I’m settled in at Wat Buddha-Dhamma, a spacious forest monastery in a National Park in New South Wales, Australia. I was offered this three-month Rains Retreat to spend in solitude, but before I entered that period, it seemed suitable to spend a couple of weeks with the rest of the community, being seen and contributing in whatever way I could. One of the monks was building a hut, using the sandy soil as building material. He was eager to get some kind of shelter together before the Rains began with the shut-down of building projects and the emphasis on meditation practice; so I thought I would give him a hand.
I’m no builder, and that was another reason to participate: to learn something. And even more interesting, to learn through the hands. My work was simple enough: to slap mud onto a template and build a wall about two feet/60cms thick with a central cavity of about 5 inches/12 cms to fill with rice husks for insulation. That was the instruction, to which when necessary were added quiet comments from the builder monk: ‘Pat it down well so that it bonds to the previous layer’; ‘Make sure all the rice husks go into the cavity, if they stick to the wall, the earth won’t bond.’ Meanwhile he was doing his learning; at one time nearly sliding off the corrugated metal roof before rigging up some strapping to hold onto when he lost balance. What was clear was that ‘there are no experts, we learn as we go along.’
It’s this kind of earthiness that I appreciate about the forest monk’s lifestyle. You watch what the other monks are doing, try to get the hang of sewing, chanting, meditating, living in the wilds; you make mistakes, there’s a laugh, and you try again. But you learn how to learn rather than have to get it all from a book and sorted out in your head before you dare begin. In many forest monasteries, meditation is encouraged but barely taught in the way that we would understand teaching. The instructions might be: ‘Use the word “Bud-dho” on the in- and out-breath; put other thoughts aside for now, investigate and tackle the defilements.’ That’s about it, along with plenty of modelling and anecdotes of the practice and results, and the encouragement to keep at it.
This can leave Westerners stranded. ‘How to put thoughts aside? Aren’t thoughts of goodwill and compassion to be cultivated? And what is a defilement anyway? Isn’t that a judgement and a lack of self-acceptance? How do you tackle your mind without blind will-power, or thinking even more?’ To which the response might well be: ‘Too much thinking ... walk up and down for an hour or so. Just relax.’ It seems simplistic, but the understanding is that as you get settled in your body, there’s a learning; you get a feel for the right balance and then the details start to come into focus. Body, then view; calm, then insight. Through bypassing your head, a lot of the need for certainties dissolve; your knowing is beyond thought and the need for belief. It’s a hands-on, suck it-and-see approach.
The main snag with this approach for Westerners is that most of us are barely in our bodies a lot of the time, and we only use our hands to press the button that will link us to a system that operates on our behalf. Except when it breaks down. Then we’re helpless, so we have to phone an engineer. This kind of relationship extends over so much of our infrastructure that the overall sense is that you, the individual, can’t deal with your stuff. Engineers, consultants, bankers, therapists; getting through life is a task for experts. And of course, to a great extent the systems we use make that true. My father used to fix his car; take the engine apart and tinker. You can’t do that with a 21st century automobile; can’t even change a headlight bulb – it’s all sealed in. At Cittaviveka, we did all our own electrical installation using volunteers and the skills’ base of one or two monks. After thirty years of doing that, with no problems, not only did the government ban it, but it also insisted that all the work we’d done be taken out and refitted by qualified electricians, at a cost of thousands of pounds. There are safety reasons, for sure. But the effect is that we become divorced from the environment that we live in; it’s not in our hands, we are its passive occupiers. Meanwhile in the general public environment, we are led by remote control. Traffic signals and flashing lights tell us when to walk. Turnstiles snap open and shut to get us moving through them at the correct speed. Recorded messages, thanking you for your call, respond to your phone or email inquiries. And when you fill in a form on the web, it won’t let you continue unless it understands and accepts your entry. There’s no-one there to negotiate with. In the face of such a dissociative environment, social dysfunction and personal dissociation are the consequence.
By this I mean that what one learns is that a) there is no room for free inquiry, for trial-and-error learning; instead the safe bet is to adopt the prescribed system; b) one is left with the feeling of personal impotence and lack of initiative, fearful of making a mistake (and being judged); c) if you have an idea, an intuition or hunch outside the information that is given to you – forget it, it’s irrelevant; it may even be illicit or dangerous.
The result of that, depending on how far gone you are, is that there is no native intelligence when it comes to things such as how to meet people (you need a dating service); how to stay well (you need a dietician and a health expert); how to handle your emotions, disappointments and work load (you need a coach and a therapist). And all of it becomes true, because the participatory way of life and the natural intelligence that it encourages gets shut down by the Expert. Not that we don’t need advice – but a more useful process is one that helps you get your natural intelligence to wake up and step up; to develop personal confidence and self-reliance, and learn the details from there. But this development doesn’t happen just by telling it to. You have to go into situations with enough safety and enough challenges, and with friendliness and advice when you need it.
It’s much the same with Dhamma practice. The forest teachers, and especially the situation of being unplugged and in a forest with wild animals, encourage you to develop alertness and self-reliance and so make your own way in terms of Awakening. There are details, but these are given when needed; often they’re not technical, but just what a particular learner needs at the time. For example, in the case of an anagārika (apprentice) who was so up his head that ‘meditation’ was just wall-to-wall fantasy movies, and who lived in a tangle of thoughts most of the time, Ajahn Chah’s advice was: ‘Eat like a pig and sleep a lot.’ To get earthy. This is hardly canonical, and goes directly against the forest ajahns’ maxim of ‘eat little, talk little, sleep little.’ Such advice is relevant for the norm of people who are in their bodies; it’s pretty disastrous for the dissociated mind, which will spin out further if it disengages to that extent. Ajahn Chah was wise enough and flexible enough to reckon that the standards had to adapt to meet the case (a growing occurrence) of people being disembodied for most of the time.
Disembodiment is a common feature of dissociation, because the mechanism of dissociation is a response to shock or danger, whereby receptivity to bodily sensation is lowered or shut off. In the natural state, this allows you to react and escape without having to deal with any bodily feeling or emotional responses. Note that, as the body and heart-mind aren’t separate at the level of feeling and energy, the mechanism that switches off your bodily receptivity also switches off your mental, i.e. emotional, receptivity. Then, as you normalize, you come back into your body and emotional receptivity is re-established. If this return doesn’t occur, the result is trauma: buried pain, an emotional/psychological dead-spot that nevertheless can irrationally spring back to life when the incident that caused it is remembered or simulated. So with dissociation, trauma or not, it takes quite strong stimulation to feel ‘in’ your body, and emotional sensitivity is reduced. Hence when people live in dissociated contexts they experience a background sense of sterility. This is sensed as a loss of personal meaning and value, with loneliness as the relational norm. This mixture can be a basis for addiction (find something to get high with); an inability to form mutually-based (rather than domineering/dominated) relationships; and a constant sense that there’s ‘something wrong with me’ – which can transfer to anxiety about body shape or size. And overall there’s depression (the most common life-inhibitor in the West): ‘I can’t do anything about this; I’m stuck.’
So perhaps we try to meditate to get out of that. And meditation as we might read and therefore undertake, is about being on your own and calming the mind by focusing repeatedly on an object, and using a range of techniques to do so. But for a disembodied person, someone suffering from a sense of sterility and emotional numbness, this is not good medicine. It will tend to make them more numb – and therefore lost in thought, strategies and doubt; obsessively dependent on a technique and anxious for the ‘high’ of achievement. What they need is friendly non-intrusive company, practices that brighten the mind and encourage it to engage in skilful ways, and a non-technical, no-pressure approach that supports mindfulness rather than emphasizes a goal. This approach is the foundation of a samana’s life, from the time of the Buddha onwards. The norm is one of living during the early (five or more) years with an experienced guide, in a participatory social environment (in Pali, the disciple is ‘one who shares the cell’ with their teacher). To this is added the strong relational support of lay people and fellow monastics. The training is to acknowledge, enter and be part of a supportive field, one that is established at a heart and gut level. And it is at this non-rational level that an understanding is established – that you, as an individual with flaws, belong and can make a meaningful contribution; that you are in a society of cooperation, morality and generosity, and you're part of a tradition that realizes the highest human potential. Without the establishment of this felt spiritual field, ‘disengagement’ just deepens the dissociation: you’re not in this world, but you’re not in the Dhamma either. People can go very weird.
But as that field is established through witnessing other people acting in accordance with it, and through repeatedly chanting and reflecting on it, then a disengagement from worldly aims and values occurs naturally. And the default need to prove oneself, to compete and to achieve; the psychological defence and body armouring to cover the weak spots; and above all the sense that what you are isn’t good enough so that you can’t learn without detailed verbal input – all that isn’t there. When that isn’t there, one doesn’t need that much information, and one readily feels gratitude and contentment; therefore one’s body is free from tension, the mind is happy and yes, it enters samādhi. Consequently the most common defilement that the Asian teachers would be pointing out isn’t personal meaninglessness and self-aversion, but of getting so relaxed and at ease that one doesn’t use the time in a focused way. Hence: ‘Exert yourselves and strive!’ Hardly: ‘Eat like a pig and sleep a lot.’
As dissociation is by definition a state in which you’re not feeling that much, you’re not necessarily aware of it. So look out for: obsessive thinking, lack of self-worth, indifference to or awkwardness around other people, and compulsive habits, hobbies and chatter that substitute for ease of being in your own skin. And loss of bodily awareness. You may assume that the only sensations and feelings that occur for a body are the tactile ones caused by contact with external thing. But the theme of meditation on in- and out-breathing relies on access to, cultivation and enjoyment of the subtle energies and inner sensations (called ‘kāyasankhāra’) that are linked to the process of breathing. If you can’t feel them (and quite a few people can’t) then mindfulness of breathing will mostly be an exercise of holding your attention on a point in the body with will power – and that isn’t the way the Buddha taught it. You might be better advised to work on embodiment through Qi Gong or Hatha Yoga and pick up the breathing from there.
As for the mental aspects of dissociation: get to the nub, the gist of what the experience of being yourself is like. How does it feel? Don’t think it, get it in your gut and get your hands on it. So if you enter the state where thoughts form useless, unpleasant and compulsive loops – how are you with that? Even better – what is the bodily effect of that: giddy? groundless? or is there a lack of bodily sensation? And if the sense of ‘stuck’ arises, pause and handle that directly. ‘Stuck’ is a sense of alienation, a non-flow, a lack of vitality that may seem familiar; it often manifests with a verbal string, such as: ‘People are like this to me’, or, ‘I’m in this stuck situation’, or, ‘I’m this kind of a person’, or, ‘If only I could get what I don’t have, then…’ The setting is beyond one’s power to change (‘always, other, never’ are common words) but there’s an inner pressure to get out of it. This pressure makes the verbal string long, tortuous, studded with statistics and narratives, and an engrossing monologue for hours of ‘meditation’. It could elicit the kinds of responses that analyze, come up with answers, and allocate blame. And yet with all that ‘knowledge’ you still feel impotent. This is because this kind of knowledge comes from a mind that has adopted the systems that disempower it: the expert analyst, the expert coach, the expert lawyer and judge; the intelligence base of the developed world. Dependence on these is the norm in a dissociated society; and it makes you feel stupid. So these responses can’t get rid of the stuck place, because the stuck place is just the lock, or the closure, of your own natural intelligence. Only you can unlock that.
Natural intelligence comes with the piece of nature that we’re born with, our body – within a context that it participates in, even if it’s challenging (which is why people feel great climbing mountains). The intelligence is in the living gestalt, not in your knees. So handle the verbal string and ask: ‘What’s the overall feel of this?’ And: ‘How is my body now?’ You may feel energized in your head or constricted in your chest or abdomen: feel that fully and stay with it, returning to it every time that the verbal string takes you out with advice, analysis and blame. When your system finally simply feels the pain of the dissociated state (it’s the direct feeling beneath ‘I don’t belong here,’ ‘I’m inadequate ...’) allow the body to respond. It knows how to handle pain and pleasure, energies and impulses; how to hold them and how to let them go. It knows release.
But to get that embodied sense to be fluent and expressive is what the foundational work is about. Get earthy and be with trees and birds and other forms of life; learn to chant, to connect the heart-mind to the body through voice; practise generosity (time, attention, service) for relational health. It’s all simple hands-on stuff. That’s why it works.