All posts by vajradevi

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!

New Audio Resources

I’ve just posted some talks from a recent Uncontrived Mindfulness retreat at Vajraloka Retreat Centre. Hello to those of you who 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.

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.