Being requested – by someone called Angel- I’m writing an article. It's not often that the angels make such requests. So. Just to connect.
Only connect: it’s a useful memo for meeting the stickier pieces of mind, or body, that arise in meditation. That is, rather than think about the problem and why you have it, and what you should do to get rid of it, the first piece of advice is to connect to how it feels, a careful process which has three aspects: Recognize, Accept and Refer. First, recognize: instead of a creating a long story about me and her and how things should be, turn your attention to the impact the event is having on you. You try to recognize the tone of the thought - say as 'irritated' or 'prickly' or 'weighed down'. That simplifies matters and gets you out of your head and into your heart. Then: accept the presence of a quality that you don't like and shouldn't have – but do have! That relaxes the grip on the issue as well as the self who is struggling with it. This does leave you with some emotional turbulence – but you refer that to your body. As in: 'How is my body feeling with this?' 'Where is this in my body right now?' or even 'Where is my body now?' ( No, not your address, but are you conscious of your body as it feels, rather than thinking about it, or yourself.)
With these steps, you put aside the strategy of solving and understanding – all that is psycho-code for aversion and getting rid of and is based on the view that these phenomena are me and mine, and that me and mine can fix them. And that's not so, otherwise you would have done so by now. Instead connect - only spread a patient and sympathetic awareness over the stress, only connect the mental to the embodied aspect; only feel the feeling directly as a feeling... and then? ... No; relax the time horizon. Then 'Inquire'. Ask 'What is needed right here, in this embodied condition?' And wait, and feel. Only connect; the hidden angel of heart will do the rest. Its nature is to arrive at harmony – if we let it.
That goes for the body too; if you can refer to its intelligence. For example,in the practice of Qi Gong, one relaxes muscle, grounds body on its carefully-aligned bones, and thereby allow the connective tissue to open. This is where the vitality that informs the body interconnects. Therefore tension unlocks, vitality steadily improves. And ease comes to the fore. 'Use only 70% effort'is the watchword. To high-pressure 'performance' people, I might say 'Use 50%'. Just hold the form, connect to the whole body – balanced energy ensues. The body's nature is to arrive at harmony.
On other levels, harmony arrives, if at all, via less assured routes. Living in accord with the way things are while digesting items of world news, bits of sangha business, meetings with visitors guests, the sick and the dying, steering through email traffic, working on publications and maintaining a steady application to meditation has been, let's say, an ample task. With this body having now reached seventy years, it is often the case that I sense: 'This heap of occupations doesn't fit. Where is the grounding structure, and the connective tissue? What's my place and how much do I engage in?’
Meanwhile even a light scan of global issues brings in awareness of the discord in many societies. Economic factors and inequality, spark fears over immigration, nationalism rises up. Into this unsettled basis, politicians use slogans and the politics of rage to gain power; leaders dupe and divide their citizens, and drive the non-conformists or the impoverished to the wall; the anger returns in the shape of attacks on servants of the state and any opposing group. When family members and neighbours find themselves on either side of the 'Trump divide' or the 'Brexit split', the disconnect is of the kind that populist rhetoric can only make worse.
Likewise the Earth. One wouldn't think that it would require a mystic to tell us that we don't own the Earth: our bodies depend on its nourishment and pass away into it. It's more the case that it owns us. But the domination-exploitation mind-set disconnects – and grabs. So, the power group (economical and political) does little about, or actively supports, the exploitation, abuse and destruction of land, water and air. And hence all life is threatened. To connect to this criminality is to feel the mind quail under the blow of the statistics and the grim photographs (Australia and California on fire, whale carcasses bloated with plastic, etc., etc.). And what cuts even deeper is the loss of the truth of something vital about humanity: that we are beings blessed with the potential for love, morality and wisdom. What demon seduces us to abandon this for money and power?
So for healing ... such hope as I have for society and the world in general rests in local community action and trans-national co-operative movements. Meanwhile, personally, the heart's duty is to connect to it all; to refer to the embodied sense and give up on reasons, analysis and critiques. Drifting through levels of despond, eventually I land on the 'measureless states' (of good will, compassion, appreciation and equanimity). It's not an easy descent, travelling as it does through the sense of impotence. But that's where the angels of the heart rise to withstand the pressure. Only they can check despair, cynicism and aversion from taking over. And when the good heart directly senses this 'host of Mara', it pushes back and gradually expands. There seems to be no other qualities than the measureless states that can keep the heart intact at an engaged level. Especially in the increasing number of hours in which, energy fading after another retreat or meeting or project, I am obliged to sit and do nothing anyway until my vitality picks up. Then these measureless states offer a response that connects to it all – including myself. When I can't do anything 'useful', it is possible to linger in grateful appreciation of what this Earth and this life has offered me so far. There is compassion for what we are losing, and also a blessing for the courage, integrity and vigour of what keeps us afloat. The details of how younger people will meet the challenges remain in the bud, but it seems we're coming to the end of the world as I thought I knew it, and a new wave has to rise up. The ‘dominate and exploit as much as you like’ dream has turned into a nightmare. So I need to get grounded rather than panic, to touch into an equanimity which is far from indifference. It's not that the heart is uncaring, but also there's awareness that conditions are like this, now. As for the future – who knows?
In fact, having abandoned the future as it is mapped out by statistics as being impossible to operate within, my mind finds deep appreciation of the range and resilience of true life. Nature, as it manifests in the deep intelligence of trees that bind soil, light, air, insects, birds and other creatures into a regenerating web, has always been a marvel to me. So if much of it is to disappear into dust and dead water over the next fifty years, it becomes even more important to protect and support the life-forms in my local patch. Many cultures and religions, from shamanical to contemplative to creative, are being reduced by the march of materialism and pulp media, so that most ancient indigenous wisdom has been or will inevitably be, ploughed under by the mainstream. So it is a privilege to have touched into a few. Moreover, if our intelligence is to be made abstract by technology, so that communication is through devices, Twitterized propaganda and distorted media, if we’ve arrived at a state whereby we need satellite connection to navigate a journey of a few miles, it is time to value the direct intelligence that was the basis of the Buddha's wisdom and teachings – and which arose in face-to-face presence and the tonal inflexions and effects of voice. People of the land such as he used to wander guided by the careful reading of land, perspectives, sun and stars. We used to belong here; life embraced and poured through and informed us in so many ways. Such a miracle.
I can reflect that I have responded to this state of affairs. I have produced no children – and that's a contribution towards the population problem as well as a heap of consumer issues from plastic to dairy food and whatever else gets extracted from the Earth to sustain and service one human being. I refrain from consuming meat and fish, and, as best as I can as a recipient of alms-food, limit my intake of dairy produce. I don't drink water that comes in plastic bottles, and I ask those who attend my retreats to bring non-disposable flasks and rely on tap water; for a similar reason I use fountain pens rather than throw-away plastic ball-points. I use a solar panel and battery pack (and carry them with me when I travel) to power devices. I conserve water by a) collecting rain water in rain barrels to flush my toilet,b)taking a shower only once every five or six days, and c) washing clothes infrequently (the mercy of brown clothing). I've encouraged and supervised the planting of thousands of trees. On the negative side, my long-haul flights do cause me considerable soul-searching, (and curb the potential for self-righteousness) but I fly to teach when rail is impractical. I have talked this over with others who all say that the benefit that my presence brings outweighs the negative effect of my occupying one seat on a jumbo airliner; it's also the case that if I don't travel, then it's likely that twenty or more people will fly over to see me. But I'm considering limiting long-distance flights to one per year. Finally, since the Vipassana Teachers' Conference in 2013 asked that teachers respond to the climate emergency, I make environmental awareness a part of my Dhamma presentation, and have written a book on the topic (Buddha-Nature, Human Nature c/o fsbooks.org/. ) I encourage you to look into and attune your own responses. (You might like to read "No Impact Man" by Colin Beavan for some ideas - and humorous anecdotes) However, within the scenario of being a forest monk (one who lives on the margins of the wilderness and doesn't engage with social affairs), I seem to be doing about as much as I can do right now.
Meanwhile, in a world which gives no time to linger, I value every moment of direct truthful contact with my fellow human beings –while acknowledging that not everyone has the occasion or the interest to participate in it. This also keeps me equanimous and modest in my expectations. The Buddha counselled that if one can find even one true companion, to find strength in that; I have found many – here and there and in episodes to be sure – but in my awareness I can still be inspired by meetings from long ago. Faces and phrases well up in the pool of citta and give encouragement; I share my life and ongoing actions with them. And with the realisation of the resource that a trained awareness offers.
So the dismay at the deadening of the human spirit must be balanced by referring to the potential of its wellspring – so that we have the energy to keep it alive and active. Meditation in general and the measureless states in particular offer that. ‘There is nothing that can be of such benefit as a well-trained citta’ to paraphrase the Buddha.
Goodwill, compassion, glad appreciation and equanimity are inflexions of awakened love. It has taken time and inquiry to find out what that word 'love' really means. Perhaps it always does: most of us have to work through having fun, being sentimental or getting flushed and heated with passion – along with their accompanying downturns. The all-embracing quality of the measureless states however, is based not on these but on acceptance. This connection to the heart, the recognition and reference to empathic awareness, is essential for true growth, let alone awakening. Yet it's not that common: some people have rarely received the respect and appreciation of them just being how they are. The society as represented by the popular media certainly doesn't know what that kind of love is. But to me, the real love is not about anyone deserving it, or being perfect, or even helpful. It's just that if the heart stops grabbing, or being seized by, images of self and others, of what it wants and rejects, it opens into a fluent warmth. It's a natural thing – if we linger, recognize and deeply connect.
I was travelling on a train in Britain recently and got into a conversation with a woman who had been participating in an Extinction Rebellion (climate emergency) demonstration in London recently. We didn’t discuss the issue that XR was/is addressing, but she lit up on speaking of how it provide an occasion for joyful fellowship. This is what a co-operative and peaceful gathering can create – and its meaning extended beyond a few days to be an awakening to a sense of community based on diversity, inclusion and voluntary response from the heart. Within a nation that is increasingly divided, this a sign of hope. And in a world on fire, there are many such signs.
I've sat up late to write this. Outside where I am now, the traffic of Bangkok rushes and clatters; it is night and people are zooming past each other in their metal boxes, adding to the pollution of the air as they do so. City life; that’s how it is – for now. May we arrive at wiser ways and more harmonious times. May all be well.