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.