Saturday 7 February 2009

A walk into openness

Towards the end of April, I'll be going tudong – that is taking a walk through southern England for a couple of months, living on alms' food and sleeping outside. It's an interesting opportunity that a monk's life offers – to be in the world in an open way, very much in the body as it lumbers along, and dependent on the good-will of the towns and villages that one passes through. It's a movement into a relatively empty space – one that will fill with whatever the day brings in.

Even in the lead-up to the walk, there are psychological places to move through that present questions and insights. Having teetered around the 'How much to plan?'/ 'How much to let it happen?' intersection for a few weeks, a direction and a vague route has established itself. So yes, I'm taking maps, yes I have a few addresses to stop over in, yes, I'm doing some exercises so that when I roll out of the three-month retreat there is a modicum of muscle fibre still clinging to the bones. I'm taking it not as an ordeal, but more as a practice to keep touching into and living in the openness and 'emptiness' that a lot of our habits shun.

Another major intersection is the 'How heavy?/ How comfortable?' debate. The more of the comfort-making gear you carry ( tent, sleeping bag etc.) then the more uncomfortable the carrying of it gets. But, the less you carry, the more cold damp nights (etc.) you have to endure. So being of advanced years, I'm wimping out with a very light tent, two-season bag and even a gas-burner to boil water on. Resolution – walk less each day and make it a pleasant trip. Yes.

This intersection is one that I come to at other times. How much stuff do I want/need in my dwelling-place? Being a mendicant at the time and place I'm in is certainly not about impoverishment. Often my concern is to not get so cluttered that I can't find things, or that my living place feels too busy. At the 'Do I need this?' traffic-light, thoughts arise – ' Just let it be, there are more important things to do ...', ' This could be useful one day ...', 'Dear so-and-so gave me this, I ought to hang onto it', ' Oh, I must get round to fixing/repairing/reading this in my spare time' etc. But how much cleaning and tidying and rummaging occur as a consequence of being overweight in terms of possessions? So, various resolutions arise: one is – every time I'm given something, then I look for something to give away. Another one is the 'two-year rule': if I've had something – say a book or a sweater – without making use of it for two years, it must be meant for someone else. In a community which connects to other communities, there's often someone who can make use of my stuff. And for myself, one result is that the bustle of the mind fades out. Which is a major aim of the whole operation – at the intersection where belonging crosses being, it's possible for a restful space to open up.

A friend of mine who was going through a divorce found herself in a house full of stuff from the marriage, many items that she didn't need ... but the prospect of emptying and of thereby accentuating an already-present emptiness was too uncomfortable to take on – at least for a while. I suggested a tactic of moving items into another room – not so much a complete divorce from them, but more a trial separation. That helps moderate the effect. As you let go, there's that empty sense – but if you sit, and through whatever process, become fully present in that open and strange place, gradually the system will adjust to the new configuration. Done sympathetically rather than through aversion or idealism, the result is very light and freeing. Then you can decide how many, if any, of those moved items you want to take back into your living space.

Things become part of us, through the medium of perception and resonance. When we're not really clear, the subtle energy that is our felt presence gets glued to objects by the meanings and feelings they trigger. Then they keep the mind cooking with voices of need and comfort, obligation and identity. And when the objects go, we feel lonely, lost or 'disconnected.' This is because there's an energy/presence that accompanies perceptions and feelings – this energy/presence is what citta (mind/heart) is. So to release the mind, we have to gentle or haul its energy/presence out of its glue. When we do that, there's a realignment – after the release our heart can settle into a new form. This experience, of a relative emptying, does also point out that we're not really any shape or configuration.

My attachments and addictions haven't arrived at that understanding yet. They want to hold me into a familiar shape. So it takes time and practice. It means getting to the edge of the empty sense, whose bleak feel is due to the mind's energy/presence being unable to fill it. That's where there's a kink in the system, which the energy of unfulfillable attachment creates and its object compensates for. So to address that means patiently being with the itch and the ache of the hole and relaxing – which allows the energy to flow.

For myself, substances such as tobacco and other social drugs have been easy to give up. The big empty hole has been loss of people – maybe that's the one that yawns in front of and behind many of us. There are a lot of losses, particularly as you get older. Perhaps three or four times in a life there are losses that feel like losing a whole chunk of heart, mind and nervous system. Grim indeed. And of course the Buddha laid it on the line – 'All that is mine, beloved and pleasing, will become otherwise, will become separated from me'. Get it? 'ALL' is the word. With the energy-bonds that occur in relationship, whereby we form and 'inform' each other, that separation can feel like amputation. Moreover philosophizing about loss and grief shoves you into the 'you should snap out of it' mode. This may rapidly shift one away from the hole, but it doesn't fill it – the heart just becomes like Gruyere cheese wrapped in cling-film. It's still full of holes, but covered with a membrane – and that splits under pressure.

The other extreme is to plunge or topple into the hole, brood and wallow for years. And the middle way ... is to stand on the edge of and 'breathe' into that empty hole. By which I mean not so much moving air around but keeping an alive energy around the sense of loss. This isn't always so easy, because the mind wants to run away from, 'get over' or deny the emptiness; or it goes numb with shock.The practice then is about bearing a lost one in mind in an almost tactile way, like they're beside you.And then letting them go. With bereavement, there's a need to do that often, perhaps with ritual or meditation, for a good while.To give them blessings. Above all, to let them go on their way; not to hold them back.

The inevitability of loss makes it sensible to keep rehearsing letting go in many areas – possessions, positions, goals – so that at a somatic and energetic level, the system knows that an accommodation of that empty hole is possible. Otherwise the system locks, and there is bitterness. Hence, it's good to live life as a tudong – as an ever-opening space.

However in any experience of being someone doing something, there's the need for a personal shape. And letting go is then a means that allows the system to move into a suitable form. In my case that means getting wider and more grounded. It means taking on roles and actions that will cause some stretching. So the other side of letting go is picking up – to fully pick up what one is with. For example, however I plan it, my bag still weighs something. My body doesn't really even want to carry a straw hat, let alone drag a dozen kilos over hill and dale. And there's something in me that doesn't want to carry responsibilities ... and 'I don't want to have to waste my time with this' – and so on. So picking things up entails checking out some resistances and withdrawals. Not that they're necessarily unwise – I've erred on the side of blindly picking up every thing, responsibility and duty that comes my way. Picking up with wisdom should fit in with letting go – letting go of obligations, expectations and self-imagery. I learn mostly through checking out where I know I can get snagged. So – can my project be a failure, can the community that I try to respond to ebb flow and spasm through harmony and dysfunction – and yet all that be a condition for widening, grounding and emptying out? Can the sense of taking people on in the bond of monastic relationships be accompanied by the understanding that we have to separate? In this domain of time and place and (sort of) being someone, it seems vital that the energy of presence willingly reach out, move through forms – in order to empty out its gluey snags and numb places. It's an emptying that means being fully here and debunking the voice that says 'Onwards! Either success, or failure!' Maybe this is what love is – to take on being human, and get over the anxiety and pain of it all.

When I land in that, it feels like a rich and lasting, rather than transient, emptiness. But I'm still learning. So it'll be good to take a walk.