Tuesday 29 September 2015

Brightening the mind: non-isolation

What follows is a response to a query from my last posting: ‘How do you brighten the mind?’ The question isn’t an unusual one, and that in itself says something. Despite hundreds of years of human development, improvement in terms of health, communications, opportunities for travel, let alone a deluge of commodities, the mind often remains a gloomy or barren space. If ‘space’ is even the right word for the multi-layered tangle of pressures, imperatives, anxieties and dead-ends that people find themselves experiencing. Ultimately, this can only be solved by releasing the mind from the message of the external senses. But on a more mundane level, this isn’t personal, it’s social. Depression is the number one life-inhibitor in the developed world, and number two as a global average (some places haven’t caught up with us, yet).

It was in the twentieth century in the wake of industrialization that an objectless gloom first seems to have hit home as a feature of western culture. Maybe because by then mainstream society had fully taken in the two main psychological themes of industrial development, both of them being dead-ends. One theme is that you have to make your own way through hard work in a competitive world that measures you in terms of productivity; the other is that material goods will provide you with happiness. So the heart is divided between self and others, and between its internal values and external comforts – it has to sacrifice empathy and contentment for getting ahead and getting more. These themes are the grim message of capitalism, which has become socialized into a lifestyle and therefore seems ultimately true. The latter of those themes has a limited truth: adequate housing with improved sanitation is certainly good and pleasant, but there comes a time when more basic needs are met and the ease that they grant is replaced with the incitement to get the faster, more advanced ... you name it. And consumer excitement is never going to ripen into contentment. In fact its reaching out drains the mind by latching well-being onto objects that can only provide brief happiness. Consumerism also requires people to keep up with the trends, thereby supporting the first message: you’re in a race in an ungenerous world.

To truly brighten the mind rather than dress it up with new stuff, is about refuting those two messages, and the isolationist view that they support. Because, however socialized we may be, we are still humans, and that means that our nervous systems have mirror neurons, and that means that we affect, remember and care for each other. No matter what the external senses present (and it is just a presentation), we are not self-contained units. Someone you know dies, and you feel it; someone inspires you and you learn. This is just the nature of mind; isolationist view is downright wrong. Unfortunately the economically-driven society runs on it. This and its resultant anxiety and depression are therefore what you have to meet. However, the point is that if you cast that view off, the mind returns to a natural brightness. It’s not that far away, nor do you have to be outstandingly brilliant.

Returning the mind to its natural brightness, rather than dressing it up, is a perspective-changing practice. It sets you free from the distraction industry and the commodities fever because you don’t need their stuff. The brightened mind is also the place for meditation, insight and release – but it isn’t initiated by meditation; in fact until you have put aside the twin messages, it’s unlikely that meditation will do much more than make you more attentive and calm. This isn’t at all bad, but a lot of meditators that I meet aren’t happy about their meditation; they feel they haven’t achieved the goals that they’ve heard about, and maybe they need more effort; or they’re looking for the right system, one that will give them the results they’re looking for. When you review these complaints, you can see that they are meditative formulations of the two isolationist messages: the self who has to work, and the glittering new thing that will do the trick. This is isolationist view with its ‘not there yet’ heaven.

In traditional Buddhist training isolationist view (aka self-view) and its messages is tackled at the outset of Dhamma-practice through the cultivation of giving (dāna), morality (sīla) and renunciation (nekkhama). These are pāramī, ‘furtherances’ that are to be kept going as an ongoing complement to whatever meditation one is doing and not being good enough at. The understanding behind pāramī is that erasing the self-boundaries is the basis of practice, not just a refined insight at the end of the Path.*

The preparation for these, and for all cultivation, has to be reflection, the ability to pause the streaming on of the mind and get it to look into cause and effect – that is the effects of one’s actions and the bubbling up that set them going. Ordinarily a lot of our actions are automatic, programmed responses and reactions; the result of high-speed, high-density lifestyles. The effect of this on the heart is a kind of blur, in which we don’t really see where we’re coming from. So part of mind-cultivation is just to look into the heart and start highlighting and selecting mental actions so that you can then benefit from reflecting on them. The teaching is that it is impossible that a skilful action will not leave a pleasant trace; but you have to reflect on it to detect that trace. When you do, the function of mindfulness is to stay on that trace and let it amplify in your awareness: which it will do. Then the pleasure of skilfulness starts glowing. So, right action and right mindfulness work together to give a bright result.

Bearing that in mind, generosity (or sharing) is considered to be the first pāramī, because this practice turns the heart around from ‘me’ to ‘we’; it’s accessible, and is an acceptable social action. We probably already do it, but don’t reflect on it adequately. You can give time, moral support, commodities, Dhamma. In its straightforwardness it breaches the boundaries of the isolated self and builds non-competitive relationships. (It’s one reason why the Dhamma should not be sold.) But, in the developed world, in keeping with the isolationist trend, most human services, such as healing, educating, child-minding, are sold: the developed world has converted human skill and goodness into a commodity. The results of that are professional expertise but no sharing and no community; hence a reduction in psychological richness and friendship.

To do generosity without the isolationist shadow of whether someone else deserves it, first think of it as sharing, as entering a ‘we’ sense. It’s not a matter of setting people apart by judging whose worth how much. You do dāna because with it, you think of someone else’s welfare, and you connect with them, and vice versa. And when you reflect on that mind-state, it has a brightening effect. Secondly it’s powerful to recollect how much has been given to you, without having to deserve it: a body, breathing, air, daylight, warmth, nursing, human support, intelligence etc. To linger in the feel of that – ‘where would I be without …?’ –  is mind-blowing. The notion of ‘deserving’ is the isolated self’s claim to supremacy and is one of the great human delusions: humans didn’t deserve to take over the planet and use it to the detriment of other species; Europeans didn’t deserve to take over the Americas and much of the rest of the world – we just did it, and then justified it later (if we needed to). But look around at what that idea justifies, and also feel the results internally. If you linger in the deserving mode you’re going to start judging others and yourself, and end up with a crabby mind.  Generosity blows that word away; it’s joyful.

Morality (sīla) is to be cultivated in the same light. It leaves a good feeling, helps others and gives you reliable friends. The isolationist take on that word renders it as righteousness (I’m better than) shadowed by guilt and punishment (could do better): it creates comparisons and divisions and a crabby mind. But this is far from the point. As Ajahn Chah commented: ‘…If other people’s sīla is not perfect or they do not behave like good monks, it is not your job to be judgemental. You won’t become wise by watching and blaming others. The Vinaya [discipline] is a tool to assist you in developing samādhi-bhāvana [meditation]. It is not a weapon for finding fault or judging who’s good and who’s bad. No one can practise for you, and you can’t practise for anyone else.  So be mindful of your own behaviour. This is the path of practice.’

So it may be more helpful to consider sīla as integrity: that which integrates or makes whole.  Then the result is one of being at ease with oneself: self-respect. Sīla is the intentionality that makes me a responsible part of a group; it supports non-isolation. It also means that I filter my interests and desires so that I can live without the regret that fractures the mind.  When you take on five precepts and you note at the end of the day that you didn’t abuse others or yourself, then there’s a sense of integrity. That’s a foundation for brightening. For example, I like to dwell in the consideration that because of sīla, no creature need fear me. Because of sīla, people can be free from mistrust with regard to me. I don’t break confidences, I don’t tell lies. Because of sīla, I don’t sell out; I’m not merchandise. It gives dignity, whilst in the money-driven world people become commodities.

Dāna and sīla also provide the foundation for extending goodwill.  About which much can be said, but not now.

Sīla also offers the dignity of restraint, which ripens into the world-changing inclination to lessen the amount of stuff one has to look after – and this allows you the time to cultivate the reflective practices that take you into the heart of the Dhamma. Lessening is nekkhama, the third root practice, translated as ‘renunciation’; combining that with wise reflection gives rise to contentment. But this is not asceticism: renunciation is the natural result of prioritizing what one values over what the world in general sees as valuable.  Values, such as honesty, kindness and generosity are innate; they are a part of what we’re born with. As you develop them, they can include a wider range of humans and animals. Non-separation. And you receive the benefit of a rich heart; one that doesn’t cost others anything but improves their lives. Everyone knows that at some place in themselves. But values get blocked by valuables: in essence, money, gold, credit, with the status and the power that they offer. It seems at first that one gains through such things, in terms of commodities, status, and admission into a social circle. But there’s also the fear of loss and the need to update; and perhaps the human quality of the circle of the elite isn’t that nourishing. But one thing is obvious: the ones who gain out of valuable commodities are those who deal in them. So although enough of the money is slushing around in the public domain to keep people in the game, a disproportionate amount of it is going into a relatively few pockets.  An elite of eighty people has the same amount of money/credit as the lower 50% of the global population. Valuables exclude and divide.

The messages of these root practices isn’t anything new or even exclusively Buddhist. But to develop reflection takes practice. Essentially the isolationist view is held by one aspect of mind – they used to call it ‘left brain’ – the manas function of determining objects, measuring surfaces and rearranging them. This separates us from what we’re attending to, for these functional purposes. Reflective practice is about perceiving experience from the subjective feeling sense, citta, the heart sense; this doesn’t separate. And there is an embodiment requirement for that, one that has to be developed. The various dissociative effects that I mentioned in my last posting, and which are societal and systemic, close people’s bodily awareness and even constrict subtle musculature: the body becomes a case. Now certain muscle groups are related to particular psychological and emotional effects: it doesn’t take a genius to acknowledge that a tight chest or belly are defence strategies; they cut off feeling. So if one is living with such a body, then a lack of emotional richness is going to be the result – whether you intend to be defensive or not. And the contrary: you’re going to experience the world as a less stuck and alien place if your upper body opens up. In detail: the musculature that runs from the breastbone diagonally and upwards to the top of each arm is associated with uplift, being held, and joy. If mindfulness of breathing is properly cultivated, this musculature will flex and brighten the mind. This is also the area that gets energized with chanting, especially devotional chanting when the hands are held in prayer position so that the base of each hand is in touch with the breastbone. Now, whether you do these practices (recommended of course) or not, this is the area to be focusing on when you cultivate intentions and actions to do with dāna, sīla, nekkhama. And even when you’re not, if you take a walk in a park or a garden if you centre your awareness at that place with the suggestion of simply meeting the world, nature will support your sense of non-isolation and assist a brightening of the mind.  To summarize: with actions of value, you should embody them, run them through your nerve-endings and get the chemicals flowing.

There’s a difference between separation, which is a necessary function for wise discernment (who wants to share a pool with a crocodile anyway?) and isolation (the well-being of other creatures is not my concern). Relative separation is necessary because the heart doesn’t do that – your two-year old would probably cuddle a grizzly bear without wise supervision. So what wise or deep attention does is to scan the senses and decide which of their messages are superficial (the bear does have thick fur) and which are more important (it has big meat-eating jaws). You get the meaning and abide in your wise heart.

The value of meditation is to enjoy that place and what it is aware of: as that mental basis refines, the brightening calms and is experienced as a subtle luminosity. It’s like the subtle light that you experience when you close your eyes, but keep looking; or the subtle sound of listening, ‘the sound of silence’. As one calms, the hazy movement of visual and auditory signals steadies. There is a bodily approach to that: within your bodily sense, as a background to the sensations and energies, there is a basis that feels both light and steady. And, as the bodily sense and the mental sense are sympathetic, reference to that opens the heart into a serene space.  This takes you out of the divided world of the senses: you begin to understand that your normal sense of body is just a presentation, not the only thing there is.  So there’s the hint: if consciousness can come out of stuck presentations, or even refrain from presentations and be ‘non-manifestative’ (anidassana), that’s where freedom lies.

In itself, brightening can get exciting and destabilising; when you access these effects and become familiar with them, you find the quieter luminosities more attractive. But throughout the process, it’s good to remember that a natural inner brightening is the reliable sign of Dhamma. You enter from where you are; subtle or everyday. This is because all true approaches bear the same light of wisdom: the freedom from isolationist view.

* You can download a book on the topic of Pāramī at http://forestsanghapublications.org/viewBook.php?id=81&ref=deb