Tip o’ the Day
Daily Life Practice
- At the end of the day (1)
- At the end of the day. (2)
- At the end of the day.
- Upon Awakening.
- Morning Meditation (One of Four) : Ritual
- Morning Meditation : Default Position: Abiding in Calm Open Attentiveness.
- Morning Meditation : Vipassana – 1. Developing a steady attention.
- Morning Meditation : Vipassana 2. – Developing Insight
- Morning Meditation : Metta : Developing Goodwill – the Theory.
- Discourse on Metta
- Morning Meditation: Developing Goodwill and Forgiveness – the Exercise
- Morning Meditation : Resolution
- Developing the Perfection of Determination
- Breakfast at last!
- Traveling to and from work.
- Back Home
- Relations, Friends, Acquaintances and Spiritual Companions
- Contemplating Relations, Friends, Acquaintances and Spiritual Companions
- Intimate Relationships: The Erotic, the Romantic and Love
- When does love become control?
- Success and Failure : Trial and Error
- Creating Space (1)
- Creating Space (2)
- Creating Space (3)
- The Limits of Power and Mission Creep
Seeking True Happiness
- Not an Emotion
- Being Good rather than Being Good At
- What’s wrong with a bit of attachment!
- Sacrifice : the more we give, the greater the return.
- Not what we believe, but how we live.
- Towards the Greatest Happiness.
- New Year Resolution
- Neighbourly ‘Sounds’
- The Tough Nut
- Impulsive or Spontaneous.
- Need, Sufficiency and Greed.
- What values govern our lives?
- Values in mine own eyes.
- Living in the Now : Planning for the Future
- Our Daily Breaks.
- On the Virtue of Visiting a Cemetery
- Pity, Sorrow and Compassion
- Why are we asked to observe - impermanence.
- Righteous Anger : Plain Anger
- A Pet’s Endgame
- Discipline : Self-discipline
- Fairness and Equality
- My body is Mother Earth
- Dealing with Intense Emotions and Moods in Ordinary Daily Life
- How much pain, physical or mental should we suffer?
- Judging or Judgemental?
- The absurd and the Sublime : A Mid-summer Contemplation
- If there is no self, who bears the karma?
- Overwhelmed by All the Violence in the World?
- Legal : Moral : Ethical
- The Consumer in Us All.
- Barriers or Boundaries
- Isolation, Loneliness and Solitude
- Envy, Jealousy and Appreciative Joy
- Unwholesome Karmic Results as Fate.
- Ideology leads to strife.
- The Sacred: It’s Meaning and the Role of Free Speech
- Awareness, Compassion and Wisdom
- To become or not to become.
- Appamāda : Diligent
- Aim and Objective in Present Time
- Money and Power
- Passive Aggression
- In what way should Buddhadhamma affect our politics?
- Practice makes perfect.*
- Right Speech
- Gratitude Generosity Renunciation
- Excitement Boredom Contentment
- Courage, Fortitude and Resilience
- One of the Hindrances is Sceptical Doubt.
- Scientism meets Buddhism (Buddhadhamma?)
- What is our basic disposition to life?
- The Wisdom of Uncertainty
- Overcoming the Corruptions of Generosity
- The World is in a terrible state.
- The Treasure of Things
- Equanimity Carl
- The years where do they go. New Year Encouragement. Noirin
- Understand and See things as they really are
- Constant Curiosity Carl
- Kamma Noirin
- Who Decides? Carl
- Delusion, caring for illusion.
- The world is not in a good place.
At the end of the day (1)
I always think the next day begins the night before. How important it is to have a good night’s sleep. And the deeper the sleep the more refreshed we feel. Sometimes we can wake up early feeling particularly bright. A sure sign that our sleep has been peaceful. How then to prepare for sleep?
The best practice is to stop all activity at least half an hour before we intend to go to bed.
First let us put the day to rest. Sitting quietly, allow the events of the day to come to mind. It’s best to do it systematically say from morn till night. As those things arise that we don’t feel too good about, put it right inwardly. Apologise where we feel we have harmed and forgive where we feel we have been harmed. When things arise that please us, where we feel we have acted wholesomely, rejoice in it and determine to develop the underlying attitude even more. When others have been generous towards us, thank them.
As you pass each event, put it away. File away the document, unless you wish to act upon it such as apologise to or thank someone. Make a note if so.
Then let the general outlay of the morrow come to mind. No need to be too specific. And consider briefly what your attitude and actions will be, for instance, the attitude and manner with which to go to work. Then leave that ‘on the back burner’ for tomorrow.
You may even think of writing it out as a dairy. It works even if you never read what you have written. This sort of end of day reflection brings peace to the heart and matures our wisdom.
Once we have cleared the day and set ourselves at ease for the morrow, we could do a little sitting, but at this time of night there is all the possibility of falling asleep. The evening sitting is best done before dinner. If you do wish to sit, make it short and beware of the first signs of sleepiness. There is also metta which is more a pro-active practice and therefore easier to stay awake. Or listen to some music. Plain chant or Buddhist chanting is the best because it comes out of silence and equanimity. It isn’t ‘emotional’. Any music that promotes calmness will do.
The overall objective is to rest all excitements and tribulations by stilling the body, quietening the mind and calming the heart.
At the end of the day. (2)
Spiritual practice demands that we make every moment absolutely important, not just because it is actually the only moment we have since past and future moments don’t exist, but because it is only in the present moment that we can effect change.
How then to bring that sense of importance into everyday routine tasks, the ones we repeat often mindlessly. Preparing for bed is a prime example. The toiletry, the undressing, nestling into the mattress. Often done at speed to get it out of the way. Or hurled through the process by the longing for oblivion. Or in a sort of semi-consciousness, exhausted from the day’s stresses, sleep walking into bed.
But there is a way we can make spiritual capital out of habitual rituals, and that is to turn it into a meaningful ritual. And by ritual here I mean to imbue our actions with spiritual purpose.
Immediately, Right Mindfulness is brought to bear and with it the Right Intention and so on to Right Action.
It’s time to care for the body. To remind ourselves of it’s preciousness. Herein is housed the enlightened-being-to-be. It is through the body that this awakening will take place. So let’s care for it. Let us appreciate it as our most valued vehicle. Let’s treat it with the same reverence we treat our cars, our mobiles, iPods and jewellery.
To bring the same attentiveness to those actions that we often care to disregard. To urinate and evacuate, such Latinate words disguise our disgust. But good old Anglo-Saxon - to piss and to shit – often reveals our true relationship. How can we overcome such negativity to what are natural and therefore neutral actions of the body unless we attend to them. When we attend to them with the Right Intention to care for the body, we can see the role of tanha - that deluded distinction we make between pleasant and unpleasant where we indulge the one and annihilate the other. But there is a transcendent way to be with both the pleasant and the unpleasant and that is the equanimity we find in open acceptance – this is the way it is. And the joyful discovery is that the pleasant and the unpleasant still exist and they are ok.
To bring our mindfulness to bear to the feel of things. The feel of warm water on our hands and cheeks. The taste of the toothpaste. The comfort of the mattress.
And so, to wash the face with the care a mother washes her baby. To brush our teeth as if we really treasured them, knowing how much we don’t want dentures! To undress and dress for bed, treating our clothes as if they were the only ones we had. To lie on the cuddling mattress and for a moment bring to mind how lucky we are to live in such comparative luxury.
How many are the men, women and children who, this night, have no soap but a stone, no clothes but rags, no bed but a pavement! Let us send them our metta.
At the end of the day.
Finally we are in bed and we want to enter into a deep sleep. Hopefully we have a cleared a lot of the day’s debris with an evening sitting, the metta practice and our end of day recollection. And we have prepared for bed in a mindful and calm way.
So there we are, ready to ‘disappear’. But even now we can be disturbed by memories, images and thinking. They may negative – sadnesses, irritations, anxieties and so on. Or they may positive – thinking around planning, achieving, romance and so on. We must keep up that effort to be focused and yet relaxed. Sometimes the word concentration is used, but this I feel brings with it tension by way of association with school or work. Focused here means one-pointed. The thinking mind steadied on one object. The obvious one is the breath.
Again the breath may have become associated with striving in our meditation. But here to develop the calmness for sleep we need rather to feel the breath just for the purpose of contacting neutral feelings. We need to cultivate a taste for the neutral, the unexciting and begin to see this is our default position. Once this has been cultivated we can contact it easily throughout the day.
To help us do this we can recall a time or place where we have felt calm and peaceful, on a beach, in a park, in our garden. And then contacting the feeling of tranquillity in the body we can sense it in the gentleness of the breath. This is a way of developing samatha, serenity.
Another way is to practice metta. It is best to choose someone whom we feel grateful towards and have no or tiny bad feelings towards. If we find it easy, we can also direct metta towards ourselves, alternating between the two. Keep the phrases short and simple. ‘May you be safe, well and happy.’ In this way we develop a mental state saturated with loving feelings. Good, restful sleep is one of the benefits of metta practice that the Buddha pointed to.
Another way is to offer metta to the body. Start from the head and go down body blessing all the parts. After you reach the toes, start again from the top of the head. Coming up the body can lift energy. Keep the blessing simple. ‘May you be healthy and strong’. You may find this creates exquisite gentle feelings. The cellular life enjoys a good watering of metta. This can be very powerful if you feel very restless. If you do feel restless, try putting yourself into a comfortable position and refuse to move and scan the body with metta.
We sleep in one and three-quarter hour waves, passing through four levels. The first three and half hours are the most important since it is only here that we sleep at the deepest level. Most articles I’ve read seem to say seven or eight hours is enough. If we live meditative lives, this is quite sufficient and you may find yourself sometimes waking complete refreshed after five or six hours.
Finally make a firm determination to wake after seven or eight hours. You may be surprised to find you wake up on time. Even so don’t forget to put the alarm on!
An alarm clock is all well and good, but it is often a rude awakening. Consider how you wake up when, on holiday perhaps, you don’t put the alarm on. One wakes into a presenting mood. But the jolt of the alarm creates a shock wave in the mind and heart, and we wake into that reaction. This is hardly a good start for the day. If you can quieten the waking alarm by smothering the clock a little or go to the expense of one with a rising alarm that is the better way to waken oneself. You can always put a second alarm clock which, should you fail to wake, is guaranteed to blast you out of bed.
So we awake into a presenting mood. It may be pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Should it be neutral, that is a peaceful start to the day. Should it be pleasant, the mood will grab an idea from the mind’s library and create a reverie. It will do the same should the mood be unpleasant. These opening moments to the day offer us an immediate practice.
To turn these opening gambits to our advantage, we have to be wide awake upon awakening. We will do this if we have made that resolute resolution to wake with the bell. It may take a little practice, but it is not so difficult to develop. We centre that immediate wakefulness into the body, especially attentive to that area in the mid-chest where we distinguish our emotional life. As soon as we recognise the mood, we acknowledge it and practice vipassana. And as in sitting meditation, we become equally aware of our reaction.
Should we wide-wake into a peaceful state, rest there and acknowledge it, grateful for this gift. Develop a taste for it. See it as a default position and make a resolution to return to this peacefulness as often as we can throughout the day.
Should it be pleasant, from excitement as to what the day beholds, to a flowering romance, to a joyful memory, whatever the cause of the happy mood, be wakeful enough not to be transported into the dream world. But again we acknowledge the state. We see the danger of a make-believe world and we wait, if possible, until it quietens, hopefully into an inner glow. This is to take the attachment out of joy. And we make a resolution to maintain this quiet joy.
Should the mood be unpleasant, from depression, to anxiety, to anger, whatever the cause of the unhappy mood, we prevent it from hurling us into a mental maelstrom. So again we acknowledge the state. We see the danger – how the mood uses the mind to wind itself up. Bury the attention into the feeling of the mood and wait at least until it begins to subside. In this way we take the sting out of these unpleasant states. And we make a resolution not to allow negativity to hold sway.
This is where the snooze button comes into its own. Here, not simply for the purpose of reminding us of time passing, nor to appease the base desire to exercise one’s sloth, but the very opposite, to guard us from such indulgence of dire consequence! Such is the noble duty of the snooze button.
Morning Meditation (One of Four) : Ritual
The next four Tips are concerned with the morning meditation. This sitting at the beginning of the day is something stressed by all my teachers. And it became a regular practice for me from the very start as Zazen.
It is the time of the day when we set the position we hope to maintain throughout the day. And it always seemed to me to be a little rushed and unprepared to just plonk myself in posture and start meditating. But like all important occasions there is a ‘ritual’ we perform to set ourselves in the right mode. Even going to work, there is the preening to be done, the last glance in the mirror. So it is with a sitting practice.
We need to remind ourselves of the importance of what it that we are about to do. A simple lighting of a candle may suffice. The candle is probably the best symbol of the spiritual path: the light symbolising the path in insight and wisdom; the heat, the path of love and devotion; the flickering of the flame, the path of action.
I recommend bowing. So difficult for us! It is an act of surrender, of yielding. The Dhamma is always going to ask us to do what we (those self-serving selves) don’t want to do. It is a very strong body language for ‘I shall follow the Teachings’. If you find this too bruising (the self always tells you it is silly, pointless - ‘I don’t do bowing.’ ‘If I bowed, it wouldn’t be me.’), you may find it useful to bow inwardly and find for yourself a phrase which express the desire to follow the Path.
If you get this far, you may even want to take the Refuges and Precepts. (If you want the chant and the literature, you can download it from the website.) We have to make sense of these practices for ourselves. Taking Refuge in the Buddha traditionally is the historical personage, putting out trust (not blind faith) in the teacher, but it is also having confidence in the Buddha Within – that which is seeking liberation. Taking Refuge in the Dhamma is traditionally the teachings of the Buddha, but in this post-modern era you may wish to include all the teachings that you find useful. And taking Refuge in the Sangha is again traditionally only those who have entered one of the Four Paths and Fruits and intuited Nibbana. For them all doubt as to the truth of the Buddha’s teachings has gone. But considering how important the Buddha taught that good companionship was, we may wish to include all our spiritual companions for their confidence and practice is a great support to us. And finally the Precepts are simply the basic training rules of the spiritual life.
We have to prepare ourselves mentally for any important task. So find a way – and a way that will help you overcome any negativity or unwillingness to do the practice.
Morning Meditation : Default Position: Abiding in Calm Open Attentiveness.
Having performed a ritual, small or otherwise, to enter into the meditation, which I would like to call establishing the right attitude, we need now to establish the right awareness.
When we look at the Seven Factors that lead to Awakening, we see that awareness sits on its own, but is supported by three factors that are passive and three that are active and they pair each other: calmness with interest, effort with concentration and equanimity with investigation the Dhamma.
In the Discourse on How to Establish Right Awareness, the Buddha starts by asking us to observe the breath in a gross way, then to use it to calm ourselves and then to turn on the curiosity and observe the characteristic of impermanence.
This exercise develops the passive qualities and it is best done standing, though you can change it to suit a sitting posture.
Feel the sensations in your feet and how they are changing. Then slowly come up the body both inside and on the surface feeling whatever sensations there are. When you get to the top of the head, feel all the sensations that arise on the scalp. Then turn your attention outward to hear sounds, see colours, sense the atmosphere of the room and so on. Once that outward awareness is established, bring into it the feelings in your feet, the breath and so on. In this way a very spacious awareness is developed whereby the boundary between inside and outside becomes softened.
Our attitude meanwhile is to develop calmness of the body and mind, by relaxing in the posture; a steady attention (the noting is very helpful) which is our concentration; and receptivity. That’s’ the equanimity. Equanimity means that we are coming from a place of ‘don’t know’ or ‘not sure’ and so stops concepts and opinions from distorting our experience.
Once this is established we can repeat to ourselves: Achieving nothing. (To achieve means we are always doing something now for some future result. But here we are just standing. Standing for standing sake.) Going nowhere. (Since we are in the present moment in a total way, we are right here. No planning needed.) Being nobody. (Since we are in silence and only in receptive mode, we don’t have to perform, become a personality. No hope of celebrity here!)
Once this open awareness with the attributes of calmness, attentiveness and equanimity is the default position within which we can switch on the curiosity and begin to investigate the Three Characteristics of Existence – impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and not-self.
A further importance of this is that we can return to it at any time of the day and in later Tips I shall go into more detail. But if you keep dropping into this default position throughout the day, you yourself will see the benefits.
Morning Meditation : Vipassana – 1. Developing a steady attention.
Why is it so important to sit in the morning before we start 'doing'? It is simply because when we sit in vipassana we enter into more sensitive level of awareness, which means we find ourselves in a different relationship to the world than the relationship that a non-vipassana awareness has with the world.
You know from you own practice that different principles and attitudes come into play when we develop this level of consciousness. And just in case we then feel superior, it is good to remind ourselves that even when we are sitting we rarely keep this up, never mind during daily life. More often than not we slip back down into greed, hatred and delusion. In fact, only a fully liberated person could maintain an unbroken vipassana awareness.
That said, we should begin our sit with a firm resolute determination to establish right awareness. Using the noting, a deliberate noting, to keep the intellect tethered to the object, we place the attention on the feelings cause by the rise and fall of the abdomen. (Should you be feeling the breath at another point, please adjust these directions accordingly.)
The easiest way to establish a steady attention is to the pleasant and subtle feelings of these neutral sensations. To taste their gentleness and to notice how the calm rhythm also calms the mind. To acknowledge this soft breath and calm mind as a resting place, a peaceful place. It sometimes helps to bring to mind a time or place where you feel such calm restfulness – perhaps while sitting in a park or in your garden or indeed in your armchair.
Now, just because we have made a resolute determination to stay on the breath, it very rarely happens. The day-to-come impinges on us. Our worries, aversions and excitements don't seem to obey our will! Then we may feel tired or restless. Yet we keep noting these states and gently turning away from them back to breath. And – most important – when we go back to the breath, to repeat that resolution.
This resolution is not hard or harsh as if we are going into battle, but more an encouragement, a cajoling, as we might tempt a child away from some obstinate rebellion. For the monkey mind (the Buddha's description), is, alas, beyond our control such are its unwholesome conditionings. But it does offer us an opportunity to develop gentle patience and calm persistence!
We keep doing this until we feel 'somewhat concentrated' – a favourite phrase of main Mahasi teacher, Sayadaw U Janaka. What that means in practice is left entirely up to the mediator. And how long it takes depends on the frame of mind we are in. The more restless or the more sleepy, the longer it may take. But hopefully the preparatory practices of some small ritual and the 'default position' of abiding in calm attentiveness will have helped. But as soon as we know ourselves to be sort of steady, then we can bring in the quality of investigation.
Morning Meditation : Vipassana 2. – Developing Insight
So now having developed ‘somewhat’ three of the Seven Factors of Awakening, namely calmness especially of the body; steadiness of attention, sometimes called concentration which I think makes people tighten up, so I prefer this other phrase or steady focus; and equanimity, openness, a passive receptive attitude. Awareness, the controlling Factor, is presumed!
Now as it were we raise a question mark in the mind which arises out of a desire to know, to understand. This is wonder, the emotion of the philosopher within us, a curiosity. This curiosity is not looking for something, but looking at something with the attitude of, ‘Am I seeing, feeling, experiencing this as it really is’. This juices up the joy of interest.
And it raises effort, another Factor. Effort is already there, of course, supporting the quality of awareness and steadiness of attention, but checked by calmness. When we introduce curiosity, however, one can often feel the energy rising. Should at this point any idea of attaining something, achieving something sneak into the process, it will corrupt. We will find ourselves getting tight; feeling bored since our desire is not being fulfilled; feeling exhausted since the wrong energy does not replenish but keeps drawing on the reserve.
So we need to have the Right Attitude, second on the Noble Path. That attitude is to have faith in the ‘Buddha within’, this very intuitive intelligence (panya) which is but the active side of awareness (sati). All we have to do is to watch, feel, experience whatever arises and passes away that draws our attention within the field of awareness.
This Right Attitude also includes the intention to investigate the Three Characteristics of Existence. The first, impermanence, is best seen in the breath. Each inbreath, each outbreath arises only to pass away. Seeing impermanence is to undermine our attachment to what we thought was permanent or continuous.
Secondly, we explore the role of a desire based on the understanding that this transient world can deliver true happiness. This desire expresses itself in meditation in indulging what it finds pleasant such as when we plan, daydream of love fulfilled and so on. And it also expresses itself in resisting any experience it finds unpleasant such as anxiety and guilt. Here lies the psychological reason for our suffering and feelings of unsatisfactoriness.
And thirdly, not-self. This is not a metaphysical proposition. ‘There is no self!’ But a teaching tool. As we experience whatever draws our attention it becomes ‘an object’. The Knowing knows ‘it’. There’s a feeling of distance from the object. Instead of – I’m in pain, we note ‘pain’ - there. There, not here! This separation of the knowing from the known is the beginning of understanding that everything we experience is ‘not me, not mine’.
We can prime this curiosity by purposefully seeing one of these characteristics. The Buddha suggests we see the impermanence of the breath. Then we can just watch, just feel, just experience whatever draws our attention. That’s enough!
It really is as simple as that. We don’t believe it. We always think we have to do something. Just sit back and watch the show with the curiosity of a child.
(See meditation mp3 on website and related talks and essays for further clarification. Should you have questions about your practice do email me.)
Morning Meditation : Metta : Developing Goodwill – the Theory.
Let us first understand the importance of metta practice.
One of the problems that can occur with vipassana only practice is that the inner onlooker, the observer becomes too detached. That detachment is necessary for clear comprehension and close investigation of the Three Characteristics, but the equanimity there soon degrades into indifference once we take this position into the world of action.
A woman told me that after practising vipassana her husband found her cold and unresponsive. I suggested she practice metta. The last report was positive.
That's what metta is all about. Re-engagement. It's there in the Eightfold Path. After Right Understanding comes Right Attitude. Whatever wisdom we gain from our practice remains sterile unless translated into an attitude and then with both this understanding and attitude we can progress through to Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood.
However, this re-engaging must also not be confused with other forms of love. Metta is not attachment. It's not that in our present deluded state we can love, especially those close to us without attachment, but it's important to know that metta isn't that. Its not erotic love either. And it's not an emotion!
Metta is an attitude. The heart may indeed respond with warm and delicious feelings, but that's not metta. That's why I prefer the translation of goodwill as opposed to loving-kindness, though it is also that.
Metta is all the virtues you would ask of a good friend. And sometimes a good friend may tell you something you don't want to hear. Metta allows people to be truthful with us. Likewise we should treat those who dislike us or whom we dislike with the same impartial goodwill. This is the meaning of ‘love your enemy’. You don’t have to ‘love’ someone to treat them with metta.
In this way metta is the basic relationship we should have towards everyone. Indeed all beings. It can even affect the way we treat objects. How often have you closed the fridge door gently and kindly?
Metta is the default position in our relationship to the world. From this the other two qualities of compassion and joy arise naturally. Would it not be perfectly normal to want to help friend in distress? And goodwill makes it easy for us to rejoice in a friend's success.
These attitudes – metta, compassion, joy – are called Illimitables. Their development is indefinite . For there are innumerable number of beings and the depth of development is unfathomable. Like a number, no matter how big it is, you can always add one.
These are underpinned by equanimity, the other Illimitable, which here means non-attachment or non-prejudice. And all together these four are known as the
Brahmavihara – Dwelling Place of the Gods. In
other words, they create the bountiful heart and beautiful mind.
How often should we practice? All sittings, no matter how long, should end with some metta. At least five minutes. You will find a five minute metta at the end of both the Detailed Guided Meditation and Metta on the website.http://www.satipanya.org.uk/audio.htm
But the Buddha's advice is to practice it all the time! Whether standing, walking, sitting or lying down. Whenever there is 'nothing to do' – sitting on a bus, waiting at the traffic lights, climbing stairs – that's the time to practice. If we were to use up all the minutes when we are 'doing nothing' with metta practice, just that would change our lives radically. For metta is the only true revolutionary force.
Discourse on Metta
If you are wise and want to reach the state of peace,
you should behave like this:
You should be upright, responsible, gentle and humble.
You should be easily contented and need only a few things.
You should not always be busy. You should have the right sort of work.
Your senses should be controlled and you should be modest.
You should not be exclusively attached to only a few people.
You should not do the slightest thing that a wise person could blame you for.
You should always be thinking: May all beings be happy.
Whatever living beings there are, be they weak or strong,
big or small, large or slender, living nearby or far away,
those who have already been born and those who have yet to be born,
may all beings without exception be happy.
You should not tell lies to each other.
Do not think that anyone anywhere is of no value.
Do not wish harm to anyone, not even when you are angry.
Just as a mother would protect her only child at the risk of her own life,
So you should let the warmth of your heart go out to all beings.
Let your thoughts of love go through the whole world with no ill-will and no hate.
Whether you are standing, walking, sitting or lying down,
So long as you are awake you should develop this mindfulness.
This, they say, is the noblest way to live.
And if you do not fall into bad ways, but live well and develop insight,
And are no longer attached to all the desires of the senses,
Then truly you will never need to be reborn in this world again.
Morning Meditation: Developing Goodwill and Forgiveness – the Exercise
There are many ways in which we can develop metta. The chanting of the metta discourse we do in the morning and this evening chant taken from a commentary, the Visuddhimagga, are two of them.
The traditional blessings can be whittled down to four:
May you be safe
(from dangers outside and within ourselves)
May you be well (free from all sickness and disease).
May you be happy (free of all mental distress).
May you enjoy ease of living.
(May you live contented and in harmony with the world – alternative.)
The sequence of offering starts with :
(with gratitude goodwill arises naturally)
those who are near and dear
friends and co-workers
a neutral person (someone we see, but don’t know)
a difficult person
those around us
those in the neighbourhood ( ‘relocate’ to where you live)
all in our country
all in Europe
all people on earth
all beings in all directions
Asking for forgiveness: bring an event or person to mind. Experience the arising states of mind – guilt, shame, remorse, self-justification. Acknowledge how we have caused our own suffering : reflect on the unwholesomeness of these states : apologise : determine not to behave in this way again.
Forgiving: bring an event or person to mind. Experience the arising states of mind : hurt, revenge, spite. Acknowledge how we have caused our own suffering : reflect on the unwholesomeness of these states : offer forgiveness : determine to forgive in future.
Forgiving oneself: Bring events to mind where we have harmed ourselves : consider the meaning of ignorance and delusion and how they manifest : accept that to suffer the consequences of past actions is enough, no need to punish oneself : determine not to repeat the same folly.
May All Beings Be Happy!
Sabbe satta sukhita hontu (x3)
Sadhu, sadhu, sadhu
This accompanies the Heartcare (metta) mp3 on website http://www.satipanya.org.uk/audio.htm
Morning Meditation : Resolution
The final part of the morning practice is the act of resolution. Resolution, resolve, determination are all part of the second step of the Eightfold path – Right Attitude or Right Intention.
If vipassana brings Right Understanding and Metta turns that into Right Attitude, then the act of resolution reinforces both and commits us to a day of determined commitment to Buddhadhamma.
I say a day, because one day at a time is quite enough. To determine something for a week is possible, but for a month that resolve dissolves unless reinforced. And to determine for a year can be depressing! One day, this day, is feasible. Take care of the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves!It is often the case in our lives that we take on certain commitments and then fail to reinforce their intentions. The situation begins to move away from us and we lose it. A marriage vow given to witnesses lasts that day. From then on presumption leads to laziness and carelessness, and disagreements and annoyances may grow to wither the original vow. Our commitment to the work we do unless reinforced with daily commitments allows original enthusiasm to slip into apathy. Even more so with the Dhamma, for the Dhamma is constant in its demands and relentless in its labours. It’s no easy thing to grow spiritually. The Buddha warned us this is a ‘gradual path’.
What is a resolution then? To understand the role of intention, an intentioned intention, we need to understand Dependent Origination and how we create our own conditioning and kamma. An intention is an idea or thought laced with desire. It may be wholesome or unwholesome, but at the point of intention no karmic act had been performed. To hold an intention long enough so that we can determine its ethical value is to give us the only real choice we have. I say ‘choice’ tentatively for who in their right mind would choose to do something that leads to unhappiness.
Once we have agreed to make that choice we have identified with it. This is what ‘I’ am going to do. There is still no karmic act. Only when that choice manifests into action of sustained thought, speech or deed, do we create a kamma (the technical Pali word in Theravada). What was it that made manifest a desire, that brought something out of potential into the actual. That force is the will and that is what the Buddha calls kamma.
Now the original intention will have a lot of stored up energy depending on habitual action or indeed addiction. Anything compulsive - eating, watching TV, talking and talking - are all habits that are hard to tame because of their accumulated energy.
On the other hand it may be that acts of generosity, of service, of truthfulness, of commitment are weak in energy because they have not been developed through beneficial habit. So a habit in itself is not the problem. It’s the purpose and content of the habit that we need to be clear about.
And of course it is a collection of these habits that we call our personality and character and it is this that determines our destiny. So if we see we are going in the wrong direction, we need to undermine those unskilful, perhaps immoral habits and if we see ourselves following a wholesome, virtuous way then we should reinforce those habits.
That re-enforcement begins with the resolution. And a good time to make a resolution is just then at the end of our morning practice. One should be to further our virtue and the other should be to undermine unskilful habits.
Today, just this day, I will practice … live mindfully … with a good heart …’
Today, just this day, I will not … won’t go down that road … refuse to …’And, of course, one has to repeat these as often as one can throughout the day, but definitely when occasions arise to demand your resolution.
Make them easy to attain so that you can congratulate yourself every evening and you will slowly grow from strength to strength. This is especially true of New Year Resolutions! And don’t be put off by the occasional collapse into old ways. As Ginger Rogers admonished Flatfoot Fred in Swing Time, ‘Take a deep breath, pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again!’
Developing the Perfection of Determination
Determination is one of the Ten Perfections. It is exemplified in the relentless search the Bodhisatta Siddhartha Gotama made to become a Fully-Self -Enlightened Buddha. And especially so when he sat beneath the Bodhi Tree and determined with resolute resolution that he would either find the answer to his quest or die.
To help us strengthen our commitment, we need to contemplate these four areas: our capability (can), our responsibility (ought), our aspiration (want) and our determination (will) to undermine what is unwholesome and develop what is virtuous.
We can determine to overcome an unwholesome conditioning.
Bring to mind a trait within yourself that you see is not wholesome, skilful or virtuous.
1. I am able to, I can resist this temptation.
This has to be repeated until there is a conviction of this ability.
2. I ought to for my own benefit and the benefit of others.
This has to be repeated until the heart is moved by it.
3. I want to.
This has to be repeated until an enthusiasm arises.
Where there is resistance, it is spoken kindly
to cajole the heart into acceptance.
We need to develop ways of encouraging ourselves.
4. And I will resist this temptation whenever it arises.
This has to be repeated till one feels the determination in the gut.
In the same way we can determine to develop a virtue.
Bring to mind a virtue you would like to develop.
- I am able to, I can develop this virtue.
- I ought to for my own benefit and the benefit of others.
- I want to.
- I will develop this virtue whenever the occasion arises.
This exercise is best done every morning. Such practice has an immediate but not a lasting effect.
So one has to keep repeating it. The more often the better. We can do this every time an unwholesome or wholesome desire arises we go through this process, even if speedily.
Just like the practice of vipassana, metta and constant mindfulness, this practice cannot be stopped until we are fully liberated.
That’s the way it is!
Breakfast at last!
If you have a young family or for some other reason you cannot practise this mindful eating, then do make sure you have that quiet cup of tea, just by yourself, you with your body. And of course, it can be done whenever we have a drink or eat, though that first break-fast is a special time for it sets the attitude for the day.
Consider the importance of the body especially so that the Buddha pointed to this form of existence as the best to attain liberation. Here we have joys and woes and the intelligence to seek and find the escape. Let us remind ourselves that we cannot be here without a body, that through the body we come to receive knowledge, that we can communicate, relate, take part in society, create good kamma and practise meditation. To feed the body is to nourish a space, sacred specifically to ourselves. The Buddha says that this fathom long body is the world, and it is here we can find the causes of suffering and the end to it.
So, having made your cup of tea and holding it before you, now is the chance to reinforce your commitment to the Path of Dhamma. Here at Satipanya we have devised a reflection based on the one the Buddha gave to the Sangha.
Wisely reflecting, I eat this food not to indulge sensual pleasure or to seek comfort. Being mindful of every mouthful, I shall undermine unwholesome habits and develop appreciative joy.
I eat only to sustain and nourish the body, thinking thus: I will allay hunger without overeating so that I may continue to live blamelessly and at ease.
This offering brings me health, long life, strength and happiness. May the merits of my practice support the happiness, health, long life, rebirth in the heavenly realms and ultimately Nibbana of those who have kindly provided this food.
The final paragraph is a grateful acknowledgement of the efforts of thousands of people and plants, and the sacrifice of animals if you are not a vegetarian, that have brought this food to our table.
Even if we only do the following exercise once a day and that with just a cup of tea, it will keep alive within us the spiritual practice around food. To continue:
Closing the eyes, contact the body and get in touch with feelings of thirst or hunger.
Acknowledge that some of those feelings will be natural appetite, the body manifesting its needs. But that insidiously intermingled are those feelings of greed.
Making a very clear resolution to nourish the body, take the first sip or bite and simply sit back within yourself
and observe, feel and experience the arising and passing of different tastes, the action of tasting and chewing, all the while mindful of arising delight.
Purposefully intend the action of swallowing, follow the beverage or food and stay with whatever feelings arise. Momentary satisfaction of appetite insidiously intermingled with the gratification of greed!
Wait till ‘More!’ arises and repeat the process.
At some point there will be feelings of ‘Enough’ coming from the body and here it may be that greed steals quietly from its hiding place. Go on, just this once. Just that one more piece of toast!’ Just sitting till that sensual desire passes, means we have got the better of the habit of indulgence. Our self-discipline has been strengthened. Our body is healthier for putting its needs first.
When the ‘More’ passes, there may arise contentment – the heart without greed. Discerning the difference between contentment and gratification is crucial. One leads to Nibbana, the other to Realm of Hungry Ghosts! And that realm is right here manifesting as a feelings of unsatisfactoriness, of never enough, nagging compulsions and dictatorial addictions.
Traveling to and from work.
How do we spend our time travelling? Do we see it as an opportunity to practise or as a time to get through.
If we are in a car, do we turn on the radio, play music?
If we travel by public transport, do we do the same or read?
If we are on a long journey, do we do the same?
And how much do we daydream?
Whatever we put our attention on, that becomes a means of conditioning. We are creating or reinforcing a habit.
The question then is: what sort of habits do we want to develop? I think we would have little objection to wholesome, skilful, virtuous habits.
In which case, daydreaming is out, for when we daydream we are being carried along by some unwholesome attitude. The thought stream may be beautiful. We may be saving the world from ecological disaster, but it won’t bear upon reality. It will be dreaming. So whatever thought we wish to have, we need to make it constructive, deliberate, purposeful thinking. A book helps. Or if travelling with a companion some mutually interesting topic.
Of course, when travelling with someone the danger of daydream turns into useless speech. We find it hard to be silent in company. So at least make the conversation beneficial.
Listening to the radio or listening to mp3’s presents us with the same question. What sort of mental state does what I am hearing develop? If we know the input is going to do harm, no matter how little, then we need to find the strength to stop it. It helps if we can replace it with something wholesome.
But the important point is that these times are precious moments for practice. Why waste them? Apart from developing wholesome mental states through reading, listening and conversing, especially when we on public transport, we can practise metta, vipassana or just abiding peacefully in the present moment.
It’s the continuity of practice that will bring results. One of the most favourite words of the Buddha was appamãdo – diligence! It doesn’t take all that much effort to decide to do something wholesome. Otherwise it’s a case of one step forward, two steps back. No wonder we sometimes feel we are getting nowhere.
Back home after a day out, whether at work or for some other reason. It depends on what sort of day it has been. But for sure the worse it was, the less we want to sit.
And what is it we are coming home to?
So many imponderables. Yet to sit quietly for a while, no matter how hard, can truly re-energise the system. For it is a rare day we arrive back suffused and suffusing calm equanimity. And if we were, we would want to sit and deepen the state.
You may be lucky as I was to take public transport. It does allow you to sit and rest. Instead of looking mindlessly out of the window, we can sit and let the breath calm or energise us. I have to confess I fell asleep most times and on occasion missed my stop. But I always felt the better for it.
If you are returning to a quiet home, then take some refreshment, but make time to sit quietly. It may not be in a formal sitting posture. Let the day run through your mind, from the time you left the house till you arrived back. And see what you have brought home. Is there some anxiety there, some irritation? Was it an overly busy day, but exhilarating and there is lots of restlessness? Disappointing and exhausting? Or do you feel it was a fulfilling day, satisfying?
If you don’t take time for meditation then there is the risk – the near certainty – that whatever you have brought home will strengthen dukkha. Unattended disappointment can so easily spiral downward into depression while exhilaration may fool us into grandiose plans and expectations which will eventually come crashing down in exhaustion. Very sad.
Whatever state you are in, use the techniques you know to level everything off towards equilibrium. Wait till calm equanimity begins to rise.
If you are returning to a busy home, then suggest everyone sit together quietly for a moment. Or if this isn’t possible, then perhaps you could ask to be allowed a few minutes’ meditation and then find a place of quiet for yourself.
And do end with metta no matter how short. It is so important to re-engage with the right attitude. Then make resolutions as to how you will spend the evening skillfully.
The Buddha reminds us, ‘Life is uncertain. Death is certain’ Let’s not waste even a moment.
Relations, Friends, Acquaintances and Spiritual Companions
Cultivators of Patience.
Our friendships rarely collapse in a moment. It takes time for the rot to creep in.
Look back now on a friendship, whether with a close relation, friend, acquaintance or spiritual companion, that went off or worse.
What were the initial strains? Where did the antagonism begin? Were we fully aware of it then? Or had it mushroomed unexpectedly into an argument? And after the argument was there an attempt at reconciliation? Was that really heart felt? Or was it a patch? A patch through which in time the sore began again to fester.
Had you put yourself out for someone and they had not returned the favour when you needed them? Or was it you who had not come to their aid?
Had they spoken a sharp word, a judgement, a dig which you took in good part? But they kept doing it. Little snidey remarks that finally got under your skin. Or were you the one doing that and didn’t realise that your sarcasm was actually hurting, because they laughed.
Was it a growing clash of opinions that at first were agreeing to differ, but then got a little edgy until excuses were made and meetings stopped?
Was there envy which over time gathered an aversion towards the person and progressed into jealousy? Were you aware that it was jealousy and not that you just didn’t like them anymore? Or was it that they were jealous of you and that you knew it, but didn’t know how to work with it?
Did a friend overstep a boundary, become too familiar? Presume. How did you react? Were you brusque? Did you get angry with them? Or was it you suddenly finding yourself ‘told off’.
I was once lodging with a longtime friend. He was on the telephone to his daughter. I had told him I was waiting for a phone call. As the time got closer, I shouted to remind him. Unfortunately, maybe because of my anxiety around losing the call, it sounded like a command. Well, that took a while to iron out. I
What about your spiritual teacher? Did you have a bad time with them? Are you still blaming them? Or if you took the role of guiding someone, are you truthful about the role you played in the breakup?
Contemplating lost friendships is important for we are creatures of habit and tend to make the same mistakes over and over until we ‘wake up’.
Once we recognise what the mechanisms in us are that undermine friendships, whether they are our own characteristics or our reaction to such characteristics in others, we can become aware of the first signs and train ourselves to stop – even in mid-sentence – establish the appropriate attitude of goodwill.
Contemplating Relations, Friends, Acquaintances and Spiritual Companions
Fountains of Joy.
How varied our relationships are! And how we change in the presence of others according to how we feel the circumstance demands. And if we accept the limitation of certain relationships, they are all causes for joy.
Relations can be difficult. There is often family history to contend with. Just because we happen to share genes doesn’t mean we will get on. There are so many other factors. But contemplating that shared family history may give relations a depth even deeper than close friendships. I was surprised how close I felt to a cousin of mine dying from pulmonary embolism even though we had hardly seen each other since childhood. The closer the relation – parents and siblings as opposed to cousins and distant cousins – the deeper can be our commitment to their well-being.
Friends, from close lifelong companions to social, political, work related, hobby co-enthusiasts and so on – all fill important roles in our lives. They help us develop our personalities and characters as we meld with their varied personalities and characters in the process of sharing the interests that drive us.
And on the outer reaches, our friendships shade into acquaintances which given circumstance can grow into friendships.
But of all friendships it is spiritual friendship that is to be most treasured and celebrated for they are helping us to realise the deepest goals of our lives.
Ananda, the Buddha’s companion for the last twenty years of his life, would often have only partial understanding. One day, he offered the opinion that good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship is half the spiritual life. Good here does not mean like. One of the liberating qualities of a spiritual friend is that you don’t have to like them!
No, no, the Buddha tells him. It is the entirety of the spiritual life. For if we have good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship, then we can expect to cultivate the Eightfold Path because of that support. (SN 45:2)
How important is that!
So after each meeting with a relation, a friend, an acquaintance or a spiritual companion, pause for a moment, appreciate the treasure, allow gratitude to arise and savour the joy.
Intimate Relationships: The Erotic, the Romantic and Love
The erotic is truly pleasurable. There is something about fleshy pleasures – eating, drinking, sex, swimming and so on which have a groundedness that is palpable in a way that mental states are not. So much so that the erotic can be isolated from romantic feelings and love. It is choosy and wants only what conventionally conforms to physical beauty or as near as can without slipping into disgust. It becomes self-seeking and in so doing turns the other into an object to gratify its lust. Lust is sexual greed and like greed consumes the other or wishes to be consumed. The other as commodity. Hence obsession and pornography and when mixed with darker motives sexual crime, some of which sinks into insanity.
Romance is the eroticism of the heart. It is the touching of two personalities. It is equally choosy, but unlike sexual activity which is usually too short, the flight of romantic feelings can tinge days with kaleidoscopic delight. To be in the beloved’s company, indeed to even bring them to mind, jets the lover into the seventh heaven. And such is the sweetness of it, that this also becomes a self-seeking aim. Again the other becomes an object, a commodity, to be consumed in or by. And it blinds to the fuller personality of the beloved, which when it peaks through the gossamer veil, punctures and often utterly deflates. If unrequited, it then turns vengeful, at times crimes of passion or despair to suicide.
Love roots itself in the personhood of the other. In their humanity in all its fullness. Their beingness. It reaches beyond the pleasurable or the delightful to a commitment that may demand sacrifice. For better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in health and in sickness. And it has no time restriction. To love and cherish till death do us part. Indeed, time passing is not important, only time present. So no matter what the relationship – girlfriend, boyfriend, partner or spouse - it is a renewed commitment from moment to moment. Difficult!
It is only when both are embedded in love can the erotic and romantic play their roles of full-filling at times the whole intimate relationship with physical pleasure and heart’s delight.
So it doesn’t matter what sort of relationship you are in – boyfriend, girlfriend, partner or spouse.
To coin a Churchillian phrase: some are born celibate, some have celibacy thrust upon them and some grow into celibacy. (Churchill had said this of greatness.)
In more religious times and even now in Buddhist countries, a woman may boast she is still a virgin. And a man is not considered any less a man who joins the Sangha as a child or young teenager and never has any sexual encounter throughout their lives.
How strange to a Westerner. Sounds even perverse. A life without sex! But we fail to remember that the ‘sexual revolution’ of the 60’s is not that long ago. And such has been the sexualising of our society – with easy pornography – that even children are caught up in lust - and themselves lusted.
No-one needs sex. It’s not like food. And since sexual desire is probably our greatest driver, can you imagine the relief when you are no longer hounded by sexual cravings as someone with OCD may feel when relieved of their compulsion.
And can you imagine the energy released for other purposes?
For those who find themselves temporarily celibate, take the opportunity to find out how it feels when you let go of lustful thoughts. As with all acts of renunciation, you have to resist the fantasies and suffer the desire, feel it in the body, till the compulsive need exhausts itself completely to feel the release, the relief and the joy of liberation – even if only once!
And there is romance which blossoms often into an intimate relationship. This is also forsaken in celibacy. To someone seeking a greater love, such love is confining.
There are also all the other loves - parent and child, friend with friend, even spiritual friendships and so on – all will have some psychological dependency. This ‘attachment’ is not to be seen as evil, but unskilful. It has unwanted consequences. Such loves cannot be universal by definition.
True universal love arises when there are no particulars. And this can only be arrived at through relinquishing particulars.
The Buddha says our love should go out to the whole world, ourselves included, without any hatred or preference. In other words, whoever we meet within that given moment, whether we like them or not or whether they like us or not, they are focus of our goodwill.
Such will not be perfectly possible to do till the delusive sense of self which creates fences is taken down. But we can begin the process of dismantling them.
When we are with someone, let us give them our full attention with the desire to know where they are coming from, how they feel, what they are saying. And at the same time to be aware of the background of reactions and responses that arise within us. To develop an affectionate awareness. And respond from the heart of goodwill.
In this way we can all in given moments, unhindered by erotic, romantic or specific loves, be ‘celibate’. For this is the reason for celibacy – to develop unhindered love.
Why do you think the Buddha did not return to his family and the household life after his Enlightenment?
Why did he create a celibate institution, the monastic Sangha?
How might you practice celibacy within a relationship?
When does love become control?
The Buddha points out that there comes with the sense of self a desire to control. The self feels safe when it is in control.
And why do we want to control? Is it not that it is necessary for us to gratify an unwholesome desire in order to feel happy. This strong desire is often called a ‘need’, though a ‘need’ really ought to be applied to something essential – food and sleep on a physical level, for instance. Such unwholesome ‘needs’ include anything we feel we controls us– need for praise, for success; for sex, for romance – even addiction to drugs and porn.
This need, that has become so essential for my happiness, stems from a lack of self-love, self-acceptance. A deficit of inner worthiness. A want of dignity.
And such is the strength of the desire it cannot see anything but from the vantage point of ‘me’. In other words, it very much becomes a definition who ‘I’ am. At the point where a desire, take it or leave it, becomes a desire I need to fulfil, the other becomes the ‘one’ to fulfil that ‘need’. If the other can’t or won’t do that, then there comes the need to control.
All sorts of tactics are employed: anger, withdrawal of services, silence, ignoring. Blackmail – if you don’t .. I will. Petty spite. Threats of revenge. Threats of self-harm, suicide. Accusations of not really loving me. Anything to bully them into doing what we want them to do.
This way we can control children, friends, workmates, partners and spouses and all the rest of our relationships.
So paradoxically such unskilful needs that control us drive us to control others to fulfil them. And the more we feed them, the more they demand. It’s a vicious circle.
It’s not that we don’t love the other. We show that when we treat the other as equal to us, not there to serve us, yet they may do so. Just as we are not there to serve them, yet we may do so.
We will know when our love is turning into control by our reactions whenever the other person refuses any of our requests. Can we hold still? Wait for the unwholesome state to pass. Communicate with the other as other. If unable to, to postpone – let’s talk later.
And to find the time to contemplate our unwholesome ‘needs’ and resist their demands. At least then we feel we are gaining back some control.
But it is often the case that all we have to do is allow the need to manifest, hold it in kindness, let it speak its feelings without words. Wait for the turbulence to exhaust itself.
The heart knows how to comfort itself. It knows how to heal itself.
What does that word conjure up for you? Is it a warm glow? Or do you feel a great weight descend on the chest? Do find yourself filled with bright energy? Or is it the hot, burning energy of stress, frustration and anxiety?
Right there in the Eightfold Path, the Buddha places Right Livelihood. That’s how important he felt it was. He could have included it in Right Action, but no, he gives it its own importance.
In a broader sense, we need to ask ourselves, what am I doing with my life. My life, for heaven’s sake! How serious can a question be? Do I feel I am wasting my life? Do I feel I am wasting my life at work? For most of us that’s around 40 hours a week – and our most energetic time.
There is within us a spiritual calling. Something within us that demands to be, to be developed. These days we think of spiritual calling as something to do with becoming a religious, a nun or monk. But in the Christian Middle Ages, it was understood that God had called you to a profession or skill, usually what your family was already involved in. It is the modern separation of the secular from the spiritual that has caused so much of our malaise. For once the accent is put on the secular then we are into the ‘things of this world’ – riches, fame, power and pleasure. A life devoted to these must necessarily end in disappointment if only because it will all pass away. When we put the spiritual back into secular, the whole world of work takes on a completely different place. It becomes a spiritual work shop.
How does the spiritual manifest in Right Livelihood? In some people it is so strong, it is felt to be a calling, a vocation. I knew a child of five who told me she was going to be a doctor and that’s what she became. For others, it’s not so strong, but a general feeling of doing what they were meant to be doing with their lives. Then there are those who live in confusion as to what they should be doing and wait for inspiration, to be told, in hope that something will turn up. And there are those who have no hope of making sense of their work life. It is a means to earn money so they can do what they want to do after work.
A great deal of our work life is, of course, dependent on society and the economic situation. We may very well have experienced all four types just mentioned. At one or other time inspired, feeling content, depressed and lost about our work situation. Indeed we may suffer these very same swings in the very job we are doing – even in one day!
So the first thing we have to do, if you have not already done so, is to make a determination to turn our present work, no matter whether we enjoy it or not or whether we think it is meaningful or not, into a spiritual practice.
How would you go about doing that?
The following Tips will centre on work and if there is some area you would like us to explore, do email.
Success and Failure : Trial and Error
I am not sure I should be confessing this, but my life is a catalogue of failures. Failure, of course, is what happens when you don’t succeed. It’s a pretty depressing state. As the realisation of failure dawns on you or hits you between the eyes, there’s that shock moment when your stomach sinks. And then the nausea. Then there’s the anger and hatred towards those or the system that beat you, succeeded where we failed. Then there’s the soul searching, the self-recriminations, followed by the further woundings of guilt and shame and into the yawning chasm of despair. Indeed, failure is always a painful experience. We shouldn’t be surprised at this. After all it’s a mini-death. And it can at worst lead to suicide, such the French chef who did not get his Michelin stars.
When we come to define failure, it is always a measurement against success. Always a comparison to how it ought to have been. But what did we set ourselves? If you’re a sanguine character, you tend to overreach. Even the most circumspect and morose often expect what is beyond their capabilities or the capabilities of the situation to deliver.
In Christian spiritual language, however, this failure is known as a humiliation. Not a humiliation in the belittling sense, but a sharp correction to ‘the way it is’. To be humble did not mean to be weak and worthy of beating, it meant to know oneself. Humility is another word for ‘know thyself’.
Aiming at success will always be in danger of overreach because it is the self trying as always to accumulate. And the more it has, the safer it feels whether riches, power, fame or simply pleasures. It invests itself in the project and defines itself by its success. You’ll always find these three factors : over-aiming, emotional attachment and identity. When we fail, we suffer to some extent an identity crisis, emotional turmoil and loss. In despair we may give up, become despondent. And life stagnates. Is there another way we can approach our goals for we do not want to lose our aspirations, be it relationships, work, spiritual aims?
Suppose we change the language. Suppose we look at life as a challenge and an exploration, rather than success, competition and possible failure. Suppose we talk of trial and error. Surely now the world changes. We are no longer in a world of conflict. We are working on a hypothesis like any scientist. We are co-operating with the world to see if our idea will work or not. It may work out, it may not. No matter.
Samuel Becket is renowned for his sayings and the one I truly like is: Fail. Fail better. (I’m presuming Becket is here using the word ‘fail’ as in trial and ‘error’.) Writing is an exacting art. Indeed so is all creative pursuit. One never quite expresses what one wants. True art is all trial and forever error, for the real never meets with the ideal, not that a piece of work may not give satisfaction. Yet try again we must. The Buddha tried in so many ways to express the Dhamma. People were forever misinterpreting his words. He tried all sorts of ways depending on who he was talking to. Yet we say all the teachings are just pointing the way. The finger points to the moon. There’s nothing to be gained by looking at the end of the finger!
Seeing life as trial and error excludes us from the pains of failure. Once the error has played itself out, there often follows a fallow period. I say fallow for this was a time when fields were left to regenerate. I do not say barren! And that former desire to explore possibilities arises again. Creativity is natural to all nature. Nature isn’t into success and failure. Nature is about finding growth in any given situation. We are embedded in a world that is forever creating. How foolish not to join the party!
Creating Space (1)
We live in a society that puts a price on time. It was not always so. But that’s how it is at the moment and we have to not simply live with it, but live wisely with it. The growing demands of efficiency and productivity strain the last ounce of energy each moment has. And that energy is ours. In fact it’s our life-energy. Our work can demand the better part of our energy resources at the expense of personal welfare, our family and our social life. If this rings true for you to any extent then you will need to see how you can conserve energy. Try creating space, temporal space.
Here is one of my favourites quotes. It comes from Ajahn Thate, acknowledged of high attainments, whom I met in Thailand. He summed up the spiritual life:
Take it easy. Make it simple. Stay with the one who knows.
Do one job at a time.
It’s not that we can do two jobs at the same time. It’s just that we try to. Have you ever found yourself having a conversation with someone and filling in a form and/or writing up a piece of work and/or working on the computer? You can sometimes get away with it with an automatic manual task, but it’s still taxing the brain. Even if we are expert multi-taskers, it’s still necessary to actually fully attend to what is being done. Failing to do this is one reason mistakes are made and accidents happen.
So we need to do one task at a time. That means paying attention to what we are actually doing. The effect is to increase our focus and span of attention. That is, our concentration is enhanced.
Create a pause between every task.
How do you react when the phone rings? Do you launch yourself at the phone? Have you noticed how mobile calls trump everything else? This sort of compulsive behaviour simply increases our agitation. And agitation is wasted energy.
When you come to the end of a task. STOP. Reflect on what you have done. Acknowledge it. And ‘put it aside’. Take a breath and relax. Let this be as long as it takes to feel inwardly calm. Most often it’s less than a minute. And then intend the next task and remind ourselves of our Dhamma intention (see below).
Take the phone call for instance. Surely most people will wait for three to five rings. At the first ring, just acknowledge where you are with your work. At the second, stop and breathe, at the third calmly pick up the phone. Should the caller ring off, call the person back.
If we can begin each task with a mind uncluttered, with clarity, our efficiency is increased.
That should make the powers that be happy!
Take a silent break.
Tea breaks and lunch breaks are times to really establish that quiet, equanimity and still mindfulness that the morning meditation put us in touch with. Again, it doesn’t have to be long. Five minutes may be enough before we join others.
It’s also so refreshing to get away from the work place for a while. To sit in the local park, or just quietly walk the streets, or as I used to, sit in the local church.
Go with the flow.
I once received a card with a fish floating in a river. It said only dead fish go with the flow! But we won’t be dead so long as we are aware. We’re as if dead if we lose our sense of present mindfulness. If the river happens to be in torrent or in flood, then we will surely be lost if we don’t exercise some still awareness.
Going with the flow means to be able to let go of what we are doing when something needs to be attended to. That phone call again, that colleague approaching, at home the child calling for attention, can all seem unwelcome interruptions, in which case they become irritations. And any form of anger is wasted energy.
A Dhamma intention.
This could be anything. For instance before I answer the phone I might remind myself to speak kindly, openly and appropriately.
So there we have. Three simple tips that help us work better, feel better and conserve our life energy.
Easy weasy peasy?
Creating Space (2)
Apart from creating temporal space, there is emotional space, by which I mean to be able to drop back into a spacious heart, the state of equanimity. This is the more important, the greater the emotional upsurge.
When we are in a rush, stop! Let it all subside.
Have you ever failed to hear the alarm and found yourself speed washing, gobbling breakfast, running to the bus stop or driving with hands clenched to the steering wheel? Even if you arrive in time for work, does that anxious rush career you through the day. Sometimes it is as if we have put ourselves on a roller coaster and don’t quite know how to get off.
This is where a shot of vipassana comes in most useful. Just finding those few minutes to sit down, close the eyes and let everything calm down. Even to others around, you can say, ‘I just need a few minutes to collect myself. To chill out!’
This had a great affect on me when I was working as a teacher. I would often find myself in the mode of rushing. Trying to get things done! I got in the habit of just stopping even if only for a moment. And I also found it useful to talk myself down.
Down to what? Equanimity which is stillness of the body, calmness of the heart, silence of the mind and an attitude of openness. From here we can bring in metta, some goodwill intention, and start again calmly.
Working with a persistent mental state.
When we stop the rushing and still ourselves, we often encounter a deeper mental state such as anxiety, boredom, depression and restless energy. These sorts of emotional states can hang around all day sometimes. For some people, they are virtually a constant. Here, is one way of handling them when we don’t have the time to do vipassana.
It is a case of putting them to the side. This is not the same as suppression, because suppression presumes negativity towards them. We simply ignore them because we don’t want to feel. But by putting them to one side, we are acknowledging them and intend to deal with them at a more appropriate time. In this way we don’t add aversion to the problem. Indeed, we can do this with kind gentleness as if bandaging a sore knee and yet we keep walking.
Then, of course, it is important to find a time in the day when you can work with them. And this is better as soon as you get home from work before you eat, even if only for twenty minutes.
Something to pin on the wall, place on the desk. Adjust according to personal experience.
One Job at a Time
Intend New Action
Make Dhamma Resolve
Steady Attention, Season with Care
Bring back Wandering Mind with Gentle Insistence
Let Reactions Subside
One Job Well Done!
Creating Space (3)
After a disturbing event or encounter, wait for the reaction to subside.
When we sit in vipassana, we are instructed to watch, feel and experience anything that draws our attention. We’re meant to be both focused and yet loose, not attached or caught up in any particular object. So if we are experiencing pleasant states and pain in the knees starts, it is simply something else to turn our attention to. If our calm concentration is such that we are locked onto the breath and someone sneezes, we’re not supposed to desire the annihilation of that person’s nose, but to observe, ‘hearing, hearing’ and also to note any reaction that might come up’.
Why can’t we be like this all the time - and at work? We happen to be ‘getting on with job’, feel a bit pressured even, and someone comes. They may come calmly and excuse themselves, but often they come loudly, or in a rush or in some sort of irritated state. What is our reaction? Are we irritated? Do we feel panicked? Do we despair!
Why not bring the lesson of vipassana directly into our lives. Even when we are working under considerable pressure, or working with enthusiasm and don’t want to be disturbed, we can still be relaxed. All we have to do is remind ourselves that someone may come and ask for our attention.
When that someone comes, we only need say, ‘Just one moment’ and acknowledge where we are, most important acknowledge what mood the person is. It may demand patience! And turn our attention entirely to the person. No fuss. No wasted energy.
This turning our attention towards someone is to be completely open to what they are offering. Should it be anger, anxiety or some other unpleasant state, we need to feel it and listen to what they are saying. Their emotional state can resonate strongly within us and we need to hold steady instead of reacting with equal impatience or anxiety. I have found it most helpful to listen to what they are saying more than attend to what they are feeling. That way I find it easier to remain equanimous. And then to genuinely answer their concern.
If, of course, they have come quietly and calmly, then it’ s good to note how that brings the best out in us. So that if we should find ourselves irritated and rushing, we can remind ourselves, that if we want to get the best out of someone, this is not the way to approach them. So we need to attend to our own state and wait till it calms down.
Should we fail to behave skilfully or if we lose it somewhere in the middle, then whatever mental state has arisen from an incident or encounter, we need to give it time to subside. If not the emotional state tends to escalate through constantly revisiting the event in thought and imagination. And if it starts to do that, to keep stopping, contacting the emotional feeling and a give it time to burn out even if only a little.
This way of bringing the practice into our daily life increases our sense of calm and equanimity.
The Limits of Power and Mission Creep
There is nothing that makes the self feel more comfortable than more – of anything. This is especially so of power – which means, ‘I am in control’.
Every job has its boundary. It has a job description. When we go for the interview we want to know want is expected of us and at first we are satisfied with just doing the job. Although the job may be taxing, after a little time we begin to feel on top of the work – that is to be in control. We enter a period of ease.
Then something starts to creep in. We see possibilities. And with all the good-will in hearts we do something that is not in our job description. And we are astonished how it causes such hurt and anger.
Jack starts to work for a charity as an accounts person. Before long he gets to know how the firm works and realises that the website could be better. He knows someone who designs websites whom he thinks is very good and invites them to come and meet the boss. The next morning he tells the boss what he has done – without prior consultation. The boss is visibly angry, but out of good will sees the designer. Nothing comes of it. Jack feels snubbed. For days there is a distance between Jack and his boss. Again without anything being said, things sort of smooth over. But has Jack understood that his good-will was seen as mission creep, that it encroached on another’s work, that it took no account of the position of the boss?
I must confess I was very good at this sort of thing and my manager accused me of wanting her job! And I didn’t. Honestly. It cost me an apology and box of chocolates. As things turned out, when she moved up, I was offered her job – by which time, of course, I did want it. So I must have got something right.
In the same way if you are in charge, mission creep undermines others. I always think it is a good idea at some point before I start work to remind myself what my job is. Since I have set up this centre, this has become all too important, since I am the sort of person who has the tendency to do everything themselves. This undermines those whom we have asked to help and generally puts them off offering us assistance in the future.
So here we have a basic manifestation of the self as power. It wants to be in control. It gives itself any good reason, but never really takes into account the other, save in that the other serves its purpose. Remember no matter how good-willed the self is, it always turns the other into an object of it’s desire as a means to achieve an abject of desire
To understand the reaction of others to our good-will mission creep, we need to ask ourselves how we feel when someone does that to us.
And really, what harm is there in consultation?
Not an Emotion
When you say you are happy, what do you mean?
However you define happiness, are you referring to a mood or emotion?
A mood would be a present disposition and it stays around for a while. It may be caused by some good fortune that has come your way. A distant relative has died and to your surprise has left you quite a bit of money. Or it may that something you had been striving or hoping for had actually materialised. You had applied for a job and you had succeeded.
An emotion is something more transient. To cheer yourself up, you go for a walk in the country towards a pub (for tea, of course!) or local park where they serve teacake and decent coffee. You are feeling good so you visit someone. You want to do something exciting so you take flying lessons.
But there is obviously a great flaw in this for it cannot be maintained. It is by nature transient, impermanent and, therefore, unreliable.
But worse! For when I say ‘I’ am happy, that is how I am defining myself. So that when ‘I’ am not happy, I start wondering why. I start blaming myself or others or society for my inability to be happy.
I may feel that happiness is how I ought to be, that it’s how everyone ought to be. That it’s ‘natural’. That it’s ‘unnatural’ to be unhappy. Suddenly it’s writ large in national declarations and international treaties – the ‘pursuit of human happiness’. It’s become a ‘right’!
Unfortunately this just adds more striving with the potential of more frustration. The happier we try to be, the more unhappy we seem to get!”
Happy moods and happy emotions are all right in themselves. But will they ever give the sort of substantial happiness that our hearts seek?
If we can appreciate these transient experiences and not try to re-create them or better them, then they will stand on their own as delightful times to be delighted in.
To be able to say goodbye to a happy mood or emotion is to liberate ourselves from a psychological dependency.
When there is no psychological ‘need’ for such states, we will enjoy them the more. This is the meaning of non-attachment.
Our lives are spent mainly in the company of the others and doing things. If we can rate our happiness by our relationships, perhaps we are on a surer footing.
When people enter into a relationship, it always has some purpose beyond the present gratification. It has a long term aim. It may be a simple friendship – friends who meet to shop, to walk, to talk. Some may form a partnership to set up a business, or a charity. It may be quite a small enterprise or just getting together to help someone.
We may form deeper relationships as partners and spouses, as parents and guardians of children. These are much longer term commitments.
Such relationships are never ‘happy’ from start to finish. After the first flush of joy, the work starts to ‘make it work’. And at times it can be very difficult as we find the other has different ideas, different aims and so on. When it comes to marriage, two out of three fail. Some may judge this as a measure of our ‘broken society’. But considering how difficult it is for individuals to be together, we should instead marvel that so many continue lifelong.
Working with the other through difficult patches makes for a deeper relationship. The deeper our relationships, the more nourishing they are.
The Buddha tells us that sometimes we do things that are good for ourselves, at other times, good for others and at others good both for ourselves and others.
On a visit to a small group of three monks, the Buddha asks the head monk how it is they live so peacefully with each other. Ven. Kassapa replies that every morning he says to himself, ‘What if I put aside what I want to do and do what the others want to do.’
We can see the wisdom in this approach. It allows us to loosen our grip on tightly held plans and ideas and allows the other to feel free to express theirs. Of course, for this to work, all involved must have the same attitude.
This is such a wonderful skilful means the Buddha offers us. To put aside what we want to do until we have found out what the other/s wants to do, is an act of generous love.
Even at times when we have to agree to differ, this attitude supports co-operation and undermines resentment.
Being Good rather than Being Good At
It seems as though obituaries have changed. Where once they would talk of a person’s qualities with examples, they now only mention what the person ‘did’. Achievements rate the person rather than character. The consequence is that we come to believe that those who have been successful in the world – fame, riches and power – are necessarily good people. Yet we know today’s culture favours the bully, the callous entrepreneur, the ones who can muscle their way to the top.
Whether we like it or not, it will affect the way we think about ourselves. If we have to judge ourselves by our achievements, the work we do, our status, then I should think very few of us are satisfied. We are into the game of comparison. This leads to great effort to ‘prove oneself’. This, in turn, leads to envy and jealousy of others. In all, we may end up being successful in the eyes of the world, but our hearts will be in turmoil.
If our hearts are polluted with all the negativity that comes from aggressive competitiveness, keeping up with the Jones' and so on, this cannot be conducive to happiness, to an inner sense of worthiness. We never feel ourselves to be quite good enough.
In the Discourse on Blessings, the Mangala Sutta, as well as such social qualities such as being 'well educated and skilled, a highly trained discipline', the Buddha lists such qualities as: generosity, ethical conduct, blameless actions, reverence, humility, contentment, gratitude, patience, gentleness self-discipline … these are the Highest Blessing.
Whose mind does not flutter by contact
with worldly contingencies, theirs is sorrowless, stainless, and secure.
It's not that what we do doesn’t matter. Far from it. What we do is an expression of our attitudes and the intentions that arise out of them.
However, if we put the accent on our attitude and intention, making sure they are wholesome, and then do the deed, that deed will enhance our feeling of goodness. And the deed, no matter how well done, will not carry negative undertones.
If a person is skilful in doing something, and yet they carry about with them a negative attitude, they may very well be chosen to do the jobs, but they won’t make many friends.
So if we want to feel good about ourselves - and want people to feel good about us – all we need do is get the attitude right.
Next time you are doing something whether for yourself, for a friend or at work, just stop before you do and ask yourself, ‘What is the underlying attitude that is accompanying the work?’ If it’s negative, put it to the side. Park it. And put a wholesome attitude into your heart. If it feels false, that’s ok. It can take a while for the emotional heart to catch up. Then do the work.
Hum the old song - T'ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it. (Ella Fitzgerald)
Right Attitude leads to Right intention, leads to Right Action, leads to a feeling of goodness within which is also a form of happiness.
What’s wrong with a bit of attachment!
Attachment is one of those hackneyed words that crop up over and over again in Buddhist literature. They used to talk about being ‘detached’, but that sounded really hard and cold. So now you will read ‘non-attached’. The word they are referring to is taņha which is usually translated as ‘clinging’. It all refers to a type of relationship we have with the world. The world as we experience it through the senses and the mind.
Now we always have to remember that the Buddha’s teaching is only concerned with suffering and unsatisfactoriness and the end of it. The end of it is happiness. So we could say that the Dhamma is all about attaining happiness. But that would be wrong. Indeed that’s what the Buddha, before his liberation from suffering was trying to do, either by way of ecstatic mental states or self-mortification.
But the fact of the matter is that happiness is always there. It simply needs to be dis-covered. That thick sticky layer of attachment has to go and lo and betide, there’s happiness – and it has been there all the time.
Happiness here refers to any amount of quiet joy, resonating compassion, warm love or sublime equanimity. And for this to appear from beneath the suffering and unsatisfactoriness of life all we have to do is drop the attachment. Yes, of course, easier said than done. But we will do it once we realise that is the cause of suffering. The Buddha’s the Second Noble Truth: the cause of suffering and unsatisfactoriness is taņha.
Attachments mean that we believe that our happiness is dependent on something or someone. It causes us to cling to it and defend it against loss. While we are indulging ourselves, there’s no problem. It’s a sensual Nibbana. Consider how we ‘lose ourselves’ in a film, in a hobby, in our work, in food, in sex and in romantic love.
But what happens when we can’t get what we want? Is there not frustration? Is there not grief should we lose our delight? Is there not an abiding anxiety of possible loss, of fear of someone or something taking it away? And there’s the compulsive need, the overbearing habit demands gratification. We are truly enslaved. And then we get fed up with it. We get bored and then have to go in search of another excitement. If greed fuels the consumerist society, the escape from boredom is the unacknowledged accelerator.
So the first thing to do to rid ourselves of this suffering is to contemplate these facts till they really sink in. And even then keep contemplating them.
Then at the beginning and end of every delightful experience, acknowledge it has arisen and passed away and will never return. It is more dead than Monty Python’s parrot.
And finally, the Buddha advises us to develop the attitude of ‘no preference’.
‘How do you like your tea?’
‘As it comes.’
Sacrifice : the more we give, the greater the return.
Sacrifice comes from two Latin words – sacer : sacred and facere : to make. One sacrifices to a god to propitiate the deity or to ask a favour. At the time of the Buddha, there were huge ritual slaughters of horses and cattle in the King’s sacrifice. Abraham offered his son to the harsh desert God who softened. Christ is said to be the ‘blood of the lamb’, the sacrifice of his own life for the benefit of all human beings. Sacrifice then is an offering of something we treasure for a higher cause. It is the point where generosity demands great courage and conviction. ‘No greater gift has man than to offer his life for another’.
It is said of arahats, those who are fully liberated, that they engender an inestimable field of merit. The power of their goodness is limitless. This is the meaning of puñña, merit. Just the very fact that they have arrived at that station of non-suffering, Nibbana, makes real the aim for all. Once Everest was conquered, it becomes climbable. To become fully liberated we have to give up everything - eventually. And we are asked to give up everything on a promise. We don’t know what the outcome will be. We trust on hearsay. However, we do gain confidence as the Path becomes clearer through our practice. But it is always going to be in the end a leap of faith. A faith that sacrificing everything we treasure will bring a boundless return.
Few have the qualities it takes to go give up everything immediately as did the *Bodhisatta when he left home. This is why it is called the Great Renunciation. And it is so called because it was a personal quest. However, at the point of the Great Doubt, as it is put metaphorically, Mara, the Evil One, approached and asked him who he thought he was to seek such a goal as full liberation. When the Bodhisatta then called upon the Earth Goddess to witness his right, it was the Parami, the Perfection of Generosity she says that gave him the right to seek full liberation. What had been Renunciation now became Sacrifice for he was no longer doing it for himself but for all humankind.
So let’s start small. There are so many causes in the world that we can give something up for. There are all the spiritual charities that aim to heal our deepest dis-ease. There are all the social charities to alleviate suffering. There are all the charities that try and do something about the enormous suffering we cause animals by way of greed. And there’s mother earth. What will we sacrifice for her?
Letting go of something we really treasure is hard. It may be wealth or time. Even the situation we are in at present may call upon us. Parents are often called upon to make sacrifices for their children. Children called upon to look after ageing parents. These are also paths to liberation.
Every time we give something that demands a sacrifice we are preparing ourselves for the greatest of all sacrifices: letting go of any hope of achieving a lasting happiness in the sensual world. Only when we have accomplished this can the greater happiness arrive.
There’s a saying in Italian ‘che va piano va lontano’ – who goes slow, goes far.
*Bodhisatta in Theravada Buddhism is someone who determines to become a fully self-enlightened Buddha. There are said to be four such monks in Sri Lanka at this present time.
Not what we believe, but how we live.
The Buddha warned his followers not to get caught up in ‘debates’. In his day, these were very popular it seems. Every full moon, in the bright glow of the cool tropical evening, people gathered at the shrines to hear religious teachers.
Their views conflicted. There were materialist annihilationists, much as the atheists of today, and there were eternalists, much in the same way as present day ‘believers’.
Talking about speculative beliefs, whether it is the materialist atheist who reduces everything to chemicals or the religionist belief in life everlasting, he warns us not to get caught up in ‘a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a vacillation of views, a fetter of views.’ M.2.8
The debates between religion and science tend to be about provable facts. Neurobiologists say that because certain parts of the brain light up and certain chemicals function as we experience emotions, that therefore these are emotions. But no-one experiences emotions as electro-chemical happenings. Believers and the Buddha talk of a soul, a subtle body, the mind-made body. Only those who have had such an experience can be sure of it. And then how are they going to prove it?
If religion is about beliefs, statements of facts, then all we will do is repeat the well-worn arguments of ‘experts’.
In the Sutta Nipata, one of the earliest collection of the Buddha’s Sayings he says ‘The one who is full of rigid views, puffed up with pride and arrogance, who deems himself ‘perfect’ (expert), becomes anointed in his own opinion …’ SN IV.12.12
When I became interested in Buddhism, I wasn’t in search of a belief, but of a methodology that would help me out of the hole I’d got myself into. What was said, of course, made sense. But it was what I ‘did’, that lead me to commit myself to Buddhadhamma. Such questions about rebirth and Nibbana weren’t important to me. I left them to stew. Maybe in time I’d find out. What mattered was how the practice of meditation and moment to moment mindfulness was revolutionising my life. And this of course meant to understand how I was creating my own suffering.
The Buddha eschews philosophical or metaphysical questions. He’s not concerned as to why we suffer. I think it would have been of little interest to him to know about Darwin’s theory of evolution. How does it make life more meaningful, knowing we are biologically descended from early mammals? It may as well have been a potato. Or knowing that our psychology is based on early human experience as hunter gatherers? Since when did life become any safer?
Religion is about how we live. This is dependent on our understanding. But it’s what we do that gives this understanding an experiential meaningfulness. Knowing all about mountain climbing is one thing. Actually climbing one is something else.
So the question is, ‘What am I doing that is making my life more meaningful; what more meaningless?’
Towards the Greatest Happiness.
Very occasionally when I talk to someone about the Buddha’s teaching and how it’s all about bringing an end to suffering, they will say, ‘But I am happy!’ What they don’t see is that their happiness is dependent on conditions and circumstance.
Someone said to me once, when we were talking about spiritual happiness, that he got is all from music. I didn’t ask at the time, and I regret not doing so, ‘What happens if you go deaf?’
The Buddha points to a way of being which is a happiness not dependent on conditions or circumstance. He calls this Nibbana (in Sanskrit Nirvana). And he says we are in its presence or in its vicinity when we are mindful! In other words, Nibbana is staring us in the face, but we don’t see it.
This is the importance of vipassana practice. Every time we sit in meditation in this way, we make an object of everything we are experiencing. This means the locus of the self, that self-awareness, feels itself to be other than what it is experiencing.
If it is other than what it is experiencing then it can’t be the sensations and feelings that come from the body, nor the emotions and moods the heart offers, nor the thoughts and images that pop into the mind.
What’s it like when we are hovering like this amidst the all – all that we are experiencing? This is something we can reflect upon within a sitting and at the end of it.
What we might say to ourselves is, ‘So what?’ It’s not pleasant or unpleasant. It’s not exciting in any way. It’s dull. In fact I don’t want to be like this all the time. I want to have some fun!’
These thoughts belong to Mara, the Enticer. This is our delusion in action. We are still bewitched by the kaleidoscopic pleasures of the sensory world. We still don’t see the danger of it and the consequent suffering of attachment and indulgence.
In order to wean ourselves off the intoxication of ‘the world’, we need to develop a taste for stillness, for peacefulness – for silence.
In the country, nature is the great teacher, but in the city we need to make do. Sit by the window and watch the clouds, or take a walk at a quiet hour in the park or even down a road. Or just sit in position for no other reason than to allow the sensations of the breath to calm, to quieten, to develop our taste for serene stillness.
When that also loses its taste, we shall naturally seek the greater happiness – Nibbana.
New Year Resolution
Resolution comes from the Latin which means literally to ‘solve again’. And that’s what the New Year offers us. An opportunity to reflect on the past year, indeed our lives and consider how we can do better. The key is in that reflection. One of the Buddha’s constant exhortations is to reflect wisely.
There are many ways in which we can and indeed should reflect on our lives. The meaning of our work and our leisure time, our relationships and our community, city life and nature. How we spend our wealth and our time.
Some of our reflections may be pragmatic, artistic, social and so on. Here we are concerned with the spiritual life.
It is not that we can split off the spiritual life from any other part of our lives. It is more how to imbue everything we do with spiritual meaning. And by spiritual here, we mean in the main ethical, for it is in the motivation with which we behave that manifests our wisdom or lack of it. Our objective, of course, remains liberation from all mental distress and awakening into a different relationship with ourselves and the world, free of strife.
What we do arises out of intentions and our intentions are present expressions of our attitudes. And our attitudes arise from our understanding. In reflection we can correct any misunderstanding that has arisen and in unsure cases a spiritual confident can be very helpful.
When we behave in an unskilful way that causes others to suffer, we also create suffering for ourselves. The guilt and shame we may feel manifests a measure of compassion. For if we did not love and care, we would not feel guilt or shame. So whenever these two mental states arise in our reflections, we know that we have acted unskilfully, but we also know that we have the compassion and love to do something about it. This is what leads to remorse. And remorse compels us to put right what we did wrong. Asking for forgiveness is a salve that facilitates reconciliation.
And so does forgiving. It is in acknowledging the suffering of the one who has done us harm and the suffering we cause ourselves by holding on to our grudge that leads to the desire for reconciliation. No matter how painful that may be. And it is worth it. For such pain is the pain of healing.
In the same way we need to develop that same attitude of forgiveness towards ourselves.
What ease there is in a heart free of guilt and shame! What ease when free of grudge and revenge! What ease when free of self-hatred and self-recrimination! Seeing the suffering caused by unwholesome thoughts, words and deeds, how easy it is to resolve to guard our thoughts, speech and actions.
But we must go further and that is to develop virtue. The Ten Perfections and the Four Illimitables offer us ways we can strengthen our characters and yet soften our hearts.
And finally, to reflect on the absolute necessity of our practice. We have been initiated and empowered into a practice, vipassana, that leads to liberation. We access a level of
consciousness that rises above the mundane and prevents us from entanglements and bewitchments. This in itself is a purification.
Here is one of the Buddha’s best known aphorisms:
Put an end to hurtful behaviour.
Do what is good for ourselves and others.
Purify the heart.
This is the teachings of all the Buddhas.
The success of a good resolution lies in humility. And humility is to see ourselves as we really are. One resolution taken to heart and practised is better than a thousand we fail to accomplish. The path to hell is paved with good intentions. Therefore, we need to resolve what we know we can do. Start small. Do what we are sure is do-able. This leads to success and success breeds success.
Surely in 2010, our resolutions will bear great fruit!
You may find the following on the website of some use:
http://www.satipanya.org.uk/audioLinks/xmas07.htm New Year Reflections
If you want take the theme of forgiveness further, you may find Towards the End of Forgiveness helpful:
For some ideas on Perfections and Illimitables:
http://www.satipanya.org.uk/audio.htm and click on The Perfections Turned Inward and The Illimitables
You would be lucky person if you have not had to bear with ‘sounds’ coming through the wall. It might be sound of the base line pounding though the wall paper or the periodic flush or the muffled conversation of the TV or loud conversation.
No doubt, you have your own way of managing such a situation. If not, here are some tips that might help.
The first is to become aware of the aversion. And how aversion makes the ears glue themselves to the wall. Then to remind oneself that this is suffering, not the sounds. It is aversion that labels them as noise.
It may also help to recall when we have been neighbourly nuisances. It will cool our righteousness.
Then – and this is the hard bit - always start with accepting the situation as it is. 'This is the way it is'. Keep repeating it gently in the heart until the heart lets go of, 'This is not the way it ought to be.' You may find the suffering disappears with the aversion.
Then ask, ‘What can I do about the situation?’ If there is something you can do, of course, do it. If not, just get on with what I have you have do, as best you can. And as the aversion keeps raising its snarl, repeat the exercise. It’s surprising how the mind can blanket out sounds once it has accepted them as normal audial back ground.
When I was a student we rented a house right next to a rail line. The house shook with every passing. After a day or so, it never woke me up. But then the beer might have helped! Every time I returned to the east I had to used to all the sounds. At Kanduboda it was the squirrels and other wild animals. In Yangon, it was the traffic and the dogs. Two or three days down the line, and I didn’t ‘hear’ it.
But if it truly becomes invasive, then we can approach the neighbour and we will always get a better result if we are calm and equanimous, if we explain why the sounds are disturbing. Throw it gently back to them, ‘I’m sure you wouldn’t like it either if I played loud music’. Hopefully it works.
I had a neighbour who played Elvis – a lot. I was trying to prepare work for my classes. I gave up, mainly because I like Elvis and couldn’t stop myself singing! I asked her to turn it down a bit. She bellowed, ‘I pay my rates’. I answered so did I, but it didn’t include an Elvis disco. She did turn it down – after explaining and appealing to her better nature. I was lucky.
If the situation becomes unbearable (and there are such situations, especially if the sounds interrupt sleep), then it is best to make a long term strategy to move away, put it out there as an aspiration and work gently towards it.
May your neighbours be quiet, gentle and peace-loving!
Sickness was one of the ‘messengers of the gods’, an awakening call that set Siddhatha Gotama on the path to an astounding spiritual discovery.
When sickness befalls someone we know - a dangerous illness, a crippling accident - it comes as jolt. It’s happening around us all the time, but now it’s in our face. But still we rarely ‘get it’.
When such misfortune happens to us, it’s a shock. Depending on the circumstances, it may drive us to despair. A young policeman, all-body paralysed by a shot, chose to commit suicide.
Even though it is happening all around us, we continue to live as if it won’t happen to us. If we reminded ourselves, every day, of how vulnerable the body is, it would take away the tinsel armour of ignoring, of self-deception. Should we have to suffer, it won’t be such a shock.
But a shock it will be, because so much of who we are, the Self, is tied up in the body. Sickness is a mini-death. It tears us away from what we love – ‘the things I do; the friends I see; the job I have’ - and offers us what we don’t want –the discomfort, the pain, the disability. The mind works on this and offers a future of horror, of terror.
Yet, here lies a gateway. An opportunity of escape. Escape from the delusive world we have conjured up within ourselves and take for real. The escape cannot be yesterday, drowning in nostalgia. It’s gone. Nor tomorrow, a world only in dreams. It hasn’t arrived. The answer must be present. Right here. Right now.
That was the Buddha’s astounding spiritual discovery. Through developing right mindfulness, we can stand back within ourselves to discover an unassailable place. Even as the objective observer, the feeler, the experiencer, whenever it is stabilised, we’ve already found a haven. Indeed, when we have been patient enough to let all fear and aversion subside, this haven tells us there is physical discomfort or pain and disability to smaller or greater degree. And that's all!
There is no denying that is not an easy task. Indeed depending on the severity of the illness, it can be a great struggle. So let's start with the easy ones.Next time you are ill, even a cold, try saying to yourself. 'There is this discomfort or pain and this illness prevents or hinders me from doing this. That's all.'
This sort of acceptance helps to establish patient forbearance which is uncomplaining and a realistic optimism which sees possibilities.
Here are some daily reflections to prevent us living in a make-believe world of continuous health:
This body is subject to disease.
This body is of a nature to fall ill.
This body has not gone beyond sickness.
Such reflections act on the heart as toothpaste on teeth. If we want to free the heart from the accumulation of plaque from fear and anxiety, each day we need to face such possibilities. We get in touch with these unpleasant mental states and in accepting them, they manifest and evaporate. Far from glooming our lives, such reflections, undermining
the constraining effects of fear and anxiety and have the opposite effect of allowing our lives the more to bloom.
Recognising the body’s paramount importance in human existence and that this life form the Buddha tells us is the best for liberation, we need then to turn our loving-kindness, metta, towards the body.
May you be free of sickness and disease.
May you be well and strong.
I determine to look after my body.
Such blessings transform the energy of fear into care.
(There is a longer Bodycare mp3 http://www.satipanya.org.uk/audio.htm )
The Tough Nut
I’m sure you know what your own ‘tough nut’ is.
I know a little about ‘tough nuts’ since I took a couple of cars apart in those halcyon days when I had nothing better to do. You have to apply WD40 and sometimes a bit of welly.
There’s usually habit – unwholesome, of course – we retreat to when things go bad or even a bit off. It could be around eating or sex or drugs or sleep or alcohol or any number of more or less unwholesome pursuits.
But we begin to realise that it doesn’t deal with the original problem and it becomes an obsession and addiction and so a problem in itself. It can become an escape route so entrenched that it will probably be the last to be filled out and transformed.
There are many self-help books, therapies and systems such as the Twelve Steps that are used for alcohol and drug addiction. But here I’m addressing a more ‘normal’ level of addiction. Even though I say normal it can be equally tenacious. Even giving up that extra piece of toast can bring tears to the eyes.
As meditators we know that the key lies in tanha, wrong desire and craving. It’s catching the moment that it arises, before it gets a head of steam in action. That is the key to overcoming it. Once we’ve even budged a foot towards the biscuit tin, it’s difficult to pull back. ‘Just one!’ We’re easily fooled.
This is why that bright mindfulness is so necessary. It catches the arising of a desire. Right mindfulness is accompanied by calmness. So there’s no rush. There’s time. We can inwardly stop, watch and feel the energy rise and wait patiently till it subsides.
When we know the conditions for such desires to arise; when we know when, where and/or with whom; that’s when we prick the inner ears, gather the inner resolution and stand firm.
It is also good to have some ploy to remove oneself from the scene of possible folly. Some wholesome distraction. Listen to music, read a book, watch good TV, call a friend. Of course, there is the danger of suppression, if we don’t find time to investigate it in meditation. Perhaps the best ploy is to take the ‘dog’ for a walk. It gets us away from the object of desire and allows us to ‘vipassana’ the mental state.
And should we find ourselves dashing along the addictive escape route, let’s at least not be routed! What then is required? Persistence! Dogged perseverance!
Impulsive or Spontaneous.
When we act impulsively, we do so out of habit. A thoughtless reaction. There’s no reflection involved. And the word impulsive suggests that it is not skilful. We often regret what we have done.
Somebody asks us to come and help in the garden. And we find ourselves saying, ‘Yes, I’d love to!’ And immediately comes that sinking feeling that we really didn’t want to do it. And that we don’t have the time. We would prefer to be doing something else.
It scratches on the mind and we think of excuses.
It can lead to fibbing. ‘Woke up feeling terrible. I’ve got a job to do. Someone I must see. Forgot all about it.’
Of course, we are prolific in our apologies. But it leaves an uncomfortable feeling. That’s the dread of being found out. The shame of it.
There’s a Mullah Nasruddin story. He is tired of his neighbour asking for the use of his donkey. So on the next request, he tells him the donkey is being used by someone else. Just then the donkey brays. And when his neighbour raises his eyebrows, he asks, ‘Who are you going to believe? Me or my donkey?’
We all want to be spontaneous. It suggests skillfulness and joy. And we think that spontaneity should arise spontaneously! But it’s hard work to train ourselves towards a genuine, unaffected naturalness about what we do. Consider sport! How many times do tennis players practise their shots? And in the immediacy of the game their strokes are spontaneous. Not that they are always as accurate as they would want them to be. Consider performance artists whether actors or musicians. Although their performance seems so natural, there has been an enormous amount of practice beforehand.
So it is with virtues. We need to consciously develop them – goodwill, generosity, patience and so on. And then every so often we shall surprise ourselves at our spontaneous, wise and joyful response.
It’s spring and the daffodils are out. So I am hoping there is a sense of joy in the air for you. Joy is one of the Illimitables along with love, compassion and equanimity. And just like them it can be developed without boundary, limitlessly.
Often in a rushed and overly busy day or in a slow, dull one, our attention fixates on the downers. But notice that there are times when some form of happiness does arise. Often if we are used to excitement we miss out on the sweetness of a quiet joy. Excitement is the subtle enemy of this joy for it is an expression of that desire to be happy in an overly emotional way. High!
Quiet, peaceful joy often arises, but because we are so used to joy as excitement we miss it and fail to appreciate it. Perhaps it comes when, after some engagement, you have a quiet cup of tea; or while walking from here to there in a park or along a quiet street; or stopping and resting from what you are doing for a moment. When you notice this calm joy, say to yourself, ‘I am feeling a calm joy’. Sit with it and appreciate its qualities. And notice how you feel gently energised by it, not just physically but mentally.
Then when you are settled in it and have drunk your fill, offer the cup to others and to all beings. ‘May you be joyful and may your joy increase!’ After all a joy shared is a joy squared, for now you are happy because others are happy.
Then there’s the power of ‘positive thinking’. The Buddha is very much into this practice. Even when you feel down, you can note that. Offer yourself a blessing: ‘May my unhappiness decrease. May my unhappiness come to an end.’ After a little while, offer the same blessings to all beings. And then as it were, put it to the side. And start offering joyful blessings to yourself, something sympathetic to oneself. As you begin to lift, offer it to all beings.
This is a much better strategy than one offered by self-pity and resignation. ‘I am depressed. I am so depressed. May all beings be depressed!’ Or at work: ‘I’m bored. I’m so bored. May all beings die of boredom!’
So throughout the day, train yourself how to lift the heart with goodwill intentions of joy and see how you feel at the end of the day.
What a heart-warming, heart-delighting virtue is gratitude!
But how often do we contemplate the blessings of what we have received?
How often do we consider the graces and fortunes that have fallen our way? Many unasked for. How often has a thankyou been heartfelt and not just a social nicety?
Anyone who has entered the Dhamma, reflecting on the supreme gift of this life form, the most advantageous for liberation, cannot but feel an aching gratitude towards one’s parents. Many may harbour grudges about their upbringing. But do we imagine our parents to be awakened beings? One person said to me that it was only when he became a parent did he stop complaining about his parents! The Buddha said, even if we were to carry our parents on our shoulders all our lives, we would not have repaid the gift of life they gave to us. Thankyou!
And what about the gifts we have received from our society? Our whole early education is paid for by others. Both the education system and the National Health system arose out of a desire to educate and heal. They arose largely out of the ideals of egalitarianism and compassion.
What about the police? Do we ever feel gratitude when we see a policeman or a police car? Or are we still teenagers, hating authority figures still!
And our politicians? Do we really expect them to be saints? Most enter with idealism. They really do want to do something for society – no matter how misguided we may think they are. Would we do any better?
It’s not that gratitude should blind us to faults, but more that it balances our more ‘natural’ tendency to criticise, moan and complain. What about a bit of appreciation? A bit of praise?
What about the gifts of friends, of workmates, of countryside and parks, museums and libraries and a myriad other things. Thankyou!
And our practice even allows us to see those who dislike us and even do us harm as our teachers! Thankyou!
Even when things go wrong. We lose our spouses or partners, our friends, our jobs, we can see this as ‘an opportunity for growth’ – even if we say it through bared teeth. Thankyou!
And there are things. Things encapsulate the imagination, the skills and the work of hundreds of people. Next time you are holding your mobile, just think how many people were involved in getting the basic materials, in design, in manufacture, in distribution. We can do it with food, clothes, the humble door-stop. An eternity of thankyous!
And what about the body that carries us around all day. The mind that can be so clear and precise. The heart that can fill our interior with such delight. Let's not dwell on the empty half of the bottle. Thankyou!
Gratitude engenders a generous heart. And when our gifts do not carry the heavy labels of ‘me’ and ‘mine’, then truly we are renouncing what time and wealth we could have spent on ourselves. So we also develop the virtue of renunciation.
In this simple way the virtuous circle of gratitude, generosity and renuciation twirl us gently towards liberation. This is also a path in itself.
Meister Eckhart the 13th Century mystic said to say thankyou all the time would be enough.
If gratitude is not something that comes easy to you, try spending a day saying thankyou to everyone and everything and see how you feel by the end of it.
Need, Sufficiency and Greed.
On the positive side, the national debt now laid upon us offers us an opportunity to consider our relationship to consumer goods, indeed everything we spend money on. Some of us, who will have to bear with unemployment, will sadly be forced to do so.
So what do we really need? The Buddha defined Four Requisites without which it would be impossible to live the monastic life.
Monastics should be happy with the food that is offered to them. But from a lay point of view, what does the body need. Tiramisu? I’m not arguing against tiramisu, you understand. Heaven forbid. But when we look at our eating habits, what do we actually need for nourishment and a healthy body. It is actually surprisingly little and what is more good fresh food is untaxed and therefore, comparatively cheaper than other consumer goods. But it does mean we have to cook for ourselves.
As for shelter, the foot of a tree. Well, that’s ok in the tropics, but what do we need but a roof over our heads and basic heating. Do we need the fine furnishings? Do we walk around our house in mid-winter in a tea shirt? There was a time when you could buy house coats.
Then there’s clothing. Monks are to be content with clothing sewn together from rags. Just open up to the fullness of your wardrobe and shoe rack. Make sure you have a glass of water handy.
Finally, medicine. The Buddha asked his monastics to be content with fermented cow’s urine. I think I’d have to be pretty desperate to go for that one myself. But consider what a wonderful communal gift the NHS is, especially in this day when a sense of compatriotism, of citizen communion is so lacking. Do we take it for granted? Do we find nothing but fault?
Supposing we were suddenly given 5 minutes to evacuate because of a tsunami. What would you take with you? Presuming one has considered this before, I dare say we would take only what we really do need.
Then there is the idea of sufficiency. This is a bit more lenient. It’s the old adage of ‘moderation in all things’. We need clothes for work, clothes for leisure and clothes for pottering about. Food is often a case of conviviality and celebration. Shelter is also home. And we should try to get medicine best to cure our ill health.
This is not an exhaustive list of ‘consumer goods’. One obvious exception is transport. And this reminds us that sufficiency isn’t only about a personal struggle with greed, but also about our relationship to the earth and so to other people.
If we approach sufficiency from need, we probably have a better measure of moderation.
And then there’s greed or if you prefer – retail therapy!
What values govern our lives?
What values do we have and how do we rate them in importance?
How much of our lives is motivated by success in other people’s eyes? If this is where most of our energy goes, it will be given to gaining such totems of success as power, riches and fame.
When the self is involved in self-aggrandisement, only caring for or overly caring for one’s social image, then we are in conflict with the world, for our aim is to accumulate whether it’s power, riches or kudos. This puts us into areas where others also seek the same. Conflict, whatever intensity, brings a hardness to the heart for it doesn’t care for the rival. This loss of empathy, when generalised, leads to uncaring attitudes towards such areas as human rights – ‘Just as I have to fight my gains, so should you!’; and nature, ‘Why should I stop plundering the earth until everyone else stops?’.
Furthermore, in fighting for what we want in order to look good, we have to learn the tricks of winning such as manipulation, deceit, and making sure we know how to take advantage of hierarchy.
And it puts us into a judgemental position, constantly rating others, measuring ourselves against others, leading to pride, envy, jealousy and outright hatred.
However, the problem does not lie in power, riches, fame or any other signal of celebrity success. If you want to change the world for the better, you need to have either influence or power. If you happen to have a good commercial idea or a special international skill, money flows towards you.
We may have some talent which lots of people want to enjoy. We would be the poorer society without politicians (beware the cynic!), entrepreneurs and artists.
The problem as always is how we relate to this. How do we gain our self-worth without these negative consequences? The answer is to make sure we are coming from the right place: the right understanding and the right attitude.
Luckily, there is an easy way to recognise that we are acting out of wrong understanding and attitude. It’s when we become aware of our negative and conceited thoughts and any other unwholesome reactions.
It’s when we don’t ‘feel appreciated’, ‘praised enough’, ‘valued’. When people don’t ‘show the respect owed to us’ and so on.
This is why the Buddha asks us to reflect wisely.
For the best spiritual results we need to imbue what we do with such virtues as generosity, service, respect for others, appreciation of others’ work, integrity, loyalty – the list goes on.
Values in mine own eyes.
Generally speaking, we have part of us that seeks our values dependent on what society calls success in order to make us feel good about ourselves. But there is also a part of us that is self-accepting.
The more we are self-accepting, the less we will feel the need for others to praise us. So we don’t care so much for the trappings of ‘success’. Our work in itself and our life-style are self-satisfying.
Because we are not so caught up in how we look in others’ eyes, we can open up to the other. We relate not from a position of ‘what should you do for me to make me feel good’ or ‘what should I do to make you think highly of me, so I can feel good about myself’, but ‘what can I do for you’, ‘What can we share’. We will find ourselves more interested in the other, more caring.
When this is generalised we begin to care about the environment, about human right issues, about other people’s sufferings.
Because we don’t seek praise, since self-acceptance brings joy-in-oneself, we can admire others and rejoice in their success.
Because we don’t need friends for our psychological well-being, we can enter into generous friendships.
Because our relationship with our family is based on love rather than psychological need, we care for them without a feeling of imposed obligation or demand – even should they be demanding or try to make us feel obliged. We are willing to put ourselves out to do what we can for the sick and elderly. We don’t experience them as a burden.
When this is generalised, we may find ourselves more involved in society as a whole, perhaps in some charity work.
Because we don’t set our values by the standards of others, we can be more objective about social standards and we find we can form standards that are true to ourselves. They need not necessarily be any different, but they arise from within us. We don’t impose them on ourselves because we want the admiration of others.
How to develop these qualities?
As usual, we have to be aware of our motivations. Many are by now so habitual they are subliminal. We are not always aware of them. It is by way of the reaction we have that tells us what the original motivation was. Should we notice any painful or unwholesome reaction, we can stop and reflect, and thereby see any unwholesome aspect of our original motivation.
Why are we upset when someone doesn’t say ‘thank you’? Or why do we feel so belittled when someone criticises us? Or why we do feel bored or averse to what we are doing when we were once very interested and engaged?
Once we become aware of unwholesome intentions, we can make sure that when we do something similar or meet the same person again we approach with the right motivation.
As always, the trick is mindfulness and wise reflection – and Right Intention.
Living in the Now : Planning for the Future
There are so many times when we have to plan for the future. Marriages have to be organised; children’s schooling has to be sorted; and always the shopping list and the shopping – and what will I do when I retire.
How can we live in the here and now, if we are forever planning a future?
Future planned events impact upon the present.
You wouldn’t be getting up so early but for the budget flight at an ungodly hour that happens to go to the place we’ve decided to visit -Acapulco.
For this to have materialised there was a time in the past when the initial idea came to mind.Perhaps it grew from a love of Mexican art - you really want to see those murals by Diego Rivera. And you are interested in Mexican food. And there are miles of beaches and the possibility of scuba-diving in sea laced with tropical fish, shipwrecks and even an underwater statue of the Virgin! The idea, laced with desire as such ideas usually are, soon evolved into a plan. Information was gathered. Decisions were made and the flight was booked. But we did not let desire confound us into a daydream. We have good purpose to go there – to appreciate the art, the food, the sea.
Let’s take different tack. Leafing through a magazine, there’s an advert for Acapulco. There it is, everything dreamed of. Beautiful bodies on the beach soaking up the sun, glitzy nightlife, gorgeous restaurants, dancing till dawn. The adventure, the food, the romance. Waking out of the reverie, the tea has gone cold. No matter, Acapulco it is.
The first planning was realistic and purposeful. The second, ungrounded, pie in the sky. The first should allow us to land with an open mind, exploring what has to discovered. The second is mired in expectation. When we get there it rains, there’s a nationwide strike and no-one turns up remotely attractive.
The first returns you home contented with the fruit of open-minded experience. The second dumps you back home disappointed, disconsolate and that awful feeling of having wasted hard earned money.
The first planning was living in the now, planning for the future. The second was, while planning, living in a daydream and on arrival unable to live in the here and now!
Music is the language of the heart and therefore can change our moods or deepen them, both negative and positive. No-one doubts the power of music over the heart whether it be pop songs, patriotic marches or symphonies. So just as it is important to know what we put into our minds by way of adverts, reading matter, visual entertainment and so on, so it is important what we put into our heart by way of sounds.
The sounds of nature be it the trill of a bird or the bark of a crow; the rustle of wind through grass or the clash of thunder, all create resonances within the heart. And where there is emotion there is the body so that our emotional life also affects our physical well-being or lack of it.
In all monastic forms music plays an essential role. The chant offers the heart the ability to develop devotion. Even chanting Dependent Origination, which is none other than a list of physical and mental properties that show how suffering arises and ceases, becomes something more when chanted. It is imbued with feeling. It may be peacefulness or praise or thankfulness. This swells the heart with joy, welcome relief if the heart is otherwise weighed down with the worries and cares of life. This is more so if we chant the Metta Sutta, the Discourse on Loving Kindness. And there are many other auspicious chants to lighten the heart and fill it with quiet joy.
Here is a way that sound can be used to heal the heart of its negative states. Sitting with a negative mood, say anxiety, we bury our attention into the feel of it, not allowing it to escape into the mind and create stories. (Remember it is through thought and imagination that the heart develops its attitudes both unwholesome and wholesome.) Feeling an emotion or mood as simply a physical feeling, allows us to see it for what it is - just a form of energy. Indeed if we sink into it, we can describe its contents – agitation, nausea, heat, and so on.
Holding our position steady there, should we now listen to some peaceful music – I suggest Allegri’s Miserere Me (Oh pity me!) - see how the music creates another mood.
Holding this mood in attention while not losing the feel of anxiety, sink that peaceful, loving mood into the agitation, the nausea, the heat.
This can never be a complete healing, of course, until the Three Roots of Acquisitiveness, Aversion and Delusion are eradicated. Indeed, until they are, unless mindful, we will continue to develop unwholesome states of mind.
But even so, music and the sounds of nature can be a balm to a burdened heart.
(You may be interested in this website: www.collegeofsoundhealing.co.uk/
What is time? Objectively it is a way of measuring the distance between events: morning to evening, the passing days and years, between dentist appointments, work and vacation.
But this is not how we experience time. Sometimes time is so slow : at others we wonder where it’s gone.
So how do you feel about time? How do you experience the passage of time? And how does your relationship to time, make you use time?
Do we want to dominate it? Be in control. Are we frustrated when we don’t get the things done we ought to have got done in a certain time? Don’t feel there’s enough time to get all the things done that have to be done? Time as a perpetual rush. Crying out for more time!
Or is time fulfilling only when we are spending time with others. Time on my own seems pointless, boring, unfulfilling.
Or is time a bore unless there is something exciting going on. The greater the emotional intensity - the romance, the joy, the success - makes time worth living.
Does time have to be useful? Always doing something. Doing nothing brings a hopelessness, even a despair. What’s it all about if it’s not about doing something, anything.
Do I feel I have all the time in the world? If it doesn’t get done today, tomorrow will do. Why force this whole liberation thing. Meditate, meditate, meditate!!! Crazy. Relax. We’re not going anywhere. There’s nothing to achieve. Progress! For heavens sake, lets just be happy with the way things are. Let me rest. Let me sleep.
I once watched a clock second finger ticking round and round for two hours. I was pleasantly surprised that by the end of it, I felt calm and equanimous. But the time spent to that time was full of a feeling of ‘wasting time’.
Now if time is a measure between events, our task is a way of being with events in a basically equanimous way.
Just as the ocean has a deep, steady flow and the surface is full of movement, so we need to find this deep steadiness and yet stay with the surface movement.
So here by time we mean living, we mean life as lived. But it also suggests awareness. For without awareness we will be tossed hither and thither by the waves.
Time as flux : time standing still. To be still in the flux, that’s the discovery - and the attainment.
Or to put it another way – ‘go with the flow’.
But then we must beware! As one wit pointed out – only dead fish go with the flow!
(Christian mystics talk of nunc stans and nunc fluens – the still now and the flowing now.)
Our Daily Breaks.
If at home or at work and alone, we decide to have a cup of tea, herbal or proper, or coffee - with a biscuit. How can we turn that into a Dhamma practice?
First of all there is the intention. Always, the intention needs to be investigated. It may not be a physical thing. The body does not need tea and definitely not coffee. Nor does it need a biscuit. In fact bread and water will do. Is it just greed, then?
How do we feel if we say – yes it is greed? Sad? Sad at losing those little delicious moments that brighten up the day. Sad, knowing at the same time that we simply can’t renounce tea and biscuits and that this may very well be the great stumbling block on our way to Nibbana?
Tea or Nibbana, is that the question?
First, let us remember that the Buddha did not teach ‘self-mortification’. In other words, he did not say that pleasure in itself was unwholesome, unless unethical of course. Taking pleasure in pinching someone else’s biscuit - and eating it, is surely ‘taking what is not freely given’.
Now pleasure brings happiness. It affects our mental state. Happiness, born of pleasure that is not by way of indulgence, has in turn a good effect on the body.
So let us use this occasion to establish a wholesome state of mind. To do everything deliberately and with a sense of ease, we stop and make clear to ourselves our intention - to turn this tea break into a delightful ceremony.
Having chosen the beverage, why not stand sentinel at the kettle and wait for it to boil, continuing to let go of any agitation. Wait till the boiling has all but stopped. Take time to make the drink. Stir the drink gently and quietly as an expression of our metal state.
Sit comfortably and gaze upon the tea and biscuit. Contemplate all the labour and expense involved - and the wonder of nature. We pay full attention to the process, to the tasting. We feel the bodily pleasure. We experience the mental state. Sip after sip, nibble upon nibble, we bring delight to the body, delight to the mind. Sip after sip, nibble upon nibble, we take the opportunity to share our joy with others. Family, friends, colleagues … all beings. May you be joyful! May your joy increase!
We sit with the empty cup and the plate, dotted with crumbs. How do we feel coming to the end?
Are we still aching for more, just one more biscuit? Was there some subliminal desire that now arises as unsatisfactoriness? Are we suffering the consequences of not acknowledging our indulgence? Does an existential angst arise at the thought that all good things also come to an end?
Or is there a quiet joy arising from an act well completed? Or perhaps we are sitting with a heart aglow with gratitude?
Or simply at ease. The body still, the heart calm and the mind silent and spacious. Ready and open to the next moment. Let this be our aspiration: Oh, may my life end like this!
On the Virtue of Visiting a Cemetery
(Best in Spring! No better time than to contemplate our mortality.)
Every city, every town, every little village, they all have cemeteries. They are ubiquitous. They are everywhere where there is human habitation. And it’s because people die. In fact everyone who has lived has died.
Yet even so we need to remind ourselves that life is short: ‘life is hard and then we die’.
At first this seems so negative. We love life. We want to live. Why talk about death, for heaven’s sake. We all know death comes. We don’t need to rub our noses in it.
In medieval times it was thought good practice to have a momento mori, some object that reminded you of death in the house. The skull was thought to be especially beneficial.
In Buddhist understanding too, death acts as a reminder of deeper truth. The Buddha said that there are those who wake up even on the mention of death, others not till someone famous dies, still others not until someone close dies, and there are those unfortunates who don’t wake up till it is their turn to die.
Fat lot of use making sense of our lives on the point of death!
So there’s a deep wisdom to be had in walking around the local cemetery. We see the same surnames cropping up. Stones dating back two, three hundred years. Here they all are, our forebears. Their actions made our history.
Now at this very moment I am also making history and there will come a time when it stops and this body will join them in some field, or its ashes scattered into water or into the wind - somewhere here on this earth.
‘The way they came, I must also go. As their body is now, mine will also be.’
‘Life is uncertain : death is certain.’
There’s a certain comfort in knowing others have trod the same path. There’s a relief in embracing a certain fate. ‘This is the way it is.’ But such reflections may bring a poignancy into our lives, may lead to resignation and eventually hopelessness.
However, our path is imbued with a transcendent understanding. The Buddha taught there is a ‘sphere of experience’ where there is no birth and no death.
How can the contemplation of death and dying help us to experience Nibbana?
It is by contemplating death, we enter directly into the monster’s jaws. Feel the terror, hold firm, knowing it is but a chimera. When the roaring ceases, we find it to have been but our own poor, sweating self.
Pity, Sorrow and Compassion
Pity - feeling sorry for: I’m using this term in its negative sense. When we hear ourselves say, ‘I pity Jack’, how does this ‘I’ define itself? There may be a genuine sorrow for the person and their situation, but somehow this ‘I’ stands apart from it. It is saying to itself: he does deserve it; he’s such an idiot; I’d never get myself into that situation; thank heavens I’m not like that. There may be somewhere a smug satisfaction. Indeed, there could be there, quietly ignored, a feeling of schadenfreude, a sense of joy in another’s suffering.
Just because we are not aware of these subliminal feelings, doesn’t mean they don’t have effect. I’m sure we’ve heard that false tone in another’s voice, that overly affectation of sorrow on the face. But are we aware when we also ‘pity’ someone.
It’s often a case that in vipassana, if we honestly note what the mind is thinking, that we wake up to these hitherto quietly supressed attitudes which don’t fit into our esteemed self-definition.
Sorrow is a genuine feel for the suffering of another. It can actually be felt as a direct resonance of the other’s pain, both psychological and physical. I know someone who felt the pain of her daughter when she broke her arm. She had to have her arm in a sling. The daughter felt nothing. This sort of ‘sorrow’ is very rare of course, but all of us are touched when we see someone suffer, especially if it is a child or animal, for their innocence and vulnerability add poignancy to the situation.
I was once in Calcutta and as I turned a corner there was a little girl, squatting in the dry, dirt road sucking on a black-brown desiccated banana skin. To this day I can still feel the shock in my heart. But did it move me to do anything?
That to me is the difference between sorrow and compassion. Compassion is the desire to alleviate suffering. It moves one to do something. Anything – even if it is only to try to influence someone else to do something.
I’m sorry to say I did nothing to help that little girl. And I’m left with an unrequited sorrow. That is the penalty when sorrow does not transform into compassion.
So, since the delusion of self is always active, how might we proceed? It is to acknowledge the conceit of pity, but not denigrate oneself for it. It’s enough to acknowledge it and determine not to act on it. To feel instead the genuine sorrow and to act on that. In this simple way, our pity diminishes and our compassion increases.
Why are we asked to observe - impermanence.
First as we become aware of how everything we are experiencing is simply a flow of events, coming and going, this slowly percolates through the system and changes our relationship to beings and things. As the Buddha says: nothing in the world is worth holding on to. Why? Because nothing remains anyway.
This is how clearly perceiving impermanence undermines the dukkha - suffering and unsatisfactoriness of attachment.
However, in Mahasi vipassana we are asked to look more closely, more minutely. This is why we make the great effort to slow down. Slowing down the body, slows the mind. Stopping and noting intention brings us back into an awareness of momentary moments.
As this gathers in focus, time collapses into minute moments of arising and passing away. We are not seeing the world out there arising and passing away, but individual acts of cognition. The amazing thing is that when a moment of cognition comes to an end, still there is awareness.
This is how we come to realise that we are not acts of cognition, which include all the khanda. The Aggregates of our physicality, perceptions, feelings, mental states and acts of cognition are not me, not mine, not a substantial self.
This is how by perceiving impermanence helps us to realise anatta- Not-self.
The corollary is to experience what we are – that awareness. Awareness is the deathless.
This is momentary dropping of the fetters of ignorance and delusive desire. A moment, like a flash of lightening into Nibbana.
So it is through the observation of impermanence that both suffering/unsatisfactoriness and anatta not-self are comprehended. But more, we come to realise that awareness, sati, is itself the One Who Knows, Buddho!
How can we bring this sort of observation into ordinary daily life? Very simple. Whatever you are doing, when it finishes, STOP! Acknowledge that that action of thought, speech or deed has come to an end and will never happen again.
It may be that the emotional attachments begin to rise there and then – nostalgia, grief, disappointment and so on. If we can wait for these to pass, all well and good. Otherwise recall the incident at the evening meditation and let them burn out there.
In this way, in ordinary daily life, we become aware of impermanence, of how attachment causes suffering and in allowing it all to rise and pass away, we realise it was all not me, not mine.
Sublimate comes from the Latin, sublimare : to lift up. It’s used in science to describe the action of a solid turning into a gas without becoming a liquid. Ice, for instance, has to turn into water before it vapourises, whereas naphthalene, the smelly bit in mothballs, vapourises without turning into a liquid.
In the second step of Eightfold Path, Right Attitude, the Buddha lists three sublimations: from selfishness to generosity, from aversion to love and from cruelty to compassion. There’s no in-between state. We might use the word transformation, but sublimation gives the idea of rising to something higher – indeed towards the ‘sublime’.
The Four Illimitables, since there is no perceived extent to which they can be developed are: love, compassion, joy and peace. But they are also termed Brahmavihara, The Dwelling Place of the Highest Gods, i.e. the most sublime of exalted states.
The important insight is to see that it happens naturally. In Zen they say: with wisdom compassion arises naturally. As we purify the mind of its delusion and the heart of its negativity, all that is negative sublimates into its opposite.
Vipassana has a key role to play here for when we are in contact with the raw feelings of an unwholesome emotion or mood, we are allowing it to sublimate. The real insight is the realisation that we don’t have to do anything! It happens all on its own. This is also another insight into not-self, not me. What we have to do, of course, is to bear patiently with it, feel it, observe it. We have to attend to it. For sublimation can only happen within awareness, otherwise negativity remains suppressed. Therefore, we need to open up to our inner ‘demons’.
This doesn’t mean that we should not actively develop virtue. The Buddha tells us in the Metta Sutta, the Discourse on Goodwill that we do need to develop all the attitudes associated with love. He uses a mother’s love for her children to illustrate this:
Just as a mother protects with her child at the risk of her own life,
So one should cherish all living beings.
We can understand metta here to be love in the widest sense of that term. Love as to how we develop our connection with all beings and the world as right relationship. And the sublimation of negative, unwholesome states is a necessary part of this process.
Righteous Anger : Plain Anger
There’s no such thing as righteous anger in the Buddha’s teaching. All anger is unwholesome and unskilful. You may get what you want, but there’ll be a price to pay.
We talk about assertiveness and aggression. This is such a useful distinction to make. Assertiveness arises out of equanimity, compassion - and righteousness.
We seem to have forgotten the old maxim to count to ten before you do anything when angry. For anger will always distort in some way, mainly by exaggeration. Allowing the anger to calm, we get a balanced view. We can actually see the situation from the other’s point of view. This means we are equanimous, that is, impartial.
To see the other’s point of view is an act of love, of compassion and it allows the other to be heard. When someone is heard, their anger usually subsides.
And there is a right view about things. And we should stand by our understandings, but not in a tight way. It may be the other has something to say which modifies our view, if only a little.
When we are angry, should we be mindful, we will feel the heat arise in the chest. We shall feel a tightness - the first signs of attack! We shall see the beginnings of angry intentions. At that point, relax the body. Breathe in deep and breathe out slowly. No need to make it obvious! If the situation is too much, it’s often best to excuse oneself.
But what if someone is angry with us? Before you react with anger, take your attention to what they are saying, not how they are saying it. Give them all the time they need. When they have finished, indicate that you have been listening. Then answer appropriately in a calm voice. ‘You’ve got the wrong person.’ ‘Are you sure ... ?’ ‘Sorry, I didn’t realise …’
My first job was as a rep for a company making audio-visuals for school. At one school a teacher came blazing at me, accusing us of illegal practices. I remember I quickly apologised if this were true. I asked to phone the boss who said there had been a misunderstanding or mistake and all monies would be repaid. The teacher went out of his way to introduce me to other members of staff.
What if you work in an office and abuse spews down the phone? Same as above, but I hear so much about this, that maybe it’s time for zero tolerance. Try this: let the person express their anger. Then remain silent. They should come back with something along the lines – ‘Are you listening?’ or ‘Are you there?’ Then to say calmly, ‘I understand what you’re saying. And I can understand why you are angry. But can I ask you to phone back when you are in a calmer mood so that we can talk about this rationally?’ Or some such indication that you are not prepared to talk in the teeth of anger and put the phone down. (If you try this, tell me how it goes – thanks.)
A Pet’s Endgame
This essay came about because someone got in touch with me about their poorly cat.
They decided in the end to attend to her until she died.
Western understanding of animals begins with Aristotle. He argued that animals have no moral responsibility and therefore no rights. But then slaves also had none – and women!
St.Thomas Aquinas, the great Christian philosopher of the middle ages, then declared they did not have souls. That means that they are temporary creations by God who annihilate on death, for only souls are eternal.
The final nail in the coffin took away sentience from animals. Descartes said they were simply machines, automata – they cannot reason or feel pain.
The Buddha on the other hand, as do the other religions of India, declared that animals are sentient beings. Anyone who has owned a pet intuits when their dog or cat is suffering just as we do when another human suffers. (After all we only take their word for it. We cannot feel another’s pain!)
Again the Buddha taught that all sentient beings have tanha – unwholesome desire, but also that all beings could act virtuously.
Do Animals Have Morals TED
And that they also take rebirth! And that it was their ethical actions, just as for ourselves that was the determinant factor as to how they would fare on. This only makes sense if we define ethics in the broadest terms as relationship.
It seems, therefore, that we ought to treat dying animals as we would humans. We should try to take as much pain out of their dying process, make than as comfortable as we can, and let nature take its course. If the pain cannot be relieved, then to end their lives maybe the compassionate thing to do.
This brings into sharp relief what might our personal intention be to put an end to a suffering animal’s life?
Is it because we ourselves can’t bear to see them suffer?
Or is it because it will cost too much to keep her going and she will die anyway. It may, of course, be too costly.
Or because we are not acknowledging that we don't want the bother of caring for an old or sick animal and rationalise the killing.
Such motivations are unwholesome, and will not improve our own karmic fruit. The one wholesome motivation would be compassion for our pet and the wish to relieve their suffering.
Supposing now we have various intentions in the mind – a situation we find more often than not. When the time comes to make a decision, we make sure that the right intention is the fully conscious one by repeating it to ourselves. This means that intention has been empowered and not the other ones.
There was a time when depression was not so psychologised and medicalised. People talked of being ‘under the weather’. It was seen as part of life. Sometimes you were ‘a bit down’. You were told to ‘pull your socks up’ and ‘get on with it’. These downers are to be distinguished from mental illness.
So long as we are feeling ‘a bit depressed’, the big problem is we get depressed about it. Or angry about it. Even anxious about it. That’s what can drive ‘a bit depressed’ into a serious depression.
My first teacher was my mother. She would now be considered to suffer from some degree of clinical anxiety driven depression. She ended up with a concoction of pills so beloved of doctors. But she that age group and complained of lacking energy, an anxious stomach and headaches. She told me later in life that what kept her going was her mothering of four children.
That was the first lesson. Just keep doing what you have to do - and do it with love.
She was a sanguine type and enjoyed a slapstick type humour. She’d stick a needle in your bum while watching TV. And she transformed when she was with friends. No matter how she felt, she engaged and found happiness and fun in their company.
That was the second precious lesson. You’ve got to laugh!
These two strategies I believe kept me from going under, but they did not tackle the problem at root which was my relationship to my ‘downers’. It was not until I began to meditate that I was able to really grapple with them. The Buddha asks us to really confront these feelings. Not in an aggressive way, but in a welcoming, kind, open-hearted way. He has a way of expressing this intimate embrace. He instructs us to ‘feel feelings in feelings’, to experience ‘mental states inmental states’. In other words no barriers caused by aversion or fear. For when we do not want to feel them, we seek distraction. Anything will do. Watch TV. Eat chocolates. And worse! And if these poor strategies fail, then we truly begin to go under.
It takes a lot of trust to open up to these dark whirlpools. At times we may feel overwhelmed. That’s when we need the teacher or the therapist. But as we persist we see we are creating a different relationship towards aching states of mind and harrowing emotions. This is one of radical acceptance: this is the way it is; equanimity: open-hearted, open-minded, no resistance; and patient forbearance: a willingness to bear with mental pain.When we discover this new relationship of non-aggression and non-fear, something magical begins to happen. It is as though all that dark, oppressive turbulence is allowed to express itself fully and in so doing exhausts itself. Slowly these moods no longer hijack our lives. They become less dense and don’t hang around so long.
Then we begin to realise we have found the way not simply to bring depression to an end, but all suffering. This is the gift of Dhamma the Buddha gave to humanity - the understanding of howwe create suffering for ourselves and how we can bring it all to an end.
Discipline : Self-discipline
Discipline is one of those Victorian words we don’t like the sound of. It stings with ‘corporal punishment’. But that’s not where the word began.
It’s always interesting to go back to the root word and see how it transforms with usage and time. Disciplina in Latin means instruction and knowledge and the one who wanted this was called a discipulus/a disciple. By the Middle Ages it had come to mean ‘mortification by scourging oneself’! In other words a rather harsh way of developing self-discipline. It now has the meaning of ‘the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behaviour, using punishment to correct disobedience’.
There is no punishment in any of the Buddha’s teachings. And he found self-mortification to be just more suffering. Yet, he demands of his ordained Sangha, the highest level of self-discipline. And of the lay Sangha a set of training rules which when followed diligently, lead to a base of purification.
So how can we develop self-discipline without beating ourselves up? Or getting someone else to beat us up?
First of all, we need to find a definition for discipline which encapsulates our aim. Our spiritual aim is twofold. We want to abandon unwholesome habits and develop beautiful ones. And we want to develop the inner strength to do this.
Here, the way dolphins are trained may be of some help. When a dolphin fails to do a trick such as jumping through a loop, the trainer does not criticise, but as it were ignores the mistake. Instead they renew their encouragement. On completion of the trick a present is given. It’s known as ‘positive reinforcement’. It works just as well on human beings!
There’s not much gained in blaming oneself, in harsh self-criticism, in self-recrimination, in threatening oneself. When we do something unwholesome, it’s good to rest with the inner consequences. These may be a sense of failure, shame, guilt, remorse, anger and so on. Bearing with this is the ‘punishment’. There’s no need to pile on further misery. What is more, the action was done. We determine to bear whatever consequences equanimously. That’s enough. And putting right what was wrong where possible. That’s all that’s asked of us. Then a firm decision not to do that again.
Finally, consider how we might give ourselves a treat whenever we overcome a temptation. No matter how many times we fall back into the old habit, we keep repeating this process until slowly but surely, old unskilful habits lose their power.
There is a touching discourse where the Buddha teaches his young son, Rahula, who took the lower ordination, samanera, at the age of seven, about the dangers of lying. He is gentle and progressive, always appealing to Rahula’s better nature. You do not hear the Buddha calling him a bad boy or denouncing his action as those of a devil. This is how we should talk to the child within us. In time, Rahula became fully liberated.
You can find the Ambalatthika-Rahulovada Suttanta (The Ambalatthika Exhortation to Rahula.)in this BPS Wheel Publication No.33 : http://www.bps.lk/olib/wh/wh033-p.html
When we do something wholesome, in the same way we accept the inner consequences of some form of joy and delight. This is our just reward, our treat. Of course, we have to
be careful not to do something wholesome in order to feel good, but putting aside this error, we accept that our inner atmosphere, the heart’s delight, is the treat we receive from wholesome actions. That’s enough. Whatever praise or gift comes our way, let that be a welcome consequence of reciprocal joy and gratitude, but never the purpose.
Again the Buddha delights in another’s success. Witness his exclamation when Kondañña achieves first Path and Fruit of Stream Entry after the first discourse, The Turning of the Wheel of the Law.
‘Then the Blessed One exclaimed: "Truly Kondañña knows. He really knows." And that is how Ven. Kondañña acquired the name Añña-Kondañña — Kondañña, the one who knows.’
Again you can find various translations:
BPS Bodhi Leaf 1 http://www.bps.lk/olib/bl/bl001-p.html
In the same way, we can assume the character of the Buddha within us, and gently coax ourselves towards a consummate, gentle self-discipline and rejoice in our development of virtue.
Fairness and Equality
Children often have an acute sense of fairness. ‘It’s not fair!’. They feel they’ve been treated unjustly. There’s indignation and anger and often tears. And we take this into adulthood. But what do we mean by fairness in a world that is manifestly differentiated.
We talk about equal opportunity. But that presumes that we are all starting on the same line. In the hundred metre dash, it would not be ‘fair’ if the starting blocks were unevenly spaced; if in the 1500 metre race the curves were not taken into account. But that’s not real life. We manifestly don’t all begin on a ‘level playing field’.
Consider our educational system; banking system; the pays awarded in the celebrity system and indeed now to CEO’s of charities; the whole capitalist system.
That’s when the doubt gives us some idea that fairness has also to do with some understanding about equality. This morphs into we should all have the same, even though we are not the same.
It seems the concept of equality came about in the West with the idea of an all-powerful, but ethical God. Although he made everyone different, i.e. not equal, in His justice we are all equal. And this is enshrined in our law – we take into consideration mitigating circumstances. After all that’s only fair.
There is something about fairness that strikes true for it is such an enduring concept.
In the Buddha’s teaching as to why things happen, there is the concept of unknowability and uncontrollability. Things happen because of causes from the past and in the very present which we could neither foresee nor influence. Life is a series of happenings. A series of events over which we do not have total control, or only minimal control and sometimes no control at all. Sometimes we win a jackpot and at others we get hit by a kipper – out of nowhere.
However, the Buddha does point to a fundamental justice, a fairness, an ethical law – the law of kamma. When we think, speak or act with harmful intent, we do harm to ourselves and others and there are consequences. And vice versa - goodness will produce goodness. This law applies equally to all.
But this tells us nothing about how consequences unfold. For whenever we think, speak or act, we do send a force into a matrix of relationships both out into the world and inwardly into our interior world. Eventually, though it might not seem so at first, our virtuous empowered intentions will begin to manifest in better inner and outer worlds. But our final goal is a happiness not dependent on these inner and outer worlds, Nibbana. And that also is equally available to us all.
Fair enough! But it does mean we have to tread carefully, wide awake and ready to take spiritual advantage of the unexpected, both fortunate and unfortunate.
Unforgivingness is yet another form of hatred. We have been injured in some way. We feel hurt. We are angry with and hate what the person did and we are angry with and hate the person who did it.
Sometimes we would be happy to forgive, if only they would say sorry and we can see that they mean it. Sometimes we are happy for them just to voice it.
Sometimes this won’t do, because we want some show of genuine contrition. We want them to offer reparation – an offering in kind, a small gift. Anything will do so long as there is a gesture.
Sometimes this won’t do either. The anger and hatred we feel demand compensation equal to the wrong doing, but more. We say we don’t want to take revenge. We just want them to know how much they made us suffer. And it might just teach them a lesson. We often call this justice.
Sometimes the suffering as punishment we impose on someone may gratify, whether it be withdrawal of support, or favour, or friendship, and in some cases of freedom or even of life. But more often it doesn’t because anything done out of anger and hatred simply feeds that attitude. We don’t feel they have suffered enough.
‘Justice has been done.’ But justice is a malleable concept. There is no universally accepted punishment for a crime. For similar crimes, some societies hang people, maim people. Other societies call this barbaric. The leniency of some societies is seen by others as weak and ineffectual.
It may not be just those people whom we are in contact with and have ‘injured’ us, no matter how slightly, that we need to forgive, but the big players also – politicians, corporations, bankers, ‘them’.
And there are those who say, ‘I can’t forgive’. But this is a child’s ‘can’t’. They are really mean ‘won’t’.
Now when it comes to actual pain or damage to the body whether slight or severe, that is one thing, but any negative, unwholesome reaction to it is the suffering. Even so we can justly claim compensation for harm done.
And although there is a sorrow that comes from any pain or loss by way of any form of violence to oneself or to the other (broken limbs, acid in the face, murdered relative), grief is a measure of attachment. Sorrow is the sadness at the needless pain or loss of life that should move us towards compassion, even for the perpetrator and further afield to undermine the causes of violence. Knowing the difference is crucial to bring closure. All grief, anger and revenge are reactions by the aggrieved.
Forgiving, then, begins by refusing to act out of anger and hatred. It is made easy once we realise that the hurt and grief we feel is self-generated and needs time and vipassana (insight) to dissolve. It is we who injure our own hearts. When we realise this, we don’t need even an apology from the other in order to forgive.
Here’s the Buddha:
‘He abused me, he hit me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.’
Those who indulge such thoughts do not rid themselves of anger and hatred.
‘He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.’
Those who do not indulge such thoughts rid themselves of anger and hatred.
If you want to go into the Buddhist psychology of forgiveness, have a look at my effort. You will also find multiple exercises there.
Towards the End of Forgiveness. Download from: Towards the End of Forgiveness
or get a copy from http://www.wisdom-books.com/ProductDetail.asp?PID=23660 Pay postage only.
If you have read a book or heard a talk which you consider useful to those who may find forgiving difficult, do email me.
My body is Mother Earth
(Sorry to preach to the converted! I just need to make the link between body and nature.)
The abuse of nature did not really begin till the Industrial Revolution. These days it has been given a quantum burst with the doctrine of Consumerism with its dominant dogma that the growth of possessions, whether things or pleasure giving services, equals purpose of life – a belief held worldwide.
Ever since humans have become truly self-conscious they created the other, be it the minerals of the earth, the plants and animals and have set about working with nature to make life safer and happier, alas virtually always for themselves. And the usual suspects– greed, aversion and fear – were soon manufacturing tools as weapons, grew food for warrior lords and trained animals for war.
This was true for the time of the Buddha.
However, where minerals were once extracted by hard labour, making them precious, giant machines now excavate in abundance and make them valueless. Where crops only grew by the sweat of the brow, giant machines now till and harvest and make food cheap and undervalued. Where once humans lived close to animals, smelled their sweat and knew their pain and valued their work, giant machines have replaced them. Now, save for working dogs, we keep them as sentimental pets (few pet owners acknowledge the huge slaughter of other animals to feed them) and, of course, we eat some with disarming indifference.
How do we return to a relationship where we truly value minerals, plants and animals?
One way to contact nature is through our very bodies. The Buddha asks us to contemplate the Four Elements. The Earth : the quality of weight, pressure; fire: the quality heat, cold and temperature; water: the quality of cohesion and fluidity; and air: the quality of movement. Sitting, standing or walking especially outside, find these qualities in the body and nature. The hardness of bones and brick or stone; the warmth in our bodies, of the sun or the coolness of the wind; the elasticity of the chest breathing or a branch swinging; the feeling of movement as the body walks or the flight of birds. This is how we actually experience the physical world, our earthiness.
The wisdom that grows from the realisation that we are in and of nature, leads to a heart connection - nature as Mother Earth.
We need only contemplate the minerals that make up the body, the food that keeps it alive, the air we breathe and the living beings, some that feed us, others that pollinate and those who make such glorious company – and all the microbes that live in our very bodies that manifest this symbiosis.
We need to let it be deeply digested into the heart how mothering earth, moment after moment, gives birth to this body and how this body is utterly dependent on mothering earth. We are but one breath away from death! Truly this body is Mother Earth.
I’ve tried to make myself more aware of this with a simple reminder derived from the verse about kamma:
‘This body is born of Mother Earth, dependent on Mother Earth, fed by Mother Earth. However I treat Mother Earth, it will be to my own benefit or harm.’(The Kamma Verse: I am my own kamma, I am a heir to my kamma, I am born [in this life] from my
kamma, I am the kinsman of my kamma, I am protected by my kamma. Whatever kamma·s I shall do, kalyāṇa·s or pāpaka·s, I shall become their heir.
Dealing with Intense Emotions and Moods in Ordinary Daily Life
Let’s recall how we create more misery out of misery.
Often in daily life we have to deal with intense and painful emotions. They may last but a while or they can carry on for days, for years.
I remember once I walked across a bus station and the station master set upon me. I was in no mood for a fight so I meekly listened to his criticisms. I remember he went on about how drivers weep when they back into people and injure them. I had thought myself in private with him, but when I turned to go, there was a quite a queue in the shelter who had overheard the whole one way conversation. The look of breathless pity an elderly woman gave me said it all. Well, that shame hung around for years!!! And so did the replays of my indignant retorts. What the French call ‘esprit d’escalier’ – staircase wit or repost!
And there are moods too. Those longer lasting emotional states that seem to run subterranean and surface every so often like horror ghouls - the usual culprits of depressive, anxious and aversive moods.
The first thing to remind ourselves is not to let the mind start off on the story … yet again. For we can be sure that it’s cranking up the emotion all over again and adding a little more power to it. It’s the path to despair, suicide or murder. If we catch ourselves lost in the same old narrative, we must come out of it at once and sink into the body and stay with the feeling.
But there are occasions when there’s no time to do that. Or there are times when they so persist, we need a break from it all. That’s when we tend to fall into the error of suppression. We let aversion or fear push it out of our minds and we seek distraction. But the more we push it away, the more energy we unwittingly give it for now it has the energy also of our aversion. It’s similar to pushing a spring down. When we let go, it springs back with more force than it had when uncoiled.
But there is a way we can ‘park’ an emotion or mood. We can talk to it and say, ‘I will attend to you later, but now I need/would like to attend to this.’ Notice the word attend which can mean to pay attention to and to wait upon. And gently put it to one side and turn our attention to something else.
Even should we sense it lurking in the background, we can occasionally turn a gentle smile towards it and assure it that we will attend in time.
Then, of course, we have to find the time to attend.
How much pain, physical or mental should we suffer?
The question as to how much pain and suffering we should bear needs to be referred back to primary aims – the one to purify and strengthen the heart, the other to bring an end to delusion by way of insight.
If the pain and suffering is bearable, it becomes a vehicle to develop patience, equanimity, affectionate awareness and insight. Once we feel, if only temporarily, that we have reached that limit, then it seems wise to find a way to bring an end to the pain, or at assuage it.
For instance, in sitting meditation aching knees are well documented. Unfortunately, the knees don’t bend that way and relief comes only when the tendons at the top of the legs lengthen. In the meantime, we have to deal with the pain. So long as the pain is bearable we can continue to investigate, but when it becomes so painful that all the effort is to endure, then at least we are developing forbearance. But there may come a point when the pain is just too much and then it seems wise to change the posture and not grit the teeth and clench the jaw and be praised for our heroic stance against pain? Our unshakeable endurance! And find we have damaged our knees. This has happened. In fact, I began to have a loose cartilage myself at one point in early Zen practice.
But when circumstances completely undermine the process of spiritual investigation, what point is there in suffering them – save, of course, to build up that quality of endurance. Even here we have to be careful.
A meditator once told me he had a very bad tooth ache. I asked why he did not take an aspirin until he could see a dentist. He said he was building up the virtues needed for greater suffering. I asked him: suppose there will be no greater suffering for you?
It seems to me we should match endurance with the quality of investigation. Not to do so may indeed be an act of pride. ‘I’m bigger than pain’. Such an attitude leads us into self-mortification which the Buddha found to be meaningless torture. Rather endurance should be balanced with care of the body.
For those in dreadful pain, there may arise the option of suicide. Of course, what is considered to be bearable or unbearable is subjective, always personal and individual. The topic of suicide is a delicate one. Suffice here is to say that it is generally understood that only those who are fully liberated can take their own lives without some unwholesome karmic consequences. But this has been questioned.
However, it is important to remind ourselves that understanding how suffering and unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) arise, we need to know that the given, be it physical or mental pain and illnesses may have a multitude of causes, but our relationship to them of aversion, fear and despair is self-generated. To investigate how we create suffering and unsatisfactoriness is a path to liberation by way of understanding the Second Noble Truth – the Cause of Suffering is Unwholesome Desire, tanha.
(I’ll have another go at euthanasia – a good death again sometime. I had a shot at it withhttp://www.satipanya.org.uk/essays/Assisted%20Suicide.pdf )
Judging or Judgemental?
There can be a lot of confusion around judging. It gets bad press in the practice. We’re supposed to note it – day and night as ‘judging, judging’. But if we don’t judge, how do we come to decisions? How do we know what’s skilful or unskilful and so on?
We note ‘judging, judging’ when we hear ourselves criticising. And we love to criticise: it makes us feel grander than others and better about ourselves. When daggered towards our selves, what sweet wounding it is to beat ourselves up for we know we deserve it!
These sorts of injuries rise out of the usual suspects – selfishness, hatred and fear in all their varied forms. And the delusion is that it is for the victim’s good.
However, the fact is that the truth of the judging may be so. If we perceive someone as deceitful, we may balk at the judgement. But they may very well practise deceitfulness. For fear of ‘judging’, we do not guard ourselves against their deceitfulness. Surely this is folly.
If I judge myself as lazy – which I do! I might dismiss that as hateful self-judgement. But I am lazy! (Sometimes.)
In civic life, when it is time to vote, we have to judge which party we are going to support. If we call it judging, we will find it difficult to come to a decision – if at all.
So where does this judging go awry. Can we distinguish when we are judging and when we are really being judgmental?
Surely that’s where the confusion lies. And to be judgemental is to judge the person rather than the act, the politician and party rather than the policy. To come from a position of pride, aversion and so on.
The judgemental is a product of conceit. Better than, worse than or equal to. It’s always about me and other. Even when it’s about me only, it presumes the standard of the other.
The old adage: hate the deed not the doer, sounds easy. But I was deceived by that person and to separate the deceit from the person is no easy thing.
One way, perhaps, is to phrase what has happened in terms of what was done or received and how we were affected by it.
‘I was told to come to party at 10 Baker St. I found there was no such place. It was cruel joke at my expense. I feel hurt. I feel vengeful. I shall wait till equanimity arises. And decide what to do then. But for sure I won’t be deceived again. I shall double check.’
As I said, no easy thing. But try we must.
In our meditation, of course, it shouldn’t mean we stop noting ‘judging’, but rather that we clearly see it is ‘judging, judging’ and that’s ok. When we can discern there is ‘judgemental, judgmental’, then we should note that and know it to be unskilful. The distinction is difficult to see, but unless we do so, we will cause unnecessary suffering for ourselves.
The absurd and the Sublime : A Mid-summer Contemplation
In the end there is an absurdity to it all. By absurdity, I am suggesting a meaninglessness with a twinge of the ridiculous.
That life, consciousness and all we have experienced, have understood and come to love should come to end, makes for uselessness. Life as a pastime.
To say, ‘Well at least I enjoyed most of it. And I achieved this and that.’ is to hide the absurdity beneath a pathetic self-indulgence and self-importance. To say , ‘My life is dedicated to the happiness of others.’ knowing their lives also lack the same meaning, is a sorry attempt to make our lives meaningful.
Because of this all human endeavours: science, politics, heroism, philanthropy and so on are all useless. And art too! What point to try to express anything when everything in itself has no intrinsic meaning? A piece of art is glued to its time and place, of interest to art lovers and art historians, but in the long run is veneer. It treats with beauty and subjects personal, social and even cosmic, but rarely treats with the real problem. The sheer absurdity of creating anything about something that is inherently meaningless.
Yet paradoxically this is the game we must play. A game is a useless pastime. It need not be unwholesome in itself, but it is mere entertainment, save for the professionals, the fanatics and the financial managers who give to sport the meaning of their lives. How absurd is that!
When the Buddha-to-be realised at the end of youth what he was heading for, he suffered an existential crisis. It wasn’t that he wanted to leave his family and all he treasured. It was that he had no choice. Capturing the full meaning of the four Devadhuta – Messengers from the Gods (Ultimate Truth) – the sick, the ageing, the dead - he realised that this was his destiny as a human being. The fact that he believed this would continue rebirth after rebirth simply added to the horror. The fourth was an ascetic sitting under a tree. It was this gave him an inkling of hope.
It is the horror of meaninglessness that drives us to seek comfort in the pleasures and joys of life and causes us to fight off and flee from anything that turns us towards these dour Messengers.
By the time the Buddha sat beneath the Bodhi tree and made the Great Determination not to move until he had explored this meaninglessness or die, he had the invincible courage of someone who knows he has nothing to lose. If life was just a pastime after all, then all there was left was to enjoy it as best one can. Such was and is the position of annihilistic materialists. If it did turn out to have meaning after all, then that would be the end of the despair of absurdity.
His realisation was an actual experience. He called it Nibbana. Although this word has been given various meanings, they revolve around non-attachment and liberation. Non-attachment was his new relationship to the world. Nothing mattered. Liberation was how he experienced this. ‘Something’ was set free. That something was intuitive awareness, Satipanya. Upon this realisation, everything mattered.
For he realised that that the purpose of life was to bring this Satipanya to its own realisation. It was a rite of passage. A passage from ignorance and all the suffering towards Buddha realisation.
Questions as to why this should happen in the first place are deemed irrelevant. This is the way it is and this is the way we must go.
And again all that seemed absurd, now take on profound meaning.
Our lives - personal relationships, work, even pastimes - take on the same meaning, journeying towards the same sublime destiny
And art takes on the task of attempting to communicate the inexpressible. It will never succeed, but try it must.
Seeing the delusive state of other people and knowing their potential, the Buddha had no choice but to teach. There he found meaning in his existence as a human being. And there he found the flowering of his personal joy into the joy of helping others make their way to their own sublime destiny.
If there is no self, who bears the karma?
Every moment arises dependent on past and present conditions. This is no less true for the self, the sense of being a person.
Nowhere does the Buddha say – there is no self. It is patently obvious to all that there is a self. What he says is that it has no substance; it does not last more than a moment. There is only the process of I-making (ahamkara).
There is, therefore, a ‘person’, conscious and sentient arising and passing away all the time – even in sleep there is a sliver of consciousness and sentience or the alarm bell would not wake us.
The self or person is but a collection of habits and the body and a consciousness of it all. There are also moments of self-consciousness where the person perceives and feels themself to be a person.
Karma has become everyday speak for consequence. The consequence within a person is the habits they have formed, both wholesome and unwholesome.
Now a person can only be in the present moment. Yet past editions of persons of both today, all our yesterdays and even before that, have created acts of thought, words and deeds - all of which have continuing consequences.
If this person now feels unhappy, it’s to a greater or lesser extent because a past person did something and this person now is bearing the consequences. There is also this person now making acts which may make for worse consequences for a future person. Similarly should this person now experience happiness, because of right intention, this will determine happier persons in the future.
On the presumption that I will continue to arise as a momentary person for some time yet and possibly after death, if I want the future person whom I shall be, although only for a moment, to be happy, I have to start doing and creating habits now that will make for future happiness.
This is loving oneself. When I’m happy, I really love being me!
Because a lot of this happiness is also dependent on my outer circumstances, I have also to try to steer that towards happiness. That means I engage with people and the environment in whatever way I can to enhance the happiness of myself and others. Depending on the situation, I shall want to express my empathy in joy, compassion, love, patience and so on.
This is loving the other.
So it is that an ethics born out of the desire to make oneself happy is developed. And you can’t do it without a self, without being a person.
Our task as human beings is to develop a continuous flow of happy selves. And help others do the same.
An added consequence: it’s so much easier to make spiritual progress when we are happy.
Overwhelmed by All the Violence in the World?
What to do when we feel overwhelmed by the stories and videos coming from the seeming endless conflict between Israel and Palestine and the terrible images and slaughtering by Islamist fundamentalists – to mention two main areas of conflict.
Here are some ways to undermine overload, unrequited compassion, despair and burn out.
First it's a case of humility.
Power: We need to accept what we can do and can't do. And let go of trying to do something about a situation that we know we can't do anything about.
Consider this modern koan/paradox: What can we do when we've done everything we can do?
Influence: We need to know what we can and cannot get other people to do. And let go of trying to have influence where we have none.
Secondly, we need also to take the long term view.
Look at Europe and its 1000 years of internecine wars. That's how long it took, with every bit as horrible events as in the Middle East, until we finally agreed to live peacefully together. Of course, there is also the carrot of the benefits of peaceful co-existence.
Thirdly, we need to do what we can always do – send our goodwill messages of love and compassion. Even if we don’t think it has any effect beyond ourselves it makes us feel we are doing what we can. In the Buddhist Tradition, it is understood that metta/karuna blessings will have an effect no matter how slight.
There are also donations that can be made to the various charities that deal with such situations.
Fourthly, we also need to come to a place where we know enough and enough is enough! Stop feeding the heart and mind with horror stories. Why stop at Israel/West Bank, Islamic State?
Finally we need to accept that this is samsara. This is where delusion will always play itself out, but also where it is possible for individuals to liberate themselves. This is the training ground.
Do you have other suggestions? Please email and I shall add to next Newsbyte. Thanks.
Comment by Sally Lever
You asked for additional suggestions. What I'd like to offer and share is something I've noticed in myself when faced with so much atrocity, particularly the senseless killing of innocent civilians, including children. When I started my first job after finishing with Uni, I had a very inspirational and caring boss. When he noticed us criticising others, he would say something like: 'When you see yourself pointing a finger at someone else, take a moment to look at your hand and notice who the other fingers are pointing to.' So I quickly learned to check things out internally with myself first before projecting my grievance onto others. Having been practising this for another 30 odd years since then, I still manage to criticise others and to be aggressive towards them from time to time, although I think my level of awareness is improving, thank goodness!
So, returning to violence in the world, in addition to all the suggestions you've made, I also reflect on how what I'm witnessing externally might be reflecting anything internally in me or externally in relation to my behaviour. For example, I found myself feeling particularly upset learning about children being killed. I asked myself what I might do with my behaviour towards children. Where am I being aggressive towards them? I remembered myself speaking harshly to both my sons, to my niece and to the neighbour's children - aagh! I remember your enthusiasm for setting a daily intention, so when I feel upset about others harming children, I set an intention to behave peacefully with them myself. Bit by bit, it does seem to help me and maybe, like metta bhavana, the effects will ripple outwards?
Legal : Moral : Ethical
Words are important. The Buddha was careful about his use of words. He had difficulty in expressing his new understanding in the conventional language of the time. Hence coining the word, anatta – not-self.
We are often confused by what is legal as opposed to moral. It’s legal to drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes, but is it moral? What the Buddha means by sila/morality are those actions and speech that are skilful, wholesome, virtuous towards ourselves and others. Plainly there are many laws that make unwholesome actions legal.
This is a consequence of our liberal society which takes ‘religion’ out of politics. It prefers to leave moral questions of a more personal nature to the individual. If government interferes with our personal behaviour, they are accused of creating a nanny state, or worse authoritarianism.
Unfortunately, making immoral behaviour legal takes the sting out of our immoral actions. ‘Well, it’s legal. So it can’t be that that bad.’
Ethical has a lot of ‘currency’ these days – it’s very fashionable in business and finance to give them greater kudos. While the word ‘ethics’ looks to the positive side of morality, the word ‘morality’ still carries Victorian undertones of guilt and shame.
Not that the Buddha was not clear fudged the question of which actions about those actions we should avoid – the Five Training Rules (sikkhãpada)* and he also encourages us to restrain the senses. This is balanced by the need to develop the qualities of friendship, compassion, reciprocal joy and so on.
If we accept ethics to mean both of these – the negative and the positive side of our moral lives – then what we are really accepting is that our delusion or wisdom is expressed through our actions of speech and deeds – and in our thoughts. And it is all to do with relationship.
However, it’s rarely a case of black and white for ethical decisions have to take into account situation and context.
One of those dilemmas arises with abortion. It was once thought horrific and criminal. Making it legal, softened the moral sting. In Buddhist understanding consciousness arises at conception, no matter how dimly. The potential is there. It is always going to be a difficult ethical decision for those who see the foetus as a human being.
A similar dilemma arises concerning armed intervention. (See my essay for some thoughts about this: Is Armed Intervention Ever Justified?
As always, a given decision is rooted in intention. Our responsibility is to make sure that our intentions, given context and situation, are for the benefit or the greater benefit of ourselves or others or both ourselves and others.
Sikkhâpada: Training Rules (often translated as Precepts.)
To refrain from killing sentient beings
To refrain from taking what is not freely given
To refrain from abusing our senses (usually limited to sexuality, but the word kama is sensual desire. That is not to indulge.
To refrain from wrong speech – lying, slander, coarse language and useless talking.
To refrain from taking drinks or drugs that cloud the mind.
The Consumer in Us All.
Have we really noticed how insidious the now world-wide ‘religion’ of consumerism has become?
We all know how advertisers create false ‘needs’.
All adverts suggest what you are buying - a product, a service - is a bargain. Money well spent.
They tell us it will make us especially happy. We will be so gratified – immediately!
And we don’t have to do anything – or at least it will take such little effort. In fact if all you do is tick this box, go onto this loan plan. You won’t even notice the money leaving your bank account. And you can win a prize!
Consequence of greed manifest:
Total personal debt (2014) in the UK currently stands at £1.46 trillion.
The average household debt in the UK is £7,975 (excluding mortgages).
Based on September (2014 trends, the UK’s total interest repayments on personal debt over a 12 month period would have been £59.8 billion. (Never mind the rest of the world!)
This habit of greedily seeking a bargain insinuates itself into our lives so much so that the behaviour becomes automatic and is never questioned. It seems so natural. Well logical. Surely it’s been with us ever since bartering began.
But as a generalised attitude to life this becomes truly cancerous to the good heart. For the consumer seeks to take as much as they can, while giving as little as possible. They are always on the lookout for that bargain.
Of course, it’s just another manifestation of our good friend, greed, but in these new clothes it takes on the air of ethical correctness. It’s confused with self-care. ‘Greed is good.’
But how does it affect our spiritual lives? Some reflections:
Are we looking for the pristine technique! The one that really was taught by the Buddha. The one that is going to deliver the goods and fast with least possible effort.
Are we looking for that famous teacher everyone is talking about?
What do we expect of the teacher? That they are actually going to get us to Nibbana?
Do we expect them to be entertaining, exciting?
Will they be able to give us the immediate gratification we are looking for? All those vipassana knowledges – the ñāna, shouldn’t they come quickly. I have read about them. They all seem pretty straight forward to me! Why haven’t I attained them? It can only the teacher, the method.
And if I have to listen to that talk again, I’ll go mad. It’s become so boring! Same old jokes.
And is my spiritual practice all about me. What about dana – generosity. It is said in giving we receive. Are we giving in order to receive?
I don’t know where I got this quote (If you know, please email me):
The One, or Oneness, as we might say in Zen, never tries to turn a profit from anything at all. It wouldn’t even make sense. We, on the other hand, are always trying to turn a profit from every human exchange. We are always trying to get something—admiration, love, recognition, praise, acknowledgment, even just staying connected. Think how we manipulate and bargain and negotiate to turn a profit from every interaction. Much of this is subtle, unconscious habit. Even when we give, or serve, or love, or pay attention, we’re trying to get something. Sometimes it’s just to get back some of what we give.
Unfortunately the spiritual life asks almost exactly the opposite to our speedy, consuming society. It demands a long-term commitment – over lifetimes if you are open that. It demands dogged perseverance. Although there are highlights and wonders on the way, they are merely short stops on the Path. The Path is a constant ‘struggle’ against Mara, our unwholesome habits - the Five Hindrances, the Defilements and the subtle, unconscious Latent Tendencies that we don’t know are there or we don’t know how powerful they are until a situation drags them out hiding.
Why were these the last two words of the Buddha – apamadena sampadetha – with diligence strive/work hard. ‘Strive diligently for your liberation!’
If you see other ways in which the speedy, consumer affects our outlook, injurious to spiritual life, do email.
Still a classic: Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche
Barriers or Boundaries
What is it about the self that creates such a mess? Is it not the hard lines it draws around things, people and events?
We go to a restaurant and we ‘know’ what apple pie and custard should taste like. When we taste the one we have bought, we are disappointed. Now it may be that the pie is not so good. I once had apple pie, years ago now, and when I put my fork into it, the crust was so hard it broke into pieces and some flung themselves off the plate. I didn’t think the cook would appreciate my pretend interest by asking how much cement went into the crust. But it was difficult to enjoy. Looking back, if it had been the first apple pie and custard I had tasted, I no doubt would have thought it should be like that and thoroughly enjoyed it.
What about our politics? We draw hard lines around our views. I would never vote for … Now we may not vote for that party. But what point the hardness around it. It stops us acknowledging that there is some good in all parties. The undecided floating voter is considered weak and no political party likes them.
Relationships too. Do we not draw comfort lines around our friendship group. Closed groups are cosy, but they are closed and self-serving.
Such can be viewed as barriers. It suggests hardening, inability to change even though change is all around us.
How do we know when barriers are being breached? When threats arise to the status quo, fear and aversion arise. We react to protect, maintain. Unless we can be mindful of our aversive reaction, There cannot be a creative response. We defend our positions sometimes at great cost.
Boundaries are more fluid. The beach is sometimes the land and sometimes the sea. It’s not that boundaries allow everything. They don’t have to be porous. One can create conditions, but they allow us to be flexible.
How do we know when boundaries are being breached? An amorphous discomfort. A feeling of invasiveness. At worst a loss of personal dignity.
When I became a monk, I kept up my friendly, easy going relationship with people. This was fine, except when someone became ‘familiar’. Suddenly it was a slap on the back and ‘how are you doing, Bodhi?’ I felt I was at fault by trying to be a ‘mate’ and it was not quite in line with the dignity the Buddha would have his monastics behave. So that’s when I asked people to address me as Bhante. This keeps a respectable distance between myself and the person I am talking to. It also stopped me behaving sloppily - at least in public!
I was lodging with a friend and I told him I expected a phone call at a certain time. Just before the allotted, he received a call. As the allotted time came for my call, I called out to remind him. Unfortunately he heard my reminder as a command. I got an earful which reminded me that hosts have their boundaries and I needed to respect these.
Barriers or Boundaries - is it just human nature? Have a look!
Isolation, Loneliness and Solitude
Feeling isolated is quite different to loneliness. It comes from being unable to commune with those who we feel close to or affiliated to.I, myself, here at Satipanya, live isolated from the Sangha. As a monastic, I feel at home in the company of other monastics – of whatever creed. This is the same as anyone in the trades or professions. Anyone in the building trade feels at home with their mates. Anyone in the professions does so with their colleagues. In the same way we can feel isolated from our friends and families when we don’t have enough or easy communion with them, but we don’t necessarily feel lonely.These days this should not be such a problem especially with skype.Loneliness can be a very painful state. It can come after the death of a loved one, a loss of a friend, when we move into a new area and don’t seem to know anyone and so on. And whenever we feel loneliness, it dips deep into those times we have felt lonely, perhaps unloved and even abandoned in childhood.Loneliness tells us we are dependent on someone to feel worthy, loved and wanted.Sitting quietly with our feelings of loneliness, arising for whatever reason, can allow old buried and unresolved feelings to arise. And they usually centre around a belief we have of ourselves that we are unlovable.
The heart longs to divulge her secret pain, but finds no-one to trust. And in that vulnerability, touches upon the fragile nature of her existence.
To sit with loneliness is to discover many things about ourselves. It can be an eye-opener. It’s a healing process. And we need to wait until all feelings of loneliness disappear. What then arises?
Solitude is of a different order. It is often what we seek when we have had enough company, enough excitement. It’s ‘such a relief’ sometimes to be on your own. But this is poor solitude. It doesn’t last very long. As soon as we have rested, we get fed up with ourselves and off we go into the helter-skelter of excitement seeking.
Solitude, at its true spiritual depth, is to have found one’s home within. As a Latin saying goes: never less alone than when alone. This is the gift of a heart no longer in ‘need’ of the other. A heart that is content.
I wonder if you can catch this solitude, an inner sense of a self-embracing all-one-ness, when you’ve sat in vipassana with a bout of loneliness and waited patiently for it to sublimate.
Envy, Jealousy and Appreciative Joy
It’s ok to say, ‘I envy you’. It’s a way of praising someone, but also showing that we would like what they have. I know a monk who was an abbot and retired from that position. When he told me, he brought out in me a desire to lessen my teaching rota and spend more time on retreat and study. When I told him that I envied him, there was no ‘coveting’ for what he had, but I saw it a spur to move in the direction I wanted to. But the problem comes when we ‘covet’ what the other has. That’s the ‘keeping up with the Jones’s’ compulsion. And that’s all to do with proving oneself equal or better than the other. It’s a fool’s game.
The antidote is to be grateful for what we have. To discern what we need rather than what we want. This allows for a greater contentment. Not that we cannot better our situation, but it is not done in comparison to someone else.
Jealousy is a darker state. Here there is not only wanting what the other has, but hating them for having it. This aversion can disguise itself as righteous criticism of the other. We can be dismissive of their achievements, their possessions. But there is a deeper comparison here, not of possessions, position and so on, but of egos. At worse the person nurtures a revenge for the shame they feel the other causes them - and yet be oblivious to their own jealousy!
To accept we are jealous is to realise we are defining ourselves as inferior! That’s hard on self-esteem. Indeed, we can even be in such denial that we project our jealousy onto them and fool ourselves into thinking that they are the ones who are jealous of us!
One of the blessings of the noting technique in our practice is that it can make us acknowledge this difficult attitude.
The antidote to all of this is appreciative or empathetic joy, mudita. First, as soon as we catch ourselves indulging our jealousy, we stop the thinking and imagining and see if we can feel the emotional value of the attitude in the body. If we can, if there’s time, we stay there feeling and acknowledging its unwholesome and very unpleasant feelings.
If there is no time or we cannot wait till the feelings exhaust themselves, then we put them to one side. Remember this is not suppressing them, but simply not identifying with them, not indulging them.
And we then rejoice in the successes of the other. When we feel envious of what another has or achieves, we can praise their work, rejoice in their luck. When jealousy is aroused, we can praise not just what they have achieved, but their abilities and characters. And then wish them greater success – even through gritted teeth!
Unwholesome Karmic Results as Fate.
Yung : The psychological rule says that when an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside as fate. That is to say, when the individual remains divided and does not become conscious of his inner contradictions, the world must perforce act out the conflict and be torn into two opposite halves.
The Buddha talks of anusāya, latent tendencies. These are lying underneath the obvious kilesa, defilements. We are not often aware of these subliminal attitudes and intentions.
One tell-tale that something is being acted out by us of which we are not totally aware or not aware of at all is when we fall repeatedly into a similar unfortunate or painful situation.
Consider the do-gooder who consciously wishes in her heart to do only good for you, yet is not aware that she is controlling the situation. That she actually only wants to do the good she wants to do for you because that is what makes her feel worthy and so happy. She is shocked at the ingratitude of the person she is helping who only feels constrained, not-heard and even bullied. She doesn’t understand why the person gets so angry when all she is they are trying to do is help.
A man came on a retreat of mine while at Gaia. He came with a whole set of garden tools! It was difficult for the co-ordinators at the time to stop him doing what he wanted to do to the garden.
Consider the person who is always falling in love and a few months down the line finds himself dumped! What’s really happening is that, after the honeymoon period, he starts to criticise and be cruel, unaware that when the relationship becomes too close he finds it smothering. Yet he is madly in love. Not being fully conscious he blames the other for oppressing him.
Not acknowledging that we feel insecure or angry or inferior we become sarcastic. Our sarcasm is actually funny to everyone else but the victim. Making people laugh gives us back our self-worth, but mysteriously friends begin to avoid us.
If we look into our lives and see negative patterns, it may be time to have a hard look at our attitudes instead of blaming others or the situation.
In meditation, using the noting technique, if we remain sharp and perceptive we may catch surfacing into our day-dreamings these very latent tendencies.
In this way we can bring the fate of inner contradictions, so clearly expressed by Yung, to an end.
Ideology leads to strife.
The Buddha had this to say of opinions: a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. MN 2.8
When Master Kaccana was asked by a Brahmin why ascetics fight ascetics, he answered:
‘It is because of attachment to views, adherence to views, fixation on views, addiction to views, obsession with views, holding firmly to views that ascetics fight with ascetics.’
(AN 2:iv,6 - Bhikkhu Bodhi: In the Buddha’s Words.
A view in this sense is a tightly held belief, substantiated by personal experience and rational thinking. And it has three components which make it rock like.
The first is the wrong view itself - diţţhi. Take the three predominant ones of the previous century. The science of eugenics which pointed to the purification of the race, a central tenet of Nazism; the revolution against capitalism and rise of the doctrine of the ownership of the means of production by proletariat giving rise to communism; the present politico-economy of neoliberalism of a free market driven by ‘natural’ forces, with its stress on privatization, deregulation, fiscal austerity and free trade, that has led to the recent and ongoing economic collapse.
Added to this is the conceit - māna. I am right and everyone else is wrong. In fact, they are so wrong they need to be annihilated or at least ignored. When the ‘I’ becomes a ‘we’, social upheaval is in the making.
And the emotional attachment to it – tanha. Such is the devotion to a view that one is prepared to give up one’s life, sacrifice one’s own spouse and children for the cause.
All in all this is ideology. And you see it in all religions. The examples I gave above were all secular, but the present day worst religious example of this is Islamic fundamentalism.
What is the escape from this continual strife?
First, as to views and opinions, the Buddha did not say we should not have them. He had very clear view of what would help humanity, namely the Four Noble Truths.
However, whatever views or opinions we hold, let them be held lightly as perspectives that can be changed and nuanced by others. We don’t need to identify with them or own them. It’s just one view or opinion amongst many.
This demands humility which undermines conceit, for we may have misunderstood or only partially understood.
Although the Buddha pointed to a single ‘right view’ in terms of how to overcome suffering, as regards the practical matter of living in the world, some have said that he was a true pragmatist. Whatever works.
We can see this in how the Rule (Vinaya) for the Sangha was developed. He does not seem to have come from some sort of preconceived ideal, but as time passed and the behaviour of monastics seemed inappropriate, rules were established.
To give but one example. Lay people complained that monastics were coming at all times of the day on alms round and sometimes more than once! The Buddha established the rule that an alms round could only be done once in the morning and that all food had to be eaten by midday.
There is also the celebrated change of mind concerning women joining the order. He had refused the request from women of his own family and court. Ananda asked him if women could become liberated and if so should, should they not be given the same opportunity as men to join the order. The Buddha relented.
It’s an interesting exercise to list all our views and opinions around religion, society, economy, and politics.
Then ask what makes me so sure I am right and the other is wrong?
How do I react when someone disagrees with me?
Have I really listened to the other with an open heart?
And, if you find you have no strong views, to ask: Do I need to put more energy into clarifying the beliefs that are guiding me through life? How might I do this?
The Sacred: It’s Meaning and the Role of Free Speech
The Sacred is that which gives life its profoundest meaning. It tells us why we are living and – why we must die. For myself, this is the Buddhadhamma, the teachings and practice as taught by the Buddha. These provide my core values.
It is symbolised in the Wheel – originally a cart wheel. And the founder, teacher, exemplar and archetype is Siddhartha Gotama to whom we give the title, Buddha, the Awakened One. At first he was symbolised by a tree, an empty chair or footprints. But after 500 years, the Greeks who were the first Westerners to be converted to Buddhadhamma began producing statues.
The Sacred itself should not be confused with the way it is expressed through the speech and actions of human beings. For we are all deluded and our expressions are conditioned by history, culture and our personal experience.
Free speech and its companion, free expression have never been absolutes. Political correctness protects minorities and any expression inciting violence is illegal.
However, there are those who say that this freedom includes the right to insult. It is one thing to express our disagreement with another’s views and actions with the intention to insult them. And another to follow the Buddha’s own advice about Right Speech, that it should be kind, truthful and spoken/written at a suitable time. The purpose would be to persuade the other to change their minds. So rather than coming from the heart of angry arrogance raising only angry resistance from the other, the Buddha asks us to approach with humility - first understanding the other’s position, then pointing out the errors and suggesting a different view.
The Prophet Mohammed is the founder, teacher, exemplar and archetype for over a billion Muslims. As in early Buddhism, his depiction in form is seen as a sacrilege – an offense against the Sacred. Whatever means cartoonists and political satirists have to lampoon, satirise and ridicule Islamists, turning the Prophet into a figure of fun does nothing but insult all Muslims. Not distinguishing the Sacred and its symbol from how it is used in this case has cost lives and it could even be argued that it is incitement to violence and therefore unlawful.
Buddhadhamma disavows all recourse to violence such is the commitment to harmlessness, though one is allowed to defend oneself. Even so the figure of the Buddha is often abused. At Bamiyam, the great statues were exploded by the Taliban. At a more banal level is the use of the image for commercial reasons. The Buddha in the lying posture used to advertise BA flights to USA that now offer beds. There is also a Buddha Bar and, of course, Buddha statues as pretty garden gnomes. And Buddha statues have even been used in pornography. There was a case of this in Thailand which scandalised the whole country.
Here Buddhists may feel somewhat constrained. To complain may seem an expression of attachment and to get angry a sign of weakness. But I see no problem in asking people to respect what others consider sacred. Respect after all is but a facet of love. Only the most cynical materialists will fail to respond, paradoxically wanting their own views to be respected.
So this is a good moment to ask ourselves:
What does ‘the sacred’ mean to me?
Do I hold anything sacred?
How should I respond to someone who shows no respect for what I hold sacred?
I was in a new-agey nick-knack shop and a small statue of the Buddha was on the floor by the door. I told the assistant who I was and how offended Buddhists would be to see a Buddha statue on the floor where it could be kicked even inadvertently. I suggested he could place it up on a shelf. When I went in next time it had been moved.
We bought some toilet cleaning material it had the Buddha image on it. I phoned Tesco. The assistant said she would contact the manufacturers.
Even if the statue was sold and the assistant simply raised her eyebrows and put the phone down, slowly but surely the message might get across that there are somethings that need to be respected.
An excellent book on this which I found most useful, covering all sensitive issues is the small:
Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) by Nigel Warburton
Awareness, Compassion and Wisdom
(Another angle – see earlier Tip: Pity, Sorrow and Compassion)
There has been a clear example of the difference between awareness of suffering and compassion. For so long Europeans have heard and seen on screens the suffering of refugees from the war torn Middle East or coming across the Mediterranean. Nothing really happened save on the Greek and Italian Islands where these suffering people landed. It was only the photo of the lifeless body of a drowned toddler that suddenly made the connection. Awareness of suffering became compassion – a heart connection that demands action. An empathy and action – especially by Germany. And it continues in some effort to manage the crisis and not leave it up to Turkey, Jordan, Italy and Greece.
It is quite simple really to acknowledge the distinction. Whenever we are aware of suffering of any kind, stay close to the heart. What do I feel? Is there fear or aversion or indifference or some other attitude? Now that may bring up feelings of guilt and shame. After all I’m supposed to be compassionate! All this, the negative reaction and the judgemental mind have to be acknowledged and felt. It’s not pleasant.
Then we have to put ourselves in the other’s shoes. Or ask the question, if I was in that situation what would I hope people might do for me. It is the central human relationship – do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Consider the travail of refugees? They’ve probably been close to bombs dropping, perhaps lost family. They escape with little money – most spent on traffickers – and little food. The dangerous sea voyage. Arrive exhausted and in despair as to the future.
What would it be like to lose family, your home, your livelihood – your life as you knew it? It doesn’t take long to conjure up sympathy. Sympathy is what we can feel through our imaginary efforts when we ourselves have not had such experiences. Should we have had some such experience of loss, homelessness, penury, then empathy – a closer resonance in the heart arises. Either way, they both lead to action.
But then we have to be careful not to overdo it! We can get caught up in the energy aroused by compassion. The bigger the group, the greater the energy. But then we find ourselves volunteering for work that is beyond our capability – physically, mentally, financially. It can begin to put strains on long established relationships, on work. In focusing too much on the suffering of one particular person or group, we become blind to the problems we may be causing for others, usually those near to us.
We can make sacrifices for ourselves, but not for others. If we can’t carry people with us, we need to accept our limitations.
It may come down to either not helping others in an hour of need because those close to us or our work situation won’t support this, or helping others with a detrimental effect on your relationship to those close to us or our work. We need to be clear about what we are prepared to lose.
Compassion without wisdom also leads to suffering.
To become or not to become.
The Buddha lists three types of wrong desire - taņhā. The first are those that cover all our day to day desires- kama taņhā. The second is the desire to become – bhāva taņhā. This is the self wanting to recreate itself time after time. And then there is vibhāva taņhā – the desire not to become.
The last desire is not as well publicised as the other two. We all know our day to day desires to do something, to enjoy life and get away from what upsets us. We are all aware of wanting to continue to live. Well, not all the time. Sometimes we want to get rid of ourselves. When we feel fed up, we slump into the armchair and fall asleep. Sometimes when things get really bad, we may even want to stop living altogether and sometimes wish we were never born. So, all of us experience these three desires now and again.
However, the desire ‘to continue or not to continue’, refers also to a deeper positioning and this manifests in belief systems that presume the ‘I’ endures or does not. Such systems the Buddha called eternalism and annihilationism. His teaching did not sit in either category because these beliefs were based on the notion of a self.
Annihilationism can often be confused with materialism or nihilism.
Annihilationism seems to be a Buddhist term to oppose eternalism. It’s not in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). It is the belief that when a person dies, that’s it.
Materialism, especially scientific materialism, believes everything is an ‘emergent property’ arising out of matter. So thoughts, emotions and consciousness arise primarily out of the material of the brain and nervous system.
Nihilism ‘rejects all religious and moral principles, often in the belief that life is meaningless’ O.E.D.
Annihilationism, unlike materialism, can also include a finer energy, mind, as well as matter. But that will also annihilate upon death. Unlike nihilism it does not reject religious and moral principles. There’s just no belief in an afterlife.
When we sit deep within ourselves, we may touch upon our deepest intuition about life and death. It may be that we feel life is worthwhile and has a meaning beyond itself. That is ‘I’ am worthwhile, ‘I’ am meaningful and ‘I’ will continue to live after death. Or we may intuit life is not worthwhile and has no meaning beyond itself. That is ‘I’ am ultimately insignificant, ‘I’ have no intrinsic value and ‘I’ will not continue to live after death.
Just because I believe I am eternal doesn’t mean life is all roses. Just because I think life is ultimately meaningless, doesn’t mean I’m not going to have good time or behave ethically.
So long as there is a self, we will veer to one or the other of these opposites. And this will manifest in our understanding of the Buddhadhamma. Eternalists tend to think of Nibbana as an eternal state of Buddhahood that ‘I’ will enjoy – ‘someone’ who is a Buddha. Annihilationists will deny that the Buddha ever taught there was a transcendent and if there is, it is only momentary.
The answer lies in our careful investigation of that very sense of self, the feeling of being ‘me’, whenever such a sense or feeling arises. We can also reflect when it has not been there – even in ordinary daily life.
The Buddha says Nibbana was not created nor does it die. So it must be here. He says it doesn’t arise and pass away which is just another way of saying the same thing. So it must be constant.
So what could ‘it’ be?
Appamāda : Diligent
Apamāda is one of the Buddha’s favourite words. It comes into his final exhortation:
‘All compounded things arise and pass away. Strive diligently for you liberation.’
Although the Buddha mentions lots of virtues needed to stop unwholesome states arising and to develop wholesome states, diligence is there among them This is how he phrases them, here in the quality of diligence: Bhikkhu Bodhi : The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha – prefers the word heedful.
I do not see even a single thing that so causes unarisen unwholesome qualities to arise and arisen wholesome qualities to decline as heedlessness. For one who is heedless, unarisen unwholesome qualities arise and arisen unwholesome qualities to decline.
I do not see even a single thing that so causes unarisen wholesome qualities to arise and arisen unwholesome qualities to decline as heedfulness. For one who is heedful, unarisen wholesome qualities arise and arisen unwholesome qualities to decline.
These are synonyms for appamāda:
Hard-working, industrious, assiduous, heedful, meticulous, conscientious, thorough, attentive, careful, painstaking, persistent, vigilant, zealous
I think we can separate these out into three different lists: the first to do with effort, the second with mindfulness and the third with care. Perhaps you would organise them differently.
- Mindfulness: attentive, vigilant, heedful
- Care: careful, conscientious, meticulous, thorough, painstaking
- Effort: hard-working, industrious, assiduous, persistent, zealous
Each word brings a nuance to our reflection.
In this way appamāda offers us a useful way to reflect on our actions. In the general how would I describe the way I think, say and do things?
Taking each word and to ask: Am I in general …?
Then a daily reflection: Have I been …?
And finally even after a task: Was I …?
Appamāda is to be seen as a Right Attitude in the Eightfold Path. We express this attitude in the way we think, speak and act. In this way it becomes habitual.
But, of course, this presumes that the intention and the act arise out of wisdom, Right Understanding. For these are the same qualities you need to rob a bank!
Then there is antonym: lazy, sluggish, slothful, can’t be bothered, do it tomorrow. That’s what we have to see first of all, the underlying unwholesome tendency (anusaya) and the presenting defilement (kilesa). As per usual, we recognise it, acknowledge it, feel it and stay with it a while if there’s time. If not, park it, put it one side without fear or aversion, refuse to be hijacked and raise appamāda.
Aim and Objective in Present Time
Our concept of time is linear. We believe we are coming from a past, stop for a moment in the present and head off into the future. Historically speaking this is true. We can point to a past happening and we can predict to some extent what will happen in the future.
These views can be considered as conventional. From a personal point of view, time is a way we structure events. If I said to you, I went for a walk yesterday afternoon, you would be able to position that walk in time – about so many hours ago. Not today. Not tomorrow. All this is useful for daily living, but it can be a barrier to experiencing time in a liberated way.
In what way do we liberate ourselves from time? First of all it is to acknowledge that time does not actually exist. It is a concept whereby we organise past, present and future events. It’s not that we want to get rid of the concept. If we did, we would be utterly disorientated. But we need to recognise the disconnection with actual present events that may come with it.
This moment is sandwiched between what I think happened in the past (memories are never absolutely accurate) and what I presume will happen in the future. So I am either being compelled to act in a certain way determined by a past decision or I am acting in a way dictated by a future I imagine or expect. In this way, I am never living in the present moment as it is right now.
When I am behaving like this, I am not in contact with the way things really are. In fact I find myself often in conflict with what is actually happening or manipulating what is happening to realise a future event. I’m neither living in the future nor experiencing the present moment as it is.
One way we can bring ourselves into present time is to make a distinction between aim and objective. Supposing we have to go to the dentist. (I prefer uplifting examples.) When I set off the aim is to get to the dentist on time. The objective is to stay mindful of what is happening every moment of the way. This may also include any anxiety about being late or thoughts about what may happen.
This way we are always living in the present even though we may be experiencing the consequences of past action and the effects of future action.
In other words, it is to live in the immediacy of the present moment.
Catch yourself opening a door. Are you already in the other room? Catch yourself brushing your teeth. Are you in a hurry to get it over with, so you can launch yourself into bed? How many times have you set out on a journey and arrived at where you are going whether driving or public transport without any awareness of the journey? How many times have you ‘mislaid’ your keys?
If we see how frequent is the number of missed present moments, we’ll want to do something about it.
Money and Power
When it comes to money and power, the Buddha, of a very different age, has only general guidelines for us today. For instance, here is a wise counsellor advising his king:
You majesty, the country is beset by thieves. It is ravaged; villages and towns are being destroyed … If your majesty were to tax this region that would be the wrong thing to do. If you majesty (were) to get rid of this plague of robbers by executions and imprisonment … the plague would not be ended properly. Those who survive would later harm the realm. However, this plan will eliminate the plague … to (farmers) let Your Majesty distribute grain and fodder; to those in trade, capital; those in government service, a proper living wage
D.N5 (In the Buddha’s Words by Bhikkhu Bodhi)
The teaching of the Buddha spread through different cultures in the east and established ‘medieval’ societies. With the onset of the industrial revolution, the tech. revolution and modernism, even post-modernism, the Dhamma has yet to be fully adapted.
The combination of money and power can be lethal and the discrepancy between the one-percenters and high earners (including those who head Charities!) and the lowest paid is undermining social cohesion. There are economists who say it is bad for the economy! How might we consider a change, for it is our civic duty to have a perspective on the financial, social and political landscape?
Christianity has been in the thick of change and heavily challenged. It has over time had various responses and perhaps one that comes close to the Buddha’s way of thinking is Distributism.
This is a social doctrine developed by the Catholic Church which is often described as a middle ground between Capitalism and Socialism. But actually it has deep roots in Catholic social doctrine.
It is based on the idea of equality which is expressed in the terms subsidiarity and solidarity. These words will not come as a surprise. Subsidiarity, a word we may have become familiar with when we ‘were’ EU members, actually originated in the Catholic Church. In politics, it is ‘the principle that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed at a more local level’. The word became prominent in EU after the 80’s, fearful of central control – the ogre of Brussels! And solidarity defined as ‘unity or agreement of feeling or action, especially among individuals with a common interest; mutual support within a group’, is a core principle of unions.
The argument is based on seeing the fallacy of both Capitalism and Socialism as giving ownership either to the boss or to the state. Ownership is another word for control. Distributism is searching for a way to give back ownership to everyone on the understanding that the dispossessed would then have greater control and greater power both in the local community (subsidiarity) and at higher levels of governments by forming pressure groups (solidarity).
There is a simple psychological reason for ownership in that the owner takes better care than one who rents or works for. I’ve rented and bought a house; I’ve worked for someone and I have worked for myself; so to me this is obvious.
This may be a no-no for some Buddhists who think all possession is wrong. Or as Proudhon, the first person to declare himself an anarchist, would say, ‘All property is theft!’ It may come a surprise that a monastic ‘owns’ their robes and bowl. In fact, every time I get a new set of robes, I have to put a ‘bindu’, a mark, on it to distinguish it as my own. There was a bit of ‘all property is theft’ going on and monks made off with other monks robes. Since they didn’t ‘possess’ them, how could it be ‘taking what is not freely given’!
It’s not what we possess, but how we possess which presents the problem, of course. When someone makes off with the mobile, we still go around saying someone stole my mobile. But it’s hardly mine since the thief possesses it! Possession of things is a legal construct and can be an attachment. But when we realise that actually we can only use objects, we free ourselves of a lot of stress and possessiveness. So just a monastic ‘owns’ their robes, so an individual can ‘own’ his property, ‘own’ her business.
As for solidarity, it is core sangha principle. To quote an well known saying of the Buddha: Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. By which we can include society as a whole. And we are much more likely to build societal solidarity when all people feel they have something to cherish and something to defend – their property or business. In the political jargon – a stakeholder.
Self-esteem is based upon the ability to make decisions for oneself, to take responsibility for them and so have power over one’s life. This, of course, can never be complete power. But the more power we have, the greater our self-esteem and the respect of others – and our sense of responsibility.
So it is that power and riches feed one another for better or for worse.
You may be interested in this documentary about the Capitalist System.
Four Horsemen - Feature Documentary - Official Version
There are times when we are not getting what we want and feel angry, upset, disappointed and so on. Yet for one reason or another we won’t accept the situation and work towards getting it. Because we feel such negativity, we are not able to talk calmly about the problem. We don’t want to be openly angry either for fear of the other’s reaction and they may be more powerful, such as the boss at work, for instance.
So we find ourselves in an unhappy situation and yet unable to ‘do’ anything about it. So we may choose to behave in a way to undermine the other, not realising that this is making things worse. Unfortunately, it may be an habitual way of reacting and we may not even be aware of our behaviour as an expression of anger, frustration and so on. We are bewildered as to why the other got so upset with us. We may not be aware that we are indulging in a form of bullying.
A common strategy is to ignore the person you are angry with. You may be justifying it (‘she’s impossible!), but you actually want to avoid conflict and punish them at the same time. Consider how you feel when you are ignored.
Another is to be late. You may give yourself all sorts of excuses – had to this and that, the mobile rang, just missed the bus, the train and so on. How do you feel when someone is late a lot of the time? Here at Satipanya, how do you feel when the same person repeatedly comes in just a minute or two after time?
Spiteful withdrawal of the usual things you would do - sex, cooking, gardening, taking on responsibility not strictly yours at work and then not doing it without telling anyone. How do you react when someone acts like this towards you?
Doing something badly and then blaming anyone, everyone. But actually you couldn’t be bothered. And anyway you didn’t like the way you were asked or ‘why was I asked to do this’. How do you feel when you’ve asked someone to do something for you and they have agreed, but obviously done it in a slapdash way and there is a feeling of irritation in the air.
And all such strategies can be used at work to undermine the boss or the junior.
If you know yourself to be a frequent user of passive aggressive strategies, it is good to ask yourself in what way does this help a situation? Surely it would be better to find an occasion – no matter how difficult it may be – to be honest with other. If the situation becomes intolerable, it may be worth losing a friendship or work rather than carry on feeling angry, frustrated and miserable all the time.
If we are on the receiving end of passive aggression, what can we do? Often it is a case of the elephant in the room. We have to wait for a time and place to talk to the person, undermine any fear they have of us; let them be clear that we are willing to accept that we may have behaved wrongly; that we are prepared to come to an arrangement. The worst we can do is to react with anger. If they are unaware of their passive aggression, they will just deny it.
Why are you sulking? : I’m not sulking.
Is there something wrong? : No! : I feel you are angry with me. : Why would I be angry with you?
You are late again. : Everyone is late once in a while. Why are you so angry about it?
You’ve done the job so poorly. : Sorry! I know you would have done it better.
As far as our practice is concerned, it is always better to keep close contact with our feelings. They tell us how we are reacting. To be honest with ourselves. To make sure we don’t act passive aggressively – especially against someone who is being passively aggressive! That will only make the situation worse and make us feel worse.
A couple of months back, I am getting very strong passive aggressive signals from the neighbouring family. Even the boy gives me dirty looks. I finally got the opportunity to talk to the wife. I told her I am getting a lot of bad feelings from you. Can you tell me why? I’m sure there’s been a misunderstanding. She denied the whole thing! My hope now it to catch the husband and try another tack. Then something strange happened. I went out to the post box and they were coming down the road. I greeted them. They were both very welcoming. Then they went to gate to see their two very beautiful, Shetland ponies and their foals. I joined them and he suddenly started a friendly conversation. I never did get to the bottom of it.
If all this strikes a bell, there’s lots on the websites.
I found this informative:
In what way should Buddhadhamma affect our politics?
The recent vote concerning membership of the EU, (and perhaps we can include the presidential elections in USA) brought up one stark reality about democracy. The vast majority of us (I include myself) don’t know enough to make a truly informed vote. And the ‘information’ given by parties, newspapers and other social outlets are always skewed towards their own bias. Indeed all of us vote from a biased angle – our preference.
Politics is about power. So when we vote, we put someone in power over us! When a person or party has power, they can change our society, our national and local community. When an election comes round, this is the only time, we, ordinary citizens have a chance to affect the political landscape and so the society, the national and local communities we live in.
The Buddha got involved in the politics of his time, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly. Though a very different society, the moral problems around power were the same.
When a dispute arose over the water rights of the Rohini River between the Buddha’s own clan, the Sakya and the neighbouring clan, the Koliya, he went to pacify a situation that threatened to turn into a war. He asked them what is more precious the water that runs in the river or the blood that runs in our veins?
The new young king of Magadha, Ajātasattu (who starved his father to death!), sent advisors to ask the Buddha whether it was a good time to attack the Vajji Sangha, a democratic republic. The Buddha enumerates the qualities that make a sustainable Sangha, the monastic order. (see below). The king took this to mean it was ‘not the right time’ to attack. So he then went on by subterfuge to undermine those very qualities the Buddha had obliquely praised and so eventually conquered them.
Whether the Buddha would have voted or not, is a moot point. There are party politics and there are also some real people issues out there.
These days there are so many community issues on the plate – immigration, NHS, armed intervention, the financial sector, EU, climate change and so on. Is there a way we can guide ourselves so that we are not boxed in by our own views and opinions and worse by our unacknowledged biases; nor swayed by popular demand?
A very old friend who is active in local politics texts: Cultural sensitivity is empathy. However, political correctness has now come to create a consensus on truth and bans criticism - and denigrates those who object to that consensus.
It is instructive to make a list and write what we want to happen and why. And then to question our assumptions by seeing what those opposed to our positions are arguing. To be open to their arguments. To listen - and not be afraid that we will somehow be hoodwinked or brainwashed or converted. It may surprise us that opposing arguments also have their strengths. We may move to a more nuanced position.
Talk on TED:
Transcript Jonathan Haidt: The moral roots of liberals and conservatives
Is this why liberals (small l) become conservative (small c) in later life?
A Moral Politics
Given that government, in theory at least, is our common will, representing us as a people, how do we define ourselves? Will we come to the aid of those among us struggling to get by or will we throw the needy back upon their own meager resources? Is the prevailing philosophy of governance one of mutual concern and collective help, or one of stark individualism in which everyone has to fend for themselves, or at best rely on charity? This is not so much a political question as a moral one, a question pertaining to the moral basis of our common life. Much depends on how we answer it.
- Bhikkhu Bodhi, "A Moral Politics"
Practice makes perfect.*
Practice is repetition. Think of the tennis player, the piano player, the actor. Indeed even if you want to become proficient on the keyboard, you have to practice. I myself have become fairly proficient in the two finger technique!
Now we can’t just practice for the sake of practice. Repetition would be meaningless if the aim was simply to repeat and repeat. It would be a hell realm. Consider the punishment of Sysyphus, ‘the king of Ephyra (now known as Corinth). He was punished for his self-aggrandizing craftiness and deceitfulness by being forced to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it come back to hit him, repeating this action for eternity’ (Wikipedia). That’s tough!
There has to an aim, a purpose. And it’s the purpose which should give us the courage and tenacity to keep up the practice. Again bring to mind the dedication of Olympic athletes.
In this sense we should endeavour to be spiritual athletes. Luckily this does not need physical prowess or intellectual brilliance – in fact we don’t need any special talent at all.
What we need is confidence in the vision that we are capable of perfect contentment and happiness.
To achieve this, the Buddha has given us a technique, vipassana and instructions on how to maintain Right Mindfulness in ordinary daily life. It all boils down to this Right Awareness.
And when he talks of living the life guided by the Dhamma, it is always based on the virtues – the emphasis being on Metta, that universal quality of good will to all beings.
In our sitting practice, the repetition starts with settling on the breath. And then to repeatedly bring ourselves back to the presenting event – what’s actually happening now. That’s the practice. Insights arise naturally into the three spiritual gateways of awakening – understanding how we create suffering, experiencing the reality of impermanence and realising the false identities and possessions we are creating. Insights are not shattering experiences, but moments or recognition, of acknowledgement, most reinforcing, deepening what we have already seen.
In ordinary daily life, this mindfulness is conjoined with ethical behaviour and the very life we lead is the practice. Much of our daily life is repetitious. The morning ablutions, the eating, the job and so on. And yet, of course, each event is just that little bit different from the rest. Even so the practice is bringing ‘this-moment-attention’ to bear with a good heart.
When we have an aim, all repetition becomes meaningful. But that doesn’t translate into dedication. That comes by exercising the virtues – raising enthusiasm and resolve. A real heart-felt commitment. Resolute practice underpins awakening.
If all we have is the aim, some vision as to the future attainment, and no practice. Then the spiritual life enters the world of fantasy and disappointment.
The Buddha did not become Buddha by aspiration alone.
* Seemingly this phrase is coined from a man who is a legend in American Football coaching, Vince Lombardi. He actually said: Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.
Of the three moral categories in the Eightfold Path - Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood, Right Speech is probably the hardest to keep. Mainly because we are always talking if not to others then to ourselves and the only respite is sleep!
Right Speech is expressed negatively in the Five Training Rules: Not to use wrong speech.
The wrong sort of talk we get into are lies, slander, coarse language and useless talk.
Lies we probably don’t tell any more. I mean real porkers. But what about exaggerations? And for what purpose are we exaggerating. To aggrandise ourselves, to defend ourselves, even to belittle ourselves? And similarly of the other.
Slander means telling someone about another’s faults, but it depends on the purpose. Is it to do them harm or is to warn someone? And there’s :
A truth that's told with bad intent
Beats all the lies you can invent.” William Blake
Coarse language usually comes out of lust or anger. But it can also be a bad habit. We need to ask what effect it has? Is it to be ‘one of the boys/girls’. A sort of bonding? Is that the sort of company we want to keep?
Useless speech is simply talking for talking sake. This does not include the usual social pleasantries. In the Discourses, it often describes how when someone visits the Buddha ‘some exchanged greetings with him, and when the courteous and amiable talk was finished, sat down to one side’. M60.3
We find it very difficult to be silent with another, even when we know them well. The other can feel very uncomfortable if we don’t speak. So if we feel we cannot keep silent, then at least let us guide the conversation to something mutually interesting.
The Buddha also gives us pointers to use speech skilfully. Apart from the opposite of the above, the Buddha suggests:
Spoken at the right time: often we have to choose when to say something especially if the other will find it difficult to hear.
What is said is true: we have to remember that what we say may not be heard as we intend it to be heard. We sometimes have to check with the listener. In an interview, the teacher may repeat back to the meditator what they said to be sure they have heard properly.
It is spoken gently: sometimes that might mean we have to count ten.
What is said is beneficial: that is to the benefit of the other, or to ourselves or to the other and ourselves.
It is spoken with the heart of loving-kindness.
Then, of course, there is the whole area of not speaking when we ought to. Was it because we were afraid? Confused? Or is not talking a way we express our anger, spite, sourness and so on.
But then again, silence can speak volumes.
But in general, the trick to right speech is to pause before we speak; to glance inward and know our mental state. If the heart is not in a good place, then come from the seat of wisdom.
Equanimity is not the sort of word you hear very often. As for myself, I didn’t really know what it meant. Something about balanced mind.
In the Buddha’s teaching, it is arguably the most important of all virtues. For sitting on the bed of equanimity, the other virtues are less likely to be corrupted into their direct or subtle enemies. And we are more likely ‘to see things as they really are’.
Every virtue has its opposite: love and hatred, generosity and greed, courage and cowardice and so on. And more subtle ones too: love and attachment, generosity and overly generous detrimental to oneself or the other or both: courage and fool heartedness.
Equanimity is a quality we would expect of a judge. We don’t expect them to get caught up in the clever arguments of the lawyers. The opinionated mind. We don’t expect them to be persuaded by the baying the crowd. The emotional heart. They are to be impartial. We do not expect them to be angry with the criminal so clouding their sentencing. Or indeed fearful of possible reprisals from a guilty criminal on summing up and guiding the jury and eventual sentencing. They are not meant to come from a personal angle, but from the position of the law.
So it is with equanimity in ordinary daily life. Do we know our biases. Do we only read, listen and talk to those who have the same. Do we take the position of ‘I’m right’. Or more subtly ‘we’re right’. It always feels more right-eous when others agree with us.
In a quiet moment when we can talk to ourselves truthfully, what do we really think about politics, sexual identities, religion and other questions of our time? And then how we really feel. Do they match up? Are there hidden darknesses we have kept secret even from ourselves. Little prejudices that our ideal sense of self has not really allowed accepted. ‘If I thought that, it wouldn’t be me.’
From the position of the Dhamma, often translated as the Law, the Truth, what ought we to think and feel? Do we have the humility to accept that?
So when are we equanimous? When we come into any given situation without prejudice, without fear, without anger and without preference.
Mmmm. Well, that’s where we are aiming.
Shame gets a bad press. It is as though we shouldn’t feel it at all. All shame is bad.
It may come as a surprise then that the Buddha calls shame a guardian of society and it is coupled with guilt or fear of consequences.
Shame or its lesser form embarrassment is what we feel when we have let ourselves down and especially when we have let ourselves down in other people’s eyes.
There is the delightful tale of Sir Walter Raleigh who, presumably as he bowed to the Queen Elizabeth, let out a great fart. He did not reappear at court for year or so. When he did arrive the Queen greeted him warmly and told him, ‘We have forgot the fart.’
We are often more ashamed by social gaffes than by immoral behaviour. And I dare say if we get away with it, we have none at all.
Are we ashamed when we slander someone, no matter how slight? Or take the pen home from the office? Or exaggerate to the point of untruthfulness?
There is a level of shame that can be too delicate. An over-sensitive conscience. If a small gaffe of calling someone by the wrong name keeps you up at night; if we find ourselves avoiding society because of the way we look; if we freeze when we stand up in public (shyness often masquerades for shame); then we may benefit from counselling.
There is also the exercise of being aware of the feeling. Recognise it as unwholesome and wait for it to pass or do what you have to do anyway. This is vipassana in action.
In the Buddhadhamma, shame is always seen as an unwholesome state for it arises when we do or think something that belittles us. And yet without it and its companion of the guilty fear of consequences what would stop any of us from committing crimes?
It is the desire not to suffer shame and its companion, guilt that is wholesome.
So the task is to reflect on any thought, speech or action which we see is unethical, harmful or simply insensitive and to acknowledge what shame or lack of it came up.
If we feel the shame, then we can reflect on the harm done to see if it is appropriate. We can talk to the person whom we imagine no longer respects us or holds us with the same regard, and correct or soften their view of us.
If we acknowledge that what we have just done is wrong, insensitive, inappropriate and there is no shame to it, then again we need to reflect as to why that is? Don’t we care how people view us? What sort of self-respecting standards are we keeping if we couldn’t care less if we break them?
This is all to do with refining our moral conscience. It is about how we relate. The way we relate manifests our wisdom or lack of it.
Like shame, the Buddha calls guilt a guardian of society.
That guilty feeling means we know we are at fault. We know we have done some harm. This leads to the fear of consequences.
This is not the same as existential guilt which someone may suffer from if they are brought up in one the Abrahamic religions. For we are told we carry the sin of Adam. From an early age, we may have been told that we were essentially sinful.
This is not the fundamental reason for our transgressions. The Buddha said wrong doing is secondary. The prior reason is non-culpable ignorance that causes us to fall into a delusion. We are essentially ignorant of the ‘way things really are’.
Because of this we commit errors based on acquisitiveness, aversion and fear. But paradoxically it is all done to make ‘me’ happy.
Even so this leads us into actions of thought, speech and deeds that harm us and harms others. And that is when we feel guilty.
If we did not feel guilty; if we did not perceive that we were a cause of another’s suffering and of our own (how easy it is to blame our unhappiness on others!); if we are not worried about the consequences, what then would stop us doing harm?
Guilt like all our unwholesome states must be faced. In our meditation we open up to its tremors. The fear of being caught. The dread of consequence.
Now it may be that the guilt we feel is inappropriate. To be unable to sleep because you purposely took a pen from the office, criticised your boss to someone whom you suspect might tell them or swatted a fly out of irritation may point to a guilt ridden conscience. A conscience full of scruples and qualms (the bug bear of the monastic life with all its 227 rules!) is a sign of imbalance. It is often relieving to talk to a friend whose judgement you trust to give you a wiser perspective.
On the other hand when we feel no or little guilt after committing what society and ordinary people would consider wrong tells us we need to contemplate the consequences of what we have done. I knew someone who stole from a small book shop on the grounds of Marxist critique of a capitalist society, regardless of the effect on the struggling owner.
However, when guilt is justifiable, we do need to turn into the feeling of guilt to really see how painful it is. Really opening up to the misery of that mental state is a departure for reflection. ‘I would not be suffering this tormented heart, if I had not behaved unskilfully’.
If we can put right what we did wrong, all well and good. Sometimes a simple apology. A gift. But if an occasion for reconciliation does not arise, then it may be possible to do something by way of reparation.
Here is a rather extreme example. When a Hindu confessed to Ghandi he had murdered a Muslim child, Gandhi told him to find a Muslim orphan and bring him up as a Muslim.
But if even that is not possible, then we have no option but to sit with the guilt and express our remorse and sorrow within ourselves. And, of course, a fierce determination not to behave in a similar manner again.
When we experience within ourselves the suffering of guilt, realise it is the product of deluded unwholesome action, then we are more able to forgive others who do harm, for they will also suffer the same.
Guilt, then, is also a first step towards compassion.
Gratitude Generosity Renunciation
The Buddha began any talk he gave to laypeople with dana, generosity. ‘Even a thief can be generous!’
We can be generous with our time and with our wealth.
For the act to be true generosity it has to be given without conditions.
If a friend needs a lift and you help her out, and there is a thought that she can be called upon when you are in need, then that is not generosity. It is a business contract. Business contracts are fine, but should not be confused with generosity.
If you are out with someone and offer to buy the tea and are upset when the friend does not reciprocate, then it was not an act of generosity. That too was a business contract.
An act of generosity has to hurt a little. It’s hardly generous giving £5 a month to a favoured charity. What would it feel like giving £10 or £20?
What if a friend is taken to hospital, how long should your visit last. If it is up to you (within reason), it is not generosity. Generosity puts the other first.
In other words, generosity always – that is always! – asks for renunciation. We are giving up time and wealth for the benefit of the other – without recompense or refund. And it always hurts a little.
When we give something up, we let go of a little attachment, of a false necessity. Every time we give up a little attachment, the self shrinks a little. The self manifests as clutching ‘for personal use only’ and out of fear of loss. Generosity releases the cramp.
This is the gift of generosity – releasing us from false needs and dependencies.
But what motivates generosity in the first place. There’s compassion, of course, when we see suffering. Expressions of love and joy too. But it is gratitude that can bolster our giving.
Spend just a moment considering what you have received where payback was never asked: as a child (the Buddha reminds us that even should we carry our parents on our shoulders throughout our lives we would never be able to repay them the gift of life), support of family, education, health care, our culture – the Buddhadhamma.
The paradox is that more we give, the more the sacrifice, the more the sympathetic joy. But more, much more! This virtuous circle twirl s us towards liberation.
Excitement Boredom Contentment
It is when we confuse excitement with happiness that the trouble starts. You can get excited about anything – trainspotting, juggling, tiddly-winks. It does not matter what it is, so long as it excites us. We can absorb quickly into that mental state and for that time it is, well, heaven. There are those who absorb into beautiful states through their meditation and may even mistake them for Nibbana. So long as we can be lifted into that state, all is well. But when we don’t get the same gratification, then disappointment sets in.
After a joyous meal or party with old friends or family, there is a call for ‘let’s do it again!’ The second time just does not live up to it. How disappointing! Suggestions for another meeting are met with rictus smiles and forced nods. Come the time, excuses abound.
But what if you have to do the same thing again and again. Like work that once was so interesting. Or the breath in sitting that once was a haven. That is when the aversion sets in. A type of restless aversion that moves towards listlessness and a feeling of meaninglessness. Then a deeper boredom sets in. A sense of wasted time. Then the driving search for something - anything else. The fidgety swipes through websites. The restless flicking through channels. Scrolling though the social media. The pursuit of biscuits. The mind in meditation starts to live in its virtual reality.
And we find it! Now there is joy. And off we go again, indulging in a new passion. This time it is foraging for mushrooms, playing THE Great Big War Game, scanning up and down the body in sitting. And the whole cycle starts off again. How I save the world from ecological distaster.
Consumerism depends on this sort of intoxication. And it is a religion that is onto a real winner, because once it has hooked you, it knows you are always after the NEW. New means good, means excitement. That is greed, of course. But how quickly we are bored. And at the first tweak of boredom, we are off ‘seeking pleasures here and there’. Boredom is the underlying engine consumerism depends on.
However great the excitement, boredom comes in equal measure. And the more excitement we indulge, the more we raise the bar, the greater the excitement has to be. Greed in all its forms is voracious. More, once an adjective, becomes a noun. We simply want More.
Should there come a time when excitements lose their gloss and boredom, feelings of wasted time, of a vacuous lifestyle set in, then there arises the loss of hope of ever enjoying life again – and that beds into despair.
That is endgame of course. But for most of us, we can take boredom as a warning.
And the cure? Repetition with good intention. Re-establish why you are doing your job. And do it for that reason. Raise a sense of care to be excellent. Interest reappears.
Acknowledging that a lot of what we do is useless entertainment and determine to spend the time more usefully. The joy of living returns.
Practising renunciation. Let go of all that planning. What are we going to do this evening, this weekend, next month. Do something simple instead. Over a series of weekends, the same walk, the same simple meal. Draw the attention into the present doing, and develop contentment. This is the way it is and it is ok. Contentment is poison to boredom.
Our world, the culture we live in, is drenched in noise. The sounds of traffic, of transport. The music, often making it difficult to speak, in cafes. Even in the Quiet Coach someone has to speak so everyone else can hear.
On the streets, in the offices, in the parks, people walk with their smart phones on high alert. Forever communicating, listening, looking. Deaths on the roads are caused by the enchantment of smart phones.
Every sense has its mode of rest. Smelling and tasting are the more sensitive the less they are put to work. Sight is rested easily in closed eyes. Touch softens in rest. But even in sleep, the ears are awake. How amusing it is to see a dog’s ear straighten on a sound. And the mind! is for ever achattering, silenced only in deep sleep.
Sounds are neutral. But some we hear as music to the ears and others as thorns. Music, whether of human or nature, is health giving. But there comes a time of too much. Noise brings tension and if constant ill-health. There comes a craving for the end of sound. The succulent pleasure of silence.
But the mind won’t stop so easily. In the quietest of meditation rooms, the mind blasts out. Not just the chatter, but the emotional noise too. All the aversions, all the anxieties, all the lusts. Shutting down the outer world with its music and noise, only opens up the inner world – for most – a purgatorial video.
We can draw the concentration down to the neutral sensations of the breath and listen to it. Feel it. Let it draw us into a stillness. The delightful joy of silence.
For those with ability and time, there is a state of absorption of sheer stillness, peace and absolute silence. But even to sit in silence with a cup of tea, brings a deep refreshment. Whatever the depth of silence, there is always nourishment.
Even more so among friends. To walk, to sit, to eat in silence, aware of the presence of the other, is a communication of being. It is the experience of the other in their essence, before their becoming somebody. It can be as shocking as death, as astonishing as birth.
And there is a deeper silence still. It is a silence beyond silence, for there are no sounds to compare it with. Here is the resting place of the Buddha Within.
Courage, Fortitude and Resilience
It is a common experience that at least once in our lives everything seems to collapse around us. And we are left desperate. It may be failure to get the qualifications we need to do the work we have set our heart on. Or indeed the loss of work we love. It may be the collapse of a relationship we have become so dependent on. Or the death of someone close. It may an illness that demands a radical change in our lives.
Our first reaction is one of shock and disbelief. And as the reality of the situation looms through, the feeling of utter desolation. The future seems bleak. Hopeless.
This is a crucial moment. We can either descend into the hell of depression and even suicide or into purgatory where we begin the process of rehabilitation. The suffering involved in purgatory is equal to hell, but for the change of attitude. We have reinstated a reason for living, a meaning for life.
This takes courage. For our first task will be to ask why such a catastrophe has happened. It may be for reasons beyond our control; it may be the outer circumstances of the economy; it may be that the other has been unfaithful; it may be the nature of the body to fall ill. In such cases, there can only be acceptance and the turning into oneself to work with the emotional and mental reaction. And to explore potential.
However, if it was a case of overconfidence, of being very much part of the cause for the ending of a relationship, of carelessly putting the body into a dangerous situation, then a deep trawling of our attitudes needs to be undertaken. This takes patience, fortitude and perseverance – resilience.
The situation may demand a completely new change of direction in our lives. It may call for continuing as we were, but with a very different attitude. It may mean a radical acceptance of a situation that cannot be altered.
Once this decision has been made, no matter how dimly we see the potential outcome, we are on the road to rehabilitation.
In many such cases, there is also a spiritual awakening. For in the misery, there also arises the question as to the purpose of life. Such occasions may also happen in our spiritual lives. In fact, I would say it has to happen to some degree or other. The world view we hold is, according to the Buddha, a delusion. When we come face to face with that delusion, it is bound to cause a disruption. And that dis-location can be as painful as any mundane one.
There may be the sense of groundlessness and bewilderment, yet the inner conviction, no matter how dim, supported by the writings, experience and example of others, gives us the courage to commit and the determination to persist.
In the Buddha’s own darkest hour when Mara generated in him the Great Doubt – Who am I after all to seek the end of suffering? He had to ground himself. And the Earth Goddess rose to remind him that that his task was not just for his own benefit but for the benefit of all. And that he had perfected the virtue of generosity and so had the virtuous power to complete the task. Rooted to his seat beneath the Bodhi Tree, after six hours, came the insight into the end of all suffering, the direct experience of Nibbana.
There is an end to suffering, to all unsatisfactoriness. It is our destination. Our only real destination.
One of the Hindrances is Sceptical Doubt.
Sceptical doubt stops us doing anything.
First time on a diving board and we doubt we can do it. It is fear, of course, that is rationalising. So you climb down.
Applying for a job, a job for which you doubt you have the ability. The mind offers a rational argument for your fear of failure.
You doubt whether the person you love, can really love you, carbuncles and all, so you delay ... and delay for fear of rejection. And they find someone else.
Sometimes you have to make a leap of faith.
This is easier if we abandon the notion that life is a series of successes and failures, and instead see it as an exploration - a series of trial and errors. Then we can jump. We can 'fail'. We can try again.
So it is with the Buddhadhamma.
We may have all sorts of doubts. Doubts in the Teaching, in the practice, in the teacher and most often in ourselves.
There are also many teachings which may be difficult for us: not-self, karma and rebirth, transcendence and Nibbana, no personal, all-loving God.
If we allow these doubts to overwhelm us, we will stop the practice. We will commit spiritual suicide!
Yet the Buddha does ask us to have doubt - an honest doubt. It is the wonder of the philosopher.
This wonder, this curiosity will overcome any fears we have. And fears there will be as we explore our unknown inner territory.
For the Buddha did not ask us to believe what he said, but question it.
And he gave us a process on how to investigate - vipassana.
To question not intellectually, but experientially. To discover whether his teachings are true for us.
This very exploration is the process of liberation for it dissolves our delusions.
This exploration demands we overcome our sceptical doubts.
Such doubts often arise also when we are asked to abandon our cherished certainties. But do we know whether these certainties are true by our own experience? Or are they rather beliefs we have unquestionably accepted on the word of others, of family tradition, of culture?
Can we remain in that place of 'don't know', 'not sure'.
After all, why come to a conclusion anyway when in truth we don't actually whether it is true or not by our own personal experience.
Scientism meets Buddhism (Buddhadhamma?)
There are those of us whose feet are firmly cemented in the empirical, objective truths of science, whose hearts a dedicated to the Buddha's teachings, and whose head negotiates an understanding that makes sense and gives direction to their lives.
Unfortunately approaching the Buddha's teaching from a belief that the scientific method of observation, hypothesis and repeatable experimentation is the only way that truth can be determined means that some teachings must be simply discredited as ‘unprovable', with added subtext that it is all deluded imagination. (see below Bertrand Russell definition of scientism)
It is also possible to ‘prove’ something false by approaching the teachings from a particular point of view (hermeneutics). Because the Discourses are not the exact words of the Buddha (which is true), or at least, that only a minute amount might be verbatim, then there must have been a lot of additions and interpretations. This allows us to form our own interpretation.
We might, therefore, decide that some teachings like rebirth were introduced to align Buddhadhamma with prevailing ideas of reincarnation and so make the Buddhadhamma more palatable. Presuming the Buddha did not teach rebirth or any form of afterlife, puts the Buddha in the annihilationist camp. And this means that Nibbana can only be either momentary or if attainable as a constant state by an occasional person, comes to an end at death. It cannot be a transcendent state beyond space and time, mind and matter,
It is one of our cultural biases that the scientific method is the only way to determine what is true. This is an extreme for it denies that for every individual an inner, personal, private, non-repeatable experience is an event as real as an eclipse of the moon.
The Buddha did not conduct objective experiments to prove his teachings. For instance, there is no instance of control groups where one set is given the Four Noble Truths with the practice of vipassana, another a set of Ignoble Truths and vipassana and a third, no Truths at all with vipassana in order to see which is the quickest way to awakening.
The Buddha's approach is what we would call phenomenological. It is about our personal experience of life. When he talks about the world, he sometimes calls it the All. He is referring not to the objective worlds out there which science investigates, but how we actually sense and feel and react to the inner world that appears in consciousness – the world out there as perceived by the individual, plus all the sensations, emotions and thoughts. The two can be very different. Take time for instance. Scientifically we can measure a minute. But as a personal experience a minute can flash by as we watch a film or crawl by as we wait for the kettle to boil.
When someone who has an out of body experience or a past life recall, such experiences are real for them and often life changing. For them their experiences are as true as gravity. And Nibbana by definition is unprovable to the sciences. The Buddha tells us there is nothing of the material world or the mental world in that experience and yet insists it is never changing and the greatest happiness of all.
If you are one of those who are not entirely convinced of Scientism, the secular belief that that there is only matter and that everything is ‘an emergent property’ out of matter and yet can’t quite get your head around rebirth and a transcendent Nibbana, surely the better position to take is one of ‘don’t know’ or ‘not sure’. We need not feel compelled to come to a conclusion, for so long as honest doubt guides our investigation, we will come to know for ourselves through our own direct experience.
If you don’t know, hang loose. You never know!
Bertrand Russell: Religion and Science p 242: Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.
Here are two books, downloadable and donation only, that collect a lot of the sayings from the Discourses around Nibbana and the process of awakening and a book that tackles rebirth. Don’t be put off by the title. It is quite readable.
Rebirth and the Stream of Life: A Philosophical Study of Reincarnation by Mikel Burley
What is our basic disposition to life?
Just as these days it is almost impossible to walk into a cafe without some sort of background music (and sometimes not so background), there is within our psyche a background tune/s. It is enlightening to discover this basic disposition if you have not already discovered it.
There have been many ways to categorise characters and personalities according to a basic disposition.
The dominant categorisation from ancient to modern times, was the notion of the Four Humours or Temperaments, connected to season, age, organ which we also used diagnose to the cause of illnesses. (See Diagram below courtesy of Wikipedia)
The four fundamental personality types were:
- sanguine — enthusiastic, active, and social — optimistic and over-enthusiastic
- choleric — independent, decisive, goal oriented, but also aversive and reactive
- melancholic — analytical, detail oriented, deep thinker and feeler, but also sad, shy
- phlegmatic — relaxed, peaceful, quiet, but also lethargic and unconcerned
(Wikipedia – italics additions are mine)
We pass through such states multiple times during a day, but there usually one which sits as background motif – an attitude we have developed towards life.
There are other typologies such as the Myers-Briggs. One that you might think worth exploring if you have not come across it is the Enneagram, which was a great discovery for me and I found it very helpful.
In Buddhism, it was only in later commentaries that such personality types were developed. You will not be surprised at their categorisation. Yes, you’ve guessed! The Greedy, the Aversive and the Deluded character. Their opposites might seem a little strange: Faithful, Intelligent and Speculative. The one, with Dhamma practice moves towards the other.
Greed seeks to gratify itself, whereas Faith, better translated as Confidence, also desires to get, to achieve, but what is virtuous. We would normally think of Generosity as the opposite, but here we see how close Greed and Confidence are.
Aversion holds objects at a distance but condemning them, whereas Discernment also sees objectively, but is judicious. Again we would normally see the opposite as Love, but here again we see how anger distorts our perception.
Delusion is a state of confusion, whereas speculation thinks itself undeluded, but gets lost in all sorts of ‘thinking’. It looks as though the Commentaries have given no hope to the Deluded! But obviously as delusion is undermined, wisdom arises. So since we are all, save the Arahants, deluded to some extent or another, we need to question our thinking, but we can still live in hope of illumination.
We can tell which one we are if we catch the way we think about things, the way we do things.
If we detect a fundamental disposition, it is good to ask – is it wise, is it beneficial.
If it isn’t, then we need to counteract it.
For instance, if a basic attitude is an amorphous feeling of guilt (Aversive / Melancholic), then we undermine this by remembering any unethical actions we have committed. Either apologise for it or make amends. If that’s not possible, then to accept whatever consequences may arise. Then don’t obsess over it! Instead we bring to mind all the virtuous things we have done and congratulate ourselves.
If it is beneficial, then we need to warn ourselves that there is often an over play. An optimistic joy (Greedy / Sanguine) can lead to over expectation and disappointment. Should we experience disappointment, then that becomes a warning signal to us to make reality checks.
Amita Scmidt does a good introductory job on the Four Temperaments with a quiz:
For a more detailed exposition of the Personality Types in Early Buddhism:
For those of you, who have a copy of the Visuddhimagga by Buddhaghosa, you will find the Temperaments on Page 102 para 74
Wikipedia, as usual, does a good introductory job on:
There is even an Institute - https://www.enneagraminstitute.com/
Have you ever allowed yourself to feel fear? I don't mean fearful. I don't mean anxious. I mean have you felt fear intimately? The raw emotion? The simple sensation of it?
I don’t mean sit by the fire. I mean jump into it.
So long as there is a self, a ‘me’, someone there to defend, there will be fear. Because the self, that notion or view of me, that sense of me, that I am someone, knows it cannot exist for ever. It knows it will die. The fear of death is the mother of all fears.
Yet who would want to sit still in the midst that experience - the cold agitation, the suffocated breath, the debilitating weakness, the exploding heartbeat, the nausea. Surely there is something we can do about it.
Of course there is! We can turn to social media, nothing like talking to others about the weather, the tennis, Brexit, to get away from fear. Nothing like eating, or drinking. Alcohol is such a salve.
Or perhaps the primal fear has morphed into other fears. Fear of loneliness or anger or love or spiders. I say morphed, but it's another way of guarding ourselves. To attach a fear to ‘something’ is more bearable than the fear of death, of annihilation, of total loss.
And to guard ourselves well, we need to control. The more we control, the more we feel safe. To guard what we have. To fend off attacks real or imaginary.
Yes! And anger too. Anger is good. It empowers us. ‘Where there is fear, I shall fight.’ Anger feels good. It frightens others. It protects me from my fear. And I love to see the fear in others. And dominate!
But in the worst case scenario run. Hide. Seek seclusion. And there is always shopping, jogging … and sex
What strategies do you have?
The Buddha did not say the path was easy. He said it was gradual. Against the stream.
With every fear that arises we are given a chance to feel the raw emotional material. Slowly we become accustomed. The more accustomed, the more we lose the fear of those emotional sensations.
Then we realise it is the deluded heart that goads the mind into horror scenarios. And as we gradually lose our fear of fear we begin to see the possibility of fearlessness. For if we lose our fear of fear, what could possibly frighten us?
And since fear is the measure of our self-delusion, so the sense of self diminishes until such time as the wrong view of self, the belief that sense of self is substantial and essential, is cut asunder completely.
All the while as the materials of fear dissolve, the barriers of defence weaken. The once embattled heart begins to embrace.
Then we understand how we might suffer for another – die for another.
The Buddha said of the Dhamma that it was beautiful in the beginning, beautiful in the middle and beautiful in the end.
In the Parinibbana Discourse where the last of his days are recounted, it is recounted that ‘the Blessed One getting ready in the forenoon, took bowl and robe and went into Vesali for alms. After the alms round and meal, on his return, he spoke to the Venerable Ananda, saying: "Take up a mat, Ananda, and let us spend the day at the Capala shrine." Indeed, he rejoiced in the beauty of shrines: "Delightful, Ananda, is Vesali; pleasant are the shrines of Udena, Gotamaka, Sattambaka, Bahuputta, Sarandada, and Capala."
In the early days, monastics would take leftover white cloth from the corpses in the charnel grounds and stitch them together. When he saw a group of them, the Buddha must have thought they looked scruffy indeed because he then asked order members to cut and sew the pieces together so the robe when stretched out looked like paddy fields – and to dye them in areca nut which gave them a browny hue.
All religions make great efforts to build beautiful places of worship. They fill them with beautiful decorative art, statues and music.
But evil can also be beautiful. Mythologically, Lucifer was the most beautiful of angels. Leni Riefanstahl glorifies the Nazis in her propaganda films such as The Triumph of the Will (1935). The martial parades of Communist Russia were a marvel to behold. The mushroom of an atomic bomb is beautiful.
Beauty then is a category of its own. Just because something is beautiful it does not mean it is true or good.
How then do we experience beauty? It has a certain emotional feel to it that uplifts the heart. There is a pure aesthetic mental state when we see something such as a beautifully wrought iron gate or a dry stone wall. But more often than not something beautiful excites conjoining emotions of love, wonder, simple joy, devotion and so on.
Whether beauty is in the eye of the beholder or out there in the world, is an eternal philosophical debate. But in Buddhist understanding, it is the body-heart-mind complex that is creating the world we are actually experiencing. Nature may have all the ingredients that make beauty, but without awareness it may as well not have them.
So, it is back to us. A mind full of beauty, when that beauty highlights truth and virtue, is a mental state we can presume the Buddha himself would delight in.
But if beauty or the beautiful feeling is our aim, then we have lost the path. Beauty has to be one of the many objectives that gather around our central aim to liberate ourselves from dukkha.
And external beauty is not necessary. We can liberate ourselves in a stinking slum, with raggedy clothes and only pap to eat.
Even so …
The Wisdom of Uncertainty
Idappaccayatā is a long Pali word which translates as the Law of This and That or Specific Conditionality. In this very simple verse, lies the understanding as to why we live in an uncertain world:
- When this is, that is.
- From the arising of this comes the arising of that.
- When this isn't, that isn't.
- From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that.
There are two lines of events that converge on the ever-present moment which is the event we experience all the time – just this moment. Are you talking about inner conditioning meeting external circumstances?
All events originate in the past. A linear cause and effect process. They can be both caused by us or by anything else. If we play the lottery every week, we have just that less to spend. That’s a direct cause by an action we made. But one week we win a shed load of money. That is because a computer picked the numbers we needed. That is not because we bought a ticket. To think we somehow deserved the money is superstition.
And, of course, if we resist the temptation to play the lottery none of this would happen!
However, in each moment, various lines of past events converge. This is true of every moment of our lives.
There was an event reported in the newspapers of a man who was drunk. He stepped outside the pub to take a breath of fresh air and managed to fall down a bank which boarded a road. Just as that moment a car came to that very spot. Two lines of past actions collided and the poor man was killed. That he ended up rolling down a bank and landing in the middle of the road is his own doing, but the collision was caused because someone else decided to drive along that road at that time. To think they are in some way connected save by happenstance or to think he deserved to be killed, is superstition.
If he hadn’t have got drunk, none of this would have happened!
There are two contemplations that arise out of this understanding. The first is that we don’t know the consequences of our actions. Just because we do something wholesome, doesn’t mean that something beneficial will come out of it. Since we don’t know the matrix into which we are making an input, we could very well be doing the wrong thing!
Secondly, the effect inwardly, of course, is beneficial. Our inner moral life grows with every virtuous action. And again because we don’t know the matrix of our own heartmind, talking a homeless person, making contact in a way we haven’t before with homelessness, may lead us to join a charity or even start a charity!
And secondly, we don’t know what is going to happen because someone else has made decisions or because nature produces its own events.
A lot of our time is fairly predictable. We live in a fairly ordered society. Events that happen contrary to what we presume will happen are rare enough to cause us to be surprised or shocked. But this would not be true in a war zone. So we tend to feel safe. But this feeling of security can easily be shattered. An obvious case is a sudden death.
If every morning we spend a moment contemplating the unknowability of what will happen in the day before us, we will fortify ourselves against shock. Nor will be we become over-excited by surprises.
Because we are not so bound by ‘what will happen’, such contemplations open the day to possibilities. It undermines anxiety and makes us more flexible. We can adapt more easily to unforeseeable events. Herein lies a lesson from uncertainty?
The word comes from the Latin, pati – to suffer. We derive other words from this root – patience, a patient, passion. But the virtue of patience takes on the meaning of bearing with the unpleasant, the unpleasing, with suffering.
It harbours a lot of qualities the Buddha would have also included:
forbearance, tolerance, restraint, self-restraint, resignation, stoicism, fortitude, sufferance, endurance.
The Pali word – khanti is probably best translated as patient endurance, but like all virtues has a wide coverage - everything from minor irritants to major physical pain and psychological torment.
What attitudes might foster patience which the Buddha calls the greatest of all ascetic virtues.
When it comes to momentary situations, to have that awareness to see our irritation arising, allows us to resist indulging it. Sometimes we have to overlay it with good will for it does not pass on the acknowledging of it. If we find ourselves in conversation with someone whose views are contrary to our own, as we feel the anger arising in us, we are aware of it and positively put our attention towards the attitude of careful, respectful listening.
It may be that we can do nothing about a situation and instead of getting into conflict, it would be wiser to develop patient forbearance. It may be great pain for which there is no palliative, or a neighbour with penetrating music, or a boss who bullies. Accepting a situation does not mean to be resigned to it, but to continuously seek a solution. If, however, there is no solution to be seen, then there is no option but to learn to live with it. Here is an opportunity to practice affectionate awareness. Difficult as it may be, it is an awareness that also engages the heart into some form of kindliness or caring.
The Buddha offers this instruction in the Discourse of the Simile of the Saw MN21
Bhikkhus, even if bandits were to sever you savagely, limb by limb, with a two-handled saw, he who gave rise to a mind of hate towards them would not be carrying out my teaching.’ Instead you should ‘abide compassionate for their welfare, with a mind of loving-kindness, without inner hate.’
Majjhima Nikāya 21.21
Bhikkhu Bodhi The Middle Length Sayings o the Buddha
In order to do this, it would help to recognise in the other their Buddha nature and that they like us are also seeking happiness, no matter how deluded it may be.
Overcoming the Corruptions of Generosity
The self manifests as conceit and conceit manifests as comparison. I am either better, or worse or equal to you.
When it comes to generosity, the conceit ‘I am better’ confides that ‘I am truly a generous person’. Whereas ‘worse’ is critical – you should have given more, spent more time, listened more openly. ‘Equal to’ masquerades as humble – I’m only doing what others do – others stand for those who are like minded, definitely not the stingy others.
Before we give of time or wealth, if we stop and acknowledge the self has a lot of kudos to develop here, we can undermine that conceit by placing in the mind the clear intention to give for the benefit of other without return. We do this more easily with Charities that we support but have no contact with, such a donating to a Homeless Charity. But it gets tricky when we are part of an organisation or family or friendship group. We will know how pure the giving was when we don’t get a return. It will manifest as hurt and the intention not to give again.
The desire for return, whether it be praise or generous response when called for is part of the make up a do-gooder. They are the ones who do you the good they want to do you – whether you want it or not. They generally do not ask you what you want but tell you what you need and they are going to give it to you. When not appreciated and even rebuked, they are mortally offended. ‘I was only trying to help!’ We all fall into this trap from time to time.
To undermine this tendency, the cure is to ask the person what they need or listen carefully to what they are asking for. No problem with suggesting something else but let them make the decision.
Then there is entitlement. This is a subtle corruption. Having done so much, surely they won’t mind if I take a pen, bill them for a meal, take some cash. After all I don’t feel I am appreciated enough. This can be the first step to fraud.
There is also how upset we can be with other people’s lack of generosity. That arises out of ‘I am such a generous person!’ Of course, a person can be stingy, a miser. But it’s up to them to discover the joy in giving. It doesn’t help to criticise them. How easily our joy in giving gives rise to conceit!
How do we develop the joy in giving? By giving! But giving with clear intention, aware of any defilement arising, not engaging them, allowing them to fade away.
The World is in a terrible state.
Now you might say from a Buddhist perspective the world is never in a good place. This is the world of samsara, the forever ongoing driven by acquisitiveness, aversion, fear and delusion.
However, there are times when the world situation fosters peace and prosperity. Such a time at least in Europe was after the Second World War. It took a while, but the new order slowly brought renewal, a new sense of purpose, an established peace between former warring nations and prosperity.
Seventy years on or so, we find the world in a precarious situation. Civil wars, the growing military might of China and its claims based on a fabricated document of no historical value, Russia seizing old territory of the USSR, a proxy war in the Yemen, Syria, Palestine and so on and so on. Here, in Europe an increasingly dissatisfaction with the inequality of wealth, with immigration, the rise of the Far Right which borders on the violent. Then there is an economic system which syphons the money up to the minute rich elite and has no social responsibility, leaving the worker poorer or unemployed and the services such as health and education impoverished. On top of that, there is the impending calamity of climate change.
And we in Europe, small minute individuals, have no power to change anything and can only influence the situation at elections where we see little difference between the parties. So, is it any wonder that many feel despair, the more so if they have children.
What can we do to assuage the fear in our hearts?
It won’t come as a surprise that, first of all, we have to accept the situation as it is. To be as clear about it as we can. And then to receive it, no matter how painful.
We mustn’t allow the mind to proliferate into horror scenarios for this is exercising the very mental states we want to let go of.
Then there is the clear realisation of ‘what can I do’. Trying to get others to behave differently is a fool’s game. You have to offer big sweeteners and have a club ready of they fall back, how else can you get donkeys to move. So, it’s down to us as individuals to take stock of what we can do and to tell others what we are doing so that by our example others may follow.
We can examine our own prejudices, accept them and work against them. We can examine how we spend our money, whether what we are buying is necessary and where the products are being made. We can be pro-active in joining others to protest.
To further lift our spirits, we can bring to mind the huge amount of work being done by Charities, NGO’s and other organisations in all the fields of concern.
It may also be wise to stop the continuous input of bad news and simply keep up with main events.
And finally, to practice Goodwill Meditation and bring to mind also all those who are harming whether consciously or unconsciously.
Many thanks to those to those who gave ideas for this Tip.
Contemplate the good going on
The Treasure of Things
Every year we try to give away the stuff that we have accumulated - things that we don't use now such as two pressure cookers and things that people have left such as scarves, shoes and even coats. If we can't give them away, we try to take them to a charity and if they won't have them, to scrap.
It is a practice I am developing to express gratitude to the object. I don't think the object is aware of my thankfulness. But, of course, that's not the point. In our society where objects are so cheap, we discard them without a blink. It wasn't so in the poor 50s in my childhood. A broken cup would deserve a sever reprimand and a reminder that ‘cups cost money’.
Recognising the preciousness of our homes, our clothes, our pens, our mobiles, (without which we can no longer live!), develops an attitude of treasuring things. And that brings joy to the heart.
This treasuring of things assists our mindfulness. If everything is seen as a rare Ming vase, we will pick things up carefully, handle them carefully, put them down carefully. This is honouring the Buddha's last exhortation, 'Strive diligently'. And how can we possibly forget where we put the keys!
However, a problem may arise with treasuring and that, of course, is attachment. So it is also good practice to remind ourselves that we can only use things. The idea of ownership is a psychological construct. The object does not feel owned. It can be used by a thief. It is a legal fiction, necessary for the orderly run of society.
But how difficult it is to let go of something that has served you so well. I was bought a pair of boots at a cost 40$! They were gloves to my feet. Lasted years and then water began to seep in. I tried all sorts of ways to maintain them, failing each time. Finally, I had to consign them to the wheely bin. But not without a lingering fear I would never find such a pair of boots again.
Treasuring things also makes us tidy. Something I'm working on! Only in the rarest of cases, do meditators fold the blanket neatly. It's just another one of those useless, time wasting things we have to do. But bringing gratitude to mind, recognising the work that has gone into making it, acknowledging it as a gift of nature and how it keeps us warm, we would naturally fold it carefully. And when we do things carefully, we naturally do it beautifully. And when we do things beautifully, joy arises naturally.
This is all part of our commitment to bring the Dhamma practice into everyday life.
I have a recurring conceit that amuses me. It is that I have identified the single ingredient that makes vipassanā “work”. It becomes the topic of my thoughts for a short period until I notice some other aspect which then becomes the one key thing. Recently it’s been equanimity.
Equanimity is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “calmness and composure, especially in a difficult situation”. Apparently, it derives “from Latin aequanimitas, from aequus ‘equal’ + animus’ mind’” and also has the sense of “fairness, impartiality” as we would expect of a Judge presiding over a trial.
If you’ve done a retreat with me, you may remember me defining suffering as “wanting things to be other than they are”. This is the opposite of equanimity; it’s the disturbance of the mind trying to make experience fit the ideal, the rejection of the present.
Another way of defining equanimity, then, might be as “contentment with things being just as they are”. But this appears to carry the invalid suggestion that we should be content with things like poverty and hunger, ecological collapse and war.
So, maybe, instead of “contentment” it should be “allowing things to be just as they are”? But the problem with “allowing”—with its connotations of “permit” and “let”—is that it suggests too much control. We see from meditation that we are not in control. If we were, we would choose not to have incessant destructive thoughts and strong emotions like fear and anger arise.
Equanimity is something of all of these, though. In the Vipassanā Guidelines we read on retreat, we are encouraged to examine our experience “without any interference whatsoever, … simply watching” in a way “that does not control or manipulate … judge or question”.
What this is really pointing out is the kind of needy manipulation of experience we habitually make. Whatever our experience, we interfere because we want it to be different; we control and manipulate because we want it to go a different way; we judge and question from a place of imagined superiority or inferiority. This wanting things to be other than they are is the fundamental dissatisfaction the Buddha labelled “dukkha”. The work of meditation is finding a way where our relationship with experience isn’t one of habitually interfering like this, isn’t automatically wanting things to be other than they are.
It’s clear that there is something in the relationship we have with experience that makes it dissatisfying. When this relationship is based in “greed” (wanting something to bolster our sense of self), “ill-will” (wanting something to diminish our, or somebody else’s, sense of wellbeing), or “delusion” (not caring), it results in dissatisfaction, in dukkha.
We know that when we don’t react to difficult situations, when we give ourselves time to calm down, to get perspective, we generally handle them better. It is this same mechanism that these vipassanā instructions develop. They contain all we need. We simply watch, without any interference whatsoever—without controlling, manipulating, judging or questioning—whatever arises in our experience. It is in this way that we develop equanimity, and with more equanimity there’s less dukkha.
So this is why my topic of the month is equanimity. But as I write this, it occurs to me that, without awareness, without mindfulness, we would find it difficult to develop equanimity.
Hmm, so maybe mindfulness is that one key thing then …? 🙂
The years where do they go. New Year Encouragement. Noirin
The years – where do they go?
December - short days, darkness, winter solstice. Pull on a woolly hat, draw the curtains. Another year is coming to its end.
We tend to ignore endings. We’re probably thinking more of Christmas and New Year than of 2019 drawing to a close. But we’re ignoring a hidden treasure. All the effort we had to make during the year – getting through work deadlines, projects, smoothing out relationship troubles, working through the budget – all these are drawing to a close. Shouldn’t we take a moment to savour that? If we make an effort to let 2019 go, then we’ll be much more conscious of what to take up again in 2020.
The Buddha asks us to be conscious of endings. In formal practice we endeavour to track the breath to its end, to that moment when the movement vanishes into stillness.
At the most obvious level, there’s nothing to this. It’s just that a movement has stopped. It doesn’t signify anything.
But when we follow the breath closely, detect each sensation, notice them getting fainter and fainter till they disappear, it can be a different matter. That ‘gone-ness’ can appear highly significant, mysterious. We were looking at sensations, now what are we looking at?
It’s the same as looking back over the years and thinking “Where did they all go?”
Nature abhors a vacuum and our tendency is to fill that mysterious emptiness with thoughts, distractions, musings. But if we can still the mind towards around the end of the breath, we find that part of us wants to rest, to explore whatever remains where sensations stopped.
The trouble is that we can’t name it. Even the word ‘absence’ misses the mark. The name attempts to capture its essence, make it known. But in the process, destroys it. The name injects sensations, feelings, thoughts where there were none.
Frustrating! The mind wants to know what it’s dealing with, give it a name. But with practice we notice something within us settling, accepting non-ownership. We learn to allow experience to vanish without casting our mental net of thoughts and words and ideas around that vanishing. The last line from the Vipassana verses starts to make sense: “Truly all conditioned things are transient … once arisen they disappear; their cessation is happiness.”
We can discover peace in endings at other levels in life. Like now, December, the ending of the year. Instead of filling all spare moments with Christmas plans, thinking about the New Year, looking forward to spring, we can savour the dark evenings, bare trees, notice the quietness, see nature at rest. Could we follow her lead, let ourselves rest for a moment, our work for 2019 done?
Understand and See things as they really are
This is a favourite saying of the Buddha. But what does it actually mean?
The translation of ‘things as they really are’ gives weight to experiencing in the present moment. But experiencing something can be done at all sorts of levels.
Looking at a rose, I can acknowledge I see the rose and I am made happy by that feeling. But am I really seeing the rose as it is? If I want to do that I have to get back into my body, my senses and really look and smell the rose. I become aware of how red it actually is. Before it was red, but not this red.
And my nose was simply not engaged. Engaging my nose gave the rose a different sense dimension.
Now I am really experiencing the rose as it really is. But am I?
I could go the scientific route and put it under a microscope and see all the different cells. And if we had eyes that could see the atoms and sub-atomic components, we would find out it was largely made of nothing! At any point I might say, now I see the rose as it actually is.
Looking at a rose this way may be scientifically satisfying, but there is also a spiritual understanding here. That nothing has any substance. It is when we turn the gaze upon this ‘body of mine’ that it may strike home that as that rose is so is my body. This insightful reflection might not make us so happy!
Going back to the Buddha’s phrase the literal translation is to ‘really grasp and see how things have come to be’. In other words, not to see the rose as a thing, but a ‘thinging’ – something that is continuously changing. To see how things have come to be naturally progresses to how things are going to be. The Buddha wants us to be aware of process and how nothing is anything, not even for a split moment.
To see the rose as process is to see it bud and blossom; droop and die a shrivelled memorial. And again when we turn this understanding towards this body of mine, then it may strike home at that intuitive experiential level that this body really is in a process and it will die, most likely a shrivelled representation of itself. What was the magic of nature now becomes the tragic for me. Hardly a happiness engendering realisation!
Gently repeating to ourselves – this is the way it is. Over and over. Feeling the fear, the aversion, the reluctance to accept. Putting a smile on the face. This is the way it is. I am not alone. Everything is arsing and passing away – all the plants, all the animals, all humans – even this mighty cosmos. Slowly the agitation gives way to calm.
In that calm, we hear the Buddha’s teaching – there is an end to suffering in the here and now. Where then can I stand in this tumultuous world and yet not tormented by it?
When we know where that is, we have come to realise the experiential truth of Satipatthana – the establishment of awareness. This is what the Discourse on Mindfulness is all about and at the end of that Discourse the Buddha states that anyone who can maintain complete unbroken mindfulness for even a mere seven days will be fully liberated or reach the goal of Non-Returner.
Reflecting on impermanence and insubstantiality, although at first not a pleasing contemplation, lea to realisation of what is permanent and reliable?
Constant Curiosity Carl
At the end of a retreat, it’s common for people to wonder how they can continue the practice once they return to normal life. It’s also common for people to observe that the instructions don’t easily map to daily life, I mean, how are we supposed to go slow and note everything while running for the bus or negotiating a business deal?!
For me, though, this is to mistake the form of the practice for the heart. The instructions while we’re sitting are to watch whatever arises within the field of awareness in a way that does not control or manipulate, judge or question and, without any interference whatsoever, simply allow it to arise and pass away. The great Thai lay teacher, Upasika Kee, calls this “unentangled knowing”. This is the heart of the practice. When we have a difficult emotion arise, we contact it in the body - feel the feelings in the feelings”—and then watch it in this way of unentangled knowing.
The Buddha’s first two noble truths tell us that there is suffering (dukkha), and that this is caused by craving (tanhā). We are constantly dissatisfied with our experience and feel a compulsion to fiddle and faff about with it, trying to make it somehow better. We want things to be other than they are.
The instructions, on retreat, are to simply watch this as described above, but the problem is how to do this in normal daily life. By this, I don’t mean on the cushion, where the instructions are exactly the same, but when walking down the road, or immediately after a verbal collision with an ornery work colleague.
The way to bring the heart of the practice into everyday life is to nurture a curious, investigative attitude that takes interest in how we are suffering, to see what we’re clinging to so that we may then observe it from this place of unentangled knowing.
When you find yourself struggling with a difficult emotion, ask yourself what you are clinging to; what do you want to be different, to be other than it is? Don’t just accept the first answer, dig in.
Imagine you find yourself angry with someone. Ask yourself, “What’s causing this anger?” Your answer may be “They’re an unsavory character!” Nope! Keep digging! Remember, nobody can make us feel anything; we ‘choose’ how we respond. “Okay, it’s because their attack brought about a feeling of injustice.” Better, but dig in further! “Okay, this feeling of injustice is because I feel unrecognised and disrespected.” Even better, but you can go further! “Feeling unrecognised and disrespected makes me afraid that I am worthless.” Excellent, but how does that make you feel? “This feeling of worthlessness, that I resent, has an underlying feeling of needing to be appreciated, liked, accepted and loved.” That’s brilliant! Get in touch with that feeling, feel it in the body, and then try to just accept it being there, allow its energy to dissipate without any interference whatsoever.
Of course, all of this is hard. You may find yourself unable to dig all the way to the bottom. That’s fine, just find the answer that feels the most real to you and sit with that. Of course, the sitting with it is hard too. This is where the sitting practice pays dividends. It’s why it’s called practice! The more we practice, the easier this becomes, and the mindfulness we develop helps us to catch these moments without the angry retort in the first place.
As you develop this, keep it going at all times; be constantly curious! When you find yourself reacting strangely to an advert, investigate. When you find yourself tightening in a meeting, investigate. Positive or negative; seeing lovers kiss, babies cry, dog poo on the floor, flowers in bloom, strewn rubbish, children happily playing, whatever it is, investigate. Dig in and see if you can come to an equanimous and compassionate accommodation with whatever it is you uncover. The wonderful thing about this is that you don’t need to be on the cushion to do it. You can do it at anytime, anywhere.
Kamma (karma in Sanskrit) is part of the Buddha’s law on cause and effect. Every action (of body, speech or mind) generates kamma which causes a resulting effect that sooner or later comes back to us. Although there isn’t an exact equivalence in Christianity, the notion of kamma is reflected in western culture with sayings like “As you sow, so shall you reap”; “What goes around, comes around”. I once heard it described as “For every towel you pinch from a hotel, you lose another sock in the laundry!”
This reflects the first part of the Buddha’s law on cause and effect: When this exists, that comes to be. When we give a gift with good-will, happiness comes our way. When we pinch a towel from a hotel, some shade of misery comes our way.
To live happily we need to think, speak and act based on good-will, generosity and compassion. But even a blameless, happy life with lots of good friends ends up in sickness, old age and death. The Buddha’s spiritual quest was to make peace with that reality. He discovered a form of kamma which loosens attachment to the world, paves a way to a realm without birth or death. This he called the kamma that ends kamma: When this does not exist, that does not come to be.
It doesn’t mean that we stop giving gifts, stop speaking, thinking, acting. The Buddha lived an active life for 45 years after enlightenment, interacting with society at many levels. But obviously there was something not happening in all his actions.
The word ‘this’ refers to what is immediate, present. It could be this pen I’m holding, this car I’m sitting in, this anger I’m feeling, In contrast, ‘that’ refers to what is objective, can be pointed at, not part of me - that pen you’re holding, that car you’re sitting in, that anger I might feel tomorrow.
When this exists, that comes to be. This anger leads to that result – more anger, more misery.
When this does not exist, that does not come to be. Could anger lose its ‘this-ness’?
When we think about anger, the notion ‘this anger’ is useful. This anger I’m feeling now makes me want to burst. When we stop thinking, just feel the sensations, the tightness, the energy, we can’t also describe the experience. It’s too fluid. It keeps changing. It loses its ‘this-ness’. Very unsatisfactory! When it was ‘this anger’ at least I could blame ‘that idiot who caused it’. When it’s just shifting sensations, I lose the sweet notion of someone to blame. We learn, first hand, that anger is hurting me, not the person I’m angry at.
To enact the kamma that ends kamma, to open ourselves to Nibbana, we drop below the level of conceptual thought. We sense the sensations, feel the feelings. We lose the notion of ‘this’ and ‘that’, ‘me’ and ‘you’. In a strangely familiar, uncharted world we follow the path to freedom.
‘If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there’. Lewis Carrol
In his inimitable quirky way, Lewis Carrol points to a profound truth about our lives.
If we don’t know where we are going, there is not only no central focus to our lives, there is also no meaning.
When there is no focus, no aim, no meaning, our lives drift. But not in any old haphazard way. We are already in any given moment conditioned beings. We have our habitual ways of understanding and acting upon those understandings.
And understandings can be true and they can be false.
Our history is littered with ‘ideologies’ , secular and religious, that have taken us down dark roads.
The Buddha’s own avowed aim when he took up his mission to teach others to liberate themselves was to elucidate a path: a development and an aim. And most important an understanding, not based on philosophical abstraction, but based upon his own personal direct experience of his own progress and attainment.
Our idea of time as a linear progression, an arrow that moves from past to present to future, lends itself to a view of progress that presumes from worse, we getter better and from better we get even better (for the pessimist the opposite).
We may consider this true when we think of science which investigates the physical and psychological world with a view to understand and then, as is our nature, to control. This has led to a technology that astonishes. Yet, it is common observation that when it comes to ethics, the way we as humans relate to each other, to other living beings and nature, there does not seem to have been a comparable progress and one might argue that it has all got worse.
However, we can point to individuals both in the religious and secular life that are paragons of human goodness, but they remain a rarity and always arise as a response to general unethical behaviour, such as apartheid, regime oppression and careless destruction of our environment. And there are legions, yes legions, of people involved in putting the world aright whether climate crisis, slavery or political oppression to mention some of the worse.
How then would progress manifest in a world truly devoted to Dhamma? Because our aim is to achieve liberation from suffering, we look into the causes of that suffering. We find the root cause to be selfishness. It’s really all about me! When we realise this ‘me’ is a mistaken understanding of how we really are, we begin to change.
Before we thought ‘me’ was independent, a self-willed integer, complete and entire unto ‘myself’. On careful observation and reflection, we begin to realise this ‘me’ is entirely dependent on my relationship with other beings and the surrounding world. I am inextricably bound up in the total environs that envelope me. I cannot exist outside this milieu.
This beckons us to develop those attitudes that will lead the whole environment towards harmony since in harmony we also find our peace and joy.
In that harmony people are more than willing to support each other in their spiritual quest. How easy it is to practice when surrounded by like minded others on retreat. Or indeed, how joyful is the practice of affectionate mindfulness when doing something with others who have a similar goal.
So it does help to know where we are going, no matter how nebulous the goal. The Buddha says our ultimate goal is Nibbana. But what can that be? Rather than fretting over something that is by definition beyond description, we can ground ourselves in the ethics manifested in the way an Arahant, one who has attained Nibbana, lives. Then that path becomes clear. In short, the second step of the Eightfold Noble Path, Right Attitude, shows us where we are going - moving from selfishness to generosity, hatred to love and cruelty to compassion.
These are all social virtues. They cannot be practiced on ‘me’. They demand the ‘other’. And in that relationship, the ‘other’ is encouraged to reciprocate as we are encouraged when the ‘other’ behaves towards us with generosity, love and compassion.
It would be delusive to believe that we would end up in Shangri-La for this is after all Samsara. But we may move from a disharmonious social order based on competition to one based on harmonious co-operation.
Who Decides? Carl
“The essence of ultimate decision remains impenetrable to the observer – often, indeed, to the decider himself.”—John F. Kennedy.
At the end of a retreat, in my “Practise in Daily Life” talk, I give a long list of examples of things we can investigate in daily life. One of these is to investigate the process of decision making; to see if we can see what happens, and who decides.
With most of the other examples I usually see slowly nodding heads or smiles of recognition and acknowledgement as I suggest something people are already familiar with. But, when it comes to the challenge “who decides?”, invariably the response is a blank stare. I haven’t asked anyone about this, but I get the feeling that people are thinking “Did he really just say ‘who decides?’ … doesn’t he know?” But, if you’ve ever been present for a “decision”, you’ll know that this is a good challenge!
One of the key premises of the Buddha’s teachings is that we are deluded, believing that we are, or have, a permanent, essential Self. We feel that we are the agents of our lives, that we are free to act, and that such actions are by choice - that we can choose. So, an essential aspect of our Self view is that we choose. We cling to this. Powerfully. Our identity is deeply attached to our ability to choose and has been since we were children. Teenagers rebel against their parent’s authority, fighting for their right to decide for themselves. Coming of age is essentially a matter of gaining the right to decide for ourselves.
Given all of this, seeing how the process of choosing unfolds can be quite a surprise and because of what we see, can be quite insightful. That’s why I recommend it as a practise in daily life.
So, what can we do to watch how decisions are made? Obviously, the first thing we need is mindfulness. We have to be present for our minds. So, next time you’re meditating, when the bell goes, just ask yourself “do I want to get up now?”, and watch carefully for the “answer”. Indeed, you don’t even have to wait, you can do it now. Ask yourself a similar question and look for the decision. What happens?
If you look closely, you’ll see that before you’ve even finished asking yourself the question, the mind has presented the answer. You already know what you want! Okay, ask yourself the opposite question, the one you know you don’t want. See that feeling? That feeling of “don’t want!” Quite emphatic, isn’t it. So where was the “agency” in that? Try it again. Keep trying. Every time you’ll find that the answer, the “choice”, is already made. The mind has already “decided”, and “you” are being told. We see that “choosing” is happening, but that we are not the chooser.
However, none of this should be seen as a denial of our personal responsibility. The Buddha was quite clear that this wasn’t the case. We are responsible for our actions, including our decisions. He saw that the will (cetanā) was conditioned, but that it was also conditioned by concomitant mental factors, thus things in the mind at the time of a willed action, like the preferences of a choice, influence the action. That is, we can, and do, choose!
So, this suggestion to watch “who decides?” is actually an exercise in working with not-Self (anattā). Just as we see through meditation that thoughts think themselves, that itches just itch, that sights are simply seen, we also see that, ultimately, decisions are decided with no input from our Self.
In my favourite sutta, the , the Buddha tells Bāhiya to train himself so that “In reference to the seen, there will only be the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed. In reference to the cognized, only the cognized.” And then, “When for you there will be only the seen in reference to the seen, only the heard in reference to the heard, only the sensed in reference to the sensed, only the cognized in reference to the cognized, then, Bāhiya, there is no you in connection with that. When there is no you in connection with that, there is no you there. When there is no you there, you are neither here nor yonder nor between the two. This, just this, is the end of [suffering].”
In choosing, there is only the choosing.
Delusion, caring for illusion.
The Buddha’s teaching on anatta (not-self) asks us to investigate our sense of self. To each of us, this is precious - our sense of being unique, individual, an entity in our own right. The Buddha doesn’t confirm or deny this. But he questions our automatic assumption of self-hood within our body-mind system. He asks us to see can we find any essential self- essence within this, can we locate it, define it, pinpoint it.
How about my body – surely that contains me? But when I look deeper, all I find is an array of shifting sensations. And when I think about it, can something so obviously vulnerable as this body represent my essential being? What about feelings? These certainly feel like me! But they change so easily … same for perceptions, habitual drives, even my subjective experience – all changing, at the mercy of external conditions. Can something so precious as my sense of self really be so unreliable? If so, I’m most unsatisfactory!
Instead of drawing such an unhappy conclusion, the Buddha asks us to follow the investigation with a question: Since I cannot find anything in my body or mind that is reliable, permanent, satisfying, should I assume that my essential self is contained within my body and mind? When he asks this question of his disciples they answer ‘no’. He approves, confirming that nothing in our body-mind experience, can properly be thought of as ‘Mine / Me / Myself’. When we make one of our habitual mistakes, thinking of our bodies, achievements, experiences as ‘mine’, or get caught up in plans, dreams, arguments, or mistaking this hot and bothered entity as ‘me’, we’ve fallen into delusion
But there is a danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The sense of self is central to our life in the world and also to our spiritual life. Just because we keep getting it wrong, mistaking our bodies, emotions, ideas etc. as ‘me’ or ‘mine’, this doesn’t mean the sense of self is inherently useless and needs to be quelled whenever it arises. On the contrary, the Buddha asks us to spend time directing kind good wishes towards ourselves. We need this kindness to fulfil our unique potential for full liberation. If you cherish yourself, he says, then follow the spiritual path.
Cherish ourselves? Cherish an illusion? A mistaken identity?
Yes! Mindfully of course. When the sense of self is strong we feel for a moment the pleasure of this – perhaps we think of it as being centred, well defined or happy. But something deep inside wants more. It wants these feelings, this perception of ‘me’ to be permanent. Gradually the illusion breaks down. We realise it was a mistake. It didn’t define an essential, unchanging ‘me’.
But mistakes are just mistakes. We don’t have to despair. We can learn from them. Keeping attention on the experience we feel physical pushing and pulling within body and mind, pulling towards some new definition of ‘me / mine’ as we push away whatever appears to threaten that. Can we allow all that pushing and pulling to lead us along the path? At times it leads us to new definitions, new understandings. At times it leads us to a simpler experience of sensations and feelings without any conceptual overlay of ‘me / mine / you / yours’ etc. Then the desire for identity pokes out again, pushing and pulling us into some new definition of who or what we are.
The instinct to identify is strong within us. It won’t be quelled just because we’ve heard the teaching on not-self. Rather than fight with the instinct, we can let it be our teacher, our guide to liberation. Cherish the illusion – mindfully of course!
The world is not in a good place.
Now you might say from a Buddhist perspective the world is never in a good place. This is the world of samsara, the forever ongoing driven by acquisitiveness, aversion, fear and delusion.
However, there are times when the world situation fosters peace and prosperity. Such a time at least in Europe was after the Second World War. It took a while, but the new order slowly brought renewal, a new sense of purpose, an established peace between former warring nations and prosperity.
Seventy years on or so, we find the world in a precarious situation. Civil wars, the growing military might of China and its claims based on a fabricated document of no historical value, Russia seizing old territory of the USSR, a proxy war in the Yemen, Syria, Palestine and so on and so on. Here, in Europe an increasingly dissatisfaction with the inequality of wealth, with immigration, the rise of the Far Right which borders on the violent. Then there is an economic system which syphons the money up to the minute rich elite and has no social responsibility, leaving the worker poorer or unemployed and the services such as health and education impoverished. On top of that, there is the impending calamity of climate change.
And we in Europe, small minute individuals, have no power to change anything and can only influence the situation at elections where we see little difference between the parties. So, is it any wonder that many feel despair, the more so if they have children.
What can we do to assuage the fear in our hearts?
It won’t come as a surprise that, first of all, we have to accept the situation as it is. To be as clear about it as we can. And then to receive it, no matter how painful.
We mustn’t allow the mind to proliferate into horror scenarios for this is exercising the very mental states we want to let go of.
Then there is the clear realisation of ‘what can I do’. Trying to get others to behave differently is a fool’s game. You have to offer big sweeteners and have a club ready of they fall back, how else can you get donkeys to move. So, it’s down to us as individuals to take stock of what we can do and to tell others what we are doing so that by our example others may follow.
We can examine our own prejudices, accept them and work against them. We can examine how we spend our money, whether what we are buying is necessary and where the products are being made. We can be pro-active in joining others to protest.
To further lift our spirits, we can bring to mind the huge amount of work being done by Charities, NGO’s and other organisations in all the fields of concern.
It may also be wise to stop the continuous input of bad news and simply keep up with main events.
And finally, to practice Goodwill Meditation and bring to mind also all those who are harming whether consciously or unconsciously.
Many thanks to those to those who gave ideas for this Tip.
Contemplate the good going on