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.