Sunday, 27 November 2016

Security Measures

Three soldiers are walking side by side in front of me. Their machine guns are held at waist height, ready to fire, as they proceed at a measured pace scanning to left and right. Passers by don’t seem unduly bothered and continue to mill through the arcades selling sunglasses and iPads, Gucci bags and whisky. Tousle-haired models look out of the posters, with the expressionless gaze that is the norm for a perfume advertisement. A voice calmly reiterates the security protocols over the P.A. It’s a normal day in Orly Airport, Paris; but change the language and it could be Heathrow.

I was returning to Britain after teaching a retreat at a priory near Chartres. France has been repeatedly hammered by terrorist attacks over the past couple of years, and along with the shock of sudden deadly violence in the public domain another perception hovers, at least in my mind. It forms around a question: how do you prevent someone who is intent on destroying other people, from doing so? What can the state do to prevent someone jumping into a truck and mowing down more than 50 people, especially when they have no concern about losing their own life? And after the question comes an image of the modern state: insecure despite its intelligence agencies and surveillance technology; fronted by well-dressed people juggling with the economy; with policies that transfer public ownership to the private sector and so disown the people; conferences and assemblies to discuss world affairs – and that achieve little in the eyes of the general public. Hence disillusionment and resentment are rife.

The campaigns of dissent
A couple of months prior to my visit to France, a referendum in Britain had resulted in a majority (among those who voted) to leave the European Union. It was a shock to many, after a campaign in which the leaders of all major political parties (including the heads of other states) and the leaders of the business community had all repeatedly and in great detail presented argument after argument in favour of remaining within the Union. There may have been sound reasons for leaving the EU, but they didn’t feature in the speeches. Instead the Leave campaign produced misleading statistics, presented caricatures of European bureaucrats siphoning money out of British coffers, and played on concerns about immigration using stereotypes, fake images and a few stirring slogans: ‘Take Back Control’, ‘We’ve had enough of experts.’ The atmosphere around the topic became increasingly heated and dramatic, one pro-Remain MP was murdered in the street by a man who did it ‘for the sake of Britain’ (and whose house was full of Nazi regalia) – and yet, against the opinion of the polls, the Leave campaign won.

A couple of months after my visit to France, a similar atmosphere and style of contest took place in the USA, with a similar result. Again, the candidate who used reason and had experience in government was pitted against a candidate who made wild claims, spoke aggressively and had such low ethical standards that the elders of his own party disowned him. And, against all the predictions, Donald Trump won the Presidential election. The secret? A nationalist-imperialist slogan: ‘Make America Great Again’, blame for the decline of the national good placed on minorities and immigrants, and a tuning in to the frustration and anti-establishment anger of the people.

I can of course be accused of misrepresenting the facts, because now we’re in the era of post-truth politics and post-truth media, so what does anyone really know? However, putting aside the policies that the candidates stood for (and which generally shift after the election anyway) there are common features that seem to emerge. One was that the winning move was an appeal to anger and frustration. Defiance of the global order and scapegoating of minorities were rife (and produced a rise in violent crime against minorities after the triumph). Rhetoric and demagoguery were to the fore. Nationalist interests triumphed over international cooperation. And many people disagreed with the results so strongly that they took to the streets in protest. So the ‘United’ of the USA or the UK (and even the ‘Union’ of Europe) seems manifestly untrue. Of course; true unity can’t arise through an act of law, it requires a sense of mutuality, of sharing and giving and working together that is lacking in the economic model that governs these states – because that model is based on competition and accumulation of wealth. And so it moves towards inequality; inequality (and lack of having enough) give it momentum.  Moreover those who can get work done for the lowest wages will accumulate most wealth and grow; so the ideal option is to use people who will work for least – or even better, have an unpaid machine do the work. Hence automation is the trend. This is 'economic development': it creates inequality and poverty; and hence insecurity and discontent; it can’t return or progress to some imagined golden age.  

To quote from a recent article by James Livingston, Professor of History, Rutgers University:
'The official unemployment rate in the United States is already below 6 per cent, which is pretty close to what economists used to call ‘full employment’, but income inequality hasn’t changed a bit ...
Already a fourth of the adults actually employed in the US are paid wages lower than would lift them above the official poverty line – and so a fifth of American children live in poverty. Almost half of employed adults in this country are eligible for food stamps (most of those who are eligible don’t apply). The market in labour has broken down, along with most others.'(1)

To add to that, a recent report offered the statistic that one in eight of the people who are working in Britain are living below the poverty line.  In other words, even when we're working, the system isn't working. And so the promises of making America Great Again are empty. Especially as it takes big money (and all that entails) to get elected. As for Brexit: as fears of its impact cause the pound to fall, the price of imported food is rising ... and a new acronym is born for a swathe of society – 'jam' = 'just about managing'. So, at least in terms of the economic aims that directed them, these campaigns will fail. What happens then is uncertain, but we are in divisive times. If this situation isn’t correctly addressed, the anger and antipathy that has been channelled in these campaigns will need another target: creating an enemy is always an option. More riot police, more soldiers, more bombs.

Meet the shock

Currently I’m teaching another retreat, this one in the USA. I arrived to a Dhamma centre in a state of shock, with it’s ethos of non-abuse, care for the environment and inclusivity of racial and sexual diversity threatened by a movement that drove unabashedly against those standards and won the governance of the nation. So what do I say? As usual, one states the obvious. Which is, that when stability falls away, when there is disorientation and division, people either collapse, panic, go berserk – or cooperate. And as the world is essentially unstable, the only way forward for humans, ever, is to establish mutuality. The Buddha’s Dhamma, the way to liberation begins with touching into just this: ‘Associating with good people, becoming full, fills up hearing the good Dhamma … fills up careful attention … fills up the three kinds of good conduct … fill up true knowledge and liberation.’ (A.10, 61) In other words, it’s within qualities that support skilful mutuality that the intelligence that leads to the end of suffering first manifests. And how do you find good people? ‘Start by being one’ has to be the pragmatic response.

Consequently, the response has to be initiated by those who know how to meet suffering with compassion. People are justified in feeling threatened by foreigners: terrorists claiming that their actions are an Islamic mission have had their effect – although that statement can be countered by acknowledging that having one’s country bombed by the forces of Western democracy has also played its part. Losing one’s job and livelihood is a condition that can arouse resentment towards those who have jobs, and to the global trade deals that have made it more economical for corporations to source their workforce outside of their home base. Thus wanting to tear up the cooperative agreements and the open door policy seems to be a reasonable response. There are two sides to every story, etc, etc. So bridging the gap between those two sides takes work that is aimed purely at that.

The Western Dhamma movement has made much of mindfulness as an effective remedy for all kinds of human disorder. However, for the Buddha mindfulness was only ever one factor among many. It seems nowadays that disorder has to be addressed through right speech, right action and right livelihood.

He gives up false speech and refrains from false speech; he speaks the truth, is reliable, firm, trustworthy and does not deceive people. He gives up malicious talk and abstains from malicious talk; if he has heard something in one place, he will not spread it to another to cause disharmony - or if he has heard something in the other place he will not spread it to the first place to cause disharmony in the first place. In this way, he becomes either a conciliator of disputants, or an encourager of friends. He rejoices in peace, delights in peace and speaks words that make for peace. He gives up unkind talk and refrains from unkind talk; but such words as are gentle, pleasing to many people, such words he will speak. He gives up idle gossip and refrains from idle gossip; he speaks at the right time, he speaks in accordance with truth, he speaks what is useful … at a suitable time he will speak words that are worth remembering, well-grounded, purposeful and profitable.’ (A.5, 99)

I would say that the starting place for right speech occurs before one even utters a word. It requires right listening, principally to those one disagrees with; not to agree, or disagree, but to let the other person know that they have been heard. In other words, aim to establish mutuality before the rights and wrongs.

The basis of concord is mutuality 
And right listening? That requires faith, the openness to trust listening – to one’s own mind and one’s very presence – to be the essential beginning of any endeavour. By hearing the only thing one can really know for sure, one establishes open and unbiased attention. That’s the basis for listening to another. And from listening to another, mutuality gets established; we really 'get' each other. Although we can't know what the result will be, and aren't trying to arrive at a solution, yet through establishing respect for mutual presence, negative conditions wane and supportive conditions arise.

After the retreat in France one of the retreatants unwittingly offered a couple of examples. His work was with providing support for homeless people, and one of the actions that he undertook as part of a group was to spend a weekend living on the street. ‘Street retreats’ they called them; entering the position of the homeless. An act of solidarity, a sharing of the predicament. In an unplanned way, it brought forth offers of food from shopkeepers, and who knows what effects in other people's minds.  But even more powerful was his participation in the Auschwitz gatherings, where people from all over the world gather in this place where humanity seemed to stop altogether. They come to meet in silence, to remember, to meditate and to pray; above all to re-establish empathy. The bonding is transpersonal, transnational, transreligious: where we have no nation, no ideology, no job, no home, only presence remains. It’s our final and powerful security. And when we find that, there is a base for empathy, and from empathy, mutuality, and from mutuality, ethical sensitivity and good will … and so on.

So a quiet revolution is needed, one that is based on sharing and rebuilding the community. Such a change would reset the economy as the ‘house-keeper’ of our livelihood, using a simple means of exchange – my service, your goods; my healing skills, your building know-how. And rather than spend billions on the aggression and distraction industries, why not just give people the basic requisites? That's the basis of the monastic sangha: everyone shares and everyone contributes – because they enjoy and respect honest community. In this model, whatever there is goes round, and is therefore enough – because sharing is for all our welfare, happiness and security. What else is really important?

In the words of E.F. Schumacher:
The Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give a man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence …
Buddhist economics must be very different from the economics of modern materialism, since the Buddhist sees the essence of civilization not in a multiplication of wants but in the purification of human character. (2)

1 James Livingston: Aeon Magazine, November 2016
2 E.F.Schumacher: Small is Beautiful Blond & Briggs (1973-2010), HarperCollins (2010-present)P58-59

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Taking time

Do you have time, or does it have you?

Do you ever find yourself in a hurry? And what about hanging around with ‘time on my hands’. Or dreaming ‘if only I had the time, then I’d…’ Of course there’s not enough time, because things ‘take too long’. It would be delicious to imagine that ‘I have all the time in the world’ but, ‘time flies’. In fact time does a number of things: it presses, it drags, it weighs us down; when we’re in pleasure, it glides by almost unnoticed, whereas every micro-second of pain is etched starkly in our consciousness.  Its tide seems to constantly move us on to the next moment – getting ourselves washed and dressed before we go out, working to get this project completed, eating with an eye on the clock, and planning the future when we can relax. Clocks display it, as do calendars; buzzers, lights and bleeps give us more urgent signals to go or to stop. It’s something that we sense ourselves as immersed ‘in’, and yet it's beyond our control: notably when another birthday appears and we are coolly presented with the message of transience and mortality. Time is an all-pervading and intrusive medium … and yet it eludes us. What does time consist of? 

At first it seems calm, clear and objective, as in ‘the train will arrive at 10:48’, but as we live in it, it expands and contracts and occasionally pauses; it enshrines events when we had the time of our lives; and it is variously experienced as ease, frustration, panic, flow, tedium, or memories of nostalgia or regret. So as a subjective experience, it's a felt thing – and if it fits the objective reality of clocks and dates, that’s quite a blessing. As it is, the clocks, the bleeps and the lights generally and implacably trump our sense of flow, rhythm or agreeable ease: you have to get going, you have to wait, your flight is cancelled. 

Ever wonder what it was like before we had clocks and their offspring? Of course we all know that that was a 'long' time ago, because now our living reality is detached from our presence. Yes, the reality that dominates  is a tele-( literally ‘far off’) one in which the world is ‘out there’ and we have to race after it or try to connect to it with our phones, internet, and TVs. And the race is so compelling that even with those devices switched off, that reality gets internalised – we feel that we’re heading for the future, or haunted by the past; or, we’re wondering how long it will take to achieve a goal. In fact if we don’t have a goal, we feel lost as if we’re 'wasting precious time'. The fact is that we’ve internalised a convention that best fits machines – and even they break down, experience delays and grow obsolete. This time is just plain dukkha.

Real time is embodied

A memory comes to mind: of an occasion when I took a group out for a walk in the New Forest in southern England. (Well, it was ‘New’ in 1079.) This was meant to be a ‘day off’, an occasion to be with Nature in this spacious rural area. To dawdle, go off track, poke around among the trees, or contemplate birds and deer. Whatever. To my surprise, the group hastened down one of the main paths, in a tight-knit group, three abreast, exchanging animated remarks; they arrived back at the minibus in a couple of hours. I then insisted that we spend at least half an hour before returning to the monastery, just to enjoy where we were. Still, by the time I returned to the bus, the others were waiting by its door … It was as if they couldn’t open out of the trajectory hinted at by the path (one doesn’t have to follow it) and weren’t aware of the possibility ( or even the benefits) of breaking out of the everyday rhythm of their lives – which is geared to having some goal or another that it would be best to arrive at as quickly as possible. In this mind-set, a non-stop flow of conversation obscured the vision of a natural world, and they were in their self-oriented reality. So it is: mental time becomes an aspect of our ‘self’; structured around habitual aims and guided by known paths, it is disorienting to drop out of it. 

Mental time is often oriented around systems and conventions, or at least to what they present. But it can shift, and allow us to deepen. For instance, a few years ago I was walking on a two-month cross-country hike. Although it was physically uncomfortable, it was also exquisite in that it presented no agenda, nowhere that I had to get to, and no one to keep up with, wait for or meet. Granted, I was carrying maps for navigation – as to where a town might be where I could go for alms, or where there might be a patch of woodland where I could pitch my tent for the night. But those aims were so minimal that I could notice any mental activity around having a destination. I would start the walk each day celebrating the freedom, and attuned to the vibrancy of the natural world. But whenever I looked at my map, I noticed my mind would race, calculate distance, estimate the time it would take to cover it – and the pace of my walking would speed up, accompanied by a pushy mental tone: ‘destination fever’. Then, when having completed the navigation check, I put the map away and came out of the idea of where I was going, my mind returned to being fully where I was: the fever dropped away and the natural world returned. And with that there was a walking that was in the world rather than going through it to get somewhere else. (Where’s that anyway?) 

So real time is that of the embodied mind, a mind that is connected to the world around it. Understanding that gives us a useful checkpoint on mental time, the time of our thoughts, emotions and reactions. You know: you have an interaction with someone, there is a sudden flurry, you feel dismissed or threatened and suddenly words are rushing out of your mouth that provoke a like response from the other person. Or maybe you’re sitting peacefully and you remember some forthcoming event and suddenly you’re out of your seat with a vortex of thoughts churning in your head: ‘what if this … have I prepared for that?’ Mental time is particularly obstructive in meditation: you’re walking attuned to the sense of openness; there's the sense of moving within a space whose qualities change but whose presence is constant … and then there’s a snag in attention ... and you’re wondering how long to do this for, or whether this will take you into jhāna ... and then that shifts into remembering a retreat with so-and-so, and then someone you met on that retreat ... and as you snap out of all that, you find you’re walking faster, the space has disappeared and you’re getting frustrated that ‘I can’t do walking meditation.’ But this is walking meditation: it’s a great way of noticing the shifts between real embodied space and disembodied time. And, by returning to awareness of the textures of the body, the contact with the ground and the space that’s always around you, you can learn to come out of disembodied time and into natural rhythm.

Finding your real time

Slowing down may seem to be the key to taking one's time, and, considering the pace that people live at, that’s a good pointer in many cases. But it’s also the case that people can insist on going slowly when in the bigger picture it isn’t appropriate to do so. Ajahn Sumedho recounts an occasion of a sangha meeting when some members were intent on walking at the very slow pace of the Burmese Satipatthana meditation method – even though that meant that everyone else had to wait for an hour for them to arrive at the meeting hall. The two groups were not in the same time – even though for a sangha meeting, that’s the one that fits.

So finding real time isn't always about slowing down – and although I have mentioned ‘subjective time’, I don’t mean that the pace of things should go in line with the inclinations of the isolated individual. Rather that although the pace is felt internally, it is set by the individual’s appropriate relationship to the directly sensed world that they are part of right now. It is relational time, Dogen’s ‘being-time’, or the Greek ‘kairos’, the moment that fits. This keeps things fluid. 

The entry to this is through embodiment. Embodiment is simply the realisation that directly now, when you drop the notions and go into how the body experiences itself, you’ll sense that it is always in contact with ground or space or movement or warmth (or their changes). So much so that one's bodily presence is experienced as a part of a world that we conceive of, and see, as being outside it. (If we were really outside it, how could we move through it or be affected by it?) In the felt experience, body has no edges, it extends. And when you dwell in that embodied awareness, you notice how the phenomenal world ‘out there’ subtly resonates through you. You see a bird in flight, there is a subtle shift of energy and tonality in the muscles that ‘sympathise’ with the flying and you feel the flexing of its wings. Otherwise you aren’t really apprehending the bird, you're forming an idea about it. In the embodied state, you see the bark of a tree and you feel a qualitative change in your skin, particularly the fingers. This isn’t unusual, it’s just that we barely acknowledge it. We see someone dive and feel thrilled breathless as they enter the water. Traffic makes us cringe away from its hard unfeeling movement, whereas we might feel excited and energised by a herd of horses. 

From that awareness, you take your cues as to speed; you don’t ‘mindfully’ dawdle when a herd of cattle are bearing down on you, but you might mindfully run, or stand. Sitting in front of a keyboard, I wouldn’t know right now. But as I tune into the 'world' as it is now, there's a sense of open space within which the intent to communicate something useful roams. Memories, insights and pieces of information rise up, and I follow them. If the urge to ‘get this done’ arises, I note how my reality contracts, there is a slight tension in my body and the writing becomes work that I have to complete. Isn’t it more fitting to trust real time and balance within it?

Practice: aimless wandering

Try it. One way I have found to be useful is that of ‘aimless wandering’: first cancel any schedule for the next 10-15 minutes, switch off all communications and stand, attuning to balance, feeling it and feeling how it is to be 'me' in that for a few moments.  Then track the attention shifts and interests that accompany the physical senses – you might notice the light coming through the window, or the texture of the floor beneath your feet, or a detail of a picture on the wall.  Don't lock onto any of this, but notice interest, and the feeling that arises. Then let your attention shift as it will. Let it be slow – enough to acknowledge the interests, the feel and the shifts as attention changes its focus. Attention may zoom in, or shift to a sound, a thought or another sight. After a couple of minutes, follow that shift with small and slow bodily movement.  You might take a step or two, or touch something. Use the rest of the clock-time to follow, allowing for pauses, and that the shift of attention and interest might mean that you don't complete a movement. In this way, you sample the movement of the cluster of attention, intention and impression (the activations of mind) within a context. 

You can practise something like this when doing walking meditation – except with that you stay within the theme of walking to and fro – as if you're walking through something. You are: it's the world of the six senses (that is, it includes the mental). So your living context is always a field that spans these senses and what they pick up: this could be the field of the natural landscape, the field of the people you're walking with, or the field of your body: it's a question of what you are in relationship with at any given time. Relationship is the key. Because the widening of attention is to check the division into a self as against another person, or my self handling my attitudes, and instead span the relational field and sense the mental shifts and affects in it. Holding the field gives you real time.

Hold the field, it's a timeless 'now' ... The next time you’re in an argument, a panic, or a worry, pause and put aside the conceiving of who’s right, or how to fix things. Enter the field of 'now' by tuning into your body for a few seconds: feel the rhythm of breathing, sense the pulses and let those natural rhythms adjust your mind in terms of those activations. Such as: can my intention pause for a moment? Can my attention widen so that the trigger point that is affecting me is held in a more spacious and calmer perspective? As that becomes possible, you'll notice that the feel, the contact-impression gets less intense and you don't feel pinned by it. 

As regards a response, let that come in its own time; that is when it arises from the sensed field. In this way, you stay where you are, you don't lose your centre, and you won't be building a wall. Then whether you act, make eye-contact with the other, or deepen into your body, the movement that fits will arise. You’ll have widened out of the contracted mind into embodiment, and that keeps the right time.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Practice Notes: Goodwill (mettā)

‘This is how you should train yourself: “Kindness … compassion … appreciative joy … equanimity as my release of awareness, will be developed, pursued, made into a vehicle, given a grounding, steadied, consolidated, and well-undertaken.”’  A. 8: 63
Begin with yourself
Why prioritize goodwill towards myself? Because this is where it gets most direct and real. You can imagine other people – when you're so inclined and for chosen periods of time - but you're faced with yourself night and day. And in practising with your own mind states, you’re meeting stuff that isn’t publicly available; you’re gradually liberating your heart from self-criticism, despond, guilt, anxiety and perfectionism; and you're sampling the results. And as goodwill transforms the heart through which you experience the world, this changes your whole world. That includes how you experience other people. (Believe it or not, your experience of other people is not an accurate representation – it’s tainted by your own mental attitudes.)
Get the real thing
So what is this ‘mettā’? Loving-kindness and goodwill are its more attractive features. But be careful! A big ‘I should be’ lurks at the tail-end of these concepts, and ‘should be’ doesn't get you there. That’s the snag. We can all imagine what and how we should be – but how do we come to terms with, and stop feeling bad about, who we seem to be – or more accurately, about what's happening in our minds? How do we meet painful memories that we ‘should have got over by now’; or anxiety attacks that we know are ungrounded and irrational? If you learn to set up a way of being present and sensitive to any of that, the chances are you're practising the real thing, no sugar coating.
Another hint: it doesn't always feel that good. ‘Love’ sounds nice and sweet, but mettā isn't a feeling, it’s an inclination. Its energy is associated with giving, healing or nourishing that which seems needy, sick, exhausted or dried up – in oneself or in others. Its fundamental inclination is non-aversion. So one result, and aim, of that is to enable one to be aware of various forms of ill-will (more on that later) without blaming oneself or others, and without concealing, or even fixing it. In this way, goodwill makes it possible to meet and not react to some unlovely stuff. In such a meeting, the suffering of fault-finding, resentment and despond can be transmuted into compassion and deep understanding.
In terms of liberation, mettā sustains the heart in its efforts to expel the dart of suffering. That is, we may indeed want to stop suffering, and we may acknowledge that the craving to have some mind-state that is constantly cheerful and bright is a basis of suffering. We may even get to see that craving to escape from the painful, pathetic or ugly aspects of mind is also suffering – but then what do we do about this messy stuff? In terms of insightful attention, it’s a matter of differentiating between what is affecting the heart-mind and the heart-mind that is being affected. (The basis of Buddhist meditation is a ‘stepping back’ or disengagement (viveka) from events and moods in the mind – a step that reveals the watchfulness and spaciousness that are the essence of the heart-mind.) Following on from this, replacing the aversion to suffering with goodwill to the heart that gets affected by it is a powerful strategy. Just be with the disappointment, loss, irritation (etc.) – and empathy will start to arise. When empathy arises in the watchful space, it enables us to abide with a steady heartfulness – and also to realize that a lot of our difficult mind-states will peter out if we don’t add negative energy to them. ‘All conditioning energies (sankhāra) are subject to change’: the way of release involves us going against the set patterns that these energies catalyse. With regards to negativity, this entails replacing the blaming and the tribunals with goodwill.
No deals
Goodwill is one of the 'measureless' (appamāno) abidings, because it is an intention that doesn't measure who deserves it, and what the results should be. Appamāno also means ‘non-conceiving’, so the lawyer and the accountant mind-sets have to go. It's a free-will offering of empathic presence with what is happening. In the presence of pain it transmutes into compassion (karunā) in the presence of skilful qualities, it becomes appreciation and enjoyment (muditā) and in the overview of kamma it becomes equanimity (upekkhā). Overall it doesn't ask for results, it's ‘abundant, exalted and immeasureable’ : it's free and there are no deals. This is revolutionary.
Why bother, I'm OK?
Goodwill may seem like an accessory to practising for liberation, but all four aspects are taught as ‘doors to the Deathless’ (M.52). That is, they're on a par with the four jhāna. Goodwill and its associates operate in the same way as samādhi in that they fortify the citta to the extent that it can rest free from craving. That’s the door; to pass through that door requires insight, but insight has to be held at the door – of the craving to be some fixed thing – in order to open it. Because it can acknowledge all mind-states without complaint, goodwill can provide that support.
Moreover, if you aren't fully enlightened, the chances are that your heart is affected by ill-will, or one of its undercover forms or latencies. The revealing and undoing of these hidden potentials is one of the aims of mettā. It's about more than being a nice person.
For instance, let’s imagine a well-meaning person: ‘I wouldn't hurt a fly, but from time to time I do get annoyed by idiot politicians. I live in a moral way (as best I can) and so I think criminals deserve punishment on account of the terrible things they've done. I’m a friendly person; so of course, I wouldn’t like to make a nuisance of myself and be a burden, so I don’t feel comfortable about asking anyone to help me. No way: I should look after myself, pay my way and set a good example. Yes, I feel that I should live up to others’ expectations – although I don't really know what they are; so I look out for warning signs – like silence or any signs that others aren't at ease – because that means that I’ve done or said something wrong, or I’m not welcome. So I keep up a patter of lightweight conversation, produce some good humour, and excuse myself if I run out these. And when I get home, I review what I've done or left undone to check if I might have got something wrong, and I think of how I could get it better next time, although with looks like mine and my lack of social skills, then to be honest, I'm never going to be as popular as ... But maybe it's just my kamma to be like this, after all, when I was a kid I did lie to my father – several times in fact; maybe that’s why when I try to meditate my mind never calms down. I’m probably not going to get enlightened anyway, so what's the point? Anyway, I may be neurotic at times, but I can get by OK on my own.’
All this is comes from a mind that isn’t resourced with goodwill. Check it out: if people in public office are failing in their duties, or if members of a society are threatening the safety or well-being of others, an appropriate response is suitable. But do the shortcomings of other people (let alone the malfunctioning of machinery or systems) have to evoke a response of anger or vengefulness? Go down the list: Isn’t the assumption that other people will receive you or your needs with displeasure a sign of inferred ill-will? As well as anxiety over performance, self-criticism and acceptance of defeat? Then add to this imagined list other features such as: regarding any minor mistake or social gaffe to be a major sin; creating overviews of your activites that dwell on undeveloped or unwelcome states as ‘This is what I am’; creating deadlines; comparing yourself with others; or, in relationship with another, assuming that you have to make it work for them, sort them out, or fix yourself to suit them.
The point is that if you’ve been bullied, dumped, deceived or looked down upon, you’ve experienced the hostility of others and been shaped by that. If you haven’t been brought up in a context of safety and free from the need to prove you’re good enough – your heart will dip into the shadow of shame, anxiety, and inadequacy. And trying to be strong, or win approval, or trying to be nice at the expense of presenting how things are for you right now – isn't going to make you feel warm, relaxed or comfortable. Because you haven’t dealt with the results of the actions of others, potential hostility is carried in the heart as a set pattern. That is we have an assumption of what others might say or expect; and because much of our personality is created by the responses of others, our personal self doesn’t know the fullness of the heart-mind. We don’t know ‘who we are’ other than as a personality that's been formed to deal with others. Accordingly, we may hold a view that we aren’t good enough unless we’re universally approved of or understood, and that unless these impossibles are achieved, we will be, and be seen as, inadequate, flawed, unworthy and undeserving of the affection or respect of others. But how good does anyone have to be in order to be worthy of respect? What’s the grade and who sets that standard? Unless you practise mettā towards yourself, then you’re liable to cultivate a form of kindness to others that is based upon trying to be a good person, or on assuming that it’s your duty to forgive and help others. The truth of the matter is that you’re operating from a well-meaning but false basis. You haven’t cleared your own heart – how are you going to clear anyone else’s?
Practice: receive it and give it out
In terms of practising goodwill towards oneself, the first step is to get as settled as you can in your body in a wakeful and aware way.
Access and get interested in the ground beneath you, or more accurately, the contact with the floor, or the surface against which your legs are resting. Acknowledge that its support only requires you to rest on it. Do that. How does that resting into support feel? I’ll call that experience ‘ground’. Dwell in that; keep returning to that simple sense of support, relaxing the inclination to do or understand anything. Instead, practise receiving ground. As is often the case in meditation, the mind gets restless and feels it should be doing something else; so keep returning to the sense of your body being supported by ground. Take plenty of time; liken this to relaxing in a warm bath. The bath doesn’t mind how grubby you are; it’s there to receive you.
Gradually build up the perception of the space that immediately surrounds your body. Notice that the space in front of you is free from obstruction and free from intrusion. Like ground, this space doesn’t ask anything of you. You don’t have to be good for the space to wrap around you. It’s not a very refined point or sensation, it’s just the absence of pressure. Dwell on how that feels, let your chest and breathing open into that space.
Extend the perception of space to include your back; also acknowledge and get interested in the space above your head. Nothing is pressing down on you. There’s nothing that you have to understand, develop or become. You may acknowledge that with a thought, but above all get the mood, get it in the heart, and absorb into it.
In any of these processes, the mind can struggle with their simplicity, their lack of detail. If so, add some imaginative touches: bring to mind a helpful image (such as sitting in warm water or in a light or a cool place); recollect an occasion when another person helped you – in fact recollect many of those occasions. When such a recollection is established, dwell in how it feels, and let the image of the person (etc.) fade. How does it feel to receive goodwill? Hold back for now for praising the benevolent person, or ‘paying it back.’ Just dwell in receiving the goodwill.
When that mood becomes stable, so that you can feel the effects in your body, contemplate it as a mental state. The mood can steady into a ‘sphere’ or domain. Then you can invite your impressions of others into that domain. Begin with those who easily fit: people you already feel grateful to, or respectful of – benefactors, supports and guides. Then on to those who evoke a sense of compassion, and those whose goodness you feel uplifted by.
With people you feel neutral towards, or people in the public sphere, it’s helpful to recollect that they have personal lives with wishes, failings, strengths, concerns and sorrows. And with difficult people, soften the focus on their difficult aspects, take in the broader picture (as above). Imagine them asleep, or having an illness, or going through any one of the 101 mundane experiences that make up the background of your life too. Above all, don’t allow bitterness, spite or fear take over your heart. It can also be helpful to imagine them walking towards you, and stopping them at a distance that feels safe or from where you can sustain non-aversion (if more positive inclinations aren’t possible). Hold them for a long time in that sphere of non-aversion/non-resistence until you can sustain a sense of steady spaciousness whenever you bear them in mind. This doesn’t mean that you condone their actions. In fact it should also inform you of the need to maintain a safe distance from such people. In time your non-aversion may bring around changes in the other person’s behaviour; at any rate by your not bristling or caving in, you stay open to that possibility.

Finally, in the cases of strongly embedded negativity, it can be helpful to practise this by inviting an attuned other person into a shared, dialogue form. In this case, as you express a difficult mood or habit, the role of the other is not to fix or analyse what is being reported, but to maintain their own viveka: to simple acknowledge what is being said, and from time to time to catalyse their goodwill by asking ‘How does that feel?’ The basis of goodwill is the simple empathy to send out that question; its frution is to be able to unwaveringly receive any response.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Skin, Heart and Person

Skin is a tricky medium. On the one hand it helps to hold our insides tidily inside, and protects them from the elements. On the other it presents us as a wrapped-up package, an object in other people's gaze. And therein hangs a long tale. Of being seen as attractive or unattractive; of striving to look (and act) ‘right’; of being compartmentalized as black or white – and in general being sensed as 'other than me' in a process that has far-reaching effects. In daily life terms, this means that empathy can get lost, and tendencies towards ill-will, craving and fear encouraged.Unchecked, these tendencies then colour the human interactive world, and people get demonized on the grounds of nationality, ethnicity, or religion (etc.). 

Even more universal is the revelation that for most people, somewhere in the heart is the distinct impression, backed up by memories and narratives, that 'I'm not good enough, I'm unworthy, unattractive, the odd one out’ – and so on. Hence life gets driven by mistrust of others, fear of failure and of falling behind the mainstream –  and is propelled by an urge to acquire the wrappings, the clothes and cultural style of the majority. Or of the leaders and the models. So we try to become an approved object; even though we can only truly be subjects and need to be related to as such. Moreover, even though the leaders and the models look like they’re succeeding, they have to keep hitting the success button – and sooner or later fail: the secret blemishes get revealed; addictions and phobias deepen; and egotistical drives push the person into substance abuse, disastrous relationships or self-harming. The denial of mutual subjectivity – that we are all equally a 'me', with differing perspectives, but having similar needs, problems and skills – means that respect and harmony are replaced by personal isolation and a mask of conformity. In such a scenario, few people fully inhabit their true skin, and no-one feels safe for long.

Being wrapped in ‘white’ skin seems normal to me. It doesn't prevent me from suffering – but more from my own ignorance than from the fear or hostility of others. So I don't directly experience, and easily forget, the kind of prejudice that people of darker skin suffer from when they go shopping (and are seen as suspected thieves) or stroll down a street (and are seen as potential troublemakers). In the USA, for example, dark skin hugely heightens the possibility that you will receive abuse, or even get shot, while doing something like that. Here the terminology sets people apart: for example as African-American, or Asian-American – in other words as less than, or a sub-set of the 'normal' American. Who by inference is white. A lot can come into play because of that hyphen alone: the need to prove oneself in order to get accepted; and hence the over-performance that screws people up. Either that or the cynicism that ‘whatever I do I won't be accepted, so why bother?’  Out of such defeatism runs the path of substance abuse and apathy that wrecks entire cultures – witness the plight of Native Americans and Australian Aboriginals.

So skin can be a big issue. And it's not just a matter of pigmentation. There are other significant wrappings around a heart-mind (citta) that is naturally shared and sharing. There's the gender wrapping, the sexual orientation wrapping, the money wrapping, the national wrapping, the clothes and style wrapping – to name a few. If you are wrapped in a minority (or ‘lesser’) kind of skin, you are second-rate. It's therefore hardly surprising that this affects the heart, the crucial domain of well-being and liberation. When the view that ‘there’s something wrong with me’ is a haunting presence, the heart-mind never really settles. Sure, one may be able to apply oneself and even quieten it from time to time, but subconsciously the spiritual quest becomes an attempt to either clean or deny the self-image.

With the aim of bringing around the release from suffering, Dhamma practice often emphasizes letting go of the personal. That is, if we put aside the clutter of our everyday events, we can go deeply inwards and access transcendent freedom. In this transpersonal ‘ultimate truth’, we go beyond identity with all its issues; here one's wrappings don’t pertain and one can feel free. However, emphasis on the transpersonal alone skips or trivializes how we arise in the interactive world of other people and social responsibilities. People with second-rate wrappings are particularly let down by ultimate truth: having been advised that personal issues are a mere convention and to be abandoned in the spiritual quest, they experience shame about still having any: ‘Truth is above race, appearance and social position; they shouldn't mean anything to me.’ (And it’s easy enough, maybe, to not take one’s social position personally when you’re white, male and middle-class.) And even for those who can deepen into transpersonal depths in a meditation retreat, there remains the issue of the personal, and social, domain. If one leaves the retreat ‘skinless’, how do we meet the world with its get-ahead messages and performance drives? How do we integrate the Dhamma into an individual and interactive life? We’ll probably just grab the nearest set of wrappings – those of a slightly improved, and more ethically-attuned, self – and return to the old attitudes, anxieties and self-image. It's the nature of the ‘person-pack’ (sakkaya). But to transcend this, one has to reveal and resolve personal issues at their basis rather than ‘get over’ them. ‘No transcendence without including the personal’ is a useful motto. 

Consequently in the fullness of Dhamma-practice, depths and surface have to be both respected; the clarity and resources of the transpersonal have to embrace and address the issues of the personal so that we can wear, lightly but clearly, a skin that fits our own hearts. To elaborate on this: the Buddha's right view presents experience not in terms of a person having an experience, but of a conditioned experience that gives rise to the sense of being a person. In brief, conditions – such as customs, attitudes, inclinations, fears, blind spots and psychological strengths – create the sense of a person and of a world in which they function. These conditions frame and shape the basis of experience – which is ‘citta’, deep mind, awareness or heart.  Citta is the ‘knowing’ and the affective-responsive aspect of mind-consciousness: without that there can be no experience. That is, experience requires an experiencer, and that experiencer is awareness, citta. 

For the average person, this awareness is conditioned into a ‘heart-mind’ that carries ‘old kamma’ in terms of forces (sankhāra) that impart a subjective tint to what is seen, heard, touched or thought (etc.) To give a practical example: when a builder looks at a house he sees the structure and materials, when an architect does the same she sees the design, but a thief notices the doors, windows and locks. They carry the old kamma of their respective conditioning; for any individual, the conditioned citta is the foundation of their personal world.  And of course of their identity: as citta arises into the world of sense-contact, it does so with a conditioned inference that this is happening, not just to an eye, an ear a body or a brain, but to a ‘me’. So the self arises; and with that comes the program of acquiring a set of responses to avoid pain and gain safety and happiness for ‘me’. (Although none of these give guaranteed or long-term results.)

In the social context, citta learns pleasure-pain responses in terms of interactions with other people – signals of approval and disapproval, of isolation or mutuality. These are internalized as perceptions and reactions. So what amount to moments of experience form life-messages with their attitudes, strategies, virtues and phobias – and these get set as the blueprint of our personhood. In other words, a personality is largely established by the heart's impressions of other people, by what they say I am, and by how I am supposed to be with them. A shaky and shifting territory.

All this may seem to be psychological stuff, stored in our brains, and a matter for psychotherapy. But when one reviews the Buddha’s instructions, a standard presentation is of using the body to affect the citta. For example one popular teaching module is that of the four ‘territories of mindfulness’ (satipatthāna). (M.10) This presentation links body to physical and mental feeling, to the states that citta is affected by, and to the phenomena (dhammā) that either hinder or release the citta. A similar thread runs through the four tetrads of instructions on mindfulness of breathing. In both these teachings, one begins with body and through fully accessing that, goes on to clear and release the citta. As the suttas have it: ‘One thing leads to realization of the fruit of knowledge and liberation … Mindfulness of the body.’ (A 1, 582) And: ‘It is in just this fathom-long body with its perceptions and mind that I make known the arising of the world, the ceasing of the world, and the way leading to the ceasing of the world.’ (S 1, 2, 26) How is that? Clearly the world is not located in the liver or in the pain in my back.

Well, in terms of the body, there is a domain of which we can be more fully aware that has a direct connection to the citta and to the world that it creates. This is what I term the ‘somatic domain’: it roughly corresponds to the messages and sensitivities of our nervous systems. Through developing awareness and skill in this area, what is first sensed as tension, ease or numbness can be revealed as underlying programs of fear, of passion, of affection and of grief. So, in the somatic domain we can access the signals of citta as they play out in our bodies – in other words, we can get to the foundation of what wraps us, and rewire it.

This process is made possible by the resonant and sympathetic properties of citta. That is, its subjective sense can tell us how things feel to me. We can also sense how we’re being affected through attuning to our somatic domain, and sustain a wise and sympathetic response right there, without having to go into rehashing the self-image, the stories, the justifications, defences or shrugs. In the somatic domain we can sense our citta programs wordlessly, and, through a developed empathic response, let them move on. Where? ‘Mindfulness exercises authority over all dhamma… Their consummation is nibbāna.’(A 10,58) So the nibbāna, the complete undoing of life-messages, comes not through me changing how I am, but through a process whereby this tension (etc.) is held mindfully. That is, it is experienced not as who I am, but as a condition that I can relate to and cease to be created by. 

Herein the crucial piece is to relax the learnt responses of fluster and shielding that occur around fear, shame, rage or grief, and just be empathically present with them in the body. And this is where meditative skill is needed: both to access the depths where citta unfolds into a measureless presence, and to hold the personal realm with mindfulness and compassion. The first of these processes refers to accessing the most fundamental citta sense, which is that of being present, of awareness, the Refuge. All this can take place in the somatic domain, where Refuge is the grounded and unconstricted state of fundamental safety. By being mindful of that, the gift of awareness can be settled into. The beauty of this is that awareness is a given, it’s involuntary, it’s not deserved or gained.  Citta at this level doesn’t react; it doesn’t know how to blame, deflect, shrug or give up.

The second process is about integrating this safe unhindered awareness into an individual form. This can be done through widening one's aware focus in a broad and slow inquiry: ‘What does it feel like to be me, at this moment?’ Then holding whatever is sensed there with empathy and interest – as it actually is, not through fixing it or otherwise substituting it for a more positive state. This is true empathy, the initial response of citta as it rises into the domain of relative truth. It is the initial sense that ‘I am here’ before the person-pack gets inked in and built upon, but carrying its blueprints. This represents a border zone of the mind, an affective sense that is often rushed through as the mind gets into ‘how I was, what others think, the future and what to do about all this.’ It's a zone that can also be moved through in the opposite direction as the mind releases into more measureless depths. This zone is however a vital area for either really getting to the point of what keeps me busy and restless, or of arising from the transcendent into a personal form that has been released from afflictive programs. In other words, this very broad, non-specific and somatic sense of being in a separate form with a ‘world’ around it is a domain that can be lingered in. And it can be suffused with goodwill: ‘May there be well-being here,’ rather than rushed through with ‘I should do something.’ In this domain we can develop new skin.

Such psychological skin forms boundaries around what I will take in, and what I will not accept in terms of the behaviour of others. It respects personal privacy, and gives us the right to choose the time and place to open up – or not. Instead of feeling defined by the projections of others, or of defining others in terms of one’s own projections, we can feel the safe and intimate somatic domain and not get thrown out into such views. Through knowing the Refuge, we know what we’re not; and through integrating that into our individuality, we know how to relate to that. With clarity, groundedness and empathy, of course.