Monday, 12 January 2009

Out of the bubble


Winter. So far this is one of the coldest winters in Britain for a while: hard frost and frozen pools, birds and squirrels frantically scrambling for food during the daylight hours. The community here look radically different - swaddled to rotundity with layers of fleece and wool, they look more like large plump birds than their normal angular selves. It's the winter retreat so the silence and the stark format of the day - chant, sit, walk, eat - reduces us to anonymous outlines in a grey landscape. Which is one of the ways it should be: all the fire and juice of our lives has drawn inwards. Like tulip bulbs we're gathering up nourishment for the spring.

Much of the time I'm in the Dhamma Hall, whose underfloor heating keeps the temperature at a steady 19 degrees Celsius (67 F). Just right. But I also go back to my own dwelling for breakfast and a hot drink in the evening, and to retire for the night. Where I'm typing this is pretty cool: I keep the heat turned down, and choose to bundle up in a fleece jacket with a woollen scarf draped around my throat and head. In the mornings it's the same, as I wrap my hands gratefully around a bowl of hot porridge. The heat's electric and I could turn it up with a flick of a switch, but...it's winter. It's supposed to be like this.

I wonder: is my motive frugality? ( Living dependent on free-will donations does impart a sense of conscience.) Maybe it's carbon guilt? Or to experience a sensitivity to my fellow (feathered) sentients, whose feeder I cram with nuts every day? Maybe I just enjoy austerity, or perhaps I'm making my gesture against the extravagant use of resources that is killing this planet. All quite likely.

Actually I don't like being cold. When I was growing up in London, we lived in a high-ceiling Victorian house with no central heating. There was a coal fire in the main room around which we'd huddle, roasting at the front and cold at the back. (Maybe we should have turned on a spit.) The bathroom I particularly remember, as it was a converted conservatory – no heat, with the windows painted over. (Modesty counts for more than comfort, how English!) Dad used to bundle my brother and myself in and out of the bath tub, wrapping us in big towels and briskly rubbing us dry. The water in the tub, if left, turned to solid ice.

Does it brings up something of that, the nip of cold? Well, I've experimented with cold immersions, with other monks - one of whom was very keen on jumping into a lake on his birthday ( in January). There's an amazing bodily buzz that happens when you're undressing with the cold wind blowing across the water and the mind going numb with horror. Everything starts racing. Then as you dive in and surge a few strokes, the body takes over. Kicks, thrashes - and as the mind shocks still, the body (mine at least) hastily scrambles out. It feels like it's on fire. It's much the same with bathing in the snow, which I did quite regularly in my forties. I used to leap out of my sleeping bag before dawn - and before I could think twice, jump into the snow rub it into my skin and then pour a large basin of cold water over my body. My mind couldn't handle this at all - so it just dropped hold of the actions and events. Which was interesting. And it certainly wakes you up, and warms you up for a while. You feel great (if your body's in good enough shape, that is).

But all this seems a bit violent now, and it smacks of the artifice of creating a challenge for the sake of it. So more to the point for me at this time is not about overcoming resistance to cold, but about abiding in an understanding of working with nature - my own and that around me. That I'm not living in a bubble, but on the planet in this season. Being human, I can shelter, much as other creatures do, and I can put on extra coats - so right now I'm not cold. But I want to be conscious of doing that and conscious of what I'm in. I don't want to forget that this room is a shelter, not a dislocated Sucitto-sphere. I want to learn about living this life from living on the earth that it arose in. I want to learn through the skin, the and the nerves. I don't want to just park my mind-set in a convenient corner and shut life out.

Because as well as being too cold in Britain, I've been mind-dissolvingly hot in several tropical countries, for months on end. I've also gasped my way up mountains that were too steep and too high, and gone leg-numb on trails that should have ended hours previously. I didn't like that either. (And these are just a few of the offences, wounds and injustices that life has wrought on me - and I haven't even had a really hard time). Yet here I am. And as the attitude around feeling relaxes, there's an adjustment that happens by itself. The mind steps back and goes quiet and spacious, and the body works in accordance with nature - as if it belongs here, among heat and cold and the comings and goings of feeling. And isn't that so? And that when what's here until we die actually is here, a chunk of suffering stops?

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