The Story of Me

Sometimes I get a bit fed up with how little purchase I seem to have on various long-standing habits. I eat too much and I enjoy treats so I’m either on a diet or gaining weight. I’m addicted to reading and would like to be spending more time reflecting, meditating or ‘doing nothing’. Instead, I read novels or sometimes watch DVDs. As well as the habits there is dukkha from the discrepancy between how I am and the view or idea of how I think I should be.

As some of you will know through my Facebook page I recently got sparked off by an article on the BBC news website by Matthew Syed. It was about ‘cognitive dissonance’ or how we hold to a particular view or outcome regardless of evidence to support our reasoning. The example he gives is of Tony Blair’s decision to invade Iraq which was justified by his certainty of the presence of weapons of mass destruction. Despite WMD, never being found and the evidence pointing to them never having been in Iraq, Tony Blair switched his argument repeatedly to other justifications for starting a war.

Syed makes it clear it isn’t just Tony Blair, or even politicians, who are prone to this sort of behaviour but all of us. And it’s not so much about behaviour but about thinking and views. While cognitive dissonance seems to be more about the discomfort or anxiety produced by the possibility of a strongly held view being incorrect – an emotional reaction – ‘confirmation bias’ is the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories. Probably both are working together with the emotional discomfort driving the need for a view or belief that will close the gap and make us feel safe.

The Buddha was also alert to this phenomenon and saw it as a fundamental part of practice for us to get to grips with. He saw that we reinforce our own views to shore up a sense of self. We feel more secure when we are constantly using data to establish and remind ourselves ‘this is what I think and know’ ‘this is who I am’. Or ‘I like this’ or ‘I’m not the sort of person who…’ In other words – the story of ‘me’ that we retell ourselves over and over again. Over the years it can refine and develop but it takes a lot to fundamentally change our views and particularly our view of a fixed self.

Ken Wilber, who writes on trans-personal psychology and integral spirituality thinks that ‘most of us are only willing to call 5% of our present information into question at any one point.’ It’s too scary – even for the most rational of beings! We are a long way from the White Queen in Alice in Wonderland who made a practice of believing impossible things for half an hour each day before breakfast!

The Buddha saw that it is extremely important to understand through direct experience what we can call ‘the view forming process’. Views don’t come out of no-where. We are conditioned by the experiences we have and the influences we’re subjected to. We have a back story based on our familial, cultural, social, religious and educational history. If we understand the way in which our views are formed and how they influence us a process of deconstruction or de-conditioning us of biases about the content of our views and opinions can happen.

There is not only what happens to us – but how we respond to it. Two people can have the same experience, say, a bike accident as a child, and react differently. One might grow up hating sport and the other winning an Olympic medal!

However getting a handle on views doesn’t necessarily involve looking back into the past at our story, but bringing awareness into our present moment experience. We start to understand the role of feelings in relation to the likes and dislikes that our views and opinions grow out of. We start to see how a simple feeling at the level of the senses – a pleasant sound or an unpleasant sight or taste – conditions wanting or not wanting that thing to continue, and we form views to justify the rationality of our thinking and desires i.e. the mildly unpleasant physical sensation of coolness on your exposed skin in bed can lead to ‘ it’s better if the bedroom window is shut at night because it will make me ill.’

This innocent little view can set off ‘window wars’ on retreats with others who have opposite opinions on the vital health-giving properties of an open window or two! It can be surprisingly difficult (emotionally) to see another’s point of view as having validity because we believe our own to be true. The ‘evidence’ is much less important than this feeling of ‘this is true’. This was Tony Blair’s position. The more strongly we hold to our views, usually, the stronger the sense of self-involved and the more defensive or threatened we feel by another’s views. If we can ‘stay with‘ the feelings of threat, with the discomfort of cognitive dissonance without moving into further justification, then there is a real opportunity.

This concerns ‘process’ rather than content. We don’t just know our ‘story‘ but we know it as a story, something that is constructed out of tiny bits of experience through the senses and including thoughts and feelings. If we can become aware of our own point of view at any moment as a mental position that’s been taken up in the mind this is an aspect of Right View.

This little mental/emotional ‘flip’ is fascinating. When we’re not invested and identified with a view we are free from it and free to examine it. Is it true? Is it helpful? What is it based on? A recent view I’ve spotted is around how drab my experience will be without daily ‘treats’ in my life. Drabness feels unpleasant and I don’t want it and the way to avoid feeling it is to indulge myself. Treats are tied up with how interesting and lively I am as a person! This is what I’m thinking without having any conscious idea that I had such a weird view! And it’s influencing my weight, my joints, health and the quality of my mind. cake

So I’ve been noticing ‘drabness’ from the outside rather than being wrapped up in believing I have to eat cake and read thrillers to be fun. When I can be aware enough to ‘stay with’ the feeling it no longer feels unpleasant but satisfying. It’s then possible to understand that the whole ‘treat’ view is very selective in the reality it believes. Not reaching for the chocolate becomes easy. The kindle ‘daily deals’ seem unappealing. The wise choice has become natural in that moment.

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Wallpaper of the Mind.

I woke up this morning, later than I’d like to, still sleepy but ready to sit before breakfast. Sitting I’m aware of thoughts in the mind and sensations in the body. “What else is there?” the mind wants to know. What can’t be put down to thoughts or sensations but is more the flavour of experience in that moment? Often the physical sensations are familiar and also similar, pulling, pushing, tightening, opening. In the chest area or stomach, fizzing elsewhere in the legs or head.

I’m aware of a level of interpretation through the thoughts, of a co-creation between various aspects of experience. The ‘extra’ could be called ‘mood’. Sometimes I’ll ask “what’s the mood in the mind?”. Not so much looking for an answer but just feeling into what’s there. Giving it some space and attention.

Often the feeling or mood feels very familiar too and, if I become aware of it, I can recognise the difference between it and the quality of the awareness. Awareness with the flavour of interest and impartiality, without agenda can become aware of other quite subtle mind states. I find ‘mood’ particularly interesting because it can feel so ‘normal’ and can hide a strengthening sense of self in the moments when its not recognised for what it is. ‘Sense of self’ tends to grow around klesha or afflicted mind states through identification with them.

I call ‘mood’ the wallpaper of the mind because it’s like a room in your home; you walk into it and no longer notice the colour or patterning on the walls or the grubby spots where the backs of chairs have rubbed the colour away further. Perhaps you never really liked it much but didn’t get around to changing it. It doesn’t strongly impinge and so it goes unnoticed but actually there can be a lot of potential in becoming more aware of it.

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One familiar mood I started noticing regularly a while back was what I called my ‘burdened’ feeling. Initially it was just a feeling that was mildly unpleasant and I recognised that it was probably around a lot as it felt so habitual. Over time I learned more about it as I got interested and awareness kicked in.

It was a background, low level mood with a subliminal story of things being hard work, a struggle and not very enjoyable. The mood would obviously affect how I related to all sorts of ‘objects’ – from the tasks I needed to perform to the meetings I attended. The burdened feeling was one manifestation of resistance where I felt everything was just too much effort. It sounds a strong feeling when I put it this way but actually it wasn’t, though it still had a powerful effect on my mind.

2 things changed when I became aware of what was happening.

1. It’s hard to remain under the influence of the mood when awareness and curiosity are present. And feeling out something whilst you’re aware feels completely different than when you’re just wrapped up in it and not noticing it. You’re not under its influence so you’re actually free of it while it’s still in the mind.

2. Like a bank of clouds breaking up in the sky, over time, the mood of ‘burden’ appeared less and less frequently.

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Of course other moods took its place and for a while the more habitual mind state was low level anxiety and this was observed in the same way. And in-between times there are the blue sky moments when the clouds are not there and awareness can know whatever is happening and know its own radiance.

Can’t see for looking…

You know that feeling when a number of small factors come together and something starts forming in the mind? The beginnings of a new understanding or spark of interest in a particular direction. I’ve had that over the past few days.

First a friend wrote me an email mentioning the 4 types of practitioners. You know; the one who’s mind naturally inclines to samatha, calm and one-pointedness. Jhana is fairly accessible for them. Or the one who’s mind is active, thinks a lot but regularly has moments of clear seeing (vipassana) or ‘aha’ moments. Then there’s the mind that does both (lucky thing!). Or the one that does neither (ooch).

So despite occasionally feeling like I’m the last one generally I think of myself as in the second camp; awareness and aha moments rather than concentration and bliss.

The second thing was waking up this morning after a dream remembering something Sayadaw U Tejaniya said to me in a meditation interview a couple of months ago. I’d asked him a question about my practice and he’d answered it. Then he said “next time I’m not going to give you the answer, you have to come up with it yourself.”

And the third thing I’ve been noticing lately but it’s being going on for most of my life as far as I can tell is a habit of asking people for help. “Mum, I can’t find it” was a frequent cry when I was a kid. “Well, look properly” she would say in a tone of exasperation, often snatching up the school bag/swimming gear/gym shoes from somewhere I’d already looked. “It’s right in front of your nose.”

Now it’s my long suffering partner who I ask for help in all sorts of ways but particularly techie things that I think I can’t do. Actually, sometimes I can figure it out but I’m lazy and I want the answer sooner rather than later.

So despite my on-going awareness practice or perhaps because of it I’m realising I need to ‘look properly’ and think through things more for myself in a deeper way. I don’t think this means doing more, being more active. More by standing still longer. Not moving into action prematurely or into distraction.

Mostly it’s about more awareness and more interest. Being more curious about whatever it is I’m experiencing. Not discursively but recognising with a mind that is simple and not making assumptions. In this way it’s possible to recognise more subtle levels of assumptions and views – and there are always more! Another way of putting it: knowing where the mind is coming from – its point of view. It’s like knowing the inside of your skin. How do you know that?

I’m doing it already at times or there wouldn’t be the aha moments of knowing, of recognition and understanding. But more is needed. Not more trying or more effort. Just more recognition of the moments when awareness is present. And more remembering the importance of Right View, which allows curiosity to flower into wisdom.

Funeral

Yesterday I was at a funeral. I wasn’t close to the person, we’d met briefly on a handful of occasions but I decided to go anyway because of the connection with his family. He had been a Catholic so the service was a Requiem Mass in a modern church with high ceilings and naturalistic figures of various saints in the stained glass windows.

I was brought up Catholic and my relationship with Catholicism has changed in the 32 years I’ve been a practising Buddhist. It has softened and mellowed from the outrage of my teenage years when it seemed God and my Dad were of one authoritarian mind! There is now more interest in seeing connection than the rejection that came from working out what a Buddhist was and how it was different to what I’d grown up with.

One thing I’d reacted against quite strongly was that the church service was always the same. Every week going to hear the same words, verses, standing up in places, kneeling in others! Occasionally getting to sit down (and sneak a look at whatever book I’d brought along with me to while away the 45 minutes of boredom).

Buddhist ritual hasn’t changed much either in the 32 years I’ve been doing it. What has changed is the mind participating in it. There are qualities of sensitivity, openness and being present, moment by moment in the aware mind. Not looking to the ‘object’ of experience for satisfaction so much but paying attention to the quality of the mind that is aware.

There is also an appreciation now that one of the strengths of ritual is repetition, of knowing phrases really well and having an understanding of their significance that grows over years of evoking certain moods.

I recognised a lot of the verses yesterday. Some I could go along with (confession, peace, community) and some I couldn’t (sin, heaven, angels – there was a lot about angels!). I knew all the hymns and felt moments of real joy in singing them despite the pitch that is always too high in churches for anyone over the age of 15 unless they are trained opera singers!

Despite not ‘agreeing’ with the words there is something about tunes, harmonies, rituals and gestures familiar from many years of observing and participating as a child. They are part of my history and my ‘identity’. I don’t mean identity as a fixed, static thing that defines ‘me’ but something lighter and ‘truer’.

As I listened and sat and stood and sang yesterday there was a background awareness of my mind. I noticed thoughts and feelings and various snippets of memory. There was a thought about whether or not I still identified with my catholic roots and a sort of pause in the mind wondering if that was a good thing or not.

These ‘mind moments’ had the flavour of familiarity, they were parts of the story of me – but without ‘me’. Without identifying with them they were free floating fragments of memories, perceptions and feelings that re-vitalised in that moment sparked off through being in the Church and hearing the Mass.

We all have a story (many stories) and as practitioners we’re taught not to buy into it. To let go of the story and be with the direct experience. What I was aware of in these moments was both the fabric of the story that has been lived through and is remembered to some degree and also the fragmentary and conditioned nature of those moments in the present. Identity without identification.autumn-940401_640

I couldn’t identify or not identify as an ex-catholic. There was an individualised ‘stream of experience being known by the mind and ‘identification’ was part of that. Identification itself was not ‘real’ or ‘true’ but another mind moment being known in awareness.

In itself – just another moment of practice. Noticed because of the habit of watching the mind. And not inappropriate while witnessing the ultimate in non-identification, the death and dissolution of the body.

Intimacy with all things?

A few years ago I was in Spain in spring time during the almond blossom period. Being driven through miles of dry interior, clouds of pink frothy beauty were everywhere. I was quietly ecstatic. A thought came ‘this is just pleasant experience’. My heart closed, just a little, but there was a diminishing of the joyful state. At the time I felt slightly regretful that seeing experience clearly made mindfulness feel a bit of a spoilsport.

Sometimes the language of awareness and wisdom, of ‘process’ rather than ‘content’ and particularly of ‘observing’ experience, can be a bit of a turn off. There can be resistance to just ‘knowing’ or ‘seeing’. It can feel overly detached. We want to know ‘where is the juiciness of life?’ An attitude of reverence for life or intimacy with experience is replaced with something cooler and less appealing.

What would you chose? Intimacy with life or Detachment from the objects of experience?

It is at least partly an issue of language. And the language has developed from different strands of Buddhist history. The Buddha’s early teachings are full of negation. Enlightenment is described through what it is not. It’s pared down and scraped back and then you see what’s left. Terms like ‘the void’ or ‘the unborn’ abound. And this makes sense when you’re trying to avoid using concepts that suggest spiritual realisation is a ‘thing’ existing somewhere, something to get hold of. It’s easier and more accurate to say what its not.

Later Buddhist teachings go to the other extreme with huge flowery language, an impossible abundance of mythic and imaginative suggestiveness. Interconnectedness of all things seems to augment rather than strip away. We are left with everything rather than nothing.

Where do these different teachings and approaches from the same spiritual tradition meet?

I hesitate to endorse ‘intimacy with experience’ when I’m wanting to encourage a clear observation of what is happening in mind and body. And yet, I recognise in the experience of that observation, whether of a sight or sound, emotion or thought, it often has the flavour of presence, delicacy, richness and curiosity. In short – intimacy.

My reticence is for a couple of different reasons.

Firstly, I think the language of intimacy can encourage a collapsing into the object of experience, an absorption into it, and this, I’m trying to avoid. Absorption into the experience belongs to a different type of meditation practice with a single focus, for example, the breath.

But even in broad awareness, done as an insight practice there are pitfalls.

Early Buddhism is concerned with seeing experience clearly and with detachment or non-attachment. These are ‘cool’ words that can be a bit off-putting. But it’s not detachment from experience that is meant but detachment from defiled mind states (klesha/kilesa). We’re looking to view our experience without the klesha of attachment influencing the observation. If we have even a little desire to be intimate with experience because it feels good, because it’s pleasurable, that is the klesha of craving in operation.

Pleasure, liking and desire all feel good – at least initially and if we’re not keeping a close eye out.

We need this idea or feeling of intimacy to be examined with the same quality of awareness as we would anything else. It can’t be exempt or we end up with being identified with the pleasant qualities it holds. We need intimacy without identification. Wisdom can’t flower in the mind that is attached and identified.

It’s only recently that I’ve understood my moments with the almond blossom more clearly. What I thought was a ‘seeing through’ was in fact a thought about seeing through. It didn’t have a lot of power when up against strong pleasure hence the desire for the pleasure to continue.

But there have been other experiences over time where seeing pleasure for what it is – a momentary arising in the mind – has been more satisfying than the initial pleasurable thing. In those moments there has been some wisdom in the mind that is able to appreciate reality rather than be disappointed by it!

Whatever Lobha wants, Lobha gets…

 

Lobha has been an on-going interest in practice of late and that continued through the month I’ve been away on retreat and travelling between retreats (in Finland and Switzerland, lucky me!)

‘Lobha’ is much more than greed and desire: it’s that sense of wanting, enjoying, relishing the experiences I have that are pleasurable, leaning into them however subtly, so they persist and continue into the next moment. The flip side is ‘dosa’ – aversion, the ‘not wanting’ which is still wanting something to be other than it is.

So, I’ve been getting more intimate lobha as it operates in the mind. Getting to know it from its own side.How it thinks and feels, what motivates it, even coming up with a kind of job description for it. Its ‘job’ is to strengthen desire and wanting in the mind especially by getting me to act on my desires. So it embellishes the attractive features of an object (sweet, tasty, highly pleasurable cake with my coffee) and downplays it’s unattractive aspects (will rot my teeth, contribute to weight gain, encourage greed). It feels sticky and excited by itself – Ms Feelgood.

It gets me to do all sorts of things (especially on the cakes, chocolate and other sweet things front) I later regret! Lobha is biased towards the pleasurable, that’s what she’s seeking out. From desires point of view the best life is one pleasurable experience after another.

When Awareness is present and there is interest in the mind it’s possible to see lobha more objectively. There is no need to be particularly firm with myself (suppression) or to let my desires run wild (indulgence) but to see what can be noticed about the nature of desire. Seeing desire from the perspective of Awareness is fascinating. You’re seeing it from the ‘outside’ rather than being completely involved with wanting or not wanting it.

A couple of examples.

I was meditating recently with a group of people. I had my eyes open as I usually do and I noticed a flicker of irritation and ‘not liking’ as my vision caught someone who I’d had a small disagreement with the previous day. The person next to her was someone I’m fond of and there was a sense of ‘liking’. I went back and forth between the two people – liking and not liking, not liking and liking. There was an understanding in the mind that this process of liking and dis-liking is going on all the time in relation to different things and how impersonal it all is. It’s simply liking and dis-liking in the mind, happening all the time in a mind relating to objects of experience. There was no need to take it so seriously. It needn’t go any further than that – into fully fledged desire or ill-will – and in those moments it didn’t.

Secondly, as part of my travels between retreats I crossed through the Swedish and Finnish Archipelago on a 9 story ferry. It takes 11 hours and on the return journey to Stockholm I found a place to meditate in a large almost empty bar. I settled back, with my eyes resting on the sea outside of the window, to watch my mind. Sounds became the main objects I was aware of: laughter from a group on the far side of the room, clinking of glasses behind the bar and the bland piped music in the background.

And then there was a moment, sharp and sweet, when I realised the mind was ‘liking’. It was homing in on certain chords and harmonies in the largely unnoticed music and the emotional tone in one voice that the mind liked. Seeing this happening there was the choice to ‘go with’ the liking and let lobha grow or to just be aware. Actually, ‘knowing’ the awareness and the process was much more satisfying so it was quite natural to stay with that..

A useful question for me has been ‘is awareness in the driving seat or is it lobha?’ What’s motivating me in this moment? And the thing that I’m relishing might be quite neutral or ‘positive’ like watching the light on the high snow covered mountains in Switzerland. It doesn’t matter, it’s still ‘wanting’ energy in the mind and that means lobha is coming out to play and her next object might not be a skilful one.

Awareness can sound a bit of a killjoy here. What’s wrong with enjoying a mountain view? Or a fabulous lake-side sunset (we had quite a few in Finland!)? As Ayya Khema said, as long as we have senses, pleasure will arise through what we see or hear or taste etc. She continued ‘but don’t confuse sense pleasure with the value of joy that arises through practice’.P1050472

And what I noticed was as the mind became steadily more clear and content through the retreat the mountains were not less beautiful but there was less elation and more equanimity in the mind that was aware of them.

(thanks to Alessandra for the memorable rendition of ‘whatever lobha wants’ 2 years ago on retreat in Slovakia).

Talking Meditation

P1050527Some time ago friends of mine decided to take turns to read each other ‘War and Peace’ to help them build a continuity of awareness that carried through talking and listening. In the Satipatthana Sutta the Buddha implies we should be aware when we’re talking and when we’re silent. It is not easy to be aware while we’re talking and this is why retreats are often held largely in silence. Usually we’re not practising what Sayadaw U Tejaniya calls ‘talking meditation’.

I’m not suggesting that our speech is unethical or that we don’t take account of the speech precepts. But do we carry a continuity of awareness through from one moment to the next whilst we’re speaking or listening? There is a lot more we can be aware of: for instance are we aware of the physical sensations in the throat and face when we speak? Do we notice the sound vibrations of our own speech? Are we aware of tone and pitch – of ourselves and person we’re in a conversation with? Are we aware of our posture, leaning forward into the space between us or leaning back?

When talking about practising in daily life recently I asked the university students in drop-in Mindfulness class to sit opposite each other. One person in each pair had the task of just affirming every now and again what the other person was saying with an ‘OK’ or ‘Yes’. The other person was to repeat a single, simple sentence over and over. “Speak in a normal voice” I instructed. When I told them what the sentences were the noise levels soared and embarrassed laughter broke out. “You see” I made myself heard over them “it would be easy to do this exercise with a silly voice but the words are just a device. Just say them straight.”

For many of you this probably sounds very familiar and you might think you know where I’m going with this. In the early days of Triratna we regularly did ‘Communication Exercises’ designed to break through the barriers of reserve and habit with which we communicated with each other. The idea was to affirm what the other person was saying, to affirm them while they spoke the child-like phrases.

P1050539But actually I was getting at something else in this class. It was ‘talking meditation’. The words were deliberately simple and repetitive: “The sky is blue today”, “The birds are singing here”. “The full moon is rising”. (OK, I wasn’t sure they’d go for “the cow is in the field”!) I asked them to stick to one phrase only – though this was clearly too much for several of the pairs I could hear who swapped around a bit! I asked them to see if they could continue to be aware whilst saying or hearing the phrase.

I wanted to convey that talking and listening are just objects of experience to be aware of like any other. Starting with using simple language with little conceptual content it was easier to stay aware of physical and mental processes throughout. We can practice ‘talking meditation’ in this way.

After some 1,440 pages and over 500,000 words of War and Peace my friends found it had become a positive habit to be aware whenever they spoke or listened to someone speaking. You might find other ways that have a similar effect. Mindful singing? Mindful poetry reading? However we do it more awareness in this tricky area can only be a good thing!

glimpses into a meditator's mind

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