Thursday 24 November 2011

Original Openness

So you’re in the rainforest of N.W.Congo looking for wildlife – and then one of them finds you. What do you do? What do you do when a large male gorilla comes towards you, in fact draws very close? Well, in this case, a friend told me, you just stay open. ‘I was out of my comfort zone,’ he admitted, ‘but I just had to be there and trust.’ The gorilla slowly moved in, placed a kiss on my friend’s neck, and then moved on his way. Welcome to the open world.

Admittedly such an attitude can often seem inadvisable with our fellow humans. But there are times when there’s really nothing else you can do. In my case the trust in openness was most dramatically demanded of me when a group of bandits, brandishing axes and cudgels jumped me near Rajgir in Bihar, India. What do you do when four armed men have grabbed you, and in the heat of the moment, one is grimacing and waving an axe at your head? Fortunately there’s not much else to do but to stay open. For me, in that moment, the reflection arose that everyone has to die, and maybe this was my time. The only choice that was available was to go without fear. So instinctively, I bowed my head to the man with the axe and drew the blade of my hand across the top of my skull to indicate where to hit. ‘This won’t take long,’ I thought. The bandit paused and his energy and body language softened. I stepped forward, again offering my head. The heat in the situation dropped like a stone. The man with the axe looked confused and lowered his weapon, and the other men released my arms. I slipped my bag from my shoulders, placed it before them and slowly walked away. No kiss on the neck, but enough for me to trust the power of openness. *

Opennness is an attractive quality. To feel open-minded and open-hearted is beautiful; to be free from the burden of anxiety, mistrust and planning the future; to be simply present. In that willingness to be here with no preoccupations, defence or alternatives, we can rest in a world which suddenly, surprisingly, feels like home. With openness there’s the ability to learn – even from mistakes – and a basis for healthy motivation. It’s a quality that I frequently assess in myself: in a position which entails management and tradition, how do I stay open to the erratic, the uncertain and the experimental? How do I stay fresh?

It’s a wide-ranging enquiry: for most people the process of growing up is generally one in which, as stability and convenience increase, wonder and appreciation fade. The domesticated management of our lives can render us dull and clumsy; we don’t see or respond in a fresh way, and the magical domain of childhood flattens into a world of named knowns and functions. The individual gets bound to performance – even in sport or relationship – society is limited to a network of obligations and ownership, and religion becomes associated with claiming ultimate superiority. In such a world, motivation gets turned towards maintaining and enhancing the present status quo – although the consequent effort to maintain all the social connections, legal structures and appurtenances causes us nearly unmanageable degrees of stress. None of this is new: from ancient times the energetic and spiritual costs of a managed life in the society has always been one of the reasons for Going Forth. So can we find a way to live on the planet that doesn’t involve burying the spirit? How do we find stability in a world of uncertainty and change without going rigid?

Since change is a fundamental ‘law,’ the question around accommodating it calls for an examination of what openness entails. In the Buddha’s dispensation, openness is the faculty of faith (saddhā). This openness is an innate faculty, part of the original potential with which we’re born. A point to emphasize is that it doesn’t stand alone but is part of a set of five innate faculties (indriya) which we are encouraged to develop and which are said to ‘merge in the Deathless.’ So this is major stuff. The other four faculties are application-energy (viriya), mindfulness (sati), collectedness (samādhi) and discernment (pañña). However, faith opens the set. It’s not a belief – belief-systems tend to close the mind by locking it into an imposed structure.  No, faith opens the mind, and is a potential we all have; it's not an ideology but an original and authentic faculty. Its bottom line is the everyday faith that we have that there’s something worth living for, that the future holds a potential for development, and that in the tangled skein of what’s arising in the present, there is a meaningful thread.

Faith, as openness, is essential. It’s worth remembering that the first words the Buddha spoke to his five first disciples were: ‘Wide open are the gates to the Deathless, let those who can listen, bring forth their faith.’ In this statement, he wasn’t asking for belief, but pointing to our potential for faith – because it’s with this as a foundation that the mind is most capable of accessing the other four original faculties. And to emphasize again: although it’s the opener, faith isn’t enough – the crucial detail is that we need to place it on people or circumstances that can support it. Therefore throughout his life, the Buddha kept encouraging people to consider, assess and carefully discern what to place that faith in.

Openness then is a careful practice rather than an ideology that insists on openness to all people at all times. Misplaced faith, an openness or trust that isn’t backed up by a mindful assessment of what your putting your faith in, is subject to being abused. What is always skilful, however, is to be open to yourself about what’s happening to you in the here and now, and checking it out – in your body and heart. Maybe there was a threat, but that’s passed. Maybe you’ve reached the edge of our capacity to be open and accepting of another: then something has to be said to let them know that. Thus you replace a pathology with wise navigation. This wise openness naturally supports application-energy; when there's that inner balance we’re naturally curious and empathic and we move into our environment in a positive way.

Environment alone provides adequate causes for what I’ve referred to as 'burying the spirit.’ In a world in which moral integrity is not a guarantee, confused self-interest often overcomes interpersonal respect. Abuse – verbal, sexual and physical – gives numb hearts a fleeting surge of power, release and even pleasure. And as every instance of abuse diminishes self-confidence, for one who has been abused there is a fading of trust that there’s anything good or true or beautiful, and consequently a loss of motivation. Instead, the heart gets cynical and closes down. Moreover, a closed heart feels numb – it loses its natural empathy and joyfulness, and therefore seeks surges of power and pleasure to feel alive. Ironically it is the emphasis on the pleasure which is purely self-gratifying that is a basis for abuse. So as the heart closes, the cycle of abuse (of oneself or others) keeps going. The remedy, the breaking of the cycle, can’t be affected by punishment.  Instead it takes a return to empathy – within one's own mind, or provided by another – to offer acceptance and safety to the numb or embittered heart. It's only through empathy that the pattern unravels. In everyday human terms, what has to be done is to open up the hurt, feel into it and talk it out.

Another cause for spiritual burial is acclimatization to comforts: we insure them, defend them, and are unwilling to step out of the haven of the known. The traditional remedy is that every now and then, you undertake a pilgrimage (which is how I came to be in Bihar in the first place). It’s a chance to shed some wrappings. And that’s a constant requirement in order to counterbalance domestic life. Because whether it’s caused by phobias or addictions, closure of the heart reduces our confidence, and thereby increases the anxiety that the closure is supposed to protect us from. Thus begins another downward spiral. A friend of mine, embarking on a trip to explore wildlife in Mauritius, found that his companion couldn’t go because there was no alcohol on the ship. Another person couldn’t come to the monastery because she couldn’t handle the idea of sitting on a toilet seat that other people had sat on. The phobia barred her from companionship in Dhamma and an ideal environment in which to work on addictions and phobias. We’re up against a very agile demon.

In the world in general, the same spirals occur. People also close down with the presence (or the idea) of strangers, the immigrants, the radicals, the new wave. Those who are unsettled unsettle us, and one of our reactions to that is to lose empathy and increase security. But in keeping things safe, systems of security generate loss of liberty and opportunity – hence there’s protest, and hence the tear-gas. Most repressive systems use ‘law and order’ to block change, and however responsible government sounds, any response that isn’t at least open to change tends towards repression. Let’s not be pessimistic, but if you’ve reviewed any social or religious revolution, (or just read Euripides’ Bacchae) you’ll get a grim picture of the forces involved and how volcanic that change can become when it eventually happens.

Milder but chronic degrees of spiritual burial get triggered by fear of the uncertain, which triggers the security behaviours which the Buddha summed up as ‘attachment to systems and customs’(silavattaparamāsa). These peak as obsessive-compulsive disorders, but whether it’s a fundamentalist view, a need to have everything planned in advance, or knocking three times on the table before you can eat breakfast, attachment to systems and customs is about being able to establish personal control in a world that is experienced as tipping into chaos. Watch out for the signs: whenever there’s that wobble of feeling that you have to control life, and that there are others that you have to struggle against, and a mass of things you have to sort out – it’s time to pause and take a long outbreath. Pause, come into the body, sense its texture and energies and take a long slow outbreath; then pause some more. Even lengthen that pause; it helps the mental energy to shift and find ground in the body. With the support of a firm centre (most usefully aligned to the spinal axis) opening can begin. Then if you let your awareness feel its way into the felt sense of your body in an open and unpressurized way, the areas of tension can melt and areas that are stale brighten up. You get to feel whole, present, not driven forward and not hanging back. The neural connections for irritation and greed aren’t getting engaged and what remains is empathy and balance. If you stay with that, thoroughly, samādhi arises. This is not a matter of ‘getting concentrated,’ it’s a matter of giving your original openness a valid support by bringing it into your body and fully living it. Then you get perspective: the first ‘other’ that you have to deal with is living under your ribs; the mess that you have to sort out is the feeling of being overwhelmed.

Uncertainty is more chronically embedded as the personality’s relationship to the world. Because personality is a social interface and not a central support, it can only manage what it has been programmed by society to handle. Hence chaotic urges, irrational moods, and psychological imbalances are beyond its scope. So all that gets closed; and it needs a blur of pressures and distractions to hold down the lid. Like the princess with the pea under her mattress, you wonder why you’re not able to rest, but the source of all that activity is the need to be something (bhava) and the need to annihilate or purge oneself of something (vibhava) – although what the ‘something’ is is of a mirage-like nature. Within the shifting shapes of the mirage of need for approval/success/ performance credentials or the need to get away from or eradicate some basic stain (Lady Macbeth lives on!) is the unsettled state of being in a large something that sees and can accept or reject us. Hence the anxiety of what might happen if ʼ(people really knew/ when I get old/if I can’t do.../ if I’m not...enough). So our lives get busy with wrapping our sensed vacuity in agreeable and useful skins. And that blocks openness, with its ease of being.

Someone was talking to me recently about moments – particularly on waking up in the morning – of not knowing who or where he was, and of the panic that sets in. That’s the anxiety that comes with depending on personality. The point to work on, I suggested, is not to hastily establish who or where you are, but to find peace in the unknowing. That is, if you stabilize the response to the unknown by coming into your bodily presence, maybe setting up a small calming movement and sensing the space around you receiving you, then this opening out of the identified world is enjoyable and insightful. Although it’s a raw edge to negotiate, when we can establish an embodied openness, it’s a relief to have the personal world replaced with clear open space. When the movie of who we are turns off, there’s just the open mystery – and that’s wonderful. It’s well worth practising with, because that’s the threshold to cross at death.

So: safety and management versus freshness and immediacy, Apollonian versus Dionysian. The dilemma is classic and embedded in the human psyche as the see-saw between super-ego perspectives of what is useful, proper and acceptable, and the heart’s need for the free, the brave and the immediate. The first swings over into cold-hearted control, the latter into recklessness. Balance is crucial, and it takes the development of all five spiritual faculties.

But that's how you wake up; life is most alive when you can be present at the edge of the unknown. And if there’s one way in which the property of ‘the Deathless’ can be experienced right now, it’s in the ability to living free of the heart-contraction of fear, depression and holding on that comes with the loss of the known. Death, separation, uncertainty – they’re all part of life. The Buddha’s teaching is that we have the original potential to handle, and in fact blossom, in the face of these. We don’t have to feel threatened, anxious, needy or inadequate. With wise openness, the main causes and conditions for human misery cease.

The gates to the good life are open. It’s only because we place so much emphasis on trying to know what can’t be known – such as the future, and how other people are – that we close them. But when all is uncertain, all is possible. In such a light, wise openness is the most obvious faculty to develop, because the unknown is right here within and around us.

* The fuller account of this is in 'Rude Awakenings' available via Wisdom Publications or via

Friday 30 September 2011

Spiritual Friendship: Include It All

Three of the monks went to a funeral recently. This in itself isn’t unusual, although we do limit the amount of funerals we attend – to those of people associated with the monastery – on the grounds that there are only so many that we can cover and still be able to keep the monastery (and the monastics) in reasonable working order. Still, having monks and nuns at funerals meets a need: that at the end of a life, there is a calm recognition of a person’s life and value – and from that, by extension, a chance to review our own lives in that light. So the formality of the occasion, and the presence of those Gone Forth, signals a shift from the normal aims and perspectives of social life. Those in attendance can consider: ‘What are we aiming for? What do we take with us; and what do we leave behind?’ The very fact of gathering becomes one sign of what it means to be human: that this person’s life touched many, he or she was known, respected, cared for by sons, daughters; that colleagues, friends and others drew benefit from their example.

The case of the recent funeral was exceptional however in that there were no sons, daughters, or colleagues – and very few friends. Just the three monks, the two lay associates of the monastery who had facilitated the hospice care in the last days of the deceased, and a funeral official. The deceased, I’ll call him ‘Harry,’ did have sons and a sister who knew of his dying and death, but they'd parted company years ago and obviously wanted it kept that way. It’s easy to understand their response – Harry, himself the subject of abuse as a child, had a potential for rage, a physique to back it up, and a history of violence. A split personality, one side of him was drawn to monasteries because of the acceptance they offered him, and by some genuine insights, aspirations and commitments. He’d spent time in prison, but in the last decade or so, association with Sangha had kept him on a course whereby the rage (which generally blew up at any sign of rejection) only manifested in occasional verbal storms. Still, whatever he’d done to his family had left such scars that even in his dying days, none of them would accommodate him. The monastery was his only fall-back. Although we couldn’t give him a place in the guest rooms – we have a responsibility to guests who seek some peace – the elderly monk who lives near the workshop, being a man of seasoned gentleness and ‘heard it all’ patience, would spend hours with Harry when he blew through. And in Harry's last days, the monk would find him a place to bed down by the fire in the workshop. Then, as Harry’s cancer progressed, some of the lay people around Cittaviveka managed to get him registered by a doctor and housed in a hospice. The message was becoming clear even before his funeral: even more than family and colleagues, spiritual friends are your most fundamental resort.

Friends? It wasn’t as if we particularly liked Harry – he generally created an edgy atmosphere around him, on account of his threatening manner. But the monastery is an open place for those who are genuinely trying to find Dhamma. And he kept coming, attending the meditations, listening to teachings and engaging in discussion groups as much as his relational difficulties and the tolerance of the other participants would allow. One of the monks in particular made a point of engaging with him in conversation; and the workshop monk, being about old enough to be his father, would listen. What they brought, more perhaps than any specific advice, was an accepting presence and the willingness to relate. And if we look again at the idea of friendship, even more than affection, it is that willingness to relate, the non-rejection of the other, which is the bottom line. In Harry’s history and with his character, this was a rare experience.

Perhaps this state of affairs, or something like it, isn’t uncommon. For most people, the empathy just gets switched off in the case of a disagreement or because they've parted company or hurt each other. A small wall is created in awareness, and the 'other' is on the other side of it. Over a lifetime, those walls can develop and place a big restriction on the mind – 'no go areas,' memories that have to be moved away from, tense pauses in the conversation when one of the others' names comes up. And a mind with shadows. But its not just an individual phenomenon, the empathic limitations of a society that rates individual performance and progress more highly than supporting and caring for others cast a shadow over much of daily life in the West. Let alone each society's acts of war, enslavement and abuse of others, there are the everyday signs of the loss of our potential to share and be free from fear. People connect via Facebook and texting, yet the three-dimensional living together, of knowing neighbours, or of even having a neighbourhood, is dwindling. A few years ago I read of a woman whose job it was to attend the funerals of people who died unknown. These were people who had been found dead in their homes by neighbours or police, but who had no connections to friends or relatives. This woman, working in London, attended a thousand funerals each year.

We might ask whether attending funerals is going to do such departed ones any good. However they're part of a value that we abandon at our peril: a society surely needs to acknowledge the empathic sense in order for there to be a society at all. Moreover, this sense is not a matter of affection, but of knowing how human beings are and what is the only sane way in which we can operate. Without empathy, we're left with shadows.

Of course the Buddha has his sights on this topic, and in several instances describes friendship in point-by-point detail. Here’s an example:

A good friend –
gives what’s hard to give;
does what’s hard to do;
endures what’s hard to endure;
shares their confidential matters with you;
keeps your confidential matters confidential;
stands by you in the hard times;
and doesn’t give up on you when you’re down and out.

Monastic life is based on spiritual friendship. This may not be immediately apparent, as monastics seem notably cool in terms of relationship. Community membership is more obviously based on each individual’s ability to keep precepts and standards, to be part of an ethos of offering service and to have the self-reliance to manage dwelling in solitude. It doesn't sound that chummy. The lack of socialising and group entertainment is a challenge, especially when combined with the pressure of sense-restraint. People are coming and going all the time, and individuals haven’t chosen to be in the community on account of complimentary personalities. In fact, interpersonal dissonance isn’t unusual and there can be numbness or unspoken pain in the relational field. And yet, there can also be a learning and an emotional readjustment in all that. The pragmatic leverage for that shift is that, unless you disrobe, these others are bound to be part of your life “‘til death us do part.” It's hard to build walls. So, as we haven’t come to be with specific individuals, nor have many socialising events, nor have the possibility of excluding people we don’t get on with, something has to change in terms of how we relate.

The readjustment is essentially an emotional and perceptual broadening. The relational field has to widen to include a range of felt senses, from ‘I associate with you because I like or respect you,’ to ‘because I can learn from you,’ to ‘because I want to offer support,’ to ‘because I respect what you’re doing despite not always being on the same wavelength,’ right down to ‘because being with you pushes the buttons in me that I need to be aware of and work with.’ Spiritual friendship has to go deep and accommodate many flavours. If we can do this, it definitely strengthens and matures the heart. In fact one notices over time that ‘because I like you’ doesn’t have the same deepening staying power as ‘because there’s benefit in terms of Dhamma.’ The meaningful questions are: ‘Does this relationship bring support, or provide an opportunity to be generous with compassion?’ ‘Does it at least cause me to become resiliently patient?’ Spiritual friendship can only occur if it is conducive to our mutual development.

Without a mutual benefit, there’s no relationship. If we’re just doing good as a duty, then the heart isn’t available and so it can't grow. If we can’t meet somehow from a place of authenticity, even if it’s in coming to terms with our dislike or mistrust, then the association has no Dhamma in it. But when there is dissonance, if there can be a mutual acknowledgement of that, friendship grows – amazingly enough. This is the opportunity in human life. It isn’t always taken – the skill of listening to and handling emotions and perceptions takes careful inner and external development – that’s why we need the company of the wise and our own wise attention. To learn from these sources is indeed ‘the whole of the holy life.’

But we're not always in the company of the wise. Then there's the grist that has to be milled with wise attention. It begins with reflecting that other people and how they affect us keep us in touch with where we're stuck or at peace. Many samanas find themselves irritated by their colleagues; and on the other hand there are occasions of falling in love. That's how it goes: you can't just learn by theory. You get wise through being touched by it all – salty, sweet and sour – and allowing that redefines what is meant by ‘learning.’ It's a non-verbal process in which you reveal and move through all kinds of emotional territory. Rather to my surprise, it has showed me that fondness has its drawbacks; it agitates and disappoints. Getting fond of people may be part of the story, but only inasmuch as it supports getting free of pettiness, self-obsession, fear and ill-will. Then there's an increasing capacity to witness and relate to whatever arises in my own mind and heart, and that's the heart-intelligence that bears fruit in release. So often the learning point is just where that intelligence can meet the mundane human ‘other.’ Without that ‘other’ who, like it or not, touches the heart, I doubt whether any of us can be sure that we have finished our work.

Wednesday 3 August 2011

Spiritual Friendship: Part One

(I’ve titled this ‘Part One’, because I can’t believe that one posting is going to adequately sustain the focus on this topic)

Here’s a shot from the most recent bhikkhu ordinations at Cittaviveka. It depicts the closing piece in the procedure, when, with the new candidates being accepted into the bhikkhu Sangha, that community gathers closely around them to chant blessings. (The same thing happens at the siladhara ordinations). The entire ceremony is a very tight-knit thing – it requires all the bhikkhus to sit within a forearm’s distance from each other, to ensure that everyone is right there and fully present with the procedure. It is very much a gathering into the community – in fact although people call the ceremony ‘ordination,’ the literal meaning of the term upasampadā is ‘the process of gathering into’ or ‘acceptance’ for short. ‘Ordination’ is a term for entering the Christian priesthood, meaning ‘being empowered with religious authority’; upasampadā on the other hand isn’t about empowerment from a divine source, but the illumination of three key frames of reference that support spiritual growth. These are: aspiration, respect and acceptance. There is obviously the uplift of being fully accepted into a communal way of life that has persisted in some form or another for more than two millennia, but upasampadā includes these two other themes, which are reiterated throughout the ceremony in bodily and verbal ways. The personal aspiration, the ‘Going Forth’ is a personal avowal to step out of carelessness and ignorance in order to ‘cross over all suffering and to realize Nibbāna.’ It’s personal, because we ourselves can only know and supervise our minds. Respect for the Buddha’s use of community as a vehicle for liberation is essential to hold the mind under a guidance that you personally honour. Someone might like to count the number of prostrations, and paying of respects in the ceremony – I haven’t, but the point is clear: you really have to want to do this in this teaching and discipline. It’s not going to be imposed on you. So in the course of the ceremony, not just the ordinands but everyone gets a living reminder of a heart-direction for spiritual growth. This is perhaps why lay people always outnumber the Sangha on such occasions; I’d suggest it’s because the meanings of aspiration, reference to the Sangha vehicle and acceptance go beyond monastic relevance.

Acceptance is a big thing. When any of us dig down through all the layers of trying to get it right and wondering what others think about us, it’s likely that we’ll stick at a level of the murky but familiar self-judgement: ‘Not good enough.’ Have you ever wondered what it would take to be ‘good enough?’ Would it arise through having more of this quality, or less of that? Or is it a matter of trying harder? However, the likelihood is that all that doubt and struggle is going to hamper one’s performance or cramp one’s heart – so that the end result is more ‘not good enough.’ So it’s just downright pragmatic to begin with self-acceptance: ‘At this time, this sense of being me feels like this.’ There’s clarity and calm in that. Right now we can’t be any other way, but we’ll certainly operate at an optimum and run a lot smoother if clarity and calm replace that nagging ‘not good enough.’ Then with the arising of confidence and goodwill, we bring forth our best in a natural way. We can then isolate any specific blemish and bring clear attention to that before it mushrooms into an overall ‘I am…’ Self-acceptance is a powerful thing; without it, aspiration, the motivating wish (chanda) to bring forth one’s best, turns into the driven need to prove oneself (bhava-tanha) and doesn’t address the points that need looking at.

It’s also the case that, as much as we can attempt to accept ourselves, what is truly transformative is being accepted by others. Because to have that happen, we have to trust that we could be more open, more fully seen – and not get dismissed. Also for such a mirroring, we need to have a mirror in the form of a person or a group that is fundamentally benevolent and that we can respect. If we don’t respect others, their standards and opinions don’t count. So acceptance by others isn’t a matter of going along with the most popular trend in town, it’s about being willing to refer in an open way to that in ourselves and others that we respect.

Well that’s what the ‘acceptance’ into a community is about. And it starts with recognizing that whatever the aspiration, acceptance comes before complete purity – that those newly-accepted into the community aren’t fully enlightened. Using Sangha as a mirror above any individual teacher, means that the mirror is the example of many wise practitioners; and that keeps things clear in the likely case that most, if not all, of one’s immediate companions aren’t fully enlightened either. There’s a meeting and a mirroring in terms of shared aspiration, know-how and acknowledgement of the pitfalls. Acceptance and aspiration precede purity. This is why any genuine spiritual community is the lopsided thing that it is. In Sangha life, there are the misunderstandings, dissonances and failings as well as the purity, the virtues and the blessings. There are those who have let go of a lot, those who are still carrying confusion, and those who are looking for somewhere safe enough to begin the healing. Like the monk whose mother tried to kill him when he was two, and who beat him relentlessly up until the age of eleven…or the anorexic nun, for whom the greatest challenge, and the point of healing, was being offered alms-food every day by benevolent people. Obviously, these good people had difficulties in being with others, as well as being with themselves. But living in a community based on acceptance provided a crucial a turning point.

Sometimes the process is very slow, and it doesn’t always work. It’s also the case that the resources that a community has to handle and guide others is dependent on the degree of health in its relational field. If we’re all carrying unaddressed problems and not addressing them, then there’s not much scope to take on more. And in this respect, the archetype of the ideal samana practising in solitude on his or her own is a hindrance. Being left on one’s own may be the holy grail of any mystic, but it isn’t the model that the Buddha laid down. There’s the fortnightly confession of transgressions, the ongoing invitation (pavāranā) that samanas make to each other to receive feedback on their behaviour, and the system of tutelage by attending on an Elder. The suttas illustrate this clearly. One time when an attendant monk decided against the Buddha’s advice to go off on his own, he found his mind overwhelmed with ‘evil, unprofitable thoughts.’ When he returned to the Buddha suitably chastened, his mind was in a humble enough state to receive some sound advice. And it began with:

When the deliverance of heart has not yet ripened, Meghiya, the first thing that leads to its ripening is to have good friends, good associates, good companions. A.9.8

So there has to be a balance between solitary and group scenarios. That’s what Sangha – ‘assembly’ – means. On our own, relational difficulties don’t arise, and old habits can be nurtured, and blind-spots ignored. In the training style that Ajahn Chah used, there’s an emphasis on operating according to group routines and with continual reference to one’s peers and Elders. Moreover, it’s important to keep the standards of the enlightened ones in mind to counteract the all-too human tendency of bickering and fault finding, or of letting the full acceptance decline into ‘putting up with’ and leaving the rough patches alone. The bhikkhu sangha as a global institution has an amount of dead wood and failings that come with large corporations, so the Sangha that one refers to is the Sangha of the enlightened ones, and on a direct face to face level, the sangha of ones peers and Elders. Then the fine balance of correction with kindness can be sustained. This blend takes the sting out of what is the case – that one’s behaviour is indeed sub-standard , from time to time. We need wise beings to deflect the depression of ‘not good enough’ into the aspiration ‘carelessness tripped me up there, I’ll use the training to work on that one.’

A contemporary western Ajahn told me of one of his great ‘cover-blown’ moments when he was an anagārika (trainee) with Ajahn Chah in Thailand. As a trainee, his duty was to prepare the Ajahn’s bowl for the daily dawn alms-round. But he’d overslept, missed the 3:30 am morning chanting, and dozed through the period in which one is supposed to be sweeping up and getting the monastery ready for the day. Suddenly he woke up, glanced at his clock and panicked. It was ten minutes before the monks were due to leave on alms-round! Throwing his wrap-around clothes on, and with a head thick with sleep, he hurtled over to the meeting hall with the Ajahn’s bowl, to where Ajahn Chah was waiting. My friend bustled around preparing the bowl making out like it was a normal day, and then…Ajahn Chah looked at him with a clear and calm gaze and remarked: ‘Sleep is delicious, isn’t it?’

No judgement, no putting the anagārika in the sin-bin, no talking down. Just that ‘Sleep is delicious, isn’t it?’ It’s like asking you: ‘What do you think?’ That mode of questioning (one of the most frequent teaching approaches of the Buddha) respects our own innate wisdom to come up with the answer. So, yes: delicious at the beginning, and maybe in the middle, but then it segues into carelessness, grogginess, loss of responsibility and the desperate attempt of the self to cover up its lack of authority. And when one reflects further, that profile covers quite a few ‘delicious’ things – most sense appetites take us down that track. (Check it out.) And yet there can be the seeing through this, a gaze that is clear, calm and void of judgement. In this case, Ajahn Chah by seeing through the furtiveness of the anagarika, gave both acceptance and correction. To me, that’s uplifting.

What the Sangha vehicle can bring to the fore is just this spiritual friendship. Spiritual friendship, or assoc iation with someone you respect is one of the two factors that the Buddha felt as primary for spiritual development (the other is one’s own wise attention) (Itivuttaka 16, 17; M 43.13). In fact he famously declared it to be ‘the whole of the Holy Life.’ To tease that out a little, let’s go back to the Pali for spiritual friendship – kalyānamitta. ‘Mitta’ is the friendly bit. ‘Kalyāna’ is a term that is used in one of the recollections of the Dhamma as being ‘kalyāna in the outset, kalyāna in the middle and kalyāna at the end’ – here it’s generally translated as ‘good’ or ‘beautiful.’ So we’re talking about a quality of goodness that gladdens the heart; I offer ‘uplifting’ to the pile of renderings. In the sutta on kalyānamitta (S.45.2 ) the Buddha goes on to say that through this one will make much of the Eightfold Path, dependent on non-involvement, dependent on dispassion, dependent on cessation and maturing in complete relinquishment.

Now this latter sequence may sound like a trajectory that heads towards divorce rather than deep bonding. However the point is that for liberation, the most useful relationship is one that remains steadily clear and benevolent while lessening one’s attachment to an identity that one has to defend – as being the wonderful, the strong, the obedient etc etc etc. So the kalyānamitta is not a relationship that affirms any self-view, but rather allows one to see, as they do, all the behaviours, good and bad, as dependent on causes and conditions, as not-self. There’s something very freeing about having one’s blind spots come to light, and being received with a calm openness, and maybe a friendly query: ‘Can you see how you got caught in that? Can you let it go?’ Other than offering correction, the attitude of care and respect helps us to address how we make lasting identities – our own and others – out of interpretations of behaviour. An action then becomes a solid person – ‘that’s who I am,’ ‘she’s like that.’ When one thinks of it, it seems so unrealistic, especially when people start forming views of others on the other side of the planet – and yet, that’s how it goes. It’s the process of perception that no rules or standards can eliminate – except that of spiritual friendship.

If kalyānamitta is the whole of the holy life, it has to include living within the principles of Dhamma-Vinaya. But in such uplifting friendship, there are no lists of skilful categories, and no mention of planes of absorption; there are also no rules and protocols, other than the encouragement to maintain such association as furthers one in letting go of the habits, dependencies, in fact of that very ‘not good enough’ judgement that dogs the sense of self. Kalyānamitta provides the overview that checks disputes over Dhamma and Vinaya. Not only did the Buddha know that disputes were inevitable in community life, but he also taught what to do when this happens. Sāmagāma sutta (M104) illustrates this in a dialogue between the Buddha and his loyal attendant, Ānanda.

A dispute about livelihood or about the Pātimokkha [training rules] would be trifling, Ānanda. But should a dispute arise in the Sangha about the path or the way, such a dispute would be for the harm and unhappiness of many… As with the four noble truths, the presentation of the problem is then followed by the analysis of the cause:
…a bhikkhu is angry and revengeful. Such a bhikkhu dwells disrespectful and undeferential towards the Teacher, towards the Dhamma, and towards the Sangha, and…does not fulfil the training…’
And then comes the cure: specifically this entails meeting together to respectfully discuss the source of the dispute, and so arrive at a group consensus. But the sutta makes clear that this has to be backed up by the ongoing practice of acts, speech and thoughts of goodwill, of sharing one’s companions any material gains, of living virtuously and of maintaining focus on right liberation. This is exactly the path and way of kalyānamitta. It’s not that the training rules are trivial, but that disputes about them, or about any community business, can be easily settled if one lives in that fashion. And it illustrates the fact that for deep learning, for the learning of the heart, it’s from fellow humans that we get the whole picture. No mere picture either, but an involvement in a living drama in which the stage is unfolding around you every day and the only script is your mind. When you commit to spiritual friendship, you can’t just dress up as a Buddhist and learn some new part to play; instead there’s a careful unwrapping that one finally allows and feels blessed by. Because in that nakedness of spirit is the joy and the freedom of the Buddha.

Wednesday 8 June 2011

Out on a limb

Here are some shots taken during the project of building a new sala (meeting hall) at Wat Pah Nanachat, N.E. Thailand. The old sala, built when Luang Por Sumedho was abbot in 1976, had to be torn down and replaced, and this was just the kind of job in which the expertise of Laung Por Liem and the monks from nearby Wat Pah Pong would be of immeasurable value. To put it another way: without them it wouldn’t have happened. Luang Por Liem has been masterminding building projects – including the chedi and huge sala at Wat Pah Pong – for over 20 years. Even at the age of 70, he was on site every day throughout the construction work, in his work robes, climbing the scaffolding, pouring cement: very much hands-on.

Luang Por Liem works without any drawn plans, and without input from professional engineers. It’s all in his head and hands. In a Thai Forest monastery, there’s no need for planning permission or building codes: this is Sangha property, and if the building falls down, that’s just the law of Nature. Also as you’ll see, the safety equipment – hard hats, protective footwear and overalls are all absent. It fits the theme of monastic training: stay alert! In the monastery, one learns the skills of mindfulness, of patience, personal initiative and persistence from the ground up, and work is very much part of the practice. Making robes, looking after senior monks, building and maintenance work, finding one’s way through a forest without a map, knowing what plants to use to combat what diseases – these are all considered ways of generating what we would call ‘spiritual’ skills. You learn from observing your elders and from trial and error. This approach, rather than any text-book technique, leads on to the development of the inner work of meditation.

The building work is on a voluntary basis; it’s a matter of personal interest and initiative that draws in people from who want to tap into the joyous camaraderie and make a contribution. The hours are irregular – some days the work, beginning after the meal in mid-morning, will continue on well into the night – so the organizing principle is one of willingness to bring forth one’s effort and follow the monk who’s heading the project. In Forest monasteries this is the principle that underlies just about everything. There’s no equipment but your own resolve, initiative and persistence to combat the hindrances of the mind, so spend every waking hour developing them. If you’re stuck in sleepiness when you meditate, sit on the edge of a well or a cliff; if lust is your problem, go visit a decomposing corpse. In the old days, the forest monks would seek the haunts of tigers, or ghost-ridden cemeteries as places to develop their minds. It’s a style that encourages the practitioner to move out of the safe and the known; Dhamma is best realized when one is out on a limb.

The main problem that some of us see is that with the forests gone, and with a management body evolving to oversee the 300 affiliated monasteries of the Wat Pah Pong community, finding a limb to go out on may become a rare opportunity.

Or perhaps it’s found in a different place. I’ve just returned from a teaching tour of New England and New York. Here, retreat centres are very well and thoroughly organized by resident staff or experienced volunteers. There is little room for trial and error. As practitioners will need to be up to the standard required to meet health and safety standards and in-house protocols from day one, there’s no novitiate during which one will be coached by, or learn from, elders. Gently informative signs abound informing one of everything from adjusting room temperature, the degree to which windows may be opened, how to identify deer tick (and what to do if grabbed by one) to how to grate carrots. The organizational principles of the society – impersonally transmitted and presented in abstract – feed into the retreat, and for good enough reasons: a hundred people who are used to being informed of rules and regulations need guidance. Apart from the possibility of subsequent litigation if a retreatant gets harmed, the collective of individuals needs to work as a unit, even though they are strangers both to each other and to the set-up. Also this collective has to work in silence.

The benefits of such situations are profound. People get to put aside their daily duties and habits, meet and come to terms with their minds (with resident demons) and experience a sense of belonging to a safe and non-competitive collective. This is, in many cases, life-changing. Compared with a Forest monastery, a Western retreat centre can look tame; but being void of conversation, foot massages and communal work, it presents challenges that monasteries don’t. Retreat centres can be situated in beautiful surroundings, but the retreat is sealed off from the outdoors and those nasty bugs and changeable weather in a way that just can’t happen in a Forest monastery. The result is isolation from humans and nature. Which may sound ideal in theory – but considering the narrow psychological edge that the practice is played out on, and that the support is mostly the rickety scaffolding of intentions and moods that swing to and fro, such isolation makes it easy to get dragged into deep water by an emotionally charged rip-tide. It’s quite a limb to go out on. Balance through social and environmental contact isn’t available – for most of the time.

Interestingly enough, one of the most appreciated aspects of the monastic retreats is just the daily opportunity to offer food into the bowls; it brings simple and warm (if silent) human contact into the situation. And for myself, I always appreciate the way in which, just through being together in shared endeavour, a sense of empathy and group presence grows over the time of the retreat.

So I have no doubts about the validity of these intensive retreats as long as they offer people a handful of resources to take with them as they navigate their edges. However in this respect, I do see drawbacks in external organization. It can make the individual forget the importance of developing resources through initiative, resilience and trial and error, and instead encourage the search for a meditation system that will do the practice and get the results. Looking for the right system (and the right place to practise it in) can become a lifestyle of restlessness and doubt; whereas just following a system will lead to attachment and conceited views. The truth of the matter is that no system will get you to samādhi, let alone nibbāna, without personal initiative, alertness and persistence. Moroever it’s in accessing these and applying them that the essential and innate faculties of confidence, mindfulness and discernment get brought to the fore. Rather than whether one watches the breathing at the nose-tip or cultivates choiceless awareness, the important point to bear in mind is :

the faculty of confidence...persistence... mindfulness... concentration... discernment, when developed and cultivated, gains a footing in the Deathless, has the Deathless as its goal and consummation. [S. 48.44]

Any system that encourages these will have a fruition.

Another sore point about organization of any kind is that it brings with it The Organisation. Like many Westerners I have an innate post-Orwellian mistrust of anything that smacks of it. The law is that the bigger the number of people, the more remote each individual is from the centre of the organization: hence the more abstracted the decisions and systems become, and the less the sense of personal initiative. Most nations now attempt to form a social unit from a pool of millions of people; if there isn’t a strong degree of local authority, ideally connecting household to town to district to county and so on up to the national level, the system lacks local relevance, becomes unresponsive to local needs, and rigidifies. But even in the best secular society, values, or at least ones that connect the individual to the collective in a healthy way, aren’t necessarily part of the equation. Individual initiative then boils down to how to get what one can out of, or to buck the system. Moreover, even within the system, the self-interest of the elite gets to take over: for every Mandela, there are several Berlusconis, with the occasional Mao and Stalin to emphasize the point. Organized religion has just as bad a profile: in the West the death of direct mystical experience, and indeed the slaughter of hundreds of thousands, is due to the authoritarian attitudes of the established Church (the great Christian mystics survived their realizations by keeping a low profile or otherwise being quiet about them).

So Sangha as a governing body carries an ambivalence: for the Thais, the Sangha may be likened to a good family, with its strong bonds of loyalty and collective identity; whereas a Western default is that the monastic ‘government’ is made up of remote powers-that-be. This can raise uncertainties within the Wat Pah Pong group, whose parish is of 300 monasteries throughout the world. How can the differences between East and West be comfortably bridged in way that doesn’t drag either continent out of true? Already there is a good degree of local autonomy – different routines, clothing and subtle shifts in the relational protocols. What about the position of nuns, or the value of therapy, or harmonizing with other Dhamma traditions? Should there be more flexibility and local adaptation; or is that an inevitable process anyway, and one that needs to be balanced by staying true to the shared values and practices? Because although initiative may get swallowed by group conformity, the opposite extreme – of free-form individuality – isn’t going to support a harmonious group either. Maybe finding a way between these positions is the edge that we have to navigate.

Therefore, over the last decade particularly, national and international monastic get-togethers have become part of what us elders have to do. It’s about more than making decisions, it’s primarily to touch base together, to know each other directly as aspiring contemplatives. What do we as individuals really care about anyway? Where do we move together and settle in harmony? How can we live the Dhamma-Vinaya at this time?

In this respect, it’s recently been enormously helpful to have visits from a few of the senior Thai Ajahns (Luang Por Liem, Luang Por Anek, and Luang Por So-pha). ‘Earthy,’ ‘accessible,’ and ‘profound’ are the adjectives that most readily come to mind with these elder bhikkhus. But what also gives me confidence and trust was their unpredictability and quirkiness; gravity, restraint and a puckish sense of humour seemed to co-exist in a natural balance. The Dhamma they taught had great lived-out validity, but it was folk music, rich because it was improvised, rather than being a classical piece played from the sheet. It was also salutary to note how us logistical organizers often feel overworked and tired, the boundless, steady energy of these elders pointed to inner organization based on staying in touch with spiritual faculties.

Monasteries work best, in my estimation, when they operate organically. This may look irregular, because the routines change, people come and go, and ‘nothing-happening, no routine’ days are built in to allow for individual choice: go for a walk, do some drawing, have a snooze, contemplate Nature…Stepping out of straight lines keeps us in touch with holistic intelligence, one that is in balance with nature – human and otherwise. But this isn’t purely a monastic option: how about making a to-do-list of items such as: switch off the mobile phone, study this moment, learn how to tie knots, make friends with the fox or groundhog that invades the garden?

A timely reminder was on the last retreat I taught in USA was for a dozen people. As the group was small, I allowed a looser structure and let people find their own time boundaries to a greater degree. I sat the full scope of the sessions, but even so, the retreat was a refresher for me because there wasn’t so much to hold. It was held on a farm on which a lot of the food was home-grown, and the children home-educated. Part of the education was about each individual taking responsibility, and accordingly the retreat was ‘managed’ by the owner’s 14-year-old daughter, while her 11-year old sister sat the five-day session. The youngster experienced deep stillness in her sitting meditation, and it was wonderful to see that when she did walking meditation, one of the chickens would hop onto her wrist for a mindful ride. There's a rightness about the natural approach; it encourages connection to place and ease of response. As a balance to the large group retreats (which had laid down the template of the practice for the older retreatants) it felt very useful. And it reminded me of the need to keep that natural feel for Dhamma; do some aimless wandering, put habits on hold, look out for the marvellous and keep on my toes.

To come out of the systems that bind us to the abstracts of time and duty, we need to go out on a such a limb. But better make sure it’s connected to a living tree.

Sunday 27 March 2011

Fields of Merit

One of the themes in Buddhist practice that I get questioned on by Westerners is that of ‘making merit.' What they see is people coming to the monastery with bags of food and other requisites, making a formal offering to the Sangha (sometimes with Pali chanting) who then responds with some chanting in Pali. Some of these people will ask that the merit (puñña) of their act of generosity (dāna) be shared with their departed relatives, some say it’s for their birthday or just for no special reason. For people who understand Buddha-Dhamma to be mostly about sitting still and quietly in meditation, this merit-making is a mysterious and even superstitious practice. Merit-makers, although generally happy and friendly, aren’t necessarily that quiet or introspective. So what is this about?

Well, in brief, kamma is what it’s about. The experience of good kamma is that when you act on an ethically wholesome intention it makes you feel bright. And the opposite is also true. Furthermore, if you consistently act on a good intention, you establish a pattern in terms of mental behaviour, you set your moral compass. That guides your values and actions; and the consequences of that are you tend to associate with people of good intent, people you can rely upon, and who can help you when you’re down. It’s a simple logic: as we’re bound to create kamma for good or bad that will shape our lives, better do the good and arrive at a better state. In this case, the good can be defined by a series of questions that the Buddha-to-be asked himself as he was practising for liberation: ‘Is this action, or mind-state for my welfare, the welfare of others and does it lead to Nibbāna?’[M19] (That is towards the elimination of greed, hatred and delusion.) If the answer’s ‘Yes’ for all these, then this has to be the good. Acting in these terms is the path of merit.

Merit begins (and sometimes ends) with generosity – but there are further developments. The good feeling of substituting self-interest in terms of possessions for self-interest in terms of bright mind-states is the learning curve; it progresses from generosity on to ethical and compassionate intentions – so people often use a visit to a monastery as an occasion to take moral precepts. From there the development goes on to renunciation (people will on occasion enter monastic life for a period to make merit); and finally on to the insightful examination of the four noble truths. ‘Does this mind-state support craving, regret and suffering, or lessen it?’ To know that is the highest kind of merit, that of stream-entry (which is the initial realization of Nibbāna).

There are external results too. One of the results of making merit is the support of Buddhist monasteries. Monasteries and hence the Sangha, and the Dhamma, would not have survived through these millennia if people didn’t have a sense of setting their own minds upright through acts of generosity. However in there, with the addition of delusion, lies the problematic aspect of merit-making. It can feed the supposition that you can ‘buy a place in Heaven’ with a hefty donation – and that message can be encouraged by the monastery for obvious reasons. However from the point of view of kamma, if you act with a manipulative mind, the result is that you foster the devious aspect of the mind and your future will be among manipulative people. Also it’s the case that generosity is not as meritorious as morality, which is not as beneficial as insight. And it’s only through insight, through letting go of self-view, that you can clear the traces of bad kamma: you can’t buy your way out of Hell. (Which has a corner reserved for manipulative monastics.)

In Buddhist theory, kamma is one of the five ‘niyāma,’ organizing principles that govern the manifest cosmos of inanimate and animate systems. Apart from kamma-niyāma, there are: utu-niyāma would includes the laws of gravity and thermodynamics; bhija-niyāma deals with growth and heredity in living systems; citta-niyāma is the principle whereby the mind forms and organizes thoughts and memories to represent the ‘external’ world; and dhamma-niyāma is the principle of change and dependent arising that determines all manifestation. What they organize is a coherent pattern of behaviour that we call a 'field.' That is, everything within that field operates in accordance with the niyāma that governs it, wherever and whenever – it extends in space and time. You don’t find one star doing something that others don’t; they can’t ignore gravity and other laws of matter. Fields are found throughout the world of nature: we can observe stars in galaxies held by gravitational energy; and we know that the earth has a magnetic field that migrating birds tune into to guide their long flights of passage. Those birds will fly in flocks as a field, functioning as a single unit without the need for communication between its members. So fields are holistic: in a field every individual part is affected by what the others are doing by being in touch with the field to which they both belong. Similarly our bodies arise in their electro-magnetic field in which every part is connected. If you take two heart cells place them apart and stimulate one, the electro-magnetic field of the other will register the change; the two will entrain.

The intelligence of a fields in living organisms is organized around the bhija (‘seed’) principle: ‘Grow and multiply!’ That’s its fixed law. So whether it’s a cabbage or a squirrel, that’s what its life-force inclines to do above all else. And being intelligent, it ‘learns’ – it develops the best way of doing that in response to its environment. With mammals there comes the principle of looking after their young, while some will operate as part of a pack or herd, and some learn to use tools. In us humans, this field has fine-tuned its messages to instances like ‘make some friends,’ ‘get power,’ or ‘wear fashionable clothes.’ The learning field of humans, the mind, has the nature to receive input and organize it into stored meanings; it has attention as its organizing principle. It also responds, which makes it an agent in the field of kamma. So the mind is covered by two principles: citta and kamma. It surveys; it forms mental objects – that’s the mental law of ‘attention’ – and it can choose and determine – that's the kammic law of ‘intention.’ However, problems can occur around attention, in that the mind can only hold a very small fraction of data in attention at any given time, and that it is also inattentive or highly selective as to what it notices. The other problem is that desire and aversion add biases to intention. Therefore the untrained mind comes up with the wrong message as to how to get greater well-being.

For example, when a thief sees a sage, he notices the sage’s pockets and doesn’t pick up on their wisdom or compassion. And in this case, it’s clear that intention and attention determine the mental 'snapshot,' or contact impression that we make. And on that we act, with skilful or ‘meritorious’ intentions or the reverse. That’s kamma. Intention and attention determine contact; and that contact (the sight of pockets) triggers intention. In this way, the field of kamma intensifies: as your mind acts, so a mind-set or attitudinal bias is generated that perceives reality in a particular way. If you incline towards stealing, pretty soon all you see are pockets, bags, locks and half-open windows. As in the above example of erroneous merit-making, intention and attention shape your mental field and create your future. That’s the fixed law of kamma.

For someone cultivating the mind, the point is that whatever you let your attention get taken by will shape your mind-field and reality accordingly: ‘whatever a bhikkhu frequently thinks and ponders, that will become the inclination of his mind’ [M19] If you’re a worrier, you’ll see a world of things to worry about, and that pattern will intensify. If you’re a depressive, those signs and energies will dominate. Now if you incline towards meditation, it’s often because you want to find a still centre within – but if you don’t develop beyond that inclination, it becomes difficult to be with external processes. Of course an initial and important aspect of meditation is centring; however, if one sustains the (justifiable) view: ‘It’s bad out there, don’t touch it’ – your mind gets shaped by that view. But then where are you going to live, and who’s going to help you when you’re down? Another tendency of meditators is to try to order the environment to make it a tidy field that supports the inner centre. This too makes sense – but it has an effect, which is to centre the mind around ‘me in control mode.’ Furthermore, both of these attitudes are based on the assumption that what’s around our centre is a world of otherness. Actually, if you observe what you notice and what your mind sticks on, in comparison to what other people notice and stick on, you see that beneath the outer appearances you’re in the field of your mental kamma, of the results of how your intention and attention have formed the reality that then bothers or blesses you.

The principle is: don’t let your intentions get captured by what pops up in attention, internally or externally. Instead, establish an intention to counteract negative forces such as bitterness, aversion, fear, doubt and craving. Without this approach, we just obsess with what’s in our minds – and doing that will increase the power of the obsession in the mind’s field. If you can’t disengage from obsessive thoughts in meditation, the practice is counter-productive, even harmful. But, whether meditating or not, if you can shift out of the reflex patterns of the mind, you’re going to establish a field of benefit, for yourself and others.

Once you get this point, you try to sustain that field in daily life. And it’s not through trying to make the world fit your mind. The way it works is like this: one of our local Thai supporters has a food shop which reputedly sells the best noodles on the South coast. One day, and not for the first time, some folk smashed the window of his shop with thieving intent. Our supporter was mightily peeved. However he went with colleagues on a shopping expedition to a local Cash and Carry to buy a stock of produce. Here the checkout girl, probably more through incompetence than design, overcharged them to the tune of £60, thus triggering much debate and an earnest review around the checkout. However, this was concluded by our supporter saying ‘Never mind, I’ll cover the costs!’ Later, as when friends asked him why he undertook to shell out £60 rather than go through all the bills and find out who owed what and where the mistake was, he explained that he was feeling so fed up because of being ripped off that he needed to make some merit to set his heart straight. His friends, being Thai, immediately understood. Let down by the forces of the world, he’d felt the best thing to do was to regain his own centre by means of an act of relinquishment and largesse.

To take another example. When I visited Sri Lanka in 2008, I was taken to a monastery in Rambodogalle, in the district of Kurunegala. Behind the buildings, work was in progress on carving a Buddha-image in the cliff-face. Incomplete at the time, it stood at over 67 feet tall. The senior monk, Ven Egodamulla Amaramoli, explained that the project began in 2003, shortly after the Taliban demolished the giant Buddha-statues at Bamiyan in Afghanistan. The local village children, saddened by the news, came to see him with the wish to create a new Buddha as a replacement. He thought it was out of the question, but they’d gathered a handful of rupees and wanted to donate them to such a project. And so it began. Hearing of the children’s faith and largesse, other people got inspired; donations came in. An Indian architect also got interested and he offered his services. This brought people from the Tamil community into the project...and so on. When there is a common sense of value, there is a field, and in that any small act of goodness snowballs into an avalanche. It’s the same principle that gives rise to the yearly Kathina and other alms-giving occasions: hundreds of people come together, share, meet, feel good, listen to Dhamma and get to sense their ordinary up and down lives within a supportive context.

Of course these events can seem tumultuous and disturbing, but the way the Buddha taught meditation was to release the mind from its tendency to get thrown by circumstances – not to ignore or annihilate the field that forms around us. (How can we?) His encouragement was to keep inclining the mind towards more skilful intentions, until eventually the clinging that generates a sense of self is eased out of occupying the organizing centre. That is, as we find our axis, say through the steady and calming energy of breathing in and out, we gradually widen the awareness to include the whole body, and sense the breath energy through that entire field. This ‘bodily formation’ then holds itself, and the sense of holding it, of me being the centre, can relax. There still is a sense of centre, but it’s the quality of composure, of single aim and intent called ‘one-pointedness’ (ekaggatā). Through contemplating and clearing that of tension, defence, ambition, conceit and all the rest, this centre lets go of location and self-centred purpose. It holds a pure field, a field of benefit. By staying connected to that pure and strong intention, the sense of unruffled ease covers whatever it contacts. And that definitely changes the ‘feel’ of the world around and within you: you’re not getting organized by confusion, reactivity and deluded views, the heart is untroubled and you can respond with wisdom to what comes up.

In this way mind-cultivation then moves beyond the initial centring techniques of meditation to take on a larger significance and application. It entails shifting intention, attention and contact out of the me-mine habitual mind-field; the one that has the magnetic pull in it and organizes itself around a personal centre. To keep working on that shift is Dhamma-practice: the consequence is that instead of connecting to our field of demerit, the one that shapes me and the world I’m stuck in, there’s an opening to the noble field.

Because of this blessing field, people like to be around those beings in whom it has developed. And that’s evident. In Thailand, one of the main duties of the Ajahn is to ‘receive guests.’ People gather round to share time and sense the quality (‘palang’ from the Pali ‘balam’ - ‘strength/ power’) of his field. And the visitor’s part in that is to extend their field of benefit by making offerings. The sharing is a happy and unforced one; the disciple’s mind is open and receptive and simple teachings go deep. Values such as ethics, kindness and restraint are re-affirmed; faith in the Dhamma is strengthened; a current problem gets resolved; stillness and calm are lifted up; and there is the happy sense of being able to offer support to something worthy.

Kamma is a fixed law. And on top of intention, the factors of attention and contact play their part. So if you associate with the wise with good intention, you get good results. This is what the Buddha meant by Sangha (not necessarily monks and nuns, but realized beings); and called it an ‘incomparable field of merit.’ The point is that we have to be in a field: that’s the law; so what field do you belong to? Who’s going to be there for you when times are bad? And what in yourself is going to stay at peace when that happens? In a time when so many social structures - family, career, home, neighbourhood – are getting threadbare, it’s advisable to work on the field of merit.

Saturday 5 February 2011

The Low Point

Winter’s the down time in more ways than one. In the monastery, we get a chance to have an extended retreat, like bulbs gathering energy for the coming year. But it’s also the time of death and long grey vistas. Around the winter solstice the energy is particularly low, hence the custom in Britain of burning a ‘yule log’ during the period, bringing in boughs of holly, (which bear the only bright fruit at this time of year) and holding festivities — anything to get some energy going and fend off the dark spirits.

Nevertheless it’s a down time. This year one of the friends of the monastery committed suicide. A great thinker and first-class university graduate, he’d suffered from depression for twenty-five years; finally, having raised his children to the brink of maturity, he had no reason to keep on living through these troughs of feeling worthless and essentially bad. About 150 people came to his funeral; and if their presence wasn’t statement enough, the anecdotes that flowed forth showed that he was well-liked and creative, with caring brothers, sisters, wife and children.

It was much the same with the long-term resident at Amaravati who took his own life a couple of years ago. Not only was he well-liked, a really helpful all-rounder, but also a juggler and clown who delighted the children at the monastery’s summer Family Camp. A day or two before he died, hearing he wasn’t so well, the children brought round trays of sweets and gifts and left them by his door.

Monks too. Last year, a man who’d spent seven years in training, five as a bhikkhu, took his life a year after disrobing. He’d been a solid and steady member of the community, and a diligent meditator, but then started having anxiety attacks and depressive symptoms. We looked after him as best we could — company throughout the day, and people in the next room at night whom he could call upon, and visits to a psychiatrist who prescribed medication. However after a few months, he decided to disrobe and return to his native country to be admitted to a hospital. But despite drugs, phone calls and visits from monks, and even electric shock treatment, the malady continued. Eventually he couldn’t bear it any more.

To see and be with this man was a blow to the heart. It’s like our friend was somewhere else, on the other side of misted glass. You could see, speak but not really gain access; one time holding his hand and leading him to a psychiatric unit, I could almost feel him slipping away. And yet walking together, and physical contact, seemed one of the best ways to get through. Particularly if he had to do something. Better than massage was doing exercise together. It was as something that vigorous, and entrained to another person, was what was needed to break the shell that the depression erected around him.

So one might conclude that good friends and family aren’t a conclusive help; that living in a community doesn’t work, and that a life of mindfulness has no effect. But I’d qualify all that. What’s more crucial is whether the mind can receive what’s offered: as I’ve said, the depressed state weaves a trance that’s difficult to break. In the case of the layman, attention and emotional support were constantly offered. And in the case of the monk, the only reservations that people made about him concerned his meditation practice. He called it ‘letting go’ into what he felt was samadhi. The results (seen from the outside) were that his body would start to manifest involuntary movements, and he’d come out of meditation slightly groggy. I questioned his mindfulness, but no-one could shake his belief that this was valid practice.

It seems to me that one of the key features of mindfulness is that it’s about bearing something in mind. You don’t exactly do letting go: what occurs through carefully holding and moderating attention around a specific theme is that the stuff that the mind projects is deprived of a foothold. So it lets go of its pre-occupations. To me, appropriate meditation practice is about aligning one’s attention to a specific object (breathing, body, mental image) and out of the store of moods, phobias and desires that the mind holds in its archives. There’s a danger of drifting into states without your steering.

I suppose we all have our store of downers; and my own experience of ‘melancholy’ is probably as close to the serious depression as a sniffle or mild cold is to pneumonia. But, having experienced this since my teens and into monastic life, I perhaps have an inkling of an inside view of the depressed state. What I notice in myself is an isolation, like being in another world — either the world’s a dream ‘out there’ or I feel like a ghost wafting through it. The sense of being ‘out of contact’, of ‘not feeling’ makes it seem like one is on the dark side of the moon — a frozen and dead landscape with no atmosphere. And this is independent of being alone ( which I am by and large very comfortable with). Essentially it is an existence with no heart.

A couple of ways that I dealt successfully with this state ( rather than just enduring its thankfully passing duration) offered a reflection on how the heart in perceiving the world places us in touch with it. One was a hunch that came through as I felt the descent to moonscape beginning: no-one was around, so I hastened to a drawer in the office where I often leave letters, and grabbed one from a dear friend. Holding the paper and reading the familiar spidery handwriting, with phrases that brought his voice into my mind, just checked the mood at its tipping point. Using the letter (ah, how much richer than e-mails!) grounding myself in the body and holding the sense of communication didn’t produce a comfortable mood, but it did mean at least feeling the sense of separation and being able to focus on it. Then it was just a matter of weathering through. And feeling connected to some existence outside the current frame of reference; so I could come out of the trance and back into present embodied experience.

Reading a letter, moving the eyes, interpreting handwritten forms, and ‘hearing’ a voice arise as I did so, a voice that my actions were contributing to, all seemed to have a mediating effect. It was also that the experience was loaded with unique and specific items: hand-written, tactile and conversational, not some typed-out screed (or even sound advice) that could have been written by anyone, to anyone at any time. It touches the heart.

I’m saying this quite literally; heart is not just a metaphor for emotional sensitivity. Some clinical researchers in the field suggest that the physical heart is an important contributor to the affective-response intelligence that we call ‘mind.’ So mind is not exclusively in your brain. (Traditional Buddhist cultures place mind in the heart, and in bygone centuries, no-one knew what the blancmange in the skull was for.) Apparently, the entire nervous system — but principally the intestines, the heart and the brain — contributes to this intelligence called ‘mind.’ For example, there is a constant exchange of nervous information between heart and brain. Heart ( which is about 60-65% nervous tissue) also emits an electro-magnetic field that extends around the body for more than 10 feet; and it produces hormones that affect the mind in terms of stress, ease and arousal. So apparently there’s this constant radar sweeping around us detecting things like changes in pressure, and more important, the electro-magnetic fields that every other living being is putting out. Without that, no matter what you see, there’s no felt sense of something ‘out there.’ Which is one of the salient features of the depressed state.

When the heart’s messages get ‘reported’ to the brain, the brain mostly filters them out ( too much to handle) and processes a small proportion with great dexterity to produce a meaningful and conceivable reality and figure out what to do about it. This is all in abstract of course, and ‘brainy’ people can do wonderful things with concepts: politics, maths, management, philosophy, and every theory under the sun. Heart-receptivity on the other hand deals with specific details of sense- experience. So if you want to develop the 'heart' aspect of mind you observe, listen, smell, or touch something to find out exactly how this is right now. And then ask yourself how it feels: is it pleasant or unpleasant? Do you incline to staying with it, or to moving away? This process, called 'mindfulness and full awareness’ would better be called ‘heartfulness’ if we hadn’t decided that heart was just a matter of irregular emotions with no sensible intelligence at all.

Now you can dismiss all this as mystical twaddle. However, mindfulness is now widely recognized as being of assistance in cases of depression; and it’s salient feature is to take the mind into the specific, into the here and now. It’s in the abstract, the assumed, the possible and ‘what others think’ that the mind hold its phobias, as life messages of abandonment or inadequacy (and on the other hand entitlement and egotism). Those qualities aren’t there in specific direct experience: there’s painful and pleasant moments, but there are no life messages. However our daily world is commonly held in terms of non-specific generalizations, like its ‘another Monday,’ or, ‘a typical man’, or ,‘I dread meeting Janice, she’s always like this,’ or ‘I’m hopeless.’ In fact from the Buddhist perspective, any sense of a lasting entity or state of being is an act of generalization (papañca). It’s a useful convention, but one that allows the mind’s neuroses and corruptions to be projected onto the here and now.

On another occasion as I felt the ‘down and out’ fog coming over me, and, again on a hunch, I used the breath. I knew I had to get into my body, so I just breathed out and stopped the in-breath from happening. I had been given guidance in a system known as ‘Buteyko’ after its Russian originator, which basically works on lengthening the pause between the out- and the in- breath. The reasoning behind it is that this increases the carbon dioxide in the lungs, and this improves the rate at which oxygen is metabolized — with remedial effects, particularly in the case of respiratory problems like asthma. Having been taken through some exercises under guidance, I also noted that this brought around a very high degree of focus on the breath (no wandering when your life depends on it) and a shift in energy ( as well as taking you through the experience of panic). So as the downer moved in, I held my breath. With this you have to resist the push of the vagus nerve, so there’s a point at which the exercise becomes a struggle. However you work with that for as long as you can, then let the breath in as slowly as possible (against an instinct that wants to gasp and suck). Then wait for everything to settle down and repeat the process. So this is what I did, observing the effects. What occurred was that the emotion — a kind of hopeless ‘nowhere’ bleakness — steadied and separated from the energy. By controlling the vagus nerve temporarily, and passing through the emotions that that brought up, the spin-out was avoided. Instead what was experienced was a level of inner ground that was sober and flat, but at least grounded. As I sensed and sustained awareness of that, the downer slowly faded, and I gradually returned to specific awareness of where I was.

One of the most common ways of dealing with depression is to use drugs. Of course humans have been using drugs to shift their consciousness since time immemorial — mushrooms, peyote, alcohol, nicotine, caffeine all have had popular usage. Without denying that prozac and valium etc may be the best option for a lot of afflicted people, it strikes me that the best chemicals to use must be the ones that the body manufactures, the ones like serotonin, that cause happiness and ease. And the autonomous nervous system (which includes the heart, vagus nerve and intestines) plays a part in all that. Its triggers, wired through the whole body, send the message to the glands to produce the neuro-chemicals in our sympathetic ( fight, flight) and parasympathetic (ease, relax) nervous system. Hence when you sense something dangerous, you don’t have to think about it, the adrenalin starts flowing.

So I wonder if getting the body to produce appropriate neuro-chemicals is part of the answer. And before this all gets too scientific-materialistic, just recall how the sense of being here and being coherent can flow through simple acts of kindness like writing a letter. The chemicals start flowing with anything that evokes responsive feeling. For example, in the book that he wrote to chart his own journey through severe depression, William Styron wrote that what prevented him from killing himself at a crucial moment was suddenly hearing a piece of music.* It jogged the emotional memory into acknowledging that there was such a thing as happiness, and he had experienced it. At that moment he came to enough to recognize that his life depended on getting into a hospital —and that it was worth saving.

I speculate that in looking for help to ease or cure depression, a study of the heart as well as the brain may help us understand ‘mind.’ And also that one of the causes of depression may be a diminished sense and importance that the heart’s sensing is given in modern life. By which I mean that a lot of training goes into the abstract and the individual, and not much into observing and being with the specific and immediate and responsive. Maybe as a preventative at least, more heart-centred activities — like paying mindful attention and knowing how it feels, just now — should be balanced against our development of abstract thought.

To have been encouraged and trained in mindfulness, I am indeed grateful. As I stood by my fellow-human’s grave while people were throwing rose-petals over the coffin, I wondered where I’d have been now if I hadn’t picked up Dhamma-practice some thirty-five years ago.

*William Styron: Darkness Visible
For more on the science, I’d recommend looking into Heartmath;
and at Stephen Buhler’s book: The Secret Teachings of Plants ( Bear, Vermont 2004).