Friday, 8 May 2020

Lockdown means open up

For many of us, it's been a month or more of lockdown. And new openings. Volunteers offering help, free-will gifts from businesses, flinty-hearted ministers whisking credit out of previously empty hats. Screen-shy samanas such as myself have climbed over their techno-fear and produced online Dhamma sessions. (Lay teachers and Dhamma centres, more savvy about this way of operating, are now offering online retreats.) Quite an opening. I wonder if any of this can be sustained.
It would be wonderful if in the future, 'government' could be an activity, shared among a broad range of responsible people, rather than a power-attuned elite. It was notable how the more the governing bodies were led by 'strongman' figureheads, the less agile and flexible they were and still are (compare Germany's record against that of the UK, US or Brazil). I wonder if our societies might reset to increased local governance and a more consensus-oriented rule.
Some economic laws have also been seen as unreliable. Decades of operating according to fiscal standards rather than addressing the commonwealth through a balanced distribution of resources and increased social cohesion depleted our ability to look after each other when businesses closed down. It would be a salvation if the current economic model, based on consumption of the Earth's dwindling resources, could be reset. We didn't need to fly, use oil as much as we were led to believe. Unfortunately, it could be the case that in the interests of the consumer economy, the selling of the next generation's future will again be seen as normal, inevitable, and even our right. But there may be a broader recognition of the economy of giving and sharing – materials, services, healing, and wisdom. We look after each other: it's always been the safest and most crash-resistant socio-economic model.
What is more likely is that the value of mental/spiritual and relational well-being has become evident: on one hand the rate of domestic violence increased; on the other hand, so did the neighbourliness. So with that comes an incentive to cultivate the heart. And the Dhamma teaching has extended into people's homes. I hope that for many, this has been an opportunity for clear thinking, meditation, and a review of priorities. To notice what and who you can rely upon when things go upside down. Even more worthy of note is that things – no, all conditioned things (even my well-intended Zoom sessions) – do break down. In accord with the Buddha's last utterance: 'whatever is conditioned is subject to decay, practise with diligence'. So the myth of invulnerability, of being beyond Nature is foolish, and it was through hanging on to that that leaders of nations made failed or flustered responses. On the other hand, working in accordance with Nature, and acknowledging our vulnerability can make us more sensitive, flexible, and compassionate. For these reasons, co-operative dependence and vulnerability epitomised the lifestyle chosen by the Buddha and the great disciples.
Life at the time of the Buddha was risky in a manifest way: here you might see someone dying, here a worm-infested corpse. Brutal kings ruled, meting out savage punishment to those suspected of crimes. There was no state welfare; famines and little medicine; and thieves and brigands lurked in the wilderness, living off travellers who ventured onto the unpoliced roads. And yet, in the face of all this, some people went forth from the modest shelter of town life to live in those wildernesses, dependent on such offerings as might be made at a nearby village. Some went forth deranged by grief by the loss of a son; some with a spiritual aspiration that burned with such intensity that the life of the body was worth the gamble. To realize 'the Deathless', these few headed very fully into vulnerability – because with less shelter, there could be fewer ways of turning away from the naked truth of birth and death. It was not a suicidal wish, but one based on the understanding that through meeting how things fundamentally are, in a way as free from human contrivance as possible, a breakthrough could come around. But for that, one had to 'go forth': to move where there's nowhere else to go.
An understandable response to being apparently locked into a fragile and mortal existence, might be terror and depression. But the awakening memo is: it is risk, not security, that brings us together – individually and socially – in the richest way. It reminds us of where we really are, and asks heart and mind to bring forth their strength. Then with skilled attention, guidance and persistence, the contraction around holding on can be relaxed; the tendency to fear can be rolled back, and a heart so opened and revealed can rise up. With the shift to deep attention that this brings about, one can view the conditioned process as it is – and not as me, mine, a fixed or personal reality. That's a vital change of view. Just flip the pages of anyone's life book; get beneath the story line, and what do you notice? Changeability, the unpredictable, the unforeseen (good and bad): to recall that brings forth faith – be open and alert. A human life is also marked by an ongoing quest to find fulfilment – which hasn't quite arrived (and maybe isn't even near). Seeing that brings attention back to the present: what do you really want, and where will that be found? It's never in that ongoing flow of continuity that the Buddha called 'becoming' (bhava). What about if the mind stepped out of that, into the immediate openness of an awareness that isn't craving or dreading becoming anything? When you even review that tide of 'now I'm this and I should be that, and I might get there' you realize that this goes on irrespective of circumstance and identity. So there's nothing intrinsically personal about this book, and you don't have to throw it away and get a better one. The advice is to study it from a different viewpoint: it's written in personal handwriting, but bear in mind and take it to heart, that the marks of change/risk/unpredictability (anicca), of incompleteness and the unresolved (dukkha), and of impersonality (anatta) are universal marks. Through bearing these in mind, there can be a breakthrough to the unconditioned, the secure, the sorrowless, the place of peace. One can step out of the book.
As to how to get that point ... Motivation (chanda) and resilience (viriya) are part of it. And also faith: you stopped, or were stopped – perhaps in crisis or in inspiration – and something, or someone came your way. Attention was opened and made alert. So that, either through your own deep attention or the voice of another, you poked one eye out of the conditioned rolling on. With that eye you can see the danger of conditioned existence, and you look to building resources. And among the cluster of factors that you gather is mindfulness: which in the suttas is not a meditation technique, but an ongoing cultivation of 'bearing in mind an essential meaning'– whatever that may be. Most universally, the meaning is encapsulated in right view: there are skilful qualities, there are unskilful qualities and through non-clinging, there is liberation. Skilful qualities rise out of greed, aversion and delusion and attune to the essential openness of awareness. This will give you the right kind of strength – not the brittle shell of the strongman, but the strength of a deep tap root that's merging into the ground.
Seeing conditioned reality as something to rise out of doesn’t mean that you stop generating skilful conditions and warding off afflictive ones.  The Buddha himself spent all his awakened life building a platform of teachings, as well weaving the mutually-dependent mesh of household and gone-forth disciples. These conditioned structures, because they arose dependent on the truth of the good heart and the awakened mind, have persisted for the welfare of gods and humans long after his demise.  So it's a matter of what conditions you bring forth and where. Constructing more advanced ways of dominating nature or each other is a mission of doom. But the 'gods' of climate, of social meaning and ethical balance under whose influence our collectives form, could certainly benefit from reconstruction.  To this end, meeting how things most fundamentally are can bring forth our ethical sensitivity, wisdom and compassion. It's through these that the great Way has always been established.

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Spreading karunavirus

UPDATE APRIL 5. Currently many monasteries and Dhamma Centres are offering teachings via their websites or Zoom. Check in online for details.

So, the world has changed, we're in lock-down, and Dhamma practice continues with heightened focus. Covid-19 just marched in.

I just got back to Cittaviveka from a retreat in the Netherlands; one of the last creatures on Noah's New Ark after my train was cancelled, a flight to replace it was cancelled and another flight promptly arranged by the tireless, unflappable, and matter-of-fact compassionate retreat manager. 
 As the retreat contained people from New Zealand, Australia, Israel, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland, the UK, Ireland and the USA, there was quite a lot of rearranging to do. The teachers themselves (from four different countries on this planet) met briefly each day, to look at the new unknowns, return to the concerns of the retreat and its yogis, and open to what seemed best – for now. A sound Dhamma focus. And this was what we brought back to our students; creating up to four days of practice to facilitate moving out into the new world. So there had to be time to sit in silence as a group, grounding the agitation and anxiety with embodiment, and the encouragement to expand mindfulness around that. Also there was the invitation to feed back on what arose from that process. 'Compassion' (karuṇā) was the universal theme. Concern for others arose, particularly of course friends and relatives back 'home'; gratitude was expressed – for having the container of the retreat and the companionship in Dhamma; and in the silence and the restraint, there was a sense of the enormity of what all humans are involved with now.  This is the response from balanced and trained awareness. Other signs are not so positive.

As I mentioned in my September blog ( 'Systems Breakdown'), when customary structures weaken or collapse, there are a number of responses that occur. And this is what we're seeing now. 'Fighting over toilet paper' is a laughable reaction; 'buying guns and bullets' is more frightening. Will food supplies last? When people panic, wild reactions set in built around self-preservation. More common is the loss of reasoned assessment – we imagine that the system or our nation can manage, this will all blow over and then it's back to normal. I doubt it. Our governments are making up strategies as the situation develops (or trivialising it), but this situation could go on for the rest of the year, and its ramifications last much longer. People are dying and will continue to needlessly die where there has been a long-term absence of socially, universally accessible welfare and health services. That has to change. Travel will have to become even more security conscious. Will we travel less? Will governments maintain their power of security when the police get sick? Can even the military cope with the civil unrest of millions of people?  That social unrest, especially in the USA where nearly 90 percent of the people possess firearms, is another disturbing consequence.

As I noted, more positive signs are already arising in terms of the movement towards compassion and sharing. To quote again from that September blog: 'An act of faith is definitely called for, along with sense-restraint and compassion.' Well, in Britain, the restraint with regard to theatres, pubs, restaurants, shopping and socialising, was first suggested and then enforced. When the known becomes the unknown, an act of faith can only arise with mindfulness: 'Here we are now, the future always was uncertain, we always were going to get sick and die and be separated from the loved; best stay grounded and open to what arises in awareness.'  But when proliferating emotions and thoughts are checked by that practice, self-oriented panic gets replaced with concern for others. People come forth with good heart. Members of Cittaviveka’s international resident community have taken it upon themselves to make the perilous journey home to look after their ageing relatives. As far as the monastery itself goes, we have removed our 'required requisites' list, thinking that it's better if people donate food to those in greater need. Throughout Britain, people have been volunteering at a rate of three per second to act as assistance workers to support the National Health Service (more than 400,000 in one day alone.) In the wider world, medics have come out of retirement; hotels opened their doors for relief accommodation; drinks manufacturers used their alcohol to produce free sanitary gel. Virtual gatherings were already happening the day before I left the retreat, and now online Dhamma programs are getting rolled out. (See your local and national Dhamma centres.) And as for the economy, for whose welfare we were receiving austerity budgets – that has had to break its rules. Money always was just a promise – isn’t it time to make it into the promise to support our human welfare? Can there be a discussion around that, rather than a decision made by a few? Maybe rather than return to business as usual, we'll have to make the economy (from the Greek 'house management') fit the ecology (='house knowledge’). It might be good to really get to know what our house is before we manage it.

On that note, the last comment I have to make is to reiterate another phrase: 'Maybe Nature, internal as well as environmental, is calling us out of our selfishness.' Let's bear in mind where coronavirus came from. Not to stop at 'China'; but to point out that covid-19, along with HIV, Ebola, SARS and MERS, is a virus that has mutated from a pathogen that infects wild animals (and that they can cope with). When humans plunder the fragments of wilderness that are left and kill the few animals that remain (only four percent of all land mammals are still wild) these pathogens transmute and transfer to people. With lethal effect. Isn't it time to learn something? Not just to create a new vaccine (until the next virus mutates and floods the population), but to call a halt to the needless and suicidal destruction of the biosphere. It seems that the wildfires, hurricanes and floods didn't hit hard enough; but now a grim heavenly messenger is driving the point home. We're creatures of this Earth: if we can't offer support, we have to at least respect each other's right to live. 

And yes, now is the time to meditate. The skill is to not deny fear, but to steady awareness in the body, then encourage it to grow bigger than the fear. From this the heart of compassion gains ground.

Some tips:
Sit steady and upright and establish your awareness in the presence of your body. Not in a particular spot, but in the living presence of being here. Shift attention away from agitated or tense areas of your body. Being with the tide of your breathing might make this more comfortable.

Draw awareness into whatever seems to be the centre of your body then, as things stabilise, relax whatever is around that centre. Extend your awareness to edges of areas that are tense and agitated, as if you are gently applying warmth to frozen tissues. Stay with this until your entire body feels balanced and at ease.

Feel to the edge of your body and sense the space around that. 
No pressure. Open. Feel wrapped by that space.

Bring to mind that the body is vulnerable and feel protective towards it. This is not defence – which operates in terms of fear of 
the other and what might be, but protection – which gathers around what is valuable and loveable.

Bring to mind other people, in their laughter, intelligence and sorrow, and extend that protective sense to them. Let the extent of ‘other people’ widen to include more. 

Bring to mind other creatures, in their living contexts – fish leaping and flowing through fresh water; land animals foraging, resourceful and alert; birds swooping through the skies. See them as intrinsically valuable and marvellous. 

Bring to mind the resilient plant life that feeds and shelters creatures and fertilises the Earth. See this too as intrinsically valuable and marvellous.

Consider any action that you can undertake to respect, protect or support others.

Friday, 31 January 2020

The Presence of Absence: living with an empty space

Life at Cittaviveka over the past year or two has gone through some changes for me personally. It's understandable, since I'm no longer the abbot and have gradually segued into something, or some role, called Guiding Elder. It's a gracious, if nebulous, title. It began with the understanding that although I can pass comment, I no longer have a decisive say in what goes on. This in a way is a relief, because the realization that people aren't necessarily going to follow my views did allow me to express them more freely. After a while, it has more become the case that a good amount of day-to-day management isn't even referred to me; along with this, I have been able to move out of views and opinions to a greater degree. This is partly because of my age: passing year seventy, there is the deepening realization that the world and the monastery and the tradition will roll along (or not) when I'm gone, so why get snagged on the details? Why bother to formulate an opinion when others can, and will have to put energy into sustaining it? Death approaches, do the real business. Indeed, as the new abbot settles in, his encouragement is for me to define for myself what my business is. 'Come and go, and run your routines as you like.'
This is strangely disconcerting. I have no clear idea of what I like. In fact, I don't even have a convincing sense of what I am. I generally operate in terms of how to fit into a situation, or what works best for the group. So, being given free rein in terms of the monastic community, one consequence is that my mind expands to include the far wider field of Dhamma practitioners – and then try to fit in with or attend to their needs. Such attention easily leads me into taking on too many engagements and (my body tells me) too much travelling. Meanwhile, I look with a mixture of incomprehension and envy at how some monks can find time to go for long walks, even tours, or happily spend time 'at home' in their monasteries, receiving guests after the meal, tidying up here and there, and just giving an occasional talk now and then. But when I consider it, that's closer to the model that we see in the discourses. So, for myself, a shift of view seems to be needed. 
In a way, the shift is staring me in the face: when I consider the question, ' What do you want to do?', I find a blank space at the end of it. So, why not follow that sign? Maybe being blank for a while is the appropriate option. Indeed: Absence is a revered presence in spiritual life.
Strangely enough, my seating position in the line of bhikkhus in the Dhamma Hall is now up front and central, but not at the head of the line. Although I am over twenty years senior to him, the abbot sits 'up' the line from me. To explain: in terms of Vinaya the line-up proceeds in order of seniority, to the minute; the more senior you are, the closer you sit to the head of the line. This shows people who to follow. However, the role of the abbot is to show and inform people as to what to follow. Thus, when it comes to public occasions where the Cittaviveka abbot needs to lead, he sits in that 'top of the line' position – which is now off slightly to one side, in order to accommodate the GE (me) in a respectful way in the centre. As for myself, although I'm now in the centre, I sit in silence, a blank presence who follows the abbot's lead. This actually works well. It's quite a relief for me, as when I'm teaching, I am in the spotlight, and this can amplify the significance of even casual non-Dhamma expressions in a way in which I'm unaware – and yet responsible. So, it's great to be nothing much; quiet yet attentive, and on the lookout for what the abbot might need. This helps me because it limits the range of my concern: which is now to support the situation by just being present. I comment if asked, and, unless something is constantly being missed, don't comment if not asked. (Incidentally, I think he's doing really well.)
This non-centrality feels quite natural. Even when I was abbot, I'd place my seat to one side of the Buddha-image, so that people would have an unimpeded view of this object of recollection and devotion. What it signified to myself was that I was following the Buddha's lead. (Although he never said anything and had me guessing from time to time.) A question that sat like a mantra in my mind for several years, was: 'What would the Buddha do with this?' or, 'What would Ajahn Sumedho/Ajahn Chah say about this?' And I'd try to put my inclinations to one side. But when I review this now, that was still my inclination. And moreover, looking for an answer in me saying or doing something was my habitual focus. I could try too hard, and not let the situation speak. Things might have been better if I had just let my mind go blank and see what unfolded by itself. After all, it's never the case that nothing happens – so why force it? Can I trust my present Absence?
Such questions, or something like them, are good ones for us to bear in mind. Maintain awareness of a revered but invisible being sitting next to you, and at decisive moments, pause and float the question: 'What would he or she say? What would they feel if I did this? Or didn't do that?' The note of caution to sound is that such a being should be a friend, not a tyrant, and they should address you, not your query. They might well say: ‘Relax, the answer’s not here yet.’ And such a one would allow you to make the small mistakes of forgetting an appointment or a name, or coming out with a remark that touched the wrong spot. To these they’d comment, if comment were needed: 'How does that feel, when you review it?' 'Is there something to learn from that?' Such errors are anyway easier to correct than the big mistake of taking it all personally.

Having less of a function here does also allow me more scope to turn around. Behind me, the Buddha, the real Guiding Elder, is sitting upright but relaxed, with open eyes and mild smile. That's what he's modelled year after year. In words: 'Touch in with silence, don't fill all the gaps.' Get it? Full stop, period, end of.