Retreat report—Lila Wheeler & Katy Wiss—The Wheel of Life

This past weekend, Insight Meditation Houston hosted Lila Kate Wheeler and Katy Wiss, who led a Zoom retreat for about 30 meditators. Thanks to Marilyn Jones for serving as our equanimous and efficient retreat manager and to Lisa Murphy for being our unflappable Zoom host. Most of the participants were from our Houston sangha and from others in Austin, San Antonio, and Beaumont, but some joined from as far away as Louisville, KY, Jersey City, and Lansing, MI.

The theme of the retreat was The Wheel of Life. We referred to colorful images from traditional Himalayan Buddhist teachings about the causes and the cessation of suffering. Lila and Katy focused on the six realms of emotional patterns and the driving forces of greed, hatred and delusion, represented by a snake, a rooster and a pig at the hub of the wheel. The monster of time or death above reminds us of the impermanence of life.

The teachings combined lectures, guided meditations, movement exercises to tap the imagination, and breakout discussion groups, which built a sense of community. Throughout the retreat, we acknowledged the pitfalls and applied healing lessons of each realm to current situations and to our own personal lives. As we reflected upon our habitual patterns, we practiced bringing compassion and ease to ourselves and others.

We started exploring the three lower realms, beginning with hell. In traditional imagery, there are eighteen chambers to freeze, cut or burn off the bad karma of particular deeds such as gossiping or abusing power. Metaphorically, we experience hellish psychological states of aggression and irritation that stem from fear of being trapped with no escape, or from anger about feeling attacked. A person who is caught in the hell of reactive anger is isolated and shut off from compassion and comfort. The pandemic and national politics are some of our current versions of hell chambers. On the retreat, we discussed how to face suffering without denying it or turning away with aversion. When we are present for our pain, anger or loneliness, we can perceive when someone else is caught in a hell realm and are more likely to view their situation with compassion.

In a guided meditation, we noted thoughts that can trigger anger and agitation and our resistance to feeling those uncomfortable emotions. As we practiced awareness of body sensations associated with the hell realm, I noticed tightness and contraction in my jaw, heart and belly. Katy encouraged us to care for our own version of hell—to get interested in unpleasant sensations, noting their fluctuations, remembering their impermanence, and holding our suffering with compassion. I found it helpful to visualize sending others wishes for a peaceful end to their suffering. In breakout groups we discussed what triggers our individual hell realms—fatigue, perfectionism, and fear of threats or losing control.

Next, Lila described the hungry ghost realm, whose inhabitants have big, insatiable bellies and skinny necks that cannot take in nourishment. For hungry ghosts, there is never enough to fill their sense of lacking sustenance. Eternally dissatisfied and unable to fill themselves from within, they constantly seek outer substances, objects or pursuits. Unable to experience pleasure, they are prone to addiction. The way out of suffering in this realm is to learn how to receive, to appreciate what we have, and from the abundance of gratitude to connect with the joy of giving. Any time we feel as if we are not good enough or we aren’t meditating well enough, we are touching the realm of hungry ghosts.

We did a walking meditation, sensing the bodily effects of craving and the relief of feeling gratitude. During lunch, we practiced mindful eating, with appreciation for all the labor that brought us our food.

Lila used a Tibetan practice to introduce us to the animal realm. For five minutes, we embodied a chosen animal. I became a heavy, solid, earthbound, loyal elephant. Traditional characteristics of the animal realm are seeking comfort, avoiding pain, and following instinctual urges to survive, without self-awareness. By becoming aware of when we are stuck in habitual ruts of the animal realm and by engaging with what we’ve been resisting, we can become more present and compassionate.

Those of us who are animal lovers protested that many animals have sensitivities and abilities that humans lack. One example is a movie called “My Octopus Teacher,” which portrays the extraordinary creativity of an octopus who befriends a snorkeler. Lila admitted that the traditional Wheel of Life is human-centric.

On the second day of the retreat, we visited the three higher emotional realms of demi-gods, gods, and humans. Demi-gods have relative ease and well-being, but they are jealous and shoot arrows at even more privileged gods who live above them. The warring demi-gods feel oppressed and long to be treated with dignity. They are attached to possessions and power and try to hold onto what is impermanent. The way out of this realm is to take responsibility for our aggressive impulses. We can choose not to dehumanize others and to treat all beings with respect. Lila guided us in a meditation to promote self-care and nonviolence, recognizing our own and others’ dignity.

Katy presented the realm of gods or devas—pleasant, positive, angelic beings who live in a blissful, ethereal state. These gods are oblivious to others’ suffering and have no compassion. They live very long lives full of pleasurable activities and meaningless distractions. Unmotivated to practice the dharma, devas are unprepared when death comes. Because they have used up their good karma, they are reborn in a lower realm. The way out of this realm is to have compassion for suffering and to understand the karmic consequences of harmful past actions so that we don’t repeat them.

In a movement exercise, we each practiced embodying a deva, focusing on our own pleasure, without worrying about others’ suffering. Our breakout group discussed the limits of egoistic pleasure—how boring and disconnecting it feels to bathe in our own bliss, not caring about anyone else. 

Lastly, we visited the human realm, which comprises both joy and sorrow. Dangers include narcissism, arrogance, and getting lost in stories about the self. We can suffer from comparing mind and from fear of old age, sickness and death. Yet humans have the potential to free themselves, to empathize, and to open up to new ways of thinking, speaking and acting. We can learn from our mistakes and be of benefit to others who have suffered in similar ways.

In a guided meditation about the interconnecting six realms of the Wheel of Life, we connected with our wholesome and unwholesome qualities, which are part of the turning wheel, and opened up to the full range of being human, with all our complex and contradictory dynamics. We moved beyond judgments to feel compassion for ourselves and others.