Tuesday 29 December 2009

No-one Travelling On

I do quite a lot of travelling every year, on teaching tours and Sangha business. There is a familiar pattern: packing documents, the standard requisites – with clothing adjusted to suit the climate zone I'm moving into - and a stack of books or CDs to give away. I generally travel alone; sometimes I'm dropped at a railway station with a ticket pressed into my hand, but more usually now it's an airport – where after the check-ins and farewells I move into 'Departures' through the security checks and glitzy shopping malls to make my way to a gate and wait. Once through the entrance to Departures, I am in a different world until hours later. If all goes according to plan, I will be greeted by someone, often unknown, as I leave 'Arrivals.' In between the two poles where I am seen as an identity with a personal profile, I'm in something like a Bardo (between-birth) state where my personhood means nothing. Having passed under the judgemental gaze of security, I move through arcades presenting the glories of the material world and am then herded into a cabin and sealed off from familiar contact.

I spend ten to twenty hours in this nether-world, with time going very fluid, more often than not unable to eat, sleep or move around until the stewards, having expressed their pleasure at our company, allow us off. Then an identical passage through ranks of Johnny Walker, Chanel, Gucci and Rolex and more scrutiny occurs until, having retrieved my bag, I enter again a world where I may be more than an item in transit. Even then, there is often a period of time during which I am standing in a foreign place, unable to speak the language, waiting for an unknown person to find me amidst the thronging crowds, and knowing that that's all I can do. It's a very open experience.

The whole process is a meditation on placement and identity, one in which a scenario in which I act, speak and am seen in a particular way gets radically shifted, re-arranged and assembled into another pattern. At home what I am and am formed by is a mixture of duties, routines, concerns, projects and personal relationships that start falling away as soon as I leave the monastery. At the airport, my identity is reduced to a few documents and a seat on a plane. I have no money – the key to the ordinary world – and therefore no choice but to go with whatever happens. The helplessness has a liberating and truthful quality to it: I take note of the throng of people from all nations as we transit through all going somewhere else, and consider – well who belongs anywhere, anyway? Even the airport itself is an alienated territory whose familiar scenarios of official check-points, coffee bars, jewellery shops, diners and newsagents are so global that they don't belong to anywhere in particular. Each one is just another sealed-in human environment that nobody is born in, lives in or dies in; having no social life, no heart, no history. In these way-places all that we take for granted as the relational web that sustains who we sense we are is suspended – except for passport, ticket and money.

So my contemplative nerves light up to explore this presentation of how relative and conditioned 'Ajahn Sucitto' is. It continues when I arrive – in the non-Buddhist West, I may be related to as a Western male, whereas the average person is uncertain about who I am as a monk. In Thailand what I am as a (senior) monk is known and related to in a very confident and familiar way; who I am as a person isn't known, isn't even important. So who, or what, do I sense myself as being? Isn't that also in transit? Isn't that estimation of nationality, value, relationships, and history just another boarding pass – like Gate K2, Economy Class, seat 43F, time 18:30 - on Kamma Air? And where is all that going?

In brief, it's all wandering on in the great mirage of samsāra. But as I consider why I'm on a journey – to support faith and understanding in others, to help maintain a lifestyle and fellowship that may point to a way out of samsāra – then the voyage has an Awakening intention within it. That intention is the vehicle and the carrier – and it even absorbs the passenger. Intentions dominated by good-will, anxiety, confusion or self-abandonment: it's only intention that carries consciousness on. Who else but that semi-conscious drive is going anywhere? That reflection helps to steer my mind out of the confusing array of gates and numbers, tickets and times into a steady non-abiding aimed at nibbāna.

With that intention in mind, travelling is radically different from the 'wandering on' of samsāra. Although in neither samsāra nor nibbāna can a substantial independent entity be found (Nāgārjuna's point when asserting them to be 'no different'), they are far from the same intention. The samsāric consciousness travels on sustained by the belief that it is a real entity going to real places, whereas in an attunement to nibbāna, we sense it is appearances that travel on – and there is a non-moving that doesn't abide in these. The 'real entity' of samsāra is a weave of relative and fragile conditions, behaviours and appearances; and the places that they arrive at never quite fit what they were aiming for. But as one acknowledges and cools down about all of this, a sense of steady openness becomes a more constant abiding. No-one is really going anywhere; but no-one is staying anywhere either.

What is constantly remarkable about living in openness, is that goodness seems to break through and flow around it. Personally, I find that the vulnerability and the separation from a fixed environment encourage the mind to stay connected to its essential ethical and meditative values. That is one stays focused in the present, doesn't get distracted by the sound and the glitter, and inclines towards gentle friendliness to officials and fellow-passengers. So this intention is really helpful when some electrical storm results in getting stranded in an airport for ten hours with people getting angry and upset. But when there's no real destination; and when the intention is to be with what arises and to let go of suffering – the route is straightforward. And occasionally someone makes real contact: a customs official who has just barked at me for stepping over a red line in front of her booth, suddenly shifts into a gentle sense of wonder as she goes through my details. 'Teaching meditation, eh? Does that make you peaceful...?' Or a steward notices that I'm not going crazy over being parked three hours on the runway waiting for permission to fly, and we get to talking ... Such meetings are delightful.

Maybe this is nothing much. But in times where global appearances are indeed disheartening, it's wise to keep one's head and heart clear. What flows around the Awakening vehicle are awareness and values that can affect others. Then travelling isn't a wavering trajectory between one imagined thing and the next, but an abiding in an energy-field around which the good keeps circling. That's where we really need to get to.

Tuesday 10 November 2009

Getting in Touch

This is photo of a special interest group that meets in Cittaviveka monastery. The qualification for entering the group is that one has to be at least sixty-five years old (as host, I'm an exception). I suggested that an elders' group form because many of the monastery's Dhamma functions occur in the evenings when it's a risky and arduous journey for older people; and because our elders get very little attention compared (for example) with children. Yet these are often the people who have learned from life, and who have served and supported society (and the monastery) for years. It seemed an appropriate gesture to me to offer them an occasion in which as ‘Village Elders’ they could share their understanding, and be recognised. So the group's been meeting for five or six years – though during that time certain members have died or become too frail to attend. Sometimes we talk on a pre-arranged Dhamma topic, at other times the session just begins with a check-in as to how people are and what's happening in our lives; themes such as joy and duty, and almost inevitably ageing and dying, are explored, and we go on for an hour or two. There is a beauty to any occasion when people share the meaning of their lives, and these long-term Dhamma practitioners often sound notes that are deepened by the struggles around letting go, by loyalty and pragmatic compassion, and by that often unsung virtue – resilience.

Rocana, who travels some twenty-five miles to get to the meeting, also offers her services as a Buddhist chaplain. What this means in practice is that hospitals in her area phone her up to visit the dying, or the bereaved, or assist with funeral rites. Most often it's just a matter of offering presence – such as by holding someone's hand in their last hours. In our last session, she spoke of a recent occasion in which a local hospital had contacted her: a mother had died in childbirth, and the just-born baby was also dying – could she come? So of course she went to the hospital and on coming to the cot, gently held the child so that it would at least know some human contact before it passed away. The father was there too, obviously very distraught: ‘Can I touch my baby?’ he asked. ‘Of course,’ said Rocana – and as the father moved his hand towards the little one, the baby moved its finger to make contact with him. Somehow it had sensed the parent and reached out. That movement towards contact was the only thing that baby did in its life.

The primary nature of such a gesture heightens the meaning of ‘getting in touch’: it's obviously a lot more than making a few social acquaintances.

It's been shown in some of those ghastly experiments that scientists perform on living creatures that if you take two cells from the same heart, and send a small electric current into one, the other will also respond even when it’s several feet away. Living tissue knows contact and retains its sense of connection even when it is separated from the body. Widen the focus and we can note the flock patterns of birds, and the herd instincts of other animals. They don’t stay in touch through mobile phones and e-mails. Instead there’s primary empathy: a knowing of connection that creatures experience at various levels of consciousness. For humans it’s the sense (not the notion) of ‘we.’ That is, it’s not the idea of ‘we’ – which is often assumed for ‘political’ reasons – but a felt sense that occurs when we see another human – which is different from seeing a tree. It's that basic a sense that even in the case of the Buddha, an all-transcendent one, it remained the fundamental focus of his life after Enlightenment. The story is that in that sustained state of bliss and clarity after his Awakening, he was moved by empathy (and the imprecation of a high divinity) to present the Dhamma to his fellow humans. Before his Awakening he had moved out of home and family, and even out of spiritual companionship, to deepen his practice in undisturbed solitude; but one effect of this practice was that his relational sense purified from one of attachment to one of unfettered empathy. And realising the power of the relational sense, he subsequently strongly encouraged spiritual companionship and a harmonious Sangha. Solitude and companionship; he encouraged and lived them both.

So it's not a simple matter of ‘we're all one’ or of ‘just be a guide to yourself.’ (Both of these are self-views when you come to think of it.) There is connection. But just as connective tissues bind the body into a single unit, and just as the faculty of hearing connects my mind to what others say, this ‘we’ connection can come apart or be impaired or blocked. Nor do the instincts around connection represent unfailingly healthy states of mind: there are urges to own others as part of my ‘we,’ as well as demonization of the not-we. So although the instinctive reflex of contact is there, it’s necessary to purify it.

In practice then we have to contemplate and inquire into how contact and connection get established, and what gets made of them. In terms of our personalities – the series of programs and habits through which an interface forms between the mind and the social world – everyone is different. But what we all have in common is the fact of having, and having to operate through, a personality. That's the structure at the interface between mind and the world. If someone says they aren't relating to you through their personality, that's about as valid as saying they don't taste things with their tongue. It might be a personality that's void of manipulative or abusive programs, but to deny that there is one can be a prologue to absolutising a personal perspective, or making a selection of ‘facts’ (i.e the ones that conform to one's views) into the Truth. Dangerous; there is no such experience as ‘objective reality.’ It all depends on contact; and that’s bound up with what one gives attention to, and that’s bound up with the motivation behind one’s attention. Ask a burglar and an architect for the facts about a house and you’ll get different presentations. The classic illustration is the parable of the group of blind men who each touch a different part of an elephant: one assumes the elephant is a column (because he feels a leg); another that it’s a serpent (grabs the trunk); another, a fashioned ornament (a tusk); another, a fan (ear). Are any of them lying? Are any of them getting the Truth of the elephant?

To get in touch with how things are being experienced is a valid approach. We can then contemplate our attitudes, knee-jerk responses, and life agendas, reflect on what we’ve noticed, how we’re affected and purify our response. This is where meditation gets integrated into insight into our mental kamma – and a subsequent release.

I've just finished leading a meditation retreat in Provence, France. It was much the same as many other retreats that I've been part of: aspirations, struggles, crises, breakthroughs. What strikes me about these retreat situations is the sense of solidarity that almost always prevails, even though, and maybe because, there is very little personality contact. Often the degree to which that has occurred has been a source of irritation – she talks in the kitchen, he insists on leaving his shoes in the wrong place etc … Somehow, just holding a form where we sit and operate in silence as a group for ten days generates a relatedness in which personal resonances can settle. Furthermore, that relational sense, as it strengthens, deepens the meditation: we grope around our mental kamma looking for peace, and as we do so, the mind tunes into a surprising sense of empathy. Often it’s with others, but most necessarily it’s with aspects of ourselves that we’ve lost touch with or banned.

A situation on the retreat which assists the process is the 'Interview' – a meeting during which the retreatant, or often a handful of retreatants, sits with the teacher and expresses what's coming up. So for a period of an hour or more, people about whom all one knows is their names speak of areas of their experience. These areas often contain a lot of unknowns to themselves. Disturbing energies, unaccountable emotions, and memories from situations that are now apparently beyond resolution mingle with current dilemmas that present no clear way forward. In this last retreat, the odds were stacked up against any sense of connection: my French is basic and patchy, so most dialogue goes through a translator. My lifestyle and experience is different from that of the retreatants. I don't have kids, parents, or a partner who's on a different wavelength. Nor in the space of the small time that there is for dialogue is it possible to arrive at any answers. Actually this brevity is an asset: we get to a point that is accessible, now. And through naming an experience to a trusted party, the relational sense gets activated. Through staying with that, what can eventually crystallize is the relationship that the person has with his/her experience. Our relational sense will always search for the optimum resolution in any situation; and the mistake that most minds have made (often unconsciously) is that the optimum way to deal with a difficulty is to disconnect from it. That is, we blame someone (or ourselves), or shrug it off, or overlay a pain with some pleasure, or leave the feeling and go up into the world of ideas where everything is clear. From that place of black-and-white and facts, we find a resolution of sorts, but it's often in the form of ‘he's one of those’, ‘I'm this way’, or ‘that’s all past, there’s nothing I can do about it.’ Such resignation isn’t a release: it still carries the flavour of anger, grief or despair. However if these tendencies can be exposed and held in awareness, if the pain of that can be touched, then there's an opening to a fuller, healthier relationship with it, one which will be the source of any resolution. We may find an ability to learn and be strengthened by insecurity and loss; we may realize the need to cultivate a broader sense of compassion – and so, through getting in touch, our lives can move on.

In the Interview there’s the underlying sense that a resolution can be, should be arrived at – but most of the time all I can offer are a few suggestions of how to hold the irresolution/problem/mystery. I sit in an openness to maintain the sense of connection, and keep one eye alert to my own attitudes and how the connection can get lost through trying to fix things, or through telling people how they should be. The relationship to the state – which itself may change from anger to fatigue to sadness to tenderness and calm – is about all I can help to facilitate. Sometimes this is through suggestions as to how to support awareness of the state, or by encouraging an investigation, or by asking for clarification. Quite often ideas or intuitions arise, but I am on guard against presenting pat solutions which take the authority away from the retreatant's own relational sense. By staying in touch with that sense, the Interview encourages me to not feed my own abstract notions. As such it is a gift.

Abstract notions are however another aspect of what I’m involved with: management, plans, and ‘Sangha business.’ It’s quite a practice because it entails leaving the contact with the direct experience of people and situations and entering discussions as to what is for the welfare of the Sangha/ the monastery, or for the nuns/monks/lay people. The more people or resources it entails, the bigger the elephant that an increasing number of half-blind people grope towards a clear definition over, generally with laudable intentions. What’s often also the case is that the aims and intentions stir up differences of opinion – because they’re never fully translatable into specific actions. For example: is giving ordination to this (naturally not fully-realized) candidate a worthy gesture of faith and compassion, or is it taking on someone who will be a headache and possibly bring the Sangha into disrepute? Should we judiciously supervise access to the Internet, or is that just control-freakery? Which is for the welfare of the Dhamma, the tradition? Etc. etc. Though this kind of debate is often around matters that I am not directly in touch with, it has made me more aware of my own limited eyesight, and of being more cautious of the leap to form a clear picture. Up in my head it can all seem bright and simple – and why are other people so awkward, uninformed, and biased? Then I notice how that judgement feels. Furthermore, witnessing how other people are when they grab hold of their bit of the elephant – and get impassioned, judgemental, insensitive and impervious to the perspectives of others – has led me to a small rule of thumb: the harder the facts, the harder is the heart that holds them as Truth. And in that hardness the flexible hand of aware contact contracts into a fist.

Using the abstract is essential for the politics of life. By ‘politics’ I don’t mean to malign the function. Politics is the process whereby people, events and possibilities get grouped around an abstract unity – such as a ‘nation’ or a ‘monastery,’ and that unity becomes the decisive factor for action. We do this on behalf of our country, or our tribe. (And that excludes others.) I used to think politics occurred whenever three people got together – then that it was when two people got together with that organizational intention. Now I’m aware that it only takes one person to try to figure out what to do and how things should be in order to get polarizations occurring between their ideals, emotions, and loyalties. Hence ‘what is the best for me?’ becomes a political debate – it depends on who you mean by ‘me.’ Abbot, bhikkhu, citizen of planet earth or what?

With any of these I’m left trying to get a feel for how they are held in my mind. Experienced directly, the me, the monastery, or the Sangha is a changeable diversity of memories, aspirations, problems, and needs …But when I hold onto the concept as the reality, I do so with an expectation it be a certain way – which brings up grasping and disappointment. So I try to look into what these concepts mean for me right now. And I wait on rushing into clarity about what I’m going to do for them or about them. First of all, is their current state of affairs something that exasperates me, makes me anxious, or harsh? That first affect is going to colour what ‘facts’ I find and how I act on them. And as I sustain that focus, I start to feel for my fellow part-sighted men and women as we fumble with a range of elephants that come stampeding through – how is it for him or her, how is it for me or for you, friend? How is it when we grab hold of our bit of the elephant and lose touch with who is doing the holding? How is it when we go up into our heads? How is it to be grasped by an idea? Isn’t something precious lost?

Politics is part of life. It must therefore be covered by Dhamma-practice. And in this case an arrival at a truth which will always be relative to each situation most readily occurs through dialogue. By and large people this is a process of feeling out how our elephants affect us, even as we handle them. It means throwing ideas into the air and maintaining faith in each other. This may seem limp, but it’s something the Buddha strongly recommended in order to maintain a healthy Sangha life. For me, one result is that after decades of living in communities of wide-ranging views I’ve got a bit freer from the tendency to form more of my own. Instead I acknowledge that my view has to sit within something larger and more shareable than that. So I trust and value doing the work of staying in touch. Moreover as the elephant of Truth continues to morph through changeable forms, I know why the Village Elders exchange slow and knowing smiles.

Friday 2 October 2009

The Movement to Stillness

I recently had the opportunity to spend a few weeks in solitude, on retreat in the monastery. The phrase ‘in the monastery’ may give the wrong impression, because most of Cittaviveka monastery is woodland. And that gives us access to a degree of wildness and simplicity that is a refreshing break from the evolved complexities of human communal life and all that it takes to support it. It takes a lot for a woodland to go wrong, (though it had done so through mismanagement when we were given it), and they don’t have bad days (though the hurricane of 1987 could be construed as such). Suffice it to say that you get the strong impression that there’s nothing here to sort out and set straight and the relief of that gives rise to a quiet happiness. This is the kind of happiness that is a thread that runs through all forms of Dhamma-practice. It’s a no-push, no-grab kind of happiness that’s based on release.

However to assume that there’s absolutely nothing to do in living in the woods, is as limited a view as to say that meditation’s about doing nothing. Certainly these places of simplicity and undoing the driven-ness of our lives aren’t about frantic activity; but action is needed. In our woodland, decades of careful clearance and planting have been needed to re-establish a natural balance. And in everyday woodland life things go wrong if you don't look out for dead trees or branches that might fall on the kuti (hut), or sweep around the kuti to make sure that dry inflammable dead-wood is brushed away from the immediate environment. Then it's necessary to check the rain-barrel filters so that insects don’t breed larvae in the water (which might get destroyed when one uses it); and in general to keep the dwelling clean and in good repair. And this kind of duty is something that you bear in mind every day. Similarly Dhamma-practice is about surveying, checking, and tidying up – and of appreciating the results. The actions of finding one's own space, tidying up, and feeling the happiness of doing so are all needed to live in a harmonious relationship with the world and oneself.

So for me the beginning of a period of retreat is a time of finishing business – actually the whole of the practice is analogous to that – but at an obvious level it’s about handing over duties, sending off the last letters and e-mails, and putting the current projects on hold. Then it’s about setting up a supportive environment. Also (this isn’t really a temporal sequence) it’s about leaving other people on a good note, and about checking in with my own bodily and mental states. They all benefit from some tidying up, and it helps when I’m conscious of and interested in doing that and see it as an ongoing theme in the practice. So it’s not ‘I have to get this sorted out and then I can get on with the stillness,’ but that the very process of a mindful tidying is the practice that leads to stillness. Otherwise, all action is marked with impatience and niggardliness – and so leaves wrinkles in the heart.

How does action lead to stillness? Doesn’t it just get fussy and obsessive with straightening out every imperfection? Moreover considering the nature of what we live in, will that tidying ever end? The key point that distinguishes the mindful response to changing and innately chaotic conditions from neurotic fussiness is that it’s supervised by wisdom. And wisdom in this sense isn’t intellectual knowledge, it’s the ability to discern, the function that leads to clarity and release. The most important function of discernment is to know one’s capacity: How much is do-able and how much is essential at any given time? So it’s important that we don’t get lost in the external details of ‘what needs to be done,’ but instead assess ‘what can I do right now.’ This discernment punctuates the ongoing script of life, and at every full stop/period, or end of paragraph allows the mind to integrate the meaning of that piece of script. Through this process we feel balanced, centred in knowing the mind as it is right now. So from the sense of centring, of knowing one's space and tidying it comes simplicity; from simplicity comes contentment; from contentment comes joy; from joy comes ease – and when the mind rests in that, this is the samādhi that supports release.

I suppose everyone’s life sprawls out into this and that. So it generally takes me a few days to clear the most obvious pieces of my internal environment. There’s the shift of energy from being quite active in terms of external duties to being more focused on breathing, and on impulses, attitudes and resistances. By and large it’s a slowing down, a change of gear that needs patience and skill. Sometimes I realise I need to rest a bit, rather than sign up to the meditation Olympics. But taking a rest isn’t a careless thing – it means putting to rest the things that should be done, and putting to rest the relational tangles of community life. And it also means steadily breathing through the somatic or subtle body energies (which tend to adopt a more contracted form when I’m in active mode). Then, or alongside that, is clearing restless worry, irritation, planning, fantasising; and its opposite – dullness and indifference. It may seem a lot, but there’s not much more to do in spiritual life. And it’s a satisfying process when it’s done mindfully.

Some tidying, like sweeping the kuti, is relatively easy; other matters take a lot more patient work. But for me the key point is to tune in to the quiet happiness that comes from doing the things that can be done, the simple chores, or the suitable bodily exercise, and integrating that. By that I mean that I focus on the ease that these actions bring and dwell in it. Then the happiness acts as a foundation for the mind to stand on as it sorts out the other tangles. So when I straighten out my dwelling, I sit and reflect on that: what’s become very apparent is that I have a shelter from the weather, from intrusion. Which is great when you come to consider it. And as such I appreciate it more when it isn’t cluttered, because then the beauty of its sheltering quality isn’t obscured by stuff that reminds me of this or that, or things to pass the time with. Because as a shelter, a dwelling isn’t about doing things, it’s about not having to worry about the rain or be on guard against undesirable intruders. It’s about a relief from doing. And unless we do the tidying and checking in, we don’t get that impression, we don’t feel rested and at ease.

That relief and settling (and why it’s not there) is pretty much what I look out for. It hinges around being realistic. Relationships are about being willing to relate; that’s all. They’re not about always living in agreement and never being separated; they’re about being conscious about the differences and the losses and holding that sense with all-round compassion. Bodies are for being embodied in, not for looking beautiful, being painless or staying young. Minds are about cognising, remembering, planning and rejecting. All these are prone to complication and proliferations, and a loss of stillness and ease. But a wise handling of them, breathing through, and spreading heart-energy through the aches and the pains and the jangle – that does lead to stillness. And it often takes doing the simple cleaning up things to get a feel for that.

Of course, you can miss the realism. When I was at Wat Pah Pong, Ajahn Chah's monastery in Thailand, I felt I really had to do my best to live up to the standards of the place. So I set to, working away in the sandy soil, sweeping a wide area around my kuti – until a resident monk came along and gently suggested that a little sweeping would do fine; the clouds of dust that I was stirring up were rolling through the windows of the dining hall. Tidying can become an obsession. Obsessiveness kicks in when we don’t integrate our impressions and actions into the wider picture; either that or we keep tidying up one thing because we’re not dealing with the real tangle. Obsessive-compulsive disorders are like this: you have to straighten out the table-cloth five times and arrange the cutlery in rows of mathematical precision before you can eat breakfast. More usual are the nervous fidgets, the brushing of the hair, smoothing out the clothes, or apologetic verbal behaviour that goes on when we feel awkward, embarrassed or under pressure. Actually the real tangle is a sense of insecurity, of not being comfortable in oneself. This comes from losing a sense of centre. With that we lose clear boundaries and we get agitated by the irregularities in the world around and within us. So when we’re not in touch with the bodily centre of breathing in and out, or with the conscience and compassion that rightly centre the heart, we don't know our own space in the world. In such as scenario we get agitated by the scruffiness of the landscape. If this insecurity gets long-term and acute, people develop OCDs in order to feel secure and settled. But there’s no sense of long-lasting ease that comes with any of that.

For most people, for most of the time, mental awareness is held in place by energies (sankhāra) that flavour it with bias – we expect, we want, we’re disappointed. Because of this, the mind can lock it into anxiety, overreach, and defence. Although the flavours change, the sense of being held by some mind-state or another becomes the norm of ‘how I am.’ I may feel spacious or under pressure, tight or scrambled or flowing. All these refer to the energy that’s holding awareness; most of the time it’s restricted. Accordingly, as the mind’s responses get limited to the habitual psychological/emotional actions, attitudes and resistances that we live by, that bounded mind becomes the norm, my self. It’s that restriction, that ‘self-centre’ that blocks integration: no matter how much we order our world we remain prone to dis-ease and stress. This ‘me’ gets challenged even by aspects of mind – irrational, chaotic and obsessive – that lie outside of its control or in contradiction to our more fully conscious intentions. But it’s not a matter of finding a better stronger self or eradicating the one we seem to be, but of getting in touch with an awareness that is held relationally rather than from a tight contracted ‘self’ position. And that’s what mindfulness does: it gives awareness a place, a settled and conscientious place in relationship to what arises. In this way it enables our way of being with the world to be free of compulsion and contraction. Even more curative: if we sustain mindfulness in relationship to the tense and self-conscious tangle that we take ourselves to be, that unbiased awareness can start to unravel it. And with that comes the happiness that is the feeling- flavour of release. Then an integration can occur, because an easeful mind can open and receive the understanding of what has been released. So understanding comes around after the ceasing of stress – not from a conceptual grasp of letting go.

Meditation then is about finding a centre, and carefully sweeping awareness out into the wilds of the mind, until there is a sense of space, relief, and subtle uplift. We can’t clear the whole wilderness in one go. But a little release is a precious thing; and every time we come out of being the problem to seeing and being with the problem, every time we come out of being entranced by a memory or fighting with it to know – ‘oh, it feels like this, and it’s there’ there’s a shift to a free centre. Every time we widen with kindness and awareness to see that the self-position I’m coming from, or the self I’m trying to get rid of or defend are objects over there and not a subject, something stops and there’s a touch of release. That’s the process. And it’s marked by happiness.

Monday 24 August 2009

Direct Pleasure

Books, ideas, talks, words are a constant source of information, entertainment and guidance in our lives. And they carry bias, speculation, dogma and propaganda. We’re conditioned to pick up the word as ‘fact’ – something that every advertising agency, news reporter or professional speaker knows. Particularly when something is written down, it acquires the authority of being ‘in black and white,’ clear, legitimate and established. So a newspaper can splash a rumour over its front page that stains someone’s character and, although it prints a small apologetic declaimer a few days later – the damage is done, the idea is seeded and the character whom the rumour is about will for many people remain a fool or a villain. Politics is worse: the convenient stirring phrase gets coined that caricatures the enemy, the trite ‘feel-good’ campaign slogan is reiterated time and time again until it acquires the power of a mantra – and all-too few people examine the substance of what the words refer to. The words have created an alternative reality of clear-cut heroes and villains, futures rosy or under threat, and we in our hunger for simple certainties believe it. After all, the certainty of ideas is easier to hold in one’s mind than reality.

To say I have loved books from early childhood is, I realise now, a wrong understanding of love. I began devouring words off the back of packs of cereal at the tender age of four and it took another twenty-five years to recognise that they were devouring me. The turning point came during my first year as a bhikkhu in England. Recognising how rabid my verbal appetite was, I decided to fast from reading for the three months’ Rains Retreat. At first my mind got extremely bored and dull, but then I began to notice the other senses more, and enjoy just looking at life as it happened, without it having to fit some map or system or agenda in my head. This lead me to an all-important connection to being embodied – to feeling the breathing steadily and sensitively, rather than ‘trying to meditate and get concentrated’, and to sensing what happens in the body when it walks, rather than ‘doing walking meditation.’ It was a movement to something more whole and present: experiencing directly rather than through the medium of ideas and strategies.

This change manifested in a clear-cut way: at the end of the retreat, I was notified that a donation had been made in my name – and was there anything that I needed/could make use of? So with money-holding attendant in tow, I went into town on a book-quest. At that time, our small group of samanas was living near Oxford, which, as a seat of academic learning, naturally has some impressive bookstores. We dived into Blackwells in Broad Street, which was indeed well-like, with a basement like an Aladdin’s cave, walls encrusted with books. I moved into the section on spiritual literature, eyes boggling at the cornucopia of words. Even reading the titles was intoxicating – a dazzling range of works on global spirituality throughout the ages, enough to set the mind on fire. But after an hour or so of hopping around with my neck twisted to read the titles, browsing through this and that, clawing up to the top shelves and rummaging through the floor level shelves, the firework spark and glow of concepts in my mind started to feel – well, as unsatisfactory as a fourth mug of something sweet and sticky. My mind was spinning and I could sense that a resolution to this quandary wasn’t going to come through any of these books. So telling the steward there was nothing here that I wanted, I suggested that a more satisfying fulfilment of the donor’s gift would be to buy a few pounds of toffee for the Sangha. If we’re going to devour, let’s be direct about it. And even better, let me have the joy of making an offering. It was a shift, however worldly, to the realm of direct experience, a realm that is always shareable with others.

At the end of June this year, I concluded my two months’ walk through southern England at the Vipassana Teachers’ Conference at Gaia House in Devon. (For those of you, who like me aren’t sure what ‘vipassana’ means, it’s about meditation in which the aspect of inquiry is given more prominence than that of calm.) It was a welcome chance to come out of days of trudging along with 32lbs/15kg on my back and with every step on the earth directly felt (along with the repeated jab of a few blisters). A conference: keen conversations, inquiry, the eager human engagement that comes with discussions – and hot showers, and a four-walled room to sit and sleep in. It was strange, though familiar, to spend so much time with the voice of the body subdued and drowned out by the voice of thought and concept and plans and options. It was delightful too, if a little dizzying, to feel the emotional flows and flushes, or witness the verbal tussles and the merging over a shared insight, that such company brings. However abstract, idiosyncratic or dissonant the ideas, handling them has some very direct and sharable effects.

In fact one of the topics, concerning keeping the teachings in a true alignment with the ancient Buddhist texts, moved through discussions over whether the ‘true’ Dhamma can be spoken at all. Doesn’t all that conceptual stuff take us away from our direct ‘real’ experience? But how ‘real’ is a changeable feeling, how reliable is an emotion? And isn’t the movement and effect of an idea also a valid experience, one that is uniquely granted to humans? Then again, isn’t there an irreducible ineffable that words can only point to? (So surely we should use whatever words point that way for contemporary people, and not be bound to language and terms that have become archaic or academic). On the other hand, it’s equally important to treasure what the Buddha has given us and not dilute or skew its meaning in order to make it go down easier. Isn’t that a responsibility of any Dhamma-teacher? Thrusts, parries, agreements, disagreements – but all of us could get the feel of the concerns, and most of us felt better for the exercise I’m sure.

The item that aroused the greatest amount of participation was, wait for it, the place of the erotic in Dhamma-practice. No, this wasn’t about Tantric sex, but about people’s struggle with the theory-forming mind and its over-strategising of meditation. It was also about how to open to and accommodate the pull towards enjoyment. Various discussion groups came up with the same pattern – of being attracted by the idea of Dhamma, but finding themselves losing motivation and heart through dutifully gripping a system or a technique. The grip being that one was presented with clear and valid points that one should attend to, loved the certainty of it all, but bought into the ‘should do this right’ ‘should be clear and at this stage by now’ syndrome. In that scenario, meditation becomes a joyless slog to get somewhere, and people get grim and disappear into the abstracted realms of theory (losing their hearts and bodies on the way). Either that or they give up on insight and get devoted to a guru who tells them to relax and be happy, because enlightenment’s already where you are.

The lust for graspable certainty, and the fear of not doing it according to the book, cuts the mind off from the direct experience of enjoyment that the Buddha regarded as essential. He is reported as saying that a skilled contemplative is one who fashions his/her own pleasure; and mindfulness of body, far from being a practice of screwing your attention into a brow-knotted state of concentration is one of making ‘the rapture and pleasure born of seclusion drench, steep, fill and pervade this body’ (M 119, 18). This sounds unequivocally erotic, and it is, with one necessary proviso – it doesn’t arise through external contact, but through the mind attending to the process of breathing. The Buddha understood pleasure as such a primary motivation for us, that he made use of it – shifting its arising from what he termed the ‘dung-heap’ of grasping the external senses to the skilful craft of meditation, through which he claimed he could spend seven days and nights in unbroken bliss. This was pure enjoyment, a happiness that doesn’t proliferate into greed and attachment, the skilled unification called samadhi. You don’t get that doing ecstasy at a rave.

The ‘feel-good factor’ has been a real issue for the Vipassana movement. Having learnt a meditation practice in Asia, many Western teachers, in bringing it back home, felt they had to leave behind the Asian cultural baggage of ritual and devotion and just present the technique, pure and simple. In fact they had little choice: how could they have introduced a Buddhist culture as Western lay people in a Western culture? However something got lost in the translation. Happiness, embodiment, devotion: my sense is that the loss was of a skilful attendance to the eros-principle. In its own cultural setting, Buddhist practice gives room for the enjoyment, celebratory, and shared feeling experiences. There’s the beauty and vigour of chanting together, the tenderness of making offerings to shrines, the go-for it drive of pilgrimages, and the easy intimacy that you find in monasteries where massaging each other is a standard practice. Buddhist culture doesn’t dessicate the heart and ignore the body; it finds ways of handling the erotic to bring about a unified and contented mind.

Without that skilful handling we either put eros, fun, and celebration in a cage – as dangerous, silly, or having no purpose; or we go down the track of attempting to integrate it by following its pull outwards into sexuality. The root of the problem is often associated with a Western attitude that is sometimes called ‘Judeo-Christian,’ sometimes ‘Catholic guilt’ or ‘Protestant/Puritan repression.’ However it’s universally human. In all cultures, if you don’t know how to handle feelings and impulses, you have to put them in a cage and let them out in ‘allowable’ occasions of licentiousness: parties, brothels, drinking binges etc. It takes a skilled mind to neither repress the pleasure principle, nor get lost in it. But, if there is mindfulness, inquiry and right aim, the mind’s pleasure centre can be known directly and comprehensively. That is: in the direct experience of meditation, you can notice that every feeling of pleasure or displeasure carries a movement of energy. Then instead of spinning out on that, you practise putting aside the sensation, idea or impression that the feeling is tagged to, and instead focus on the energy that it arouses. If you calm and steady that in your body (try breathing through it and widening the focus) the pleasure cools to a sustainable and suffusive ease, and pain softens to a manageable degree. Without messing with the feeling, the mind steps free of it and into a unified energy.

But you play with such fire at your peril. Even though my intellectual lust has calmed considerably in the past thirty years, nowadays I keep my books behind curtains, like thangkas. They remain valuable maps and sources of information, but like those spiritual paintings in the Tibetan tradition, they are not for gobbling or casual affairs. Their titles remain modestly veiled except on appropriate occasions; then like true spiritual friends, they are brought forth and treated with respect. And consequently they don’t demand rapture or romance. Like sober guides they perform their sacred duty – which is to translate the one book that it’s essential to read: the ongoing tragi-comic epic of this body and mind.

Sunday 31 May 2009

Alms and the man

Just as the willingness to both give and receive is a mark of any sound human relationship, the giving and receiving of alms ( free-will offering of material support) has always been a part of most cultures. It centres people around kindness and humility and reminds us that although we are all subject to the changeable fortune of the world, our values and relatedness can remain constant. For this reason, alms-round ( 'pindapada'= 'scrap-gathering') is the heart of the livelihood of a Buddhist monastic (or 'samana'). We are alms-people, not 'monks' or 'nuns', and certainly not priests. To rely for sustenance on what arises through bringing one's presence as a Gone Forth person into the market place takes trust in humanity. In fact just being in the market place and yet not a part of it entails the faith that the disturbance of one's presence will generate some positive ripples. So alms-rounds set a lot of nerve endings twitching - for both the samana and the townsfolk. Maybe out of what turns up, one's needs will be met. And if not, then through being open and upright, one's mind will at least be clear, undistracted and free from craving. Because when you practise this, any craving for food, or even to get away from the public gaze, stands out so starkly as the creator of suffering and stress that you have to let it go. Instead you just maintain presence.

A lot of the time in modern monasticism, the edge is taken off the alms-faring by living in a monastery where food is almost certainly guaranteed to be given by its supporters, and where food is often stored up by lay attendants living in the monastery. (And thank you all very much.) This means that with not having to walk to the town, spend an hour or so on an alms-round, and then walk back again, there's more time to do other things - meditate, teach, manage the place, have meetings, etc. So faring out for alms frequently gets put aside. However in terms of the 'tudong', the long-distance unccompanied walk that I'm currently in the middle of, the alms-round is frequently the only way I'll get food for the day.

On some days it's the case that I've been hosted by supporters...but on others the routine is to wake up in my tent at dawn, meditate to gather my energies for an hour or two, brew up a hot drink to get the cold out of, and the energy into, my body...Then break camp, stuff everything into a backpack and walk the few miles to the nearest town. It can be a slow walk, partially because the pack is heavy and the body is empty, and partly because there's no point in getting to the town much before 11am as the majority of shoppers who may provide me with food won't be heading for the shops until around that time.

Eventually I find a street with some shops in it, and a spot near a food outlet, a supermarket or bakers. According to the training, one should not intrude in the human flow of the street; one should not solicit alms by any gesture or speech or eye-contact and one should hold one's alms-bowl 'well-covered.' In other words, one should not beg, but merely be available for those who are inspired enough by what one represents to wish to offer food. This is all quite appropriate in a country where people know what a shaven-headed person in brown robes carrying a bowl is about. In England, the first thought that regularly comes to mind as I tuck myself back from the main flow of the street and haul my bowl out of my backpack, is that there is no way that this is going to work. No-one knows who I am, no-one knows what I'm doing - and even if they did, why should these hardworking townsfolk pause in the flurry and bustle of the street and getting their shopping done to offer me anything? Yet, here I am with no other way of obtaining the food to get me through the next 23 hours and the next twelve miles of walking. So this is a great 'out of the bubble' occasion, a time when I can't do my thing and go my way at my pace; I can't demonstrate wisdom or give an inspiring talk, I have to just be here, conspicuous but impotent. Ah well.

I settle into standing. Walking up and down looks suspicious, and standing presents who I am in a clear and simple way. I stand in my boots, trying to relax my stiff legs and sore feet, and look on with a soft focus. It's easy to feel compassion for all these people hurrying to manage their lives, thronging past in the ongoing human comedy. It's a 21st century version of Breugel: mothers trying to steer their children ( some of whom are asking who that funny man is); teenagers with their iPods inserted; men making deliveries; styles of dress, of gait, of manner; dogs doing embarassing doggy things. Everyone is busy going somewhere, getting something done, making purchases. Everyone except me. Thirty, forty minutes pass by; occasionally someone makes a friendly remark, but for most it seems I'm not on their screen. And yet...in the course of this last month, I've been prayed over, joked with, engaged with in inquiries about the Dalai Lama, and yes, greeted with curious joy and given food. Or rather the robes and bowl have triggered off a range of responses, as surely they were meant to do. However and whoever I am, I'm a break in the pattern, a snag in the flow of the daily human business - and that moves minds. I find all this deeply engaging and very much a space to drop into. It's both intimate and anonymous, discreet and revealing at the same time. Interesting to sense what it brings up. It's a real bubble breaker; it tips me out of my self-involved world...And others too.

Here's one story of how an alms-round affects the human world. It's set in a shopping mall in a small town near Bristol. At first, the arcade looked like the prime place for an alms-mendicant: a tide of people moving along the spacious pavements between several major supermarkets. Plenty of space to tuck away in a corner without bothering anyone. So, suitably parked near a shop, I stand and let a half-hour wash over me. Then a woman stops and asks me if I went to school with a friend of hers called Deirdre - I say 'No,' so she says: 'I'll get you some food then' and ducks inside the supermarket. It's like that: the donors often express no spiritual inclinations or interest, but somehow dare to break through the membrane that forms around strangers in the street. Once even a minimal human contact is made, they inexplicably dive into a nearby store, or ask what they can get me. Slightly bemused I await this woman's return - but then along comes a man in a uniform. 'Do you realize that it's against the law to collect money in this area?'

'I'm not collecting money. I'm standing for alms-food.'

'Do you realize that it's against the law to collect food in this area?'

'No, otherwise I wouldn't be doing it. I'm a monk and have no wish to transgress the laws of the land or cause problems in any way.'

(He softens a tad.) 'Well, I'll have to ask you to move on. This precinct is privately owned.'

He is a security guard, and this area of town, like many in Britain, has been bought by a property developer and turned into a shopping mall over which they have rights of access - and the right to evict anyone considered 'unsuitable' (i.e. not shopping). Naturally I agree to move but as I'm packing, I ask him how his day is and whether he has to deal with many problems on the street. He softens a little more and talks about his day. Nothing much happens - a kid on drugs yesterday was the event of the week. What a job. I notice he has studs in his ears and try to imagine his life outside his uniform. He is quite young and has a local accent; probably grew up in this town. He asks me what I'm doing in a genuinely interested way, and I talk about how I've walked up from Sussex and am heading towards Wales. He takes all this in, along with the robes, and seems receptive. Could he recommend a place where standing for alms would be permitted? (I'm starting to worry about the woman in the shop - what if she emerges to find me gone?) He recommends the High Street, then pauses, thinks again and mentions another large supermarket nearby - but outside of this arcade. Just then my donor turns up, plonks a sandwich and some fruit into my bowl with a brief 'Here you are then!' and scurries off. The security man grins: 'Well that's helped you on your way for today!' he says. Then he helps me get my pack on my back and we part company amicably.

Outside the other supermarket the show is much the same. Someone stops by and talks to me about his visit to Nepal, Tibetan tea and how hospitable and cheerful the monks had been. 'You've made my day!' he exclaims as he hurries off. Well that offering, although immaterial, is something. I'm starting to feel happy at being around: that the sign of a samana can be a source of uplift in the world. Maybe one sandwich and a banana is enough for the day. Then a woman hastily pops a small pack of tomatoes in my bowl. Perhaps that is enough...Anyway I move further away as I might possibly be too near the entrance to the store - and as I do so, right on cue, the manager appears.

'Excuse me - some of the customers have commented on your standing here, and apparently collecting...This area does belong to (...) and I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to move along.'

'Fair enough. I have no wish to cause a disturbance.' Suddenly feeling like a bum or a drunk panhandling for coins, I stuff my bowl in my pack... but as the manager walks away, an elderly woman stops in front of me: 'You are a monk! Can I get you some food? I'm a Christian, what can I get you to eat?'

I mention maybe something small will do just fine, but she interjects: 'No, no, they make hot food in here, I'd like to buy you a proper meal.' So, with her late teens' daughter shouldering my pack, we march in to the cafeteria area of the supermarket that I've just been shooed away from. The ripple effect is palpable. Large, bald, robed being striding down the aisle following two women, one of whom is carrying a bulky backpack. The servers behind the counter give me guarded looks, but make no comments as I order up a breakfast and take a seat.

My sponsor explains she is a lapsed Catholic. 'Everytime I went to church I would just weep and weep. So I stopped going. Now I sit at home, let my eyes rest in the middle distance and empty my mind. This is my way of praying.' I commend her on her meditation...'But I have a problem with devotion. I suppose I need to find other people to pray with.' An engaging conversation ensues. I refuse more food (I still have the sandwich to complete the meal) and give her a list of contact addresses that might help. Suddenly she's off. Then her daughter re-appears with bags of nuts and dried fruit, offers them with a smile and, like her mother, hastens off.

I don't need this extra food. I can't store it. What to do? Meanwhile wondering if I have been a nuisance to the store, and feeling unhappy about the contact I had with the manager, I decide to seek him out and explain things. It seems like the proper thing to do. So I head for customers' enquiries.

'I'd like to speak to the manager, please.'

They phone him up. 'He's busy right now, can you wait ten minutes?'


Eventually he comes bustling along.

'Hello. The last time we met I was standing outside your store, and I'd just like to apologize if I was causing any disturbance to your customers. That was not my intention. Why I'm in here is because shortly after you left me, a woman came along and invited me in to have a meal. As it happened, her daughter also offered me some food, which I don't need and am not allowed to keep, so I'd like to offer it as a gesture of apology.'

He didn't blink, but seemed to be regaining his breath.

'You see, I'm a monk, and I live on alms food. I'm not allowed to ask for anything directly or even make a sign. I'm supposed to stand in a way that doesn't interrupt whatever's going on...but still some people, one in two hundred, see me and feel inspired to offer me food. Actually your store has made out of my standing outside it.'

The manager found some breath and sighed: 'I feel really crestfallen. I should have asked further what you were doing and given you a chance instead of jumping to conclusions.'

I say I sympathize with his situation and that he has to care for the effective running of his store ( 'Nice store you have here, by the way') and that some his customers might find people like me a bit disturbing. He appreciates it that I can see his point of view... and we get to talking...

'I'm really grateful that you've taken the time to come back and explain this to me,' he says. 'I could never do what you're doing,'( we're on first-name terms now) but next time you or any of your fellows are coming through, phone and let me know and I'll arrange it so that you can collect food.'

Much hand shaking and so we part.

Humans! Sometimes all this practice is about is getting people to come out of their roles and programs for a moment and trust being human. It's an awkward, nervy kind of process, but this alms-mendicant sign is meant to instigate just that. Come to think of it, I'm supposed to be a disturbance.

Afer I've eaten, I find I still have the small pack of tomatoes. On the way out of town, I try giving it away. After two sets of people have reeled back in shock at being approached by a robed man with backpack bearing down on them proffering tomatoes, I find an old people's nursing home and hang them on the railings of the front gate. There the bag dangles, suspect emissary from a human world, until someone dares to peek inside it.

Thursday 2 April 2009


Here I am sharing an intimate moment with a distant relative. This was last December, in Sri Lanka. Some friends had been inviting me for years to tour the country with them – and December is a great time to be out of Britain. Unlike Thailand, where everything get eaten, there are a lot of wild animals in Sri Lanka. Many such as elephant are very accessible, and the monkeys sometimes invasively so. Some of the bigger ones will rip food out of your hand – but not this little fellow, who tagged along with our small group as we were visiting Mihintale. (Mihintale is where the enlightened monk Mahinda first met the king Devanampiya Tissa back around 230 BCE. It's a special place even set against the standards of the many other Buddhist sites, and the monastery that I stayed in – by which I mean caves and rock overhangs – had been continually lived in since the time of Mahinda. )

Anyway, this small macaque was on his own and kept following us. I think one of our party had made the mistake of feeding him a banana, but he showed little interest in any further food. As we made our way across the forested land and up the hills where the caves are, he followed along – but every now and then pairs of monkeys would rush our party screeching, baring their teeth and fluttering their blue eyelids. Clearly he wasn't welcome. Clearly he was invading their territory. By the time we made it to the small dwelling built under a rock, he was hanging on very close. Hence our bonding moment.

After a while we descended to where the rest of the monastery buildings were, repeatedly stormed at by hostile monkeys, with our adopted monkey becoming ever more panicky. Just as we neared the dining hall, the roof of which was covered with monkeys, he lost his nerve and made a break for it ... There was a blur of monkeys jumping down from the roof, a flurry and a screeching – then fortunately for him, the monks came out and threw a bucket over the lone monkey. Otherwise he would have been shredded. Later they transferred him to a sack and took him away to safer territory.

Belonging's an issue. If you belong to one tribe or group you don't belong to the others. And as long as there's the sense of others, the rule of nature is that, for your own welfare, you'd better belong to a group of kin. Through this kinship creatures like wolves, monkeys, and humans hold territory and resources, and preserve the safety of themselves and their vulnerable young. For that advantage a social order, often with explicit or implicit hierarchies has to be established and maintained – through the use of power, or force if necessary. Yet although belonging binds us, that very binding, or bonding, has an attraction that extends beyond material need: what or who we belong to helps us to know ‘who we are.’

Of course we all already have a ‘me’ sense, a sense of inner presence, but on our own its expression and form gets moored to feelings, energies, emotions and attitudes. Which aren't always so pleasing, and which do always change – often many times a day. For the sense of solidity, of a constant orientation around which to organize a life in the world, we need an external reference, a ‘mine.’ So we seek places to own, people to belong to, ideologies or religions to dedicate ourselves to. For such intensely personal creatures as humans, the need to find a personal form gives the belonging sense a huge power. We're even prepared to sacrifice individual liberty in order to be a person.

In contemporary Western society, there are all kinds of groups and sub-groups that overlap: family, friends, the organisation, the church/temple, the team, or the club that supports a team. Then there are chat-rooms and social networks like Facebook. They delineate a range of conscious territory, and create us as many-faceted selves: our working self, our play self, our spiritual self. Sometimes getting the selves to co-habit can be a struggle! Bringing your newly beloved, or your old buddies, into the family orbit can be awkward; but acknowledging that, although I’ve not been to a football match since I was ten, I’m a Chelsea supporter – that’s disturbing. My father was as an active supporter, and so some aspect of my heart is bonded to their welfare – and I don’t even like them!

Groups create outsiders, and tend to be highly focused (to the point of obsession) with their inclusion theme – say my group enjoy cross-country walks, or follow a particular team, or go to school reunions where we re-enact the old rituals that give us that sense of being in something and being connected to a past. There are delinquent groups, held together by fear and aversion whose bonding is around ostracism. These are groups of those who don't belong to the mainstream, and as long as you back that up by anti-social behaviour, you're in. Or you can belong to a religious group which holds prime territory in the divine consciousness, held by faith and whose ‘others’ are the lost, the fallen. Or to a missionary group which wants to include everyone. (And therefore holds as other and threatening those who wish to be distinct, or any differentiation within the group.) So belonging generates biases that create us in terms of what we hold onto and creates others who are marked with a negative sense as lesser, more advantaged, or not included.

There’s something to look into in this belonging and ‘us’ sense. The Buddha freely worked with the sense of self and other as real and valid references; and also encouraged the ‘we’ sense. ‘To others as to myself’ is the basis of Buddhist ethics, compassion and generosity. But I can't recall him ever mentioning ‘belonging’ in any positive light. Mostly that kind of connectedness is presented in his discourses as attachment – a prime condition for anxiety and bereavement. The standard of connection that is praised is to maintain empathy with others. This quality isn't exactly kindness or compassion but something prior to those – the word is ‘anukampati’ literally ‘being stirred in the presence of,’ or ‘resonating.’ It was this resonance, a sense that others are in a predicament that I can share or relate to, that the Buddha experienced soon after his Awakening, even whilst fully enjoying the happiness and clarity of a liberated mind. Because of this, he decided to teach, and moved freely amongst all kinds of humans from rogues to matriarchs, from ascetics to kings. He did so until his last breath.

I don't think it was because he needed someone to belong to, or had to absorb himself in a mission and gather disciples in order to feel solid. I’d say it was a genuine altruism: the Awakened mind sees this world, and can encompass all of it with compassion. And I’m sure that the Buddha, ever a pragmatist, advocated group/relational structures like Sangha and the Fourfold Assembly to generate a mutual support system for those who travelled his Way. But also the group of disciples help us to contemplate attachment – it highlights the interest we have in being part of a ‘we’ and belonging to others, or of being a ‘me’ belonging to my own views and being separate from others. The interest swings to and fro, but it never fully accomplishes either position. I don't fit in with everyone else for very long; but my own views and self-interest get as tedious as they are cramped. In all this taking and swapping of positions, the acknowledge has to arise that we exist in a world of others, and there are gaps (or boundaries) between us. We're distinct and stand apart.

As long as we fill in what stands on either side of a boundary, as long as we assume that the sense of ‘me’ or ‘you’ defines solid entities, there’s trouble. A lot of confusion, fear, abuse and pain can get generated around that assumption, because with that comes the projection of my needs, anxieties, and fantasies that blocks a relationship from forming in true, a moment at a time. With the firming up of ‘me’ and ‘you’ (and even worse ‘them’) there's always the juggling with identities that issue from our semi-conscious imagination. (What do you really think of me? How am I and what will I be? You know what they’re really up to … I can’t stand people like her). And there’s also the false ‘we,’ whereby someone assumes that ‘we all think this’ without checking it out with the range of individuals involved.

The truth is that there’s the experience of self and others; and there’s a shifting boundary that can include the two or five or more of us within an activity or a shared joy - and then move to divide us into two or three groups around a point of view. There’s always that; but we can at least try to keep the boundary clear of fear and bias: as in ‘Here’s where we meet and agree and here’s where we don’t. Do we have to hold on or fight over that?’ Boundaries and limitations are part of what incarnation does – maybe if we accept and manage that, we can also appreciate the empathy and good will that are also part of the package. Then the boundaries don’t have to be absolute and fixed: right now I’m not where you’re at, but that can change. There's room for the sense of difference.

That doesn't mean that there's room for all kinds of behaviour – greed, tyranny and manipulation are unacceptable because they don't accept boundaries. But at a level of being, of being a human with degrees of suffering and degrees of delusion, there's a ‘we’ sense that allows separateness and acknowledges us all as real, valid and unknowable. The beauty of this is that I don't have to try to ‘know’ someone – whatever that's supposed to mean. Nor is it a matter of always understanding others, or agreeing with them or having them like you. (Though all these tend to happen more often when the boundary is held with respect and compassion.) For me it's about acknowledging the sense of separateness and saying: 'Yes, I have that too.' There's a resonance that means that it's ok for you to see things differently and be a thousand miles away.

Broadly speaking, I am knitted in to a clearly definable group – the monastic Sangha – and probably belong to more than most people do. Belonging to this highlights some of the fallacies, needs and clarification around the ‘we’ sense. For a start, as I'm sure that most people acknowledge, belonging is only ever partial. We all have the experience of areas of dissonance with, or occasions of just not being on the same wavelength with, people in ‘our’ group. So this moulds the social culture of the Sangha. One feature of this is that we hold the sense of dissonance internally and give each other space – he’s different, leave him be.

Giving each other space. It sounds very allowing and tolerant and that is definitely part of it. But within that generosity, there's the shadow of fear of contact, or of living within one's own self-oriented bubble. It takes time and careful attention in oneself and with others for the space not to be a wall. Even then it doesn’t always work. A while back, a well-liked monk in our community had a breakdown that sent him suicidal with depression. Ones and twos of us would be with him throughout the day to try to keep him out of his tailspin; which just about worked. But you get to see the wall, and how it doesn’t necessarily seal off empathy – we didn’t give up or lose faith in the man. Yet, the results seem meagre. At one time I was holding his hand and leading him across a road in order to see a psychiatric nurse, with him saying that he couldn't take another minute of this state. We were physically so close and yet all the training in mindfulness, all the friendship and kindness in the world was barely keeping his mind from disappearing down its black hole. All this was pretty alarming from my point of view - what do you do?- but all I can say is that without that contact and the concern that lay behind it I’m sure he’d be dead by now. And for myself, experiencing the involuntary nature of the wall made me a lot more sympathetic towards people who hitherto I’d felt frustrated with because they were ‘so closed down.’ Maybe we don’t always have the choice. In the case of this monk, the wall was so obviously not-self that it became something that had to be accepted. There had to be room for that too. You can't demand openness.

For more fortunate people, the space between us can open. It takes time and care but an important feature of commitment to this Sangha, is that you’re in it for a standard of at least five years. Within that period, inspiration, desperation, alienation and conviction – all the ways in which we mark the space – will have rumbled through so many times that you get to recognize that this process isn’t really about any of those. For some, that’s an opening to an undetermined space that leaves us either in awe or guessing. In terms of relationship, this space means that we find a way to live with others, sincere and good others, who will yet always remain others. What struggles with that is the need to belong, the need to find oneself - either through others or apart from them.

So one gets to contemplate belonging – to a group, to another, or to one’s own attitudes and emotions. I don’t see getting out of belonging by rejecting it – in that stance, I belong to non-belonging, just like any other delinquent. What comes to me is the need to contemplate what arises as me and you, and find a truer centre within that. The bit that I’m getting is that it’s not about having things go my way or your way; it’s not about being fair or good. It’s not about agreement, or bonding, or doing someone a favour – it’s where I’m ok and there’s room for you too. A true ‘we’ requires at least two genuine ‘me’s. When the boundaries between us are suitable and flexible, there’s less projection, and a genuine warming to the mystery and the potency of the other. The ‘we’ can be resonant rather than habitual, and can include a huge range of near and far, alive and dead; that very resonance becomes a centre. And it feels better than hanging on to the ‘me’ bit.

To remind myself of the true centre, every day I share blessings, good-will or acceptance with others. Sometimes I just sit with that notion in mind and attend whoever comes into the space of awareness, other times I focus on particular people that I’m in dissonance with or just plain missing. There's room for you too. If I include it all, including the ‘me’ bit, I’m not sealed inside a bag of skin or a fixed view or a mind-state. All that, and the rest of the universe is within the space: resonance can include and transcend the differences and allow the mystery.

A few days before I left Sri Lanka, I visited a turtle sanctuary. The man in charge had dedicated his life to the welfare of marine turtles. He and a few helpers would dig turtle eggs out of the sand on a nearby beach and hatch them in tanks. After a few days (or weeks) he'd then carry these young turtles down to the shore and set them free. This method ensured that a greater proportion of turtles would survive their precarious and unparented infancy. As you may know, Sri Lanka was badly affected by the tsunami a few years back, and this turtle sanctuary on the south coast was one of the places that had been completely destroyed. But when the tsunami hit, this man grabbed a turtle under each arm and ran.

Two was all he could take away from that terrible disaster, but that's what he did. For me that expresses something fine about humans. With all the limitations we feel in helping others in this world, as a human, I'm one of the kind that is interested in rescuing other creatures, creatures that wouldn't rescue me. It's my privilege to be one of the ones that acknowledges and transcends the pang of otherness. And through that I might be able to set one or two others free – from the grasping of my mind at least.