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.


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!

Defrosting Awareness

There was a lovely moment on a recent retreat I was leading where one of the participants was trying to describe her experience in the previous meditation. This is something I’ll occasionally ask people to do to help develop a vocabulary for things that they haven’t noticed directly before.

She talked about a feeling of paralysis in the mind where it didn’t know which way to go because of a degree of over-whelm. “It was like awareness itself was frozen”. We all laughed a little at the image and it was the laughter that says ‘I know what you mean’! There was some resonance with her experience, even if we wouldn’t have thought about it in those terms.

Of course logically we know awareness doesn’t get frozen. But there is a watchful, overly vigilant mind that gets a bit stuck. Or I can relate to it as the mind that tries to go in too many directions at the same time. It’s like the cartoon figure which, when feeling all those pulls, is rooted to the spot.

By asking people to describe their meditation, what I’m after is to get away from talking about experience, using concepts that take us away from what actually happened. There is often a high degree of interpretation or evaluation in our ideas about what happens in our practice. For instance:

“It was good” or “I wasn’t very calm and there were loads of thoughts like there always are”.

By trying to describe our direct experience we can circumvent our own judgements and come to the experience afresh.

Many years ago I worked on a project that required me to spend significant amounts of time travelling around Spain, meeting estate agents and property owners. The trouble was, I didn’t really speak much Spanish!

My best and most successful communications were with those people – be it Spanish friends, or local builders – who were prepared to play with me. We would mainly speak in the present tense and supplement it with charades, drawing pictures and looking words up in the dictionary. I would often feel like a three year old child; my language was simple, ungrammatical and frequently involved made up words.

Describing direct experience can be a bit like this. Mental and physical processes are often so subtle and mysterious that normal language doesn’t quite work.

On a recent retreat I spoke in a small group setting about my practice feeling being quite undefined. Although initially I’d wondered if I should be doing something about this, I’d come to the conclusion that this lack of definition was actually OK. Letting go of the subtle agenda about what shouldn’t be happening and with a fuller acceptance of what was actually happening, I was able to watch my mind with interest and more accurately convey what I’d noticed.

When I attempted to describe a particular process I’d observed, it went something like this.

“There’s a particular sort of searching that makes a ‘thing’ out of ‘not a thing’. It makes a ‘thing’ come into being, a ‘making’ that is unnecessary and a bit tension producing.”

And later.

“More and more I can be with the ‘un-thingness’ which feels very flotsam and jetsam-y. And there is a feeling of significance around it.”

And later still, some understanding of the experience.

“There is too much effort to be aware, which brings ‘things’ into being. And there’s a view around ‘seeing things clearly’ which makes more effort seem necessary. Yet, less effort allows for more subtle perceptions to be known in awareness, and to see the process by which experience becomes more solid, and a ‘thing’.”

Don’t be shy about describing what’s happening. You might feel a bit self-conscious stepping out of grown up sentences, but it is tremendously helpful to meditation to allow awareness to describe experience in its own terms. We then have the possibility to see beyond what we already know.

The American Dharma teacher Andrea Fella says it neatly.

We are not going to find our way to Nirvana.

We have no idea what we’re looking for.

We have to allow the mind to go beyond what is known to it, to just have no idea.

Taking the Red Pill.


When the film, The Matrix was brought out in 1999, many of my friends were very excited and talked about it as a ‘Buddhist film’. I’m not sure about that, but I do think it works well as an allegory for aspects of the spiritual life. I’ve been exploring various films on a recent retreat looking at what they can helpfully reveal and illuminate for us as practitioners. Here is a take on just a few aspects of one.

The Matrix – you may remember – starts off in a normal human, humdrum, pleasure and pain world. It’s a world that the main character, Neo, has never quite believed in. In Neo’s search, there are echoes of the Buddha and many a dharma practitioner’s lament “is this all there is?” There must be more.

His search leads Neo to a meeting with the mysterious and charismatic Morpheus. His intuitive doubts are affirmed and he is offered a chance to see a truer reality. He is warned by Morpheus that it won’t be easy, and there will be no turning back. Two pills are set in front of him and he can choose just one. The red pill, Morpheus says, will show him an unimaginable reality. It will show him the truth. However, if he takes the blue pill he will forget he’s ever met Morpheus and will carry on with his regular life.

He takes the red pill.

There is a similar choice to be made in our dharma lives. We can see the red pill as standing for wisdom, for seeing more clearly how things ‘really’ are. And the blue pill represents ignorance, the habit of wilful of self-delusion.

The character of ‘Cypher’ is a vivid depiction of this self-delusion. He wants out of the dangers, difficulties and sheer dreariness of ‘true reality’ and so he strikes a bargain with his oppressors (of the blue pill false reality). He’ll betray his red pill companions if he can return to complete forgetting. He mouths the old cliché “ignorance is bliss, right?” to the sinister Mr Smith, and insists he wants his ‘rebirth’ to be as someone rich and powerful, perhaps an actor. He is happy to live in a false reality as long as it is one of ease and pleasure and where he has (the illusion of) control.


For us, this choice is not just one decision to live a different kind of life, with new goals and changed values. Often it is a slow process from initial toe dabbling to deep immersion, with a million tiny drops altering our perspective and softening our hearts along the way. On some days we take the red pill, and the other days, unthinkingly we pop a blue one. Over time hopefully, we more consistently choose wisdom and love.

In each moment ‘choices’ are being made, and here the mind quality of ‘sampajana’ can be very helpful to support wise and skilful actions. Sampajana means ‘clearly knowing or comprehending’ what is happening, and it works with Sati (mindfulness) to do this. A related meaning to Sampajana is having a clear comprehension of your spiritual purpose. You understand how the decisions you make relate to your overall spiritual purpose, from the important life choices to the momentary arisings in meditation practice. “What’s needed now? What would be helpful?” This type of intuitive questioning draws on our dharma understanding and experience in meditation to work with our minds.

I find it fascinating that once Neo is within the new ‘reality’ he is still basically the same person. Being there has opened his mind but it hasn’t changed his behaviour at all. There is a parallel here with our leading and trailing edges in practice, or to put it another way; vision and transformation. We may have some Insight but it can take time and further practice for it to work through, influencing our actions, speech and mind.

“You have to let it all go Neo. Fear Doubt and Disbelief. Free Your Mind!”

Like us, Neo has to learn to live to his full potential. He can defy gravity if he believes it is possible! Morpheus is his teacher and his main work is to help Neo see the conditioned limits he imposes on himself. We too have to learn how to recognise the conventional reality we’re constantly constructing around us, and see beyond it.

Morpheus’ urges Neo to “free your mind”. Something we can connect with in every moment when we remind ourselves to be aware with right view.

The Significant Self

I read a moving evocation by Ram Dass of an interaction at a conference between him and a stranger. He describes the younger man’s response to him; the glazed eyes, the slightly contemptuous lack of interest. He feels strongly how the man has deemed him ‘irrelevant’ and goes on to chart his journey of being caught by that judgement, and the inner process as he frees himself from it.

I know from experience how painful it is when I give away power in this way. There are different motivations for doing so but in a lot of cases, including my own, at root is insecurity and anxiety about being loved.

On a long solitary retreat a few years ago I read a free online book about anxiety. There was one line in particular that nailed the anxious response that was part of my inner reality.

You assume you require the approval of others for everything you do.”

Oh my God! I thought. That’s me! And I’d thought this was normal! It was actually helpful realising this pattern was so hard-wired in me. I started to be able to recognise it’s shadow frequently, manifesting in thoughts and feelings I’d unconsciously grafted on to my very young self. As I became more aware of those moments, I acted less from this outdated view.

I shared Ram Dass’ original article on social media, and it sparked a further reflection from my friend Moksaka, who wrote and asked if I was familiar with the Buddha talking about similar territory. I wasn’t but eagerly asked for more information and for a reference in the discourses of the Buddha.

The Buddha’s example is specifically about teachers and teaching. There are different types of students. There are audiences composed of those who listen, those who don’t listen, and times where there are both types present. In each case, the Buddha doesn’t get elated by those who pay attention or dejected by those who don’t seem interested in what he has to say. He maintains mindfulness and clearly knows what’s happening; he remains equanimous.

Some time ago my equanimity was challenged on a retreat I was leading. On the penultimate day there was a chance for everyone to say something about their retreat experience. It’s common during these ‘go rounds’ for heartfelt thanks to be expressed, particularly to the retreat leader. Of course, not everyone connects with the approach to practice but usually, there is something they found valuable in the teaching and are excited and appreciative about. As a retreat leader, you put a lot of work in and it’s lovely to see the effects on people.

On this particular occasion, the first few people spoke and didn’t make any reference to me or the teaching. They mentioned how they were and what sort of time they’d had. They spoke about the retreat venue, the friendliness of everyone, the food, and all sorts of other things – but not about me. I noticed myself noticing this as a bit unusual, but I was pretty sure it would change as we continued to hear from others. It didn’t!

More people spoke and there were a few comments about what they’d learned. A couple of people spoke of the difficulties they’d had. As we carried on, I noticed my energy was rising fast, with an emotional alarm sounding. Maybe no one would say anything about how they valued what I’d taught. I wouldn’t get that affirmation that I was a good teacher, or that I’d helped deepen their understanding. It was starting to seem a glaringly obvious omission to me but perhaps I was only imagining that everyone was embarrassed on my behalf! I watched my mind jumping anxiously around trying to work out what was happening.

“Maybe this person will say something? I know he had a good time. Is it just a different retreat culture to the one I’m used to?

I was perturbed, then bemused. “

Maybe they just didn’t connect? Maybe I taught really badly this week? Perhaps they just didn’t like it?”

Finally the thought “Well, they’re not going to invite me back!”

And then we came to the person who said she hadn’t taken in a word I’d said all week! She sort of made it about her, but it wasn’t entirely clear whether, really, it was about me! Could I add being ‘really unclear’ to my growing list of hypothetical defects?

I was monitoring what was going on inside me and was aware of the waves created in my mind. My heart pounded and I felt hot. I felt a bit invisible. I felt like Ram Dass – irrelevant. They could have had the retreat without me, that’s how relevant I was!

We got right around the room and awareness and right view had largely done their work; the hyper-vigilant energy settled and the speculating mind, through being repeatedly seen for what it was, had calmed down. The desire for approval was wryly noted. I’d got to a place of humour and some acceptance; this is how it is today.

It was unusual to get so little positive feedback, but I was more open to not knowing why that might be and clearer that it wasn’t necessarily personal. For a while, the mind had made it ‘all about me’. People had come to the retreat for their own reasons, and would ‘listen’ or ‘not listen’ dependant on their own needs. I was just one of many factors in the retreat.

Later, individual comments and goodbye hugs elicited thanks and appreciation and balanced out the picture somewhat. Overall it was a good experience for me, working with the twin worldly winds of praise, and if not blame, then not registering as important or special.

Not irrelevant, but less significant.

Dancing the Unknown

Last week I was introducing meditation in a slightly different context. I was on retreat as usual, in the beautiful snowy realm of the Trossachs in Scotland, with Loch Voil frozen one day under a clear, blue sky. What was different to most of the retreats I teach on, was that I was supporting Jayachitta on the ‘Dancing the Unknown’ retreat.

It’s the third year running I’ve done this retreat at Dhanakosa retreat centre. Jayachitta is trained in movement improvisation, and unlike a lot, maybe most improv teachers, she doesn’t take the exercises in the direction of performance art or drama (though we touched on both of those) but towards meditation. Movement is a fabulous way of noticing what is happening in the mind. What the mind and emotional habits get up to when you move in a directed way, is so clearly visible.

What was stressed a lot was authentic movement; if nothing came, then nothing happened, be prepared to wait and to be present rather than move in a half-hearted or artificial way you didn’t really feel connected with. (The suggestion once we progressed to making sounds and then words was a little different; if you were stuck, reel off a bunch of numbers and see if that loosened up the mind – that was a lot of fun!)

Jayachitta would very skilfully draw out the links through the exercises we did individually and in pairs or threes, sometimes with music and quite a lot without it. And then in the afternoon sessions, I would make my own connections with the material with sitting meditation, and a fair amount of standing and walking meditation.


I’ll give you a couple of examples of how this worked. One day we worked in the movement session with ‘shape’. The shapes that we take up, the shapes we make. After working alone we progressed to making shapes in and around another and then adding a sound when we took up a new shape. We’re always taking up a ‘shape’ in relation to the world, and to each other, and we’re always being shaped and formed by our world. We’ve been formed in this way since we were babies interacting with parents and siblings, with our environment, whether nurturing or not. Our physical shape is formed and re-formed through our lives, and in each moment through our relationship with our body and mind.

Later in meditation, we looked explicitly at the mental and emotional shaping that’s happening all the time through the interactions between thoughts, feelings and our sense experiences. We all have an emotional ‘shape’ formed like a rock smoothed by the ocean, and with awareness, we see that we take up many different shapes rather than a single, internal, monolithic self-view. Our minds, as well as our bodies, are shaped and formed over and over again.

Another day we had fun with small soft balls. Standing in a circle more balls were gradually introduced until there were about 6. The only instruction was to throw the ball (underarm) to another person in the circle. It was interesting to notice all the ‘extras’ that went along with that simple request; lots of laughter, lots of “whoop’s” (when the ball went short or wide) and “sorry’s” when it hit someone. Some admitted to trying to be ‘fair’ so that everyone got the ball, and many of us tried to catch someone’s eye before they threw the ball.

“Why?” said Jayachitta. “The instruction wasn’t to catch the ball. Just to throw it!”

A couple of the more devilish folk admitted they deliberately threw the ball to someone who wasn’t looking!

In this simple exercise so much internal mind stuff went on. We worried about getting it wrong. We told ourselves stories about how we could never catch at school. Or that we were great at ball games. There was embarrassment, and self-congratulations and lots in-between. The mind kept up its non-stop commentary but eventually calmed down, as did the external commentary of noises and words. The task became just noticing what was happening through the game in body and mind.

Having dwelt in ‘space’ in the movement, in the afternoon meditation session, we looked at our stories and narratives around ‘time’, and the extras we add on to what is actually happening in the mind. Borrowing questions from Tejananda, we looked at where in our experience could we find the past or the future. And then, could we find the present moment?

There were no right or wrong answers but it was a deeply intriguing exercise that encouraged a real interest in experience, rather than the concepts around them. We used the concepts themselves as ways into direct experience.

There were many more exercises and correlations through the week, watching the mind, noticing reactions, and becoming freer from limiting habits.

If you get the chance – come to the Dancing the Unknown retreat next spring at Dhanakosa (watch this space for dates). If you can’t wait until then Jayachitta is leading a weekend in Sheffield Buddhist Centre this weekend 31/1st April,
and another one in Shrewsbury Buddhist Centre on June 9th/10th.

Check out more details and other events on Jayachitta’s website

glimpses into a meditator's mind

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