Let What You Love Lead You to Wisdom

Tom Lubbock was the Chief Art Critic for the Independent newspaper in the UK. He was known to many for his weekly column where for five years he wrote with brilliance and passion about a piece of art, usually a painting.

He died in 2011, at the age of 53, of a brain tumour that struck at the speech and language part of his brain. He made his living, and his life’s meaning, from words, and it was to words he turned during the short years of his illness. Despite surgery and treatment he continued to work, also turning his intelligence and humour to his own predicament, producing a memoir called ‘Until Further Notice I am Alive’. As he gradually loses the ability to speak and even to form words into sentences in his mind he movingly charts his inner experience, with every word hard won, and increasingly ungraspable, slipping through his fingers like water.

Naturally his investigation turns to his relationship with language. He writes about the “mystery of summoning up words”.

“Where are they in the mind, in the brain? They appear to be an agency from nowhere. They exist somewhere in our ground, or in our air. They come from an unknown darkness. From a place we don’t normally think about”.

At first, he equates losing language along with the understanding of speech and writing, with the loss of his mind.

“These losses will amount to the loss of my mind. I know what this feels like and it has no insides, no internal echo. Mind means talking to oneself. There wouldn’t be any secret mind surviving in me.”

But then, as he stays with the experiences that have piqued his lively curiosity, later he continues

“I am faced practically and continually with a mystery that other people have no conception of, the mystery of the generation of speech. There is no command situation (in the mind), it goes back and back. Where the self lies at the heart of the utterance – the speaker generating the word – is always clouded. (my italics)

I think here that Tom Lubbock was hitting on the mystery of the nature of self, the lack of ‘command central’ or ‘manager in charge’. He came up close to the obscured and cloudy inner view, expecting to see something that would confirm his sense of self-identity, and was not able to do so.

This is the territory we investigate with curiosity when we recognise thoughts as thoughts and start to see their ephemeral and intangible nature. What seem so powerful and influential arise and disappear in a moment if we don’t hold on to them. Because of the damage to his brain it was more difficult for Tom to generate or hold on to thoughts, and so had a similar experience to the meditator. The sense that we are our thoughts can’t hold up to the scrutiny of awareness and the power of interest.

As Tom’s language decreased to the point where he was able to put just a handful of sentences together in his mind in a day he noticed something further; as thoughts and language were disappearing, something that I would call awareness was still there. ‘Knowing’ or ‘noticing’, ‘paying attention’ and ‘recognising’ were still on-line, and his experience was undiminished.

“But I find my brain is still busy, moving, thinking. I am surprised. My language to describe things in the world is very small, limited. My thoughts when I look at the world are vast, limitless and normal, (the) same as they ever were. My experience of the world is not made less by lack of language but is essentially unchanged. This is curious!”

It is impossible to know exactly what someone else means through their words, but I resonate with Tom Lubbock’s, and his journey exploring the nature of consciousness and its relationship to thoughts and language.

I think this journey was only made possible through his curiosity, his courage and good humour and his fierce love of life. His wife, the artist Marion Coutts describes his attitude “Tom’s illness was our disaster and our adventure” and in his own words “generally, it (life) is wonderful. We are interested.”

If we can bring even a little of this attitude to our own lives, who knows what we would be able to comprehend of the nature of experience.

Why I am Aware

I’m coming to the end of writing the book (about meditation) I’ve been engaged with for the past couple of years. In writing the conclusion I’ve been reflecting on the process of writing about awareness and wisdom and why it has been important to do so. I have been practising with mindfulness as a key aspect of meditation and life practice for twenty years now, and teaching for more than three quarters of that time. I sometimes ask myself (as I believe is healthy and helpful to do so) why do I continue to practice in this way? What have I gained, how has my practice developed?

What comes to mind is a phrase that doesn’t immediately answer the questions above but is more of a spontaneous utterance; awareness is transformative. Such simple words, they are almost a cliché. So what do I mean by them? How does awareness transform, and what does it transform? It transforms through the power of ‘knowing’ and the scope of that which is known.

I believe that awareness can ‘know’ anything. Not everything, of course. I’m not saying awareness is omniscient. There is a lot that awareness can’t know – it can’t forecast the weather or predict an election, or even sometimes recognise what’s in front of it, like the Maori people who literally didn’t see Captain Cook’s ships approaching shore as the huge structures were so unfamiliar their eyes and brains.

There may well be things happening in us or outside of us that we don’t know. We miss hearing part of a conversation because we have some hearing loss, or we bang a door shut accidentally through not being aware or mindful. Once again, it’s easy to confuse the capacity of awareness to know ‘everything’ with knowing ‘anything’. Awareness means knowing anything that is already happening, what is actually happening, and already registered somewhere in our experience, although perhaps only dimly. I can be aware that ‘hearing’ is happening even as I register that I’m straining to make out what I’m hearing. I can become aware of the beginnings of tension in my shoulders or a fleeting thought zipping by. The more awareness there is, the more clearly these things can be known.

To be aware of anything means that nothing is excluded from awareness. There are no exceptions or things that we can’t be aware of. Typically the mind will prioritize thinking about something rather than being aware of it, often in its desire to either prolong or get rid of whatever it is worrying about like a dog with a bone. Experiencing with awareness, rather than thinking about a compelling inner story, or an overwhelming emotion such as fear or rage, means that in a small corner of my mind I know what’s happening. If I can recognise and inhabit that space, scrunched down waiting and watching patiently while the rest of the picture plays out, awareness will grow and expand out of its corner to influence what ever else is happening. Once awareness has grown, even a little, there is some ease and spaciousness in the mind. Awareness helps the mind begin to recognise where it is ‘caught’ and identified with what is happening.

Recognising identification is what awareness and wisdom do best. While the thinking mind will unhappily tie itself in knots trying to fix what is happening, in order to put it down, awareness and wisdom are willing to just ‘know’. As well as knowing what’s going on we can also know how we are relating to the experience. If that is with identification, the wisdom element recognises that this is what’s happening and knows it is not necessary to struggle. Naming something helps; this is fear, this is what rage or jealousy or longing feels like. But what’s crucial is to notice the identification going alongside the feelings.

Awareness transforms by illuminating any aspect of my experience it comes into contact with; whatever I’m experiencing can be known in a way that (eventually) allows it to be stripped of clinging, and, therefore, of suffering. Nothing is outside the scope of wise attention. When I look to why I still practice in this deceptively simple and yet profound way, what comes up are the memories of many moments of relief when the mind puts down what is causing it to suffer.

Being Right or Being Wise

Think of those occasions where you disagree with someone; you’re just not going to back down because you really believe in what you’re saying, it matters to you a lot. Things start to get a little heated as you both re-assert your point of view more strongly. Even as you remain polite you can feel your shoulder muscles getting tight and your voice and emotions mirroring your body; before you know it you are slicing and dicing their perspective with a very sharp metaphorical knife!

When we feel we’re right about something, by extension we put others in the wrong. Once we’ve done that it’s difficult to have an open dialogue. We’re much more likely to try to change their mind rather than really listen to what the other person says. And we’re sometimes scared to agree on any of their argument because, like the little boy with his finger in the Dutch dam, we fear it will be the beginning of the end of our position. One of the characteristics of delusion is inflexibility. We fix on a single point of view and can’t be open to other possibilities.

While all the Election processes have been going on the in the UK this past couple of months, and the three years of Brexit beforehand I’ve found plenty of occasions to get stuck on the pole of opinion and view. There have been moments (and longer) of self-righteousness though perhaps not as many as there could have been. This was partly as I tended to self-select by reading the Guardian newspaper which was roughly aligned with my political views, but also because I was often presented (via social media and those clever and slightly spooky algorithms) with reams of information that supported my beliefs and my prejudices.

Yes, my prejudices. Peoples Vote March Oct

I’ve written previously about cognitive biases, this time I’m interested in what could be called a value bias. Jonathan Haidt is a moral psychologist who looks at the very complex world of ethical decision making. In his book ‘The Righteous Mind’ he produces a universal set of five (later six) moral values that work across cultures, and then sets about testing them on real people.

Haidt is particularly interested in how these moral values play out in relation to our political views. What has been very stark in the discourse around Brexit and the recent election in the UK is how polarized it is, and how little respect there is on either side for the others position.

The lack of respect manifests as outright judgements – how could someone possibly think like that?, or think of voting for that option? It’s unbelievable! They must be stupid, or ill-informed or they don’t care about poverty/climate change/British sovereignty/health care/economic stability – take your pick.

We resort to name calling such as ‘remoaners’ or in a stunning lack of irony and self-awareness from one journalist ‘Brexiteers are fascist, liars and charlatans whose only re-course is name calling!’

We find it hard to believe that someone whom we strongly disagree with politically can have a reasonable and well thought out point of view. It’s much easier to identify with our own positive stance and dismiss the opposite position in our political ‘enemies’. Perhaps a liberal position would be to feel strongly for the plight of migrants and refugees and believe there shouldn’t be limits on them coming to Britain. This might lead liberals to reject without examination the concerns of conservatives about the effects it would have on British citizens. Conservatives tend to value the national group more highly than the global community.

Particularly on the liberal side we would probably be horrified (because of our values around caring for others) that our views and opinions betray the sort of judgements above; we’re often unaware of our harsh views or we rationalise them by saying it’s because we care so much!

What Jonathan Haidt’s book helped me appreciate was that we all have positive values, but where we are on the left/liberal/progressive or right/conservative/republican side of the political spectrum will dictate which of those values we care more about. As a liberal lefty usually aligned with the caring side of the moral high ground I was curious to see that conservatives actually care about more of the five big values than liberals.

Liberals think the moral values of Care/Harm (positive and negative values) and Fairness/Cheating are most important. They care much less about Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion and Sanctity/Degradation, but Conservatives rate each of the positive values equally highly.

While a lot can be said about each of these moral foundations, the significant point is that Liberals care about two of the values and the Conservatives care about all five. In some ways the liberal perspective is quite a simple one (care and fairness) whereas the conservative one has more competing values such as issues of loyalty to ones ‘tribe’, respecting authority and sanctity morals (often around sex). We still might not agree with how each value is expressed but perhaps it helps to recognise them. Could we learn to value each others sense of values?

There is a relationship between certainty and wrong view which Sangharakshita brings out in his teachings on Right View. Right View, he says, when held with tightness and (the feeling of) rightness is actually wrong view. When we take up a position of any kind, whether it be ‘breakfast is essential’ or ‘there is no ‘self’, we remain caught in a polarisation between something ‘right’ and something or someone else that is ‘wrong’. How much worse when we add judgement and caricature to the rhetoric such as ‘tories are bigots’ or ‘liberals are snowflakes’.

We need to bring our political views into the light of awareness. Not even just our views, but our political values. When you notice the feeling that you have right on your side let it be a signal to examine your heart and mind.

Jonathan Haidt Ted Talk

https://ed.ted.com/lessons/jonathan-haidt-on-the-moral-roots-of-liberals-and-conversatives

Jonathan Haidt ‘The Righteous Mind’

An Opportunity for Awareness

It is so easy to take things for granted. In particular to take things to be relatively stable. And then something happens, and in a few moments things change in a way we hadn’t foreseen. These shifts, of course, are going on all the times in minor ways but we usually fail to see their significance. Within a few minutes the hot coffee I’m drinking becomes cold. If I sit without moving for an hour some parts of my body stiffen and then there is a desire to move. We take these everyday changes for granted and it often takes something out of the ordinary for us to pay attention and tune in to what is different.

Just recently I had one of those unexpected happenings. I was out cycling in the Shropshire country lanes with my partner one quiet Sunday. The previous day we had been stuck in a coach for eight hours and spent another seven hours on a political march (read ‘shuffle’) with one million others. It had been a great day, but I was ready for some exercise!

About seven miles out of town I fell off the bike. I’d got distracted by the local flying club whose miniature motorised planes loomed noisily above. As I glanced up I veered towards my partner causing both of us to lose our balance. He went into the roadside hedge and I crashed onto the road.

As I lay on the road yelling distressed apologies to him, completely unable to get up, I realised I was very aware of what was happening. The pain in various parts of my body but focused around my right shoulder was intense and although I knew it was important to get out of the road all I could do was lie there and know what was happening.

Fast forward through the rescue-by-camper van by one sister in law and medical examination and subsequent drive to hospital by GP sister in law. The following day saw the appointment at the fracture clinic with instructions to rest the shoulder (broken collar bone),wear the sling and come back in six weeks.

The following day I spent at two different appointments an hour from home. By the time I’d taken the train followed by the bus, I’d realised it was a bit too soon to do this sort of trip. I had not quite caught up with the new conditions the mind and body were working under.

The pain was one thing and although my arm was in a sling it felt vulnerable to people pushing past or bumping into me. The minds protective instincts created additional tightening and stress. I was also still working out what movements were OK in this ‘new’ environment outside the safety of home. I found it amazing how quickly the mind created new habits around certain movements, how quickly it learned to protect the body from further pain and damage.

Particularly clear were the seeing of intentions in the mind; I would notice an image, for example, of moving the damaged shoulder/arm beyond a certain range of motion and the mind would close down around that as if to say ‘we’re not going to do that, in fact, we’re not even going to think about that’!

Another issue was the disorientation caused by trying to do things in the same old way but with only one working arm. Putting my train ticket through the ticket barrier machine while holding a handbag; buying a drink and sandwich for my journey and working out how to carry them. The mind felt turgid and slow as perception having approached a habitual task in the usual way now tried to work out an alternate way. Could I put the lid on my coffee cup myself or did I need to ask for help?

At times the consequences of the discombobulated mind still in some degree of shock and dissociation had the quality of slap stick comedy. Relieved to be seated on the train I realized I’d forgotten to pick up a straw in the cafe. The blended ice coffee drink was thick and unmelting so I removed the lid and every now and again took hopeful sips of the small amount of sweet liquid released from the ice.

Part way through my journey an avalanche occurred. Half the contents of the cup threw themselves over my face managing to get up my nose, on my clothes and sling, and the Transport for Wales seat covers. I sat there stunned – and then just did what needed to be done. There was a sort of disbelief but no drama or complaining. With my good arm I found one scrap of tissue in my coat pocket, and then another in the sandwich bag, and a third one in my hand bag. Slowly I wiped away the goo though I could do nothing about the sticky coating everywhere.

I could see the conditions that had led to this incident; usually I’d bring a drink from home, but getting ready to go out had taken longer, and I couldn’t carry the extra weight. And then the slowed down mind was focusing all its attention on getting the drink and sandwich and had overlooked the need for a straw. The slowed down mind trying to drink the drink differently also hadn’t had the mental bandwidth to take in the flaws in my method of drinking, and had forgotten about the law of gravity!

So there has been much to be aware of during the 11 days since the accident. The daily small changes in decreasing pain and increasing mobility during the healing process (typing with more than 1 finger is an especially welcome development) are noticed, and so is the fading of a certain mental and emotional freshness. For days after the accident the mind felt bright, open and calm but gradually habits of occasional grumpiness or impatience have reappeared. With continued noticing these habits themselves are now subject to being known in awareness.

New Audio

Apologies if you’ve tried to listen to or download recordings from the recent Beautiful Mind retreat. For some reason the file names and what was on them differed. So you might have been expecting a led standing meditation and instead got me talking about wisdom and delusion! Hopefully all is clear now but please let me know if you still experience problems.

Happy listening, Vajradevi

Slurry of Moha

I’ve been looking back on my diary from the retreats I attended with Sayadaw U Tejaniya this summer. It is so easy to forget the significance of the practice, and I find re-reading what happened puts me straight back in touch with an enthusiasm and sharpens up my motivation to practice.

This year I drew out a number of things that I wanted not to forget. They seemed really significant to practice and a couple were very relevant to patterns I had been observing unfolding in my life. I have those on a piece of paper that I try and carry with me when I know I’ll have a bit of time to reflect further on them. Train journeys are good for that. But what struck me on this read back was something that although significant at the time hadn’t made it to my top ten things. It was to do with craving (lobha) and delusion (moha) and a particular way of them interacting.

The diary excerpt was from the early days of the second retreat held in Finland. There had been a period of retreat and then relaxation during the transition between one retreat and another. I can often find that little insights happen early on during times of more formal practice precisely because the mind is still thinking it is early days and therefore is relaxed and not expecting much. The freezing factor of expectation hasn’t yet crept in narrowing down the possibilities to what it already knows.

I was walking up the stairs to go to my room after some time in the meditation hall. The thought arose ‘ooh, I could have a little bit of time reading’. There was some pleasure that arose with the thought but not a lot. So I recognised there was a bit of craving there but it really wasn’t strong.

All quite familiar so far. Then something new happened.

When I recognised the pleasure and craving even though it wasn’t very strong I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t act on it. This was because, and this was the new bit, there was nothing opposing the craving. It felt like a vacuum in the mind. This is hard to explain, it’s a bit like 2 Sumo wrestlers; they are locked together and one is pushing the other, though not that hard. The other isn’t doing anything. And because he wasn’t doing anything, he’s offering no resistance, the first one would be able to push him over much more easily than he should have been able to.

So in my mind, on the one hand there was lobha, craving and on the other, nothing! Nothing putting the other side and recognising that to act on this lobha was not helpful and would reinforce craving down the line. And this lack of opposition made it more likely that I would act on this quite half hearted wanting state. There was no wisdom putting the other side, seeing clearly what was helpful to practice in that moment.

But then I realised that actually there was something else which was wisdom and awareness which was recognising both these states in the present moment, and then there was a lot of energy and interest in the mind. Another thought popped into my mind that I recalled about moha. Delusion covers everything with delusion. So craving doesn’t need to be very strong when moha is masking or blanketing everything else. Moha paves the way for lobha to be acted upon.

I realised that this particular configuration happens a lot. There’s the feeling of craving, and even though it’s not very strong I end up doing the thing anyway – eating it or watching it or thinking it usually. The alternative used to be wilfulness but I gave up on that. That day in Finland I got a glimpse of craving and delusion from wisdoms perspective, and the understanding that without wisdoms presence moha will cover everything like a thick black slurry that makes everything smell of shit.

When this happens there is nothing standing in the way of the constant realising of pointless desires.

brown and white cattle in green open field near mountain under white skies
Photo by Juan Pablo Guzmán Fernández on Pexels.com

The Ugly Pole of Lobha

On retreat recently I found myself near the back of the lunch queue which stretched out of the dining hall way into the corridor. I was aware (but not aware enough as it turns out) of some restlessness and impatience as I neared the massive saucepans of hot food which were laid out on a small table. I was eager for my turn and as I stood in line more of my interest resided in some near future tucking into lunch than with what was happening in the present moment within my own mind.

What prompted a return of awareness to the present was noticing the mind had focused on a particular person at the food table. He was slow to pick up his plate and so there was already a gap opening up in the queue leaving the pans of food unattended. My mind huffed a little; how inefficient, couldn’t he hurry up a bit so we could all get our food. Then this person realised he’d forgotten to pick up cutlery so he moved backwards leaning over the person following him, apologising as he did so.

The impatience in my mind dialled up a few notches but to some degree this went unnoticed in my awareness. I was more focused on the object (always a mistake); what was this guy doing? Wasn’t he aware that he was in a queue and others were waiting behind him? What sort of person was he – bumbling around and obviously not very aware!

At this point there was enough agitation in my mind for the habit of being with the mind rather than the object to kick back in. I noticed the strong judgements about this person from just 30 seconds observation. I’d already decided what sort of person he was (unmindful and dawdling) . Next I noticed the craving in the mind and how it felt thwarted by the perceived leisureliness of him. I realised it was craving that was colouring how I saw this person and affecting how I interpreted his actions.

In that moment it was very clear that I was noticing not the desired thing or outcome (fast moving queue to a tasty lunch) which the mind usually experiences as very pleasant, but the ugly pole of lobha (wanting or craving).

Usually we generally hang out at the pleasant end of ‘wanting’ experiencing the seductive promise of the desired thing, whether a person, a taste or sight or smell. We rarely take a look behind the scenes at what the mind in craving or aversion (its flip side) feels like and how it acts.

My thought in the moment of seeing the lobha mind grumbling and pushing, and looking to make someone else wrong in order to try and get what it wanted, was “how ugly is this mind, this process”. There was no judgement in this thought, simply that craving was unmasked and seen for what it was.

There is a Dhamma List called the Viparyasas. This is generally translated into English as the ‘Topsy Turvies’! This last word needs its own translation for those of you for whom English is a second language. When something is topsy turvy it’s upside down and this is how the Buddha said we generally experience our world. We fail to understand the true nature of our our being and everything around us. We see what is impermanent as permanent, what is insubstantial as substantial, what we believe to be the causes of happiness are actually what will lead to suffering.

There is one more TopsyTurvy and this is known as asubha or subha. We mistake what is ugly and call it beautiful. We make our desires synonymous with what’s beautiful and blow the pleasant aspects of sense objects out of proportion. Doing this we fail to see the darker side of the mind that is going all out to get what it wants for itself.

It was satisfying to have seen craving for what it is. Some wisdom in the mind immediately let go of the impatience and desire to be at the front of the queue. It was fascinated with this new view.

It takes wisdom in the moment to recognise the true face of lobha. And it’s not pretty!

glimpses into a meditator's mind

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