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.