If the twentieth century was the age when we incorporated motorised transport into human life, the early twenty-first is the age of the screen, of the Internet and its social networks. They have similar world-spanning, potentially mind-broadening, and yet disembodying, effects. We’ve increased span; what about depth?
What is ‘depth’ anyway? To me, it refers to how fully one ‘knows’ – in terms of thoughts, emotionally, or in your guts. It’s in the tough and testing times when one hasn’t a clue and is emotionally confused, that gut knowledge provides the balance that enables us to be wise. It tells us that we belong, that we’re whole and gives us the basic faith to pass through crisis, life and death. The other two ways of knowing just provide the details. It’s true that all kinds of marvellous discoveries have been revealed and communicated through intellectual knowledge – to the point of information overload – but how fuller do we feel, and are we less or more stable and integrated in our contexts than centuries ago? In replying to that last question, we appear less settled and integrated than earlier societies of very limited span and beliefs, societies that we now see as (intellectually) archaic and primitive. Yes, on the basis of increased head knowledge, human life has benefitted immensely in terms of any span you care to name: life-span, health-span, travel and information; but statistically we are more depressed, more suicidal, addicted and tranquillized, and more a danger to the earth, than ever before.
What brings around depth is embodiment: a natural and full sense of being in your body. It sounds, and is simple, but is a major task for many people these days. The average ‘developed’ person is a head on wheels, often connected to something electronic for much of the day. It can take concerted attention and skill on a meditation retreat to feel the body in more than a superficial way. As my language suggests, the social context (‘wheels and wires’) plays a big part in this disembodiment. When most people stayed in one locale and lived in an interactive context, those they lived next to would directly mirror the results of their actions. And when people did the once-a-year trip, or sailed on the three-year trading mission, they did so as part of a group, conversing, stopping here and there and being with others. Compared Chaucer’s chatty and interactive pilgrims with the single person commuting daily in their car, sealed off from other motorists who represent competition for road space, or whose dawdling make them objects of road rage. Consider also the effect of the consequent highways that slice through countryside, towns and neighbourhoods indifferent to all forms of life, and that flatten local landscapes into the wallpaper behind service stations and motels. ‘You are on a journey, you have a solitary purpose and a destination; an arrival is promised so there’s no need to relate to where you are’ is the subliminal message. And the daily immersion in a tangle of vehicular others, with whom physical contact will assuredly cause damage and possibly death – how does that mould the heart-mind? Are others ‘in the way’, or isn’t relationship with others part of the Way?
When the screen is the meeting place, an entry to a social network where one can meet one’s fellows – where are our foundations? The kind of contact that comes through the screen is sleek, instant and seemingly boundless; but it’s all surface. A person may grow up making friends and establishing relationships through a screen – but what kind of a relationship is formed through appearances on a screen? All surface, and no depth; immediate yet unpluggable and of no long-term consequence.
And in purely personal perspective, self-presentation to a global audience, no matter what the content, doesn’t deepen one’s felt presence. If most of the time is spent wheeling to and from work through traffic; if the majority of Internet traffic is heading towards pornography, buying and selling, sport and entertainment, there is no inner deepening. Consequently humans are getting less adequate at child-rearing, or managing death, and more prone to the raw realities of anxiety, depression and stress. Self and other are both negatively affected through disembodiment. We desperately need to know how to live on a planet with other life-forms, instead of killing the earth; and that means experiencing the earth as essentially alive and hence worthy of respect. We also need to learn about the process of being born, being affected and responsive and passing on. And that means learning down to the ends of your nerves; working on the gut reflexes of 'fight, panic, grab and faint'. And without really working towards 'pause, find grounded presence, soften and release' there is no way to the Deathless.
Contact shapes the heart-mind. From our infancy on through our teens, we need clear and caring contact to form a healthy heart-mind; without that, people develop attention disorder, neuroses and sociopathic behaviour. So when one takes a notion like ‘non-attachment’ and imagines that means ‘no contact’ and ‘no reference to a context or to another’, one is consigning a person to believing in their own opinions, fantasies and phobias. Attachment to an unenlightened view of non-attachment merely supports the isolationist self-view. It undermines the process of developing conscience and concern and opening the heart towards others – as well as towards oneself.
Tellingly, the principle means of Dhamma-transmission has always been to learn through contact with wise people. Being one of the two essential supports for stream-entry, the attention of a wise ‘other’ helps the heart-mind to grow beyond needs for self-image and self-presentation, and also beyond the consequent self-judgement and wish for self-annihilation.
When a bhikkhu has good friends … it can be expected of him that he will be virtuous …will get to hear at will, without trouble or difficulty, talk concerned with the spiritual life that is conducive to opening up the heart … will arouse energy for abandoning unwholesome qualities … will be wise, possessing the wisdom that … leads to the complete destruction of suffering. (Numerical Discourses 9.3)
For those who came to train with Ajahn Chah, a very direct and human relationship was the norm. For instance, a friend of mine, in his first interview with Ajahn Chah, described (with some quiet pride) his practice of sweeping attention up and down the sides of his body – to which Ajahn Chah’s response was to go down on all fours on the floor and sniff himself like a dog. The non-verbal message was, ‘So what. Just be aware of what the mind is doing at any moment and stay at that point.’ It was also a vivid way of cutting through any claim to prowess; yet the hilarity of it rendered the deflation free from judgement. On another occasion, as part of the monastic training of being with and attending to a teacher, a monk who’d been born in New York was bathing the Ajahn. (In rural N.E.Thailand it’s done outside; the teacher wraps a cloth around his waist and the attendant ladles water over him and rubs him down.) ‘Did you do this for your father?’ asked Ajahn Chah. ‘No, Luang Por, we don’t bathe our fathers in New York.’ ‘That’s why you have so many problems,’ was Ajahn Chah’s response. Hm. Think about it.
As for a hands-on approach, there’s the story of a Westerner who, beset with doubts as to whether he should stay as a monk or be of service as a lay practitioner, walked from the International Forest Monastery over to Wat Pah Pong to see Ajahn Chah. Ajahn Chah was sweeping around his kuti when the monk arrived, and seeing him said: ‘Working is better than talking’ and threw him a broom. So they both swept around the kuti for a while until the Westerner, noticing that the sun was going down, thought he’d better abandon the question for now and head back to his monastery. So he put the broom aside and went to pay respects to Ajahn Chah. Ajahn Chah simply put a hand on each of the young man’s shoulders, looked him straight in the eye and said: ‘Whatever you’re doing, just be with that.’ That’s wise fathering.
My final anecdote about Ajahn Chah is of an occasion when someone gave him a magazine of pin-ups, probably what would be classed nowadays as soft porn. Maybe they wanted to see how he, a life-long celibate would react. Ajahn Chah skimmed briefly through the mag. His only comment was: ‘Because of this, many men will become monks.’ He wasn’t blown away, dazzled or even that disgusted by the semi-nudity and posturing. Instead he put his finger right on the Dhamma: the world of surfaces however glittering and seductive, has no fulfilling depth. And the realization of that offers ‘disenchantment’ (nibbidā), the kind of knowing that leads to awakening. Because, as the vacuity of the surface is felt and acknowledged, the Path of awakening becomes the only valid option. True enough, most of Ajahn Chah’s (Western) monks had ‘seen it all and done most of it,’ but had no firm centre. Our last option was to go deeper. And in that disillusionment, a wise and direct human being keeps you out of utter despair.
Hence the Buddha set up the relationship with a teacher to be one of living together: in fact the Pali word for the disciple is ‘the one who shares one’s dwelling’. Going on alms-round together, doing chores, talking and sitting together with the teacher, one is calmed by their calm, sharpened by their immediacy, strengthened by their firm and grounded presence. And reassured by their ordinary earthiness.
Furthermore, in terms of meditation, after experiencing the formless states of his early teachers, the Buddha practised deep embodiment – really inhabiting his body, not sticking on the surface at sense-contact, but going inwards through breathing to where the subtle energy-channels of the body open, find their still centre and suffuse the practitioner with happiness and ease. In contact with that, the mind drops its wayward thinking, its sluggishness, agitation and passion and gathers at one point. ‘Jhāna’ he called it, ‘touching the Deathless with one’s body,’ ( Num. Discourses, 6.46) the meditative entry to nibbāna. Note: not ‘witnessing’ or ‘watching’, but touching.
Whereas spanning the world with cars, planes and social networks can help us to get out of parochial attitudes, a deepening and direct touch abolishes the assumption that our awareness is confined within separate bodies. When the blindfold of that view drops, the boundaries of self and other, now and then, here and there, fall away, and there is an opening to non-separation. And that way out of the ‘world’ is entered by going into and clearing the body.
In this fathom-long body with its perceptions and mind, I make known the world, its arising, its ceasing and the Path leading to its ceasing. (Connected Discourses [I] 2.2)
True understanding is embodied, the rest is just words. We need to be in our bodies to clear the heart-mind and attune its sensitivity to the Deathless element. So why not deliberately unplug for a day, a morning or an evening per week? Walk nowhere special, just to feel where you are. And anyway, it’s time to switch off this blog, plant both feet on the floor and sit back in our own embodied presence.