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.


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.

glimpses into a meditator's mind

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