Thursday, 26 December 2019

Only connect - the wise angel.

Being requested – by someone called Angel- I’m writing an article. It's not often that the angels make such requests. So. Just to connect.

Only connect: it’s a useful memo for meeting the stickier pieces of mind, or body, that arise in meditation. That is, rather than think about the problem and why you have it, and what you should do to get rid of it, the first piece of advice is to connect to how it feels, a careful process which has three aspects: Recognize, Accept and Refer. First, recognize: instead of a creating a long story about me and her and how things should be, turn your attention to the impact the event is having on you. You try to recognize the tone of the thought - say as 'irritated' or 'prickly' or 'weighed down'. That simplifies matters and gets you out of your head and into your heart. Then: accept the presence of a quality that you don't like and shouldn't have – but do have! That relaxes the grip on the issue as well as the self who is struggling with it. This does leave you with some emotional turbulence – but you refer that to your body. As in: 'How is my body feeling with this?' 'Where is this in my body right now?' or even 'Where is my body now?' ( No, not your address, but are you conscious of your body as it feels, rather than thinking about it, or yourself.) 

With these steps, you put aside the strategy of solving and understanding – all that is psycho-code for aversion and getting rid of and is based on the view that these phenomena are me and mine, and that me and mine can fix them. And that's not so, otherwise you would have done so by now. Instead connect - only spread a patient and sympathetic awareness over the stress, only connect the mental to the embodied aspect; only feel the feeling directly as a feeling... and then? ... No; relax the time horizon. Then 'Inquire'. Ask 'What is needed right here, in this embodied condition?' And wait, and feel. Only connect; the hidden angel of heart will do the rest. Its nature is to arrive at harmony – if we let it.

That goes for the body too; if you can refer to its intelligence. For example,in the practice of Qi Gong, one relaxes muscle, grounds body on its carefully-aligned bones, and thereby allow the connective tissue to open. This is where the vitality that informs the body interconnects. Therefore tension unlocks, vitality steadily improves. And ease comes to the fore. 'Use only 70% effort'is the watchword. To high-pressure 'performance' people, I might say 'Use 50%'. Just hold the form, connect to the whole body – balanced energy ensues. The body's nature is to arrive at harmony.

On other levels, harmony arrives, if at all, via less assured routes. Living in accord with the way things are while digesting items of world news, bits of sangha business, meetings with visitors guests, the sick and the dying, steering through email traffic, working on publications and maintaining a steady application to meditation has been, let's say, an ample task. With this body having now reached seventy years, it is often the case that I sense: 'This heap of occupations doesn't fit. Where is the grounding structure, and the connective tissue? What's my place and how much do I engage in?’

Meanwhile even a light scan of global issues brings in awareness of the discord in many societies. Economic factors and inequality, spark fears over immigration, nationalism rises up. Into this unsettled basis, politicians use slogans and the politics of rage to gain power; leaders dupe and divide their citizens, and drive the non-conformists or the impoverished to the wall; the anger returns in the shape of attacks on servants of the state and any opposing group. When family members and neighbours find themselves on either side of the 'Trump divide' or the 'Brexit split', the disconnect is of the kind that populist rhetoric can only make worse.

Likewise the Earth. One wouldn't think that it would require a mystic to tell us that we don't own the Earth: our bodies depend on its nourishment and pass away into it. It's more the case that it owns us. But the domination-exploitation mind-set disconnects – and grabs.  So, the power group (economical and political) does little about, or actively supports, the exploitation, abuse and destruction of land, water and air. And hence all life is threatened. To connect to this criminality is to feel the mind quail under the blow of the statistics and the grim photographs (Australia and California on fire, whale carcasses bloated with plastic, etc., etc.). And what cuts even deeper is the loss of the truth of something vital about humanity: that we are beings blessed with the potential for love, morality and wisdom. What demon seduces us to abandon this for money and power? 

So for healing ... such hope as I have for society and the world in general rests in local community action and trans-national co-operative movements. Meanwhile, personally, the heart's duty is to connect to it all; to refer to the embodied sense and give up on reasons, analysis and critiques. Drifting through levels of despond, eventually I land on the 'measureless states' (of good will, compassion, appreciation and equanimity). It's not an easy descent, travelling as it does through the sense of impotence. But that's where the angels of the heart rise to withstand the pressure. Only they can check despair, cynicism and aversion from taking over. And when the good heart directly senses this 'host of Mara', it pushes back and gradually expands. There seems to be no other qualities than the measureless states that can keep the heart intact at an engaged level. Especially in the increasing number of hours in which, energy fading after another retreat or meeting or project, I am obliged to sit and do nothing anyway until my vitality picks up. Then these measureless states offer a response that connects to it all – including myself. When I can't do anything 'useful', it is possible to linger in grateful appreciation of what this Earth and this life has offered me so far. There is compassion for what we are losing, and also a blessing for the courage, integrity and vigour of what keeps us afloat. The details of how younger people will meet the challenges remain in the bud, but it seems we're coming to the end of the world as I thought I knew it, and a new wave has to rise up. The ‘dominate and exploit as much as you like’ dream has turned into a nightmare. So I need to get grounded rather than panic, to touch into an equanimity which is far from indifference. It's not that the heart is uncaring, but also there's awareness that conditions are like this, now. As for the future – who knows?

In fact, having abandoned the future as it is mapped out by statistics as being impossible to operate within, my mind finds deep appreciation of the range and resilience of true life. Nature, as it manifests in the deep intelligence of trees that bind soil, light, air, insects, birds and other creatures into a regenerating web, has always been a marvel to me. So if much of it is to disappear into dust and dead water over the next fifty years, it becomes even more important to protect and support the life-forms in my local patch. Many cultures and religions, from shamanical to contemplative to creative, are being reduced by the march of materialism and pulp media, so that most ancient indigenous wisdom has been or will inevitably be, ploughed under by the mainstream. So it is a privilege to have touched into a few. Moreover, if our intelligence is to be made abstract by technology, so that communication is through devices, Twitterized propaganda and distorted media, if we’ve arrived at a state whereby we need satellite connection to navigate a journey of a few miles, it is time to value the direct intelligence that was the basis of the Buddha's wisdom and teachings – and which arose in face-to-face presence and the tonal inflexions and effects of voice. People of the land such as he used to wander guided by the careful reading of land, perspectives, sun and stars. We used to belong here; life embraced and poured through and informed us in so many ways. Such a miracle. 

I can reflect that I have responded to this state of affairs. I have produced no  children – and that's a contribution towards the population problem as well as a heap of consumer issues from plastic to dairy food and whatever else gets extracted from the Earth to sustain and service one human being. I refrain from consuming meat and fish, and, as best as I can as a recipient of alms-food, limit my intake of dairy produce. I don't drink water that comes in plastic bottles, and I ask those who attend my retreats to bring non-disposable flasks and rely on tap water; for a similar reason I use fountain pens rather than throw-away plastic ball-points. I use a solar panel and battery pack (and carry them with me when I travel) to power devices. I conserve water by a) collecting rain water in rain barrels to flush my toilet,b)taking a shower only once every five or six days, and c) washing clothes infrequently (the mercy of brown clothing). I've encouraged and supervised the planting of thousands of trees. On the negative side, my long-haul flights do cause me considerable soul-searching, (and curb the potential for self-righteousness) but I fly to teach when rail is impractical. I have talked this over with others who all say that the benefit that my presence brings outweighs the negative effect of my occupying one seat on a jumbo airliner; it's also the case that if I don't travel, then it's likely that twenty or more people will fly over to see me. But I'm considering limiting long-distance flights to one per year. Finally, since the Vipassana Teachers' Conference in 2013 asked that teachers respond to the climate emergency, I make environmental awareness a part of my Dhamma presentation, and have written a book on the topic (Buddha-Nature, Human Nature c/o ) I encourage you to look into and attune your own responses. (You might like to read "No Impact Man" by Colin Beavan for some ideas - and humorous anecdotes) However, within the scenario of being a forest monk (one who lives on the margins of the wilderness and doesn't engage with social affairs), I seem to be doing about as much as I can do right now.

Meanwhile, in a world which gives no time to linger, I value every moment of direct truthful contact with my fellow human beings –while acknowledging that not everyone has the occasion or the interest to participate in it. This also keeps me equanimous and modest in my expectations. The Buddha counselled that if one can find even one true companion, to find strength in that; I have found many – here and there and in episodes to be sure – but in my awareness I can still be inspired by meetings from long ago. Faces and phrases well up in the pool of citta and give encouragement; I share my life and ongoing actions with them. And with the realisation of the resource that a trained awareness offers.

So the dismay at the deadening of the human spirit must be balanced by referring to the potential of its wellspring – so that we have the energy to keep it alive and active. Meditation in general and the measureless states in particular offer that. ‘There is nothing that can be of such benefit as a well-trained citta’ to paraphrase the Buddha.

Goodwill, compassion, glad appreciation and equanimity are inflexions of awakened love. It has taken time and inquiry to find out what that word 'love' really means. Perhaps it always does: most of us have to work through having fun, being sentimental or getting flushed and heated with passion – along with their accompanying downturns. The all-embracing quality of the measureless states however, is based not on these but on acceptance. This connection to the heart, the recognition and reference to empathic awareness, is essential for true growth, let alone awakening. Yet it's not that common: some people have rarely received the respect and appreciation of them just being how they are. The society as represented by the popular media certainly doesn't know what that kind of love is. But to me, the real love is not about anyone deserving it, or being perfect, or even helpful. It's just that if the heart stops grabbing, or being seized by, images of self and others, of what it wants and rejects, it opens into a fluent warmth. It's a natural thing – if we linger, recognize and deeply connect.

I was travelling on a train in Britain recently and got into a conversation with a woman who had been participating in an Extinction Rebellion (climate emergency) demonstration in London recently. We didn’t discuss the issue that XR was/is addressing, but she lit up on speaking of how it provide an occasion for joyful fellowship. This is what a co-operative and peaceful gathering can create – and its meaning extended beyond a few days to be an awakening to a sense of community based on diversity, inclusion and voluntary response from the heart. Within a nation that is increasingly divided, this a sign of hope. And in a world on fire, there are many such signs.

I've sat up late to write this. Outside where I am now, the traffic of Bangkok rushes and clatters; it is night and people are zooming past each other in their metal boxes, adding to the pollution of the air as they do so. City life; that’s how it is – for now. May we arrive at wiser ways and more harmonious times. May all be well.

Sunday, 8 September 2019

Systems Breakdown: What Next?

Whoops! Back in 4,200 BCE when this 20 metre high granite pillar ('Le Grand Menhir' in what is now Locmariaquer, Brittany) toppled over, it must have caused quite a stir. It had been sitting tall and strong for about 300 years – that’s longer than Germany, Italy, Greece, Belgium and a host of others have been nation-states – then the shift happened.  Maybe it was an earth tremor, or a team of terrorists or...? What is apparent though is that systems and structures break down.  Sometimes suddenly. They take work, and belief and power to establish, they come to define us – and then: Goodbye Ottoman Empire, goodbye Yugoslavia, goodbye USSR: who’s next? American post-war hegemony, and its claim to set the standards for the 'free world', is an outdated notion. 'United Kingdom'– is not so in the spirit and maybe not much longer in the letter. Even the ideal of the European Union has lost some of its gloss as its economic programs bite into social welfare and as local sentiment chafes against pan-European standardisation. Christendom has gone, how about NATO (currently being shaken by the USA) or the international banking system (after all it did go belly-up in 2008)? 

As for what's next; the collapse of a holding structure sucks power seekers into the resultant vacuum. See the Middle East and the Balkans. The USSR got grabbed by opportunist entrepreneurs, and the resultant political elite spasms with attempts to revive the Russian Empire. The status quo all seems so solid – until it brings around its own breakdown. The neo-liberal economic revolution of the 1980s that replaced post-war social welfare programs with privatisation seems so much in charge of the human world. But what you may not take into account is that money itself is no longer backed by anything solid (Nixon disengaged the dollar from gold in 1973, so that the underpinning of global finance is a set of floating exchange rates) – wealth is balanced on nothing more substantial than agreements. (And what has been agreed can be disagreed.) So as people wake up to the consequently increasing unequal distribution of wealth and the virtual serfdom that they are obliged to operate under, unrest grows. Far right militarism, and left-wing protests.  What agreements? What next?

On a more positive note, new ideas spring up to be tested. Finland (and districts of Ontario) have decided to offer unconditional basic income: to just give people what they need to live, irrespective of work. Another think tank – Autonomy – argues that in order to avoid more than 2C of global warming, the working week will have to be reduced to nine hours. Less commuting, fewer goods, less resources used. Sounds interesting – if with all that spare time, people take up meditation rather than social delinquency. But the ideas from Autonomy refer to 'global warming', and that is just one aspect of another systemic crisis – the 'eco-crisis'. The eco-crisis includes the substantial reduction in the insect population  (hence pollination and fruit production, as well as health of the soil are threatened). On top of this there is the poisoning of water and air through the chemicals that are used to kill the insects. And let's not forget, much as I'd like to, that these chemicals are still only a fraction of the total chemical assault on Nature. Note the deluge of plastic trashing our water and invading our bodies, note fuel-based air pollution damaging city-dwellers' lungs. The environmental damage caused by the meat and dairy industries? There are a few books' worth of arguments and statistics behind all these aspects; I'm not interested in adding more to that point. Just to acknowledge the results: with the Arctic tundra burning and the Antarctic ice sheets melting, with species extinction and desertification, with Pacific islands threatened by the rising level of the oceans and the Amazon forest shrinking fast, one thing that occurs is that people get alarmed and start pushing for change. What next?

The fact that a considerable amount of pushing has had to take place to draw attention to the loss of this self-sustaining and inhabitable planet (from which many species have already disappeared) speaks of another, more fundamental loss: the erosion of truth. Concerns about climate change, first broached by James Hansen to the US Congress in 1988, were not just ignored, but actively discredited (by fossil fuel companies) and are still dismissed to this day. Truth has long been understood to be more of a visitor in the political arena than a resident, but one more recent and striking development has been that when leaders of government in the US and the UK are found to be lying, a sense of shame has been replaced by bluster, and by counter-attacks on the fake media. 'Democratic' ( admittedly failing) structures are giving way to simple slogan-waving strong-men – who gain support by offering simple populist 'solutions.' As for media: as the internet provides news that changes by the minute, it also lessens the opportunity for a reasoned assessment of truth. Reasoned assessment (an aspect of wisdom) disappears altogether: it's getting to be that we can't talk to those of opposing views; we just trade polemics. 

Religion should surely provide an answer. But through time it becomes interlocked with culture and that gets nationalistic. Back in 1948, TS Eliot, in his 'Notes towards the Definition of Culture' wrote that 'the culture of Europe could not survive the complete disappearance of the Christian faith... If Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes.'  Well, if 'our culture' means the mixture of fundamentalist attitudes and sexual scandals around and within the Church, and with the predominance of secular materialism, there's not much hope for 'our (= Eliot's) culture'. Without going into the Anglican perspectives of the great poet, I'd like to suggest a more broad-based culture might work. 'Sharing, morality and being of modest needs', the graduated instruction that the Buddha gave to beginners, could provide a commonly acceptable standard – especially if we included the rest of the animate world as that which we should extend our sharing and morality to. 

So, could the welfare of the human and creaturely environment become a common multi-faith denominator (almost any faith being better than none)? Back in the late 1980s, the common cause of environmental concern did bring religious leaders together at Assisi and then Canterbury, and supportive declarations on the environment have been made by leaders and spokesmen of all major religions. However, since then we've also witnessed acts of violence undertaken by fundamentalist movements in Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, all based upon a strong desire to protect or solidify their sense of (national) identity. It may be that although most people 'belong' to a religion, most are not engaged in the quest for truth, wisdom or the divine. Religion for most seems to be a way of giving personal or national identity more backing, not for reducing the sense of self. And a united front and common commitment to wisdom, in theory and in practice, can't come around without a good amount of letting go of one’s individual, even national, viewpoint. 

Like many others I struggle with the sense of despond at all this. As a Buddhist, I can use such reflections: 'This is the way it is. The world is like this, all is changing, let go and work on your path to nibbāna'. But it loses its resonance when I am asked: 'I've got used to dealing with the anger and the fear that all this [political, economic, environmental domination] brings up – what do I do with the grief?' It takes me a while to respond, generally along the lines of finding one's inner refuge and opening the heart. Surely then, another aspect of the way it is, is that:  'Heart is like this, there are values dear to the noble ones, live those with wakefulness.' An act of faith is definitely called for, along with sense-restraint and compassion – but what action arises from that?

Take note: As the fixed structures crack, as the established mind-sets founder, something in humans wakes up. Dharma practitioners organise protests and eco-ventures. Children go on strike. Massed gatherings peacefully block the city streets. Organisations whose one aim is the protection of the environment attract millions – having more members in Britain at least than to any political party. Here, the cause of the environment even unites a population fractured by views on Brexit. Technology starts whirring and shifting to low-impact solutions. Billions of trees are planted. All this is transnational and trans-religious. Maybe Nature, internal as well as environmental, is calling us out of our selfishness. As with the Buddha's last words: 'Systems break down, strive on with diligence (vayadhammā sankhārā appamadena sampādetha)'. Systems break down, whereas truth, although often obscured, doesn't. What will it give rise to next?

Monday, 11 March 2019

Mind the Matter: the Path to the Deathless

I'm currently staying in a yurt on an animal sanctuary-cum-farm next to Cittaviveka, in the company of an abandoned donkey, a few ponies, three lamas, ducks, geese, and dogs. It's the winter retreat. It all makes so much sense: time to return to the body, through being in nature and meeting it rather than dominating it, overriding it or sealing oneself off from it. Body huddles, carefully swathed in fleece and wool, and mindfully scurries between shelters. But you have to get out there; swing your arms to chop wood, collect what you've chopped into a wheelbarrow or sack and drag it to your lair the way some carnivore would haul in its dead prey. The mind gets clean and sharp: no time or space to complain, worry or plan the next year. This is the animate condition. And it becomes 'we': winter makes other creatures your fellows in coping – squirrels dart here and there between brief squabbling contests; small birds hastily scour for seeds and hammer bird feeders with their beaks; geese and ducks organize their hierarchies; ponies and the donkey resiliently tough it out, their hides matted with rain.
This is retreat, forest style. Embodied, participatory. Often it's about dealing with what arises as winter eats into the buildings, mice nibble into the insulation – or the bedding (who can blame them?). Drains clog with leaves and debris and have to be scraped out. But embodiment covers a wide territory; from the coarse sensory (such as this) to the fine energetic domains that we enter with qi gong; to breath meditation in which the realms we call 'body; and 'mind' merge in the harmony of samādhi. But at any level, embodiment unseats the dislocated 'up in my head' self with its complexities, strategies and virtual reality; hence its cultivation integrates us. This is not so esoteric: body and mind have to merge whenever we engage with life – it takes bodily, emotional, and cognitive intelligence to dress the wound of a screaming, struggling child – with no time to speculate on the shoulds and shouldn'ts. But shouldn't this be the case with meditation?
Well 'disembodied spirituality' is the problem. The plausible notion is that one could extract a pure spirit from the mess of materiality: plausible because surely that’s what liberation is all about, isn’t it? Get out of the death-bound physical existence? Well, kind of, but not quite. According to the Buddha anyway, it is possible to elevate to more refined immaterial spheres and heavenly realms, but that isn’t what his liberation was about. Having sat himself at the root of a tree and directed his attention to in- and out-breathing, he found that in this living body lies the way to awakening. And he taught along those lines in no uncertain terms: the Numerical Discourses alone present fifty-two consecutive suttas in which in greater and lesser details the Buddha gives voice to the same message: 'Bhikkhus, they have not realized the deathless who have not realized mindfulness directed to the body' (Book of the Ones) Hmm. It seems that there’s something about this body that goes beyond.
Much depends on what we sense body as being. Bear in mind that in the West we inherit three disembodying (or de-animating) influences; that of Plato and Idealism; that of Augustinian Christianity and the sinful flesh; and that of Descartes, for whom the only intelligences were those of the thinking mind and of God. This view holds that only that which mind can conceive of and measure is real; if you can’t measure it with your devices, it isn’t true. And most of creation is senseless matter. As 'matter' itself derives from the common Indo-European word for mother, and nature is to do with the gift of birth, you can sense the rejection and sublimation of what is often referred to as the feminine, but I’ll call the embodied, the animate. Animate intelligence responds; it places the mind in a living and shared context, rather than in an abstract virtual reality; it's the intelligence of relational sensitivity rather than control and domination; intelligence that doesn’t expect or give value to linear structures and procedure, but operates in terms of currents, flows and probabilities. Even when this intelligence is expressed in abstract terms – as it is with Quantum Mechanics and Chaos Theory – it replaces the notional fixity of space-time measurements in order to meet reality as it happens. And as it happens, reality allows no separate observer, no independent bits, no stable neutral ground to measure from, and no fixed conclusion. It's not mathematically provable. But as Einstein commented: 'As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.'*
The guiding principle of mathematics is that things will remain solid and definite; that one can break them down to smaller discrete entities and also stick them together. You can stand apart, divide, add and measure. Therefore the most essential is the smallest building brick; that brick must be the ultimate foundation of reality. And it doesn't respond, won't get back at you. So breaking animate reality into pieces is what we do: this supports reductionist logic, abstract principles, smashing atoms and so on to the atom bomb. According to this view, Earth – a self-regulating system that includes all life – is a collection of inert materials that we can feed off, creatures that we can eliminate and convenient places where we can dump stuff somewhere called ‘away’. And we do much the same with our ourselves ... while still assuming that we can be separate from the broken mess that results from all that. Because there's a demonic promise in abstracting oneself from animate reality: that of unlimited power with minimal responsibility. Despite the evidence of the damage we do to ourselves and the rest of animate existence by buying into this notion, there is a seductive attraction in the idea of being supreme and above the rest.
The assumption that reality is something we can step out of and measure makes our very existence a riddle. Are we an ultimate consciousness that is separate from but involved with flesh (the 'Descender' view)? Or is that we are the latest development whereby the prehistoric slime of a two billion years ago has shifted its DNA into a configuration that produced human intelligence? (The ‘Ascender’ view). 

The Descenders are rather reluctant with regard to animate existence, keep it at bay and would like to get out of it as soon as possible. That was the strategy that the unawakened Gotama attempted and rejected prior to his awakening. Basically, he found that you can suppress and sublimate and refine the sensate experience but there’s nowhere to ‘get out’ to. The deathless isn't a definable quality 'out there'.
Meanwhile, from the ‘Ascenders’ point of view, sure, we can trace how floods of compassion activate areas of the brain: but does that mean that this mass of cerebral tofu produces mind? Or is it more like the TV set, which presents teams of men playing football on its screen; i.e. an animate system glowing with signals that it receives form some out of body source? No. it's just that intelligence animates. And animate systems, all of them, are intelligent. Trees can communicate and support their fellows, bees can do arithmetic, whales vocalize. So the co-dependent arising of consciousness and form is the fitting Buddhist model. To this is added the coda that the 'cessation' of consciousness can be cultivated. And that is liberation, awakening and so on.
But first, back to the body: 'In this fathom-long body endowed with perception and mind, I make known the world, the origin of the world, the cessation of the world, and the way leading to the cessation of the world.' (S.2:26) So what in the direct experience of mindfulness is this body? What is it in itself - not as a something that I see or think about or imagine I'm living in? What if I don’t divide it into a head in which I live and the rest of the body underneath 'me'? What if I recognise that the sensations that my body experiences come and go, and rather than being any one of them, ‘body in itself’ is receptive to them? In other words, isn't it the case that the foundation of all bodily experience is not dumb matter, but sensitivity, responsiveness – that is, 'mind'. But this is not mind as the measurer (mano) but as the animate intelligence of citta. As that intelligence experiences both sensations and the refined embodied energies of jhāna ( in which there is 'not one pore of one's entire body that isn't saturated, drenched and permeated with pleasure') it's not disembodied.
Yet when the Buddha speaks of 'those who dwell touching the deathless element with the body' (A 6:46) he's not referring to fingers and toes. There's something more fundamental. So what is the most constant bodily sense, the one you wake up with or that arises as you put down the book or switch off the screen? It's that of being here... within some undetermined boundary. Without experience being sensed by that animated and contextualising field of awareness, you’re not in your body. This animated embodied field adopts the changing forms of consciousness. So, most of the time, your face probably feels larger than your chest – but it lacks a scalp, and the back of the skull. The rest of the back is probably quite faint, and has much less definition than your front; in fact less sensation than occurs in one hand. While you’re reading, the lips aren’t apparent – but raise a cup and direct it to your mouth and they become huge. A thorn in your thumb makes that tiny point bigger than your torso. So your felt body is a different creature than the visual or notional one; and it can change... When you get angry, it tightens, when you’re sleepy, it’s as if your head is a bag of sopping wet feathers... When you practise qi gong, the head integrates into the entire body and the form is more spacious. With mindfulness of breathing, breath-energy can suffuse the entire body and dissolve it into a soft unified field that absorbs quietens and gladdens the mind. The felt body has many forms, but they arise dependent on the workings of consciousness: contact, feeling, attention, and mental interpretation. Not without those.
So it's not the case that the animate body arises within awareness – but the experience of form, of feeling, of ‘mental’ reactions and of visual, tactile and metal consciousness does. These 'khandha' arise within an animate field that always remains beyond perception  – because it is the subject, not any kind of object. Neither is it the case that awareness arises within the body – that would assume a state whereby there could be a body that notices awareness arising: but a non-conscious awareness is clearly impossible. What becomes clear is that you can't reduce the body-mind model to a single knowable reality; instead reality knows 'you' as you arise out of the mesh of consciousness and its machinations. These objects - form, feeling, perception, impulse, and consciousness in terms of eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind – come and go and change. And because of that the animate field can know there is a Path: mental content - the residues of kamma, as well as craving, delusion and ignorance are to be cleared within the embodied domain. Right: just as every event and  engaged-with phenomenon leave traces in the animate field, the clearing of these can be accomplished right there.
How is this? Well, if one’s attention could rest on the subtle energies of breathing in and out, steered there in a careful and sensitive way so that there was a pleasant abiding – then a lot of worry, irritation and craving wouldn’t have any foundation. And if that process cleared the stiffness, numbness and inner stress that accrues from living in a distorted disembodied way, there wouldn’t be much of a foundation for a heavy painful body, and attention wouldn’t be busy dealing with sensations and restlessness. Following that direction would lead to a steady vibrant sense of being here. Sure, on account of the content of consciousness, this may not easy – but can you base your awareness on just being present? Then locate the sense of a skin boundary arising within your awareness? That's not the edge of your awareness, it's just another subtle phenomenon within awareness. Can you practise relaxing that, and any other boundaries and measurements that you've adopted? Not by cutting off anything real, but by relinquishing the need, instinct and assumptions that keep your boundaries running. This is what is meant by cessation: the de-activation of consciousness. 'That base should be understood, where the mind (mano) ceases and perception of mental phenomena fades away.' (S.35:117) In embodied awareness there's a foundation for that.
But you might say, 'I still have to wash the dishes and feed the dog.' True enough. The question is: 'Who does all that? How much of a solid grip do they have on your life? Would you style yourself as "Suki/Brett(etc) the Dishwasher: that is my true self."? What occurs is the weaving of form, feeling, perception, impulses – of consciousness in brief. And when the experience of form, feeling, and the rest of it are no longer a source of agitation, fascination, or turmoil; when none of that grips the citta, when there is de-activation rather than further creation, why speak of body or mind or self as realities? In the terse language of Buddhist wisdom: with increasing detachment, dispassion and relinquishment, consciousness ceases. In such as case wouldn’t ‘unconditioned’ be more accurate?
So mind the matter. Coarse or refined. It carries the Path to sane responsibility and restraint that consummates in the deathless. In this animate field, the foundation for the dislocated self – onlooking, judging, worrying, planning, comparing itself with others, hanging on to petty gains and clinging for dear life – need not arise. 'This is deathlessness, that is, sensitive intelligence (citta) with no fixed basis.' (M.206:73)
 (* Fritjof Capra: The Tao of Physics P72 [Shambhala Publications 1975])

Saturday, 2 February 2019

Save Your World

(Lily and discarded tyre: South Harris, Scotland)

I recently received a message from a Dhamma-practitioner who has attended many of my retreat. She mentioned that on account of an anecdote I’d shared about the remarkable Sister Abegail of Kwa-Zulu Natal (that’s in South Africa) she was sending a donation to Kulugile, Sr. Abegail’s orphanage.  I met Sr. Abegail in 2015 when I was teaching in the area; she was then eighty years old and had recently returned from America after receiving an award from the Dalai Lama as one of the ‘unsung heroes of compassion’. For the greater part of her life she had with formidable resolve worked her way out of village life to a higher education, and into nursing and ordination. Often single-handedly (she would have said with God’s help) she had nursed orphans – including settling many of them into her own home – and set up care facilities in response to the AIDs epidemic that has ravaged the local population. The anecdote that I shared came out of our conversation: she’d been notified of a baby that had found in a trash bin and left for dead. True enough, the little one showed no signs of life – but with an ‘I’m not so sure…’ Abegail strapped the baby to her chest and carried and nursed it night and day. Sure enough, after a while she could detect a heartbeat… The little girl is now growing up. *

I think the point I was making was about not giving up on yourself or others no matter how bleak it gets; that compassion is the quality that willingly draws close to suffering and embraces it. It’s a quality that in its purest form isn’t even asking that things get better. In this way, it is boundless and free of harshness, indifference, and sorrow. Compassion is one of the ways the heart extends its precious resource of goodwill.  And the experience of the great heart is world-saving – even when it’s the experience of the great heart of others.  One’s perspective on suffering changes, and the sense of impotence shifts. For myself, even hearing of such acts of compassion lifts the spirit with another of those world-savers, mudita– the rejoicing in the goodness of human beings. The weight of hopelessness drops.  For me there was also the bonus of recognizing that my recounting of the story had linked Sr. Abigail’s action to people in a different continent – one of whom at least had responded with support for the orphanage. 

Amidst the reports of governments all over the world failing to meet the needs of their nations, unable to address the prevailing inequality of wealth, and lacking the skill to act in cooperative ways to address the global environmental crisis, accounts of actions undertaken by individuals offer some cheer.  Maybe individual initiative is the easiest and most universal way forward. For many years, we have believed that systems and large organisations – World Economic Forum, IMF, etc., etc. – would address the big issues. This was surely the intention behind their foundation. But what happens when the systems themselves are seen as part of the problem, a branch of the global economy that prioritizes financial growth over environmental concern? How much trust can one have in the geo-political set up that support wars to gain political (and economic) influence? Frustration rises. Note the gathering tide of dissent in the streets, and the new ‘populism’ that moves, violently on occasion, against the global ethos and its governing elite.  And yet, to strike a more positive note, people outside the conventional systems are also attempting remedial action. Greta Thunberg, the teenage Swedish girl who spends one day per week sitting in protest against the lack of environmental action outside the national parliament, is an obvious example. Obvious because her simple directness presents some stunning soundbites; and her action is so courageous.* Whilst the official delegates travelled to the World Economic Forum in Davos by private jets and stayed in hotels, Greta took a 32-hour train journey to get there, and camped on the mountain. Who best models environmental concern? Who can then speak with real authority? Accordingly youngsters attending school over Europe have followed Greta’s example. But wherever you look, grass-roots action and local initiatives are on the upswing. Perhaps it’s always this way: the most relevant action of the time arises not from the established system, but outside the entangled processes that it has inevitably built up.  An individual decides they’re going to do something and, against all odds, if they act in purity, they attract support.  At least I like to think so, and that as that such intention forms Avaaz, or, or Greenpeace, or Earthjustice (and so on), action gathers momentum. My thinking this way is partly because I don’t see where else the impetus can arise from (witness the gridlocks and quagmire of the current US and UK political scene), and partly because it reminds me that authority really lies in our own minds and hearts. Every other source is a convenient but disempowering myth. Blindly following systems we get marched and speeded into their drive, while our own living system goes into inertia. The net result is personal impotence. 

Thus the Buddha broke free and headed into the unknown and the perilous for his great awakening. As did many of his disciples. But as the Sangha was systematised and gained government support, its edge got blunted. Thus we now have national sanghas, overseen by government and adding cultural and iconic support (though not providing ethical example) to the status quo. Of course there are advantages in terms of administration, and on occasion the government supervision has been to ensure that monastic corruptions get weeded out. And yet … all systems require our valuable energies and obedience, attract power, get cluttered with laws and protocols – and they limit individual initiative. They need to be reviewed. Otherwise we take the resultant stasis for granted… the small indulgences drift it … and those of weak resolve fall away from taking personal responsibility. If a sangha can’t ensure its own purity, it’s because the Dhamma and the training has been overlooked in favour of worldly values. Then we’re no longer following the Buddha. 

Finding a balance between managing a place as a Refuge and sanctuary and keeping one’s edge a challenging practice.  At Cittaviveka we used to do our own building and electrical work; now we’re not allowed to. Such work has to be done by professional contractors (who have to be checked, counterchecked and monitored). We have to establish and maintain the health and safety standards established by law – and yet our ‘job’ is primarily to offer training and resources for those who wish to go forth as monks and nuns. These aspirants come with their own problems and issues; and they will all be going through the upheavals that leaving home, partner, social position, entertainment and personal autonomy bring up. In brief, not every samana is in prime condition to undertake management. But all of them are living ethically and intent on consuming less: robes are patched, rooms are sparsely furnished, kutis just have a wood stove, a shrine, a rain barrel and a raised platform on which to sleep.  Even more important, no one wants it any other way. And through the inspiration that the goodness of the life brings, volunteers offer service and a human community comes alive.  

Having researched and written about environmental matters (a book, Buddha-Nature, Human Nature, should appear by November), it bothers me at times that we aren’t doing more.  Sure we have installed solar panels, draw water from our well and derive heat from wood coppiced in our forest. We have no TVs, one washing machine (only used for sheets and towels – clothes are done by hand), one second-hand car (decades old). Lighting dims around 7:30 p.m. when the community enters meditation and only lights up again at 6:15 a.m.  And yet… the plastic concerns me. We have to live on what is offered. We have a sign pointing out the environmental harm caused by plastic; occasionally I mention it in talks. Donors still bring bottles of water. But even if it is recycled – how much energy does it take to recycle plastic? And what did it take to produce the stuff in the first place? 

There is a war on. The planet is being attacked. Beyond the bombing and devastation, there are the steady invasive forces of consumerism, pollution, and squandering of irreplaceable resources – aka greed, hatred and delusion. What gets me most is the sheer needless acts of ignorance – the empty cans in the river, the lights left blazing in displays day and night, the drinkable water used to wash cars and flush lavatories and the culture of disposability. Where is the ‘away’ where we throw things? Where do all materials come from? And who cleans and pays the Earth? But as the Dhamma war is a war against war, it can’t be conducted as a righteous crusade. Instead the strategy is to cut off the enemy's supplies. Personally, I keep inquiring as to how within my own reach I can push back against ignorance; and questioning assumptions about lifestyle. Accordingly I determined to not drink water from plastic bottles – if I can get water elsewhere within 24 hours. I kept that vow in India (drank tap water, boiled, reasoning that I’d had dysentery in India twice before and it didn’t kill me); I require people attending my retreats to not bring any bottled water. One winter I turned my heating down to 13 C (55F), and used candles rather than electric lighting. I have a portable solar panel that I use to power a battery for devices; I don’t eat meat, or fish, and avoid dairy when possible; I only flush the toilet a few times a day, only shower once or twice a week, wash clothes infrequently (mostly just the layer next to the skin). I don’t use paper tissues (handkerchiefs for one end, water for the other). 

And yet I fly to various parts of the planet (accompanied by a few hundred others) dumping tons of COinto the atmosphere as I do so. Well, the plane does. I reason that I only fly on invitation to teach the Dhamma, but it’s still doesn’t sit easily, with me, so I cram as much teaching as I can into every trip (that’s how I met Sr. Abegail). I also recognize that my personal contribution to the welfare of the environment can only be iconic; if I refrained from all forms of consumption, the net result in terms of the planet would still be infinitesimal.  But exemplifying some degree of renunciation and willingness to serve as an unpaid volunteer is something that may carry as much of a message as anything I say. Meanwhile to get the nourishment to sustain renunciation, goodwill, compassion and appreciative joy are of immeasurable value. As well as sustaining equanimity with regards to results. After all, people like me have been counselling refraining from the destruction of life, stealing, sexual misconduct, harmful speech, and intoxicants for millennia. All this abuse still goes on. But to give up working against it would be to give up on Dhamma, and on humanity. The Buddha didn’t.

Maybe at best I can inspire a few others to do what they can, and to do better than me.  Meanwhile, I’m doing what I can to take responsibility; the bottom line is that it keeps me alive in the heart. Shortly after I received the message about Sr. Abegail, we were asked to chant on behalf of a teenage suicide (internet trolling). It reminds me that unless we rescue our human resource, we don’t have a place or a reason to live. 

* Sr. Abegail has written an autobiography: Empty Hands. Published by Penguin, it's available through commercial outlets.