Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Our Real Home

Offered in memory of Ven. Ajahn Chah

I wake up in the night, somewhere. I am aware of being in a warm quiet space, and, as my eyes adjust to the darkness, I can sense that it is dimly-lit. Perhaps it’s starlight, because there’s a view out into the night. I’m in a nearly-empty room; the faint light picks out the contours of a wall and some shape which could be a small table. My awareness feels the cognitive faculties stirring with the instinct to remember, to place it all, to scan its inner files for perceptual data that fit these slight clues as to my whereabouts. But the awareness holds that push in check as it senses that there’s no need to know. There’s a feeling of safety in the stillness, of being held comfortably by the darkness. There’s no need to know who I am, let alone where I am; all that will happen in due course, and it’s not as peaceful as being here. In the night, opening to the unknowing; at home.

And in due course of time, and the subdued light of a morning that has to be England in January, I can fill in the details. This is Cittaviveka, a monastery in West Sussex of which I am the abbot. And all that entails. I’ve been travelling for nearly eight weeks in Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, and Thailand, and I just flew into Heathrow carrying a kaleidoscope of perceptions: of dry bush and tree-ferns and creeper-festooned tropical hardwoods; of many people and Sangha assemblies; and a host of welcomes and goodbyes. Linking those fragments are the highways and traffic and the glittering airports with check-ins, security, boarding procedure and glitzy arcades. The normal link, time, has become virtual; five hours get lost between this place and that, then six hours pop up out of nowhere to make my clock look slow. So places and faces float in the memory like fish in a pond: did I meet him in Wellington, or was it Sydney two years ago? And the name? But how much does it matter ? The pool through which it all swims, jet-lagged and yet serene, feels like home.

It hasn’t always felt that way. Rather than the ‘free as a bird’ ideal of homelessness that the Buddha modelled, ‘alienation’ used to more closely fit my sense of being here. Belonging to the human world meant effort. I remember, even in the early years as a monk, that the first waking moment would generally be followed by a flurry, in which the sense of of identity wrapped itself around me, like old clothes throwing themselves on complete with full pockets and a bag of things to do. Even before I could check what was in that bag, it was on my back: there has to be something I should be doing, have to remember, or get ready for. The cosmos didn’t seem to do free moments. It’s as if one couldn’t be here without doing something to deserve it.

Maybe it’s like this for many people. A day rattles by full of this and that, like an old freight train. And at the end of it, it parks itself at no final destination still carrying the cargo. Sleep is an untidy mish-mash of dreams. To wake in the middle of the night, even with someone sleeping beside you, is to sense loss and uncertainty. My mother couldn’t bear the sounds that the house made in her sleepless nights; had to get up, switch on the radio, hear a human voice, do something. Perhaps in that dislocation from the daily railroad, we sense the loneliness behind our activities and friendships. That the place that one occupies is only an address, a reference to duties and contacts, rather than a home. Because, what ground do we stand on when our train stops? Who can we be without our merry-go-round and its inner voices?

It may seem that that’s the way life has to go; that we have to be busy. However, it’s also the case that we choose to be. In order to jump over the gap that yawns open when the activity or the engagement stops, most people have an array of hobbies, gadgets or books. Even more tellingly, if these fillers aren’t available the mind fills with discordant thoughts and dissonant emotions. One of the worst ordinary things that happen for someone is to be left waiting somewhere without a friend, say at an airport, with nothing to do and no-one to talk to. In a prison it’s a form of punishment. Restlessness grabs hold; or loneliness, worries, and unresolved emotions.

So thank goodness for meditation, which offers a way to steady and clear the mind. Meditation also gets us to recognize a fundamental property of consciousness: that although that mind-stream may carry all kinds of creatures and a lot of rubbish, its ‘water’ is clear. To be more prosaic – we can watch, or witness the movements and content of the mind. There is an awareness of the flow of mental content, from the sublime to the ridiculous, heavens and hells; and also a detachment from being that flow. In meditation, when you recognize this normal property – awareness – it feels like an important realization. Sometimes it’s seen as the only valid and necessary realization. We can be ‘that which knows.’

Well, I’m not going to dismiss the validity of awareness, but I think it can be overrated. It provides a useful watch-tower, or a fire-proof zone to step back into when the mind gets wild. When establishing a foundation in meditation, one helpful strategy is to steer towards awareness and, abiding in that, let the rest of the stuff go. Which you increasingly want to do: as you meditate, mental content feels like a rash, insatiably itchy and caught up with reactions and self-judgement. So the shift to awareness supports clarity and discernment.

Yet I would say that, praiseworthy and necessary as that shift to awareness is, it can take us out of balance if we don’t bring it to bear on mental content as it specifically arises. If we don’t tune up how awareness relates to conditions, awareness can become a position that numbs our responsiveness. Then a dualism arises between awareness and what we’re aware of. The flow of content tends to get trivialized, while awareness becomes a contender for ‘my true identity.’ Look at it another way: whereas the non-meditator may identify with being the many things that flow through their minds, meditators can find themselves identifying with the awareness of that stream. If the former tries to hold on to being something, the latter finds peace in being the nothing.

And why not?

Why not becomes more apparent when the meditator finds himself or herself in a field of action or engagement. Identification with awareness then supports dysfunction. I recall someone on a retreat collapsing in the meditation hall, and the rest of the group remaining mindfully aware – and unmoving. The more normal case occurs around interpersonal differences: say we have an exchange of views and there’s a sense of conflict – then one of us shifts into ‘being aware’ of it – and basically disconnects. It can become a strategy whereby one party jumps to the high contemplative ground and leaves the other below dealing with the mundane issue, the messy stuff, the emotions, the human tangle. However, at that point, if the relational sense was being held in awareness, then we could have gone into a careful and insightful exploration of what was going on between us. What is this mind uncomfortable with meeting? Can I acknowledge insecurity or defensiveness? And if these patterns are mutually acknowledged and accepted, aren’t these then seen as the real issue in any situation? Isn’t bringing to light and contemplating these patterns as conditioned and not-self a big part of what liberation is about? And if we could see this together, wouldn’t this make our lives a scenario for deepening and trust? OK, I’m starting to preach here; but for myself having awareness respond to what’s happening opens the door to being at home.

At this point, let’s look to the Buddha:

Whatever recluses and brahmins have said that freedom from being comes about through some kind of being (bhava)[i.e. being something], none of them, I say, are freed from being. And whatever recluses and brahmins have said that escape from being comes about through non-being (vibhava) [i.e. being nothing], none of them, I say have escaped from being. Suffering depends on clinging. With the end of all grasping, no suffering is produced. Udana 3.10

Again: consciousness has this marvellous property of awareness. And for most of the time, that’s awareness of something. Consciousness is the experience of being with what arises through the external senses or the mind. So it’s about relationship, and how identity forms out of holding onto that which arises (being something) – or out of rejecting that which arises (being nothing). Life is the test, to see which way you jump.

Life as a Dhamma practice for me has been an education in how these relational movements of the mind create ‘you,’ ‘me,’ and the story that we get stuck in. The relationships that they form are not-self; neither stable nor intrinsically valid – but that means that one has to stay on the ball, and be clear about what is arising. Otherwise the reaction is either to fix someone into ‘always being that way’, or to stop relating. The latter option means that, as you avoid connecting to others, you of course don’t have to deal with what arises in the relational field, and you don’t have to got through the disconnect. But in so doing, you close the heart and miss out on transforming its confusion into strengths. Thus my sense of living the Dhamma entails being open to responses from awareness. If I can tune in to those, I check the reactivity of one of my habitual selves, and gain the empathy and strength to hold what arises in awareness. It brings me home.

In monastic life especially, we’re together in a bond of sharing duties, requisites and accommodation. We operate according to group routines, we meditate, eat and work together; we are ‘Sangha’ – the very word means group/ assembly/ ‘that which has come together.’ And yet, we had little, if any, choice over what people we would be living with, and there are accordingly varying degrees of compatibility. On the other hand, we might grow close, but then so-and-so leaves or disrobes – our lives could be diverging tomorrow. Yet the practice is to maintain awareness of what is specifically arising in the present. You don't have to come up with a response, because specific awareness – holding how what arises right now – is always naturally responsive. Then whether you’re relating to a mental flow that seems to be ‘me’ or when it seems to be ‘you,’ you get insight – because there’s an increasing realization that neither of these polarities is a sure thing. The positions, projections and anxieties dissolve. Through accepting uncertainty, joy, defensiveness, need for approval and self-judgements as they are, through being fully aware of them, they come to rest. What remains is the relational awareness – rather like a ‘we’ that has no fixed identity in it. There’s nothing to hide, fear or need; and there’s a knowing of that release. On my planet, this is a taste of the Deathless.

Moreover, in the field of engagement, what you have then is a mind that can be with agreement, disagreement, sitting together for a month without conversing, paying respect to people you don’t know and will never know, busy-ness, separation and solitude. And all that that brings up. Take the recent Sangha gathering at the International Forest Monastery (Wat Pah Nanachat). There must have been nearly fifty senior Western monks and nuns from places as far afield as Canada and New Zealand, of all kinds of nationalities. Some had never met before; and more poignantly, some had been out of touch for a decade or more. So the occasion was for some an introduction, or a meeting with someone who’d just been a name, or for the grey-stubbled amongst us, with companions from twenty years ago. There were exchanges over pioneering days, and tales of spiritual battles won, and lost. Perhaps even more direct were the meetings with Thai elders, whose generally impassive features widened with smiles of recognition.

In the being together a ‘we’ sense formed. For a while we were in it, like fish sharing the pool, co-ordinating, sharing duties, following a group theme. After some initial awkwardness, we got into a flow. The gathering found pace, rhythm and enough space for everyone to have their say. As is the key to harmony, there was a lot of listening and acceptance of differences. So the ‘we’ sense grew with its silent music. Then it was time to leave. And so ‘I’ returned, a singularity walking through security with a few flimsy cards as an identity and guarantee. Back to ‘me’, or to ‘me and them’, again.

Watch out for it; this happens every day. Maybe two of you were talking and now that comes to an end. Swiftly the ‘we’ sense switches to ‘me’ and ‘you.’ Perhaps the thought arises: ‘Did I say anything I shouldn’t have? She gave me a curious look. Did I stay too long? What does he think of me?’ Or perhaps this movement passes unnoticed, because as even as you are leaving, the pre-occupations with where to go now and what you’re doing next slide in, and the mind is already somewhere else. So a moment of emptiness with its precious insight is overlooked.

But instead, to pause. To give a respectful moment for the process of separation and what it says about ‘me’, ‘you’ and awareness. Being someone arose dependent on being with an activity, an engagement. And with the separation, that ceases. So let’s pause. Maybe if it’s an emphatic goodbye, the sense of separation arises – and with it body-memories of birth, that sudden shock of being out here in a scenario which isn’t going to take care of you. Or perhaps there's an eagerness to get going. There might also be the shadow premonition of death, an acknowledgement of a separation that seems final. So, this is the time to pause. Soften, open – and with all-accepting awareness release the mood, and with it that scrap of self. That all-accepting is where the separation ceases; pause and open to it.

This is the return to what Ajahn Chah used to call ‘our real home.’ He was always at home. That’s how I remember him from 1979 when he came to England: in a foreign country with only a few words of English, he seemed more at home than the rest of us. Sometimes he was comic, sometimes sharp or stern, sometimes like your favourite uncle and somehow traceless, because he was just what was needed. Nothing more. He was with whatever was arising, so he had no need to build anything for himself. At home: both alone and a stranger to nothing.