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Heavenly Messengers:
Awakening through Illness, Aging and Death
(HM 2013-2015)


Leadership Team

Coordinating Teachers: James Baraz, Frank Ostaseski and Sharda Rogell

Core Faculty:  Bob Stahl and Ange Stephens, MA, MFT

Visiting Faculty: There will be visiting faculty participating in person during residential retreats; other faculty will participate through video-conferencing and/or teleconferences. A partial list of visiting faculty includes Sylvia Boorstein, Jack Kornfield, Guy Armstrong, Gil Fronsdal and other Spirit Rock Teachers, and Metta Institute faculty Zoketsu Norman Fischer, Ram Dass, Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D, Frances Vaughan, Angeles Arrien, Charlie Garfield and videoconferences with Joan Halifax Roshi, Stephen & Ondrea Levine, Kathleen Dowling Singh and others.




About the Program

The program’s title is drawn from the legend of the Buddha’s early life. Prince Siddharttha, the Bodhisattva, lived in a protected world unaware of the most elementary facts of human life. Curiosity led him out beyond the palace walls, where he encountered the four "Heavenly Messengers" that were to change his destiny. The first three were an old person, a sick person, and a corpse; the fourth was a wandering ascetic, who revealed to him the existence of a path through suffering to freedom.

In the process of awakening, we are all called upon to meet illness, aging, and death face to face. An honest encounter with these facts of human existence revels the transient nature of life, shows us “what matters most” and can serve as a catalyst for profound transformation.

In this program we will:

  • Develop a wise, personal relationship with the “Heavenly Messengers” and learn how embracing these experiences can lead to a fully engaged life characterized by wisdom and compassion.
  • Study classical Buddhist teachings and engage in contemplative practices that help develop an awakened mind/heart, and point us beyond the transient to the path of awakening to the Deathless.
  • Learn contemporary approaches and skillful means to address the practical, emotional, and spiritual issues inherent in facing illness, aging and dying.
  • Express our personal understanding through compassionate action by mindfully accompanying those who are living with chronic pain and serious illness, the challenges of aging, loss and bereavement or the experience of dying.

Curriculum Elements:

Residential Retreats: Five retreats held at Spirit Rock and Joshua Tree Retreat Center at Yucca Valley. The retreats include periods of silent and guided meditation practice but the teachings are seminar-style, experiential, interactive, participatory and creative. Some guest faculty will participate through video-conferencing.

  • Retreat 1 (at Spirit Rock): November 4 - 10, 2013 (6 nights)
  • Retreat 2 (at Yucca Valley): April 24 - May 1, 2014 (7 nights)
  • Retreat 3 (at Spirit Rock): November 2 - 9, 2014 (7 nights)
  • Retreat 4 (at Yucca Valley): April 23 - 30, 2015 (7 nights)
  • Retreat 5 (at Spirit Rock): November 1 - 8, 2015 (7 nights)

Teleconferences: Four large group telephone conferences to support continuity and provide continued learning with guest presenters between residential retreats.

Service in Local Community: Participants commit to offer a minimum of 5 hours of service each month to people facing illness, aging or death. This service requirement could be met though your current professional role or as a volunteer in a related community organization or through regularly serving a family member, friend or neighbor.

Small Groups: Facilitated by Coordinating & Core Teachers, these 10-person groups will meet during each retreat and during several one-hour telephone conference calls over the term of the course. Small Groups build community among participants, help assimilate course material, and integrate learning from participant’s service commitments. Individual group membership may change depending on each participant’s choice of group, date and time. Small groups are offered on a dana basis by the facilitating teacher.  

Dharma Buddies: Scheduled dharma discussion, reflection and study with another program participant selected during the first residential retreat.

Homework Assignments: Assignments will be given over the term of the program that include reading of articles or listening to podcasts, reflection, practice and journaling. In addition 4 books will be assigned as required reading.  

Teacher Mentoring: Periodic half-hour interviews with a mentoring teacher will be offered in person or by phone, focusing on meditation practice, course work, service element, personal dharma development and integration. These will be held at the teacher's discretion, and mentoring is offered on a dana basis. A mentoring teacher is someone who currently teaches at Spirit Rock, IMS or Gaia House or a meditation group or center approved by the HM faculty, or is a Spirit Rock Community Dharma Leader or Spirit Rock Retreat Teacher Trainee.

Regular Meditation Practice: All participants will be asked to maintain a regular Insight Meditation practice during the term of the program.

Admission Criteria

  • Minimum of five years of dedicated meditation practice.
  • Minimum of 30 nights of residential retreats in the Insight Meditation (vipassana) tradition or similar retreat practice.
  • Commitment to attend and fully participate in all modules (emergencies excepted) and a commitment to undertake supportive practices in between modules to ensure consistency of study and application.
  • Commitment to offer a minimum of 5 hours of service each month to individuals facing illness, aging or death. This service requirement could be met though your current professional or volunteer role or through serving a family member, friend or neighbor.
  • Commitment to ethical integrity and the practice of the 5 training precepts
  • This program will be Theravada-Buddhist based training program. Priority will be given to those practicing in the Theravada  linage. However, qualified applicants from other Buddhist lineages and other non-Buddhist spiritual traditions or those with significant MBSR training who have compelling reasons to participate in the training will be considered.

Your application may be supported by:

  • Professional or personal experience as a caregiver or companion for someone who is living with age related challenges, pain related challenges, or diagnosed with a serious, chronic or life-threatening illness.
  • A plan to utilize this training in any of the following areas: in your personal or professional life, in your sangha or local community or through supportive arrangements with existing organizations to provide services or educational programs.
  • A personal recommendation from a dharma teacher or Spirit Rock trained Community Dharma Leader (CDL).
  • Previous participation in a SRMC multi-retreat program: Community Dharma Leader Program (CDL), the Dedicated Practitioner Program (DPP) or a similar dharma study program, or the Metta Institute End of Life (EOL) Practitioner Program. However, participation in any of these programs does not guarantee acceptance into the HM program (nor is it required for acceptance.)
  • Active participation or a leadership role in your sangha or spiritual community.
  • Developed communication, leadership or care giving skills.
  • Personal maturity, regardless of age, that displays emotional and relational intelligence including: compassion, authenticity, patience, equanimity, wisdom, ethical values, and the capacity to work with personal and interpersonal suffering.
  • Dharma maturity allowing the applicant to navigate difficulties and frustrations in practice, in relationships with peers and teachers. A history of emotional and psychological self-development is helpful.

If after carefully reading these materials and reviewing the application in detail you still have questions about your qualifications for the program please email: hm@spiritrock.org

Topics include (but are not limited to):

  • Being a compassionate companion
  • Conscious aging
  • Death awareness
  • Suffering and transformation
  • Opening to Mystery and the Deathless
  • Deepening dialogue and non-judgmental listening
  • Value of sangha and creating community
  • Rituals and practices to support others
  • The path of service
  • Psycho-spiritual transformation near death
  • Skillfully working with pain
  • The multi-dimensional experience of grief
  • Relating with those who are non-communicative
  • Developing fearlessness, equanimity, empathy and resilience


Our intention is that the Heavenly Messengers program will include a community of practitioners from diverse backgrounds and cultures--a mix of genders, ethnicity, socio-economic status, sexual orientations, ages, and abilities--who will support each other’s dharma practice. Before joining this program, please reflect on your interest and capacity to meet and interact with people who might have different histories, stories and views than your own, and on your willingness to engage with and make discoveries about others.

For purposes of diversity, including diversity in race, language, orientation, gender identity, age, and in consideration of other underserved cultural groups, candidates are especially invited.

Program Costs

Registration fees cover food and lodgings during the five residential retreats, teleconferences, small group meetings and administrative expenses. In planning the required financial commitment to the program, participants should also budget for offering dana (see below).

$8,700 - $5,700 Sliding Scale
$5,700 - $3,400 Scholarship Sliding Scale (scholarship funds are limited)

Time payment arrangements are available to help with payment of fees. Please click Financial Assistance and Scholarship Information for additional details.

Payments on the sliding scale above $5,700 are considered a tax-deductible gift to Spirit Rock. Thank you for your generosity, which is vital to our continuing operations and scholarship program.

Because Spirit Rock highly values participant diversity, we particularly encourage those who require financial assistance that are in the following groups to apply on the scholarship sliding scale: people of color, young adults (18-26), elders (65+), and those with life threatening illnesses; however, anyone with financial need is encouraged to apply.

Each financial aid request is assessed in terms of financial need and funds availability. Because funds are limited, we may not be able to fully meet every request.


All retreat teachings, small groups, teleconferences and teacher mentoring interviews will be offered on a dana basis. To allow the teachers and residential retreat staff to continue their dharma work, support from the participants is needed. There will be an opportunity to contribute at the end of each residential retreat, small group teleconference and teacher mentoring interview.

Other Logistics

Computer Use and Online Communication: All correspondence and course materials will be sent via email or accessed through password protected internet sites. Phone conferencing services will be used for teleconferences and small group meetings.

All participants are required to have regular access to an email account, the internet, and a telephone. Participants will need to be able to open, read and print attached documents using the following programs, Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Adobe PDF’s. Participants should be able to navigate online resources for scheduling phone calls, completing evaluations, sharing files through Goggle documents, downloading MP3s of audio and/or video recordings.

Application Process

We have received a large number of applications for this program and are in the process of selecting the participants.

Completing the Application

Prior to beginning the application process, please be certain you have carefully read and understand all of the above program information and admissions criteria. We suggest that you take the time reflect on your reasons for applying for this program.

When completing the application, please answer all questions. When completing narrative questions please provide brief, thoughtful responses. We encourage you respond truthfully, from the heart, in a straightforward way rather than being concerned about creating a particular impression. Prior to beginning the application we suggest you gather your basic contact information, history of retreat practice.

NOTE: you will need a small, color, digital photo in a .jpeg format attached to your application.

  1. Application Submittal: Your completed application form must be submitted via email (which is preferable), fax, or postal mail. The application is extensive and requires focused effort and time. Please complete the entire application carefully and legibly. Answer all questions including essay questions with brief thoughtful responses. Please remember to submit a small, color, individual, digital photo of you with your application.
  2. Verification email: You will be sent an e-mail to verify that your application has been received and is being reviewed. Please note that all future correspondence is managed by email. Please add hm@spiritrock.org to your address book to avoid correspondence being mistaken as spam.
  3. Application Deadline: June 1, 2013 (no applications being accepted)
  4. Application Review: We will review all applications. Dependent on the merits of your application, you may be selected for a telephone interview or asked to submit additional written materials. If your application is not accepted, you will be notified by email.
  5. Acceptance: Applications are reviewed within 6 weeks of being received. If accepted you will receive a final confirmation of participation by email with instructions for next steps. This is dependent on the number of applications received. Logistical information and a reading list will be emailed prior to the first residential retreat in November 2013.

Thank you for your interest in this program!



© 2014 Spirit Rock - An Insight Meditation Center
PO Box 169 • Woodacre, CA • 94973