All posts by vajradevi

New Audio Resources

I’ve just posted some talks from a recent Uncontrived Mindfulness retreat at Vajraloka Retreat Centre. Hello to those of you that were there in the green hills of North Wales.

Also, there is a talk I gave at Shrewsbury Triratna Centre last week on an aspect of our ethical life that can be quite a challenge for us. It’s in the same arena as my most recent blog post looking at the effect of algorithms in the modern world.

You can find both on the resources page under audio resources.

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Algorithms

I’ve been tuning into our theme for the current session at the Shrewsbury Triratna Buddhist Centre. We are exploring the ’21st Century Bodhisattva’, a course module written by Dharmacari Akuppa. Alongside this module I’ve been reading a thought provoking book by the historian Yuval Noah Harari entitled ’21 Lessons for the 21st Century’. Having been given the title for our Sangha evening ‘Ethical Challenges in the Modern World’ I’ve been drawing from the book.

The first thing to think about has been algorithms. I’m still not quite sure I know what one is! Abstract concepts are not an easy thing for my brain to wrap itself around. So, a couple of examples: it’s when it’s no longer the friendly bank manager who decides if you get a loan, but a computer based algorithm that works out whether you are a good bet or not.

I suspect it is also the reason why my partner and I were refused house insurance by a lot of insurance companies despite the on-line Government flood tables that told us our risk (from the nearby River Severn) is officially ‘low’. When I phoned one of the companies the young guy didn’t know why we’d been refused. He didn’t know how the decisions were made.

Algorithms, as far as I can tell, are computer programmes that put in a lot of information from a variety of sources and spit out results: don’t insure her, no loan for him, send them these sorts of adverts, sell them this type of holiday. In some ways this is not new, but the degree of sophistication of the programmes is, and the amount of info held online about each and every one of us is too.

The irony is that a lot of the information algorithms use is given freely and unthinkingly by us whenever we use our computers, ipads or smart phones online. A day or so after I mention ‘mindfulness’ on Facebook my feed is full of ads for courses, classes, books – about mindfulness! After I’ve ‘liked’ a little video I might start getting emails from the company or political group. The most invasive was after I’d signed a petition on social media wanting to decrease waiting times for the treatment of pancreatic cancer; a few days later I got a phone call asking me to donate to the charity. I was almost certain I hadn’t given my number to that individual site, but somehow the dots were joined on some bit of programme somewhere.

There’s loads to say about algorithms; they can be used for very dark purposes (manipulating our democratic electoral processes) as well as some very creative ones such as the current exhibition in London ‘We Live in an Ocean of Air’ demonstrating, within a virtual world, the invisible connections between human and plant life fostering a sense of connectedness with our physical world.

Whether algorithms are used for good or ill depends whose hands they are in. Given the capitalist nature of our global economy it is fair enough to assume that information will be the new currency, and untold riches are there for those who control it. These are immensely strong motivating factors. Perhaps this is the stuff of the future, but the building blocks are in place, and the financial investment to date is huge.

Bio technology, where medical research and technology come together, will soon be able to monitor physical processes on an almost cellular level. Biometric sensors that gather and analyse data from our bodies. But do we want to know that we have the beginnings of arthritis when we have no symptoms, or that a tickle in the throat has a 10% chance of turning into laryngitis when our bodies are often capable of fighting off potential infection without drugs that may well weaken our systems in the long term?

Monitoring heart rate, sleep patterns and sweat responses via our Smart Phones not only allows physical data to be collected and analysed, but also reveals how we feel when we look at or listen to particular adverts or scenes in movies, or on a work conference call. Do you really want your boss to know how you feel about her latest ideas or how you bristle each times she cackles with laughter?

We will no longer truly have a private life. It will all become public knowledge, or at least, available to those who are prepared to pay for it, and in part it will be because we’ve given away the information ourselves.

Through allowing computer algorithms to make more of our choices they learn to anticipate what we like, how we think and who we are. When we take the easy way out we let them finish our sentences not quite the way we would have done so ourselves (with predictive text), lose vital skills such as map reading, basic arithmetic or remembering facts rather than constantly looking them up on Google. We fail to recognise the news item we’re being directed to is biased specifically to keep us on the site for longer, or that it appeals to our less than best self seeking a bit of distraction.

The simplest and most important thing I picked up from Yuval Noah Harari is that we have a choice. If we doing nothing, if we passively go along with the status quo, we will ‘lose’ our minds, dumbing down and de-skilling. Alternately we can choose to develop and enrich our minds and hearts.

This is where spiritual practice comes in. It is something of a surprise that YNH’s final chapter lays out the benefits of meditation, and even more encouraging, that he is speaking from his own experience.

When we meditate we learn to take responsibility for our own minds, we aim to keep the initiative by touching into an inner reality. We tune in with an almost indefinable quality of experience that acts as a touchstone for us. In a world where virtual reality becomes more the norm, again and again, we can take the time to notice what is actually happening. From the simplest experience – the sun is shining, my feet are touching the ground, breath is moving through the body – to the subtlest knowing of movements of mind, we are less hoodwinked through the simple power of presence.

This is not to say we can protect ourselves completely against the manipulations of algorithms, but armed with information about our changing world we can chose to act with discernment and integrity in line with our values.

The mind has extraordinary untapped power and potential; it is up to us what we do with it.

A couple of talks

I’ve just added a couple of talks I gave last year to the site. One was given in May to the Oxford Sangha. Their theme was ‘How the Buddha taught’ and I was the first speaker in the term so the talk introduces different ways the Buddha taught, and also (I got really sparked off by this) how he learned through his own spiritual journey.

There is an error in the talk (well, one that I know about, there may well be others too!) I mention a youth from the early Buddhist teachings. I name him as Chanda (desire or interest) which fits in well with the theme but it’s not his name which is Nanda (delight).

The second talk  was given on the residential women’s order weekend at Taraloka retreat centre. I was asked to connect the talk to the Order Convention earlier that year in Bodhagaya, India, and my experience there.

They are both just under an hour long, and I hope you enjoy them.

Meta View

 


 

nesting dolls

I’ve been thinking about ‘sampajana’. There is so much to say about this quality of ‘clearly knowing’ or comprehending, but there is a lot I find quite mysterious, subtle and difficult to communicate.

What exactly does it mean for something to be clearly known? And how exactly does clear comprehension (another way of translating sampajana) interact with sati, present moment awareness, in a way that supports and augments it?

Clearly comprehending is the factor of mind that is more interested in the bigger picture. It is able to see how the mind works. It has the eye of non conceptual wisdom. I think sampajana is about perspective.

I have a sense of wanting to pull up my hand, palm down, panning back like a camera on zoom. This gesture says something to me about the role of this mental quality. I have been wondering if what I’m talking about as perspective can be expressed through the language of ‘meta’ as in meta analysis. Perhaps a ‘meta view’?

An image that comes to mind of a conductor and orchestra performing in a concert hall. When I’m at a concert, usually my attention is naturally with the music, often picking up on individual sounds from the different instruments. Less frequently my attention will be with the conductor watching how he or she defines the overall sound from each and every musician on the stage.

(I sing in a choir, and one evening when we were finding a particular section of the music tricky, our conductor showed us his score, dense with notation for the 50 instruments he would be conducting besides us. “You think your part is difficult!” he said, and we all laughed.)conductor

The conductor can be a metaphor for clearly knowing. Their attention has to be broad and yet they need to know every detail of the symphony or concerto, whatever it is. The attention needs to be relaxed and flowing with deep feeling for the whole piece. The conductor has to step back from the individual sound or musician and focus more on the overall feel of what she’s hearing, and the relationships between, for instance, the flute and the soloist, or the string section and the French horns.

For the music to work, a million sound ‘moments’, both individual and in relationship to each other move in an indefinable dance.

One example to demonstrate the meaning of the ‘meta’ perspective relates to film reviews. Instead of the film being reviewed and critiqued, the reviews themselves are analysed en masse. This is a step back from the focus being on the content of the film. The role of sampajana involves a similar natural stepping back in order to know the mind, rather than its contents.

Meta analysis it is defined rather dryly as ‘an abstraction behind another concept, that is used to complete or add to the latter’, but it can also mean ‘something of a higher or second order’ in relation to a creative work.

With meditation we’re not talking about concepts becoming more abstracted through the meta view, but experience actually becoming more direct and less concept heavy. Through this ‘knowing’ we see the fleeting perceptions, feelings and internal motivations before they come to fully fledged thought, speech or action. There is a higher or second order of ‘knowing’. We are revealed to ourselves through clear knowing, and here the conductor metaphor reveals its limitations. For there is no conductor, no person or self, but simply a million mind moments in a constantly re-creating pattern, dancing through our own lives.

What do you think? Can you relate to the idea of’ meta view’? Tell me how it lands with you and what you think would bring it more alive.

Sitting Vigil

This is a little more oriented to the Triratna Buddhist Community than my usual blogs. Please feel free to contact me with questions if you’d like to.

Sitting is always sitting. And then something so big happens that the psyche can’t quite take it in. Life. Serious illness. And the most likely candidate: death. 7 weeks ago my Buddhist teacher (Bhante Sangharakshita), and that of tens of thousands of others, died peacefully at the age of 93. Because of his age it was not unexpected and yet death always feels unexpected and a significant change.

When my mother died, almost 20 years ago, even though she was desperately ill and not expected to live more than a few weeks, her death was still a gut wrenching shock. The shift that happened between life and death was unquantifiable but a gaping chasm. ‘Near’ death is still alive and felt completely different to dead, or not alive.

Bhante’s death felt different and complete in some way. He’d lived out his full span and more, something my mother didn’t get to do. It was a ‘good’ death as he died comfortably and surrounded by close friends. He left behind his life’s work feeling it was in good hands.

In our local Buddhist Centre we arranged a three day vigil of sitting meditation. We chanted the mantras Bhante had requested we chant, and as part of every hour of practice we had a period to sit quietly and drink tea and be with each other.

It turned out that those minutes of quiet conversation were crucial to sitting vigil. People who had never met Bhante in person came because he had made such a difference to the lives of their own teachers whom they loved and respected. They came to share their own responses, to weep a little, and to learn more about the death of someone of deep significance. To learn more about the death of a spiritual teacher.

Between Bhante’s death and his funeral I had 2 more opportunities to encounter him and sit vigil in different circumstances. On the first occasion I sat, with a dozen others around his body. On the second – the day of the funeral – I sat, walked and chanted with 1200 others as our teacher was put into the ground.

Sitting with his body, dressed in blue robes, I was struck by how alive he still looked. He had the relaxedness of sleep but with complete stillness and poise. The air around him was soft and vivid. The step between life and death, in his case, seemed negligible. He was clearly not in his body any more but there was nothing absent or missing, rather a space of fullness and grace.

I was intrigued by both this sense of presence and the feeling of life and death sitting right next to each other, or even, not apart from each other. I reflected upon my experience back at home and consciously connected back to the subtly joyful quality of it. Can we feel another’s consciousness? It’s very clear when someone is alive and their anger or sadness can be felt in the atmosphere, but when they are dead?

This quality only grew on the day of the funeral itself and was like an ethereal and invisible smoke permeating everything and everyone. On one level perhaps it was simply the presence of so many committed practitioners coming together to say goodbye, full of gratitude and appreciation. And yet something else was happening. I felt his mind was free from his aged, frail and restricted body and able to blaze forth unlimited. In the same way through our shared purpose and inspiration we are all living out expressions of Bhante’s vision of the 1000 Armed Avalokitesvara*, that day we were all tuned into and part of a greater consciousness.

The challenge now is to keep letting that consciousness live within us.

* a personification of compassion.

You Are What You Think.

I never know in my practice whether a moment of clearer seeing will have a lasting impact or not. Sometimes the insight feels strong at the time but soon I find I’m trying to make it carry on through will power and the clarity and naturalness of the intention has gone. My steps to 100% veganism dropped back to 90% after a such a process. On the other hand, a fairly subtle and light moment of realisation about stopping drinking alcohol is still going 4 years later.

Another moment of significance from the retreat in Sweden came during a teaching session where I was talking about practising in daily life. On retreat we cut down the amount we read but that’s not necessarily the same off retreat. One comment in the session came from a friend who quoted Sayadaw U Tejaniya saying something like

“Reading is the same as thinking. You should be careful of what you read because it’s just another way of putting thoughts into the mind”.

This struck me with some emotional force. It makes perfect sense but I’d never really thought about it in that way. And yet, certain books I enjoy reading a lot, are thrillers and police procedurals, novels that are full of private investigators and conspiracy theories. There is often a significant amount of violence in the books, though sometimes it is implied rather than explicit. I knew immediately that I would never consciously think those thoughts of murder, intrigue and casual indifference to the lives of others hat I read in books. I would never deliberately have those thoughts enter my mind and yet I placed them there regularly through my reading habits.

I find reading thrillers and their ilk relaxing, particularly when I’m tired or in pain (which is quite a lot of the time) and not up for anything very demanding. And yet, I don’t like that I read them. They are a slightly guilty secret. I’ve stopped for periods of time or read fewer of them, but always started again. So when something clicked in the mind about how much I read, (previous blog) it also questioned the content of my reading.

big_sleep

3 days after I returned home from retreat, Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Istanbul. He entered expecting to sign some divorce papers so he could marry his Turkish girlfriend who waited for him outside for eleven hours. Within minutes he had been killed and at the time of writing it is still unknown exactly what happened to his body after his death.

Reports in the media of this awful event were graphic, horribly so. Eventually the more barbaric and savage accounts ended up being replaced by something less gruesome but still very shocking. The ‘story’ has been in the news for over a month and I think something of the vengeful and deceptive nature of it has touched people. I felt more strongly affected than usual by a news item. I was shocked and upset as more details came out over days of reporting. And it is upsetting and horrifying, there is no doubt about it, but perhaps there were additional causes for my thinner than usual skin.

What made me very uneasy was that I could easily have read a very similar account in any one of the fictional spy thrillers I’ve consumed over the years. I felt ashamed that I had read such words for entertainment. This was real!  There was nothing entertaining or relaxing about this story, nor any others of a similar type. If I wouldn’t think those thoughts – and I felt an ethical abhorrence at the thought of it – it had in an instant become untenable to read them for ‘pleasure’. It was as if I had a clear seeing of the perverted worlds I was choosing to put into my mind stream.

I knew that something had changed in my relationship to the content of what I read. At the time, I wasn’t sure how deep this change went. After all, the habit had been strong since I was a young adult, and I wanted to use wisdom rather than will power to see what would happen. It’s now been about six weeks since I’ve read a thriller, or any fiction. There has just not been the interest. And when I do read there is an awareness that is broader than diving into the content. Other senses are involved and there is a knowing of that – touching, seeing and noticing what’s happened in the mind.

I don’t plan to give up reading good fiction – unless of course wisdom thinks otherwise!

Hidden Zone

 

Recently I was fortunate enough to be leading a retreat in Sweden. While there is much I could say about this experience, I want to turn, as I often do, to some moments from my own practice.

It was a few days into the retreat and I’d just led the evening sit. I felt relaxed and aware and lay down to rest my joints whilst continuing to watch my mind. There were a few reflective type thoughts and questions arising about Right View, and a keen curiosity about ‘hidden zones’ that don’t get under wisdoms spotlight.

After a while I could see I was readying myself to leave the hall, and images arose in the mind as to the next activity. The images were of a sauna and lake dip or back to my cabin to read in bed. The sauna option just seemed a little like hard work! All that undressing, and scurrying around the cold grounds, under a starry sky in just a swimming costume and towel! The reading option presented itself as cosy and warm, with unusually clear seeing of an undertow of craving.

You see, I read voraciously, and I although I regularly notice strong compulsivity in my relationship to books it doesn’t go much further than this. It is a ‘hidden in plain sight’ wisdom free zone. Because the awareness was clear, and a degree of wisdom present, all thoughts of ending the sit disappeared. There was strong interest in watching the mind and to notice how it was with this ‘lobha object’. Different feelings arose as mental objects associated with the image of me tucked up in bed with my Kindle. There was a sort of tender sadness associated with loss and renunciation as the mind willingly let go of following the ‘wanting’.

The mind saw the idea that there has to be some willed or forced ‘giving up’ was wrong thinking – and saw that everything really just had to be known and felt. The mind understood that what was important was to leave it up to wisdom to ‘know’ and to decide.

As I stayed with the different feelings, a lot of energy arose. It felt as if the energy locked up in both the activity of reading, and the compulsive relationship to it, was freed up. There was renewed openness to life and its potential.

I chose the sauna, and positively skipped down to the jetty in my swimmers!

Sauna Sweden

Three weeks on and the intoxication with reading is still dialled down low. It has become less of a ‘nest’, or a false refuge. It is no longer what I do when I’m tired or in physical pain, or if I do it, it is for shorter periods of time with more awareness threaded through.

Will it last? We will see. It all depends on the level of the seeing through.

All I can do is set up the conditions that let awareness and wisdom do their work!