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!
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!
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.”
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
My thoughts have returned to the time recently spent in India, after a Sangha evening a few days ago where 6 of us talked briefly about our experiences there on pilgrimage, retreat and convention.
I’ve been thinking about my practice which rests a lot on direct experience, knowing the mind and what it’s getting up to. And I’ve been wondering about the place of the imagination in this type of practice. When my mind imagines, it creates or constructs various emotions; anxiety or paranoia potentially if I’ve been reading a thriller, or awe and reverence if I’m meditating where the Buddha gained Enlightenment.
While in India, I had the opportunity to go to the location where the Buddha is thought to have taught the Satipatthana Sutta for the first time. For the past 20+ years this Sutta has been key to my practice of the Dharma, so on the one day we had in Delhi, my partner and I headed off with the somewhat sketchy description given by a friend, and trusty google on our phones.
After a couple of metro journeys, a long walk through a park and then a rickshaw ride, we arrived at sunset at a small dusty park on the main road. It was populated by groups of men and boys, some with bottles of alcohol. As we walked past some parched looking Bodhi trees and climbed up onto the rocky outcrop in the centre of the park we were warned by a young Indian man in western dress that it wasn’t safe to stay after dark.
So, we couldn’t stay long, looking at the very old rock marked with a faded inscription, from Ashokan times, contained inside a concrete and barred tank. It was unprepossessing, unlike the gorgeous modern Lotus Temple we’d popped into en route. There were no other pilgrims present but previous ones had – as is traditional in parts of Asia – pressed gold leaf squares as offerings onto the concrete walls. It was the closest they could get to the heart of the site.
We took photos of each other on top of the outcrop and watched the sun setting through the smoky, polluted air over the city. I felt edgy after the warning we’d been given and keen to leave. It was only later it sunk in that I’d stood in the spot where the Buddha and his disciples had stood. I could imagine them there, apparently a mixed group of men and women as well as monastics. I imagined them sitting listening to the Buddha speak, his words being drunk in. I was so happy to have been there.
I was aware that the reality of the place didn’t justify the significance and happiness my mind was attributing to it. Did that matter? I don’t think so. I was aware I was using my mind in this way; imagining a scene that connected me more strongly with the Buddha. The emotions produced were positive ones of devotion and confidence, increasing my desire to practice. The use of concepts was a skilful one allowing for more receptivity to the qualities of awakening.
We’re using concepts all the time and one of the natural faculties of mind is imagining. Thoughts and conceptualising are not all we can know. My practice focus’ on direct experience to reveal what is immediate and fresh in experience away from the shadow of the world of concepts. Perhaps imagination is another tool that can help us do that.
Perhaps too, the modes of experiencing and imagining are not so different. In ancient India, whether you saw, imagined or visualised it was all taken as ‘seeing’, it was all ‘real’. The Buddha himself, sitting under the Bodhi tree ‘saw’ all the Buddhas of the past who had previously taken their seat on the great Diamond Throne, the Vajrasana. Sitting there himself he felt tremendous confidence that it was his rightful place.
This is perhaps a different sort of blog today. Usually, I focus on the internal world of meditative experience, sparked off by something in my practice of awareness and right view. Sometimes though, there is a prompt from the world around me and today that is very much the case.
I’ve recently returned from India where I was mostly in Bodhgaya, the place where the Buddha gained Enlightenment. Each day I would visit the Maha Bodhi temple, and sit meditating under the spreading branches of the great Bodhi tree, said to be a relative of the one that sheltered the Buddha 2 and a half thousand years ago, as he went more and more deeply into understanding the nature of his experience and the world around him.
For the Buddha, those two things – his experience and the world – were not different, but he was wise enough to understand that the real world counted. He understood that practice was not just a matter of knowing for himself the illusory nature of sense experience, but also knowing how that understanding could alleviate, and finally extinguish, human suffering. The teaching he offered in the face of suffering was practical and humane as well as wise. Just think of the story of Kisa Gotami, mad with grief from losing her husband and only child.
Modern-day India is a place where suffering hits you in the face. It is plentiful and lived out on the streets, not hidden away in institutions or behind the solid walls of private homes. Poverty, disability, homelessness and starvation were visible every time I made the short walk between the land where our retreat was happening and the temple.
Underpinning all these disadvantages, making life difficult and dangerous for millions of Indians, is Caste-ism. On the retreat and Convention I attended, were many Indian members of our Order, most of them ‘New Buddhists’ who stepped out from beneath the lowest rung of the Caste system with the mass conversions from ‘untouchability’ in1956.
Much of the Indian Buddhist Community is aimed at helping raise the quality of the lives of their fellow ‘Dalits’ (literally ‘oppressed’), through social, educational, legal and ultimately dharma work. With a Right Wing government throwing its weight behind the Hindu Caste system the dangers of this work is hard to over-estimate. Murders by the police are common; threats, intimidation and violence by ‘higher’ castes are the norm. So-called ‘honour’ killings and acid attacks, with little recourse to the law, happen every week.
The courage it takes to persist working towards a greater good in these conditions is huge. And yet people continue to do so. The risks are so high and cannot be minimised by inaction so the attitude is to embrace the danger. As one woman working in a small legal aid organisation said to a western aid worker “life is so dangerous for a woman in this State, so we might as well do something we really believe in to try and affect change.”
All of this brought into sharp relief for me the good conditions for practice most of us have in the West. And it’s very easy for the question ‘what more can I do?’ to arise along with a gamut of feelings including guilt, hopelessness or inertia. Living in Western Europe, as I do, we have so much materially, but we also live with a degree of safety and security unparalleled in most of the world.
There is a gritty edge to practice amongst my Indian Buddhist friends. It’s hard to get too comfortable and settle down in practice when there is suffering on so many fronts. The tough conditions keep one’s spiritual life vibrant, urgent and focused. Your turban really is on fire!
Rather than comparing the conditions for practice, I found myself thinking about what I could learn through seeing more clearly what my Indian brothers and sisters were up against. How could I intensify my practice without denying the relative ease and advantages of my life?
I have 3 bite-sized reflections, no space to flesh them out fully. Maybe they’ll translate to a talk or longer piece of writing some other time.
1. Remembering that anything can happen at any time. I live in a world of a temperate climate, plentiful food and unprecedented peace and stability. There are safety nets through the welfare and health services if I can’t work or I get sick. It is not perfect but it’s there. All this could change very quickly. Two years ago it seemed inconceivable that Britain would be leaving the EU or that a Reality TV businessman would be President of the US. Our good conditions change.
Reflect on just a couple of changes in your life or the world more broadly. How different would your circumstances be then?
2. Form a habit of selflessness. It’s easy to feel entitled to all that we have; we worked hard for it, or our families before us did. We overlook the bedrock of privilege we rest on that is actually quite arbitrary. If we see resources as dependant upon conditions that we didn’t control or make happen, but lucked into, it becomes easier to hold less tightly to ‘my’ time, energy, money or material goods. Resources can be more easily shared. The criteria becomes need not greed.
Where do you notice an extended hand in relation to your ‘resources’? And in what situations is that hand more tight and closed? And how do both feel?
3. Noticing expectations. Watching the mind closely we see what we expect from situations as diverse as our meditation, the weather or our partner. Things don’t happen because we want them to, but because the causes and conditions support them. Expectations are manifestations of craving, and as such they lead to suffering. If we can become aware of them we can be less identified with getting what we want.
Can you get interested in your expectations, your ‘wants’ from a situation? The views underpinning those desires can be very subtle and unravel in surprising ways.