Wednesday 4 March 2015

Off the Map

New Zealand is a long way from most places. If you're flying from London, Bangkok is about half way. If you have a globe, turn it so that New Zealand is in the bottom left and the Americas on the right - you'll see there's a great deal of water between the two. Where I'm situated, in Bodhinyanarama Monastery, is not so remote by local standards, but it is at the dead-end of one fork of a cul-de-sac. Anything coming up this road is going to be the one or two cars per day heading for the monastery. Quiet. I am living up on a ridge at the farthest extreme from the cluster of buildings that comprise the main site; a good climb away up a track that can only be done on foot. (This particular hut can't even be photographed, because there's nowhere you can see it from.) The forest is dense, so there's not much of a view; the dense tunnel of foliage only offers small windows through the surrounding bush.

So, I’m living pretty much off the map. It's a natural place for retreat. Nowhere to go, no duties, no visitors; a stove to boil up rainwater, with the event of the day being the descent to the kitchen to receive food - which I eat on my own. Contact is minimal. Which is fitting, as in the texts which guide my Dhamma practice, contact is problematic and something to be worked with:

'One insight is that contact is the basis of suffering. The other is that by the complete cooling and cessation of contact no more suffering is produced.' (Sutta-Nipata 735)*

Some of these suttas are especially direct. In one instance, (S.12.63) the Buddha likens contact to the experience a flayed cow would have, skinless, being constantly bitten by flies. 'Goodness', one wonders, 'How would his disciples manage to get through a day in even a quiet town, let alone a daily commute through the subway? Going about one’s daily business doesn't seem that painful - or am I just thick-skinned?' But the passage is a parable, and the language is striking to drive home a point – one that becomes clear when when you sit still for a while. Because when one isn’t engaging with them, sights, sounds, touches, and especially thoughts, set up a restless need to either act on them, block them or somehow manage them. True enough, contact is the origin of action (kamma). It gets you going; and it doesn’t stop when you want it to. But senses being the way they are, how could it cease?

Yes, the other thing that you notice on retreat is that even when visual, auditory and tactile contact are quiet and stable, the patter of thoughts on the mind urges a response: ‘Do this, plan this, remember this, focus on breathing, stop thinking…’ and so on. And dealing with, or understanding, this downpour is what a retreat is for. It’s not so much an escape from the world as a direct handling of (and release from) the basis of anyone’s world. The world that is arising within one’s mind is based on ingrained notions – of past, future, oneself and others – that have no solid and dependable reality. This framework for our lives is entirely concocted by mind – with its prejudices and blind spots.

Mind is the forerunner of all phenomena;
mind is chief, they are made by mind.
(Dhammapada 1,1)

The inaccuracy extends even beyond the realm of notions.  Neurologist Rick Hanson, in ‘Buddha’s Brain’ offers this perspective on all forms of sense-contact:

'much of what you see "out there" is actually manufactured "in here" by your brain ... Only a small fraction of the input to your occipital lobes comes from the external world; the rest comes from internal memory stores and perceptual-processing modules.' *

The message from this is that the 'world out there' is being constantly assembled from a fuzzy and barely received field of data by our conditioned minds.  So contact, the means by which something takes shape in consciousness, is not as straightforward as it might seem. In the Buddha's analysis it arises as a two-fold process: 'impact contact' (patigha phassa) and 'interpretation contact' (adhivacana phassa). Impact contact is the landing of a sight, sound, touch or idea (etc.) at the respective sense-door. As when someone mentions a word or phrase that you don't understand: your thinking mind still registers that something has happened. After the impact come the interpretations: what this phenomenon reminds me of. What that person looks like. What that voice tone implies; and so on. And these are the subjective impressions that we act upon, or react to. Often in meeting someone for the first time, your mind is searching for signs to form an internal impression of whether this person is trustworthy (or whatever your intentions are). But you don't always get it right. And sometimes your intentions (I want you to be reliable) bias your interpretations; your attention doesn't notice the signs that don't fit the wished-for picture. It works the other way too: your biases form a negative impression of a person and you miss the positive. So attention gets distracted by intentions and a priori perceptions of what Danes or actors or homeless people are like.  

The crucial piece is that we navigate our lives through attention (which is biased by interest and partial for much of the time), intention (the shifting push of motivations, skilful or unskilful) that direct our attention, and contact, from which the agreeable or disagreeable feelings spring that catch our attention and steer our intentions. This system is analogous to a three people attempting to drive a car: intention is the driver, but he/she keeps changing their mind, is impatient and relies on attention to navigate. Attention can scan, look for signs, but gets distracted; so it relies on a map-reader to inform him/her as to what signs to look out for. The map-reader is contact. It relays what impressions it is experiencing and informs the other two that these perceptions are the real world. Unfortunately, the signs that contact studies may be unrelated to the journey. No matter how much we might say, 'That painful feeling was due to a memory, it has nothing to do with going to Florence.' Contact, affected by the memory of tyrannical Aunt Florence interprets ‘this trip to Florence is a bad idea. Let's go somewhere else.’ Sounds improbable? But to what degree do people vote for someone with a ready smile or a sincere manner, without studying what his/her policies entail?  Why do dark-skinned people in pale-skinned nations attract suspicion and even attack?

To expand the analogy, the contact that moves us isn't direct sensory contact, or reasoned attention, but interpretation contact: the perceived meaning behind the gesture, or the feature of a situation that catches our attention. And why does it catch our attention? Because it fits, however briefly, the internal map of our pleasure/desire territory or our anxiety, need, and socio-cultural biases. We don't know the world, all we have is a map, our created one, one created on shaky grounds. And that's the one that we need to get off.

As an experiment, put aside a few minutes to explore your perceptions of the future and the past. How relevant and helpful are they as guides? Witness the wash of impressions, pleasant, unpleasant, embarrassing, or aspirational. Notice how they affect you, emotionally and physically: you may find your eyes, forehead or mouth tighten; there may be a surge in your chest. Relax these places so that your mind doesn't latch onto any one impression; let the tide wash over.  The past and the future are then experienced as presently arising. Acknowledge the emotional flavour of the tides (such as anxiety, regret or nostalgia) and notice that they, and any images that the mind does latch onto, constantly require new pictures and stories to keep flowing. The important footnote is: don't try to stop the feelings, the nagging inner voice or unskilful images; attend to their bodily effects and keep relaxing and gently opening as you feel the twitch and prick of contact impressions.  As contact needs the activity of adding, arguing, repressing or analysing, stop doing these. Instead hold the fluttering of contact with still awareness and breathe through the nervous activity.

Although the past seems finished and inert, and the future uncertain, their images are equally momentary and presently arising, like the glitter of light on a breaking wave. If they have no real substance, how relevant and helpful are they as guides to living? And without dismissing the need for temporal structures, can we not be dominated by their emotional flavouring? Yes, if the wave isn't fed by fresh input, the glitter doesn't occur. You stop the waves by working on contact impressions in your body, and by asking yourself: 'Without the emotional surge, how true is this?' Then, as future and past cease, you can take guidance from your present clarity and good intentions.

How true then is the impression of myself or any other? There isn't just one, there are waves. So you can repeat the above process. Think of yourself, briefly, at work, having dinner, getting up in the morning, relaxing, or arguing. Can any any of those impressions stay solid and clear? Don't they require continual additional input 'then I said this, then that happened'. To whom is all this happening anyway? Flash through a few images of another person in the same way. You'll find that, even if you do latch onto a particular impression of yourself or another, any image will require ongoing reactions, comparison or narrative to keep it going. Interpretation-contact, the map-maker, is scrawling a sketch that is never completed; nor will it ever be – because it's drawing someone who isn't there. No self/other image can't stay steady, because it isn't solid.  If there is any abiding feature to the pictures and descriptions, it is a sense of familiarity, and a certain range of moods. The impression we have of another, fond or fearful, is really based on our potential for affection and fear (and many other emotions). The familiarity is really familiarity with the range of emotional colours through which the mind depicts self-other-future-past.  Sometimes the colouring is grim: the same old anxiety, aversion or despond. So the meditative question, the liberating question, is: what would reality be without this colouring?

The Buddha reckoned that you can't describe it, because when contact ceases, there can be no description. But, it's a weight off the mind and supremely peaceful. More to the point for aspirants is the advice that the process of liberation allows us to start afresh with our lives. If we hold the notions of time and identity in embodied awareness, the undercurrents of regret, anxiety or impatience have no water to churn and they cease. That's the point. Then we can use time and identity as a basis for useful attention and clear, responsible intentions. That's a better way to draw a map.

However, the grip of familiar territory with its habitual screenplay is powerful. So much so that for most people, extended self-retreat isn't even recommended until one has a few years of practice under one's belt. Instead shorter periods in touch with like-minded friends and a teacher is more suitable. It's just too wild in there. For experienced meditators, skilful contact is a requirement too, but they will be able to find that through steady awareness of their body and its breathing, and of their spiritual skills and strengths. In all cases, skilful contact is needed to meet the spin of one's world and its underlying pressures: to be something, have something, and get somewhere. But with skill, meeting one's world offers spaciousness; it's a modest release.

Modest, because it's not all over with a retreat. Certainly undercutting the basis of one’s world leaves less room for stuff to land, or to cause agitation. But I don't see any liberation as final or conclusive until you can walk down the street without getting bitten by flies.


*The Sutta-Nipata: trans. H. Saddhatissa, Curzon Press, London, 1985
** Buddha's Brain: Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius: New Harbinger, Oakland, 2009