Without Agenda

I had the privilege to lead a retreat recently where I had not chosen the theme. I’d been asked to step in for a friend who was unable to lead it. The topic had already been set and blurb had been publicised for a while before I took it on. The main theme was the Brahma Viharas (divine abodes) and their relation to Insight and I knew the previous leader had intended a particular way of approaching the insight component.

I may have previously said on this blog (as I say on many of the retreats I lead) that I’m a bit of a one trick pony! I’ve immersed myself in a particular approach to practice for many years and I know it really well. To a large extent, it is the framework through which I view the Dharma and spiritual practice. Awareness as an Insight practice is a thrilling and fascinating journey, even whilst the average ‘sit’ can be full of mind wandering or physical discomfort.

So, here I was, with a theme I was not unfamiliar with, but not one that I felt I knew in my bones, or that I loved as a way of practice. This is not unusual for many dharma teachers I know who can turn their hand to a multitude of facets of the Buddha’s teachings, but it was for me, especially to do so for a whole week. I was intrigued as to how it might work, how I might work, and how my existing way of looking at the Dharma through the lens of mindfulness practice would influence the practices of loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity.

Each morning session started with a short led meditation encouraging the traditional forerunners of the Brahma Viharas; generosity and gratitude. I pointed us to notice the small or large moments of appreciation, of giving and receiving, and the gratitude that can quite naturally arise. It was early autumn and we had some bright, clear days and the gardens at Rivendell were looking stunningly beautiful. It wasn’t hard to be in touch with gratitude for all the work by volunteers that had gone into that. Then there were the broader factors. Some were there because their partner was generously prepared to be a solo parent for the week. Others had been helped financially to be there. So many conditions had had to come together for each of us to be on retreat that week.

You barely had to think about it once the thought of gratitude or generosity was in the mind. The heart was just touched and the mind and body responded as these qualities came more into being. Recognising things like the physical relaxation and ease in the body, or a pleasurable mental softening brought further appreciation. From these moments of noticing, of awareness, it was a very small and natural step into the open mind of metta (loving-kindness).

The ‘barely having to think about it’ attitude of receptivity to what was already there in experience was one of the main ways I felt the retreat was influenced by awareness. Noticing where the qualities of compassion or equanimity were already present, even in slight or subtle forms was deeply pleasurable and encouraging to practice, helping those qualities flourish. Noticing too, the near or far ‘enemies’ (in a mean thought or an indifference to someone else’s suffering) without rejecting or indulging them, which would only feed these unhelpful tendencies. A clear-sighted recognition was often enough to allow a deactivation of their power and energy.

We followed the practices through the usual structure and brought specific people to mind but then moved into a more ‘objectless’ mode where we simply allowed metta or mudita to radiate beyond the perceived boundary of the physical body in all directions. This led to a greater sense of freedom from restriction and fixity for many of the retreatants.

What I hadn’t anticipated is what effect the retreat would have on my existing practice. A quality of joy and ease was much more accessible in sitting where I often have a considerable level of physical discomfort. The specific reminders of these beautiful qualities of heart and mind helped me register more clearly where they were present in my experience. I found it profoundly encouraging to clearly recognise e.g. compassion and equanimity in the mind and know their value.

Clearly, there is much more that could be brought out of bringing the Brahma Viharas and the Satipatthana Sutta together, and I hope to lead another retreat on the theme again.


Teaching Dates for 2018

I’ve recently updated the page for Teaching Dates on this Blog. It would be great to see some of you on retreat. As well as some regular retreats at Rivendell and Vajraloka, there are a couple of firsts next year. I’ll be teaching a retreat at ‘The Barn’, which is part of Sharpham Trust. You don’t have to have any experience within Triratna for this retreat. I’ll also be part of a great team for an Order retreat at Adhisthana in July.

The retreats, as usual, are themed around mindfulness as a path to insight.

Truly Aware & Kind.

Often (though less often than I used to) when I’m in a situation where we’re talking about mindfulness or awareness, someone will say “But what about metta?” They will have a perception of mindfulness as being a bit dry or cool and will have a view that it needs to be balanced with metta or loving-kindness. This is not only an idea, it tallies with their experience that mindfulness alone lacks warmth or friendliness and needs to be countered by another practice cultivating these qualities.

I have to say, this is not my experience and though I practised metta and the other brahma vihara’s for many years I rarely do so these days. However, I do feel they are lived through my life and inform the way I practice awareness as a wisdom path. An idea I find very helpful is encapsulated in this phrase by Sangharakshita.

You can’t have clarity without metta objectifying your perceptions”.

Often metta or karuna (compassion) are associated with feelings and emotions. Actually, they are more about our responses to people and our world. These positive responses come from an intention or direction to which we incline the mind and heart. From this intention, we can connect with loving-kindness or compassion and it influences how we act and how we think about our self and others. Our perspective changes from a habitual one (perhaps judging yourself for a perceived failure or getting angry – again! – at your housemate finishing and not replacing breakfast milk) to a fresh, open, more kindly one.

If I take ‘clarity’ to mean mindfulness infused with clear seeing or wisdom, then what Sangharakshita is saying is that if clarity is present, metta is also present, otherwise, it is not true mindfulness. Clarity can sound sharp and penetrating and, like mindfulness to some, cold and lacking in feeling.

I love the idea that metta, or loving-kindness, objectifies our perceptions. Metta helps us see more clearly (have more clarity) and accurately. In our culture emotions (no distinction is made between habitual, negative and positive emotions) are characterised all too often as getting in the way of our ability to think clearly and rationally. This view determines that emotions muddy the waters and need to take a back seat for us to make a sensible decision.

So it is actually quite radical to understand that kindness is inherent in seeing things clearly and fully. Seeing the world through ‘kind eyes’ helps us see the bigger picture. We’re less caught up with our own particular story and can try to see what’s best for another person or what might bring the most benefit to a larger situation. We might not always get it right, but we have a better shot at it through coming from a kindly, spacious aware mind.

Mindfulness and metta share certain qualities and are not so distinct as we might think. Awareness in its fullest sense has a sensitivity to what it is knowing; it is receptive rather than forceful; it is becoming more and more free from the pushes and pulls of our desires and destructive discontent. And, in the quality of sampajana, or clearly knowing, there is the wisdom that understands how we create our own suffering and how we can learn to do things differently.

We can have metta infused with mindfulness, and mindfulness infused with metta. We can bring all these powerful qualities of mind and heart together. In this way, we can be truly aware and truly kind.

Sense and Sensitivity

Some of our senses are much more obvious than others. We might not remember to be aware of ‘seeing’ or ‘hearing’ but once we do, they are right there. There is nothing to do. It’s the same with ‘touch’. There is usually some sensation impinging from the clothes or the sun or a breeze on our skin, the touch of my finger tips on the keyboard as I type or the glasses sitting on my nose as I peer at the computer screen.

The senses of ‘taste’ and ‘smell’ are usually towards the background of our experience and not well defined unless there is a strong stimulus. These stimuli tend to be short lived and attached to particular activities. For example, taste and smell are vivid when I’m eating, or as now when my partner is downstairs cooking our lunch. Or when I walk past a bad drain smell or drive through a mile or 2 of silage covered fields.

As with any of our senses, it’s easy to find that one of the 3 ‘poisons’, our main ways of reacting to experience, is in the driving seat rather than awareness. If the object is pleasant (as with a tasty lunch) we like it, if it’s unpleasant (the silage) the nose wrinkles before we’ve even registered an aversion to the smell) and if it doesn’t register very strongly (most of our tasting and smelling) we don’t notice, we’re unaware of shades of our experience.

Just occasionally there is a smell or a taste that is there more of the time and this is what I’ve been experiencing lately. There has been a fair amount of nose wrinkling up to this point so it’s taken me a while to take the smell/taste combo as an object of experience, to be able to observe it with interest and know it for what it is. The flavour has been more the faint, unnoticed ‘I wish that would go away’.

My partner and I moved into our new house about 6 weeks ago. The downstairs walls had a damp problem so we had them treated and re-plastered just before we moved in. For various reasons we’ve waited to paint over the plaster after it had dried. See if you can summon up what plaster dust smells like? That, in itself, is surprisingly difficult to do – to try and use the mind sense to approximate one of the physical senses – but try anyway. You’d think the smell would be fairly neutral but if you add in time (repeated exposure when I’m on the ground floor) and other conditions (one room is still quite damp) it has become quite unpleasant.

Smelling and tasting are quite complex. With smelling you’re breathing in something. This brings in the notion of space (inside and outside my body). It’s got all the way inside me which also leads to me feeling that I’m tasting plaster dust as well as smelling it. I can feel queasy and my lungs protest, just slightly. There is no getting away from the unpleasant aspects of it and I’ll be glad when we’ve painted over the offending surfaces. But the fact I only register ‘smelling’ on the in-breath makes it a more visibly changing object, so with the right attitude, there can also be interest in what’s happening.

Another knock on effect is that I’ve become more aware of smell and taste and how they occur more often than I realise. The smell of spring onions when clearing the salad bowl after lunch or of fabric conditioner on wet clothes or the bringing together of taste and smell in the sweet richness of an afternoon cookie.

Not noticing these things matters for 2 reasons. Firstly if there is a lack of awareness then if there is some sort of reaction in the form of wanting, not wanting or zoning out, then I miss that too. And so it grows!

Secondly, life is more rich, vivid, colourful and closer to reality if we’re noticing what’s actually happening.

Less greed, aversion and delusion and more present moment, vivid awareness are positive conditions for wisdom to grow.

Day Dream Believer.

Day dreaming should be placed on the ‘quality of life’ index quotes Michael Harris, author of ‘Solitude: In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World’. So important is it for the mind to have time to idle (not be idle!) it should be an essential part of being human.

Day dreaming generally doesn’t get a good press and is usually associated with laziness. When I was a child I remember being chastised for it. I was often told off for wasting time and not being productive. Running around at the local recreation ground was fine. Devouring books, doing my homework and helping with the washing up were all accepted, if not insisted upon. Sitting around ‘doing nothing’ was seen as somehow suspicious and I was usually directed to ‘go and find something to do’. Perhaps in our largely secular culture we still believe the Christian message ‘the devil finds work for idle hands’.

Even in meditation a lot of emphasis can be put on the effort we use. ‘Doing’ something. Paying attention to something such as the breath. Or ‘cultivating’ loving kindness. Day dreaming in meditation is not seen as a productive way to spend an hour a day. It won’t help you get Enlightened. Or will it?

Of course, making an effort is essential in meditation, albeit, the right sort of effort. The quality of effort is of such a subtle balance that the Buddha apparently said that we are working with ‘right effort’ until the moment of Enlightenment. Intentionality too is important in directing the mind towards an object so it can calm and stabilise. But once it’s calm another aspect of mind is highly significant: we need openness and relaxation of mind. This, at times, can be akin to the day dreaming mind, which at its best wanders freely, but has some idea what is happening within it.

Most likely we experience this type of open mind outside of formal meditation, when we stare out to sea entranced with the point where ocean and sky meet, or lie in a wild flower meadow on a blue sky day. (Whether we make time for these things is another matter!) Or when we hear a poem without understanding it cognitively but knowing the ‘truth’ it is expressing. We let the mind loose whilst we’re just able to keep an eye on it. Awareness without control.

Harris quotes Albert Einstein as saying “the day dreaming minds ability to link things is the only pathway towards fresh ideas”. We day dream or gently follow our musings, ambling along a streamside path, to go beyond the limits of the rational mind. We let the mind roam without limit to discover new pathways. It’s well known that the scientific breakthroughs Einstein and Isaac Newton made, didn’t just come from the many hours of striving and thinking, but from being willing to inhabit the wilderness of not knowing. Einstein had confidence in this process saying ‘ the intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant.’

If we can bring this deep openness and relaxation, as well as confidence, to follow our musings, this has implications for meditation. When we set up the conditions for wisdom we are looking to go beyond what we know. It’s helpful to recognise that because we then stop trying to think our way to Nirvana. We live with the question: how can I discover something, the nature of which is unknown to me? We have to allow ourselves to let go, to be ‘lost’ to go beyond the known.

This is aided through allowing the mind to idle, having times of solitude where we can be free to think our own thoughts, follow through our own musings, make ultra-fine mental connections to intuit that leap between known and completely unknown. We need to escape the hyper-vigilance of the rational mind. The mind that always wants to know, to control and direct and brings everything back to ‘me’.

So, perhaps daydreaming alone won’t get you Enlightened but giving the non-rational and non-utilitarian side of your being some energy may well help. Learn to draw or play a musical instrument. Spend time alone and in nature. Give your rational mind time off to play.

And, above all, practice being present and aware with a delicate butterfly touch.

Perception: the unreliable witness.

We’ve probably all seen films or read books where a character turns out to be quite different from how we thought he or she was. Whether the deception is intentional, or whether they are unaware of the false picture they’re painting, the viewer or reader eventually comes to see, not only the character more clearly but also the world that has been coloured and shaped by the narrator’s perspective.

This device is used to stunning effect in the film ‘The Usual Suspects’. The character of Verbal Kint, played by Kevin Spacey, weaves a story from the police station office, where he is being questioned, to help piece together aspects of a major crime. Kint is under suspicion, but such is his skill at creating an alternative reality that the police let him walk free, realising moments too late that he is responsible for everything that has happened. Kint doesn’t just fabricate a story but uses the environment around him to draw in information to fortify his narrative. There is one scene where the detective, who has interviewed him for many hours, realises this. Looking around his office walls which are covered in memos, lists and names his eyes alight on dozens of references that Kint has used to concoct his fiction, and in a sickening moment, the penny drops.


I have become quite fascinated with the idea of the ‘unreliable witness’, sometimes known as the ‘unreliable narrator’. The former is more likely to be found giving evidence in a court of law whereas the narrator, is the stuff of fiction. A third type is the ‘eye witness’ and since the advent of DNA testing, it’s been discovered that eyewitness testimony is very unreliable, and is wrong in a massive 73% of cases. When, as in the US, the result can be a death sentence, this is a huge issue.

There are intriguing websites which list films and books where the narrator’s ability to reliably tell the truth is compromised. This might be due to memory loss (Memento) or mental illness (A Beautiful Mind, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) or because the narrator is a child being protected by a parent (Jack, in ‘Room’) or the narrator has incomplete information (Rebecca). One of the most famous unreliable narrator in fiction is Nabokov’s character Humbert Humbert whose guilt over his feelings for the teenage Lolita distorts his ability to be honest with himself.

Sometimes the narrator is intentionally creating a false picture as in ‘The Usual Suspects’. At other times, as with most of the examples above, it is unintentional and to a large extent woven into the fabric of ordinary human beings living our day to day lives.


What do I mean by this? If you are an adult with a reasonable memory, in good mental health, with the facts to hand why should you doubt your ability to accurately re-tell a story or assess a situation?

Partly, I’m referring to changes in the way that scientists understand how the brain works, and particularly how memory functions. Scientists used to think the brain retrieved a memory that was as vivid and accurate as a photo. These days it’s thought that memory is more like a flood of partial fragments that come together in the present in subtly different forms each time the memory is provoked.

This second model tallies, to some extent, with what the Buddha had to say about the nature of mind, memory and perception. The Buddha didn’t think that perception was fixed and intact but a living changing, ephemeral process in response to a prompt or stimulus of some kind. The process might be images and language, or perhaps a feeling tone accompanied by a body memory which might be a spreading warmth from a pleasant memory or a raised heart beat. What is happening in the present moment, and how we are in that moment, will influence what is remembered.

So we cannot take our memories to be accurate representations of what has happened in the past, even the recent past. We are all unreliable narrators to our own lives and unreliable witnesses to others.

The present moment is no better. Our perceptual processes take short cuts with our raw sense data so we can recognise familiar objects in our world. We’ve learned over time that the flat brown shape with a hole underneath, that we eat breakfast off, is a table. The brown, curvy thing that we sit on is a chair. If we had to work it out every time it would be a very time consuming and frustrating process.

We know this through observing people who lose their sight at a young age and regain it much later. They can see but they don’t recognise (re-cognise) and make sense of what they are seeing. They haven’t learned concepts to know, for example, that the set of straight lines in front of them is actually something called ‘stairs’ and that it’s possible to climb them! We learn depth perception as children and to create a ‘thing’ (table, set of stairs, person) out of our sense experience, and then give it a name.

The process of perception and conceptualisation is conditioned by all the experiences we’ve had through our lives. It is also conditioned by the mind-state in the present moment. A mind with wisdom will recognise accurately what arises within it as a mirror reflects clearly what is seen. Alternately, distorted mind-states of greed, ignorance and aversion will conceal the true nature of what it’s aware of, just as you can’t see well through a dusty and dirty mirror.

Mostly these shortcuts of perception give us huge advantages, but they have limitations. We’re constantly relating to an idea about our experience, rather than knowing what the experience is directly. The implication to our Dharma life is that we’re usually unaware that the concepts we live by also govern our views and assumptions: for example, the big assumption about ‘me’, who ‘I’ am; the shortcut that says “all these experiences are happening to Me.” Our sense of self is not something we experience through our senses, but only through our thoughts and ideas about that sense experience.

So you could say perception itself is the unreliable witness and one that fools us every day.

Everyday Opportunity

This week I had one and a half teeth out. The roots of the second one will have to come out another day. It wasn’t pleasant, but I stayed calm during the 20 minutes or so my mouth was wide open, most of the time filled with fingers and surgical pliers.

During the 4 days that followed there was some pain and a number of pain-killers taken. There were also several photos taken of the blood clot/hole/grey ‘granulating’ matter on top of the hole and a certain amount of anxiety culminating in another trip to the dentists to find out I was not suffering from the dreaded ‘dry socket’ infection!

The contrast between my calm with the more acute but short-term dental chair moments, and the restless anxiety that followed during the week after, reminded me of a friend’s explanation of why we often cope better with more demanding and immediate situations (being chased by a tiger!) than with more on-going difficulty (noisy neighbours). He says the imminent challenge changes our consciousness and pulls something more out of us. Perhaps our hormones get involved too enabling adrenaline and nor-adrenaline to help us meet the situation. In contrast, the longer-term issues are dealt with by our everyday state of mind; we get a bit fed up, worn down by the discomfort or restrictions, we get into waiting to feel better, and hoping it will go away.

When I’m in the dentists chair or during some other ‘peak’ moment, whether of difficulty or when the pressure is on a different consciousness comes about because I am more in the moment. Being chased by the mythical tiger, there is no option but to be fully present and run, or be eaten.

The anxiety about pain and infection is about ‘futuring’. I’m worried I won’t be able to lead my next retreat because of a sore and infected mouth so I spend more time thinking about whether I should contact the dentist again, and making google searches to see what should be happening. Fear, anxiety and hope, even in small doses, project me into the future and into the realm of concepts, or ideas about what might happen.

By its nature it is not always possible to live in the heightened state of just responding in the present moment. Planning needs to happen. I need to book trains in advance if I don’t want to pay a fortune. Keeping an eye on whether my socket is healing is sensible but what is ‘extra’ is being carried away by imagined dramas. There are plenty of helpful ways of being more present and interested in what’s actually happening and just doing what is necessary.

The teaching about karma at the moment of death is sometimes presented in terms of a horse race. Death proximate karma (traditionally seen as the most significant) starts off well, Weighty karma has real power propelling it along the race course. But it’s Habitual karma, with its millions of repeated thoughts, words and actions over a life-time, who makes headway over the long haul. This points to something important. The Dharma life is not so much about our peak moments of spiritual experiences. Whilst they are ‘weighty’ and important, in the long run, what we do with our minds everyday is more significant. Do we bring a wise attention to our reactions of craving, hatred and delusion? Do I really see clearly when  their opposites, generosity, love and wisdom, are flourishing in the mind and heart.

So while it’s good that I can watch my mind during all sorts of unpleasant moments and can pull out the spiritual stops when under pressure, it’s not enough. What about when I’m tired or just a bit low or all the other moments when I’m going about my life without much awareness or wisdom?

Ordinary mind needs to be transformed at every level to determine whether the race is back towards Samsara or on the right track to Nirvana.



glimpses into a meditator's mind

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