Wednesday 11 November 2015

Mind Out of Time

I have just returned to New Zealand from New South Wales, Australia – Wat Buddha-Dhamma to be precise – where I had spent the past fourteen weeks on solitary retreat. The Wat lies 15 kms. up a dirt road in the Dharug National Park, which is part of a larger wilderness area of hundreds of square kilometres. As I had no routines to follow and no duties (except to attend the fortnightly Pāṭimokkha recitation, and to pick up my meal once a day), this made for a remote abiding, punctuated only by the occasional email via the ubiquitous internet. I haven’t seen much of Australia, but the difference between its landscape and New Zealand’s struck me immediately. They are both rugged, but the Australian outback feels immeasurably older. This impression is created not just by the sight of goanna lizards slouching around, but by the soil. It’s largely sand. And on reflection, I recognized that this is the oldest soil on the planet. Most areas of the earth have been under the sea and received sediment, or been ground and shovelled by glaciers, or twisted and folded, or spewed over by volcanoes. Not Australia. The land has been stable for hundreds of millions of years. And once human beings killed all the large browsing mammals except kangaroos, it has received no manure and not been dug up and turned over. Instead, with the browsers gone, the land received masses of leaf-litter, and that has become fuel for fires. So despite the resilient vigour of its plant and animal life (nature is amazing) the land feels raw. As if it’s in suspended animation.

Something of that timelessness ran through my retreat. The clock carried numbers, but time was measured by the slow and repeated change of light and of my own energy. There was no clear change of season, the weather cycled through days of wet and cool then hot and dry and back again. There were always some plants in flower, and with no leaf-fall, there was no ‘winter’ as I know it. And when the external senses don’t detect time in terms of moving forwards, the time of the mind becomes apparent. This time is cyclical rather than sequential and measured in terms of memories and anticipations that arise, push and, with practice, subside. Hence, marked by aspirations as well as hindrances, the turns and stories of personal history become the meditation theme. As my teacher, Ajahn Sumedho, famously said: ‘The past is a memory, the future is uncertain, now is the knowing.’

Well after a few years, the searing and poignant memories of my personal history have been sent through the ‘forgive and/or let go’ mill so many times that they’re worn down and infertile. Meanwhile, another feature of the samana life is that there’s not much to look forward to (as Ajahn Sumedho also remarked, adding, generally with a big laugh: ‘except old age, sickness and death’). Hmm. This may all sound bleak, and would be if the world described by personal history were the only one we have access to. People certainly make a lot of it, with its status and events. But isn’t that world always marked by wishing and regretting, meeting and parting, gaining and losing and physical decline? Meanwhile, ‘now is the knowing’: we’re always aware. This is outside of history and person.

Awareness is the centre of what we call ‘mind’, but normally of course, the mind is awareness plus regret, or longing, or analysis, or sidetrack and rumbling trains of thought moving forward, backwards – or anywhere except the simply open present. So it takes training, but with guidance and effort, the meditator centres on awareness as the feature of the mind that is constant, irreducible and needs no comment. Consequently, as awareness releases from these associated activities, it is revealed in its depth and warm beauty. It’s a given treasure.

However such release is a deep process. Even as history and the longing for something to do recede, a long meditation retreat still reveals the extent to which the mind refers to time. It might manifest with the thought: ‘I’ll sit in meditation for two hours and then walk.’ This seems harmless enough, or even a responsible commitment, but what does ‘two hours’ – or even ‘two minutes’ – mean as a directly felt experience? What lies behind planning and measuring? And how relevant is a time measurement to meditation or awakening? Is it the mind’s attempt to derive value – as in ‘I sat without moving for two whole hours’ – a value that rapidly devalued when one discovers that some Master or another sat for three, four or five days rock-solid in samādhi? And is that necessarily a mark of awakening? When my mind plays that one, it seems more like conceit: conceiving oneself to be better, worse, the same as someone else – and the ‘someone else’ is also just what the mind conceives.  And this is just one of a heap of time markers, along with the anguish of ‘progress’ and ‘failure’, that descend with every attempt to create personal significance. So the humility of the practice is to acknowledge limitations in terms of energy or pain-tolerance and relax the mental stuff around that. It gets more useful to simply move around or sit still, lie down, stand or chant in accordance with what is conducive to skilful mind-states and their enjoyment, or what supports the allaying or penetration of unskilful states. Natural boundaries arise, and they can flex.

Another time sense that comes up is ‘what happens next?’ This could be the ‘waiting for a breakthrough’ syndrome, or the restless mind’s search for something to do. As in: ‘It’s time to do X now, so I’d better come out of meditation.’ Thus the mind searches for markers in time, seeks limits and craves for its own bondage. Meanwhile what is most pertinently occurring is the creation of benchmarks and highlights where none need exist. So one of my meditation reminders was and is: ‘there is no next moment, so what is this now?’ How does it feel? And what triggers it? How important is that? As for ‘again’ – even when it’s in terms of coming to this lovely monastery again – all that ever comes ‘again’ are time-marks tinged with suffering. But time-marks aren’t there until the mind makes them. And it doesn’t have to; in fact it feels a lot better to not make them.

So a good part of the practice was and is just about feeling these marks and releasing them. Their images, ideas and the accompanying mental pictures are saññā – which both dazzles awareness and triggers the reactions that block wisdom. This is why it’s been useful to work on ‘personal history’ all these years; that is all saññā. And who now, does all that happen to? Nobody but a dream, a tale signifying … an arousal, a stirring or a locking, in the nerves. So, with what has become as standard practice for me, I stay in the body, feeling those effects, widen and soften attention and breathe through. Not to get rid of or release or understand anything, but just because it’s the natural response from awareness. And as the mark subsides, and the time sense with it, there is a deepening.

Then – how does it feel when there’s no gain, no failure, nothing to achieve or even understand? Can I open to that gift? The sense of felt space then becomes very acute, and enjoyable. And far from spacing out, walking within that open space (especially in the world of trees and birds, where time is not created) feels about as real as it can get to being on this planet. The nature of awareness is to embrace and share itself among us.

This is what makes the practice, and all who enter into it, generous. Dhamma shares our qualities with whoever can receive them. And although personally I feel that I have nothing special or original to say, the world of invitations to teach or visit keeps rolling on with gusto. So that means time, appointments and logistics; visas, schedules and bookings. Their absurdities mount up. I’m currently being asked by an airline what food I would like to eat on a flight next June. They call this the real world? I can almost hear the gum trees laughing.