting me and helping me see the ways in which I get entangled, the ways in which I suffer.” And then we see how, slowly but surely, the practice disentangles some of them.
When our faith feels challenged, calling to mind an initial experience of samvega can be one of the ways to boost confidence in the practice.
I’ll share a story from my own practice about how remembering an initial call to freedom at a time of wavering can shift things towards an experience of faith. Years ago, I was heading to my first one-month retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California. I had—over the previous couple of years—a problem with my health. I had a foot condition, and I had to have major surgery on it. Before the surgery, I couldn’t walk with the foot in the way it was. After the surgery, I was on crutches for many months.
I was having a really difficult time. And I had been practicing intermittently previous to that. And through the whole intense suffering, I decided for the most part, I wasn’t going to practice.
I got angry at life. I fought all the unpleasantness of it. I stewed in my suffering.
Then I remembered that I could practice mindfulness. And I started doing it. And I had this realization that I had to make this the path. Eventually, I decided to do a one-month retreat. I did all the planning. I’d gotten the car packed. I was headed off and on the way I was like, “Am I crazy? Have I lost my mind?” I already missed my wife and my dog.
As I got close to Spirit Rock, there was this grocery store, so I stopped. And I was thinking, “Oh my god, what am I doing?” So, I decided to put my seat back and rest in the car for a little bit. And I reached down and pulled the lever up and I laid back in my seat. And when I did, I saw—on the ceiling of the car—all these crutch marks. All over the ceiling were these marks from my crutches where I had pulled them into the car month after month after month.
And all the doubt and questioning vanished.
And I thought, “Oh, that’s why I’m going.”
My doubting mind was out the window.
So, we can have these initial samvega experiences and more along the way. My initial one was my mother’s death. But this one was also a big one and it’s had a lot of payoff for dharma practice—my feet.
Sometimes it’s the hardest things, the challenges that ultimately turn us towards the Dharma that we come to see as vehicles for freedom. As my teacher, Howie Cohn, says, “We make our difficulties the path.”
Samvega gives rise to what’s translated as “courageous effort” in the practice. The Pali word for that is viriya. And the root of viriya is the same as hero. Joseph Goldstein describes viriya as, “The valor of truly being present.”
And it’s true. We need courage to be here with what’s happening right here, right now. And we’re also building that through the practice. We’re building that courage muscle, that viriya.
We need it because we see things that are difficult. Things might have bubbled up in the serenity of retreat. And we need the valor to face those experiences.
Noticing the wholesome qualities such as viriya that come up and how they operate in the practice is so important because that’s how we see and learn that they are supporting the freeing of the heart and mind.
It’s a part of the practice, just as it is in vipassana practice to notice the hindrances, to turn towards them, to hold them in mindfulness, understand what that feel like in the body and mind, so that you start to see how you can disengage from them.
It’s equally important to notice these wholesome qualities. This is something that needs to be emphasized so much because some of the cultural conditioning that we have is not to acknowledge our positive qualities.
It may feel a little unusual, but within the buddhadharma there are specific practices we can do to support that acknowledgment. For example, going to bed with a sense of having lived aligned with non-harming during the day, reflecting on your sila, is a classic practice—it’s noticing the wholesome and how it’s working for us.
In daily life, the courageous effort, viriya, we need for practice can take the form of being creative with finding the ability to practice in the midst of difficult conditions, your work life, family life, obligations, commitments, technology, the news, all of that. Take the practice out of the box and practice with the conditions that you have. You can do things like what my teacher used to call “stealth metta.” As you’re going about your daily life, not formally, but with whoever you might run into: “May you be well, may you be happy, may you be truly happy. May you live with ease.”
You could create a practice around challenging experiences and commit to practicing metta for yourself before or after. For example, if there’s something that’s difficult for you to get done at work, can you bring metta to that experience? I did a lot of that as a lawyer and even walking around San Francisco with my dog. So don’t keep the practice in a box. Viriya can show up in your courage to meet daily life conditions by integrating practice directly into the circumstances of your life.
The Buddha had a particular practice that was designed to support spiritual urgency, the five daily reflections. They are truths designed to urge us to start practicing towards alignment with the truth:
- I am subject to aging. I have not gone beyond aging.
- I am subject to illness. I have not gone beyond illness.
- I am subject to dying. I have not gone beyond dying.
- I will lose and be separated from everything that is near and dear to me.
- I am the heir of my actions. The owner of my actions.
This last line refers to the impact of harming and non-harming conduct on our own hearts and minds. And it can help keep us aligned with the dharma path.
These are not meant to be morbid, but to give us spiritual urgency, to shake us out of complacency. To give us that sense of how we want to live because these things are true.
Many of us want to impact the world. It’s part of our samvega. We want to contribute and bring greater compassion and wisdom to the world. And we want to do it in an active way—in relationship to our practice—on retreat or at home.
This practice requires us to face things within our own hearts and minds. And as a result of that, there’s this process of us becoming more real, more truthful with ourselves.
So that too is a real source for bringing forward what’s needed for the world. Because what’s needed is you. The only thing we can offer is the best of ourselves. And if we become the best of ourselves, then we can bring that to the world.
To listen to the complete talk, click here.